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

The Green Mile (Frank Darabont): C+

Avoided this one for a long time, despite moderately good reviews, because the notion of Darabont-style bombast in service of a Christian allegory made me feel slightly ill. (I finally caved in because it was the only film appearing in Alex Fung's critical consensus survey that I hadn't seen.) As it turns out, my worst fears were indeed realized; Darabont even invents a scene in which Coffey watches Astaire and Rogers cut a rug in Top Hat, thus allowing our condemned savior to obsessively mutter the phrase "heaven, I'm in heaven" as he's strapped into the chair. (Ye gods.) By any semi-objective standard it's a pretty terrible movie, hamhanded and meretricious...yet I have to admit (grudgingly) that its three hours felt more like two and insignificant change, and that every now and then, apparently by accident, Darabont gets the tone exactly right -- the introduction of Mr. Jingles, for example, accompanied by another jauntily evocative score by Thomas Newman (American Beauty), is thoroughly winning, a near-magical diversion in the lives of these emotionally exhausted men (or maybe I'm just a sucker for cute little mice scurrying about). Requiems for Story have become commonplace of late in egghead film journalism -- we're supposed to be too sophisticated now, a meta-Audience, bored by traditional three-act coziness -- but that a movie as bad as this one can remain compulsively watchable is a testament to the enduring power of what-happens-next.

The Cup (Khyentse Norbu): C

Hope you find the concept of teenaged monks who are obsessed with soccer matches endlessly amusing, because that's all that this offensively inoffensive movie has to offer; watching it is the cinematic equivalent of making a fuss over the newborn kittens in a pet store. Awww, aren't they adorable, with their little shaved heads and their big oversized robes and their singleminded pursuit of a satellite dish that'll allow them to witness France v. Brazil? It's a classic example of what I'll dub the Fallacy of the Profane Granny: the mistaken belief that a single mundane incongruity (see, they're monks, but they're more interested in penalty kicks than in prayers!) is sufficient to inspire big laughs, or in this case relentless good cheer. Oh, and the film's ostensible climax, as the foregoing implies, basically finds you the viewer sitting and staring at a screen watching a bunch of other people who are sitting and staring at an even smaller screen -- your entertainment is the sight of somebody else being entertained. Lemme outta here.

Life Is to Whistle (Fernando Pérez): C

Every movie -- with the possible (and I stress 'possible') exception of some of these newfangled European "co-productions" -- reflects to some degree the contemporary circumstances of the locale in which it was shot and/or conceived. They all do. It's inevitable; unavoidable; a done deal before the cards have even been shuffled. Hence my exasperation with films that pointlessly set out to function as a metaphorical Portrait of [Wherever]; it's the geographical equivalent of my well-known antipathy for therapy flicks. Here we have a movie in which one of our three protagonists -- yes, it's yet another narrative triptych -- has an ambivalent, love/hate relationship with his (absent) mother, and just in case we're too obtuse to grok that there's symbolic content to be deciphered, Pérez has helpfully named the woman Cuba. Why do I get the feeling that he also flaps his arms as the plane leaves the runway, just to "help out"?

The Quarry (Marion Hänsel): D+

Ponderous, lethargic arthouse sludge, taking what is essentially a comic premise (utilized in both Happy, Texas and the Neil Jordan remake of We're No Angels) and turning it into ersatz Camus*, all studied anguish and "significant" pauses and people trudging symbolically from/into the distance. (You've never seen so much goddamn trudging; I'll forever think of this movie as Trudge Priest.) I went mostly because I was eager to see John Lynch in what I think may be his first leading role since Cal sixteen years ago; turns out he's playing a character who's listed in the credits as The Man, which frankly enough said as far as I'm concerned.

* (If I have my way, Ersatz Camus will be the name of the next Bond villain.)

The Terrorist (Santosh Sivan): B-

Yet another movie seemingly hell-bent on winning an award for Best Cinematography -- plus, in this case, Most Artful Deployment of Raindrops on Human Skin. Actually, I quite liked Sivan's signature shot, in which an extreme close-up dominates half of the frame while somebody else approaches or recedes out of focus in the opposite half; many of his other setups, though, seemed to me to be calculatedly striking -- as is often the case when inventive visuals overshadow a movie's emotional impact rather than complementing it. Ayesha Dharkar, who plays the film's eponymous political assassin, has a wonderfully expressive face -- sharp strands of jet-black hair falling like vertical venetian blinds over enormous, wary eyes -- and Sivan leans on her troubled visage as if his entire movie depended upon it...which in point of fact it does, since the story's a hoary, melodramatic clunker. Has its moments, though, and so I tried my best to be John Malkovich -- he's "presenting" it in the U.S., having flipped for it at the Cairo Fest -- but by the end I must confess that I was all too eager to look away, look away.

Play It to the Bone (Ron Shelton): C-

Perhaps it's in honor of Charles Schulz's recent retirement that Touchstone Pictures is releasing the wishy-washiest movie in recent memory, consisting of (a) ninety minutes of perfunctory road-trip bickering, en route to (b) a climactic reel-long boxing match in which there's nobody to root for (resulting in a painfully predictable decision), not to mention (c) an irritating subplot in which Lolita Davidovich kinda sorta loves both Woody and Antonio but also kinda sorta doesn't want to be with either one of them, hyperactively vacillating until I kinda sorta wanted to punch her in the jaw. Easily Shelton's laziest, most forgettable picture to date (the Kevin Costner cameo only makes matters worse); it does feature one truly great throwaway joke, though, possibly inspired by Johnny Depp's infamous "Wino Forever" tattoo.

trans (Julian Goldberger): C

A confession: I tried to watch this film last spring, when it was screened as part of New Directors/New Films, and conked out after roughly half an hour, awakening to find the end credits scrolling ceilingward. At the time, I assumed I'd lost consciousness out of sheer, unadulterated boredom; second go-around was a somewhat less enervating experience, though -- possibly because in the intervening months I spent nearly a week visiting the rinky-dink town of Ft. Myers, Florida, where the film is set and was shot. (My thanks again to Bill and Melody, if they're by any chance reading this.) Goldberger nails the peculiarly prosaic vibe of southwestern FL, and does a fine job of evoking a mood both carefree and desolate -- but that's all he does, and ultimately his improvised road movie is far too sketchy and aimless for my taste. Atmosphere is easy; storytelling is hard.

Not One Less (Zhang Yimou): B+

Nothing like an obsessive quest to keep a story moving forward; I didn't read the production details outlined in the press kit, but I can guarandamntee you that nobody involved ever felt compelled to ask "yes, but what does our heroine really want?" Like Zhang's equally unlovely The Story of Qiu Ju, this anti-elegant ode to sheer determination ultimately feels more Iranian than Chinese; in fact, with its adorable, poverty-stricken moppets and its muleheaded, peripatetic protagonist, it very nearly qualifies as an uncredited remake of Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's House?, albeit one with a spikier sense of humor. (A recurring bit in which Teacher Wei turns her financial dilemmas into impromptu lesson plans grows more and more hilarious as it becomes more and more apparent that instructor and pupils are pretty much equally confounded by the requisite math -- hardly surprising, really, since the age difference is only a couple of years.) Unfortunately, the picture gets all gooey in the final reel, belatedly turning into a tract in support of increased education spending -- a development foreshadowed by an irritatingly intrusive musical score (used sparingly, thank christ). Still, compared to the lifeless costume epics we've been seeing from the mainland lately, this is the proverbial breath o' fresh air, and a fine start to the new year. [Opens 18 February 2000 in NYC]

The Hurricane (Norman Jewison): C-

"Writing is a weapon," intones Denzel to his young disciple late in the going. Yeah: a sledgehammer, in this case, wielded by a pair of screenwriters who apparently believe that anything worth saying once will only grow more and more fascinating with each subsequent repetition. They extend this maddening ethos even to brief snatches of dialogue: telling the film's impossibly dull Canadian trio that he's seen numerous well-meaning let's-free-Rubin enthusiasts come and go, an attorney solemnly explains that "Nobody lasts. Nobody...stays the course. Nobody...goes the distance." Yo: nobody...talks like that. Nor do corrupt, racist cops grind their jaws in open court like ruminating cattle. Nor -- I'm still guffawing, days later -- is an investigative team likely to adorn a witness' profile, tacked up on a bulletin board, with a 3x5 card on which the word 'LIAR' has been carefully stencilled. (Stencilled!) After a year of uncommonly ambitious and challenging (if rather flawed) Hollywood fare, it's rather startling to see something this coarse and liberal-hokey; if not for Washington's typically earnest performance, I might easily have mistaken it for camp. Bob Dylan did more with Carter's story in seven minutes than Jewison manages in two-and-a-half hours. And he didn't even have a happy ending to work with.