Films Seen April 2012

Robinson in Ruins (2010, Patrick Keiller)

Can't really say I got much out of the Robinson Trilogy (caught up with London and Robinson in Space a couple of months before I started this log; might as well address all three here), mostly because Keiller's interests and my own so rarely coincide -- at times I felt like I was watching a series of video blogs on the Economist website, despite the soothing tones of Paul Scofield or (in this case) Vanessa Redgrave. To be perfectly honest, I think I only truly heard maybe 75% of the voiceover narration, which is so dry and abstruse that I constantly found myself accidentally tuning out. At first I'd quickly rewind once I realized it had become word salad, but after doing that several times and finding that I'd missed stuff like "On the 11th, the price of Brent Crude peaked at just over $147 a barrel, after Iran had test-fired nine ballistic missiles. In the journal Nature, it was argued that rates of species extinction had been seriously underestimated" -- those are actually consecutive sentences, spoken over the same shot (of some berries), with only the briefest pause between them -- I pretty much gave up and just let my aural attention wander as it would, focusing as much as possible on the images. Some of these, like the examination of lichen clinging to the letters adorning an English road sign, possess a captivating sort of anti-grandeur, but at other times Keiller just seems to be dicking around, letting flowers sway in a light breeze for minutes at a time as if that somehow provides lucid counterpoint to the recitatation of socioeconomic factoids and historical anecdotes. And while Ruins is arguably the most visually impressive of the three ("arguably" because I watched it on much higher quality video than the others), substituting Redgrave for the late Scofield doesn't quite work, perhaps because it's one degree of remove too much for a project that already had its author's thoughts being spoken by one man and attributed to another. But I had roughly the same problem with Marker's Sans soleil, so don't mind me if affected essay-films are your thing.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985, Tim Burton)

Revisiting this gloriously anarchic, ceaselessly inventive bliss machine (which I saw bits and pieces of a gazillion times in first run, working concessions at a multiplex where it played) made me realize how un-daffy -- or perhaps un-Daffy -- American film comedy has since become. "Wait," Pee-Wee tells escaped convict Mickey as they approach a phalanx of cops, "I have an idea"...and five seconds later Pee-Wee's in full drag while Mickey sports a false mustache and beard along with nerd specs. It's funny because it's impossible, but I'm trying to think of the last mainstream comedy that chucked realism out the window, and I'm coming up blank. That Big Adventure's star ("as himself") is such a singular creation obviously helps, but Reubens still couldn't save Big Top Pee-wee -- he needed Burton's loopy visual sensibility (most evident in the stunning sequence right after Pee-wee's bike is stolen, as every cyclist in town converges on our despondent hero), plus general indifference to the gag-killing constraints of the real world. Claymation ghouls, Rube Goldberg cookery, biker gangs seduced by a man-child's chicken dance, James Brolin -- nothing's too ludicrous. Only during the climactic backlot chase scene does the energy flag a bit, and even that has multiple inspired moments, e.g. Dee Snider dodging Santa Claus and Godzilla, both of whom are being towed by a speedboat. Just a nonstop delight, really. Also, checking the film's Wikipedia page, I see that it was released on 9 August 1985. I lost my virginity, if memory serves, sometime around September or October of 1985, to a coworker at the multiplex where it was then playing. Why? What's the significance? I DON'T KNOW!!

Monsieur Lazhar (2011, Philippe Falardeau)

With Arcand's continuing relevance at best questionable, Falardeau seems to have become the leading French-Canadian filmmaker more or less by default, which makes it dispiriting that each of his films has been more conventional and less distinctive than the last. Here, of course, we have an entry in the inspirational-teacher genre, and to the extent that it follows that model it's without much interest; Lazhar's a nice enough fellow, devoted to his pupils and endearingly awkward on date night with a colleague, but his methods are fairly banal and his tragic backstory an unnecessary distraction. (I did like that he lies about having smacked one of the kids upside the head, however, and that nothing ever comes of it -- just an everyday ass-covering.) What really compels is the reason for Lazhar's presence in the first place, which I didn't know in advance and am loath to reveal now, just in case some of you are still ignorant. Falardeau's handling of what we'll call the prelude is a thing of beauty, with masterful use of the school hallway; hearing the other kids noisily enter from behind the camera as it stares impassively in the other direction, at the empty passage where Simon ran off (and from which a teacher now comes hauling ass to intercept them), served as a potent reminder of the kind of effect that only cinema can truly create. And the subsequent exploration of how something like that would affect a class of eight-year-olds, plus the fallout of the paranoid dictum that any physical contact whatsoever between adult and unrelated child is inappropriate (NOTE: aforementioned spoiler isn't what you now assume), is all quite solid. Even though it was adapted from a one-man play, however, the film seems wholly misguided to focus so intently on Lazhar, who more often than not comes across as if he's Bogarted an ensemble piece. Falardeau deserves credit for expanding it, but he didn't evidently have enough courage to just chuck the Stand and Deliver template altogether.

Little Big Man (1970, Arthur Penn)

Doesn't work for me as comedy or as pointed satire, and watching it now I feel like a contemporary remake would probably star Adam Sandler (with Will Ferrell as Custer). Jokes are mostly predicated on feeble reversals of expectation concerning propriety: Crabb's sister plainly yearns to be raped by Indians even as she feigns terror; Dunaway's proper lady all but molests him while prattling about righteousness and purity; his wife's widowed sisters demand his attentions via ostentatious coughing fits from adjacent beds; etc. And while the film boldly identifies with the Native Americans, depicting U.S. soldiers as villains, those good intentions are hamstrung by the subtitle-averse era in which it was made, which forces Chief Dan George and the others to speak in stilted Hollywood Injun (without having the stones to also write Crabb's dialogue that way when he's meant to be conversing in Cheyenne). Hoffman seems to be having a good time but never quite establishes an actual character, even allowing for the extent to which that could be construed as intentional -- too often he just comes across as Benjamin Braddock in the Old West, anxious and gauche. His ancient-man makeup and voiceover, on the other hand, seem like a purposeless stunt in this context (and possibly in the novel as well). Why set the story in the present and frame it as the recollection of a 121-year-old if you're just gonna ignore everything that happened to the guy in the century between the Battle of Little Bighorn and now (= 1970)? What does the tale gain when told by the world's oldest man, and/or at such a great remove? (I didn't love the framing story in Titanic, either, but at least it kind of made sense given the expedition to the wreck and the Heart of the Ocean subplot.) Final shot of Hoffman encased in latex and holding one gnarled hand to his forehead, as if no longer able to bear the sins of the world ("That was some fucked-up shit a hundred years ago, when I was like 22"), just prompted a derisive snort.

Las acacias (2011, Pablo Giorgelli)

"Okay, I know the whole grumpy-dude-gradually-softens-when-saddled-with-adorable-kid thing died of overexposure a decade ago, but hear me out. I have a twist. You ready? Also: the kid's mom. She's there too. And he warms up to her as well, through the adorable kid. Right? I know. Has anyone made their grumpy dude grumpy because of some sort of failed relationship with a child of his own? How crazy resonant would that be? I'm thinking very short, very simple, like no more than 80 minutes long, and we spend 40 of those minutes just establishing the grumpiness. That way we get familiarity and repetition. It's a movie everybody's already seen a dozen times and it's half over before anything of interest happens. Look at my arms, I have actual gooseflesh."

This Happy Breed (1944, David Lean)

Fortuitously appears on my master alphabetical list right beside This Is England, which could serve as an alternate title. As ever, cinema isn't the ideal medium for a story that spans 20 years -- a problem exacerbated here by Coward's highlight-reel structure, with the film (and the source play, presumably) leaping from one isolated Event to the next: General Strike, Charleston craze, wedding, sudden death, etc. Individual scenes, however, are often quite strong, especially those involving Kay Walsh (who I didn't realize was then Mrs. Lean) as the headstrong, magnetically irritating Queenie. Despite his reputation as an urbane wit, Coward excelled at frankly realistic middle-class courtship behavior; Queenie's prolonged pseudo-romance with Billy strikes some of the same deeply rueful notes that would make the following year's Brief Encounter an enduring masterpiece, while ably distinguishing between the impetuousness of youth and the resignation of late middle age. But every time I started getting emotionally involved, the film would fade out and then fade in several years later, usually shifting focus to somebody else altogether. And there really isn't much of a throughline apart from the general resilience of the English character (explicitly compared at one point to a garden)...which, while not propaganda per se, serves more or less the same reassuring function as the domestic material in In Which We Serve. Hollywood films made during WWII aren't nearly as uniformly we-are-fam-i-LEE, are they? I don't feel as much need to recalibrate based on what was happening offscreen.

Punishment Park (1971, Peter Watkins)

Summer, 1989: "What'd you think of Batman?" "I liked everything except Batman." Same deal here, surprisingly, as Punishment Park itself represents leftist outrage at its most didactic and shrill -- in stark contrast to the tribunal sections, in which both accusers and accused appear recognizably human (which is to say, occasionally coherent but mostly idiotic). I gather that's because Watkins typecast everybody and allowed them to improvise, thereby creating the live-action equivalent of a heated combox "debate"...but whatever the method, it affords both sides respect even as it (inadvertently?) subjects both sides to ridicule, illuminating the practical difficulty of communicating across such a wide ideological gulf. One of the inquisitors is even smart and savvy enough to be Victor Morton, quoting Thomas Aquinas on the definition of a just war and continually insisting on specifics rather than generalities. Out in the desert, though, it's eye-rolling time, starting with the very concept of this alleged "training exercise" for law enforcement -- we're told it's been implemented in part because prisons are overcrowded, but any prisoner who doesn't win the game ends up behind bars anyway (assuming they surrender), and it's abundantly clear by film's end that nobody is ever allowed to win. Are we meant to believe that the government deliberately sends dissidents out there anticipating that they'll give the cops justifiable cause to kill them? That's just laughably bwahahahaha given that we're in some version of the real world and not a Verhoeven-style dystopian future. And why does the camera crew go apeshit when prisoners are gunned down (invariably in circumstances where they ignore -- or in one preposterous case allegedly don't hear -- direct orders to stop), but not even blink when a couple of cops are flat-out murdered early on? As filmmaking, this is exciting stuff, quite formally audacious (especially for its time), but the deck-stacking rankles even for a bleeding-heart like myself.

Dark Star (1974, John Carpenter)

Finally. (Another case where I waited close to 20 years for a print to turn up near me.) Thought this was a total bust for a while, but it gets funnier as it goes along, culminating in a glorious finale ("teach it phenomenology") that anticipates Douglas Adams at his loopiest. Still, it's plainly a student short that's been padded out to feature length, and there's virtually no sign of the compositional magnificence Carpenter would demonstrate in Assault on Precinct 13 just two years later. In particular, the extended sequence involving the alien beach ball (which I gather was part of the padding) really feels like amateur hour, the kind of prankish tedium that's thankfully restricted to YouTube videos nowadays. Performances are shall we say "variable," with O'Bannon both the most stilted and the most comically inspired (his video diary kills, though that's partially just the succession of bad hair days); production design ranges from inventive to desperate, frequently within the same shot. By far the most distinguished element is Carpenter's score, which isn't in the same league as Halloween or Big Trouble in Little China but still suggests that he could have carved out a career strictly as a composer had directing not worked out. (And it no longer seems to be working out, so...) All in all, more of an amusing footnote than a real movie, but I'm glad I finally saw it. Also, is it just me or was Sgt. Pinback the tonsorial template for Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here? The resemblance is uncanny.

Late Spring (1949, Yasujiro Ozu)

Achieves tremendous power in its final scene by abruptly shifting focus, revealing that the film is in fact about the sacrifices parents make for their childrens' happiness. However, Noriko's dilemma, which occupies the vast majority of its running time, feels so alien and abstract to me that I'm somewhat detached until those last couple of minutes. No matter how much you love and are devoted to your dad, it's just plain weird to feel no desire for an independent life; Late Spring pronounces this misguided but doesn't seem to recognize it as pathological, and whatever exploration of Noriko's psyche may exist in the source novel doesn't come across in Hara's performance, which at its best is productively opaque. That specific reservation aside, Ozu's sensibility ultimately may just be too sedate for my taste -- I've seen most of the acknowledged classics now and have never been wowed, not even by Tokyo Story (though it's been a long time since my last viewing). What I do find arresting is his unorthodox use of inserts, which imbue inanimate objects with a sense of mystery that seems well out of proportion to their narrative context. The midnight vase here is the most blatant example (and much remarked upon, it seems), but even more striking to my mind is the scene in which Hattori, who's invited Noriko to attend a concert with him and been politely rebuffed (due to his engagement to another woman), sits at the performance beside an empty seat. Ozu's cut to an insert of Hattori's hat and briefcase on the seat provides no additional information -- you'd have to be pretty dense not to have already processed that he's there alone -- yet it somehow imparts a momentous sense of loss. At moments like these, "transcendental" does seem appropriate...but they're fleeting moments that don't wholly counteract the mild engagement I otherwise tend to experience. (Exception: his silents.) Same deal as with Yang's A One and a Two..., basically; maybe one day I'll mature enough.

The Asphyx (1973, Peter Newbrook)

C'mon, at least try to work out the implications of your fantastical premise. Anticipate the viewer's questions/objections and address them. It's not that hard. Like: What exactly does it mean to say that a creature "can't die" so long as its asphyx is trapped? What if you just plain incinerated the body until there was nothing left but ash? Is the pile of ash still alive? What if you then scatter the ashes? Does each individual particle still possess consciousness? Even if you can't think of good answers, it's still smart to have the characters make a good-faith effort to hash it out, so that we're not sitting there the whole time thinking "but...but...but..." Likewise, the whole bit with the guillotine is just nonsensical -- does the asphyx simply not appear if a person isn't aware of their impending demise? (The son who smacked his head into the tree branch didn't appear to be, still got a smudge.) Could you just run at the person with a spear in super slo-mo? That seems like pretty much the same idea as letting the blade fall slowly, with less likelihood of a fatal accident. Maybe I wouldn't have fixated on this stuff had the film's surface been more alluring, but the cheese factor is alarmingly high, with Robert Stephens hamming it up in a deadly serious, no-fun manner (I didn't care for him as Holmes in the Billy Wilder movie, either) and the asphyx itself looking like rear projection of an SNL-era Muppet withdrawing from heroin. Newbrook directs like the cinematographer he was, with zero sense of how to build a rhythm -- even the present-day prologue falls completely flat, since we don't yet have enough information to comprehend its significance and Newbrook stages it as if it were the last scene in the movie instead of the first. Line of dialogue I can't believe somebody actually typed: "But why pursue immortality?!"

In Which We Serve (1942, Noel Coward & David Lean)

Not bad for wartime propaganda -- in many respects it plays more like postwar reflection along the lines of The Best Years of Our Lives, emphasizing domestic uncertainty as much as battlefield bravery. (Can you use the word "battlefield" if it's planes vs. boats? Can't think of an alternative.) Upper lips are at maximum stiffness throughout, to somewhat stultifying effect, but the tone is so quietly sober that there's little sense of being rallied; the Captain's addresses to the crew come across more like Kevin Spacey in Margin Call than like Henry V at Agincourt, even as Coward proves more commanding than you'd expect. I'm a stickler for structural integrity, though, so it bothers me (perhaps more than it should) that the film clearly establishes the flashbacks as personal memories and then discards that idea when it becomes inconvenient, e.g. when it wants to show us family members killed during the Blitz (obviously unobserved by anyone on the ship). And that quasi-rigor can't quite disguise its essentially anecdotal nature, which works fine in individual scenes but doesn't exactly create the sense of urgency the subject demanded smack in the middle of WWII. It's the ol' fish/fowl problem: As drama, it's hamstrung by patriotic fervor, but at the same time it seems way too diffuse and low-key to reassure a battered nation. Occasionally, though, the balance is exactly right -- I found myself moved to tears by the drawn-out simplicity of the final scene (barring epilogue), in which the Captain bids farewell to his reassigned men, shaking hands with each and calling him by name. Rather than dissolving to suggest duration, or cutting in late to give us only the most significant characters/actors, Coward and/or Lean holds for the entire procession, affording every sailor equal weight. Reminded me of brushing away tears for months in 2001 reading Portraits of Grief in the New York Times, which insisted on remembering every victim.

Bully (2011, Lee Hirsch)

Reviewed for Las Vegas Weekly, and I have nothing much to add in terms of content; if your documentary does nothing except state the blatantly obvious ("kids being mean to other kids is bad and something must be done!"), please air it on some educational channel where it belongs. But I'm truly curious about the focus issue, especially now that I've skimmed a bunch of reviews and can't find another that so much as mentions it in passing. I'm almost positive it's in the film itself and was not a projection error, as I know what those look like. And it's incessant. Roughly every two or three minutes on average, I'd estimate, and often in shots that are completely static (so it can't be auto-focus gone wild). Abrams' lens flares are nothing compared to the number of times Bully blurs out for a few seconds and then resharpens. Not shifting focus to another element of the shot, understand -- just a brief purposeless undulation on whoever's front and center. And it's so gauche that it's either some kind of deeply misguided aesthetic strategy (in which case I'd expect it to be in the press kit and hence crop up in the reviews) or evidence that Hirsch literally did not know how to use his camera. Anyway, if you see the movie after reading this, could you look for it and then come back and confirm that I'm not insane? I'd appreciate it.

Dead Ringers (1988, David Cronenberg)

Just wanted to remind myself what a great Cronenberg film looks like before I'm inevitably disappointed by Cosmopolis next month. He really brought it all together here -- hate to use that awful word "mature" (especially since he quickly regressed), but he genuinely seems more interested in Elliot and Beverly as complex individuals than he does in, say, the gyn(a)ecological instruments for operating on mutant women, which are merely a disturbing symptom of Bev's mental breakdown. Irons' astonishing dual performance, which is so acutely realized that you can immediately tell without any context when you're looking at Elliot posing as Beverly or vice versa (at least until they start to meld), functions both as an abstract portrait of curdled symbiosis and as an intimate character study of two people with almost nothing in common apart from a genome and mutual need; their trajectory is legitimately tragic, and so richly imagined that not even the standard junkie nosedive can render it generic. What's more, with the exception of one virtuoso walk-and-talk that looks ever so slightly composite-fuzzy, the effects work is so subtle and the compositions so meticulous that you simply accept what you're seeing and stop looking for the seams. That's a minor triumph in itself, as well as further testament to Irons' magnificence. (Who beat him for the Oscar again? [Pause.] Holy fuck he was not even nominated. Though I do remember he thanked Cronenberg when he won two years later.) You could combine the eight features since, from Naked Lunch through A Dangerous Method, and still not amass one-tenth of the heart-rending humanity captured in this film (and in The Fly) -- it's as if he scared himself and decided to double down on the trademark new-flesh queasiness, to speedily diminishing returns in my personal opinion, and yeah I know you all loved History of Violence but I stand by my underwhelmitude. More sadness: Between this film and The Moderns, Geneviève Bujold was maybe my favorite actress in the world that year; I've seen her in exactly two films since, the most recent one 14 years ago. What the hell, everyone making movies featuring strong adult women for the last two decades?

In the Family (2011, Patrick Wang)

Feeling massively guilty about bailing on this one -- partly because Wang himself sent me the film and asked me to look at it, partly because its heart is so evidently in the right place. But it's nearly three hours long and what I saw just didn't excite me. Wang deftly deflects the more melodramatic aspects of his scenario, but he does so via methods that are kinda indie-shopworn at this point; I thought he had me in the hospital, when the nurse offers Joey a visitation form (relieving my fear that I was in for an epic of casual homophobia), but then the doctor shows up to deliver the awful news and Wang instantly cuts to a shot from outside the building, consigning the remainder of the scene to respectful silence. And then the first post-funeral scene is like seven minutes of near-catatonic pseudo-naturalism, with Joey going through a giant stack of mail (in complete silence, natch) while the kid, who's too young to fully grasp what's happened, never once intrudes upon his sorrow. It just looked constructed to me, while trying really hard to look unconstructed, which is an off-putting combination. Sorry, Patrick. You have Ebert!

The Cabin in the Woods (2011, Drew Goddard)

Suffers from exactly the same problem that Dollhouse initially did: intriguing ideas shoehorned into a poorly executed genre framework. (As a bonus, it also has Fran Kranz starting out insufferable.) In this case, the ideas are breezily meta rather than terrifyingly insidious, so the damage isn't as pronounced...but I still wish the cabin material wasn't quite so generic, even as I fully understand that it's meant to be generic, indeed must be generic on some level for the premise to make any sense. Jules making out with the stuffed wolf head during Truth or Dare, just for example, manages to be distinctive and memorable (and scary! remember scary, guys?) without betraying Robin Wood or Carol Clover. And while the scenes "downstairs" are often darkly funny, I feel like the idea would have worked better without them. Or maybe without the cabin, shown only from the puppeteers' perspective (though that's so intensely lab-rat that you've lost most of your audience). Cutting back and forth between the two, as Whedon and Goddard opted to do, is the most conventional and least challenging option, and also a lot less fun -- the film isn't anywhere near as WTF? as it ideally ought to have been, and actively squanders some of its best moments. (Why tell us at the outset about the electrified fence, so that we're just sitting there waiting for Hemsworth to ride into it? That's inept, frankly.) As for semiotics, only the party downstairs, with the staff whooping it up while Dana gets beaten to shit on monitors in the background, productively complicates our relationship to horror films, and even that fleeting implication is Haneke-Lite. Still amusing, with a gratifyingly bugfuck all-star monster finale, but I prefer my genre deconstructions a little less self-conscious and self-satisfied. And those redneck torture zombies are dull.

eXistenZ (1999, David Cronenberg)

Don't mean to be glib, but who would ever play this "game"? Apart from the film's one standout scene -- the Chinese Restaurant and its grotesque "special" -- there's nothing even remotely fun or enticing about its virtual reality; even if we accept the ludicrous idea of a game narrative about a rock-star game designer (which of course is really Cronenberg's effort to hide one layer of simulation), everything's so unpleasantly banal that it's hard to imagine slogging your way through it. This time I watched knowing for sure that Allegra and Ted are game characters from scene one, but that understanding didn't make their vapidity any more compelling. It's an empty sort of cleverness: "Ah, yes, these performances faithfully represent the inherent limitations of an avatar." "I see, that inelegant jump forward [from the assassination attempt in the opening scene to Ted driving Allegra into the country] mimics the way that video games simply proceed to the next level." It's all deftly worked out but leaves you with nothing to connect with -- much the same problem I had with Inception, actually, which similarly creates multiple "worlds" that are all equally weightless and expository (and concludes on a similarly exasperating live-or-Memorex? note). Some of Cronenberg's outré visual ideas are good for a laugh -- awesome that he got Ted rimming Allegra's bioport into mainstream movie theaters -- but without a rich, immersive context they come across as pandering, just the biomechanical equivalent of the girl taking her shirt off. I can't help but notice that The Fly and Dead Ringers, the last two Cronenberg movies I truly loved, were both co-written by him with others; neither of those collaborators has anything else decent to his name, but maybe DC just needs someone to shape a proper story.

West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)

Pointed enough that it would really have struck a nerve had they done the unthinkable and actually cast Puerto Ricans as Maria and Bernardo. Sondheim's wholesale rewrite of the lyrics for "America" lends the Sharks significant stature -- amazing to think that civil-rights-era audiences flocked to a film (and snapped up a soundtrack album) featuring couplets like "Life is all right in America / If you're all white in America" -- and Detective Schrank, in a speech that I'm pretty sure wasn't in the stage version, openly sides with the Jets in a fashion so ugly that you'd have to be a dyed-in-the-wool, out-and-proud bigot not to recoil. All of which makes its modernized recapitulation of Romeo and Juliet seem more urgent, less like a typical theatrical stunt. Throw in Bernstein's majestic pseudo-jazz score, Robbins' defiantly balletic choreography, Wise's robust New York location work, and the professional debut of the greatest lyricist the world will likely ever know, and it's hard to go too far wrong. However, the show does suffer from the same problem that afflicts almost every Broadway musical: it's massively frontloaded, with Act Two getting bogged down in obligatory plot resolution (not why we came) and featuring all of the weaker numbers ("One Hand, One Heart"; A Boy Like That" -- admittedly the former was in Act One onstage, but so was "Cool," so call it a tradeoff). Plus I've never understood why you'd bother setting up the traditional Romeo and Juliet ending if you're gonna have Maria show up right before Tony successfully commits suicide-by-Shark, and then let her survive. Subverting the tragedy to some degree is fine, but to what end in this instance? Final shot, while evocative, sees the entire cast just slowly walk out of the frame, as if not sure what they're doing there anymore.

Shame (2011, Steve McQueen)

Previously addressed at TIFF '11, though I somehow failed to mention the most eye-rolling aspect of the narrative: that Brandon's sexual dysfunction so clearly stems from his incestuous desire for Sissy, to the point where Fassbender actually clutches his head in agony when Brandon overhears Sissy fucking his boss. (I love the guy generally but can't fathom how this overripe performance got so much love from the discerning Skandie crew.) Broad strokes are so inept that it's not at all hard to believe that Shame was co-written by the same person responsible for The Iron Lady; at the same time, though, it works beautifully in isolated patches. Last time I singled out the credibly awkward dinner date (and marvel again now at the supremely awkward non-kiss as they part, which is the sort of painfully truthful aspect of dating you almost never see in movies), whereas the standout this time was Brandon's boss hitting on the girl at the bar, which perfectly captures her amused exasperation at his overbearing antics (and lets Fassbender be still and watchful, which he's much better at than crumpling to the ground in the rain and wailing). McQueen still seems to me a superlative filmmaker in search of something to say; this was probably the worst subject he could have chosen.

He Got Game (1998, Spike Lee)

Not as lame as I once thought, mostly because Spike's having such a good time formally -- practicing moves he'd put to more stirring use a few years later in 25th Hour -- and because Denzel gets to be kind of a dick, which always brings out the best in him. You can tell the film was made by someone genuinely in love with the game, which counts for a lot. Bonus points as well for the climactic one-on-one confrontation, which doesn't pretend there's any chance that a middle-aged amateur might best the country's #1 high-school prospect, whatever minor psychological advantage he might have as the kid's dad. Still, the script really is pretty terrible, especially when it comes to women: Mom's a dead saint, Lala's a conniving gold-digger (just thought you should know, nigga), Jovovich's hooker exists only to provide a mercy fuck in exchange for being saved from Generic Abusive Pimp #362, and the only other people onscreen who have breasts are constantly shoving them in Jesus' face as a promise of the carnal carnival awaiting him at their university. Ray Allen doesn't embarrass himself, but neither does he have the sort of presence that compensates for the lack of technical skill, and he's stuck playing a character whose angry nobility, ironically enough, recalls some of Denzel's least interesting early work (and pre-emptively echoes the part of Warrior I found most tiresome, viz. Tom Hardy's bottomless filial resentment). Give Spike credit for attempting to find an original angle on the sports movie, focusing on personal relationships and financial chicanery rather than some threadbare underdog championship narrative, but He Got Game lives up to its title only on-court, where Copland's music can transforms simple dunks into iconic assertions of American will.

Who's Got the Action? (1962, Daniel Mann)

Remember the I Love Lucy episode in which Ricky started betting too much on the horses, so Lucy concocted a typically harebrained scheme to redirect the money back home, talking Fred into telling Ricky he'd found a new, superior bookie and would happily place Ricky's bets through this imaginary fellow, except wouldn't you know it Ricky's losing streak turned into a winning streak and Lucy suddenly had to sell all the furniture and her jewelry and whatnot to pay off massive wagers at 17:1? It was a Very Special Episode: Dean Martin played Ricky as an amiable non-entity, while Lucille Ball, one of the world's great comediennes, was replaced by Lana Turner, who wouldn't recognize funny if...I dunno, if there were a decent joke at the end of this sentence for her to potentially recognize. Point is, this is horribly bloated sitcom fare, rescued from complete disaster by lively supporting turns from the likes of Eddie Albert, Nita Talbot, and the young Walter Matthau (whose bizarrely accented mobster relies on data from one of those room-size, beep-happy computers so prevalent in the '50s and early '60s). The movie's dead air right from the opening scene, which takes a gag-free eternity merely to establish that Dino's so consumed with the track that he pays no attention to his wife, yet somehow fails to clearly establish that Turner is his wife, to the point where it's confusing that the next scene finds them sharing a bedroom (but not a bed, of course). Still, as I've noted before, there's an odd comfort in being reminded now and then that harmless crap like When in Rome and The Bounty Hunter has been clogging movie screens since before most of us were born. When you stumble across a title like this one that you've never heard of, you can almost always rest assured that there's a good reason.

Manhattan (1979, Woody Allen)

I don't understand how you make a film that looks like this and then go on to make 32 subsequent films (and counting) that look nothing like this. But then, neither do I understand how you achieve the perfect synthesis of your many gifts and somehow conclude that you totally whiffed, to the point where you beg the studio to destroy the negative. Each of the film's tricky balancing acts -- between visual beauty and verbal dexterity, between wit and pathos, between the specific and the universal -- couldn't be more sublimely realized; like most every masterpiece, it's a tiny, insular story that nonetheless embodies human folly at its most ubiquitous and grandiose. That Woody chooses to make this explicit, via the opening and closing montages and his use of Gershwin, ranks alongside Malick's creation flashback in the annals of justifiable artistic hubris. (In a way, the Hayden Planetarium scene gets there first.) But his true glory lies in getting every detail right as well, from Mariel Hemingway's achingly unaffected performance to the pools of light emanating from foyers along 76th St. -- to say nothing of that 7 train pulling slowly into the station behind Yankee Stadium (in the Bronx, but oh well) as "Rhapsody in Blue" builds to its crescendo. I watched this time looking hard for anything I might consider a flaw, and the best I can manage is to note that the scene between Isaac and Yale near the end (where Woody's standing next to the early hominid skeleton) cuts back and forth so much, atypically, in shot/reverse-shot that their conversational rhythm gets interrupted by infinitesimal pauses creating in editing. As if anyone can even remember that a few minutes later, when Tracy insists that we have to have a little faith in people, inspiring the single greatest moment of Allen's career as an actor (as opposed to comedian): a range of emotions communicating just about every many-worlds possibility of where these two people are likely to be in six months. Breathtaking and heartbreaking -- some days, this is my favorite film of all time.

Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991, Alek Keshishian)

To say that I wasn't a big Madonna fan in 1991 would be an understatement -- at the time, she seemed to me the epitome of soulless, machine-tooled superstardom, though I now feel predictably nostalgic for the days when chart-toppers had discernible personalities. (Plus I dislodged the stick from my collegiate ass and realized dance music can be fun.) Back then, Warren Beatty's amused contempt for the life-as-performance ethos echoed my thoughts perfectly. Now, I look at this beautifully photographed doc (more nostalgia) and see a fascinating young woman who's working her ass off while struggling to find the most potentially rewarding balance between candor and control, juxtaposed with impressively staged concert footage that revels in the stunning contrast between grainy 16mm b&w and lush 35mm color. She's playing to the camera, but that in itself is often revealing, and it's easy to identify the moments when her guard involuntarily goes down. (The visit to her mother's grave straddles the line between sincerity and artifice in a truly confounding way.) Had you asked me a month ago for my most vivid memory of the film, I would have cited Madonna politely brushing off her childhood friend, which I'd found utterly obnoxious and filed under Prima Donna; this time, it was abundantly clear that the friend's motives are straight out of Us Weekly (think of kids you played with at age five and haven't spoken to since -- would you ask one to be your unborn child's godmother?), and I found myself admiring Madonna's graciousness in handling an awkward situation. Who knows, maybe 20 years from now I'll take a look at Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and be equally surprised. But I really doubt it.

The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)

Movie remains frustratingly lopsided in a way the book apparently is not -- judging from the synopsis, Kip has been neutered to the point of near-irrelevance, functioning solely as a hirsute love interest for Binoche's unfailingly spunky nurse. Which is particularly unfortunate given that the North African flashbacks serve up the most unapologetically swoony and old-fashioned eye-fuck romance of the modern era. Some folks I know find Almásy's treason so unconscionable that it retroactively poisons that whole relationship, but there's a reason why his present-tense incarnation is extra-crispy -- his actions are understood but by no means celebrated or condoned. Or maybe I'm just inclined to be forgiving because sexual chemistry as credibly palpable as that between Fiennes and Scott Thomas is so rare. Minghella's acute understanding of human nature is most evident here in Almásy's futile efforts to resist temptation, and Fiennes savvily plays the Count's hostility toward Katherine as genuine, as if he resents the power she has over him and hates her for embodying his inevitable betrayal. All that stuff is smokin' (except for the too-pointed Herodotus anecdote, which has no purpose save clumsy foreshadowing), which means it's a bit of a drag every time the movie returns to the Italian villa and its comparative non-entities. Strange that Minghella wound up receiving his greatest acclaim for this very uncharacteristic picture; while he handles the scale reasonably well, it's mostly small, intimate moments that connect. If you've read the book: Does Almásy tell Katherine "I just want you to know that I'm not missing you yet," and does she tenderly reply "You will" and then immediately bonk her head into a pole? 'Cause that's handled as dryly and fleetingly as one could possibly hope for.

Now, Forager (2012, Jason Cortlund & Julia Halperin)

Nothing could be dumber than that title (for a fiction feature -- might work for a doc, which I was shocked to discover this ain't), but the film strives mightily to live down to it all the same, contaminating its already precious milieu -- neo-hippies who make a meager living finding and selling wild mushrooms -- with possibly the single douchiest character I've ever seen, predictably portrayed by co-writer/-director Cortlund. (I knew it must be him simply because nobody else would ever cast someone that singularly unappealing.) Quickly creates a rift between its central couple, who seem to have nothing in common save their mutual love for fungi, and then sticks fast to the one we cannot stand; the fact that the movie clearly knows he's insufferable in no way helps.

The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin)

A first-rate procedural that also aspires to serve as a compelling character study and never really quite gets there. Apart from the random "pick your feet in Poughkeepsie" bit, Popeye Doyle is kept far too busy doing actual police work to establish a personality more distinct than generic hothead, which makes the film's last few seconds feel like a Hail Mary bid for psychological depth -- Friedkin and Hackman just haven't earned an ending that startlingly unresolved. (It's still kinda thrilling, though, especially when you consider that this was a box-office smash and Best Picture winner. Them were the days.) All of the standout sequences function virtually without regard to the dramatis personae: You could put Frank Bullitt behind the wheel of that LeMans during the high-speed chase (still the most insanely harrowing ever filmed, for my money, and I've seen The Burglars), or have Harry Callahan perform the beautifully orchestrated subway-car minuet with Fernando Rey (cat and mouse at its finest), and it wouldn't make an iota of difference. It's a pungent portrait of a bust with delusions of grandeur. And am I the only one utterly let down by the scene in which they tear the car apart searching for the heroin (which oddly prefigures Hackman destroying his apartment looking for the microphone at the end of The Conversation)? So much screen time is expended on this that you're primed for the hiding place to be diabolically clever, and then the dude just says, in effect, "I looked everywhere except the guest bathroom" -- and, sure enough, it's in the guest bathroom. WHY DID YOU NOT LOOK THERE.