Films Seen August 2011

I'll just remind y'all at the top of each month that you should toss me a few bucks (via Paypal link at the top of the main page) if you want to see this viewing journal continue, for reasons previously noted. Only two folks have done so over the past couple weeks, so I'm already dreaming up reasons to scale it back or just chuck it altogether. (Should that happen, any recent contributions will be refunded.) Sorry I don't know how to create an automatic recurring type deal that would save you the hassle (and make it feel less like you're just buying the same thing over and over).

[Late night 2 Aug: One of my two cats just died, suddenly but not really unexpectedly. (He was 15, which is pretty old for a male cat, and had been fading for about a year.) I'm actually in the mood for a sad movie right now to take my mind off it, and I happen to have received An Affair to Remember today, but can't promise I'll be up to writing much for the next little bit.]

ARCHIVE: Jun | Jul

/Babe/ (1995, Chris Noonan): 64

Odd for a children's movie to push two completely distinct morals. The primary one -- "Don't be trapped by societal expectations; you can be whatever you're determined to be" -- has become so ubiquitous that it no longer makes an impression, especially when its anticlimactic visual representation involves six sheep walking in formation behind a pig. But the other -- "Kindness can achieve the same results as intimidation" -- packs a surprising punch...even though it, too, overestimates our (or at least my) interest in ovine crowd control. All in all, I prefer this to Pig in the City, even though Miller's sequel is far more singular and ambitious; Noonan's pastoral rhythm feels natural, unstrained, yet he still builds first-rate comic suspense from e.g. Babe and Ferdinand's raid on the Hoggett home to capture the "mechanical rooster." (Note the careful setup of the paint can on the table and subsequent punchline of a blue-spattered Babe. Miller's touch in City is far less elegant -- we'd definitely have been shown the accident itself, probably at noisy, frenetic length.) Also, could this movie get made today with Miriam Margolyes and Hugo Weaving rather than Meryl Streep and Hugh Jackman? Such a pleasure not to be aurally distracted all the time. Chapter mice still annoy me, and I remain flummoxed by James Cromwell's sudden coronation -- he nails the closing "That'll do," otherwise mostly just stands around looking insanely tall. But whatever it took to get him in L.A. Confidential is okay by me.

A Married Woman (1964, Jean-Luc Godard): 86

But married to what? is the question, which Godard answers via an arresting tactical bombardment of hyperbolic print ads, detached body parts and inane prattle. And yet the film, while clearly an indictment, never comes across as mean-spirited or contemptuous toward its title character, embodied by Macha Méril with a quality that I can only call sophisticated naïveté. (He did well not to cast Karina, who lacks the necessary ingenuousness.) Not surprising, really, that it wound up semi-forgotten -- it's less playful and movie-mad than most of JLG's early work, more circumspect and measured with its outrage -- but for my taste it achieves the ideal balance of formal audacity, pointed meta-commentary and sincere curiosity about human behavior, with emphasis (mine, not his) on the last. Even truly goofy bits, like Charlotte using a tape measure to compare her bust size with some glossy magazine's stated ideal, seem grounded in some semblance of the real world, which only serves to make Godard's self-conscious digressions -- the direct-to-camera interviews, the marquee word games, the ad montages -- seem even more pointed and liberating. And there's a tenderness here that's almost startling, especially since it often surfaces precisely where you'd expect ridicule. Charlotte's silent, subtitled conversation with the two teen girls discussing their fear of sex may be the most openly emotional sequence in Godard's entire oeuvre, in part because Méril makes no attempt to convey anything. (I'd wager she was never even told what Charlotte's thinking, just instructed to sit there and eavesdrop. If so, that's great direction.) Or consider the long, long scene of Charlotte and her husband listening to the album of "erotica," regarding each other in awkward silence, fidgeting and pacing, as their hi-fi plays the sound of a woman just laughing hysterically nonstop. It's unnervingly surreal and discomfitingly authentic at the same time: bold and intimate, cynical and compassionate, ridiculous and tragic. How I wish this filmmaker were still around.

The Guard (2011, John Michael McDonagh): 63

Plays like a cozier, friendlier version of Boorman's The General, allowing Gleeson the same freedom to run roughshod over everybody but striving to keep him fundamentally likeable. Which is problematic, but not so problematic that I didn't laugh. McDonagh doesn't always seem quite sure whether he's making a straight-ahead buddy comedy or an offbeat, flavorful slice of anti-authoritarian life à la Armitage, but he manages to make both approaches work to some degree, with the former anchored by Cheadle's deadpan incredulousness and the latter exemplified by yet another casually riveting performance from Mark Strong, whose continued relegation to stock villain roles I find utterly baffling. (Liam Cunningham does pungent work as well, though he's stuck with the "Ode to Billie Joe" riff, which feels very mid-'90s sub-Tarantino.) Emphasis is more on behavior than jokes, to the point where I've forgotten a clever line one character gets off but vividly recall his partner's delighted laughter in response; it's the kind of detail you don't consciously realize is missing from most movies until you finally see it. Still, I resisted The Guard for a good while because it just seemed too taken with its titular quasi-antihero, reveling in his bad behavior without even implicit qualification; his dalliance with the two hookers has no function save to further establish his nose-thumbing bona fides, which had already been made abundantly clear. Yeah yeah, he's a rebel, fook propriety -- what else you got? Gleeson's shrewd enough to ensure that Sgt. Boyle never becomes outright grating, but there's a lingering smugness surrounding the character that I can't fully shake.

/Fistful of Dollars/ (1964, Sergio Leone): 72

Hadn't yet seen Yojimbo the last time I watched this (in '96), and I must say it looked more impressive minus a direct, scene-by-scene comparison to near-perfection. Leone's still working out the bugs here to some extent, haphazardly constructing the style he'd refine over the next two films in the "trilogy" and then push to a monumental apotheosis with Once Upon a Time in the West; close-ups are imposing without quite being mythic, and he hasn't yet started dilating time in a way that creates the illusion of slow motion even at regular speed. Eastwood, however, seems to have arrived on the set with his steely persona fully established, ready to glower his way into iconic legend (with a crucial assist from Morricone, needless to say). His mild grimace when he realizes he's decked an innocent woman rather than a gunslinger sets the all-but-amoral tone: Oops, oh well. That he subsequently delivers her from bondage, by way of demonstrating that he isn't completely heartless, is the only non-scuzzy moment in a film that views humanity as a Darwinian nightmare, featuring The Man With No Name Except For Repeatedly Being Called 'Joe' as the species' most highly evolved predator. If it's sometimes a bit clumsy and amateurish, sheer conviction and enthusiasm largely compensate, though I do find myself wishing for even less dialogue. "When a man with a .45 meets a man with a rifle, the man with the pistol will be a dead man," says Ramon solemnly. "That's an old Mexican proverb." Confidential to Mexico: Get better proverbs.

/Donnie Brasco/ (1997, Mike Newell): 66

Wrote at length about this one upon its initial release, and I stand by that general assessment (while renouncing certain aspects of the prose style, plus it was 1997 so it takes me 100+ words just to say "[SPOILER!]"). Only real exception is my praise for Depp, who I then found "equally fine [vis-à-vis Pacino] in a much-needed change-of-pace role as an adult with recognizable human behavior patterns and emotions." Which of course perfectly describes the one variety of role in which Depp does not excel. As Brasco, he dials it down so low that he's almost generic -- the performance is exactly what's required, in the sense that Donnie should appear somewhat nondescript (that's what allows him to infiltrate), but Depp isn't the kind of presence who can make nondescript riveting. He needs to be doing something, which unfortunately means that he overplays the tired domestic scenes that afford him an opportunity to yell a bit. Pacino, on the other hand, still mightily impresses in one of his least showy late-career turns; that he makes no attempt whatsoever to sell the poignance of Lefty's final scene, allowing his actions as scripted to rip our guts out, is the hallmark of a great actor with nothing to prove. Might have been a minor classic with a more muscular director than Newell at the helm -- he was only two films away from Mona Lisa Smile.

Volcano (2011, Rúnar Rúnarsson): W/O

Panic-stricken tourists fleeing hot molten lava: 0. Crotchety, quasi-suicidal just-retired geezers moping balefully into the middle distance: one too many. Not bad, just utterly devoid of inspiration; no doubt the dude gets shaken out of his lethargy by the stroke his long-suffering wife suddenly experienced right before I gave up, but two full reels of stultifying, formulaic set-up doesn't exactly boost one's confidence. Also, while I don't trust my aesthetic judgment of movies streamed on a computer, this looked cruddier than anything else I've watched that way, despite reportedly having been shot on 16mm. Hope that's a transfer issue of some sort and not me getting too accustomed to digital.

The Silver Cliff (2011, Karim Aïnouz): 64

Further proof, if any were necessary, that the easiest and most effective means of generating tension and excitement is to skip right past the Inciting Incident. Here, the protagonist (who we haven't even yet identified in that role, barring foreknowledge) goes from serene to frantic in the space of an ordinary, unobtrusive cut, for reasons initially and cannily unexplained; it's amazing how unreservedly one identifies with a character in crisis even -- perhaps especially -- when the nature of said crisis isn't known. By the time Aïnouz finally reveals what's going on, the hook is sunk deep enough to ward off any possible oh-is-that-all? reaction, especially given Alessandra Negrini's magnificently volatile performance as a woman who can't stand still but for the time being has nowhere to go. (I wouldn't have thought a movie could still pull off the old dance-your-stress-away setpiece, but Negrini and Aïnouz find a way to make it thrilling yet again. Though I must now declare a 10-year moratorium on Flashdance homages.) Goes a bit soft toward the end, following the introduction of a father-daughter combo who are equally adrift and ripe for tentative bonding, but even there the film mostly avoids cheap sentiment, remaining alive to e.g. the vaguely forbidding emptiness of an airport in the wee hours. A lovely, minor-key portrait of intolerable impotence gradually dissipating into weary acquiescence, framed by Rio's daylight cacophony and nighttime twinkling.

The Other Side of Sleep (2011, Rebecca Daly): 69

Evidently I should seek out all the films at Cannes that are widely reviled, since I tend to prefer them to alleged triumphs like The Artist and Le Havre. Like Sorrentino and Bonello, Daly invests faintly absurd content with surprising force via sheer formal bravado -- this movie is 100% pure rhythm, existing entirely in the juxtaposition of one shot to the next, with exquisite attention not just to composition but to duration (by which I mean not the standard "let's play this out at extraordinary length," but rather a harmonious interplay of varying shot lengths, so that the film shifts from staccato to legato and back again), contrast, direction of motion, etc. Negative reviews complain that it's insufficiently dreamlike for a movie about a sleepwalker, but that's the glory of it, actually -- Daly's approach is intently anti-oneiric, an ambitious attempt to construct an entire film upon the sense of alarming disorientation one feels upon awakening. She can't quite sustain that for 90 minutes, but she comes thrillingly close; only in the final reel does the rather banal story assert itself strongly enough to disappoint. Not sure whether it's help or hindrance that her lead actress is such a dead ringer for Sissy Spacek circa Carrie -- she's required only to be a striking presence, which mission accomplished, but that presence does at times feel a bit secondhand, as if leaning hard on the associations we can't help but make. At any rate, for my money this is the year's most striking debut (Martha Marcy May Marlene is a much better film but not nearly as cinematically accomplished); that it was so brutally dismissed (even by Blake, who loved House of Tolerance and at least tolerated This Must Be the Place) is dispiriting.

/The Magnificent Seven/ (1960, John Sturges): 57

Watched this "by accident," in the sense that I'd thought I'd seen it long, long ago, discovering only after the Blu-ray arrived in the mail that my first viewing was in April 2008. Clearly it makes quite the strong impression. But since I'd revisited Seven Samurai in the interim, I figured what the hell, and am thus now able to cite the one small way in which I think it improves on the original: Brad Dexter. Not so much his performance, which is barely there (it's kind of remarkable how indistinct most of the seven are; Brynner dominates to an insane degree), but the inspired idea to have one of the men convinced that there must be some secret financial agenda to the mission-- it's a distinctly American touch that gives the film a little flavor of its own. (That he dies still believing untold riches await the survivors is Hollywood hokiness at its finest.) Otherwise paltry by comparison, devoid of the ferocity Kurosawa brought to battle scenes and downtime alike; Sturges plays it much jauntier, which makes the climax's 57% casualty rate and final dialogue exchange (identical to the original, as I recall) feel like a non sequitur. Still diverting, of course, and it's hard to say whether e.g. I'd find Horst Buchholz somewhat less irritating were I not acutely aware that he's butchering one of Mifune's greatest performances. Even on its own terms, though, it gives short shrift to too much of the ensemble -- Robert Vaughn, in particular, gets almost nothing to do except stand around looking way dandier than everybody else, even though his character is perhaps the most potentially compelling on paper. It's not like there's 13 of them or anything.

/Crimson Tide/ (1995, Tony Scott): 70

Weird, arresting tension here between the dramatic structure, which is entirely one-sided in favor of Denzel the cautious humanitarian, and the dialogue and performances, which take great pains to make Hackman's case for launching not just defensible but downright sensible. "What'd you think, son? That I was just some crazy old coot putting everyone in harm's way as I yelled 'Yee-ha!'?" Screenwriting courses should teach the drill sequence, which establishes the conflict in miniature even as it teaches the audience everything we need to know about the rules of nuclear engagement, thereby freeing us to enjoy the later spectacle of two powerhouses shouting each other down in one of the most electrifying stand-offs of the modern era. (Screenplay is by Michael Schiffer, who also wrote The Peacemaker -- not nearly as strong, but still surprisingly sharp by studio standards.) Tony Scott, for his part, has the good sense to stay largely out of their way, even if he makes a mess of the sub's spatial coherence -- it's always apparent that we're looking at one of several disconnected sets rather than contiguous areas of a single vessel. (That I watched Das Boot not long ago didn't help.) Crowd-pleasing entertainment with just a soupçon of ethical ambiguity; I turned it on late at night expecting to hit the sack after maybe half an hour, pick it up in the morning, and suddenly the closing credits were rolling. Pity that the timeless quality -- profanity aside, this could almost be a '50s movie à la The Caine Mutiny (only better) -- gets ruined by Tarantino's sore-thumb contributions, which were cringeworthy even in the immediate wake of Pulp Fiction and are just painfully embarrassing now. I suspect even he would agree.

Submarine (2010, Richard Ayoade): W/O

Now I know what Wes Anderson movies look like to people who don't find them remotely witty or charming. Ayoade's timing is impeccable but I found the combination of breezy and whiny off-putting -- Max Fischer's delusions of grandeur are funny because he's so mightily industrious, whereas it's hard for me to empathize with Oliver Tate daydreaming for several minutes about the outpouring of grief that would consume Wales if he died. Thought maybe I was just in the wrong mood until Ayoade cut from Oliver telling off the school bully to Oliver lying prone and bleeding on the ground with Jordana sitting impassively nearby, which was sharp enough to suggest the movie I wanted to be watching and wasn't (with that exception and one other I can recall). And then right at my standard W/O point there was a chapter heading informing me that the film would now shift focus to Paddy Considine's mullet-headed New Age rival for Mum's affection, which thank you no. Oddly enough, the one aspect that really appealed to me was the unexpectedly striking location work. Postcard-stunning views that might seem insipid in the period dramas where you usually find them take on surprising weight in this context.

Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders): 61

Quite the rollercoaster ride, this one. First of all, a theatrical print eluded me forever, and it's such an essentially modest film that years of accumulated hype and expectation do it no real favors. Then it kicked off in what I think of as Ballast mode, with the protagonist's soulsickness exaggerated to the point where he seems neurologically damaged. (It's not the movie's fault, obviously, but watching one brother struggle in vain to communicate with another, on a road trip necessitated by the damaged brother's freakout over the prospect of flying, had me constantly thinking of Rain Man, especially during the scene in which Travis insists on finding the exact same rental car.) Once Travis magically snaps out of it and starts behaving like an actual human being, Wenders finds a gently lyrical groove; the middle section, depicting the slow reparation of Travis and Hunter's severed bond, comes thrillingly close to perfection, with the progress of their relationship echoed visually by their surroundings as they travel from L.A. to the director's beloved forgotten America (with one small moment that must make Sicinski laugh aloud: "This is Houston?!?"). And then, just when I was ready to surrender my heart completely, it suddenly turns into a fucking Sam Shepard play. I kind of hate Sam Shepard, to be honest (as a writer, including for the stage) -- his spill-your-guts approach to dramaturgy, while catnip to actors, tends to be the exact opposite of what moves me, and the extended finale here, which I assume the movie's ardent fans treasure, seemed to me that most egregious of sins, the regurgitated backstory. (I will give him and Wenders some credit for making it cinematically compelling via the one-way mirror, though even that gets negated by the implausibility of her failing to recognize his voice for as long as she does.) Part of my dissatisfaction, I confess, may stem from the mistaken assumption to which I leaped as Travis and Hunter were tailing Jane's car, only to find two similar-looking cars heading in different directions; to my mind, the final act becomes 10x more potent if Nastassja Kinski actually isn't Jane, yet Travis speaks to her as if she is. (The home-movie footage kills that idea in advance, but that only occurred to me some minutes later.) That's really the only context in which hearing about Travis' lost years is remotely justifiable; if he's actually narrating his past trangressions to the woman who endured them, it's just mannered bathos. Which is to say, a Sam Shepard monologue.

Sleeping Sickness (2011, Ulrich Köhler): 48

Save for the fact that it's quietly observational rather than (I presume) an overbearing shoutfest, I'm not quite sure what sets Sleeping Sickness apart from White Man's Burden, the Travolta flick set in an alternate universe where Caucasians are the oppressed minority and African-Americans like Harry Belafonte control everything. Köhler's film takes place in the real world, to be sure, but his agenda seems much the same; apart from the ironic contrast of a German who feels so at home in Cameroon that (UNEXPECTED-ELISION SPOILER!) he abandons his family to remain there -- "you're blacker than I am," one local helpfully observes -- with a French-born black dude who finds Africa threatening and disorienting, there isn't a whole lot going on here. It's essentially a high-concept film that does everything possible to obscure and/or downplay its high concept, which sounds laudable in theory but only winds up making ostensibly mundane scenes look pretentious. The opening bit, for example, in which Dr. Velten confidently negotiates terms with a military officer seeking a ride into town, seems impressively thorny and multifaceted...until you realize that it exists solely to dovetail with the later scene of Dr. Nzila refusing to get into an illegal taxi for fear that he's about to be robbed and/or murdered. (I surely would have responded more strongly to the latter sequence had I not felt like I was being prodded, as I've been in that exact situation myself more than once.) Köhler obviously has considerable chops -- I quite liked Bungalow, for the record, never did see Windows on Monday -- and I get the sense that he wants to say something cogent about the utility of foreign aid, but the implicit didacticism overwhelms whatever questions he hopes to raise, at least for me. Fine performances, expert direction, assured rhythms, all in service of CLONK!

/Bullitt/ (1968, Peter Yates): 74

Astonishing to think that a movie like this could have been a hit once, thrilling car chase or no. (Adjusted for inflation, it grossed roughly $120 mil.) I'd dimly remembered it as being faintly dull whenever hubcaps aren't flying, and now I see why: Yates deliberately flattens everything into a near-autistic level of procedural concentration, creating a stealth character study that grows steadily in power as McQueen's canny non-performance just keeps yielding nothing. That car chase acts as a single enormous spike in an EKG that's otherwise strictly horizontal; even Robert Vaughn's unctuous, interfering pol, last seen perusing the Wall Street Journal in the back of a limo, brushes the movie off his trousers like so much lint after being defeated. Scene after scene is uninflected to the point of seeming perverse. I even briefly thought Jacqueline Bisset's freakout when she sees Frank unaffected by some woman's corpse would play without dialogue, shot from a distance -- that approach didn't seem remotely out of character. Alas, someone clearly felt the need to throw the audience at least one tiny bone, so Bisset (whose character otherwise has no function) does get a too-pointed speech accusing him of being inhuman, to which he responds with predictable indifference. Thing is, though, while we can admire Bullitt's integrity and professionalism, his laconic terseness, unlike Eastwood's, isn't remotely "cool," which the film's amazingly prosaic final shot seems to recognize. He doesn't even get to toss out a few unconvincing "I love you"s, like Carol in Safe. But he's just as much of a hollow shell.

Mr. Tree (2011, Han Jie): W/O

If I ever need to explain to somebody what visual rhythm entails, remind me to use this shambling Jia wannabe (he produced) as an example of what it looks like when a film has no discernible rhythm whatsoever. Possibly the most formally/structurally incompetent picture I've seen since Dogma -- individual shots look fine (in a generic fest-approved way), but Han has clearly put zero thought into how they'll interact, so that you seem to have switched the channel to a different movie with every cut, even when the action is continuous. Which probably sounds more interesting than it plays, because it plays choppy and maddening. Meanwhile, Mr. Tree himself makes for a singularly uninteresting layabout, and the modernization angle feels like Jia's reheated leftovers. Reviews suggest it turns pretty surreal later on, but that sounds like a threat in this case.

Stolen Desire (1958, Shohei Imamura): 59

Never thought I'd see a Japanese film that merits the term Fellini-esque. Detailing the ribald misadventures of an itinerant theater troupe during its sojourn in a provincial wasteland outside of Osaka, Imamura's debut features hints of perversity to come but traffics largely in exaggerated leering and catcalling in the tradition of Amarcord (or Porky's, frankly -- there's even a peeking-while-they-shower bit); it's a sprawling collection of raucous comic incidents intermittently interrupted by an unconvincing love triangle and the whining of Imamura's onscreen stand-in, who can't persuade his actors to take artistic risks that might alienate the punters. Film's apparently a direct response to Ozu's A Story of Floating Weeds, which I haven't yet seen (though I've seen the '59 color remake, possibly same diff), but its ramshackle goofiness and casual vulgarity suggest repudiation more than homage. Which makes me wonder about its most perplexing moment: Whiny director, determined to run off with the lead actor's wife, goes to confront him but winds up silently watching him rehearse, as Imamura slowly pushes in on whiny director's awestruck face -- a visual gesture that unmistakably conveys dawning respect and clearly sets up his decision to gracefully bow out. And then whiny director goes ahead and says "I'm takin' yer woman" anyway, as if that moment had never happened. That's gotta be intentional cynicism, right? Even so, it's rare to see a filmmaker confound viewer expectations strictly via mise-en-scène; I can't think offhand of another case in which the entire meaning of a shot gets ignored. Pretty sure I would have flagged this dude as Someone to Watch.

/The General/ (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman): 68

Still mystified as to how this became the canonical Keaton movie, ranking e.g. #28 on They Shoot Pictures' list of the greatest films ever made. (Sherlock, Jr. is next, more than 100 spots further down.) Arguably it has the strongest linear narrative of his key features, but laughs, thrills and madcap invention are in comparatively short supply; the only moment I truly treasure is Buster mock-strangling Marion Mack when she tosses that tiny sliver of wood into the firebox. In all seriousness, I enjoy this just about as much, and on precisely the same level, as Unstoppable -- both are energetic, skillfully made entertainments with a needless patina of seriousness, loosely based on actual events involving a train speeding toward imminent disaster. Keaton in particular is pretty locked into what actually happened, as the Great Locomotive Chase is too well-known to fudge; all he can do is find places for gags and stunts within that template, which makes for a challenging constraint but never really pays off explosively apart from the climactic bridge collapse...which is in fact the one thing that didn't actually happen. (In real life, the General ran out of fuel and was abandoned). There's a bit of interesting cognitive dissonance in that we're rooting for the "wrong side," with the Union cast as villains, but that dissipates fairly quickly (and almost certainly wasn't intended in any case -- Das Boot this ain't). All in all, good clean quasi-historical fun, but any five minutes of Seven Chances leaves it in the dust.

Senna (2010, Asif Kapadia): 66

Really hope this present-tense documentary style (see also Chicago 10) takes hold, as I've reached the point where I don't want to see another cut to a 3/4 profile of someone sitting in a chair for the rest of my life. Like almost every American critic, it seems, I don't follow Formula One and was totally unfamiliar with Senna, which made the bulk of the film as gripping as a fictional narrative; his rivalry with Prost approaches Valjean-Javert levels of operatic resentment. Odds are I would have preferred a less hagiographic film examining that rivalry from both sides (Prost/Senna?) -- Senna's behavior at the 1990 GP Japan was pretty indefensible, for example, even allowing for how he got screwed, yet the movie continues to paint him as a martyr and Prost as a conniving, gladhanding cheese-eater. But even that hypothetical doozy, assuming we're still talking about a doc and not some facile "speculative history" from Peter Morgan, would inevitably smack into the unforgiving wall that is real life and its stubborn refusal to provide satisfying closure. Kapadia and screenwriter Manish Pandey make a game effort to sell Senna's fate as part of his ongoing struggle for pure art in a sport tainted by political maneuvers, concluding with an anecdote about his carefree go-kart days, but the fact is that what happened to him was simply an accident -- perhaps a preventable one (though perhaps not; might just have been some failure of the car), but certainly unrelated to any of his previous travails. Which is immensely disappointing from a dramatic perspective, as you can't help but "want" him to have been chewed up by the machine. Stupid facts.

/Fight Club/ (1999, David Fincher): 56

Fascism for Dummies. My objections were originally directed primarily at the big twist, which remains risible insofar as it involves the other members of what becomes Project Mayhem. (Go beat yourself up in a parking lot and see if the bruisers exiting the bar latch onto you as the leader of a movement.) A dozen years later, however -- and I admit that having since read some Palahniuk might be a factor here -- the whole damn movie seems kinda stupid, really. Fincher keeps everything moving so briskly that the omnipresent spoon-feeding narration never becomes overbearing, but that technical facility is now the only thing preventing me from wondering whether I'm watching Morgan Spurlock's first stab at narrative; Fight Club depicts emotional disaffection in the same smirky, wiseass, superficial way that Super Size Me "critiques" poor eating habits. And while it is "utterly ferocious on the touchy-feely culture of self-improvement" (per Theo), that's like being utterly ferocious on 9/11 Truthers -- you might as well walk around a nursery ward knocking newborns unconscious with a mallet. Also, there are precisely two women in this movie, one of whom exists only to misdirect the audience (Helena Bonham Carter does a commendable job of disguising Marla's complete lack of an identity) while the other gets ridiculed for sexual desire. ("I have pornographic magazines at my apartment, and lubricants..." Way to turn a potentially affecting and realistic detail into a cheap gag.) Hate to tar the movie with its own brush but what it mostly is is clever. Seems to have worked out for it.

/Dog Star Man/ (1964, Stan Brakhage): 50

Here's where my policy of not rating/reviewing shorts bites me on the ass, because Dog Star Man is perhaps my least favorite of the 26 films on Volume One of By Brakhage. That it's also the longest is of course not a coincidence. As with Jennifer Reeves' When It Was Blue (upon which I can now see this film's influence writ large), I found a great deal of the superimposed imagery to be frustratingly random, even though for this second viewing I did a fair bit of homework in advance and had a firm grasp on Brakhage's stated intentions. But, then, digging around in general only served to underscore how much my own predilections differ from those of folks who are heavily into the a/g. I enjoy all of the hand-painted films, for example, but the one that truly left me breathless was 2001's "Lovesong," in which the colors are so insanely vivid and the textures so pronounced that it seems as if you're looking at Brakhage's own viscera smeared directly onto celluloid; I then found that Michael Sicinski thinks it's strictly average, [6]/10. Another favorite, "The Stars Are Beautiful," was derided by Fred Camper as the collection's sole stinker...which makes perfect sense, because its power is largely verbal rather than visual. But I can't pretend I don't derive more pleasure from "God, taking pity on those who stopped smoking, made the stars to look like so many cigarettes burning" than from Dog Star Man's repeated (and repeated) slo-mo shots of Brakhage struggling his way up a mountain, which to me just feels like half-assed Sisyphus. The one film in this volume that I'd unhesitatingly call a masterpiece, the very early "Desistfilm," not only leans hard on sound (albeit in a heavily alienating way) rather than unfolding in austere silence, but is also by most accounts as close as Brakhage ever came to making (*cough cough*) a narrative work; most enthusiasts seem to find it of mild interest at best. So I'm clearly just looking for/at the wrong stuff.

Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius): 46

Tells you something about me that I didn't bother seeing this in first-run despite being a 14-year-old boy at the time. First hour even bigger and dumber than expected, verging on the precipice of camp without ever really being much fun; the sex scenes in particular make Zalman King look like Jean-Claude Brisseau. (And why invent a Gladiator-style backstory for Conan if you're just gonna condense most of his fights into a single choppy montage?) As it goes along, though, the movie sporadically starts living up to the grandeur of Poledouris' justly acclaimed score. For every 10 or 15 minutes of stentorian idiocy, there's at least one genuinely arresting image: Conan adorned with healing hieroglyphs à la The Pillow Book; James Earl Jones' face slightly elongating to signal his impending transformation (an effect so impressive that I can't fathom how it was accomplished back then); and especially the finale, with KKK-garbed women stepping forward to douse their torches in the reflecting pool. (I can't imagine Milius intended any sociopolitical context -- Stone, maybe -- but it's surprisingly moving all the same, almost creating the impression that the movie has something to say other than CONAN SMASH!) Not sure I've ever seen a bad film with so many stirring moments, though each one only wound up making me feel bummed that it didn't have a worthier context. Oh, and the animated demons that torment Conan are just flat-out fucking cool. They would have blown my mind at 14.

Looks like there just wasn't that much interest in these entries. A whopping 11 people had contributed so far this month, and while some of them were quite generous, that just isn't enough of a response to keep motivating me to do this. So I'm shutting it down. All donations since 1 August have been refunded. My sincere thanks to everyone who helped out a couple of months ago, when I really did desperately need the money; you're all swell. And my apologies to the tiny handful of you who'll be disappointed.

UPDATE, AN HOUR LATER: Okay, some crazy person out there -- a total stranger, as far as I know -- just sent me $100 and the comment "Keep it going, sir!" It's not really about the money, though. That's just a way for folks to indicate that they give a damn whether I'm doing this or not. I'd much rather receive $2 each month from 50 people than $200 each month from one devoted (and wealthy?) fan. Pain in the ass though it is, you're better off sending me a small amount every four weeks than a large amount meant to cover you for half a year or more. I can't keep track of who's "prepaying" vs. who's just being generous, so when nothing much comes in, as was the case this month, I just assume people don't much care. And then I ask myself why I'm bothering, and then, well, I stop bothering.

In honor of this crazy dude's grand gesture, I'll keep it going for the rest of this month. Beyond that, though, it depends more on the number of donations, however small, than on the sum received. It's mostly a symbolic payment.

The First Beautiful Thing (2010, Paolo Virzì): W/O

Was mostly curious to see the two performances that beat out Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Filippo Timi (both were nominated) in last year's David di Donatello awards. And of course the Italian Oscars turn out to be much like our own, rewarding the comfortably banal over the astonishingly bold. An inoffensive memory piece, with wayward adult son struggling to come to terms with his flighty, hotcha mom in past and present; judging from Virzì's extensive filmography, I'd never previously heard of him because he's Italy's answer to Ron Howard or somebody like that.

/Fallen Angels/ (1995, Wong Kar Wai): 60

Not quite as formally thrilling as it seemed back then...though I'd love to see Wanker do an entire John Woo-style shoot-'em-up in this style, spinning every action sequence into blurry abstraction. And I'd forgotten how much of a Chung King retread it is -- it's as if he assembled an entire second film from deleted scenes, many of which feel like they were deleted for good reason. (Takeshi Kaneshiro's presence is particularly problematic in that respect. Pineapple callback is cute but doesn't really mitigate the sense of déjà vu.) To a large extent, the film takes its cue from that oft-repeated song in which a voice intones "'cause I'm cool," which means that I wind up feeling the same detached admiration that I do for anything ostentatiously self-regarding. On the other hand, it is pretty cool, especially when it depicts its characters in vertiginous motion -- you have to wonder how many pounds Christopher Doyle lost during this shoot, rushing past the actors from every possible direction. It helps that I find myself unusually responsive at the moment to art films that do something, anything with the camera other than lock it down half a mile away (which may partially explain my fondness for Paolo Sorrentino, universally loathed by the Kosta Krew), even though this predilection is obviously cyclical in nature, a response to aesthetic overkill. I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables. I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.

Mushrooms (2011, Vimukthi Jayasundara): W/O

Hard to say for sure, but judging from reviews it looks like half of the 40 minutes I watched constituted an extended prologue, which may well tie nicely into the main story but was mostly just irritating on its own, like a Joe movie reconceived as a bad buddy comedy starring the foreign equivalents of Tracy Morgan and Kevin James. And then when the (apparent) narrative proper kicks in, it's more of the same plodding monotony that drove me out of The Forsaken Land six years ago. (I skipped Between Two Worlds.) Also, I know we're supposed to be appalled by those anonymous Kolkata housing projects, but they actually look kind of beautiful to me. American architects: use some damn color!

/Ferris Bueller's Day Off/ (1986, John Hughes): 67

Tremendous fun until it suddenly decides to get serious, with Hughes attempting to drum up genuine pathos from Cameron's daddy issues. Even before that, though, I kinda feel like the movie is about the wrong person. Ferris doesn't bother me particularly -- I don't find him the smug, self-satisfied asshole that some do -- but he's a weak protagonist because there's nothing at stake for him except not getting caught, which is why the whole day gets turned into therapy for Cameron. Meanwhile, the ideal flawed hero lurks resentfully in the margins, cracking her knuckles. Jennifer Grey owns every scene in which she appears, and I can't offhand recall a great high-school film that's primarily about someone stewing in the shadow of their more popular sibling; had Ferris Bueller's Day Off been fundamentally about Jeanie (which wouldn't necessarily have even involved changing the title), I think it could have been a small masterpiece, a hilariously poignant portrait of curdled envy gradually overcome. Even in the actual film that got made, the climactic epiphany is hers, not his -- all Ferris can do is look at the camera in disbelief. Speaking of which, credit Hughes for making that iffy device work like gangbusters throughout, and also for more visual facility than people recognize; I'd place Cameron walking to and from his house and having a jumping conniption fit about what to do, shot out of focus through the rear windshield of his car, alongside plenty of classic bits from the likes of Tashlin and Tati. Infrequent, admittedly, but still.

The Arrival (1996, David Twohy): 38

Four words: Charlie Sheen, radio astronomer. It's not just that his demeanor doesn't exude scientific curiosity, either -- this turn is eminently Razzie-worthy, favoring goggle-eyed looks of fear and horror that would inspire charges of racism if somebody had allowed them from a contemporary African-American. But maybe we're actually seeing Sheen's reactions to the spectacularly moronic script, which in its most hilarious bit posits that a device that disguises aliens as humans would also serve to disguise Sheen as some random Hispanic dude, as if one could wear an entirely different body as easily as a sports jacket. (Yes, you can invent whatever technology you like in a story like this, but there's implausible and then there's just plain retarded.) Twohy worked hard to play fair in A Perfect Getaway, but he flat-out cheats here -- there's no possible justification for the shot of the kid taping the note to Grandma on the door save deliberate audience misdirection. Frankly, I'd just let these aliens go about their nefarious terraforming business, since they're clearly incompetent. "We'd best spend years keeping a close eye on that renegade astronomer with the tacky goatee just in case he stumbles onto our signal, so we can then, oh, hmm, what could we as a vastly superior intelligence manage...maybe drop a bathtub on his head? Or something? Scorpions are poisonous to humans, aren't they? Do we have any scorpions? Anyone remember where scorpions live? Come on, who was assigned venomous fauna?"

An Affair to Remember (1957, Leo McCarey): 51

Same basic problem I had with Love Affair '39: Her behavior post-accident seems absurdly, selfishly vain bordering on actively cruel, whereas McCarey clearly finds it deeply romantic. The whole he-mustn't-know thing is inexplicable to me, even adjusting for the period ('94 version stuck with it as well, incredibly, judging from reviews) -- however much you don't want to burden the dude, isn't implying that you no longer care a thousand times worse? Consequently, I watch the second half of both films with mounting exasperation, exacerbated in this case by some pretty saccharine interludes involving the precious moppets Terry's teaching to sing. Shipbound half, on the other hand, mostly works, thanks to snappy banter and strong performances (though Cary Grant's tan should really get separate billing and its own trailer). McCarey's touch sometimes seems oddly leaden even there, though; the scene in which Nickie and Terry are seated back-to-back in the restaurant and must endure the tinny, fake-raucous, wholly unbelievable laughter of fellow diners plays like bad sitcom material, both in conception and in execution. Chapel scene gets so much weight that I looked hard for a religious subtext, but I can't say I found much. (Admittedly I'm not the target audience for that.) All in all, I was largely unmoved, but in fairness I should note that I watched this movie just a few hours after a beloved pet suddenly died. However badly I craved distraction, I may not have been in the most receptive mood for something this serious.

/Barfly/ (1987, Barbet Schroeder): 84

Foolishly dismissed this at the time as an overly romanticized self-portrait, and then somehow managed to further misremember it as grim and serious, so imagine my surprise to find that it's actually the flophouse version of a screwball comedy. Rourke's Chinaski may only vaguely resemble Bukowski, but it's a gloriously daffy performance (albeit inadvertently poignant now in the way its foreshadows his own dissolution); he adapts his soft-spoken sleepy boy shtick into an air of genial bewilderment, as if perpetually surprised to still be alive and conscious. And Schroeder, who hadn't yet gone Hollywood, ducks sentimentality at every turn -- it takes expert tonal control to depict the protagonist getting beaten over the head by his girl until he lies motionless in a spreading pool of his own blood and have the scene play as both realistic and hilarious. Granted, the "subplot" (kind of a meaningless term in a plotless movie) involving Alice Krige as slumming privilege skews a little schematic-didactic, but it's barely even a speedbump, and an eminently forgivable one given that it climaxes in a ludicrous full-blown catfight. (Dunaway looks too glam even when deglammed but is admirably unconcerned with appearing sympathetic -- it's committed, unshowy work.) Plus is it just me or did Robby Müller light the bejesus out of this sucker? The repeated effect of a barroom door suddenly opening and flooding the room with natural photons (often in a scene that you'd assumed was set in the middle of the night) is never less than Kansas-to-Oz breathtaking. Along with Hal Hartley's Trust, one of the major rediscoveries of my second run at the canon, and confirmation that I need to rewatch pretty much everything of note.