Films Seen December 2011

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

ARCHIVE: Jun | Jul | Aug | Sep | Oct | Nov

/Starship Troopers/ (1997, Paul Verhoeven): 65

MEDIC!!!! First half still brilliant, pushing po-faced satire to deliriously giddy heights; second half still comparatively tedious, with way too much mindless shoot-em-up. That the video-game aspect also has a satirical purpose doesn't make it any less enervating -- if you've seen one giant CGI pincer-insect splattered into dozens of bright-orange pieces, you've seen 'em all, and here you almost literally will see 'em all. But it's also, I think, that the bugs work far better as a metaphor for the dehumanized enemy when you're seeing them only in brief glimpses via propaganda newsreels, rather than as an actual rampaging horde with no apparent culture or even tools. (It's not clear to me how they're managing to fling asteroids at Earth, since they seem to have the technological prowess of army ants.) You may find that overly literal, and maybe it is, but the movie is just so much richer and more pointed before the war proper breaks out, when Verhoeven simply plays Heinlein's jingoism straight and lets deliberately inappropriate casting and the thinking (left-leaning) viewer's natural revulsion do most of the work. Still not sure what to make of the gender politics, though (especially given that it's all invented; there are no female soldiers in the novel) -- on the one hand, you have the co-ed shower and Carmen's decision to end her relationship with Rico in favor of career advancement, but on the other you have Dizzy choking out "At least...I have you" as she dies, which is so pathetically retrograde that it has to be an intentional punchline. I for one would like to know more.

\The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu\ (2010, Andrei Ujică): 38

Essentially a three-hour avant-garde work organized around a structuring absence, which works fine for me in theory but again (I bailed at Toronto 2010) proves utterly stultifying in practice. Apparently others actually enjoy watching endless footage of Ceausescu speaking for the public record, with all the mighty passion and charisma that state functionaries commonly exude, and/or never tire of looking past the margins of the frame to consider the deprivation and abuses we're not being shown. After about half an hour, though, isn't the point pretty firmly made? Can anyone make a solid case for why the film needed to be three hours long, but would suffer from being, say, eight hours long (assuming there's that much available footage)? Perhaps the most damning thing I can note is that I literally did not remember a single moment as I rewatched the first 40 minutes -- that's how profoundly uninteresting political speeches and photo-ops almost invariably are. (Admittedly there are a few memorable interludes later on, notably the volleyball game and that insane stadium placard tribute in North Korea.) It's as if somebody were to make an epic documentary called Mississippi, 1964, entirely composed of mundane archival footage of white folks having picnics or watering their lawns or whatever, with not a single image of or even verbal reference to African-Americans for the entire three hours. Maybe you could appreciate the rhetorical force of the concept, but do you actually want to sit through it? I dunno, maybe some of you do.

/Nothing Sacred/ (1937, William A. Wellman): 77

Lacks the passionate wallop of the truly great screwballs, which have an undercurrent of genuine pain beneath the fast-talking breeziness. It does however bring the funny and the biting, playing for comedy more or less the same idea that Billy Wilder would make grotesque a decade and a half later in Ace in the Hole. Hecht's witty script speaks for itself, but Wellman, pace his reputation as something of a journeyman hack, contributes a beguiling (if somewhat mystifying) formal playfulness, repeatedly placing obstacles between his actors and the camera. Are we being chided for voyeurism, in keeping with the film's patent disgust at the public craning its collective neck to see Hazel bravely dying? I'm not sure there's a shot from the '30s more perverse than the one in which March and Lombard have a conversation with their heads entirely obscured by an enormous tree branch, or a first kiss less fetishized than Wally and Hazel's, witnessed only via their feet sticking out of a dockside crate. (The camera movement that dollies around the crate to view them lying together in shadow though the slats is aces as well.) Lombard was better playing less ingenuous types, but makes the utmost of her sock-in-the-jaw moment and her curt nods at the Eastern European doctors; March's slightly seedy mien puts an edge on Wally's sacrificial devotion. (Hecht's smartest move was to give him not even the slightest pang upon discovering Hazel's been shamming -- a beat you'd think even the old-time moguls would've demanded.) Most of all, I'm still happy that there's a film from 1937 that includes the line "Oliver Stone is worse than radium poisoning!" Uncanny.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, Rupert Wyatt): W/O

Um, I don't get it. This just seemed like standard-issue mediocre Hollywood blockbuster franchise reboot stuff. Right? Isn't it? Granted, I didn't make it to "Why cookie Rocket?" or indeed much of Serkis' performance, so I imagine there's something to admire further on. But after thrilling to Cruise actually scaling the Burj Khalifa, these blatantly insubstantial CGI apes leaping weightlessly around the frame just seemed tiresome -- and retrograde, really. (I was equally bored by Jurassic Park, and that was almost 20 years ago now.) Also, with all due respect to Mr. Serkis, isn't putting him opposite a slumming James Franco setting the bar for emotional expressiveness kinda low?

/Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol/ (2011, Brad Bird): 69 [was 60]

Better than I'd thought. Third act seemed less of a letdown, for one thing -- there's real Birdlike ingenuity in the parking-garage showdown (which of all the setpieces most resembles something you'd see in a Pixar movie, cf. the climaxes of both Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc.). More than that, though, I found myself unaccountably moved by the denouement, which had actively irritated me the first time to the point where it kinda soured me on the entire film. Theo "I can't be bothered anymore unless prodded" Panayides suggested a starteurist reading in which Cruise, repeatedly foiled by technological failures, ultimately "must go in as himself, leading through a process of emotional unmasking to the glimpse of human contact in the coda -- the [SPOILER], briefly glimpsed from a distance -- all the more affecting for being so minuscule (it's like Tom Cruise is saying 'This is the best I can do.')." Watching the final scene again with that last parenthetical in mind -- and having also just revisited the first M:I, with its utter absence of any sexual tension between Cruise and Béart despite the whole plot being predicated on same -- I suddenly got teary. Even the shaggier, I-ain't-old-yet haircut Cruise wears at the end became weirdly plangent. And then he vanishes into a cloud of steam. There's some self-awareness here, methinks. Best of the lot.

(For films seen the week of 18-25 December, go here.)

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011, Todd Strauss-Schulson): 65

And boom. Far more knowing and inventive right from the jump -- if not for the timing (quick Google research indicates the script was completed by January 2010), I'd swear it was heavily influenced by Community, with which it shares a freewheeling, anything-goes casual surrealism. Some of the material remains too juvenile for my taste (coked-up baby, Christmas Story homage), and the whole subplot involving Elias Koteas' gangster Dad completely fizzles (apart from the headline collage that introduces him). But in the plus column: (1) solid premise, with Harold and Kumar no longer friends at the outset, forced by circumstance to find a middle ground between corporate douche and loser burnout; (2) utter contempt for the 3-D craze, best exemplified by the moment when you're suddenly ducking Danny Trejo's hypothetical tree-delight splooge; (3) racial satire that's actually funny as well as pointed, like the tree salesmen who take turns playing Good Nigga Bad Nigga; (4) numerous Community-style detours into random goofiness -- most notably the Claymation interlude, with its catchy tune "It's a Very Jolly Day (For You to Die)," but also stuff like the flashback to Trejo's childhood memory of his mother being killed by a Korean gang, all of which is handled with terrific panache by Strauss-Schulson (they finally found a bona-fide comedy director); (5) flat-out insanity, viz. WaffleBot ("Has this ever happened to you? Or this?"); (6) by far the best use of "Neil Patrick Harris" to date, pivoting expertly (and with some genuinely disturbing undertones; Harris is just fearless) on public knowledge of his homosexuality and his long-time relationship with David Burtka; (7) etc. Sorry for the laundry list, but I'm not exaggerating in the least when I tell you that I laughed more in the first five minutes of this one than in the entirety of the other two combined. Modest potential finally achieved.

Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (2008, Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg): 43

Ye gods. Even more theoretically admirable than its predecessor, but now the racial material is so pointed that it almost bypasses comedy, to the point where you feel actively lectured. Ed Helms as the translator who can't understand Korean-Americans speaking word-perfect English, for example, pushes the idea of willful xenophobia too far, so that it's no longer rooted in our everyday experience; the joke would have worked better had Harold's parents deviated at least a little bit from correct syntax, or spoken with a slight but perfectly comprehensible accent, but that might have made (self-aware) white viewers a tad uncomfortable, so unleash the cartoon buffoons with whom nobody can vaguely identify! See also Guantanamo Bay with its cockmeat sandwiches, George W. Bush as a secret pothead, etc. Less gross-out material this time, thankfully, and Neil Patrick Harris, now a TV star again (his appearance in White Castle having amounted to an audition for Barney Stinson), gets a lot more to do, along with an exit that would have been awesome had they actually stuck with it. (I sat through the end credits knowing there was gonna be some sort of NPH tag, and sure enough. Though partially that's because he's in the ads for the current one.) Subplot about Kumar's ex- belongs in some Sandra Bullock romcom, but I was at least mildly touched by the math poem, if only because I instinctively knew that came from somebody's actual life -- no screenwriter could possibly have invented it. As with Paranormal Activity, 0-for-2 so far; you fuckers better be right (again) about Volume III...

\Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle\ (2004, Danny Leiner): 47

Rarely seen \backslashes\ signify a film that previously got a W/O, but to which I felt compelled to give a second chance -- in this case, because response to 3-D Christmas has been uniformly positive (even from some people who hated the first two), and because I'm just too stupidly anal-retentive to skip installments in a series. Relieved to find that "Battleshits" was the gross-out nadir, but this is still at best very sporadically funny to my taste, with too many jokes that are juvenile, random or both; even the Neil Patrick Harris cameo (which I didn't get to the first time) amounts to little more than "ha ha he said pussy and trim." Which is a shame, because I love the idea of Harold and Kumar -- actually saw a press screening in April 2004, three months before the film was released and well before there was any buzz, having gotten excited about it strictly on the basis of its cast and title. Cho and Penn have an easy, squabbling chemistry in the venerable Cheech and Chong tradition, and I can readily imagine enjoying a movie about their adventures that doesn't pander to current notions of "extreme" comedy. (Ironically, one of the film's best running gags involves a group of idiot frat guys who proclaim everything extreme, at one point inhaling an entire bag of Doritos with that word on the package as if it were Tony Montana's mountain of cocaine.) Just so long as they kept the subtext about assimilation, outsider status and racial stereotypes relatively light, as it is here...

/Gimme Shelter/ (1970, David Maysles & Albert Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin): 56

Starts off in an intriguing reflexive mode, repeatedly cutting to Jagger and Watts watching the film we're seeing on a Steenbeck...except nothing ever actually comes of this device, apart from a weird, vaguely demonic freeze-frame on Jagger's face when he finally goes to leave, the import of which I'm afraid is lost on me. And the whole doc-within-a-doc thing gets abandoned almost entirely once the movie arrives at Altamont, whereupon it becomes almost indistinguishable from Woodstock for a long stretch. (People who claim Gimme Shelter is the ugly flipside of Woodstock apparently haven't seen the latter in a long time.) Ultimately, rather than a probing social document fashioned from what was meant to be a concert film, it's an ordinary concert film savvy enough to capitalize (albeit not very well) on some unruly shit that happened to go down; that the filmmakers withhold the stabbing until the last few minutes and then promptly wrap things up is just inconceivable to me. Maybe it's a Direct Cinema problem -- what's missing here is a compelling point of view, a sense that the material has been shaped to some overall purpose. (Which, again, is truly bizarre given the Steenbeck interludes, which would seem to be providing precisely that function, but do not.) Fortunately, the concert footage itself is outstanding, though the Stones get their thunder roundly stolen by Ike and Tina at Madison Square Garden. And seriously, is it just me or does Keith Richard play every single classic riff in the wrong key onstage? (I assumed this was age-related in Shine a Light, but he's clearly been doing it all along.) I never recognize the damn songs until Mick starts singing.

/if..../ (1968, Lindsay Anderson): 68

"Occasional stabs at surrealism are downright clumsy," I carped in my Time Out New York review ten years ago, but they work reasonably well for me now -- mostly because they're not in fact "occasional" (which implies "random") but part of a deliberate formal strategy. Anderson spends most of the first hour compiling a keenly observed but relatively low-key portrait of English prep-school life, emphasis on petty tyranny, before gradually introducing discordant elements, many of which vanish almost before you have time to process them. ("Wait, were they just rolling around naked on the floor?") And what a genuine shocker that climax must have been at Cannes, before word got out -- though I was surprised to find that it's not nearly as partisan as I'd remembered/assumed, in that the school (and even some of the visiting parents!) return fire. Were I more interested in tales of systemic abuse, I'd probably be more than mildly impressed, but you really have to go full metal jacket to overcome my resistance to that sub-genre; only the caning sequence, in which Anderson cuts to reaction shots of Travis' mates elsewhere on campus while retaining the audio from the gym (specifically the overwhelming sound of Rowntree running across that hardwood floor to deliver each blow), elevates my pulse much. Well, that and McDowell's galvanizing screen debut in hat and mouth-scarf, which I rhapsodized about in the earlier review. Surprised I said nothing about the matter-of-fact depiction of the Whips using the scum as sex toys (complete with a Van Sant-style angelic blond), but maybe I just felt that was a given. Certainly the movie does.

Young Adult (2011, Jason Reitman): 46

Climactic "inspirational speech" by Matt's sister takes such a cathartic wrecking ball to the pseudo-indie self-discovery template that I made a strenuous effort to re-evaluate the entire movie on that scene's behalf, to little avail. Problem is, while the film's overall shape is admirably frank and truthful, its moment-to-moment details are unerringly glib and phony -- even when it comes to ostensible no-bullshit spokesman Patton Oswalt, playing the former victim of a hate crime who, conveniently for where the story needs to go, wasn't (and isn't) actually gay. Theron tries hard but is saddled with a cartoon notion of arrested development, which might be fine were Mavis not played mostly for pathos rather than jokes; it seems well beyond Diablo Cody's understanding that a person could be shrewd and together in some respects yet still make horrifically misguided decisions. Mavis' let's-get-wasted relationship with Matt couldn't be more painfully contrived if Oswalt were wearing a T-shirt with SOUNDING BOARD on the front and AUDIENCE SURROGATE on the back. And, like, is Buddy supposed to be retarded or what? No straight male, however happily married, is that insensible to blatant please-fuck-me signals, yet there's no indication whatsoever (until the script needs a cheap surprise) that he's aware of Mavis' intentions, much less ignoring her desperation out of pity. I spent pretty much the entire film wincing...and still those last five minutes or so got to me, not so much for their rug-pulling cynicism as for the entire implicit tragedy of Matt's sister's life, embodied by a speech that unwittingly validates a truly repugnant worldview. It's a moment of razor-sharp insight that deserved a far less comfortably spongy context.

Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol (2011, Brad Bird): 60

Here's the thing: He's actually up there. I understand that there was no real danger, that Cruise was safety-harnessed up the wazoo and tons of precautions were digitally removed in post, so forth, but there's still something genuinely awe-inspiring in seeing a setpiece like this that clearly isn't just a CGI construction. I thought I'd forever lost my ability to disbelieve what I'm seeing in a big-budget Hollywood movie, and was thrilled to be proven wrong. Plenty more spectacular absurdity, too, from the opening jailbreak (which demonstrates almost the same degree of screwball kineticism as The Incredibles) to the hi-tech hallway-replacement scrim they use in the Kremlin (extra credit for not explaining in advance how the device works) to the best use of a tracking monitor since Aliens. Sadly, the movie (ahem) peaks in Dubai -- third act, despite the welcome presence of Anil Kapoor, settles for much more routine skullduggery, and also assumes way more investment in the previous installment than I certainly had. We don't care about Ethan Hunt or any of his team as complex individuals, fellas. Just keep putting them in harm's way and then getting them out via the most ludicrous means you can think of. Also, you need somebody to punch up the jokes next time -- it's a bit sad to see poor Simon Pegg saddled with the verbal equivalent of exaggerated double-takes. (I can't even remember any of them to quote for you. That's how bland they are.) Still, three decent-to-good films out of four (sorry John Woo) is a pretty impressive success rate. Serious suggestion for #5: Jean-Pierre Jeunet. You guys gave him totally the wrong franchise.

/Jackie Brown/ (1997, Quentin Tarantino): 70

Used to think the vocal minority who consider this Tarantino's best film were insane, but I can at least glimpse where they're coming from now, even if I still think he's being awarded a lot of bonus points just for depicting a bittersweet middle-aged romance (and resuscitating Grier and Forster). Part of what threw me in '97, when I was a relatively impatient lad, was the disjunction between the movie's convoluted plot and its unhurried pace -- not having read Rum Punch, I don't know for sure how faithful to it Tarantino was, but it feels as if he included all the long, discursive passages that any "sensible" screenwriter would feel obligated to either condense or chuck altogether. Which makes all the gun-running and deal-cutting and double-crossing seem like just a flimsy pretext to spend time hanging out with some interesting, loquacious people (and De Niro's Louis, whose noncommittal blankness for most of the movie I finally recognize as a brilliantly perverse joke). Much as I now enjoy their company, though, there's still a bit of an emotional void at the movie's center, which Tarantino attempts to fill by leaning even harder than usual on pop music as a universal signifier. Sometimes this pays off -- I can't think offhand of another film that gets so much mileage from a car stereo's tape deck (on the wane even at the time), which picks up a mood right where it left off every time you restart the engine -- but at other times Tarantino might as well be standing in the background of scenes holding a gigantic Lloyd Dobler boombox over his head. To paraphrase a snippy tweet (by Mark Asch, I think) that I saw right after Hugo and The Artist won the first two big critics' prizes: YOU LIKE OLD MUSIC WE GET IT.

My Week With Marilyn (2011, Simon Curtis): 31

Saddest thing about this soggy bit of pop-culture piffle is that it makes me lose some respect for Michelle Williams, whose choice of roles had previously suggested uncommon intelligence and taste plus a complete lack of interest in "career moves." At no point does she transcend the sort of wide-eyed surface breathiness you'd get from any impersonation, despite obligatory efforts to capture Monroe's deep-rooted insecurity. And there's a truly embarrassing moment when Norma Jean deliberately flips her Marilyn! switch to ON for an adoring public and all you see is a very talented and quite pretty actress standing there looking not even remotely like the thunderbolt-from-heaven Movie Star My Week so laboriously contrasts with Olivier's highly trained non-magic. That crippling objection aside, though, this is just plain feeble: A blatant wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the memoir's author restores a broken icon to greatness through devotion and understanding, with every emotional beat painfully telegraphed and a strictly tourist's-eye view of how movies are made. Branagh's peevishishness keeps it somewhat bearable, even if he seems to be conflating the role with his own persona (when Olivier wearily quotes Prospero, he sounds just like Branagh's Hamlet); even there, though, the putrid script -- from the dude who wrote Tom and Viv, a movie so boring I'd forgotten it existed 'til just now -- undermines his hard work by saddling him with a maudlin speech in which he acknowledges that Monroe has a natural gift he can never possess. If you told me this film had been adapted from a high school student's C- term paper on Marilyn Monroe for drama class, I'd totally believe you.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010, José Padilha): 69

Much as I admired what Padilha attempted in the first movie (see Michael Sicinski's review for a sharp analysis), reacting oppositionally to BOPE's headbanging for two hours gave me a massive headache. So it's a relief to find that the sequel makes no effort to camouflage its disgust with pretty much every facet of Brazil's ruling class, letting the scales fall slowly from Nascimento's eyes as he realizes what he's been unwittingly enabling. Mostly, though, this one's just much more effective in its guise as an action movie, right from the bravura opening that crosscuts an ugly prison riot with a leftist academic's grim statistics (over 90% of the country will be incarcerated by 2081 if current trends continue, he informs his class, all while being relentlessly mocked in voiceover), then combines the two in a way so patently absurd that I laughed out loud -- it's almost the same joke that Louis C.K. employed to extravagant expense in season one of Louie. Attempts to make Nascimento a genuinely sympathetic, three-dimensional character (via a subplot in which he struggles to connect with his son) fizzle, and ultimately the film merely laments the near-impossibility of substantive reform (while nonetheless insisting that the effort is worthwhile), but its sheer revulsion at the level of corruption is bracing, especially since it somehow manages to be superficially "entertaining" at the same time. Maybe seeing Padilha's fascinating, little-screened doc Secrets of the Tribe, about warring anthropologists, in between the two Elite Squads helped to put me in the correct frame of mind.

Coriolanus (2011, Ralph Fiennes): 64

Skillfully stripped-down translation of a notoriously problematic play -- a tragedy in which nothing precisely tragic happens*, with a protagonist who's never less than fascinating but borders on being inhuman. Not sure a whole lot was gained by the present-day setting (apart from saving a shitload of money on art direction), but shooting in Belgrade does lend a certain despairing quality to what's certainly one of the most physical and least talky Shakespeare movies since Polanski's Macbeth. The big brawl between Martius and Aufidius, in particular, derives considerable power from the juxtaposition of old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat with a blasted modern-day war zone. As director, Fiennes opts for the basics, juxtaposing classical master shots with handheld urgency, and it gets the job done; as lead actor, he tears into Martius' seething, aggrieved misanthropy, and if he can't quite sell the V.iii about-face, in all honesty that's more Shakespeare's fault than any actor's. Coriolanus is just a perverse hero, really -- kind of like Thomas More if More had been a humorless, vengeful dick with a mommy complex. Even if you admire his refusal to ingratiate himself with the common man by parading his scars or declaring his fellowship, it's hard not to feel like he's acting as much out of sheer cussedness as personal integrity. In that sense, the movie concludes on a fitting note, eliding the last few lines ("My rage is gone, and I am struck with sorrow"; "Yet he shall have a noble memory") and funeral march in favor of a callous thud.

* If you didn't study drama in school, be advised that people dying is not inherently tragic.

The Interrupters (2011, Steve James): 57

Doesn't entirely pass my standard test for docs these days: Would I rather be reading a book or lengthy magazine article about this subject? (Indeed, the end credits revealed that James was inspired by a New York Times Magazine story, which didn't surprise me at all.) And it's really super earnest, understandably but also kinda tediously. I confess that I zoned out during the long stretches when the Interrupters were reflecting on their own troubled pasts or hanging inspirational artwork with schoolkids, and perked up considerably at the appearance of Flamo, who initially dismisses CeaseFire as useless ("And I respect y'all, y'know what I'm sayin', what you doin' and everything, that's cool, but fuck that") and seems motivated to give it a chance entirely by the prospect of (literally) a free lunch. (Also, best dialogue exchange of the year: "How many kids you got?" "I'm claimin' four.") And while Lil' Mikey's apology to the employees of the barbershop he'd held up ends in forgiveness and hugs, it's riveting because of the woman who feels the need to verbally assault Mikey with the lingering remnants of her pain and terror before she can work her way around to nobility. Even then, though, I still have what I'll call my Wiseman Problem, which is an unshakeable skepticism about whether people are behaving normally in the presence of a camera -- I tend to feel mollified about this when subjects at least acknowledge that the camera's there, which almost never happens in The Interrupters except during explicit talking-head interviews. The Arbor remains my doc of the year precisely because of how brilliantly it addresses and complicates that sweeping reservation.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson): 44

Something about the way Alfredson constructs his movies makes me break out in hives. Let the Right One In is perfectly straightforward from a narrative perspective, yet the experience of watching it -- even the second time -- was syntactically bewildering, as there seemed to be no relationship between contiguous scenes, or frequently even between contiguous shots. Soderbergh has talked about how he cuts the film in his head as he's shooting it; Alfredson apparently does whatever the opposite of that would be. Same deal here, only this time in a much more convoluted context -- I was able, with some effort, to follow what was going on, but practically every cut found me screaming (out loud on one occasion; I live alone) WHAT THE MOTHERFUCK AM I LOOKING AT? I can handle the occasional jarring edit for effect, or even a nonstop barrage of them in something explicitly experimental (e.g. Container), but an adaptation of an author as stubbornly plot-heavy as Le Carré needs to flow, to guide us expertly through the thicket. I felt repeatedly stranded, and not in a productive way. And find it inexplicable that I seem to be alone (apart from otherwise admiring reviews conceding that the story is confusing, which they invariably abscribe to the source material rather than to the direction). Odds are I would have found this underwhelming even had it been crafted with more care, as there seems to me precious little emotional purchase in Smiley's professional detachment -- the revelation involving his wife at the very end should cut deep, yet even the invented Christmas-party flashbacks expressly designed to achieve that, you know what, that's a function of how they were directed/edited as well. Fuck this dude, how does he have a career?

/White Material/ (2009, Claire Denis): 36

Never wrote anything about this one from Toronto '09, and I'm not exactly overflowing with scintillating thoughts right now, either, to be honest. Basically, there is zero overlap in the Venn diagram of White Material's Raw Materials and Things I Find Even Remotely Interesting; it's a film to which I'm able to forge no connection whatsoever. Huppert's stubborn coffee farmer comes across to me not as intriguingly flawed or arrestingly self-deluded but just as a woman too dumb to recognize when things have gone irretrievably to shit and it's time to cut bait; it's like watching someone head back to their house to get their iPad as everyone else flees an approaching tsunami. The sudden introduction of her son nearly an hour in, followed by his equally sudden transformation (before we've even gotten a sense of who he is) into a deranged skinhead lunatic, seems not bold or powerful but utterly arbitrary...except symbolically, by which light it seems overdetermined. And call me nuts but I find that Denis goes weirdly soft whenever she shoots in Africa, as if her childhood memories dull her talent. (Though maybe it's just that her filmmaking becomes more African, given my longstanding inability to appreciate the continent's entire cinema. I'm convinced now that it's a rhythmic issue, ironic though that may sound.) White Material is undeniably "well-made," so my initial rating (44) was more respectful, but this time I spent the entire movie straining to find something, anything that would rouse me from my indifferent stupor, and there was literally zilch*. Where's "Night Shift" when you really, really need it?

* I do like the composition of the shot I used for this week's image on Listen Eggroll, but it actually took an abnormally long time to find something good. Partly because the few standouts were all used in the ad campaign.

/Strike/ (1925, S. Eisenstein): 67

Way more gag-a-minute than I'd remembered -- if you didn't know this was Eisenstein, you could easily mistake the first reel or two for a flat-out comedy, albeit one in a significantly more caustic register than the great silent clowns tended to employ. Obviously gets grimmer as it goes along, but the entire film walks a tightrope between propaganda and satire, often to disorienting effect; depictions of the ruling class as leering grotesques bump up against realistic shots of dead cats swinging from rafters, and concrete acts of political violence like the hosing of the crowd are followed by atrocities abstract enough to function as live-action editorial cartoons. (Kurtz's death has always been one of my least favorite parts of Apocalypse Now, but I see now where Coppola got the idea to cross-cut it with animal sacrifice.) Amazing to think that this was shot the same year as Potemkin, to which it functions as a sort of antic dress rehearsal. I do wish, given how much time is spent establishing the menagerie of spies, that the movie had more fun with their various animal personae -- for the most part, they're completely interchangeable, and I'm pretty sure several never appear again after being introduced. But maybe that would just get in the way of the collectivism. (I'm not fatuous enough to demand a protagonist.) Also, it's easy to forget today that this was a period piece, set two decades prior (1903); contemporary filmmakers who draw laborious parallels between the past and the present should give it a close look, see how little that sort of thing will likely matter to posterity.

Living in the Material World (2011, Martin Scorsese): 54

Exactly what you'd expect, and devoid of any hint of Scorsese's personality that I could discern. First half is by necessity more a history of the band than a portrait of Harrison as an individual; while it features some terrific archival footage I'd never seen before, it's not notably different in approach or effect than The Compleat Beatles, apart from getting very excited when George finally starts writing songs. (The only truly interesting talking-head moment is when McCartney rather offhandedly suggests that Harrison did so out of a desire for a share of the publishing royalties.) And then Part Two is hampered a bit by the unavoidable fact that Harrison's post-Beatles life just wasn't all that fascinating -- admirable, yes (especially his creation of Handmade Films to finance Monty Python's movies), and certainly the polar opposite of the usual rock-star trajectory into drugs and squalor, but a bit tranquil for this sort of epic account. Even the Pattie Boyd affair gets treated by everyone involved as a non-issue, which I applaud as a pragmatist but bemoan as a voyeur. As with LENNONYC, Beatles fans will want to see it mostly for the wealth of stills, home movies and (in this case) personal correspondence -- we hear several of Harrison's letters to his parents, written during the height of Beatlemania and apparently read by George himself (though it's hard to imagine why he would have put that stuff on tape, unless he specifically meant to leave it for a project just like this one)*. Also why the fuck do I not have "What Is Life" in my iTunes library? Must remedy.

* Chris Stults, who paid closer attention to the end credits than I did, informs me that the letters were in fact read by Harrison's son, Dhani. Which makes perfect sense. Man their voices are similar.

Tomboy (2011, Céline Sciamma): W/O

Ah, Ms. Sciamma. We meet again. I see you're still rocking the whole uninspired-but-sensitive competence thing. Might I suggest that it's not enough merely to place a young girl in an emotionally volatile scenario and then avoid doing anything crass or hamhanded? You make precisely the sort of film that I always get funny looks for bailing on: understated and compassionate, with a protagonist whose inchoate longing strikes a chord with anyone who's ever been a child. All that's missing is a single solitary idea or image or fleeting moment that I haven't seen in 87 movies just like it. (I counted! #didnotcount) Your heart is clearly in the right place, but you need to ask yourself what you have to offer that could only come from you, and then fashion something from that. You think you're the only director that can give me that Céline Sciamma feeling? I got 20 directors under contract I can ask for a Sciamma-type thing from! Now get lost. There's a war on.

/The Tree of Life/ (2011, Terrence Malick): 70

Previously addressed at Cannes. As much as I admire Malick's universe-spanning ambition, and thrilled again to the creation interlude, this really works best for me as a completely random memory play, unencumbered not just by narrative but by any dramaturgical notion of "conflict." The more Pitt's taskmaster dad becomes the film's emotional fulcrum, the more I disengage, whereas ostensibly mundane stretches of everyday life often have me on the brink of tears. Reflection of wiggling hands in a bucket of water; tree frog climbing a stack of grass that bends beneath its weight; quick glimpse of the kids in Halloween costumes; Mom reading Beatrix Potter at bedtime; "That's where God lives" (which would normally make me gag but accompanied by Smetana's "Vltava" and Chastain spinning truly seems religious); garden hose; sparklers; a shot of Mom bending over to kiss one of the sleeping boys in which the angle of her body suggests utter devotion -- I don't know that a feature-length movie could sustain that level of suburban iconography, but I would have liked to have seen Malick try. (If there must be drama, the bit where Jack shoots his brother's finger with the air rifle and then apologizes with a fan, kisses, and an offer to get decked by a 2x4 is more my speed than all the filial angst, which I'm sure is true to Malick's experience but nonetheless feels overly familiar.) And with due respect to those who've valiantly defended it, the ending still seems unbearably kitschy no matter what interpretation one favors. Maybe that's the inevitable flipside of unbearably moving.