Films Seen May–June 2012

(For other films seen the week of Father's Day, click here.)

Lockout (2012, Stephen Saint Leger & James Mather)

Sucker-punched me in right from the opening credits, each of which appears in the empty space vacated by Guy Pearce's head after a hulk (named Rupert) knocks it sideways during an interrogation. For a while, this has the turbo-charged sense of its own ludicrousness that others seem to enjoy in Neveldine/Taylor joints -- an abdication of reality that's enhanced, not violated, by the shoddy greenscreen effects. And Pearce makes the best sarcastic, can't-be-bothered action antihero in ages, more than compensating for Maggie Grace's usual vacuity. (I was so happy when "Lost" killed Shannon off.) That archetype went all but extinct decades ago, after multiple Die Hard clones beat it into the ground, and I hadn't realized until now how much I missed it; even when the hard-boiled banter feels a tad musty, there's a nostalgic kick to it. Inevitably, perhaps, Lockout settles down to become a more conventional genre flick, at which point Pearce's quips lose some of their zing and the skeletal nature of the enterprise (in which a prison riot involving 500 cons is somehow managed entirely by two Scotsmen, with no apparent challenges to their authority) seems less charming and more chintzy. But I still feel like it partially recaptures something that got lost when digital effects became an event movie's raison d'être -- namely, the memory of a time when not every picture involving guns and villains and danger needed to be an ostentatious, four-quadrant "event." When Pearce commandeers some sort of futuristic Batcycle, the movie hilariously doesn't even bother to "establish" it -- he's just suddenly zooming down the highway at 200mph, looking like an avatar in a cheap video game. Rides it straight into a subway station, gets dislodged, slides at breakneck speed toward the path of an oncoming train -- a single shot designed not to impress with its photorealism but to tickle with its crazy audacity. Worked on me.

The Space Children (1958, Jack Arnold)

Not all that terrible for a movie that got MST3K'd (season nine). Its secret weapon is Michel Ray as the main kid -- name's a tipoff that he's not American-born, and he does have a very slight accent that Crow or somebody keeps calling Flemish. (Best riff, at a particularly dramatic juncture: "I saw nothing like this in Antwerp!") But it's clear why they cast him anyway: He's got an amazing 1000-yard stare, ideal for a story about alien mind control. That it's benevolent, anti-nuclear mind control means the film is never remotely scary (and is often super-didactic), but it does at least manage a sporadic creepiness, bolstered by the coincidence that most of the adult supporting cast -- i.e., the victims -- would go on to TV fame: You've got the Professor from "Gilligan's Island," Uncle Fester from "The Addams Family," and Mr. Drysdale from "The Beverly Hillbillies." (As a bonus for cinephiles, the kid's aw-shucks dad is played by one of James Mason's goons in North by Northwest, looking no less menacing here.) And maybe it's just because I read A Wrinkle in Time over and over as a kid, but I was unnerved despite myself by the alien, which most reviews describe simply as a mass of protoplasm but is clearly meant to resemble a disembodied brain à la IT. Those frissons aside, it's not so much laughable as just bland...but I'm still grateful to Olive Films for putting out films like this on Blu-ray. A steady diet of classics can feel oppressive.

Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh)

Not hard to see why folks compare this to The Girlfriend Experience, but Soderbergh managed to fragment that one so that its essentially trite narrative was difficult to discern. Here, the platitudes and conservatism loom larger and larger as the film progresses, ultimately swamping any lingering curiosity about the milieu or any (mostly ostensible) focus on economics. (Mike being turned down for a small-business loan due to bad credit seems more like a pity party than like the complex negotiations navigated by Sasha Grey's Chelsea, which were inextricably tied to her chosen profession. Mike's just trying to get out, in the hackneyed tradition of a gazillion working-class protags.) Tatum really does work magic onstage as the title character, and it's certainly refreshing to see a Hollywood movie in which male bodies are unapologetic objects of desire; at my midnight screening, much of the dialogue got drowned out by delighted cheers from the 80% female audience. But his insipid romance with superpouty Cody Horn (driven by painfully awkward improvisations that just make Lynn Shelton look like even more of a genius) and penchant for threesomes with Olivia Munn seem like sops to the guys who'll get dragged along. Then drugs get introduced in the most cheesily ominous way imaginable and it's just a matter of awaiting the dreary repercussions. Also, structurally, Alex Pettyfer's initiate should be (and at first appears to be) the protagonist, but the guy never develops even a smidgen of a personality, ultimately seems on hand solely to provide Mike with a love interest in act two and a fresh obstacle in act three. I found myself thinking of Boogie Nights -- another movie I like less than most people (though a lot more than this) -- which similarly pretends for a while to celebrate what it secretly finds distasteful. Which means Matthew McConaughey will eventually become Burt Reynolds. Which sounds about right, actually.

The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock)

Every time I see this I forget that it doesn't involve any actual physical steps (as the novel apparently does) -- could have been called The 39 Tubas, really. A sensational entertainment by any name, establishing the template for the innocent-man thriller and out-pizzazzing most of its successors...though Donat is so completely unruffled throughout that it sometimes feels oddly low-key. Like North by Northwest, its pleasures are surface-level, devoid of any emotional core; in both cases, I'm having way too much fun to perceive that as a defect. Plus there's just no time. In your average thriller, it's a fairly big deal when the hero gets shot at point-blank range and apparently killed -- even though you know he can't be dead, it's fair to expect a certain amount of build-up to the revelation of how he survives. Hitch not only cuts immediately to an expository flashback (here's how), but then jumps ahead to find Donat already safe at the police station, skipping right past the shooting's aftermath -- all the better to catch us off-guard yet again when the law is revealed as a very smooth liar. (One plot hole that slightly bugs me, though: When the bad guys kill the foreign-accented lady spy who's sleeping in Donat's apartment, why don't they just kill the sleeping Donat as well? They clearly want him dead, as they're hanging around outside waiting for him.) And if sparks don't exactly fly between Donat and Carroll, their dynamic is still sublimely combative, with the latter's antipathy rooted not in glib neurosis but in the rational assumption that total strangers pursued by cops and telling fantastic stories aren't to be trusted on faith. That the film ends as it does, rather than on a traditional clinch, is sheer perfection.

Sawdust and Tinsel (1953, Ingmar Bergman)

Checking my records, I find this was the first "old" Bergman film I ever saw (preceded only by the initial theatrical run of 1984's After the Rehearsal -- not the best introduction), and pending any future reassessments I still prefer it to most of his canonical masterworks. Everyone's miserable but they're not yet so floridly articulate about it, and there's a truly fascinating mix of performance styles, from Annika Tretow's pragmatic naturalism as Alma (a role model for independent women if there ever was one) to Hasse Ekman's nakedly expressionistic leering. That range befits a portrait of professional entertainers who yearn for escape from their dreary life of providing others with (meager) escape; Bergman lets the circus and theater folk be melodramatic for effect but keeps the actual emotions life-size, acknowledging that what we're seeing is just one final, feeble spasm of rebellion preceding total resignation. It's a bleak vision but not without warmth and tenderness, unmarred by the grandiose nihilism that plagues many of Bergman's later films. One big problem, though: The film peaks both emotionally and formally right at the outset, with the extraordinary flashback account of Alma bathing nude with the soldiers and then being rescued by her husband in full clown makeup. Alternating between jaunty music, mocking laughter, martial drums and complete silence, and sustaining the arduous journey back to the tent (as Frost awkwardly carries Alma parallel to his body in an effort to hide as much of her nakedness as possible) until you long to avert your eyes, it's such a beautifully choreographed heartwrecker that the rest of the film, fine though it is, comes across a bit like an extended afterthought.

The Dark Crystal (1982, Jim Henson & Frank Oz)

Jim Henson was a genius but he had a limited range -- his Saturday Night Live sketches were almost painfully unfunny, and this attempt at straightforward mythmaking pretty much flatlines apart from its typically impressive creature effects. That it was a box-office hit surprises me, frankly, as it's seemingly too dark and grim for small children but unquestionably too earnest and simplistic for adults (or at least for the guy who gave up early on Winnie the Pooh). Jen the Gelfling makes Luke Skywalker seem like Camus' Mersault by comparison, and humanoid puppets weren't a terrific idea to begin with; the kid desperately needed some personality to offset his frozen face, but he's just a tedious paragon of noble innocence, forever doing the right thing. Which is doubly disappointing given that the movie's one semi-original conceit has the Mystics and the Skeksis turn out to be oppositional halves of the same beings, which suggests a mix of good and evil in everybody -- a dichotomy that's never actually explored. The Skeksis themselves are sometimes fun to watch (as are the Garthim, which look like gigantic boll weevils; love the way they collapse in segments), and I do give Henson credit for taking such a monumental risk at this point in his career: depicting what amounts to slavery and torture, and apparently killing off allegedly sympathetic characters (though he cheats and lets them all survive in the end). It's a brave and ambitious effort, just not a very successful one. I'd much rather watch Henson and Oz riff, honestly.

Shallow Grave (1994, Danny Boyle)

One of the first films I reviewed on my site, back when I was just putting up one-sentence thoughts for a handful of friends and had zero expectation of launching a career. No point in even linking to it, here it is in full: "Flashy and all, but these characters were just too awful to no purpose." So to expand upon those trenchant observations: the problem isn't that all three leads are hateful but that their odious qualities seem entirely random, rooted not in behavioral exactitude or even pop psychology but merely in screenwriter John Hodge's flailing effort to find some kind of story in what's really just a scenario. Eccleston's recurring voiceover narration posits it as a cautionary tale about friendship and trust and how easily both can be corrupted, but it has no sting because these people don't seem to like each other except insofar as they band together to hate everyone else even more. And even if one gets a charge out of watching piranhas devour each other when deprived of food -- which is to say, if sheer nastiness will suffice (and I respect that) -- the movie goes permanently off the rails when David suddenly decides to go live in the attic and start spying on Juliet and Alex through holes drilled in the ceiling (which holes are mysteriously unnoticed by the detective and his flunky when they show up, even though the perspective from above suggests it would look like a construction site even at the briefest glance). Hodge and Eccleston do their best to present it as a worm-turns breaking point but it just seems contrived, as does everything else including the idea that somebody who's stolen cash from gangsters (or whoever's interests Peter Mullan represents) would hide out and/or commit suicide (?) by applying for a room in a shared flat rather than just checking into a hotel or duh skipping town. There's just nothing here apart from mild bad behavio(u)r, but can we justifiably complain? Title tells you exactly what to expect.

Patton (1970, Franklin J. Schaffner)

Can't quite decide whether it wants to be a gung-ho hagiography or a tell-all character study, and winds up veering back and forth between the two. First hour is mostly dull apart from the opening speech -- I remembered "Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!" but had completely forgotten the lengthy, visually undistinguished battle that precedes that famous line -- and the movie seems to regard Patton as a noble ass-kicking anachronism, the perfect warrior born in the wrong era. Just when I was about to fall asleep, however, he suddenly turns into a glory-obsessed tyrant willing to sacrifice men's lives to get his name in newspaper headlines, with George C. Scott modulating the performance into a more naturalistic take on Buck Turgidson. For the next hour or so, he's the least sympathetic war hero imaginable -- it wouldn't be that hard to depict his sidelining in the wake of the slapping incident as an unfair PR move in response to national overreaction, but instead it's treated as just and proper, and Patton's outbursts as symptomatic of a deep-seated, thoroughly destructive narcissism. Ideally, the final hour, in which Patton drives an exhausted Third Army across France and into Germany, would have complicated matters by acknowledging the utility of such repugnant qualities in times of war, and there's a smattering of that uncertainty...but for the most part, Patton retreats, ignoring the toll the campaign must have taken on the men (we see nothing but Patton taking pride in their efforts on his behalf) and concluding on a rueful note that suggests a world-class stud being put out to pasture. (There's also a clumsy allusion to his death-by-auto just six months after WWII ended, which was lost on me until I did the Wiki-research.) So one-third of a great movie, more or less. But it's a pretty damn bracing third.

L.A. Story (1991, Mick Jackson)

Gotta think Steve Martin looks at this today and wishes, as we all do, that he'd cast somebody other than his wife (now ex-) as the female lead. Not that she's terrible, but the sort of Jean Arthur U.K. vibe that was apparently intended never quite comes across -- the more Tennant tries to project carefree wackiness (driving on the wrong side of the road; tuba duet with mum on the phone), the more she seems like a perfectly nice lady who's way out of her comedic depth...especially by comparison with Sarah Jessica Parker, whose hyperactive performance as SanDeE* lays waste to the bubbleheaded stereotype the character might have been on paper. Wondered if I might now appreciate its loving jabs at Angelenos more, having spent the last few years in the vicinity, but Martin actually gets lots of things wrong for the sake of weak humor; early on, everyone ignores a massive, furniture-displacing earthquake, carrying on with their small talk as if oblivious, whereas in reality the slightest tremor gets discussed and analyzed for days. (I did laugh when the trendy restaurant constantly pronounced as Lidio turned out to be L'Idiot.) And Mick Jackson, who would go on to direct such winners as The Bodyguard, Volcano, and that recent TV-movie about Temple Grandin (DISCLAIMER: I have not seen any of these, in fact I have literally not seen anything Jackson has worked on since), has no sense of how to shoot comedy, making a particular hash of anything remotely kinetic -- sequences of Martin driving off-road to avoid traffic and exchanging casual gunfire on the L.A. freeway get hack-style coverage, cutting every half-second to obscure the spatial incoherence. Some decent laughs here and there, but the West Coast Annie Hall it decidedly is not.

* (Nothing to see here; the asterisk is part of her name.)

The Comancheros (1961, Michael Curtiz)

Curtiz's last film, shot when he was terminally ill and reportedly half-directed by John Wayne...but that doesn't explain why the script is so incoherent. Never seen a movie set up and then abandon so many perfectly serviceable plots en route to one that barely hangs together -- it's like watching an adaptation of a short story collection involving the same cast of characters. The movie I really wanted to see was the one in which the Duke lets a wanted criminal (Stuart Whitman) he's extraditing escape; goes undercover to nab the titular Comancheros (white dudes allied with Comanches; this is Civil-War era); sets up an alliance, using an alias, with an especially evil-looking, partially-scalped Lee Marvin (whose sudden appearance is a welcome jolt of malicious energy); then runs into his escaped prisoner at a poker game and not only can't arrest the guy but has to surreptitiously persuade him not to blow his cover, lest Lee Fucking Marvin slaughter them both. Does that not sound like primo entertainment? Instead (spoiler!), Wayne immediately kills Marvin and re-arrests Whitman, and the movie simply returns to the track it had been on 20 minutes earlier, ready for the next puzzling detour. Likewise the early, not-terribly-convincing romance between Whitman and Ina Balin, which logic dictates will resurface at some point, but get comfy -- she's absent from the screen for like an hour while the boys mosey elsewhere, then switches allegiance as if trying on a new hat for size, even though it means death for the only family she has. By contrast, any seams in the direction are difficult to spot, at least for me -- it's the same amiable, relaxed production throughout, plausibly the work of a 75-year-old man with little to prove. Judging from synopses, looks like Fox struggled to make Wayne the star, when the source novel had Whitman's (mostly innocent) criminal as its hero; the strain definitely shows.

Brave (2012, Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman)

Waxed mostly enthusiastic in my review for Las Vegas Weekly, and it's possible that I'm overrating it slightly just because it wound up being something other than the generic grrl-empowerment tale promised/threatened by the opening reel. Compared to Pixar's best work, Brave feels skimpy, even skeletal; there are too few complications, and even some of the existing ones, like what happens to Merida's brothers, don't amount to much. But the curveball that is the movie's main plot, in addition to belatedly introducing some proper Pixar-style nuttiness, complicates the young heroine's self-actualization by acknowledging one of her parents as a person (so to speak) rather than just an impediment, which is almost revolutionary for this genre. If the film isn't as radically feminist as Manohla Dargis seems to demand -- nothing less than a declaration of intent to eschew romance for life will do, apparently -- it's nonetheless progressive in a way that I much prefer to the pushy, tomboyish approach it flirts with at the outset. Chafing at societal expectations only takes you so far.

Smokey and the Bandit (1977, Hal Needham)

Feel like I saw this a dozen or more times as a kid (mostly on cable, back when cable was basically one channel that showed the same 10 movies over and over), but can't be sure it was ever start-to-finish so no /slashes/. In any case, there's no chance that my pre-teen self appreciated the unique tone it achieves, an amalgam of fast-paced zaniness and relaxed nonchalance that I'll dub good-ol'-screwball. The appeal of Burt Reynolds and Sally Field can seem mysterious from today's perspective, but it's kind of amazing how effortless their performances seem here; it's not so much that they throw lines away as that they refrain from trying to sell them, an approach abetted by Needham's (and/or his editor's) penchant for cutting briskly away rather than providing the customary laugh-beat. It's absurdly casual, and yet at the same time it's also just plain absurd -- best example is probably the Bandit explaining Frog's presence in his Trans Am to the Snowman via CB (complete with untranslated slang) while completely ignoring her lengthy monologue about her experience as a dancer, which she delivers, obscured from sight, while changing her clothes underneath what's left of her wedding gown. Had it just been the three of them, plus a bunch of stunt driving involving faceless pursuing cops, we'd be talking about a minor classic. But Jackie Gleason -- and I say this with all due respect to a comedy legend -- not only brings the anti-funny but proceeds to nail the anti-funny to the wall so that we can watch its twitching carcass slowly expire. (I did not enjoy his work in this film.) Thankfully, he's cordoned off from the main action, but every recurrence disrupts the film's blithe rhythm, and that rhythm is precisely what's cherishable.

Declaration of War (2011, Valérie Donzelli)

Almost stuck with this out of respect, as it's at least trying to do something unique and arresting. And I really dug the musical number (duet in cabs following diagnosis), which is heartfelt enough that it honors the gravity of the situation even as it provides formal counterweight to the disease-of-the-week template. But the other distancing devices -- multiple omniscient narrators; intrusively offbeat source music; bursts of histrionics usually reserved for grand opera (one family member instantly collapses upon hearing the news, while Dad drops to his knees and bellows at the heavens as if he were Kirk cursing Khan) -- just seem inappropriate, frankly. I'm all for innovation, especially when it comes to subject matter this well-trod and predictable, but the tone here really needs to be laser-precise (even in its wild shifts), and mostly I was wincing. Also, I would give my eyeteeth, once I figure out which those are, for a movie scene in which the parent actually does what the doctor/cop/other authority figure says rather than pull that whole I-care-too-much-to-submit-to-bureaucracy-NOW-ANSWER-ME! routine. All the people who wait for the doctor rather than harass the technician love their children just as much as you do. Being obnoxious is not noble.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay)

Previously addressed at Cannes, and taking a second look changed nothing. Even if we posit that the entire film is an untrustworthy memory play warped by Eva's guilt, Kevin is just too overtly demonic to prevent the film from feeling schematically repetitive, especially when Ramsay abandons her initial flurry of hallucinatory fragmentation and settles into a strictly linear groove (which threatens to become a rut). It's a dazzling dirge, and this time I clung even more desperately to its one mysterious, destablizing interlude: Kevin's sudden tender affection for Eva when he gets sick. But the faint echo in the film's closing scene, as he awaits transfer to prison proper, just wasn't enough, and I was set adrift once again.

A Perfect World (1993, Clint Eastwood)

Ah, 1993. The world was young. Well, I was young, anyway. Had just been blown away by Unforgiven the year before, and so processed this entirely as un film de Clint Eastwood...whereas today I look at it and see a movie written by the guy who made The Blind Side. It disappointed me back then, to be sure, but I vividly recall thinking that the Costner half was a masterpiece and wishing all the dopey scenes of Eastwood and Dern {and wait a second is that Bradley Whitford as the ice-cool sniper?} in lukewarm pursuit would just go away. But that assessment was predicated, if I can trust my memory, on the notion that Costner was trashing his virtuous image by playing a dangerous psychopath, whereas it seems painfully obvious now that he's in fact playing a fundamentally decent guy who turned to a life of crime because of (ugh) Daddy Issues. He and the kid still have a nice rapport -- I'm always pleased when small children in genre movies actually behave like small children, getting the piss scared out of them when appropriate and failing to comprehend the adult world in troubling ways -- and that offsets the sogginess to some degree; certainly Eastwood seems more keenly attuned to their relationship than to his own feeble subplot, as he can barely work up the energy to pretend he's invested in the boys' club that Dern's (thoroughly modern) Sally aims to invade. And at least the extent to which Costner's felon is projecting his own history onto others is left mostly implicit, rather than being spelled out in trailer-ready dialogue like "You're changing that boy's life." "No. He's changing mine." Small mercies.

21 Jump Street (2012, Phil Lord & Chris Miller)

Just not funny to me, I'm afraid. Its one good comic idea -- that the definition of "cool" has radically changed in the seven years since Channing Tatum's apathetic jock barely graduated, making him the outcast upon his return (which as a bonus has pretty obvious real-world resonance) -- barely gets any play, at least in the first 40 minutes. (Having them accidentally assume each other's fake identities more or less kills it it any case.) And while, sure, I'm impressed that Tatum's willing to play so enthusiastically against type, he still needs material, as does Hill. Didn't enjoy all the meta-humor, either: "Hey, we're a sad pop-culture cash-grab but at least we know we're a sad pop-culture cash-grab and we don't try to hide it." Good for you.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, George Roy Hill)

William Goldman expertly eviscerates his own script in Adventures in the Screen Trade, and I concur with most of his self-criticism. In particular, much of the dialogue is painfully jokey (as opposed to witty) and predicated on cheap reversals of expectation, reaching its nadir at the climax when Butch and Sundance get shot to hell and still keep lobbing sarcastic gibes back and forth. On the flip side, Goldman takes credit for the film's structure, by which I think he really means its sheer cussedness -- no other Western I can think of introduces a couple of badass anti-heroes and then has them spend half the movie fleeing a group of faceless, implacable foes, never even really considering putting up a fight. And it's not as if the other half sees them turn the tables, either. "Fuck this noise, next stop Bolivia." Where everything promptly goes to shit. Yet while the opening newsreel self-consciously signposts the end of an era ("all dead now but once they ruled the West!"), the film's tone isn't really mournful or elegiac à la Liberty Valance, just oddly bemused. It's an unconventional portrait that I wish had been written by someone without quite such a glib sensibility (though, again, I admire that Goldman would later so openly dissect his most celebrated work; his nonfiction books are all terrific, especially Hype and Glory which remains the best behind-the-scenes look at a Cannes jury) and directed by someone with a better feel for the outdoors...or at least by someone who'd veto a bike-riding montage set to a Bacharach & David tune. MVP is Redford, who gives away so little here, seems awesomely unconcerned with being liked. Wonder how great he might have been had this film not made him a superstar.

Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott)

Pretty impressive fan fiction, though the plot doesn't make a whole lotta sense even allowing for the likelihood that some open questions will be answered in the now-inevitable sequel. (MASSIVE SPOILERS IN THAT LINK, DO NOT CLICK UNTIL YOU'VE SEEN THE FILM. I dated it 2003 just so nobody could possibly stumble onto it by accident.) I'm less bothered by the Lindeloffing, though, than by the overall shoddiness in every element save for the visual. Alien admittedly didn't boast a cast of Chekhovian characters, but the crew at least seemed credibly professional given that they were blue-collar grunts; here, we're supposed to believe that Noomi and her fella are scientists (with fields of study that mutate as rapidly as the xenomorph, it seems), but they come across like a social worker and the trainer she started dating at her local gym. And it's just impossible to believe that anyone with a functioning brain stem would see that snake-thing rise out of the ooze on some heretofore unexplored world and say "Awwww how cute c'mere lemme pet you!" Only Fassbender, with his Mona Lisa smile forever contradicting any notion of android impassivity, suggests the psychological murkiness required of this philosophically ambitious prequel, which strives for much more than Alien's simple nightmare-in-a-can but achieves so, so much less. Still, it's always stunning to look at, and while the dominoes set up to reach that auto-Caesarean setpiece are laughable (I'm still looking for a plausible explanation of why David would dose the gym rat, given that he should have no clue what would happen), it produced the intended OMG OMG OMG so on some level I have to just give it up.

The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin/Andrew Marton/Bernhard Wicki)

One look at the directing credits and you can see why this all-star historical epic -- a Best Picture nominee that year, losing to fellow epic Lawrence of Arabia -- rarely gets mentioned nowadays. But while I was steeled for something stodgy and bloated and incoherent, the film turns out to be almost avant-garde by the standards of its era, to the point where only patriotism could have prevented its wholesale rejection by the public. I can see folks grudgingly coping with all the subtitled French and German dialogue, and even respecting the decision to treat the Nazi command with reasonable dignity; the film emphasizes their tactical intelligence, making it clear that they were caught off guard mostly because a Normandy invasion in that weather seemed suicidal. But only with a subject as momentous as D-Day could even a quasi-Hollywood movie be this relentlessly procedural and uninterested in manufacturing conventional drama. It's truly the story of the operation itself, focusing on individuals only to the extent that doing so clarifies how it went down. John Wayne gives a standard gruff motivational speech early on and then vanishes for long stretches, in part because he's playing an officer whose battalion of paratroopers badly overshot their drop point. Other icons -- Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton -- are treated no more heroically, nor given any more narrative weight, than are obscure actors playing members of the French resistance. Granted, we're still talking here about three pretty generic craftsmen at the helm, so The Longest Day never achieves the heart-stopping highs of similar sequences in Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line -- it's engrossing rather than exhilarating, playing very much like a meticulous adaptation of a nonfiction blow-by-blow. In that sense, it was more or less the United 93 of its day.

The Intouchables (2011, Eric Toledano & Olivier Nakache)

Reviewed for Las Vegas Weekly, where I didn't have enough space to sigh heavily, for example, at the way this pandering mediocrity twice employs the tired routine where you cut from someone insisting that under no circumstances will he [do whatever] directly to a shot of him in fact [doing whatever]. Nor was I able to properly address the question of racism, and in particular answer the reasonable-sounding assertion made by one annoyed French journalist, viz. that The Intouchables commits no ostensible offense or sin that can't also be found in Beverly Hills Cop. I would invite that journalist to take a good look at the scene in this film that has Driss dancing to "Boogie Wonderland," which is problematic not merely because it's a black man demonstrating rhythm to an audience of white stuffed shirts, but because of the way Omar Sy has been photographed: beaming and strutting almost directly to the camera as if desperately seeking its approval. Eddie Murphy did not do that shit.

Whisper of the Heart (1995, Yoshifumi Kondô)

Feels like a movie made not just about a teenage girl but expressly for teenage girls, the cinematic equivalent of young-adult fiction. Without Ghibli's usual otherworldly elements (present here only in fleeting sequences depicting the story Shizuku's writing), there's precious little to interest an adult viewer beyond lovely animation; everything's spelled out in afterschool-special dialogue, and Shizuku's growing pains -- dominated by a peculiarly Japanese anxiety about measuring up to idealized others -- are just too banal to be presented so straightforwardly. (As if to emphasize its commitment to triteness, the film hilariously treats John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" as if it were "Eleanor Rigby" or "Like a Rolling Stone," a holy text to be endlessly decoded and reinterpreted.) Also, while I recognize that it's a bit silly to take the ending seriously, two little kids who barely know each other getting engaged doesn't inspire in me the paroxysms of joy that were clearly intended (which would be less of a problem were the film not so resolutely mundane -- there's no fairytale aspect to this union). Again, though, it's not really my intention to beat up on Whisper of the Heart, which is a perfectly serviceable tween-empowerment tale. I'm just a bit baffled, as I was regarding last year's much-touted Winnie the Pooh flick, that it appeals to anyone for whom puberty is a distant memory. Watercolor splendor aside, it's more Judy (Blume) than Kiki.

Thirteen Days (2000, Roger Donaldson)

Previously addressed in this format upon release, though I mostly just bitch about Costner's accent. Which bothers me less now than do the film's strenuous efforts to "humanize" the crisis, with relative small fry O'Donnell staring wistfully at the-son-who-might-be-nuked-tomorrow at a little league game and so forth. Still largely succeeds at making diplomacy exciting, if sometimes in the manner of an underdog sports movie: Adlai Stevenson is like the rookie 2nd-string quarterback who springs to life just as asst. coach Bobby K.'s about to sideline him. (Steven Culp's performance as the latter remains one of the best out-of-nowhere-and-right-back-again turns in recent memory.) This would never be a theatrical feature today, would it? It'd be developed for TV from the jump. Too talky, too subdued, too old. World saved not by derring-do but by back-channel agreement to mutually cave.

Avanti! (1972, Billy Wilder)

And then sometimes you just fall in love with a movie. Happened to me here during the morgue sequence, which is both surpassingly lovely -- even the coroner's precise routine involving the paperwork somehow transcends its ostensible purpose as comic relief, taking on a melancholy dignity -- and grotesquely acrid, culminating in one of the only lines of dialogue I can think of that provoked an audible gasp from me: "Ask fatass if she wants a ride." (I could write an entire lengthy essay on Pamela's weight and its virtually unprecedented function as a dramatic fulcrum. Though it must be said that Ms. Mills looks totally fine despite reportedly having gained about 25 pounds for the role.) That push-pull between tender and hostile is constant, and astonishingly potent; you expect Lemmon's tetchy Armbruster to gradually soften, and of course he must and does, but his essential nature doesn't magically vanish overnight. Even when the film's almost over, during the extraordinary scene that has Pamela excitedly unpacking her bags in Armbruster's room (while verbally castigating him for being so presumptuous, which that glorious disjunction alone is sharper than most of today's comedies can manage -- not to mention that in your average movie this mixup would be the inciting incident, not a third-act buildup to their first kiss), he's still more self-absorbed dick than born-again romantic, caught in an unacknowledged skirmish with the sort of woman who's constantly criticizing herself by way of beating others to the punch. Emotions are messy here, is my general point, and that's so liberating and provocative in the context of one of Wilder's clockwork mechanisms. It's as if Margaret were in the form of a farce -- there's even a similar exacting emphasis on procedural minutiae. (Can't find much information on the source play or how much Wilder and Diamond revised it, but I'm not surprised it closed after 21 performances, or that this film was perceived as a overlong dud.) Could have lived without the mustachioed maid and a few other sops to the groundlings, but my heart was swollen to bursting practically start to finish. A miracle.

The Red House (1947, Delmer Daves)

First of all, the house isn't red. That may sound like a dumb criticism, given that we're talking about a black-and-white film, but it's indicative of how little thought was expended on this justly forgotten programmer, which pits Edward G. Robinson at his most manic against a gaggle of thoroughly uninteresting teens. You can't relentlessly build something up without having a humdinger of a payoff, and the nature of EGR's guilty secret is so plainly obvious from the outset that his endless admonitions to steer clear of...cue Mr. Rozsa...The Red House inspire not curiosity but impatience; that the house itself, once finally glimpsed, looks utterly nondescript just makes all the hushed references to its redness, with their suggestion of blood and danger, seem like bad carnival hype. What's mildly interesting about the film is the way that its earnest squareness, one-dimensional archetypes and emphasis on the forbidden, once badly warped, yield Blue Velvet -- I have no evidence that Lynch ever saw The Red House, but even if he didn't, he was surely inspired by movies just like it. There's a good girl and a good boy, each of whom has a bad doppelgänger; the good kids engage in a lot of amateur sleuthing, unearthing the small town's buried secrets ("people call you the mysterious Morgans"); the primary adult male becomes increasingly unhinged over the course of the film, threatening our heroes with the unbridled passions of post-adolescence; etc. Minus the warping, however, it's mostly just pseudo-atmospheric drivel.

Identification of a Woman (1982, Michelangelo Antonioni)

As is often the case with Antonioni (and other somewhat obscurantist auteurs), any objection I might file can easily be argued by fans to be a feature, not a bug. Indeed, even as I was enjoying the first half, I had to keep reminding myself that there was little chance of various intriguing narrative elements "paying off" in any conventional way. And sure enough, after the virtuoso midfilm fogbound sequence, Antonioni abruptly bisects the movie, introducing an entirely new female lead, at which point I belatedly realized his enormous influence on Hong Sang-soo. But Hong's structuralism is so much more playful, and Antonioni seems stubbornly disinclined to draw overt parallels between the two halves; Niccolò just gets increasingly morose after Mavi disappears, and his relationship with Ida doesn't remotely fill the void. Which, again, sure, you could justifiably cite as The Whole Damn Point, but that doesn't make the second hour's surface any more engaging. Much more so than even in L'avventura, it feels as if we're being punished for getting involved in a story that Antonioni wasn't really interested in telling -- not so much because of the bait-and-switch itself (again, Hong does this sort of thing all the time), but because of the way the movie gradually devolves into a series of half-hearted shoulder shrugs. Maybe it's just that resignation is such a tricky subject to dramatize. Tomás Milián remains admirably opaque throughout, giving what was clearly the precise performance Antonioni wanted; his stoic non-reaction in the final scene with Ida is the entire film in miniature. Only trouble is that I had the exact same expression on my own face.

Farewell My Concubine (1993, Chen Kaige)

Never was a huge fan of all those '90s Chinese melodramas in which characters essentially get bitch-slapped by decades of tumultuous history. And there's certainly plenty of convenient convergence here, along the lines of "Oh look, invading Japanese soldiers are interrupting the most emotionally devastating moment of our lives to date. The personal just got political!" These three actors are too strong to be swamped by signifiers, however, which keeps the film from coming (entirely) across like Pearl Harbor with a new national disaster every other reel. Chen has never had Zhang's superb eye -- or at least he didn't through Emperor and the Assassin, which is the last time I checked in -- but he does (or did) know how to handle messy emotional confrontations; once Gong Li shows up and starts getting all Sino-Yoko, the offstage material becomes suitably operatic, with Zhang Fengyi in particular hitting one sustained high note after another. This time I watched the complete three-hour pre-Harvey version, which I'd assumed would fill in some confusing gaps but in fact did not: There's still no apparent fallout, for example, when Juxian promises Douzi that she'll disappear if Douzi performs for the Japanese (in an effort to get Shitou released), then ignores her promise and remains omnipresent. And as much as I oppose Scissorhandsing on principle, this film really is way too long, especially when it comes to the childhood prologue and its strenuous efforts to "establish" stuff that we could easily have inferred from subsequent events. All in all, however, I would now vote for Concubine if I could go back in time and serve as the tiebreaker on the 1993 Cannes jury. After I smacked everyone else in the head with the copy of the Criterion Naked Blu-ray I smuggled from the future.