Films Seen September 2011

Okay, let's try this again. Top of the month. 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, 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.) Knowing that a fair number of folks care whether or not I'm doing this, however, is crucial. I'm too old now and insufficiently hungry for attention to toss words out into a void.

ARCHIVE: Jun | Jul | Aug

Margaret (2011, Kenneth Lonergan): 80

So sad that this became such a post-production nightmare -- not just because we probably lost the three-hour masterpiece Lonergan intended, but because now people are having trouble distinguishing (or are just not bothering to distinguish) the ways in which the film is kind of a mess from the ways in which it deliberately employs messiness as a worldview. Practically every scene has half a dozen things happening at once, some of them irrelevant; entire conversations exist solely to demonstrate the difficulty of navigating competing agendas. At the center of it all is one of the least romantic or sentimental portraits of adolescence ever filmed, embodied by Paquin in a courageously off-putting performance that never once flinches from Lisa's misdirected self-absorption. Some folks have complained about the various shouting matches (between Lisa and her mom, during classroom discussions), but one of the things Lonergan so expertly depicts here is people not listening, too focused on their own narrow perspective to pay attention to anything else (which is of course what causes the accident in the first place). He's made great strides as a filmmaker, too -- nothing theatrical about the dazzling cut from Joan having her entire life summarily dismissed by a pissy Lisa to Joan having to hold her opening line until the audience stops applauding her entrance (and then a brisk cut elsewhere before she speaks). I could go on forever citing things I adored: Janney snapping at the bystanders struggling to apply a tourniquet to her severed leg ("Are they doctors? Then get them the fuck away from me!"); an awkward ritual deflowering straight out of Breillat ("You sound insane"); then-unknown Rosemarie DeWitt's epic struggle between suspicion and solicitousness; Lisa firing off a blunt exit line and then having the moment killed when not one but two deadbolts prevent her from swiftly exiting; etc. etc. etc. Only in the last 20 minutes or so does the movie really kind of lose its way -- partly because of the scenes involving Matt Damon, whose character never really works as intended (he seems weirdly lost); partly because Lonergan does what I was praying he wouldn't do and actually has Lisa state aloud her true reason for persecuting the bus driver, which was already abundantly clear to any viewer with an ounce of perception and is the kind of Grand Underlying Behavioral Dysfunction that needs to remain unspoken, lest it seem too tidy. Also, the final scene, though apropos, didn't quite wallop me -- I wanted to be crying with them, and wasn't. But maybe next time. What worries me about Margaret's troubled path is whether or not there'll be a next time for Lonergan. He's too brilliant to lose.

/Planes, Trains & Automobiles/ (1987, John Hughes): 66

Think I might devote a Scenic Routes column to the hotel-room tirade, which is truly extraordinary -- not just because it takes Del's pain seriously, but because it allows Neal's outburst to be viciously funny at the same time, so that you're identifying with both men simultaneously. "Not everything is an anecdote," I've longed to tell certain people over the last 24 years. "You have to discriminate." But then I imagine their faces falling and falling and falling like John Candy's (what a loss that was -- he was only 43), and I keep my mouth shut. Nothing that follows is anywhere near as potent, but the residue of that confrontation informs their dynamic throughout, making them more than just a generic odd couple and giving subsequent squabbles a little extra edge. Actual comedy tends to be hit-and-miss for me, with a bit too much emphasis on plot mechanics (i.e., giving them a new setback every 5-10 minutes); Midnight Run found a stronger balance between story and character the following year. I would have preferred more stuff like Del grooving to "Mess Around," less stuff like that leading to him accidentally setting the car on fire. (Though even there you get Candy + McKean. "You got no outside mirror." "No, we lost that." "You have no functioning gauges." "No, not a one.") But I'd kill for a contemporary studio comedy with two characters whose mere company I so much enjoy.

Circumstance (2011, Maryam Keshavarz): 46

Still catching up with Toronto capsules, so I'm just gonna give you the Las Vegas Weekly review again and leave it at that. But this really is identical to the glut of mediocre gay-struggle movies that opened at the Quad every week throughout the '90s (and beyond), except in Farsi.

/Dressed to Kill/ (1980, Brian De Palma): 58

It all boils down to one question, really: Do you find De Palma's purely visual setpieces so intensely thrilling that nothing else much matters? Philistine that I am, I still can't get past the idiocies that surface every time this movie stops to attend to its moronic plot; there's something almost literal about the way the magnificent museum sequence -- an unsettling, supercharged minuet of erotic possibility -- leads to the words YOU HAVE CONTRACTED A VENEREAL DISEASE! That's just how most De Palma films make me feel: seduced by a leper. For every moment like the one in which Caine, asked by Dickinson why he doesn't go ahead and sleep with her if that's what he wants, glances up at the mirror on the wall opposite, motivating a cut to its reflection (hardly subtle, but powerful nonetheless), there's a small eternity of e.g. Dennis Franz's brusque Noo Yawk cop routine, or a pathetic attempt to make Nancy Allen's hooker "well-rounded" by showing her on the phone with her stockbroker. And that's not even touching the stuff that riled up special-interest groups at the time, though I'm more troubled by the film's moralism (libido = death) than by the nature of its psycho killer. Final ten minutes seal the deal for skeptics, confirming that De Palma has zero interest in anything except goosing the audience by whatever means necessary. Which if that's your plan you might want to avoid deliberately and repeatedly inviting comparison to a masterpiece like Psycho that's as interested in people as it is in elegant camerawork and shock effects.

Warrior (2011, Gavin O'Connor): 46

Every time I thought this would-be emotional juggernaut had achieved maximum hokiness, it somehow managed to get even hokier. Odds are I could have rolled with Fighter Who Despises His Formerly Alcoholic Father Nonetheless Needs To Train With Him, But Strictly Business Pop No Mushy Stuff, or Retired Fighter Can't Afford His Mortgage On Salary As High-School Physics Teacher, Decides To Return To The Ring Even Though He Promised His Wife He Was Finished With All That And Will Now Have To Listen To Her Whine Until She Inevitably Turns Into Adrian In Rocky II, or Out-of-Nowhere Mixed Martial Arts Sensation Turns Out To Be AWOL War Hero Who Pledges Entire $5 Million Purse To Widow Of Fallen Comrade Should He Win, But He's Headed To Jail Now Regardless, or Get This The Two Dudes Who Have Made It To The Finals Of This Elimination Tournament Against All Odds By Defeating The Most Brutal Competition Imaginable Just Happen To Be Brothers, One Of Whom Holds A Sizable Grudge Against The Other And Refuses To Reconcile Outside The Cage. Any of those potential male weepies, pick one. But not all of them freakin' combined. O'Connor hedges his bets by splitting the movie in two, depicting Joel Edgerton's half more or less naturalistically and Tom Hardy's half as pure myth -- an approach that sounds reasonable enough on paper but mostly clanks on screen. (It's like two hours of cross-cutting between Jimmy Stewart in Bend of the River and Eastwood's Man With No Name.) Judging from reviews, the film's many fans recognize how shameless and manipulative it all is and just don't care. It got to them, which I can respect and appreciate. For whatever reason, though, I resisted.

Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller): 65

Fascinating even to an avowed hater of the national pastime like myself -- they should chuck the games entirely and just televise managers' strategy sessions, if you ask me. We'll always wonder what Soderbergh's version would have looked like, but there's something to be said for this approach, which basically follows the underdog-sports template but focuses almost exclusively on what's happening off the field, thereby fulfilling the desires of romantics and wonks at the same time. Helps that Zaillian and/or Sorkin (more likely the latter) keep things so zingy -- you could splice the Ricardo Rincón trade into His Girl Friday, just about -- and that Jonah Hill was somehow persuaded to dial it way back and steal scene after scene with his befuddled, deer-in-the-headlights stillness. Never really delves below the surface, though, which was driven home hard for me somehow by the only moment in the film that suggests real feeling, despite being a total throwaway buried deep in the closing credits. ("You're such a loser, dad.") And I wish some sort of lip service had been paid to the question of whether it's in baseball's long-term best interest if teams can beat the system by assembling a perfect combination of mediocre athletes, many of whom are valuable solely because they frequently get walked (though I gather that the film's portrait of sabermetrics is a gross simplification). Still, Moneyball held my attention for well over two hours, which is more than I can say for any actual ball game I've ever endured.

Genevieve (1953, Henry Cornelius): 65

Pleasant little goof of a comedy...though it doesn't exactly sell you on the fun of owning an antique automobile, given how frequently they apparently break down (even when cared for obsessively). Sharp on the absurdity of male competitiveness in general, less so when it comes to the subdivision involving romance and jealousy -- suggestion of a lingering attraction between Wendy and Ambrose just kinda peters out, and the opportunity for Alan to get all va-va-voom when Kay Kendall shows up is sadly wasted. And I confess I don't know what to make of the bizarre, self-contained interlude in which Kendall's snobby socialite blows the lid off the joint via jazz trumpet, which turns the character on her head for one brief moment before reverting her to broad stereotype. But the climactic race to Westminster Bridge makes for a rollicking succession of polite British gotchas, and it's hard not to choke up a bit when Alan can't bring himself to interrupt the old duffer who wants to reminisce about his history with the '04 Darracq, even though listening potentially means losing both race and car. (Likewise, Ambrose loses ground earlier because he can't not give a lift to some dude who needs to fetch a nurse for his pregnant wife. What a bunch of softies.) Hard to judge from a single film how much of its flavor is attributable to Cornelius, but if someone would be so kind as to release an equally improbable Blu-ray of Passport to Pimlico, I'd be glad to find out.

/Manhunter/ (1986, Michael Mann): 71

Must play like CSI: Miami Vice to folks discovering it now, but its emphasis on forensic minutiae was unprecedented at the time, and arguably as bold as Mann and Spinotti's color-coded visual scheme. First half sticks closely to Harris, emulating his procedural directness while simultaneously creating operatic counterpoints unique to the film; apart from the unfortunate need to have Graham speak his thoughts aloud, which sometimes comes off a bit cheesy ("DIDN'T YOU, YOU SON OF A BITCH?!?"), it's a textbook example of how to adapt a novel in a way that combines respect for the source and cinematic innovation to maximum effect. Alas, the convoluted second half of Red Dragon would defeat almost any attempt at streamlining. Mann sensibly ditches Dolarhyde's entire backstory, but he also rewrites the final act to allow Graham and his family a measure of peace, which voids the film of all meaning -- a decision foreshadowed by the otherwise odd choice to make the kid Graham's actual son rather than his stepson, while retaining scenes in which Graham struggles to earn the kid's confidence. (No father treats his own offspring with such studied reserve, unless he's been away from home for years or something.) Even when I saw Manhunter in first-run, unfamiliar with the book, it was clear that something was missing -- I just didn't yet know what it was. Priming the viewer for an abyss that gazes also, Mann ultimately settles for an abyss that blinks a few times before starting to feel vaguely uncomfortable and looking at its shoes. Also: Cox's "Lecktor" is hammier than I remembered, far from ideal, but he still wipes the floor with Hopkins' sepulchral self-consciousness.

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996, Dario Argento): 28

Part of me admires the bait-and-switch Argento employs here, in which the titular malady (which seems an unrewarding dramatic fulcrum from the outset -- sensitive souls quaking at the sight of Art can't help but look goofy) gets all but chucked aside halfway through in favor of something straight out of the De Palma playbook. Trouble is, the new conceit demands a densely layered performance, and while I know Asia has her fans today, I think they'd have to admit that her range at the time was, uh, limited. Meanwhile, Dad's exploration of hokey CGI apparently commanded the bulk of his attention, meaning there are few elegant camera moves or arresting compositions to distract from his ineptitude with actors and his general Z-grade approach to the mundane. I mean, seriously: look at just the first minute of this clip. I could write an entire essay solely on the awfulness of its opening exchange -- "Where are we?" "Rome. But you can't pass here" -- starting with the dialogue's sheer absurdity (the dude is from Rome, has never seen Asia before, doesn't know she's just stepped through a painting on a wall in Florence, might as well be speaking directly to camera), then marveling at how the actor manages to turn toward her in a way that communicates his awareness of his impending cue, then recoiling in horror from his one-two combination of artlessly raised brow and meaningless palms-up gesture, etc. Subsequent speech from Inspector Manetti could fuel an entire chapter on Verisimilitude, hilarious and clearly unintentional absence of. (That's not even considering that he's badly dubbed -- as is Asia, I'm pretty sure.) I can tolerate this level of clumsiness when it's just downtime between stunning set pieces, but it's mostly front and center here, and truly painful.

23rd Psalm Branch (1967, Brakhage): 53

Here we go again. I like Brakhage. Just don't think his style translates especially well to feature length -- he's a short-form artist. And there are a number of fine shorts embedded in this sprawling intimate epic, notably the opening horrors-of-war montage and a sequence in which massed armies and geometric dots seem to do battle for the frame. Plus he throws in multiple abstract hand-painted interludes, though I'm not precisely sure what they're doing here. No doubt Fred Krumper [name changed lest the actual person find this in a Google search and appear to make pedantic, humorless pronouncements] could walk me through 23rd Psalm Branch, explicating each movement in turn; if I set my mind to it, I could probably even formulate a hypothesis of my own regarding the film's gradual shift from images of horrific violence to relatively benign portraits of Vienna and East Berlin, bridged by flashes of color, black leader, and repeated shots of Brakhage (I assume) scrawling notes on a pad of paper. But I don't feel as if conscious understanding would help all that much. At this length, the effect of his rapid-fire free-association is just plain numbing. (In fact, it's kinda numbing even to watch a bunch of his shorts in quick succession, which is why I'm gonna spend a couple of weeks working through the second volume of By Brakhage, rather than a couple of days.) That he made so few films longer than 30 minutes or so suggests that he understood that on some level himself.

Hop-o'-My-Thumb (2011, Marina de Van): 51

Did Bluebeard and The Sleeping Beauty rake in tons of European coin, to the point where the producer decided that Breillat isn't moving quickly enough and sought out another French director, preferably female, to helm a psychosexual Perrault adaptation? I was previously unfamiliar with this particular fairy tale, but it's more or less the same narrative as "Hansel and Gretel," with a different configuration of siblings and an ogre in lieu of a witch; apart from the daughters smacking their lips at the prospect of eating the boys -- a striking interlude that speaks vividly to male fears of female sexuality -- there isn't much in the way of subtext here. Nor does De Van really demonstrate a coherent formal strategy, unless "make it murky" qualifies. Really, the only reason to see this is to enjoy Denis Lavant's almost literal scenery-chewing as the ogre, who eventually puts on some magic boots or something and grows to enormous size but for most of the film is just a completely ordinary-looking dude, with no ogre-like qualities save the ability to smell human flesh. "Overcompensate!" De Van apparently told Levant, and so he does, albeit to less hilariously grotesque effect than in Carax's Tokyo! short. All in all, though, this is a trifle, seemingly made to serve a market that as far as I can tell doesn't actually exist. In My Skin remains a better Cronenberg movie than Cronenberg has made in many years, but it's looking more and more like a fluke.

[For films seen from 8-17 September, see my Toronto Film Festival drive-by log.]

Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh): 57

Seen the night before I left for Toronto, no time to write it up. You'll have to settle for my official Las Vegas Weekly review.

Attack the Block (2011, Joe Cornish): 71

[Seen right before I left for Toronto; hope to be able to circle back to it soon, as there's plenty to say about its racial politics. Check back.]

/Meek's Cutoff/ (2010, Kelly Reichardt): 85

Just skimming the Metacritic blurbs threatens to render you comatose: "104 minutes of punishment"; "visually and emotionally severe"; "courts tedium"; "ponderously slow in pace"; "threaten[s] occasionally to stultify"; "there are stretches that are, frankly, boring." So why do I find it nonstop mesmerizing, even on second viewing? Above and beyond the strange tension Reichardt derives from the sheer arduousness of even simple tasks (previously addressed in my TIFF capsule), there's a relaxed vigor to every shot that forestalls inattention, at least in my case. Other directors (most notably Van Sant) have employed the Academy ratio in recent years, but this is the first time it's seemed like more than an affectation -- the boxy frame forces Reichardt to achieve certain "obvious" effects in unexpected ways, and so we get vibrant, precise compositions rather than generic vistas (plus such stunners as the dissolve that melds two radically different horizon lines). And even here, in a film notable for its fairly long takes, I find myself supremely alert to the deliberate use of contrast from one shot to the next, which in this case frequently involves a cut from blinding sunshine to darkness so nearly impenetrable that the actors can barely be seen, even when the film is properly projected. So the suggestion, made explicitly or implicitly by many folks I respect, that Meek's Cutoff is a respectable but faintly dull film that somehow "lacks juice" befuddles me on one level, even though I can see what they mean (in the sense that there's little in the way of action or high drama). I genuinely find it exciting, not worthy. Anyone who's shared more than one meal with me knows how much I hate vegetables of any kind.

/For a Few Dollars More/ (1965, Sergio Leone): 81

More confident and assured than Fistful (which I nonetheless somehow misremembered as superior) right from the opening shot: a fantastic formalist gag that also serves to calibrate your expectations w/r/t pace (slow), rhythm (measured) and respect for human life (absent). That sly sense of humor carries over into the wary partnership between Eastwood and Van Cleef, whose first proper meeting amounts to the traditional Robin Hood archery contest with the challengers doubling as targets; The Man With Several Names proves even more mesmerizing when he's not obviously the most capable motherfucker in any given one-horse town, and it's bracing to see him actually sit down on the Old West equivalent of the curb at the climax, as eager as we are to see what happens next. Musical pocket watch device doesn't entirely work (which Leone probably recognized, as he brings it back to much greater effect three years later as Bronson's harmonica), and I'm not quite sure what to make of Indio's tortured backstory -- crippling though his guilt seems to be, it has no real effect that I can discern on any of his present-tense Big Bad decisions. (I theorized at one point that he's yearning to be punished, which would be a truly unconventional dynamic for this sort of movie, but there's no indication of that whatsoever in his final scene.) As pure quasi-mythic sensation, though, this film is just breathtaking. You know you're in capable hands when even the villain's diabolical laughing fit abruptly metamorphoses from hoary cliché to a genuinely thrilling postmodern jape.

Policeman (2011, Nadav Lapid): 43

But give it some credit for continually finding new ways to be uninteresting. First two reels function as an overbearing character study in which occasional instances of complex, credible human behavior, such as the title character massaging his hugely pregnant wife's thighs, are constantly undermined by didactic nudging. It's not enough for these macho cops to engage in endless, vaguely homoerotic hugging and back-slapping -- Lapid's so concerned we won't get it that he actually lays in "Hulk running"-caliber foley effects, so that a series of casual greetings at a party sound like Round 4 of Ali v. Frazier. (I wish I could believe he intended this as comedy, but the movie couldn't possibly be more dour.) Before you can get too exasperated, however, Policeman unaccountably (given its title) switches focus to an obnoxious cell of privileged would-be terrorists, thereby revealing what Carlos would have looked like without an intensely charismatic performance at its center (and minus Assayas' formal mastery). I gather we're meant to register the fundamental similarity between these two solipsistic units, but as Charlie said to Donald: "On top of that, you explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this." ("The Locarno jury called it 'psychologically taut.'") And then suddenly at the end there are some cheap jabs at the mutual exploitation of the terrorists and the media, as if it belatedly occurred to Lapid that he ought to include that angle. Even the ending, while suitably arty and open to interpretation, seems fundamentally misguided, though I can't say why without getting into spoiler territory. Let's just say it comes treacherously close to equating "not an Arab" with "whoa, young and hot!"

Slow Action (2011, Ben Rivers): W/O

At 45 minutes and a little change, this just squeaks over my wholly arbitrary dividing line between "short" and "feature" (which for the record is based on the Maltin Guide's stated running time for Sherlock, Jr.), so in this case "W/O" means I gave it only one reel. But that was more than enough to confirm my sense that concept > execution. Imaginary histories are by nature a pretty dry affair, and hence require considerable visual and/or verbal wit to pull off (see Greenaway's The Falls, if you can find it, for an epic example); Rivers offers mundane location footage accompanied by banal voiceover narration intoned (at least in the first two sections) by people with exceptionally poor speaking voices. Excerpts from his other work look promising, but this probably wasn't the best introduction.