Films Seen November 2011

Here's my standard top-of-the-month reminder that if you read these entries on a regular basis, find them in any way valuable, want to ensure that I don't get discouraged and give up, you should throw me a few bucks (link's at the top of the main page) -- whatever you think a month's worth of near-daily capsules is worth to you. The amount is unimportant. (I suggested as little as $2; $5-10 is more common.) Just let me know you give a damn.

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/The Conversation/ (1974, Francis Ford Coppola): 81

Massive letdown, despite the high rating. (I'd anticipated 99 or 100, as I once included this on a list of my 20 favorite films of all time.) Structurally it's still magnificent, with the opening surveillance sequence functioning like an overture whose multiple themes subsequently recur in varying combinations -- I don't think more than a few minutes ever elapse without our hearing snippets of it, often as aural wallpaper. Furthermore, Hackman is still great, the post-convention workshop party remains a tour de force (there's a cut from a wide shot of Harry and the woman wandering that cavernous empty back room to an equally wide shot of Harry alone that took my breath away), and the ending, while perhaps a bit pat in its irony, nonetheless shredded my soul yet again. But I found myself cringing repeatedly this time at how bluntly Coppola presents Harry's paranoia, and newly aware of how little there is to the man apart from being paranoid. Teri Garr's arm's-length girlfriend exists only to provide clumsy exposition, improbably dumping Harry the instant her function has been exhausted; John Cazale defects to the competition the same day, suddenly pissed off that he hasn't been trusted with sensitive information about the jobs they do. That these crises happen concurrently with Harry's fear for the safety of the couple he bugged, even though both relationships are clearly long-term and Harry's obviously been sealed off since the womb, makes the film feel thin and does the backstory about the job Harry regrets, which actually finds him muttering "I can't let it happen again" even as he's being boned. And I apparently repressed all memory of the Fogtown dream sequence, which is just plain embarrassing. All in all, it feels like a slightly bloated adaptation of a perfect short story, masterful but straining too hard for weight. I still like it way better than The Godfather, Part II, though.

J. Edgar (2011, Clint Eastwood): 41

Stunningly rudderless even by biopic standards -- but that's perhaps to be expected, given that we're talking about arguably the most fiercely guarded private life of any public figure. Dustin Lance Black's connect-the-dots screenplay for Milk was no great shakes, but at least he had a bunch of dots to connect; nobody really knows what Hoover got up to in private, so Black and Eastwood are forced to engage in timid speculation, none of which feels remotely plausible. Clyde Tolson, in particular, is portrayed by Armie Hammer as little more than a warm smile for most of the movie, so that the scene where he finally plants one on Hoover (and gets rebuffed in a way that suggests it had never happened before) only makes you wonder what exactly we're meant to believe. Were both men happily celibate throughout most of their lives, sublimating their feelings for each other into companionship? If so, why not explore such an unusual dynamic? Instead, J. Edgar struggles to find superficial parallels between Hoover's personal anguish and his professional ambition, hoping we won't notice that the former tends to vanish entirely during obligatory stretches devoted to e.g. the Lindbergh kidnapping. (Not that I'm complaining, as those stretches tend to be the film's most compelling. I'd have preferred a procedural about the birth of the F.B.I., with Hoover just one player of many.) DiCaprio doesn't embarrass himself but never disappears into the role, and must battle (alongside Hammer and Watts) some of the shoddiest old-age makeup I've seen in years; Eastwood, as usual, seems committed to a purely functional visual translation of the script, as well as the notion that dimming the lights will make any shot more dramatic. More dull than risible, though the sole allusion to (largely discredited) cross-dressing rumors, with its Freudian literalization of the "mama's boy," inspired a mighty eyeroll.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925, Rupert Julian): 59

Believe it or not, my first encounter with this chestnut in any form, unless you count the funereal opening notes of Andrew Lloyd Webber's score (which I confess to humming at a couple of key moments -- it's really perfect). Not a whole lot to the story, is there? I had a general sense of what to expect, via pop-culture osmosis, but I thought the actual movie would flesh it out a bit, involve some serious demon-wrestling. Chaney's makeup still has the power to repulse, but he doesn't exactly give what you'd call a performance; any sense of tortured longing derives from the intertitles, making it easy to be distracted by the film's stupendous set design. (Reconstruct the catacombs, put in some slow-moving fake gondolas, and you'd have a fantastic Disneyland attraction combining the best elements of the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.) And when we're above ground, it's like sitting through the romance scenes in the Marx Brothers pictures. Still, great spectacle can be its own reward, and bits and pieces throughout pack an atavistic punch; when Erik wades into the lagoon to hunt Philippe, it's easy to think of him as monstrous in a sense entirely separate from "deformed." (And maybe I'm wrong about Chaney not giving a performance, despite the makeup and the mask -- he definitely conveys something in his carriage.) Leroux's original ending has been radically altered, judging from the Wiki-synopsis, but I gotta say I kinda dig Erik's sad little fakeout just before the mob devours him. He gets the last laugh, somehow.

(For films seen the week of 21-27 November, go here.)

The Debt (2010, John Madden): 60

Fails almost completely as the sober examination of moral reckoning intended, but works surprisingly well as a straightforward espionage potboiler, to the point where I kinda got sucked into it against my will. (Every awards screener sent to me gets at least 10 courtesy minutes, no matter how hopeless its cause appears to be.) Madden still isn't much of a stylist (hadn't seen anything since Shakespeare in Love), but he stages the lengthy flashback's various setpieces with an effective nuts-and-bolts simplicity that feels pleasingly retro; the sequence at the disused train station, classically composed and edited for maximum tension, likely put me in the wrong frame of mind for Scorsese's CGI-vertiginous Hugo, which I happened to see the next day. And while it may well derive from the original Israeli version, the big plot twist's reveal, via what appears at first to be formal ineptitude, is inspired -- first time I've tumbled to something by thinking "This is so excruciatingly pointless there has to be a reason f...OHHHHHH." Chastain admittedly seems a little wispy for a badass covert op (not to mention the young Helen Mirren), but nonetheless finally earns the hype in my eyes with an entirely reactive performance that somehow conveys enormous strength and determination primarily through fear and anxiety; her duets with Jesper Christensen as Mengele manqué, both before and after the abduction, are miniature epics of power conceded and seized. By the time the movie shifted back to the late '90s and went all self-righteous and soggy, it was much too late for me to bail.

Like Crazy (2011, Drake Doremus): 43

Or Sundance Jury on Crack. Vaguely fragmented style aims for lyricism, but its true function, I suspect, is to ensure that Doremus can just skip past all the dramatic scenes that would expose his Idiot Plot (which by some reports is based on personal experience...but if that's true, and things went down as depicted here, he and his girlfriend were truly blithering idiots). I for one am dying to eavesdrop on the phone call Anna must have made to her parents to tell them she wasn't coming home after all, even though her mum had just got all in her face (telephonically speaking) the previous day reminding her what a disaster it would be if she overstayed her student visa. Instead, we get a cute rapid-fire still-frame montage of all the various positions and combinations of nightwear involved in the couple sharing the same bed for the summer, which montage also conveniently substitutes for the sexual chemistry we literally never see the tiniest inkling of. Then there's the conversation, also conveniently hopscotched, in which they announce to their respective families (Jacob still has a mom somewhere, right?) that they're now getting married, despite having had only sporadic contact for several years and being fresh out of respective serious relationships with other people, on the grounds that this will supposedly clear up the visa problem (but not until six months later), which means we never find out whether their stupidity is congenital or whether they were told in no uncertain terms that that's a retarded idea but went ahead with it anyway. Sadly, Doremus neglected to omit the scene in which Anna's new beau presents her with the deeply romantic gift of...a new chair, to hey just coincidentally replace the handmade chair Jacob made for her at college (a gesture that actually made sense). And he forgot not to cross-cut Jacob boning someone else with Anna boning someone else -- a juxtaposition made even more head-slappingly obvious when the PATIENCE bracelet Jacob had given Anna somehow breaks (from the sheer force of New Guy's thrustin', I guess). Like (500) Days of Summer, Like Crazy strives to be harshly realistic about romance's capacity for disappointment and self-delusion, but it's even less tethered to anything remotely resembling actual human behavior, so its good intentions are entirely for naught. Felicity Jones makes a fetching Zooey U.K., though.

/The Big Lebowski/ (1998, Joel Coen): 64

All the best moments are in the first hour. Everyone will have their exceptions (and I'll concede the "Just Dropped In" dream sequence), but I've seen this four times now and it always seems like one of the greatest comedies ever made until suddenly it doesn't anymore, right about the time the Dude's car gets stolen. Originally I thought that was because the narrative deliberately goes limp, but now that I have a sense, courtesy The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty, of what weak-ass Coen Bros. comedy looks like, I can see a lot of it in Lebowski's weirdly bloated second half, which just plain runs out of creative steam. Granted, this is highly subjective -- I've seen people roar at the whole "this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!" routine, which to me plays like a rejected scene from an Adam Sandler movie, and there are probably folks who are tickled by the nihilists and their sketch-comedy accents. But I start out convulsed and wind up at best mildly amused...and then completely flummoxed by Donnie's death, which just seems like a random curveball thrown out of sheer desperation. Might not seem like such a huge stumble were that first hour not a sustained cavalcade of laid-back madcap genius; some of the best bits aren't even jokes per se, just hilarious insights into the way people's minds work. (I'm thinking in particular of the way the Dude parrots whatever he's heard recently, regardless of whether it makes much sense in context: "This aggression will not stand, man"; "A young trophy wife, in the parlance of our times..."; "You mean coitus?") And if the Skandies has no other justification for its existence, we were in fact the only voting body in the world who correctly recognized Jeff Bridges as 1998's Best Actor -- not since Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye has anyone been so dazzlingly befuddled.

/The Fisher King/ (1991, Terry Gilliam): 54

Starts out very DIE ROBIN WILLIAMS DIE!, equating severe mental illness with improvisational stand-up -- even if he's performing the script verbatim, which I doubt, it just comes across as his usual shtick -- and enabling Williams' most grotesque pleas for audience sympathy. (I'd also repressed for 20 years the memory of his squat hairy body prancing naked in Central Park.) Nor is Bridges, playing a shock jock, really able to compensate in the other direction, as Bruce Willis did so beautifully opposite Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys. And of course Gilliam is the very last person who's gonna be temperamentally inclined to tug the leash. Just when the movie threatens to become completely insufferable, though, Amanda Plummer shows up and somehow imposes her own controlled spaciness onto everybody else, even managing to calm Williams way down. The film's midsection is an improbably charming portrait of two spastics in love, so unfussy and sincere that those qualities bleed into the previously nondescript relationship between Jack and Anne, whose break-up scene is the most emotionally truthful few minutes of Gilliam's career. (Ruehl didn't deserve to beat Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear, but she's much more direct and less showbiz-brassy than I'd remembered. So demoralizing to check her filmography and realize her career effectively ended just two years later.) It doesn't last, and the whole third act -- Perry's catatonia, Jack's backslide into tooldom, the Grail break-in -- fizzles, mostly because Plummer and Ruehl are both absent until the final few minutes. But just as the lovely waltz sequence temporarily makes Grand Central seem magical, so too does everything surrounding Perry and Lydia's date transform The Fisher King, however briefly.

Carnage (2011, Roman Polanski): 39

In which we discover why Albee didn't make both couples George and Martha. As smartly directed and capably acted as you'd expect, but the play itself is just wretched -- the sort of gleefully scabrous chamber piece that delights in exposing its characters as ugly, self-absorbed assholes hiding beneath a thin veneer of civilized behavior. This sort of ping-pong hostility represents everything I dislike about contemporary theater; Reza makes it worse by calling attention to the situation's artificiality, repeatedly sending the visiting couple out the door and then engineering some unpersuasive reason why they'd turn around for further abuse. (I honestly couldn't tell whether this was meant as a postmodern wink to the audience or a sincere attempt at narrative plausibility. Either way, it failed.) Everything about Carnage felt surpassingly phony to me, in a way designed to flatter one's self-image rather than inspire productive discomfort -- only a person with antisocial personality disorder would identify with these cartoon versions of flawed humanity (assuming that said person experienced an unprecedented spasm of empathy). Waltz has the juiciest role, by virtue of starting out pretty close to the openly contemptuous zone where all four end up, but it's Winslet who comes closest to escaping Reza's moralistic straitjacket, working with Polanski (who keeps minimizing her in the frame) to create one tiny pocket of soiled dignity. The film's finest moment has her quietly retching into a bucket on the far end of the couch as the others snipe back and forth in the foreground; I was right there with her in spirit.

Benda Bilili! (2010, Renaud Barret & Florent de la Tullaye): W/O

There might be a documentary about disabled street musicians I could get behind, but it'd be a lot less blatantly celebratory and up-with-people than this one, which actually opens with the filmmakers declaring love at first sight for the musicians and deciding to fund their first recording session. Got briefly interested when the kid who plays that single-string tin-can lute-thing joined the group, as he seemed almost maniacally creative, but then suddenly a fire broke out and the group disbanded and the kid went back home to another village and "one year later we tried again" and this is the inherent danger of just following folks around with a camera hoping a film will magically come together. Sometimes they do, but more often you wind up with a random hodgepodge of disconnected anecdotes. In this case I'm pretty sure I'd be happier with the album that resulted.

One-Eyed Jacks (1961, Marlon Brando): 69

Title alludes to two-faced deceit, and there really are an exceptional number of casual lies tossed around in this cold-hearted Western, which shows unmistakable signs of having been gutted (although Brando must have approved the happy ending on some level, given that he's standing there speaking the lines). I can't really imagine it at five hours, given its elemental nature, but Brando was clearly striving for a tragic purposelessness from which the release version ultimately retreats -- it's the same sort of tonal whiplash you get at the conclusion of L.A. Confidential (the movie), when the abrupt restoration of order seems contrary to everything that's previously occurred. Otherwise quite pungent, with enough signs of a controlling intelligence to make you wish that he'd directed more than one film; if he errs on the side of making Rio as taciturnly badass as possible whenever directly confronted, in an almost proto-Clint way, he also declines to make excuses for the dude's craven backstabbing, which turns almost literal (wrong weapon) at the film's deliberately sorry excuse for a climactic showdown. At the same time, though, One-Eyed Jacks frequently does deliver on a basic popcorn level, generating old-fashioned suspense from an attempt to reach a gun from a prison cell (only to find it unloaded) and providing Timothy Carey as a loudmouthed bully for Rio to beat the crap out of when the pace starts to flag. It's a film half-beholden to the traditional Westerns of the '40s and '50s that also half-anticipates the more nihilistic approach that would soon be embraced by Leone and Peckinpah -- emphasis on the latter, obviously, since he was one of this film's original directors (along with Kubrick) and some claim that many of his contributions to the script survive. A compromised triumph, paving the way.

Higher Ground (2011, Vera Farmiga): W/O

Now and then someone will suggest that I bailed on a film too early, insisting that it gets more interesting later. But while that may well be true -- and almost certainly is true in this case, seeing as how the protagonist hadn't even begun questioning her faith yet -- it doesn't much matter, because I'm not really sitting there waiting for something to "happen." A talented filmmaker will grab and hold my attention almost immediately, whereas long experience has taught me that if the first two reels are utterly pedestrian, there's virtually no hope. And I saw no evidence that Farmiga, whose work as an actor I generally love, possesses a shred of camera sense, rhythmic intuition or even basic storytelling brio. Nobody's thought this material through in cinematic terms, and so it comes across as a series of Illustrative Moments -- each scene a little self-contained step on a mapped-out journey, serving its function and then giving way to the next dramatic bullet point. Not that I needed it to be The Rapture, but there's only so much flatline I can take.

/The Loneliest Planet/ (2011, Julia Loktev): 84

Previously addressed at Toronto. Feared I might find the first half a little get-to-the-Incident enervating this time, but Loktev has an uncanny knack -- also on display in Day Night Day Night -- for making the eventless eventful, mostly via attention to arresting details that are unusual without being "quirky." (I was about to note that the "chimpanzee" headstand arguably crosses that line, but then suddenly suspected that that's an actual alternative to e.g. "Mississippi" somewhere or other, and sure enough. Headstand itself's still a bit cute, though.) And I remain in awe of the high-wire act that constitutes the aftermath, in which any and all discussion of what happened gets postponed until after the credits roll -- a stunt that only works because of how much goofy downtime we'd spent with this couple before the split-second D'oh! People are reading way too much into Nica needing to hurl near the end (and not enough into her willingness to let Alex tend to her as she does), but I'm happy Loktev opted to err on the side of being misinterpreted as either stridently feminist or anti-feminist (according to personal conviction) rather than signpost a resolution that's essentially unknowable, and may be for weeks or months to come.

/It's a Wonderful Life/ (1946, Frank Capra): 93

"Way darker than its holiday-classic rep" has become a truism since I was a kid, but this viewing (first in 14 years) made me long for the relative cheer and optimism of The Turin Horse. Just days later, the beaming smiles and wing-heralding bells of the finale have already faded, whereas I can't stop thinking of George stalking his house like a caged panther, viciously snapping at innocuous questions from his kids and generally behaving like patriarchy gone rancid. Truth is, for all his principles, George can often be something of a dick even before things go wrong: his reaction when Mary loses her robe is awesomely ungallant, and their subsequent love scene (on the phone with Sam) works primarily because he treats her house as if it were a dentist's waiting room, seemingly disgusted by his own ardor. (Capra beat both Mann and Hitchcock in recognizing the potential for seething anger beneath Stewart's folksy persona.) When the happy ending comes, it's moving in direct proportion to the depths of despondency the film has previously tunneled, and George's realization of how beloved he is by the community can't somehow magically erase a lifetime's worth of regret about all the dreams he abandoned to earn that gratitude. (This is one of those films where it can be provocative to imagine what happens the day after it ends.) Nearly perfect, all in all, though needless to say I'd much rather live in Pottersville than Bedford Falls (va-va-voom!) and don't recoil in horror as intended when it's revealed that without George in her life poor Mary would have wound up as -- egad -- a SPINSTER LIBRARIAN! Tap that.

/Dazed and Confused/ (1993, Richard Linklater): 78

Can't honestly say I lived this movie, as I was only eight years old in '76 and attended an all-male Jesuit high school, but it wields a powerful nostalgic grip all the same. (And let me note again that 1993 - 1976 = 17, while 2011 - 1993 = 18. Would a high-school movie set in 1994 feel even remotely as retro? Has time essentially stopped?) As a sign of how much my taste has evolved over the past couple decades, I was originally slightly put off by the film's apparent aimlessness, whereas now I'm primarily irked by its sole concession to narrative structure, viz. Pink's internal debate about whether to sign the football team's just-say-no pledge. Nickname notwithstanding, Pink is easily the least colorful of Linklater's gaggle of vividly drawn types, embodied by what really has to be the greatest young ensemble cast ever assembled; people justifiably marvel at how many future stars he discovered, but I'm equally gobsmacked by the performances he got from kids who were pretty much never seen again, like Christin Hinojosa as Sabrina (shy new hazing recruit who hooks up with Dude From Rent) and the amazing Sasha Jenson, who absolutely murders blonde jock Don Dawson's cheerful sense of entitlement (without making him repellent, somehow). This is a world that feels fully inhabited, as if the entire day had been staged in real time and the camera is just capturing bits and pieces of it at random. There's still a slight sense of weightlessness to it all -- nobody experiences anything remotely like an epiphany, and next year will likely be much the same -- but I'm thankful that Linklater didn't go the American Graffiti route and make some last-ditch bid for Significance by relating the characters' ultimate fates. The final slow fade to black, on the open road as seen through the windshield of Wooderson's car, conveys the same idea far more eloquently.

/Harakiri/ (1962, Masaki Kobayashi): 83

Wish I'd revisited this right before seeing Miike's 3-D remake, so I'd have a better sense of how Kobayashi prevents the woe-is-me flashback from bogging down the entire movie. That's still the weakest element by far, but I think its potential bathos gets forestalled by (a) starker, more elemental direction in the flashback scenes themselves, but even more crucially (b) constant leaps back to Nakadai telling the story in his creepy dead-eyed affectless manner. (If memory serves, Miike lets the entire flashback play out in a single tedious movement.) Everything else is heart-stopping in its meticulous, procedural way, from the excruciating account of Motome's bamboo-blade travesty to the windswept faceoff between merciless avenger and remorseless enforcer. And while Miike's finale merely reprises Nakadai's crazed recklessness in The Sword of Doom, Kobayashi's is notable for how contained and cautious it is -- this may be the only remotely credible depiction of a single swordsman doing battle with a small army, a skirmish that lasts as long as it does only because no member of the small army is especially eager to be the dude who gets sliced up so the others can move in behind him. Institutional effacement plays much more bleak and cynical in the original, too -- indeed, the entire movie hinges on perverse decorum (on both sides), which is what makes its ugliness so uniquely unnerving. But then, we're talking about a culture that chose to ritualize one of the most painful suicide methods imaginable, treating self-inflicted disembowelment as if it were a trip to the notary public. In that sense, the American title -- Harakiri (better known in the West, but more vulgar) rather than Seppuku -- couldn't be less appropriate.

Haywire (2011, Steven Soderbergh): 71

Fuse this stoic piledriver with Schizopolis and you'd have an outright masterpiece (and guaranteed box-office flop, but oh well): Bravura running/driving/asskicking sequences occasionally leavened by the espionage equivalent of "Generic greeting returned!" and "Imminent sustenance" rather than actual tedious expository plot bullshit. There's enough of the latter clogging Haywire's first act that I briefly thought it had lost me, but once Fassbender shows up for one of the all-time great beatdowns -- normally it takes an entire wasted '70s rock band to inflict that much damage on a hotel room -- the movie settles into a blissfully workmanlike groove, serving up one old-school, unspectacular setpiece after another. (That last adjective is a compliment.) Carano isn't necessarily much of an actor, but even her slight stiffness has a certain appeal in this context, and the role doesn't demand anything she can't credibly deliver; I'm also susceptible to how much her nose-crinkle makes her resemble the young Ellen Barkin on the rare occasions when she smiles. Mostly, though, she's just a superbly conditioned body in constant motion, anchoring a film that feels like a throwback without going the Good German pastiche route (though I still think that one's underrated). Hard to imagine Dobbs having much to bitch about on the commentary track this time, though it's possible that Soderbergh imposed the flashback structure on him -- apart from the opportunity it affords for a nicely disorienting opening scene, not much is gained by having the entire first half take the form of an unlikely story-so-far monologue (told to a civilian, no less). David Holmes, on the other hand, will once again have good reason to bellyache when his superlative, Schifrinesque score gets totally ignored come awards season. If only the music had drowned out some of the more cumbersome dialogue. Don't expend that much effort on the MacGuffin, people. We really don't care.

/A Separation/ (2011, Asghar Farhadi): 95

Previously addressed here, though I now repudiate my assessment of its visual scheme as "purely functional" -- Farhadi has an elegant, fluid sense of how to organize chaotic human behavior for maximum expressiveness, one that extends well beyond his rather obvious (but still effective) strategy of placing physical barriers (usually glass) between characters in nearly every shot. (I think it seemed less impressive to me than About Elly the first time simply because this one takes place in the city, mostly indoors; it's hard to beat the seaside for ready-made grandeur.) Second viewing turned it into a slow-motion disaster movie, as I was even more cruelly aware of various points at which the entire mess could have been happily or at least tentatively resolved, if only various people were capable of looking past the blinders of their wounded pride or crippling fear. "I find that your problem is a small one," rules the judge in the opening scene, unwittingly opening the floodgates for an escalating series of ostensibly larger problems to muddy and distract; only Termeh, the teenage daughter, seems capable of cutting through all the self-involved bullshit and seeing what's really at stake, though even she winds up compromised when forced to join the adult world prematurely. Simply one of the most heartbreaking movies I've ever seen.

/Martha Marcy May Marlene/ (2011, Sean Durkin): 82

Previously addressed at Cannes. Quite the backlash has since kicked in, but detractors have some confused ideas about what the film is trying (or should be trying) to do, somehow writing lengthy reviews that never mention post-traumatic stress disorder or deprogramming. Durkin doesn't employ match cuts and deliberately ambiguous visual syntax in order to draw some fatuous false equivalence between bourgeois society and a dangerous cult -- he's giving us the deeply disoriented psyche of someone for whom the recent past is still bleeding into the present. It's a psychological horror film in which the horror stems less from the subjugation, rape and murder seen in flashback than from the present-tense sight of a young woman permanently losing her mooring because she can't bring herself to ask for help. (How people can see the sister and her husband as villains, or even as unsympathetic, is beyond my comprehension. Such is the kneejerk assumption that wealthy = hideous, apparently. Makes for a nice subversion of expectations, but you're not supposed to cling to it until the bitter end, especially when the bitter end strongly implies that the refusal to answer the question "What happened to you?" may get M's only family killed.) Marlene isn't some throwaway identity added to make the title scan better: Olsen is playing neither Martha nor Marcy May at the lakehouse, and if her brilliant performance registers as "opaque" it's because we never actually meet the person trapped underneath all those abortive disguises (with the possible exception of the few seconds right before she gets rechristened by Patrick, but even there I sense that Zoe's primed the pump already). So, no, the movie isn't particularly deep or plausible or character-driven, but then neither is, say, Repulsion. That Durkin creates a similar sense of nightmarish anxiety in a naturalistic context is little short of miraculous.

/Casablanca/ (1942, Michael Curtiz): 80

Reduced to its essence, Casablanca has three crucial scenes: Ilsa's arrival at Rick's, her plea for the letters of transit and subsequent surrender, and the runway finale. Two are among the greatest and most iconic examples of concentrated star power in cinema history; this is the first time I've noticed that the third doesn't really work at all. Her sudden decision to abandon Laszlo seems motivated less by passion for Rick (the happy-in-Paris flashback montage is only missing him pushing her on a swing) than by her marriage to a man so tediously noble that he can't dredge up the tiniest twinge of jealousy or concern about the nature of his wife's apparently tempestuous history with this stumpy saloon owner. Consequently, I actually found the Rick/Ilsa story less moving this time around than I did Rick trying to warn the Bulgarian newlywed away from Renault and then fixing the roulette wheel to save her. Viewed with a critical eye, the film skews a little too baldly manipulative, tossing aside logic to create false suspense (there's no sensible reason for Rick to wait until he's apparently sold Laszlo out to pull the gun on Renault, except to fool us) and leaning hard on catchphrases ("I stick my neck out for nobody" twice; "Here's looking at you, kid" three times). And yet it's still mostly magnificent, with so many great lines that even the ones nobody ever quotes kick like a mule: "I wouldn't bring up Paris if I were you, it's poor salesmanship"; "You despise me, don't you?" --> "If I gave you any thought I probably would"; "And remember, this gun is pointed straight at your heart" --> "That is my least vulnerable spot." If not quite the accidental masterpiece of enduring myth, it's certainly the most rousingly entertaining pseudo-political romantic potboiler of its era.

Green (2011, Sophia Takal): W/O

On the one hand, it's inspiring to see this loose collective of DIY filmmakers who all support each other and seem completely uninterested in building any sort of traditional "career"; on the other hand, so far I don't like any of the actual films, so maybe hey-let's-put-on-a-show! has its limitations. One problem is they either all think they can act or are all convinced that traditional notions of acting are a crutch (I'm not sure which -- could be both, actually), so there's a lot of artless awkwardness on display, as if nobody understands that what Greta Gerwig does isn't elementary. Here, Takal seems to be attempting Shelley Duvall in 3 Women, and while she doesn't embarrass herself (which is an achievement of some sort), neither does she locate a character within the affectation, at least in the portion I saw. And the other two actors, one of whom is (needless to say) a filmmaker himself, are so thin and reedy -- by which I mean their dynamic range as performers, not (just) their appearance -- as to make virtually no impression. These kids work fast, and no doubt they're learning a lot, and I expect we'll see some terrific work from them down the road...unless being celebrated for their juvenilia permanently stunts their growth. Calm down, tastemakers.