Technically I'm retired, but that needn't stop me from assigning grades and making glib remarks, need it...?

Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano): B-

Not as generically touching as I'd dreaded -- regular readers may recall that Grumpy Adult Bonds with Adorable Tyke is not exactly my all-time favorite dramatic scenario -- but not what you'd call especially memorable, either; it seems more like a promising debut than like the latest effort by one of contemporary cinema's most renowned auteurs. As usual, Kitano's visual sense is impeccable, and he's loosened up a bit as an actor this time around (I counted at least three genuine smiles!); the plot is basically Central Station meets Big Daddy, though, and its third act is virtually a carbon copy of the terrific middle section of Sonatine, only minus the yakuza-related tension that made that film's various games and pranks so oddly plangent. That I didn't actively loathe it is a testament to the skill with which Kitano avoids easy sentimentality (for the most part -- there are a couple of egregious exceptions) and invests offbeat energy into odd-couple/road-movie clichés. They're still clichés, however. [Opens 26 May 2000 in NYC.]

The Target Shoots First (Christopher Wilcha): B

As noted below, I don't usually review movies that I see on video, but I'm willing to make an exception for movies that were shot on video, and doubly willing in the case of a personal-essay film as thoroughly engaging as Wilcha's account of his time as a drone in Columbia House's marketing department, circa the 'Alternative Explosion' of 1993-94. It's not as incisive as it might have been -- what thematic interest there is exists almost entirely in Wilcha's retrospective voiceover, rather than in the footage itself -- but you still get a sense of how absurdly ugly it can be when a corporate monolith attempts to harness rebellious energy for commercial gain, plus a cautionary tale of good intentions that unexpectedly backfired. But I'm making it sound all heavy and angst-y, when in fact it's funny as hell; Wilcha's co-workers, mostly disaffected artist-types, have a sarcastic aside for every occasion ("May I call you 'Ooo'? For 'Oh Omniscient One'?"), and it's a blast watching a group of snot-posed punks revamp a catalog feature called 'More Music Now' into 'More Music Mao.' No distributor, but curious New Yorkers can catch it at the forthcoming NY Underground Film Fest; it screens Thu 9 Mar at 7:30pm, Anthology Film Archives.

Titus (Julie Taymor): B

Bill Shakespeare wrote this?!? Believe it or not, Taymor's imaginative, highly theatrical (surprise!) adaptation represents my first encounter with Titus Andronicus in any form, and my puzzled reaction is not unlike the one I had to The Winslow Boy, viz. "Why fly coach when first-class is both available and the same price?" There's always something to gawk at, to be sure, but the overall experience is disappointingly hollow; as I said to my sister while filing out of another Taymor production: "That was incredible...but it was still The Lion King." Performances mostly good, but also a perfect illustration of the difference between being a great actor and being a great Shakespearean actor: Derek Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins are clearly in the same ballpark as general thespians, but the former, playing Chorus in Branagh's Henry V, manages the whole trippingly-on-the-tongue thing perfectly, whereas Hopkins' line readings, and those of most of the rest of this cast (Alan "what planet am I from?" Cumming excepted), tend to be rather monotonously iambic: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. (It may seem rather churlish to complain, but truly it doth grate upon mine ear.) So why a 'B', then? C'mon: Bill Shakespeare wrote this.

Judy Berlin (Eric Mendelsohn): C+

Saw this one nearly a year ago now (when it had no distributor and seemed unlikely to find one), so my memory is regrettably hazy. I do recall repeatedly rolling my eyes at its central metaphor, though -- viz. a total solar eclipse that mysteriously lingers for hours on end, forcing the characters to, yes, look at things in a different light -- and the word that keeps popping into my head w/r/t everything else is 'fussy,' even if I'm not sure exactly what I mean by it. Certainly I can understand why so many folks are embracing the picture -- Mendelsohn's heart is in the right place, and it's always refreshing to see an indie film devoid of easy sarcasm and knee-jerk cynicism -- but ultimately it left me with very little apart from a renewed appreciation for Edie Falco and the late Madeline Kahn, plus the conviction that more movies should be shot in b&w. Sorry so superficial; best I can do at this late date.

Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson): B-

Fascinating war being waged here between the tidy and the chaotic, pay-attention-now gravitas and what-the-hell insouciance. That the less spontaneous faction ultimately proves victorious is a crying shame, because the picture is never more engaging than when it feels like it's being invented on the fly; its best scenes take their cue from Robert Downey Jr.'s manic energy and off-kilter emotional syntax, even when Downey isn't actually onscreen. Unfortunately, every time it starts to get into a groove, a Theme ostentatiously emerges ("remember when you told us that being a writer is all about making choices?"), and suddenly everything seems preserved in amber. Indeed, the film's most serious flaw is virtually unprecedented, in my experience: it's overlit. Dante Spinotti's cinematography is so distractingly gorgeous that it overwhelms the action rather than illuminating it; the film's agreeably eccentric vibe is undermined at every turn by visual splendor. (Only Tobey Maguire's too-studied performance as a moody lit major seems to merit all that ambience.) Basically, it just feels like Hanson's trying too hard...but then, I suppose that if I'd suddenly been proclaimed a genius after years of making tired genre retreads like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild, I'd be a bit keyed up myself.

Beautiful People (Jasmin Dizdar): C-

I don't mean to squelch anybody's ambition, but might I humbly suggest that budding auteurs learn to tell one story in coherent fashion before attempting to juggle, like, ten? (Remember, even P.T. Anderson started with the comparatively straightforward Hard Eight.) At one point in this hopelessly muddled exercise in cross-cutting (its patronizing theme: immigrants from former Yugoslavia can transform the stale lives of uptight Brits via sheer exuberance and/or soulfulness), I was convinced that a reel had either been left out or misordered, so clumsily and haphazardly did various narrative strands lurch forward; the picture clocked in at the expected 107 minutes, however, so I can only assume that Dizdar slashed the original two-and-a-half-hour cut to ribbons in an attempt to make it more attractive to exhibs and/or distribs. The alternative is sheer incompetence, and I'm not quite that cynical. Not yet, anyway.

Boiler Room (Ben Younger): C

Amazing to me that most everybody seems to like this stale baguette of a movie; apart from a blood-pumping soundtrack and strong work by Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, and Nicky Katt, it's got virtually nothing to recommend it. I suppose I might have been willing to forgive the hamhanded father/son melodrama (not since Neil Diamond defied Laurence Olivier...) and the tepid inter-office/-racial romance (sample dialogue: "What're you looking for?" "I'm lookin' for some chocolate love") and the surfeit of scenes lifted lockstock from other, better movies (yeah, Younger cops to it, directly citing his sources, but so what?) had I been remotely captivated by the anxious bluster and desperate bravado of the film's many workplace sequences. Alas, no: the testosterone-poisoned atmosphere is heady for a moment or two, but the film's energy remains entirely on its surface, and Younger's faux-Mametian riffs ultimately feel...well, faux. And his one clever idea -- that these boisterous young turks are essentially insecure wannabes, parroting the macho attitude of fictional characters like Ricky Roma and Gordon Gekko -- remains tantalizingly unexplored.

Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh): B

Soderbergh's first stab at the based-on-a-true-story genre begins as a breezily assured and visually unorthodox character study, then gradually metamorphoses into a conventionally entertaining docudrama -- basically A Civil Action in halter tops and miniskirts. It's a star vehicle through and through, and Julia Roberts makes a gourmet eight-course meal of the script's numerous fiery cut-the-crap monologues; with the possible exception of Holly Hunter, it's hard to think of another big-name actress who could spit out lines like "that's all you got, lady: two wrong feet in fuckin' ugly shoes" with such casually venomous expertise. The plot periodically gets bogged down in legal minutiae (let's be honest: the phrase 'hexavalent chromium' fascinates for only so long), and poor Aaron Eckhart is saddled with the ever-irritating role of the Neglected, Long-Suffering Love Interest (at least the gender reversal is somewhat refreshing), but for the most part it's sturdy, craftsmanlike stuff; ironically, I might've liked it even more had the first reel dazzled me a bit less. [Opens 17 March]

Pups (Ash): D-

It's not often you see a movie in which literally every moment rings absolutely false; this one lost me almost immediately, when a 12-year-old girl responds to a gunshot with the words "my nipples are singing!" (This is intended as naturalistic drama, you understand, not some Gregg Araki fantasia.) Yes, it's Dog Day Afternoon again (see below), this time with media-warped children (one of them, heavy sigh, asthmatic; asthma-as-symbol-of-underlying-vulnerability is now vying with caged-bird-as-symbol-of-yearning-for-inner-freedom for the dubious title of Dumbest Narrative Trope Ever) at the forefront. Unfortunately, Ash's sensibility seems to have been equally distorted by popular culture -- at least, nobody in his movies ever exhibits anything remotely resembling actual human behavior. More interesting to me than anything onscreen was the silent drama taking place in the theater: after two reels, I was ready to walk out -- something I almost never do -- but reluctantly remained in my seat because leaving would have meant clambering awkwardly past a couple to my left. (This is why Charles François tends to sit on the aisle.) As the film droned on, however, and several other folks decided that they had better uses for their time (something involving grout, I suspect), I began silently willing my rowmates to follow suit. Incredibly, they did, about an hour or so in...just as MTV's Kurt Loder finally turned up in a funny, self-mocking extended cameo that temporarily made the film semi-watchable. By the time he disappeared, I figured I might as well ride it out, and so Pups narrowly avoids the 'F' that it so richly deserves. Avoid seeing Pups. Don't let my suffering have been in vain.

(As a general rule, I don't write here about movies seen on video, but I do want to say a quick word in defense of last year's much-reviled weepie Random Hearts, which I just saw on assignment for EW and found surprisingly dark and disturbing, especially w/r/t Harrison Ford's thoroughly unsympathetic performance as a man more upset about his wife's infidelity than about her sudden death. Is it a good movie? No, not really. But underneath its polished, maudlin surface is a scenario that's borderline Egoyanesque; I can imagine him fracturing the chronology, reconfiguring it in his own image, and producing a masterpiece. It's a failure, but a fascinating one, and nowhere near as dire as its reputation suggests; I finally located an ally in Matt Zoller Seitz, with whose negative but discerning review I concur almost 100%.)

Drowning Mona (Nick Gomez): B-

What -- aside from plenty of cash, that is -- attracted indie stalwart Gomez to a project that's clearly intended to be More Ruthless People is uncertain, but the result is bizarrely schizophrenic: one-half labored Hollywood farce, one-half appealingly off-kilter comedy. The former involves the main storyline and the famous faces (DeVito as a small-town cop obsessed with Broadway musicals, Midler in full-blown harridan mode); the latter takes place mostly in the margins, and features actors so obscure that they aren't even included in the current version of the IMDb cast list (plus William Fichtner, typically Fichtneresque). After a while, I gave up trying to figure out whether it was a big dumb studio picture with subversive elements or a brilliant, eclectic sleeper fatally compromised by commercial considerations, opting simply to ignore its excesses and revel in its weird little flourishes. Screenwriter Peter Steinfeld -- this is his first produced script, apparently -- excels with wordplay (confusion about whether someone said 'overalls' or 'ovaries'; a mechanic who interrupts police questioning to explain the conditional), and he has the rare and wonderful knack -- Garry Trudeau is the master -- of telling a good joke, then unexpectedly trumping it with an even better one. Example: Two guys standing before grave. Guy 1 reads tombstone aloud: "Here lies Mona Dearly -- demoted wife, mother and dressmaker." Beat. Furrowed brow. Another beat. Turns to Guy 2: "I didn't know she made dresses."

Outlaw! (Enzo Monteleone): B-

Impossible to avoid the comparison to Dog Day Afternoon, and the resemblance does this lightweight botched-escape saga no favors, if only because few actors in screen history have been as singularly electrifying as Pacino was between '71 and '75. More importantly, Lumet's film seemed in some indefinable way to capture the tenor of its time, whereas Outlaw! -- a more sober and thoughtful film than that exclamation point suggests, by the way -- merely rehashes a mildly intriguing footnote in the annals of Italian crime and punishment. Don't get me wrong -- on its own terms (to the extent that I can even determine which terms those are), it's reasonably diverting and occasionally insightful; certainly it's a marked improvement on that sluggish Oscar-winning tub of goo Mediterraneo, which Monteleone penned before turning auteur. But in spite of a rousing brass-heavy score -- its infectious main theme repeated over the closing credits -- I left the theater humming Elton John's "Amoreena." Not a good sign.

Orphans (Peter Mullan): B-

A strange grab-bag of moods, this one, mixing quiet naturalism (Michael's awkward, painfully wistful encounter with his ex-wife), strained absurdism (the same character's almost bring-out-the-gimpesque adventure in a pub just a few minutes later), and a couple of other tonal variations for which no convenient 'ism' leaps readily to mind. Never quite gels as a study of grief-by-dissociation -- the we-are-family denouement, in particular, feels rushed and perfunctory -- but memorable anecdotes abound, and Mullan, against all odds, has assembled an ensemble of performers nearly as gifted as himself (with extra marks to Douglas Henshall -- nice to finally see him again, four years after Angels and Insects -- and Frank Gallagher). His skill behind the lens, on the other hand, needs a bit of refining; if nothing else, somebody needs to inform him that there's no point in panning 360 degrees from present to past and back again if you're gonna fade out/in twice en route. I'd be more than happy to lend him my copy of Lone Star, if he needs some pointers. [Opens 10 March 2000 in NYC]

[ANCILLARY RANT: Like My Name Is Joe, in which Mullan played the title role, Orphans has been subtitled for its U.S. run, on the grounds that many Americans won't understand the characters' heavy Scots accents. For some reason, however, whoever did the job this time opted to freakin' translate the dialogue -- and not merely the slang ('condom' substituted for some much more colorful sobriquet, etc.), but perfectly straightforward phrases that are merely minor idiomatic variants from other English dialects (i.e., "what age is your mum?" becomes "how old is your mum?"). It's extremely annoying, and I wish a lingering bout with influenza on the person or persons responsible.]