Films Seen (but not reviewed in TONY) 2002

Super 8 Stories (Emir Kusturica): 56

Little more than a visual tour diary, but No Smoking (for which Kusturica plays fairly unimaginative guitar) comprises a large group of Balkan madmen, so between numbers, in lieu of the usual jam sessions or petty complaints about contract riders, we get big shirtless dudes engaging in impromptu backstage head-butting contests. The entire film has an appealingly loose-limbed, what-the-fuck-nobody's-gonna-ever-see-this-anyway quality -- occasional stabs at talking-head interviews quickly and invariably devolve into puckish buffoonery, and no attempt is made to contextualize much of anything. Barely a movie, really, but I had a pretty good time; probably helps if the band's odd brand of gypsy punk (as heard in Black Cat, White Cat) puts your feet in stompin' mode. [No distributor.]

I'm Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira): 40

"An enchanting film with a remarkable amount of humour and joy," claims the TIFF programme book. Stephen Holden: "I'm Going Home gives you the steady pulse of life in a beautiful city viewed through the eyes of a character who, in spite of tragic loss and increasing decrepitude, knows in his bones that he is one of the luckiest men alive." These are the ravings of madmen. Rarely, in fact, have I seen so many intelligent people engage in such willful misinterpretation; I can only assume that most critics were so discomfited by Oliveira's matter-of-fact pessimism that they repressed the film's blatantly defeatist disposition and mentally constructed a life-affirming worldview in its stead. Whatever the explanation, they somehow failed to notice that Gilbert spends the entire picture being alternately devastated and humiliated, with the exception of the (long, tedious) stretches when he's onstage and the (brief, repetitive) cafe interludes depicting his reliance on ritual as a means of comfort. And for heaven's sake let's have no more of this balderdash about the titular declaration representing some spiritual state of grace. Look at the way Gilbert walks home: shuffling dejectedly, obsessively muttering the lines he couldn't remember. Look at the expression on his grandson's face in the final shot. People, this is a film about death -- file under "renunciation," not "acceptance." It's a septuagenarian version of Welcome to the Dollhouse, taking an innately sympathetic protagonist (misfit teen girl there, tired old man here) and proceeding to sadistically pound pound pound him into the dirt. Praise it if you must, but stop with the heartwarming adjectives. Enchanting my ass.

Secret Ballot (Babak Payami): 25

You know those poor schmucks who stand around on street corners trying to persuade passersby to sign a ballot initiative or help finance their missionary trip to Ghana or whatever? Ever feel the urge to spend a couple of hours observing their largely futile labors? Me neither.

The Château (Jesse Peretz): 54

Kind of disappointing, in a strange way, to see this one turn up in theatrical release -- it feels like a movie I might have dreamed, or perhaps a chintzy black-box theater piece performed on campus over a single weekend for an audience of 50. Threadbare and ugly, it gets surprising comic mileage out of its sole worthwhile joke, viz. Paul Rudd's tortured, tenacious attempts at franglais; between this performance and his riotous portrait of privileged indolence in Wet Hot American Summer (note to self: bring "dance of exasperation" scene to clip party), he's starting to rival Campbell Scott for the title of Most Underrated American Funnyman. Casting my beloved Sylvie Testud as the nonplussed object of Rudd's ah-fek-see-OWN didn't exactly hurt either, I must admit. Can't in good conscience recommend it, but the memory of it reliably inspires a goofy grin; as a low-expectation video rental six months down the line, it'll be hard to beat.

Scarlet Diva (Asia Argento): 33

In which the auteur gets naked and/or sexually assaulted in pretty much every metropolis on Earth. Argento's clearly working out some personal issues here, but forthright ain't the same thing as good, alas. Opportunity for a title card reading "And Schooly D as The Hash Man" pitifully wasted.

The Good Girl (Miguel Arteta): 31

Can't believe people are swallowing this rancid tripe, but I guess that's a testament to how cleverly Mike White has covered his tracks -- if nothing else, he's way cannier than Todd Solondz (though at least Solondz will never write anything as disposable as Orange County). Superficially, the film resembles one of those earnest, claustrophobic "lives of quiet desperation" dramas (Heavy, Living Out Loud), but in fact it's more like a movie Enid Coleslaw might have made before she met Seymour, pretending to embrace its hapless characters and then jeering at them behind their backs. It's smug and cynical and contemptuous, which wouldn't be so terrible were it not also working overtime to appear sincere and heartfelt and thoughtful. Nadir's probably the bit where Justine attempts to poison her increasingly needy swain with tainted blackberries, an action so strenuously goofy and blatantly out of character that it singlehandedly negates any emotional involvement in our heroine's inner turmoil; I'd long since checked out by that point, though, weary of the condescending spot-the-yokel shtick (trick question, I'm afraid -- they're all yokels!) and offended by the occasional pro forma stabs at psychological verisimilitude. Shedding crocodile tears for two supporting characters who wind up dead (one of them a suicide), the movie clearly can't wait to get to the punchlines, viz. a pair of spectacularly tactless public-address eulogies delivered by the Retail Rodeo's avuncular manager, who dispenses inane wisdom ("But we can all learn a valuable lesson here, which is don't drink and don't be disturbed") and then dedicates a torch song to the deceased. All of which is admittedly pretty funny, but gags like these belong in something with the pitiless savagery of Heathers, not in a movie that encourages Jennifer Aniston to stare pensively into the middle distance and emit a little dissatisfied sigh every five or six minutes. Also, let's get this straight, casting directors: Maggie is the talented Gyllenhaal, not Jake. Got that? Fantastic.

Signs (M. Night Shyamalan): 49

They should post a big one at the entrance to every theater: SLOW MOVING VEHICLE. Schlocky material demanded a lightfooted, supple approach, but Shyamalan seems wedded to the Wong Hsiao-liang style he unveiled in Unbreakable, freighting even run-of-the-mill setups with needless significance and encouraging his actors to proclaim their dialogue rather than speak it (but not before taking a weighty pause designed to convey their Inner Torment). Pity, too, because the basic concept -- War of the Worlds as experienced by one rural family -- is a real corker, and the handful of scenes that privilege good old-fashioned chills over ponderous speechifying about faith suggest that Night might actually earn his "next Spielberg" title if he'd just stop trying so damn hard. Also praiseworthy: Shyamalan's use of offscreen space (not just the obvious moments, e.g. the flashlight, but that tremendous shot of Gibson staring slack-jawed out the window just before they start boarding up the house); the creepy-ass Brazilian home video (almost certainly inspired by the Patterson Bigfoot film); elements of the pretentious arthouse style when it isn't being undercut by the forced comedy; elements of the forced comedy when it isn't being swallowed up by the pretentious arthouse style; Bo's demonstration of the victory dance; "the nerds were right." None of which can compensate for the climax, however; to call it "retarded" would be an insult to the goofy bastards Matt Dillon loves so much.

Me Without You (Sandra Goldbacher): 51

Surely female friendships must occasionally be threatened or undermined or ruptured or shot all to hell for reasons unrelated to men, yes? Strong, unforced performances by Williams and Friel nearly compensate for a reductive script (written, surprisingly, by two women) that, like a Darwinian nature program, is hell-bent on viewing everything in terms of sexual rivalry; if we posit that Marina might feel envious of Holly's professional success, then we'd have to actually show Holly, you know, having a job and shit, and demonstrating a certain degree of autonomy, and then, I dunno, presumably mountains would topple and the oceans would recede and locusts would inherit the earth or something.

Lan Yu (Stanley Kwan): 46

Too muted and elliptical for my taste, which is to say too much effort for too little reward; watching it was rather like struggling to capture a bland, recalcitrant piece of meat or fish using chopsticks liberally coated with grease. Enough lovely moments to make me eager to see more of Kwan's work (this, believe it or not, represented my first exposure), but I felt no desire to take another look at this one and opted to let a freelancer review it for TONY. Perhaps the only film I saw on 10 September 2001 that doesn't feel retroactively premonitory -- the other four were The Believer, Trouble Every Day, The Grey Zone and Deep Breath.

Tadpole (Gary Winick): 42

Embryonic, all right, to the point of evanescence: Emotions remain tidy and controlled, while potentially farcical situations are handled with an unapologetic clumsiness (echoed in the homely videography) that would give Feydeau a duodenal ulcer. Imagine Rushmore as conceived by somebody blessed with neither talent nor imagination -- merely the drive to succeed. Bebe Neuwirth's arch flirtatiousness singlehandedly keeps the picture on life support, and even her charm feels vaguely synthetic; like a sitcom neighbor, Diane simply ceases to exist when the plot no longer requires her presence. And am I the only one who wanted to upchuck when Bowie's "Changes" kicked in to signify Oscar's abrupt acceptance of his chronological limitations? Impotent, banal, ungainly, desperately eager to please -- pretty much the quintessential "Sundance movie," in other words. Now if only we could figure out a way to leave them there...

Unfaithful (Adrian Lyne): 49

Can't even think about this one anymore without flashing on Theo's capsule, which begins "Unfaithful! Diane Lane is unfaithful! Oooh, unfaithful!" (Try singing it as if it were the theme song for a new TV series.) Hamhanded and meretricious for most of its length, with Martinez somehow simultaneously wooden and smarmy as ze world's bohunkiest dealeur in ze rare works of ze literature and Gere letting his Cosby sweaters do the heavy lifting; unexpectedly deepens in the home stretch, with a genuinely tense reel or so in which Lane and Gere, each aware of the other's trangression, nervously negotiate an unspoken accord. Then, of course, they have to go and speak about it, and the spell is broken (although Lyne rallies again with a beautifully ambiguous final shot). Worth seeing, if at all, for Lane's gutsy, smoldering performance, which lends the material far more class and genuine eros than it deserves.

Rain (Christine Jeffs): 52

Richly atmospheric, all overcast skies and clinking ice cubes and desultory glances; Jeffs successfully evokes a sense of ennui without making her audience as bored as her characters -- always tricky, that -- and Sarah Peirse, as the listless materfamilias, does extraordinary things with her posture, her gait, her fingers and toes. Material's overly familiar, though, and it goes off the rails at the end with one of those overwrought the-innocent-must-die finales so beloved of beginning filmmakers and novelists. Work it out, get back to us.

The Cat's Meow (Peter Bogdanovich): 47

Just kinda sits there, but at least the cast seems to be having a good time -- Dunst, Izzard, and Herrmann, in particular, are remarkably at ease playing high-profile public figures whom they in no way resemble -- and there's plenty of mildly amusing detail for those familiar with the legend surrounding these events. Didn't buy Jennifer Tilly as Louella Parsons, though. I don't even know that I buy Jennifer Tilly as Jennifer Tilly, to be honest...

Changing Lanes (Roger Michell): 43

Commendably ambitious and thoughtful, addressing serious ethical questions with a gravity rarely seen in Hollywood pictures. Trouble is, I didn't believe a single painfully contrived moment of it, especially once Jackson and Affleck start taking countermeasures that even The Game's CRS, working with apparently limitless resources, would find a logistical challenge. Cartoonish, dueling-Wile E.'s approach might have worked if only the moralistic dialogue and somber tone weren't constantly undermining it; as it is, you can't even enjoy the progressive escalation of macho aggression for its own sake, so there's never a point at which your own proclivities are implicitly challenged à la Haneke. Peet's showy I-married-a-scumbag-by-design monologue, which most people consider the film's highlight, gets my early vote for the year's worst scene.

Shot in the Heart (Agnieszka Holland): 57

Did I see this? I guess I saw this. Cooks whenever Koteas and Ribisi go one-on-one, simmers otherwise; mostly I was left with a desire to read Mikal's book. Sorry, folks, it's just evaporated.

Promises (Justine Shapiro & B.Z. Goldberg): 65

Oscar-nominated mouths-of-babes doc about Israeli-Palestinian relations pushes all of the expected buttons, but you'd have to be dangerously cynical not to find a measure of hope in the tentative fumbling for (ahem) common ground among the more enlightened kids, and scarily apathetic not to develop an ulcerous cavity of despair at the sight of pre-adolescents already indoctrinated into a culture of intolerance and hatred. More worthy than revelatory, but not as predigested as you might think.

Death to Smoochy (Danny DeVito): 35

[Remarks transcribed verbatim from a post made to one of the discussion groups I frequent; I'm responding to Michael Sicinski, who liked the film and asserted that "The difference in sensibility between the two kids' show hosts is nicely played out in terms of sexuality and the split between camp and earnestness. In this regard, I think Williams' performance was quite strong."]

Okay, but what about in other regards? For example, the regard in which he is just trotting out his standard quicksilver imp routine, only with "anger" superimposed on top of it? Not that this is entirely Williams' fault, really, since he inexplicably isn't given enough screen time to create a real performance; I lost track of the number of times that the movie seemed to completely forget that Rainbow Randolph was supposed to be driving the plot. He just disappears for long stretches, with the occasional insert of some dark muttering to remind us he's not dead.

I tried hard to like this movie, partly because The War of the Roses is one of the most inspired black comedies of our time and partly because the whole thing just sounded too wack not to be awesome (which is why I went in spite of the almost uniformly awful reviews). Many of the critical objections are indeed misguided, but there are perfectly legitimate reasons to dislike Smoochy.

First of all, it's structurally inept. Not merely weak -- inept. DeVito can't create or maintain a rhythm here to save his life. The film goes off the rails in the first two minutes, actually -- DeVito and Resnick are in such a rush to get their plot rolling that they don't even bother to let us meet Randolph before the Feds burst in and cart him off. (Smoochy's disgrace and subsequent resurrection also get the fast-forward treatment.) The entire film has this strange, herky-jerk quality; there's no rhyme or reason to the way that one scene or shot follows another. Maybe you can make a case for this as mimicking the look of kiddie TV -- I haven't seen enough contemporary children's programming to argue that point (calling Skander) -- but even if so, I found it intensely grating at feature length.

Second, too much of it just plain isn't funny, though I suppose I should qualify that statement given the number of folks here who found humor in Freddy Got Fingered. What I call the Fallacy of the Profane Granny is very much in evidence throughout, except in this case the granny is replaced by the world of childrens' television. Is it just the alleged purity of the milieu that makes it hilarious when Randolph spills coffee in his lap and screams "Oh, my balls!"? The one moment that I thought did work in that vein was the cock cookie -- not the cookie itself, which was kind of lame, but the fact that Randolph gets annoyed that his scheme isn't working and actually marches onto the set to explain the shape's true significance. That was funny, but the humor was more situational than faux-provocative.

And then there's all the stuff you admitted sucked: Stewart, Fierstein, the Irish mob, etc. Which is indeed a lot. And Keener's starting to coast on her cutting bitchy Malkovich persona, even if it's complicated a little here (none too convincingly I thought).

What I liked: Norton. He played it exactly right, which is to say like Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith trapped in Freddy Got Fingered. (This automatically makes the movie ten times more interesting than Freddy Got Fingered.) Also, I was sure that the movie would take the most obvious and cynical route and conclude with Sheldon as corrupt as Randolph had been, and was pleasantly surprised when that didn't happen.

And of course it goes without saying that "My Stepdad's Not Mean (He's Just Adjusting)" is a work of genius. That was worth the $10 right there.

Kissing Jessica Stein (Charles Herman-Wurmfeld): 51

Cute enough, I suppose, and it gets bonus points for ultimately confirming what I was thinking from the get-go, which is [SPOILER!] that Jessica and Helen seemed more like best pals than like lovers. Never really delves much deeper than the sketch comedy from which it was developed, though, and Westfeldt's gosh-am-I-dithery shtick gets kind of wearisome after a while.

We Were Soldiers (Randall Wallace): 16

Hard to say which is the most egregiously offensive moment in this purple paean to militarism. Is it the way that Wallace, in a transparent attempt to appear even-handed, encourages us to identify with a particular Viet Cong soldier, only to turn the poor guy into a glib Mel Gibson punchline a few seconds later? ("What's it like out there?" asks the dude Mel's talking to on the phone. Turn. BLAM! Thud. "It's getting pretty hairy.") Is it the shameless manipulation involved in Gibson's return home, where he implausibly arrives by cab without bothering to call ahead, so that Madeleine Stowe momentarily thinks she's getting the regret-to-inform telegram and gets to play terror succeeded by joy? Is it the adorable little moppet asking "What's a war, Daddy?" Is it the gratuitously harrowing battle scenes, which out-Herod Herod (military code name: Private Ryan)? So many possibilities, so little bile produced by the human liver...

Wimbledon Stage (Mathieu Amalric): 38

Terrific actor tries to direct, mistakes lethargy for gravity, obscurity for profundity. Adapted from a novel, though you'd never guess; in the Q&A afterward, Amalric admitted that he'd selected the book more or less at random, and that's exactly what it feels like. For Balibar completists and lovers of high-toned Gallic meandering only. [No distributor.]

Harmful Insect (Akihiko Shiota): 81

Guess this must be what it's like to appreciate a Hou Hsiao-hsien picture -- which is not to say that Hou and Shiota have much in common stylewise, only that this is a rare case of yours truly responding more to editing rhythms and compositional nuance than to narrative or performance, both of which are nigh-well nonexistent here. Teenage anomie aestheticized with offhand assurance; it's the kind of movie that reduces even the most articulate critics to obscurantist cheerleaders (as least if they're limited to capsule length), prompting nebulous, half-assed praise that leans hard on words like "vibrates," "shimmering," "nuance" and, well, "nebulous." If I tell you about a shot where the protagonist walks with grim purpose down a road and a boy on a bike rides alongside teasing her and the camera pans right to take in the cityscape before cutting elsewhere and this is all maybe 15-20 seconds without any particular import yet somehow strangely moving ("strangely"), does that convey much of anything to you? No? How about if I describe the sequence where, after more than an hour of deliberate distance and oppressive silence, Shiota abruptly lays an angry punk song onto the soundtrack without altering his precise mise-en-scène one iota? (I must confess that this device worked better the first time I saw the picture, when it seemed semi-random and avant-garde; it lost some of its power once I recognized that the thrashing accompanies a specific montage.) Still no dice, eh? Then keep an eye out at whatever film festivals or Japanese retros come your way. As mysterious and allusive ("mysterious," "allusive") as its title; only a cheaply cynical ending -- still maddening on second viewing -- kept it off last year's top ten. [No distributor.]

No Such Thing (Hal Hartley): 67

Kind of a muddle, admittedly, but Polley's Little Orphan Annie ingenuousness ricochets nicely off of Burke's literally world-weary cantankerousness, and Hartley's getting progressively better at integrating emotional sincerity into his deadpan-hipster worldview. A trifle, but frequently hilarious and occasionally quite moving; dismissals predicated on a "Beauty and the Beast" reading are not merely misguided but offensively lazy.

Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa): 84

Not quite as petrifying on second viewing (which is to say that this time I wasn't concerned that I might faint from sheer terror), but still the most viscerally effective horror film I've ever seen -- in large part because it redefines the very notion of horror, suggesting that the threat of physical harm pales beside the promise of eternal solitude. Some find it too cerebral and deliberate, I gather, but those qualities are precisely what make the thing so incredibly unsettling; Kurosawa invests even the mundane, expository scenes with a palpable unease (mostly via off-kilter framing and voyeuristic camera moves), while his set pieces proceed at the maddening pace of a 28.8K download, creating a strangely somnambulistic atmosphere, drawing out the anticipatory tension until you've felt every hair on the back of your neck stand at attention, one by one by one by one by one by one by one by one. His singular approach here is best exemplified by the unforgettable "couch scene," which is nothing more than a beautiful woman walking toward a young man with a slow, stylized stride that's interrupted at one point by an inexplicable movement halfway between a near-stumble and a Kubuki dance step. (Words are painfully inadequate; you have to see it.) Other fabulously creepy touches are so subtle as to go almost unnoticed, like a brief glimpse of a young girl pushing a library cart with her head bowed, moving at a tempo that suggests the resigned gait of the damned. The lack of psychological complexity, meanwhile, which at first glance seemed like a failing, now reveals itself as a strength, the characters' near-anonymity tied thematically to the notion of other people as essentially unknowable (note the look of avid, mournful curiosity on the face of the ghost who comes over the couch), leaving each of us stranded in a room/prison of our own. Thus endeth my intellectual defense of Pulse's merits; bottom line, though, is both blissfully simple and utterly subjective: It scared the living shit out of me. [Picked up by Miramax, who plan a Wes Craven remake; theatrical release seems unlikely, alas.]

H Story (Nobuhiro Suwa): 37

Probably helps if you don't consider Hiroshima, Mon Amour to be the archetypal bad pretentious art film. On the whole, I think I slightly prefer this equally pompous pomo exercise, if only because Béatrice Dalle keeps choking on Duras' self-consciously inscrutable dialogue. [No distributor.]

Dragonfly (Tom Shadyac): 08

Pop quiz: You are a trauma surgeon whose pregnant wife has just died. You believe that she is trying to contact you from the spirit world, in part because the same cryptic symbol appears everywhere you go: drawn by her former patients, who say it came to them in a dream; traced on the dirty windows of your home; etched in the dirt from a broken flowerpot, etc. Do you (a) pore over various books of runes and symbols, trying to work out its meaning; (b) interview a nun (Linda Hunt) who's spoken extensively with children who've had near-death experiences (called to your attention by the immortal newspaper headline "Nun Interviews Near-Death Kids"); or (c) summon your best Sam Kinison impression and yell aloud "Yo, babe -- if whatever you have to communicate is so goddamn urgent, and if you can use your ghost finger to write that squiggly thing like a hundred times, how about helping me out a little here by just spelling it out in English?!? Huh? What is the point of turning this whole unfinished-business thing into a fucking episode of "Blue's Clues," if you don't mind my asking? Just tell me what you want, for chrissakes! Jesus, this is just like that time my brother was gonna come visit for a week and you just smiled and nodded and said Sure Honey and No Problem and tried to express your concern about his drinking problem via fucking osmosis which in case you have forgotten did not prove to be the world's most effective communication strategy. And now you're gone and I'm alone and distraught and there's no more sex and no more laughter and no more taking turns reading to each other on Sundays but you're still around cryptically hinting at shit as if life were just one long Mensa exam. I need this like I need a condom made of fiberglass, okay? Thank you. Jesus."

(Sorry folks, I think I may have let some personal issues intrude on the purely objective reviews of the films of the cinema in my opinion.)

The Sleepy Time Gal (Christopher Münch): 56

Hi, this is little-known independent filmmaker and critical darling Chris Münch for Lifetime television. You know, women are one of our most precious natural resources. I for one am in favor of women. To demonstrate this, I have made a movie all about them, depicting them as strong and capable -- but also, at times, as fragile and vulnerable. In my film, Jacqueline Bisset plays a woman dying of cancer who finds herself regretting her decision to give up an infant daughter for adoption. The daughter, now a successful but unhappy attorney in search of her birth mother, is played by Martha Plimpton. I feel confident that the Lifetime viewership will respond to these serious topics, even if the acting is sometimes a bit stilted and the dialogue often a mite precious. Try not to be too distracted by the achingly gorgeous cinematography or too discombobulated by the odd narrative elisions -- those are to make sure that the critics who admired my previous films, Love Love Me Do John and The Man Who Appreciated Railroads and Perhaps Not Coincidentally Was About as Expressive as an Anonymous Length of Track, do not dismiss this one as an arty soap opera. My new movie is worthier than one would guess from a simple plot description, or from reading the excessively sarcastic capsule reviews written by so-called film critics with more attitude than acumen. I have worked very hard to make what I sincerely believe is the greatest movie in the history of Lifetime television. I hope you enjoy it. [No theatrical distributor, but look for it on the Sundance Channel.]

Wendigo (Larry Fessenden): 62

Does it count as "subversive" if you make a low-budget chiller in which the supernatural elements fall utterly flat but everything else -- all the humdrum, quotidian stuff that's usually a way of letting the audience relax a little before you goose 'em again -- works like gangbusters? Wendigo schmendigo: What's rich and enthralling here is the dynamic among the three main characters, the commonplace cycle of affection/rejection that characterizes even the happiest of families but is rarely explored onscreen. So strong is the verisimilitude (a few clumsy one-take moments aside) that all the oogie-boogie guff just feels like a distraction, especially when Fessenden inexplicably abandons the family in the home stretch and decides to follow shitkicker Otis around instead. (Who gives a flying?) Great stuff in the margins, hollow at the center; if anybody can figure out a way to digitally replace Nicholson, S. Duvall and whoever that kid was with these three actors, I might consider revoking my aesthetic injunction against tampering with old movies.

Martha... Martha (Sandrine Veysset): 48

Sophomore slump, hopefully, though I fear Ms. Veysset may turn out to be a one-trick pony -- I might have found the ending morbidly beautiful, for example, were it not more or less the same morbidly beautiful ending she employed in Will It Snow for Christmas?, all of one movie ago. Miserabilism 101, subcategory: Self-Destructive Females; nice to meet Valérie Donzelli, though, who comes across like Agnès Jaoui crossed with Karin Viard with a dash of Sarah Polley at her most remote. [No distributor.]

(17 Feb: It's been brought to my attention that Martha... Martha is not, in fact, Veysset's second feature. It is her third. Her second was called Victor, and I saw it on 17 March 1999, when it screened at New Directors/New Films. That I completely forgot about its existence until prompted, and cannot now recall much of anything about it (though I gave it a respectable B-), doesn't exactly rev my enthusiasm for this filmmaker.

Investigating Sex (Alan Rudolph): 47

"An All-Talking Picture!" exclaims the poster in the Walter Reade's lobby, by way of reference to the 1929 setting -- and also, of course, in a droll, self-deprecating effort to prepare viewers for the nonstop gabfest that ensues roughly five minutes in. (Rudolph, no dummy, frontloads the film with a couple of nude scenes, counting on the promise of further exposure to quell any restlessness.) Dialogue's sharp and malaprop-free, though -- much of it's verbatim from transcripts of the Surrealist symposium that inspired the script -- and for a while I thought I was looking at a full-fledged comeback; certainly there are more terrific moments here than in any Rudolph picture since The Moderns (also set in the '20s, significantly). Trouble is, mere moments they remain: a series of mild comic riffs (e.g., Tuesday Weld's accent wavering constantly from Russian to Brooklyn and back again) suspended in an amorphous blob of tentative, go-nowhere ideas. Nothing deepens, nothing builds -- least of all the alleged rapport between Dermot Mulroney's idealistic ex-prof and Neve Campbell's virginal steno, which means to be the movie's deeply romantic soul. Performances a mixed bag, as usual: Jeremy Davies perhaps the most natural speaker of Rudolphian badinage since Keith Carradine; Robin Tunney appealingly avid; Nick Nolte doing his growly Nick Nolte thing; Alan Cumming continuing his rapid descent into self-parody; Til Schweiger clearly on hand solely to satisfy the German financiers. Still Rudolph's best in over a decade -- I just wish that actually meant something, you know? [No distributor.]

Last Orders (Fred Schepisi): 59

Funny how the mind categorizes things: My formative filmgoing years were roughly 1984-87 (age 16-19), and during that period I created a number of mental Pendaflex folders into which subsequent movies tend to get filed. This picture, for example, fits snugly in the Turtle Diary folder, alongside the numerous other sturdy, intelligent, well-acted, not-so-memorable British dramas I've seen in its wake. Notable chiefly for its kaleidoscopic structure, which posits that each moment of your life is a drop of water and memory a hot griddle; what makes the constant barrage of flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks a cumulative success is their individual brevity -- often just a single line of dialogue or a fleeting image, arriving unbidden and receding before full-blown reverie can get its hooks in. Ultimately, though, the technique is interesting without being especially meaningful, serving mostly to inject some chaotic tension into what is really a pretty unexceptional narrative. Wonderful, credible interplay among the splendid cast keeps it chugging along (though the roster is impressive almost to the point of distraction -- you half-expect Elizabeth R. to show up and start knighting everybody in sight). Schepisi, meanwhile, reminds us yet again of (a) why the auteurists were fawning over him in the '70s and (b) why he's never fulfilled their lofty expectations, doing his usual robust but not quite inspired job. He really ought to have known better than to stick Ray Winstone next to a hospital bed with a prominent 'NIL BY MOUTH' sign hung over the railing, though; I missed almost a minute of dialogue chuckling to myself.

Birthday Girl (Jez Butterworth): 60

Saw this in Toronto on 12 September, at a time when I was walking out of one doleful chamber drama after another, and the goofball insouciance of the first half (before it veers into rote thriller territory) was exactly what I wanted at that place and time. Not sure how it'd hold up a few months later, especially since it's reportedly been drastically recut in the interim, but odds are I'd still find Kidman's uncharacteristically loose-limbed performance (even) more impressive than her twin star turns of '01, and the notion of Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz as Russian thugs could never be less than highly amusing.

Metropolis (Rintaro): 68

Doesn't remotely live up to the promise of its exhilarating initial flourish -- a neo-retro-fascist TV broadcast promising the dawn of a new age of cultural and economic hegemony, followed by a vertigo-inducing exploration of the title burg's architectural marvels, the camera's frantic motion accompanied not by the expected techno thumpa-thumpa but by rollicking Dixieland jazz -- but this is still the best example of anime I've ever seen (which is to say, the only one I've ever liked). As in its namesake/inspiration, a simplistic yet convoluted narrative serves mostly as a distraction from magnificent dystopian imagery, the horizontal plane of the screen an implicit reproach to the emphatically vertical (to the point of being predominantly subterranean) layout of the city.* In this case, however, the crude character design and stutter-step motions prove more distracting still -- it's like watching the Katzenjammer Kids wandering through a De Chirico landscape. Kind of ho-hum for the first hour, and I found myself tuning out, ignoring the subtitles and scanning the corners of the frame for interesting details; rallies with a genuinely thrilling apocalypse-yowza finale in which the simpering lemur-eyed Hello Kitty ingenue turns into...well, let's just say into something else. Bonus points for having the cojones to swipe a classic bit from Dr. Strangelove, which (BLASPHEMY ALERT) actually works even better here -- less snide, more explosive, better song.

* (That's probably horseshit, but it sure sounds impressive, doesn't it?)

Time of Favor (Joseph Cedar): 39

Note to self: Religious/political melodramas can make for thought-provoking entertainment, but maybe possibly think twice about the ones starring actors with names like Tinkerbell. Also, never forget: Hoberman : Israel :: Cheshire : Iran.

Brotherhood of the Wolf (Christophe Gans): 44

"All over the map," I scribbled on the train home, but that now feels cartographically insufficient -- it's more akin to darting back and forth among several different maps that encompass wildly disparate terrain. Severe piscine/poultry difficulties result: Clearly this thing is far too ridiculous to be taken seriously -- Le Bihan's naturalist/detective/warrior/libertine/stud rivals Buckaroo Banzai in the Renaissance Man sweepstakes -- but at the same time it's generally too sober and restrained, and too mired in real-life historical intrigue, to work as check-your-brain entertainment. (Would that the film overall were half so gloriously outlandish as the sight of former tortured Dardenne proles Rénier and Dequenne swanning about in court finery.) Simultaneously absorbing and tedious, in a weird way; I perked up a bit at the climax, when Fronsac goes native and charges through some fortress like an unholy cross between Travis Bickle and the Terminator...but then of course this turns out not to be the climax at all, and the damn thing just goes on and on and on, forever in search of a sensibility to call its own.