Films Seen July 2011

(As noted at the top of the main page, these mini-reviews are being offered in a Radiohead-style pay-what-you-wish format, monthly "subscription" entirely on the honor system. Throw me a few bucks if you can, enjoy anyway if you can't or would rather not.)

(ALSO: If you want to comment on any of this stuff, I'm also posting it over at Listen Eggroll. And I need to work out a filing system, but for the moment, last month's log can be found here.)

/Videodrome/ (1983, David Cronenberg): 52

Tricky one. Intelligent, provocative, in many ways prescient...but I don't find it terribly satisfying, and I think that's because it's really just a bunch of half-digested ideas thrown together in an essentially meaningless narrative. (In that respect, it reminds me a bit of Egoyan's Adoration, though the two films have little else in common apart from being chilly and Canadian.) Television is alternately portrayed as seductive and immersive -- "come to Nicki," purr Deborah Harry's giant lips, whereupon our hero enters the screen headfirst -- or as a means of passively consuming images of pain and degradation; it's both hot and cool, as needed, and not in a way that seems coherently diametrical. And while the "new flesh" bit is obviously a longstanding Cronenbergian trope, it doesn't really coalesce (so to speak) with Videodrome-the-program(me) and our alleged appetite for truly senseless violence. ("It's just torture and murder. No plot, no characters. Very, very realistic. I think it's what's next.") Any given five or ten minutes of the movie look fantastic, but watched start to finish it plays like a compilation album of Cronenberg's Greatest Hits, even though some of those singles hadn't yet been recorded at the time. For my money, demonlover, while it has problems of its own, is a far more successful meditation on similar themes, perhaps because it employs a single controlling metaphor rather than lurching from one memorably repulsive setpiece to the next. Even classic moments require context.

/An American in Paris/ (1951, Vincente Minnelli): 58

Was curious to see whether my allergic reaction to Leslie Caron would still kick in, and indeed it did; how anybody could look twice at her when Nina Foch is practically swan-diving into his pants is beyond my comprehension. Even disregarding that bias, though, I'd put this firmly in the second or even third tier of classic Hollywood musicals. Book is a snooze enlivened solely by Foch and the occasional mordant joke from Levant (whose big "solo" stops the movie dead for no reason save to give him something to do), while several of the numbers are infected by M. Guétary, who's like the French version of Allan Jones. (MGM did love their vapid male "heartthrobs.") Only the climactic ballet really stands out, and even that's due more to the riot of color than to the choreography. Mostly of interest today as a reflection of post-war American mores, even if they differ from our own only by degree: Sexism is by no means dead, and men still generally don't like being financially dependent upon a woman, but I doubt a contemporary audience would work up the level of sheer disgust that this movie clearly expects the Jerry-Milo relationship to inspire, to the point where she gets cruelly ill-used by him and then, incredibly, just plain forgotten. The lovers clinch as the picture fades, and we're not to think of the lonely woman who had her hopes raised out of spite and then dashed. No movie featuring this much of Gene Kelly singing and tapping to the Gershwins could fail to be pleasant, but pleasant is pretty much where it tops out; I can only assume its Best Picture nod involved the same streak of Francophilia that has everyone so gaga about Woody Allen's latest.

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (2011, Matthew Bate): W/O

Okay, I'm clearly missing something here. Reliable reports suggest that this film does eventually get around to wondering whether it's perhaps a tad grotesque to treat the incoherent ranting of two mentally disturbed individuals (I'm gonna go ahead and file alcoholism under Mental Disturbance, though I'm not convinced that's all we're hearing) as mass entertainment. But I'm frankly horrified that anyone feels like that's arguable enough to postpone. It's like I just watched 40 minutes of minor celebrities talking about how much they enjoy jerking off to secret footage of Josef Mengele's surgical experiments, in a movie that'll address the ethical implications later on. Why don't we stick a microphone in various asylums and record some paranoid schizophrenics? That'd be really fucked up! But come on. I'm not against hipsters. Cono -- no, not even Conor Oberst. I am of course very much for hipsters. No, not too much because Williamsburg is a pain in the ass. Okay, I'm a prig.

/Revenge/ (1990, Tony Scott): 42

After a brief discussion with one of the friends who insisted this film isn't the pointless exercise in stylish brutality I dimly remembered, I think I see what the problem is (and can now retroactively explain why the original Postman Always Rings Twice got a meager 52). Torrid, obsessive affairs involving people who barely speak to each other put me to sleep. This is a longstanding argument I've had with another friend who's regularly attracted to gorgeous idiots, and who reliably notes that you do not have a deeply intellectual conversation with someone when you are fucking them. For me, however, sexual attraction is far more mental than physical (even though I do very much have a physical type), so the whole "the instant I saw her I knew that I must possess her...completely, irrevocably, adverbially" thing leaves me utterly cold. As a result, I'm kinda rooting for Anthony Quinn in this picture, though it doesn't help that Costner is so bizarrely whitebread (even given the milieu) -- he'd demonstrate that he can do ruthless a few years later in A Perfect World, so I can only assume he was overly concerned with his image at the time. (I watched the "director's cut," which reportedly elides a lot of dialogue suggesting that Ray feels guilty about what he's doing, all of which was -- again reportedly -- included in the theatrical version at Costner's insistence.) Final confrontation between Ray and Mendez is unexpected and affecting, and the film does end on an unusually downbeat note...but even there, you've got two people whispering "I love you" and me wanting to shout at the screen "You don't even know each other, you dolts!"

/Manon of the Spring/ (1986, Claude Berri): 68

...and holy crap, she was just unearthly beautiful back then. To the film's detriment, arguably -- Ugolin's obsession with Manon isn't much removed from, say, Dudley Moore's with Bo Derek, apart from being tragic rather than comic; she's more a Vision of Pastoral Loveliness (with a grudge, obviously) than a full-fledged character. (Also, it's pretty hard to swallow that this is the first time he's seen her since she hit puberty, since she's clearly roaming all over the area. Smacks of a writer's contrivance, as does the entire village's bewilderment about the source of their water supply.) Depardieu is sorely missed, and Auteuil goes even further over the top (watching this film back-to-back with Un coeur en hiver would provide an ideal definition of "range," not just in terms of acting but also susceptibility to overpowering Béartitude), but Montand brings it all home in the finale, conveying César's grief and horror at the Oedipus-caliber revelation (which I'd somehow completely forgotten until the scene began, then it was OH SHIT THAT'S RIGHT ULTIMATE FAIL) without any need for histrionics. On the whole, a significantly lesser film than Jean de Florette, but to some extent that's just a natural consequence of it being not a sequel but a prolonged third act, tasked with all of the falling action and none of the rising. If I were prepared to consider the two as a single film (which I can't bring myself to do given that they were released several months apart, even in France), the rating would theoretically be 73, but I suspect 71 or 72 -- high B as opposed to low B+ -- would be more likely, simply because the relative disappointment of the second half would be fresher than the (rather depressing) highs of the first.

/Jean de Florette/ (1986, Claude Berri): 78

I see now why this appealed to me so strongly when I first started watching foreign-language films: It barely pauses for breath. Nuytten photographs the Provençal countryside with a painter's eye, but Berri's in too much of a hurry to let things get tourist-y; every shot, every line, every microscopic beat pushes the story inexorably forward. Which seems faintly vulgar from the perspective of today's almost uniformly contemplative festival fare, but once you make the adjustment it remains a sadistically compelling yarn, depicting the underhanded destruction of a well-meaning idiot in such laborious detail that it almost plays like agricultural torture porn. (It's very much to Pagnol's credit that Jean deserves much of the blame for his plight, despite the machinations of César and Ugolin. His absurd faith in manuals and statistics allows him to be repeatedly misled.) Auteuil now seems a tad overripe in his Igor-style affectations -- this was the first film I ever saw him in, so I didn't realize at the time what a stunt his performance is -- but Depardieu and especially Montand are magnificent, elemental yet wholly credible. Hard to know how to "judge" the film on its own, since it's really just the first half of a single four-hour movie, but you get enough of an inkling that Manon may prove troublesome in future to take the final shot's baptismal exultation with a grain of salt. Now to (re)adjust my expectations regarding Emmanuelle Béart's lips and breasts...

/Out of Sight/ (1998, Steven Soderbergh): 82

There is a scene missing from this movie. I don't know what it is, or should be, but I can acutely feel its absence. It would take place between "Gary" and "Celeste" (Best Scene, 1998 Skandies; was suddenly overpowering for me this time, as in tears flowing) and the Ripley break-in, and would complicate or undermine the romance in some way. As it is, that relationship is just too neat: They meet cute; they flirt from afar and when briefly crossing paths; the consummation finally happens in simultaneous flash-forward; and then it's straight to the finale and the showdown, with no time for apprehension or regret apart from some pillow talk (which is too soon). All of which, oddly enough, is by way of saying that I now recognize Out of Sight as more than the entertaining trifle it seemed to me upon release -- there's a real, tangible desperation underlying much of the bluster, though Soderbergh's deceptively breezy, jazz-inflected rhythm makes it tricky to spot. And a lot of the credit goes to Lopez, whose admirably steely performance here has never been tarnished for me simply because I haven't seen her in anything since. (Between her and Andie MacDowell, I think we can officially declare Soderbergh a magician of some kind.) What makes the big hotel scene work, as much as her rapport with Clooney, is the measured, kind-but-firm way she shoots down the ad-exec douches before he gets there; her vulnerability overlaid with a heavy coat of self-confidence is the movie in miniature.

/American Psycho/ (2000, Mary Harron): 44

No significant change from what I wrote in this format at the time, though it's easier to appreciate the chameleonic nature of Bale's performance now that I've seen him in a dozen other adult roles. (Also, I hereby extend Chloë Sevigny's initial hot streak to this film. She's remarkable in her one "big scene," doing the sort of shyly self-effacing turn in which Zoe Kazan now specializes.) While I still haven't read the book -- it seems like something I'd admire intellectually but find both tedious and repulsive -- I suspect that the only way to preserve what's interesting about it would be to make a six-hour Dielmanesque exercise in repetitive stasis, with the ultraviolence only beginning to emerge around hour four. Absent that sense of horror slowly evolving from surface-obsessed minutiae, the scenario just seems too glibly satirical...and actually combining the pop-music exegeses with the murders and sexual abuse, as Harron does, defangs both completely, turning Bateman into a facile sketch-comedy idea. Admirable attempt, impossible task. Dept. Of Things I Guess I Knew But Had Never Really Consciously Realized: Reese Witherspoon's career was made by Legally Blonde, not by Election. Really bizarre to see her in such a nothing role in-between.

/Alice/ (1988, Jan Svankmajer): 71

Kinda wish I'd seen Tim Burton's version so I could use this as a cudgel against it. Svankmajer's uniquely distorted sensibility strips the book of all whimsy, with Alice encountering not so much Wonderland as Detritusville (a.k.a. Eastern Europe); any child unfortunate enough to see this film would surely develop a lifelong morbid fear of fruit jars and scissors. Gets a little self-indulgent at times -- much as I love his gallumphing slabs of raw meat, I don't know that they really have a coherent place here -- but it's bracing to see such familiar imagery so violently reappropriated, even if that very familiarity does prevent Alice from reaching the disturbingly lunatic heights of his finest shorts. (The White Rabbit in particular makes your skin crawl, what with his fetishistic penchant for removing his pocketwatch from his innards and then licking the sawdust -- essentially, his own guts -- from its face with a lusty slurp.) As always with stop-motion, but even more so when it comes to Svankmajer, texture is paramount: the Frog Footman catching flies, for example, is a fun anti-anthropomorphism gag made truly vivid by the fact that you can literally count the papillae on its grotesque giant tongue. Fact is, I might have enjoyed this even more had it been completely wordless, even though the repeated close-ups of Alice's mouth reciting the story have a clear incantatory-distancing function; every so often, we get a hint of Carroll's love of verbal nonsense, and the lack of follow-through, however deliberate, feels like a cruel game of keep-away. Why have the Mad Hatter ask the raven/writing desk riddle if you're not even gonna deliver the lack of a punchline? Or is that Svanky doubling down?

Winnie the Pooh (2011, Stephen Anderson & Don Hall): W/O

Scandalous, I know. It's totally fine for what it is, but what it is, unmistakably, is a kid's movie. By which I mean, it's pitched 98% to pre-adolescents. If I had small children, which we should all be supremely thankful is not the case, I'd be thrilled that a gentle, warmly inviting movie like this is out there in theaters for them. But there's really nothing in it for me; unlike Pixar movies, or even like the vast majority of other tot-targeted studio films these days, it's not operating simultaneously on two levels, with plenty of material expressly designed to appeal to folks well past puberty. I felt a little silly watching as much as I did, to be perfectly honest.

Happy, Happy (2010, Anne Sewitsky): W/O

For about 20 minutes I thought "this is what Happy-Go-Lucky might have looked like had it not been so schematically overdetermined." Then the movie went straight into the toilet (seriously, it was like a switch got flipped, if I may mix my metaphors) and I thought "no, this is what Happy-Go-Lucky would look like if it were a pandering, superficial European 'adult comedy'." Sure to win copious praise for Agnes Kittelsen in the showy role of the flibbertigibbet, and she's quite good, but I was far more interested in the other female lead, who seems to vanish from the narrative once the extramarital bonking begins. Not sure where the weird racist stuff involving the adopted kid was heading, but it really didn't seem to be anywhere remotely in the neighborhood of perceptive.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, Joe Johnston): 44

Guess I can sorta see why some folks are responding to this, with its unapologetic mock-vintage squareness and attendant absence of irony, but it mostly just reminded me of why Spider-Man immediately took off when Marvel introduced him in the '60s: Captain America is dull. He's just a big neurosis-free slab of scientifically-enhanced beef, lacking even any cool superpowers to distract you from his tiresome rectitude. (In that sense, Chris Evans is ideally cast -- you can't help but like him and wish him well, but neither can you help looking around the room to see if you can't find someone a bit more interesting.) Honestly, this may well be the best Captain America movie imaginable; if you asked me what I'd do differently, my answer, however intricately phrased, would amount to: screw Captain America, let's make something else. So I was very excited about skipping this thing, but then enough ostensibly sane critics went Woo-hoo! that I felt obligated to make sure (alas, didn't see this until I was in my seat), and...well, sure enough, it's Captain America, the most boring superhero in the history of the world. On top of which, the entire movie is essentially just a prolonged setup for The Avengers, which means that it ends on a bizarrely anticlimactic note, including a final line of dialogue that surely can't have been meant to play as callous as it does. I dunno. Maybe Johnston's the problem -- now that I check, I've never liked anything he's directed, not even the relatively low-key October Sky. He seems very much the former visual-effects dude he is, hitting his marks proficiently but dispassionately; no wonder they thought of him for Cap. And then of course I do hate freedom and liberty and baseball, so there's that.

Head (1968, Bob Rafelson): 81

Sam Kinison had a funny routine about how Charles Manson was so fucked up he could have found inflammatory secret messages on Monkees albums ("Last train to Clarksville, Whitey"), but one needn't be non compos mentis to see this astonishing exercise in self-abnegation as one of the most gleefully pointed assaults on The Man ever filmed. At the very least, there's enough bitterness coursing through it that the Vietnam footage doesn't seem offensively glib -- it's clear that the all-around disgust is sincerely felt, not opportunistic grandstanding. What's even more striking than '60s media darlings trashing their own image, though, is how proto-Python the film's structural absurdism feels. By their own account, Rafelson and Nicholson basically spitballed the movie while stoned, but its surreal lurches from one quasi-skit to the next are by no means random (even if details like Victor Mature's hair are); as in Flying Circus, which debuted a year later, the liberating freedom from convention cannily disguises an underlying rigor that borders on the mathematical. Even the remote-control and vox-pop montages are brilliantly assembled pseudo-chaos. Absence of a narrative throughline does make it feel long at only 85 minutes, but for every brief lull there are several inspired gags, clever juxtapositions and/or startling moments of pop-cultural candor. Basically, if you took all the most savage remarks John Lennon made in interviews around the time the Beatles broke up and somehow made those sentiments the dominant tone of a movie in which the Fab Four cavort around obliviously, you would have Head (which makes Lester's A Hard Day's Night look like the endearing promo reel it essentially is). It's the counterculture countermanded.

Project Nim (2011, James Marsh): 52

A fascinating story largely squandered. Marsh has so little interest in linguistics that he never even bothers to tell you Nim's surname was Chimpsky; the extent to which Terrace was duped into thinking his prize subject had actually acquired sign language is almost completely ignored. (We see archival TV footage of him recanting his conclusions years later, without ever having been told what those conclusions were.) Likewise, numerous heady questions about the nature of intelligence and cognition -- about the unbridgeable chasm separating us from a species so genetically similar that it arguably belongs in Homo -- are explored in no depth whatsoever. Instead, the film uses the experiment only as setup for a maudlin victim narrative, begging for sympathy via bombastic strings (worst score of the year?) as poor Nim gets shunted from one depressing prison cell to the next. Which is undeniably sad, but his misfortunes have zip to do with his unusual upbringing -- it's not as if other chimps reject him, deeming him the simian equivalent of an Oreo or Twinkie. Conditions are terrible for virtually all lab animals (as one scientist candidly admits), and feeling extra sorry for Nim because he once slept in a bed and scored treats by moving his hands as instructed is akin to ignoring millions of the starving and impoverished in order to shed copious tears for the one dude in the slums who used to be wealthy but had his fortune stolen from him. (Speaking of theft, Errol Morris should sue, except I doubt he'd want to be remotely associated with those pretentious tracking shots via which interview subjects exit the narrative.) Maybe I came to the film with too much foreknowledge (see also Zodiac), but everything that's thorny and challenging about Project Nim gets subordinated to easy button-pushing, as if we ourselves are subjects in some sort of Pavlovian-cinema experiment.

People on Sunday (1930, Robert Siodmak & Edgar G. Ulmer): 45

Historical significance + insane roster of future talent (Siodmak, Ulmer, Wilder, Zinnemann) + emphasis on the fleeting and bucolic + retrospective poignancy (little did these carefree Germans know...) = cinephile wet dream, so it's not surprising that I stand alone in finding this late silent effort mundane to the point of tedium. There's no denying the first element in that equation, to be sure -- the film's deployment of ordinary citizens as "themselves" within the context of a loosely fictionalized drama was so far ahead of its time that we've arguably only really caught up to it in the last decade or so. But that doesn't automatically turn some mild frolicking at the lake into a proto-Blissfully Yours. (Though I should note that I wasn't too keen on Blissfully Yours, either -- need to revisit that one.) By whatever metric I can think of, other movies make it look paltry by comparison: As a city-symphony piece, it's no Man With a Movie Camera (though several reviews valiantly try to file it under "avant-garde"); as a pastoral lark with serious undertones, Renoir's A Day in the Country achieves roughly 1000x more lyrical force; even just in terms of striking compositions, I find it hard to believe anybody would seriously rank this humdrum effort alongside such contemporaries as The Blood of a Poet and The Docks of New York. It's an intriguing experiment that doesn't really work, mostly because it's too uninflected to be dramatically compelling (translation: nothing happens) but also too carefully scripted (by "Billie" Wilder, who evidently required spoken dialogue) to permit the sort of sparkling spontaneity that makes, say, The Little Fugitive so memorable. A must-see for anyone remotely interested in cinema history -- I'm not sorry I watched it, by any means -- but that doesn't mean we have to pretend it's a neglected masterpiece.

/The Treasure of the Sierra Madre/ (1948, John Huston): 83

Still a great movie, but not at all the great movie I'd remembered. My heart sank a little early on when Walter Huston launched into an extended speech about how lust for gold inevitably corrupts the soul of every man, no matter how fundamentally decent; that's precisely what I recalled the movie being about, but hearing it articulated so bluntly was almost painful. Oh me of little faith, though, because the adventure that follows undermines that overstated thesis repeatedly, suggesting instead that Fred C. Dobbs was always a morally cancerous individual especially susceptible to the Dark Side. And yet the film declines to judge him harshly, either -- some men are weaker than others, it concludes, and there's not much you can do about it except shake your head, be grateful for what you still possess, and set out for a life of ease being waited on hand and foot by Mexico's dispossessed. (Oh, right, it's 1925 by way of 1948.) Bogart arguably overplays Dobbs' mercurial nature, but there aren't many actors who can seem both so stand-up and so low-down (it's the transitions that clank a bit); Huston Sr. remains a hammily entertaining force of nature, proto-Herzogian when he breaks into his cackle-and-dance routine. But I gained new appreciation this time for Tim Holt in the ostensibly dull role of the good egg who never cracks -- nimbly sidestepping the movie's stated trajectory, he makes simple decency look quietly charismatic. Remarkable, too, how few concessions are made to audiences of the day: Bogart spends the first reel being systematically humiliated (and not in a way that seems unjust or demands revenge -- he's just kind of a loser, really); locations are discomfitingly genuine in their squalor; numerous conversations take place in unsubtitled Spanish; and at one point near the end, all three principals disappear and we're watching a movie about some Mexican bandits trying to sell stolen burros. And even that movie demonstrates unusual compassion, pausing to let a thief and murderer who's about to be executed by firing squad retrieve his sombrero.

/Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas/ (1998, Terry Gilliam): 47

Give Gilliam credit for doing something different -- Rango arguably looks more human and less cartoonish than Depp does here. But that bowlegged walk and reptilian head twitch are only amusing for so long. The film's fatal mistake, I think, is including Thompson's justly celebrated "wave speech," which provides an abrupt indication of what's missing from this episodic grab bag of buffoonish drug-induced hijinx; it's almost impossible to reconcile the perceptive, fiercely intelligent mind that wrote that passage with the collection of superficial tics holding court onscreen. (Also problematic is the late scene in the diner, to which Ellen Barkin brings more genuine pain than this movie can handle -- watch how quickly it reverts to zany form afterwards, even with just a few minutes left to go.) In a weird way, and despite its hallucinogenic outrageousness, Fear and Loathing suffers from exactly the same problem as your standard Great Author biopic, in that it's forced to ignore what actually makes its subject worthy of our notice in favor of more gossip-worthy personal anecdotes. In theory, I can understand why Hunter S. Thompson coked to the gills with a giant lizard tail strapped to his ass might have seemed more potentially diverting than, say, Becoming Jane, but in practice you can still feel the vacuum created by the absence of the author's actual work, around which all these cute but fundamentally irrelevant capers swirl like so many dead leaves. Gilliam's task was to find a visual correlative for Thompson's unique voice, which is all that makes his exploits interesting; instead, he's determined to find a visual correlative for an acid trip, which zzzzzz. Bits and pieces delight (I especially enjoy Del Toro prefacing every lunatic suggestion with "As your attorney..."), but the monotony kicks in early and never really diminishes.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011, David Yates): 51

Nearly 20 hours, all told, and yet this series never even remotely managed to make me give a damn about anything or (crucially) anybody in it. Both the conclusion of the narrative proper and the 19-years-later epilogue are amazingly flat, almost perfunctory; even the sacrifice of countless supporting characters and extras on his behalf only makes Harry bow his head respectfully as the trio walk away from the ruins of Hogwarts. (He's the most boring hero imaginable, not tempted even for an instant by the Elder Wand's power. Also, he'll have to die....unless, y'know, he'd rather not. In that case never mind.) Like Part 1, this final installment is super-heavy on plot, and the number of callbacks to earlier films that sailed right over my head could fill half of a spiral notebook -- indeed, I failed to recognize (e.g.) Neville when he appeared, even though now that I check I see he's been played by the same actor since Philoceror's Stone [sic] and has figured at least semi-prominently in previous adventures. He just made no impression. Very little has. I did briefly get excited when Hermione disguised herself as Belletrix, since Helena Bonham Carter has always seemed to be having way more fun than anybody else (with the possible exception of Branagh during his stint), but that mild charge was predictably short-lived. And of course there's no time in the endgame for the whole burgeoning-puberty aspect that made Half-Blood Prince the series standout -- gotta retrieve the next horshack in the Room of Plot Devices I've Completely Forgotten, Sorry, I Can See You Expect Me To Remember. Some impressive special effects, the usual solid work from British cinema's Who's Who (nice of Emma Thompson to stop by for literally three seconds of silent screen time), but I spent nearly an entire day of my life watching this saga, and while I wouldn't call the T-shirt lousy, it's pretty darn threadbare.

Hospitalité (2010, Koji Fukada): 49

Terminally mild stranger-liberates-uptight-household comedy, Japanese division. Seemed to be going somewhere interesting with the introduction of the white chick, who variously claims to be Brazilian or Bosnian but speaks note-perfect English; indeed, I found several reviews touting the film as a sly indictment of the country's xenophobia, which does seem to be what was intended, at least in part. But just as multiple excuses tend to cancel each other out -- my dog ate my homework and my computer crashed -- it's hard to fault this beleaguered family for being masochistically polite and accommodating and for muttering quietly that the gaijin who's hanging out topless on their balcony and systematically undermining Mom's efforts to bond with her stepdaughter (via English lessons) "doesn't fit in." Still, I'd be less concerned about subtext were the film funnier, or at least more inventive; events slowly escalate but are neither realistic enough to be cutting nor outrageous enough to bust guts. Missed opportunities abound, especially with regard to the primary set -- Fukada comes from a theater background (this is a stage adaptation, pretty obviously), and while he has an eye for individual compositions in the serene Ozu mold, he fails to assemble the house's architecture in your mind, whereas this brand of comedy really demands that the viewer be able to draw a detailed map. But maybe I'm just not intellectual enough to appreciate this film, since I literally cannot parse the final sentence of this glowing review: "A malleable intensive on the fragility of conformity, Hospitalité carries its own termless relevancy, making any dubious metaphors or moments of symbolism at once constantly tempting and totally useless." Anyone? Or is it just you get what you don't pay for?

The Trip (2010, Michael Winterbottom): 59

Here's a case where deliberately blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction proves counterproductive. Coogan and Brydon as "themselves" works fine when they're just riffing on pop culture and poking each other's ostensible sore spots; to paraphrase Steve's Michael Caine, when this movie gets FUNNY, it gets VERY FUNNY INDEED. Trouble is, it also wants us to care about these two guys, as if they were characters in a drama. And I'm just way too conscious that I'm looking at "Steve Coogan" to get all weepy when he has awkward phone conversations with "Steve Coogan's semi-estranged girlfriend" or mopes around "Steve Coogan's enormous but pitifully empty high-rise apartment." (Note that the scare quotes are appropriate even if that really is his girlfriend and his apartment, which I have no idea if they are; doesn't matter.) There's a sort of uncanny-valley effect at work in situations like this: You can't suspend disbelief, as you would were the actor clearly playing a role (even when the role echoes the actor's offscreen persona, e.g. Jerry Lewis in King of Comedy), but neither can you believe that you're seeing even semi-mediated reality, as you might in a documentary portrait. Consequently, bids for pathos just get the < bullshit > cough. (Intrusive woe-is-me score doesn't help, either, and only confirms my sense of Winterbottom as a ham-fisted hack -- I'm one for ten with this dude, with only 24 Hour Party People firmly in the plus column.) What The Trip does best, in keeping with its title, is capture the goofy verbal jam sessions that longtime friends inevitably have when stuck in a car for hours on end; some of the bits here (I'm thinking in particular of "Come, come, Mr. Bond" and "Gentlemen, to bed!") work so well in part because they continue long past the point where any self-respecting writer would call it quits, simply because there's nothing to do except exhaust every conceivable permutation of a stupid idea. Well, and because "Steve Coogan" and "Rob Brydon" are just as hilarious as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

Damnation Alley (1977, Jack Smight): 46

Strong contender for the junkiest-looking big-budget movie of all time -- $64 million in today's money (significantly more than Star Wars cost) somehow bought nothing but cheesy sub-Photoshop opticals, a Planetarium laser-light show in the sky, and swarms of killer mutant cockroaches that are clearly just mats of rubber bug shapes being pulled across the ground on strings. And yet somehow it's not that painful, in part because it seems so pleasurably relaxed compared to its contemporary successors. Prologue sets the tone, depicting nuclear annihilation with such spookily clinical detachment (save for some silent grimacing by Murray Hamilton, mysteriously unbilled) that you just kinda shrug your shoulders and conclude nothing much is at stake -- a supposition confirmed when the only people left alive turn out to be Jan-Michael Vincent, George Peppard, Paul Winfield, Dominique Sanda, and Jackie Earle Haley. (Not sure how they missed Keenan Wynn.) What follows isn't so much harrowing post-apocalyptic adventure as genial acid-tinged road trip, with Peppard and Vincent sniping at each other sitcom style and Ms. Sanda looking quite content to serve as irrelevant eye candy. It's a bad movie, to be sure, but at least it's not aggressively bad; jotting it down more than phoning it in, Smight (Harper, Airport '75, and numerous other minor studio flicks I haven't yet seen) appears to be a consummate if uninspired pro, somebody with enough self-confidence not to be pushy or desperate. Those are negative virtues, but there's still something refreshing about them, especially on a day when I'm staring at banner ads for the forthcoming Guy Ritchie Holmes sequel. Just because you're in the mood for trash doesn't mean you want to be pelted by it.

Gromozeka (2011, Vladimir Kott): W/O

So let's see, we've got three middle-aged Russian sad sacks here. One can't bring himself to leave his wife, and wishes his lover would stop pestering him to cut the cord. Another is aghast to discover that his own wife is having an affair, the bitch. And the third decides to get his beloved daughter out of the porn biz by having her physically mutilated. Can you say progressive? Checked some reviews after stopping at my standard walkout point, just to make sure I wasn't missing some wildly subversive element, but apparently not: "Women are cuckolds, frigid or whores...while men are pummeled by fate" (Variety). Formally competent, for what that's worth -- very little, I would argue.

/Naked/ (1993, Mike Leigh): 96

Nonstop dazzling, both as logorrheic assault ("I sent off for one of those little Linguaphone packages, "Talk Shite in a Fortnight." It's all going very well. I haven't quite got the hang of the transitive verbs yet...") and as a stygian tour of London's underclass, with its infinite manifestations of sodden misery. Thewlis placed second in the Skandies poll for best performance of the '90s, and was robbed; there's never been a more incisive portrait of scabrous wit as defense mechanism, which is to say that no other actor has ever achieved such a sustained simultaneous peak of exhilaration | valley of depression. It's like watching an Olympic diver perform a double somersault tuck into the Grand Canyon. Minor speedbump for me has always been Jeremy/Sebastian, and Cruttwell still strikes me as overly cartoonish in a way that makes the character's viciousness too easy to dismiss. But now that I've watched Leigh stumble into implicit didacticism -- first with Happy-Go-Lucky, and then even more egregiously with Another Year -- I can see that he intends Jeremy/Sebastian (the dual identity is significant) not as a means of making Johnny seem more palatable by comparison, as I'd feared, but as an illustration of what Johnny would look like stripped of such mollifying attributes as intelligence, humor and poverty. (Which is still a tad scold-y, but it doesn't overwhelm this film the way it does his recent work.) As with most masterpieces, there are moments here that wreck me for reasons I can't remotely articulate -- most powerful this time around were the movie's final words, though I never realized until now that they are its final words. Sandra the nurse, fluttering about, chronically incapable of finishing a sentence, struggling to cope with the mess she's just returned to. "Enough. I've had...enough. It comes at me...from all angles. You. All of you just... It's the tin lids. When... How will the world...ever...?" And then Johnny's typically cheeky suggestion -- "End?" -- and the unexpected intensity with which this minor character, introduced only a few minutes earlier, exclaims "YES!" In this film of endless jabber, it's the last thing anyone says.

/Das Boot/ (1981, Wolfgang Petersen): 64

Here's an odd syllogism: (1) At 209 minutes, this movie is about an hour too long. (2) The original theatrical cut ran 149 minutes. (3) 209 - 149 = 60. And yet (4) I'm pretty sure I wouldn't prefer the shorter version. By all accounts, the additional hour in the "Director's Cut" (which is all I've seen, twice now) consists almost entirely of character stuff, and I wouldn't want to lose any of that; given the film's experiential nature and essential plotlessness (logline: "U-Boat crew tries not to die"), it's crucial that we get to know these men, observe them during the long stretches of claustrophobic inactivity that accounts for most of their time underwater. What winds up feeling a tad repetitive and monotonous at 3.5 hours is the rhythm of mundane downtime followed by loud alarm followed by the camera hurtling improbably quickly through narrow hatches and corridors followed by shots of the men looking anxious as the chief counts off the number of meters they've descended and the hull cracks and groans under the pressure. Petersen cycles through that at least three times, with only minor variations, and so the movie gets progressively less exciting even though the stakes keep getting raised (and becomes retroactively less exciting after the final scene, which is historically semi-accurate but feels cheaply ironic nonetheless). Still plenty engrossing, of course, and it's too bad Hollywood has never quite known how to use Jürgen Prochnow, whose steely charisma here hardly suggests the generic Eurovillains he's been stuck playing ever since.

/A Fish Called Wanda/ (1988, Charles Crichton): 84

"Oh, I'm so very, very, very, very ssssssffffffFUCK YOU!!!!!" Kevin Kline's absurdist embodiment of American idiocy (as seen through English eyes, in what's clearly equal parts admiration and revulsion) remains the most inspired comic performance of my lifetime -- he's just dazzling to watch, with every impulsive action minutely choreographed, a meathead's ballet. But I'm not sure I'd ever appreciated how sensationally good Jamie Lee Curtis is as well. Wanda as written demands a tricky balancing act between shrewd self-interest and screwball insouciance -- gotta imagine your Anistons and Witherspoons would kneecap each other for a part this juicy -- and Curtis walks the tightrope briskly, without once faltering. Her wistful tone when she asks Cleese if he's rich manages to sell the central romance in a matter of seconds while maintaining the character's odd integrity, thereby avoiding the drippy third-act epiphany in which she Learns What's Truly Important and magically becomes a better person, which is what's killing contemporary Hollywood comedies. Speaking of which, could we find or perhaps breed some writers who know how to create plots that actually function independent of the jokes, as this one does? (Halfway through, when Otto's attempt to apologize smacked into Archie robbing his own house to retrieve Wanda's locket, I thought, oh, right, Cleese wrote Fawlty Towers.) In fact, the only part of the movie that doesn't really work for me is Palin and the dogs -- partly because it's the same simple gag over and over again, but mostly because it feels disconnected from everything else, a series of interludes that could be excised without being missed. Well, apart from Otto's gleeful cackling. "So the old lady's gonna m-m-meet with an accident, eh, K-K-K-Ken? I love watching your ass when you walk, is that beautiful or what?! Don't go near him! He's mine! A pound says you won't kill her!"

/13 Assassins/ (2010, Takashi Miike): 68 [was 74]

Thirteen is just too many. Marveled again at the brisk economy of the extended final setpiece -- a seeming contradiction in terms, and wholly unexpected given Miike's general tendency toward slapdash construction -- but this time I was far more conscious of how completely anonymous most of the wreckin' crew are, even though half of the movie amounts to slow prelude. It's not so much that the buildup is pokey, as many charge, but that it emphasizes the wrong things; Yakusho goes around enlisting folks but never tests anybody, never experiences doubt or fear. It's more like ticking items off a checklist: badass ronin, nervous youngster, jovial fat dude, Mifune wannabe, etc. Consequently, it doesn't mean anything when the bodies start falling. Miike executes a breathtaking coup de cinéma at one point, for example, showing Badass Ronin's death from the sideways POV of (I guess) his acolyte, who's slumped horizontally and breathing his own last, but I'm responding to it entirely on a formal level, as I would to a brilliantly directed excerpt of a movie I've never seen. I don't actually know who the acolyte is -- that's just a guess based on the subtitles (he croaks "Master...."). It's a skillful, exciting movie, and I enjoyed revisiting it, but there's a dry detachment here that precludes greatness, or even the near-greatness I thought I saw at Toronto last year. (I was tired.) Only when the nude, limbless woman is writhing on the floor, or the mortally wounded villain is crawling through the mud in unexpected terror, does Miike seem fully present.

/Sweetie/ (1989, Jane Campion): 49

Didn't much like this 20 years ago, either, but now I feel like I understand why not. There's a strange sort of underlying desperation at work here -- a lurching about, for lack of a better phrase, that's also quasi-fractally evident in Campion's oeuvre as a whole. Would you guess that Sweetie, The Piano, In the Cut and Bright Star were all by the same filmmaker if you somehow saw them sans credits and without any foreknowledge? Likewise, Sweetie itself sports an inherently unstable tone, strenuously wacky yet deadly serious; the film accumulates odd touches and unexpected digressions the way bag ladies collect random bits of societal flotsam and jetsam. (Was it Chandler or Hammett who advised fellow writers of crime fiction to have someone burst into the room brandishing a gun whenever a scene started to feel dull? This is like the art-movie version of that strategy. "Hmm, treading water here. Road trip to see Mom and the jackaroos! Aussie hoedown!") Campion employs clunky, blatant symbols like the Sickly Tree That Represents Their Relationship, yet doesn't so much allude to the apparent lifelong history of incest between Sweetie and her father as mention it in passing, only to conclude on that note as if it somehow serves as a tragic eulogy. Individual scenes impress, and compositions are consistently striking (see the framegrab over on Listen Eggroll), but it feels more like a collection of shorts about the same kooky family than a single coherent feature. And I really didn't care for the one about the naked fat chick in the treehouse.

Legend (1985, Ridley Scott): 48

Wondering if this might have worked better with some sort of real-world bookending device for Mia Sara's character, though I guess that would just turn it into Mirrormask (upon which this must have been an influence, seems to me). Part of that desire no doubt stems from my personal distaste for high fantasy -- even Lord of the Rings mostly puts me to sleep, frankly -- but it's hard to imagine anyone being thrilled by such a dour, monochromatic battle between Light/Good and Darkness/Evil, utterly bereft of even an implicit correlation to planet Earth. Especially when the forces of righteousness are represented by Tom Cruise at his most hilariously fey (love that constant all-fours crouch!), whereas Tim Curry, who miraculously creates a compelling, seductive villain from underneath what looks like roughly 500 lbs. of makeup and appliances, has you rooting for eternal winter and shadow. Thankfully, I was able to come to Legend with moderate expectations, knowing full well in advance that Scott is fundamentally a superb craftsman who rises and falls with the material. Had I shown up as a hardcore cinephile in 1986, salivating for the next visionary work by the unmistakable genius who'd made only The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner, and who would surely soon achieve the lofty, imposing stature of a Coppola or Kubrick, no doubt I would have exited the theater in tears. Today, on the other hand, I can mutter, "Well, that was the usual hodgepodge of weightless ultragloss, but at least it wasn't as stupid as A Good Year or as tedious as Robin Hood."

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964, Byron Haskin): 40

Just because it doesn't feature the era's usual bug-eyed monsters doesn't mean it isn't a dopey schlockfest. I can forgive Mars looking exactly like Death Valley, especially since Mariner 4 didn't launch until a few months after the film's release. Even in 1964, however, there was no reason to believe that extraterrestrial beings would be 100% humanoid and dress like ancient Egyptians. And I'm pretty sure astronomers already understood that if you ask one how long he's been a slave, he's not gonna answer in Earth years, a concept that would be nearly impossible to explain unless you knew the orbital period of his home planet and did a conversion. (Remember, these guys can barely communicate at all.) Harping on scientific inaccuracies in a movie made nearly 50 years ago may seem churlish, but there's just nothing else to address -- Haskin (whose classic War of the Worlds I like even less, incidentally, 37), intent on what he perceived as realism, deliberately eschews all of the genre's usual exciting trappings, and so this really is just, well, Robinson Crusoe on a thoroughly fake-looking Mars, and I'm more of a Swift man than a Defoe man. (Also, as a solitary camera subject for most of the movie -- Friday doesn't turn up for more than an hour, surprisingly -- Paul Mantee ain't exactly Tom Hanks. And that frickin' monkey is no Wilson, either.) All the same, it was worth watching just for the priceless moment when Draper, exasperated in the best Ugly American tradition by Friday's failure to pick up English overnight, finally snaps "Listen, retarded." I guess "retard" came later?

Curling (2010, Denis Côté): W/O

Lost me when the protagonist offered to play some music as a special treat for his daughter, who's evidently being raised in near-total isolation à la Hanna for reasons about which Côté is painstakingly coy, and the song turned out to be "I Think We're Alone Now." Not sure if that's supposed to be "subtext" or a "subtle hint"; either way, next!

/Don't Look Now/ (1973, Nicolas Roeg): 69

Found this a huge disappointment when I first saw it 16 years ago -- mostly, I think, because so many people call it a horror film, which it isn't even remotely (unless you find rationalism horrifying). Evidently my sensibility has changed since then, as this time, rather than bemoaning the film's many shortcomings as a narrative, I found myself wishing that Du Maurier's storyline would just go away and leave the characters to wander Venice unimpeded. Synchronistic editing style seems especially dazzling today, when every single art film eschews montage for mise-en-scène; Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford employ rhyming cuts that function almost like double-tracked vocals, deriving power from the sense of same-but-different. (Specifically, to take this dubious analogy all the way, Don't Look Now achieves the slightly uncanny effect of Prince's "Pop Life," in which one of the tracks lags a fraction of a second behind the other. Jesus I sound like Armond KILL ME NOW.) As a portrait of warring modes of parental grief, furthermore, it eclipses the theatrical literalism of Rabbit Hole, not least in its recognition that not every waking moment in the marriage will be informed by loss. And yet, I gotta say: This movie is kinda stupid. I still cannot take the ending seriously, no matter how hard I try -- the snorts of incredulous derision bust right through my carefully constructed wall o' solemnity. It's as if The New World ended with the twist from The Village. And because of how the film is constructed, the sense that it's been badly cheapened travels backward, permeating the whole.

The Majority (2010, Seren Yüce): W/O

Frustrating, because Yüce clearly has talent, evident both in his work with actors and in his slightly claustrophobic compositions. But the movie seems permanently stuck in second gear. Hate to just quote another critic, but I can't improve on Leslie Felperin's Variety slam: "Auds wait in vain for some catalyzing event to set some proper drama in motion." (Actually, I could improve it by not using "some" twice in close succession, but never mind.) Looked to me like it was shaping up to be the Turkish Late Marriage, albeit with a stronger emphasis on regional racism (the girlfriend is labelled a "gypsy," which apparently means Kurdish), but Kosashvili's film has fire in its belly, whereas this one just sort of schlumps along, as straightforward as its title.

Black Moon (1975, Louis Malle): 24

Man, few things are more painful than bad surrealism. Starts out promisingly, in part because Black Moon rivals The Mechanic (original version) and There Will Be Blood for sustained introductory wordlessness -- for 16 minutes, it's just Sven Nykvist's gorgeously overcast photography and extremely vague intimations of unease, most notably what appears to be a civil war between the male and female genders. Once our pseudo-Alice reaches the banal Wonderland that is Malle's country house, however, stupidity reigns; imagine the talking, self-disemboweling Antichrist fox not as a startling aberration but a movie's normative baseline. I could roll with the laughably blunt Freudian symbolism -- elusive unicorn, snakes up her skirt, etc. -- were Malle's sense of the absurd not so impoverished and feeble, but there's virtually nothing here to either delight or disconcert. Just a bunch of naked children running wild, an old lady jabbering nonsense into a wireless radio (the English version's post-sync dialogue rivals spaghetti Westerns for constant distracting mismatch, even when the actors are clearly speaking English), the occasional "talking" animal (mostly indecipherable grunting and squeaking), and Joe Dallesandro's presence as counterculture Ken doll in un film de Louis Malle. Dream logic has rarely been so prosaic, and if there's a less sensuous film about a young girl's sexual awakening (metaphorical or otherwise), may it thud right on past.