Films Seen June 2011

(As noted at the top of the main page, these mini-reviews are being offered in a Radiohead-style pay-what-you-wish format, monthly "subscription" entirely on the honor system. Throw me a few bucks if you can, enjoy anyway if you can't or would rather not.)

(ALSO: If you want to comment on any of this stuff, I'm also posting it over at Listen Eggroll.)

The Dish and the Spoon (2011, Alison Bagnall): 52

Bagnall co-wrote Buffalo '66, which is such a nakedly personal film, and so intensely Gallo, that I've always wondered exactly what she brought to it. And lo! this turns out to be a distaff take on the same basic idea, with Greta Gerwig as the aggressor seeking revenge (in this case against the woman who's been fucking her husband) and Olly Alexander as the passive quasi-victim she hijacks into being her pretend lover. Gerwig hits the ground running -- our first view of her is smack in the middle of an hysterical wail -- and she's not afraid to take incoherent rage way over the top, often to hilarious effect; the film's high point, which I strongly suspect she largely improvised, is the lengthy voicemail message she leaves the other woman in the voice of her husband, which starts off merely sarcastic but gradually turns into a genuinely discomfiting aria of self-loathing. Her relationship with the young Brit she stumbles upon, however, fluctuates wildly between jaggedly offbeat and obnoxiously quirky. It's one thing to have characters play a game we don't even realize is in progress, as when the boy (he has no name) tells a horrific anecdote about his childhood, followed by a story too bizarre to be believed, and Gerwig, flustered, asks "One of those is true?" It's another thing to have one of your characters ask "What are you gonna do to her?" and have the other answer "Kill the bitch" by way of a game of Hangman played in lipstick on the underside of a brewery vat. (Don't ask.) By the time Bagnall reaches her version of "Heart of the Sunrise," set at a dance where everyone is dressed in colonial garb, any emotional resonance has been largely overwhelmed by random whimsy, and the conclusion proper just plain fizzles. But I'd still almost recommend seeing it just for Gerwig, who in places here nearly out-Gallos Gallo.

/Boys Don't Cry/ (1999, Kimberly Peirce): 64

Still proud of the Skandies for giving our Best Actress prize to Reese Witherspoon that year (for Election -- did she have any awards traction at all elsewhere?), but Swank's performance seems less stunt-y to me now, her perpetual aw-shucks demeanor more patently anxious. (She still clearly couldn't pass for male, even in the most dimly lit dive bar, but if I can suspend my disbelief for Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis looking 2% XX in a comedy, I can surely accept 40% XY in a drama.) If only Peirce had been drawn to Brandon Teena out of something other than pity, reimagined his/her story as more than just another tragedy of intolerance. Boys Don't Cry goes to the trouble of creating vivid, multi-dimensional characters and an evocative downscale milieu, then settles for tabloid headlines; it's a solid, expertly-made film crippled, as so many are, by misguided fidelity to What Actually Happened. Speaking of which: What actually happened to Chloë Sevigny? At this point in her career, she seemed incapable of not being astonishing -- I can't think of another actor of her generation, either gender, who was so fully, breathtakingly alive at every instant, so effortlessly transparent. Revisiting her Lana (for which she deservedly won Supporting Actress in the '99 Skandies) only confirmed that. And yet she hasn't been great since, despite appearing in a number of good-to-terrific movies: demonlover, Dogville, Shattered Glass, Zodiac. Not even swallowing Gallo's horse dick could restore the magic (though in that case I blame his adolescent notion of femininity). It's as if walking the red carpet at that year's Oscar ceremony transformed her from an uncanny phenomenon into an ordinary, reliable pro. Or maybe falling in love with an actress is just like falling in love with an actual person, and the infatuation phase can only last so long.

The Joy (2010, Felipe Bragança & Marina Meliande): W/O

Never knew incestuous ghosts could be so tedious. Briefly perked up during one marvelous scene, which I'd like to airlift into a more interesting film: Girl's cell phone rings in class (on vibrate), teacher confiscates phone, entire class starts making the vibrating sound as a gesture of solidarity, teacher walks around placing his hands on the kids' shoulders in an attempt to determine by feel just who's fucking with him. (Of course they just stop when he does.) But that was the only spark of wit or life I encountered.

Beginners (2010, Mike Mills): 75

Couldn't squeeze any reservations into my too-brief review for Las Vegas Weekly (link forthcoming), so let me add here that Mills broke my heart in the home stretch, crafting an absolutely exquisite final scene that had me in tears (and flashing on Exotica, believe it or not), then continuing the movie for another 15 minutes. Goofy rapprochement? Really? Part of me worries that I'm resisting his tentatively happy ending due to the same ingrained cynicism/pessimism that cripples his protagonist -- do I almost invariably prefer downbeat to upbeat simply because the former confirms my own low expectations? Yet that flashback of young Oliver and his mother driving ("And left again. Going in circles. I like it.") is such an intensely moving crystallization of everything Mills has been deftly dancing around that I longed for the film to end on that note, obliquely bleak though it is. (Then again, I may just have been overwhelmed by the titanic force of Mary Page Keller's astonishingly flinty performance, which boasts the most impressive ratio of complex character detail to screen time I've seen in ages -- in just a few fleeting scenes, she somehow manages to convey the sad but self-imposed plight of a fiercely intelligent woman with no outlet for her passions save the inadvertent warping of her only child.) Still, that I genuinely believed Beginners might conclude in such a powerfully indirect way is a testament to how little it resembles the conventional boy-and-his-gay-dad dramedy that I'd expected and kind of dreaded. Mills is working in a radically different register than Terrence Malick, obviously, but his fluid, fragmented treatise on the deceptively gentle weight of personal history would make a superlative double-bill with The Tree of Life. It just wears its ambition more lightly.

The Secret of NIMH (1982, Don Bluth): 43

Just as I feared. Avoided this in first-run and ever since because I loved the book, which despite being written for children is a lot closer to "Flowers for Algernon" than to the usual anthropomorphic-animal guff. And, sure enough, Bluth & Co. all but ignore the scientific angle, condensing the entire NIMH flashback -- roughly a third of the novel, and by far the most compelling material -- into a brisk three-minute montage, and then introducing a fucking magic amulet that completely undermines the book's sober materialism. And let's turn Jenner into a generic villain, and have Dom DeLuise play the crow as sputtering Comic Relief, and hey, you know what we need at the climax, a big sword fight! All of which is at best mildly diverting (and rarely even that), whereas I've now spent something like 35 years haunted by the memory of a rat who was shown a photo of a tree and the word TREE but looked right past both to read a tiny sign in the background detailing visitor parking rules. (It was more or less the pre-adolescent equivalent of HAL's lip-reading scene in 2001.) Admittedly, the animation itself is quite lovely, much richer and more detailed than what Disney was doing at the time (and I suppose it's not the movie's fault that I kept flashing on Dragon's Lair during the action sequences -- there's definitely a "Bluth look"), but I was just too appalled by the evisceration to be seduced on that level. Now all I have to do is spend the next several decades resisting the temptation to watch Ingrid Bergman as Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler...

Outbound (2010, Bogdan George Apetri): W/O

Wish I'd seen this immediately before The Kid With a Bike, as it surely would have made me more appreciative of what the Dardennes do right even when they're coasting a bit. Apetri apes their style but has nothing to offer except dogged truthfulness, which he clearly thinks will suffice; 40 minutes in (total running time: 87), the film is still plodding along in the same sullen, hard-luck register established from frame one, challenging nothing. By no means bad, just undistinguished.

/Fat Girl/ (2001, Catherine Breillat): 63

Aaaaaaand I still don't know what to do with the ending. (SPOILER) That Anaïs accepts her brutal defloration at the hands of a psychopath troubles me less than it did ten years ago -- it's a sick idea, to be sure, but it does work as blunt corollary to Fernando's grossly manipulative verbal assault on Elena earlier. (Part of me thinks that scene should be shown in high-school sex-ed classes. The boys would most likely perceive it as instructional, but it might make the girls a little more self-aware.) It's Anaïs' non-response to the murder of her mother and sister I can't quite process. On some level, it seems clear that she wills their deaths (see also Bluebeard), and I can make sense of the entire film if I posit that the last few minutes take place in her head. Nor do I necessarily require explicit all-a-dream signifiers to that effect. But Breillat seems to go out of her way to negate any such reading, lingering on details of the aftermath -- like the careful bagging of Elena's hands (presumably in the hope of finding forensic evidence beneath her fingernails) -- that Anaïs doesn't witness and wouldn't likely imagine, or even know about in the abstract. I'm not sure what purpose those shots have except to establish that this really happened, and if it really happened, I no longer feel like I understand who Anaïs is. But maybe I'm being too doggedly literal, and should just accept that the film ultimately abandons psychology for vindictive fantasy -- on Breillat's part, not her protagonist's, though the latter is clearly a stand-in for the former in any case. Masterful up to that point, even if it sometimes seems a bit thinly conceived; arguably you only need the seduction of Elena and the drive home, plus the tender conversation at the mirror in-between. Though I'd hate to lose the swimming-pool infidelity.

Interkosmos (2006, Jim Finn): W/O

One of my several unfortunate blind spots is the "poetic film-essay" (per Michael Sicinski) -- I'm not even much of a Chris Marker fan, I'm afraid. Still, Finn's juxtaposition of found astronomical imagery and mundane voiceover seemed to me less poignant than kitschy; imagine how The Tree of Life would play had Malick actually laid Waco-era father-son dialogue over the birth-of-the-universe sequence. And an East German cosmonaut obsessed with "The Trolley Song" is just too alt-cute.

/A Man Escaped/ (1956, Robert Bresson): 67

Clearly I'm just missing whatever gene allows one to see this as transcendent, as opposed to a thoroughly engrossing wartime procedural shot in an unusual and bracing pared-down style. I mean, I can see that it's a testament to hope and faith and resilience and so forth -- but, then, to be perhaps needlessly flippant, so is The Shawshank Redemption, which likewise uses Mozart to express the deepest yearnings of the human soul. François Leterrier is no mere model here, phlegmatic but still expressive (though his performance takes on an odd new flavor once you learn that he'd go on to direct Emmanuelle 3). Still, while Bresson's decision to elide everything except the unvarnished details of Fontaine's ordeal creates a singular tone that's somehow both urgent and serene (exemplified by the terrific early shot in which we remain in the car, watching the other prisoners stare impassively ahead, as Fontaine makes a failed run for it), it also precludes significant emotional investment, at least for me; the film's rush of uninflected events, punctuated frequently by quick fades to black, comes across as impressively workmanlike -- the cinematic equivalent of a sturdy log cabin built by hand, still standing 150 years later. I'm tempted to say that it can't be truly great because it never risks failure. At one point, Fontaine receives a package containing a bunch of clothes, which he slices up to create more rope; that we have not the slightest idea who sent it to him typifies Bresson's admirable yet crippling singlemindedness. Introducing that information would open the floodgates for sentiment, which he's determined to eschew at all costs. And there are costs.

You Are All Captains (2010, Oliver Laxe): W/O

You, on the other hand, are not Kiarostami. At best, you're the underachieving Kiarostami of A.B.C Africa, overindulging little kids' rambunctious energy and leaning hard on facile meta-maneuvers. Wasn't surprised to learn that Laxe spent years running film workshops for Tangiers tots just like these before turning auteur; that he indicts himself so plainly doesn't make his movie any less self-regarding.

Pale Flower (1964, Masahiro Shinoda): 50

Weirds me out that after 20+ years of immersing myself in cinema history, there are still semi-major figures like Shinoda with whose work I'm entirely unfamiliar. (NYFF did a big retro last year -- a bit too late for me, obviously.) Pale Flower's gorgeous 'Scope compositions and nihilistic sensibility make me eager to see more, but I do hope his other films aren't quite so dramatically muted; there's a very thin line between impassive and zombified, and Ryo Ikebe's Muraki too often seems like an allegorical construct rather than a human being. Never really believed that Saeko penetrates his armor of contemptuous reserve, despite the voiceover narration's repeated assertions (plus a nightmare sequence that thinks negative imagery is super-freaky), and while it's clearly by design that these two ennui-consumed thrill-seekers almost never seem thrilled -- only real exception is the drag race, though even there it's the other driver who's truly elated -- that doesn't make the film any less enervating on every level save the formal. It'd be different if Muraki were portrayed as genuinely anhedonic, a New Wave Meursault, but Shinoda clearly wants us to see him as trapped, just like Japan itself in the mid-'60s. In other words, Pale Flower is a character study of a country, not a person, and that particular brand of symbolism has never done much for me (which is why I've tended to resist Jia Zhang-ke). There's much to admire on this film's shadowy surface, but a studious void inhabits the space where its throbbing heart should be.

El sicario, Room 164 (2010, Gianfranco Rosi): W/O

A "movie" for anyone who's ever yearned to see a former Mexican hitman doodle in a notepad for an hour and a half. "There are 30 or 40 bodies buried in that building," the anonymous veiled figure says, and we watch, riveted, as he draws a square on his pad to represent a building and then writes "30" and "40" inside the square. One circle, two circles...oh, those are tires. I guess that's supposed to be a car. Try not to flinch when this barely penitent killer of men riddles his pad with bullets by making a bunch of little dots with his Sharpie. You think I'm kidding. I am not kidding.

Summer of Goliath (2010, Nicolás Pereda): 62

Interestingly, folks who love Putty Hill and Our Beloved Month of August, the two most recent points of reference for a rambling doc/fiction hybrid, tend to be underwhelmed by this one, complaining that it lacks focus. And it's not that they're wrong -- Pereda seems to be making the movie up as he goes along, trying every interesting formal idea that pops into his head before abandoning it for the next one. It's a mess, frankly. But I found it a riveting mess, for the most part, perhaps simply because I was never able to get a handle on it. Pereda's interviews with his "characters," for example, don't have the monolithic rhetorical feel that Porterfield's do -- the mysterious, vaguely foreboding interrogation of "Goliath" and his brother that opens the film bears almost no resemblance, either visually or functionally, to the direct-to-camera monologue (involving a minimum of offscreen questions) by a woman near movie's end, who tells the matter-of-fact story of her husband's murder while surrounded by three or four kids in constant hyperactive motion, one of whom instantly ends the "scene" by walking into frame in the midst of what's clearly an unsimulated crying fit. You could call this sloppy or half-assed or incoherent, and I confess that Summer of Goliath failed to "come together" for me in a satisfying way; it does seem more like a sketch for a film than a film proper. Moment to moment, however, it never stopped catching me off guard, and I was largely content to just follow Pereda around and see what off-the-wall tactic he'd indulge next. ("Now crawl through the mud and bellow like a wounded animal.") Moral: If you're a filmmaker I'm not familiar with, and you want me to get to the end of your movie, befuddle me.

Symbol (2009, Hitoshi Matsumoto): 57

Here's the thing: I started assembling a ridiculously ambitious "review" that would consist entirely of random words, each one a hyperlink to a page offering either goofy nonsense or a clue to the location of the actual review, but quickly gave up after realizing that the conceit isn't nearly clever or entertaining enough to justify the hours of work it would entail. And that's this movie in a nutshell, really. I enjoyed the scenes in the Room of Angel Genitalia (and am in awe of the demented vision that wasn't about to settle for plain old buttons or switches), but I enjoyed them in more or less the same way that I used to enjoy Myst and Riven, as a maddening puzzle to be painstakingly solved. Meanwhile, of course, I'm waiting eagerly to find out how the parallel (?) story of the Mexican wrestling match fits in, even though my attention instantly plummets every time Matsumoto cuts back to it because he hasn't figured out how to make it remotely compelling for its own sake. I gather from festival reviews that the eventual punch line knocks 'em dead in a crowded theater, but it played very shaggy-dog to me; I felt the same rush of incredulous exasperation that hit me after reading this. (If you haven't encountered it before, don't say I didn't warn you.) Obviously Matsumoto intends for the epilogue to inspire ruminations about how his protagonist's abstract predicament relates to the real world, but while it's not terribly difficult to concoct various theses -- you could even argue that Symbol makes explicit what the 2001 monolith does to those apes -- I never really felt challenged or provoked into genuine thought the way I did/was by, say, Daniel Cockburn's more mysteriously allusive You Are Here. As in Big Man Japan, which kept undermining its tale of a depressive superhero with dopey monster battles, Matsumoto is a bit too much the merry prankster for his own good.

/Some Like It Hot/ (1959, Billy Wilder): 95

Hadn't seen this old favorite in maybe 15 years, and I'd forgotten some of the plot details. Specifically, as the movie raced toward the finish line, I started wondering how the hell they were gonna engineer the reconciliation between Joe/Josephine/Junior and Sugar in the few minutes remaining. Because in a contemporary comedy, an entire drippy scene, if not several drippy scenes, would be devoted to J/J/J's fervent apology, to ensure that we understand that the original J is a good person at heart in spite of his multiple deceptions and his crass reverse psychology and his pitiless driving of buxom sex symbols to sing "I'm Through With Love" and so forth. And of course Sugar would nonetheless reject him, so we'd have to endure an energy-sapping display of self-pity while waiting for her to "unexpectedly" show up and bestow forgiveness. Generally speaking, this would eat up the movie's final 10-15 minutes, minimum -- and that's assuming there are no other subplots to resolve, like oh say the other dude's engagement to someone who still thinks he's a woman. (As an aside, I nominate the decision to have Jerry/Daphne embrace this relationship -- "Who's the lucky girl?" "I am!" -- as the single most inspired fillip in all of American comedy.) And so I'm looking at the display and realizing there's only two or three minutes left in the movie, which is gonna include the final exchange leading up to "Nobody's perfect," and yet the obligatory fence-mending process hasn't even begun. How can Sugar get from "holy crap she's a he and he's neither a millionaire nor Cary Grant" to a final passionate liplock without all that tortured justification? Seven words, turns out: "I told you: I'm not very bright." And that is why I revere Billy Wilder.

Winter Vacation (2010, Li Hongqi): W/O

There's deadpan and then there's comatose. Can't really argue with people who find it funny, but I didn't laugh once during the first 40 minutes, even after I made the mental leap from "jesus, this is like a parody of master-shot tedium" to "oh, I see -- it actually is a parody of master-shot tedium." (Took about ten minutes, I think.) Mark Peranson's description of it as "South Park in slow motion" reveals that he's never seen even 30 random seconds of that show, which is as heavily plotted as anything on TV and almost invariably ripped from a given week's headlines; Li's attempting something closer in spirit to Stranger Than Paradise (a film I love), but doesn't seem to understand that Jarmusch mined most of his anti-comedy from the presence of an outsider, viz. Eva. If the shots are static and the milieu is static and the cast of characters is completely static, and you then deliberately withhold anything of interest, all that's left is for us to be amused at the sheer perverse existence of your deliberate non-movie. Which I guess a lot of folks are.

/Father of My Children/ (2009, Mia Hansen-Løve): 61

No change in rating, but a slight shift in perspective. First viewing (at TIFF '09) struck me as a superb portrait of a single individual, inexplicably undermined by an aimless epilogue that takes up the film's entire second half. This time, while I thrilled again to the barely controlled chaos of Grégoire's downward spiral and remained relatively unmoved by its practical aftermath, it was abundantly clear to me that the former serves as extended prologue to the latter, not the other way around. That Hansen-Løve declines to employ any sort of rhythmic punctuation at the midpoint, cutting simply and directly from the fatal act to an uninflected scene combining grieving and busywork, suggests that she intends continuity rather than disjunction; nonetheless, the film still seems lopsided to me, quite possibly because Louis-Do de Lencquesaing is too quietly magnetic. Ultimately, despite some lovely moments -- Clémence, post-tryst, switching to hot chocolate after fumbling her coffee order; the matter-of-fact treatment of Grégoire's secret son -- I don't get much more from the film's latter half than "life goes on." The future's not ours to see, but let's keep the present lively.

Taps (1981, Harold Becker): 56

Almost painful to see so much excellence expended on such a glaring Idiot Plot. Early scenes deftly establish the Academy as a noble anachronism, indoctrinating us within for nearly two reels before venturing outside to remind us of the world at large, which openly jeers at our heroes' ideals. George C. Scott nearly provides sufficient weary gravitas to justify top billing despite being quickly sidelined, and Hutton, his Oscar statuette still dust-free on the mantel, manages to avoid being upstaged by future superstars Sean Penn (a truly striking debut; wish I'd been old enough to see him go direct from this to Fast Times) and Tom Cruise (always at his best in crazy-hothead mode), plus a babyfaced Giancarlo Esposito. It's all going so well...until the time comes to kickstart the actual story, at which point basic plausibility goes straight into the latrine. You've never seen so many firearms accidentally discharged with tragic consequences, and at some point it apparently became clear to the writers (or the author of the source novel, not sure) that even having General Bache arrested wasn't gonna prevent him from stepping in and ending the movie prematurely, so they give the poor duffer a fatal heart attack. Even amidst all this nonsense, however, the film still manages to locate numerous kernels of truth -- particularly involving the younger kids, who are all scared shitless but determined not to look like pussies. I'd much rather have seen a low-key portrait of the contemporary (now as much as then) career soldier, minus the overblown siege aspect, but that would no doubt play like a military version of a Whit Stillman movie, or maybe one of those late elegiac Westerns that made no money whatsoever. In other words, that picture would not have been funded in the first place.

The Double Hour (2009, Giuseppe Capotondi): 66

A rare rug-puller with more on its mind than knocking you on your ass -- though it's also skillful enough in that department that I failed to anticipate the first big twist, despite having being prepped for it by reviews festooned with spoiler warnings. (You are hereby warned as well.) Complaints that it doesn't play fair seem fundamentally misguided, since the film's whole point involves the human tendency to make snap assumptions; it's hardly coincidental that the two main characters meet at a speed-dating service, having been allotted three minutes to decide who's sitting across from them. Twist the first primarily recodes the movie not in terms of What Happened? but rather Who Exactly Are We Identifying With? And twist the second is pretty much exactly the same one Lynch uses in Mulholland Dr., except in this case we're truly unsure at the end whether we've been watching Diane dreaming of being Betty or Betty dreaming of being Diane, with the additional downer that it scarcely matters, since both women are equally fucked up anyway. Capotondi, a commercial/video dude directing his first feature, handles this tricky material with a smooth assurance that arguably crosses the line into being overly polite -- a sense of real anguish seems notable by its absence, though repeated suicides, real and/or imaginary (and prefaced by the same sad line: "You look better with your hair down") hint at the emotions being repressed, as does Kseniya Rappaport's dynamically muted performance (Best Actress, Venice '09, well deserved). Also, the whole double-hour motif itself strikes me as empty cleverness, just another vaguely metaphysical element tossed into the stew to keep us guessing. But it's to the film's credit that I already find myself thinking back not on its mysteries and reveals, but on its portrait of all-consuming guilt.

/Insignificance/ (1985, Nicolas Roeg): 44

One of the first dozen or so art films I ever saw, if memory serves; all I remembered a quarter-century later was the bit in which Marilyn Monroe uses toy trains and flashlights to demonstrate her understanding of special relativity to Albert Einstein. Turns out that's the only memorable feature of this facile exercise in cutesiness, which preserves for posterity a thoroughly mediocre play that would otherwise be justly forgotten. Roeg does his best to spice things up via jagged shards of memory (his usual trick) but can't disguise the material's essential hey-what-if? banality, as four caricatures of '50s icons trade useless Wiki-morsels; presumably they're meant to serve as pop-cultural totems rather than people (hence their generic identification in both credits and dialogue: "The Professor," "The Actress," etc.), but the tone is lightly playful rather than interrogative, congratulating the audience for knowing a few basic historical facts in much the same way that Midnight in Paris does. Performances are highly variable in this regard, too: Michael Emil, as Einstein, mostly strives for naturalism (and fares best, ironically), while a shaky Theresa Russell does not so much Monroe as Monroe-as-Sugar and Tony Curtis ignores McCarthy's mannerisms altogether. (Gary Busey's off the hook since I don't think I've ever seen footage of DiMaggio doing anything but swinging a bat. The role as written is pretty ridiculous, though, portraying him as a narcissistic boob obsessed with his bubblegum-card legacy.) No idea how the play ended, but Roeg's climactic bid for weight via H-bomb imagery just seems cheap, especially when punctuated by a flip freeze-frame. An odd choice for Criterion, all in all -- I barely remember Track 29, either, but that one at least had some maniacal oomph.

The Image (1975, Radley Metzger): 47

For whatever reason, I never really went through the psychotronic phase where you seek out the cultiest and most disreputable pictures, so Metzger had entirely escaped me until now -- all I knew was that he made unusually classy softcore porn. Still, I was ill-prepared for a vision of Paris that makes the opening montage of Woody Allen's latest look drab by comparison. (Check out just the very first frame.) What's more, Metzger's unmistakable facility extends to his actors. Granted, line delivery isn't anyone's forte (a problem he solves via extensive, sometimes dryly hilarious voiceover narration taken from Catherine Robbe-Grillet's source novel), but "Mary Mendum"/Rebecca Brooke in particular evinces a truly remarkable self-possession, making her a fantastic camera study in ways that transcend her generic beauty (and willingness to have sex on camera). And yet The Image really is just a porno, in the sense that the film has no apparent purpose other than to titillate; it may be gorgeously mechanical, but it's mechanical all the same, with no interest in its characters except as orifices. Because I happen to find BDSM largely anti-erotic, I can duck the whole can-porn-be-art? question for the time being -- you can't honestly deem something like this successful if it never once even made you consider dropping trou -- but I can see now that I'll be forced to grapple with it at some point.

/Diabolique/ (1955, H.G. Clouzot): 83

FADE IN: On a pool of filthy, stagnant water. Plot is still crackerjack, of course -- I can only imagine how that ending played at the time, when such twists were relatively uncommon (to the point where the movie concludes with an anti-spoiler PSA) -- but what struck me third time around was how damn hopeless and unforgiving everything seems, even during what Syd Field would term the "rising action." Indeed, there's a constant element of mild horror involved in merely observing our ostensible heroine, whose frailness increasingly seems much more psychological than physical; one could easily read the film as a portrait of battered-wife syndrome, specifically the "learned helplessness" aspect. Interesting what Clouzot (or perhaps Boileau & Narcejac, but I'm skeptical) chose to omit from the narrative -- I can understand why the sexual abuse is left implicit, but it's remarkably perverse, in an almost imperceptible way, that the scene in which Nicole approaches Christina with the plan to kill Michel isn't dramatized at all, depicted only via a quick shot of a student peeping through a window as Nicole shows Christina the sedative (which at this point is just a random bottle as far as we know). The casualness with which their scheme is then later introduced only reinforces the sense of a moral vacuum. Still, the movie would work like gangbusters even without that subtext -- it's just a superb vise-tightener, the template for pretty much every thriller predicated on spooky inexplicable shit that's been made since. If only its successors wrapped up so succinctly.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965, Norman Jewison): 61

Unexpectedly stylish, to the point where I had to check and make sure it really was directed by Jewison. (Sam Peckinpah started the film, but none of his footage survives, as far as I can determine.) Right from the opening credits, which look amazingly like what Treme would come up with decades later, it has an appealing shagginess, nicely matched by a Ring Lardner Jr./Terry Southern screenplay that somehow tends toward throw-away and understatement ("Let's go out to the car," pants Ann-Margret during the cockfight, hot with bloodlust; McQueen just looks amused and says "Why don't you relax, huh"?) while simultaneously acknowledging the archetypal nature of the characters. Trouble is, all the terrific material in the first half -- not least of which is a superb, quietly eccentric turn by the young and still clean-cut Rip Torn -- winds up merely serving as longwinded prologue to the second half's big poker showdown, which is not terrible as poker movies go but still inevitably treats luck as if it were skill. (I'd be The Man too if I could miraculously pull one specific card out of the deck whenever I needed it.) In the end, it feels like two different movies, the stronger of which amounts to marking time waiting for the weaker to show up. And while reliable reports suggest that the lame final shot was imposed on Jewison against his will, it's still there, at least in the cut available on DVD/Blu, to end things on a sour note of utterly phony sweetness.

/The Stunt Man/ (1980, Richard Rush): 53

Okay, let's pretend for a moment that Steve Railsback doesn't function as thespian antimatter, annihilating Peter O'Toole's genius upon contact. This is still a movie that ostensibly casts a jaundiced eye on the filmmaking process but seems to know nothing whatsoever about how films are actually made. In one early bit, a huge crowd of spectators observes the shooting of a WWI battle sequence involving soldiers being strafed on a beach, and we're supposed to believe (a) that the actors are somehow dressed with bloody stumps and fake entrails and prosthetic heads at the very end of a single extended shot (under cover of some brief smoke), and (b) that the crowd would then be alarmed and horrified, believing that the planes had actually shot the actors by mistake. Uh, yeah. Subsequent setpieces are equally ridiculous, predicated on the absurd idea that a lengthy single-take action sequence involving falls from great heights and gunfire and explosions and all manner of dangerous stuntwork would be largely improvised, rather than intricately rehearsed in every minute detail for days. Granted, this is all necessary to keep Railsback's wild-eyed idiot confused and paranoid, but it's so completely antithetical to actual filmmaking that it doesn't even really work as metaphor -- mostly, it's a cheap means of tricking/goosing the audience. Which I guess one could theoretically argue is the whole idea, with Rush manipulating us the way his Godlike onscreen surrogate manipulates cast and crew (by far the film's finest and most pointed moment is when O'Toole tells Hershey with crocodile regret that her parents saw the rushes of her sex scene, then instantly calls Action on a take in which she must project shame)...but to what ultimate purpose? I can't discern what The Stunt Man is saying about anything beyond itself, apart from "do not under any circumstances hire Steve Railsback."

New York, New York (1977, Martin Scorsese): 73

Somehow never read much of anything about this one in advance, despite its eluding me for decades (until recently I saw older films only if/when a print screened somewhere in NYC), and so was utterly unprepared for its bracing amalgam of the abrasive and the artificial, pushed to a degree of potential discomfort rivaled perhaps only by Buffalo '66. First hour-plus is astonishing, right from the spectacularly witty V-J Day tracking shot that loses De Niro in a crowd of celebrating extras until he reaches his mark directly beneath a giant neon arrow pointing straight at him; Scorsese repeatedly creates an iconic shot or action only to render it absurd and/or ugly, as if exposing these tropes' underlying pathology. I think the first time I actually gaped was during the bit where De Niro kisses Minnelli as she's exiting the cab, which begins as a romantic cliché and then just goes on and on and on, with Minnelli lunging around the gutter in her stocking feet as she struggles to break free. Then comes the chintzy fake forest serving as backdrop to cinema's most half-assed declaration: "I love you. Well, I mean, I don't love you, I dig you, I like you a lot, and, you know..." By the second hour, it starts to become clear that the movie has no real narrative shape, being just a collection of stock scenes organized around a central conceit. Even then, though, it remains mesmerizingly, almost randomly digressive: a dramatic conversation gets interrupted and completely undermined by someone who wants De Niro's parking space, while in another scene the simple act of ordering drinks turns into a demented Abbott & Costello routine. Most folks consider that stuff inept, I gather, but it's clearly deliberate, and amazingly gutsy -- you can see how Scorsese and De Niro got from here to The King of Comedy a few years later. Oddly enough, the parts that worked least well for me are the musical numbers, which are what people who dislike the film generally praise; I appreciate the function of Happy Endings vis-à-vis the actual ending, and am glad it was restored, but the numbers themselves are tuneless and clunkily staged, in a way that does not seem deliberate and wouldn't fit the conceit even if it did. (Also, I've always kind of hated the title song, and the movie didn't change that.) Exhausting, but essential.

/Scanners/ (1981, David Cronenberg): 66

Sure, it was a big step forward when Cronenberg started working with the likes of James Woods and Jeff Goldblum and Jeremy Irons. But there's something weirdly effective about several ostensibly bad performances in his early work, and I'm not sure that Scanners would necessarily be improved by replacing Stephen "apropos surname" Lack with an actor capable of modulating tone, expression or both. Presumably Cronenberg cast him primarily for his look, in both senses of the word, which is singular; while the rest of the cast (including Ironside, who's otherwise deliciously reptilian and deserved way more screen time) equates the act of scanning with constipation, Lack settles for a slightly more wide-eyed variation on his usual vacuum, coming across as discomfitingly inhuman. Movie itself suffers a bit from an excess of plot, and seems fairly tame compared to body-horror nightmares like Shivers and Rabid (the exploding head is basically a sight gag, albeit a good one), but it's still a remarkably assured toe-dip into the mass market, and far more stylishly directed than I'd remembered. Opening sequence makes terrific mobile-camera use of an anonymous food court (I'm not often thinking De Palma when watching Cronenberg), and the bit in which McGoohan's rather unfortunately named Dr. Ruth shows Cameron ancient footage of Revok, still bandaged from the incident that explains that creepy forehead scar, is a textbook example of how to make exposition visually arresting. Hardly a classic, but probably one of the better "transitional films" in any major director's oeuvre. Dept. of Repertory Fortuitousness: Jennifer O'Neill, the fairly obscure actress who plays the female lead, was also the female lead in Hawks' Rio Lobo, made 11 years earlier in a different country but seen for the first time by me just a week ago.

Bal (Honey) (2010, Semih Kaplanoglu): W/O

All walkouts are not created equal. I bailed on Süt (Milk), the previous film in Kaplanoglu's "Yusuf Trilogy," at TIFF '08, and in that instance felt happy to escape something that seemed suffocatingly affected. When Bal won Berlin last year, though, I resolved to give the guy another chance, and I'm not altogether sorry I did -- this one is far more simple and direct (perhaps because it's about a tremulous little boy rather than a mopey young adult), evincing a hushed stillness that's actually rather appealing. Still, after 40 minutes (which is nearly half the film), I remained agreeably uninvolved, which is not the state of mind I'm shooting for, especially vis-à-vis the so-called "art film." So I cut my losses and moved on. That's a fairly typical W/O experience, for the record -- doesn't necessarily mean the movie stinks on ice, only that it didn't ever grab me. That's Ed, How I Ended This Summer wuz robbed.

Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams): 58

Not sure I could be a more potentially receptive viewer, given that I was nearly the exact age of these kids in '79 (period details are impeccable, though there's a bit of Mad Men-style hindsight chortling) and now find myself longing for the comparatively ramshackle summer event movies of my youth. And the setup gets everything just right, from the silent economy of those first two shots (demonstrating a subtlety that goes sadly M.I.A. later on) to the cast of unknowns who come across as real, ordinary the scarily gifted Ms. Fanning, whose zombie impression would raise gooseflesh + a boner on any teenage nerd. Frankly, I would have been perfectly happy had the film remained an acutely naturalistic American cousin to Son of Rambow. But Abrams has other plans, of course, and while it would be overly harsh to say that Super 8 derails along with the train, very little of the creature-oriented stuff seems particularly inspired -- not even inspired by Spielberg. On top of which, title notwithstanding, the boys' shoot gets largely forgotten once the mayhem begins in earnest; even the anticipated Big Reveal of what the camera recorded that night -- which Abrams postpones for close to an hour of screen time, whetting our appetite all the more -- turns out to be pretty so-what?, merely confirming for our heroes what we've known all along. By the mawkish, incoherent climax, in which kid tells creature exactly what he himself (kid) needs most to hear, what had started out feeling loose-limbed and personal has become as factory-tooled as every other prospective blockbuster choking the multiplexes. A real shame.

Vera Cruz (1954, Robert Aldrich): 60

Strikingly, a Western that's almost entirely about Burt Lancaster's teeth. Aldrich keeps Lancaster's face as grimy as possible throughout, the better to set off those perfect white choppers, and of course the actor himself flashes a maniacal death grin every time he's challenged, provoked or just regarded for more than a split second. (Even the original half-sheet recognizes the motif.) In the film's most bizarre moment -- indeed, one of the strangest flourishes I'm aware of in a Hollywood star vehicle from this period -- Lancaster suddenly gazes into the camera as if it were a mirror (without an actual mirror being established in any way, either before or afterwards), combing back his hair with his hands and then brushing his teeth briefly with one finger; I had to stop the film and spend ten minutes racking my brain before I finally realized I was remembering that gesture from Godard's A Woman Is a Woman, and when I popped it in to check (this is why I have a DVD library) I found that Belmondo actually mentions Lancaster and Vera Cruz when he mimics that action. Still, it's a film of memorable bits more than a memorable film per se, trotting dutifully along familiar genre pathways and regularly bogging down in dull romantic interludes and overtly racist dance routines. Apart from the occasional spasm of gratuitous brutality, e.g. Lancaster smacking the Countess around (and insisting that she'll take it and like it), there's little indication that Aldrich's next film would be an apocalypse of sheer nihilism.

/Enter the Void/ (2009, Gaspar Noé): 48 [was 57]

One the one hand, only the memory-slideshow movement really works for me now -- first-person prologue just demonstrates for the umpteenth time how clumsy and useless that conceit is (for one thing, the hands never look like they're where they ought to be relative to the "eyes"), and all the swooping and diving and plunging headlong into lightbulbs/drains/fetuses later on just feels like virtuoso technique for its own sake, Fincher's infamous journey through the coffeepot handle writ ludicrously large. On the other hand, that slideshow movement is way longer and even more stunning than I remembered: nearly a full hour of impressionistic eyeblink fragments, anchored by the consistent placement of actors within the frame even as backgrounds and color palettes constantly shift. (See also the awesome opening-credits sequence, which didn't yet exist when I saw the film at its Cannes '09 premiere: each name constantly mutating but also remaining the same.) Formally, it's every bit the equal of Malick's whirligig approach in Tree of Life (before that film settles down), so sustained in its bravura that you almost forget for the duration how insanely tedious everybody in this movie is. But then Noé returns to the present and starts up his corkscrew routine again, forcing us to endure Paz de la Huerta's ersatz pouting and shouting in real time. (He also keeps returning to Alex, Oscar's tiresome buddy, as if we actually care that that dude is scrounging meals from the most obviously art-directed garbage heap of all time.) Discussions of Irreversible inevitably focus on the shock elements, but there are three rich, full-bodied performances -- Dupontel and Bellucci placed 5th and 6th, respectively, in the Skandies that year -- at its center to provide some real gravity. Content with mannequins this time for some reason, Noé performs endless cartwheels in zero-g, only achieving some blunt force, ironically, during the long stretch in which he locks the camera down and lets the movie be associative rather than scenic.