Films Seen March 2012

(For films seen between my return from Sundance and 5 March, go here, here, and here.)

Crows Zero (2007, Takashi Miike)

Had a good time with this but I'm having trouble thinking of anything remotely interesting to say about it, because it's just two hours of Japanese high-school kids beating the shit out of each other. School is depicted exclusively as a battle zone (I think there might be one lickety-split scene set in a classroom, and the handful of teachers we briefly glimpse are beyond ineffectual), with a rigidly enforced hierarchy one can only attempt to challenge via brutal, bloody warfare. But while Miike takes this absurd scenario seriously, he's also in one of his playful moods: funniest bit has moody hero Genji furtively consulting notes on what to yell in the midst of a badass rampage, and the rainsoaked clashing-armies finale gets crosscut with a life-or-death surgical procedure, the ritual execution of a key supporting character (already shown in the prologue), and the movie's sole female performing a cheesy J-pop ballad onstage. When I complained that Battle Royale didn't seem to be about much of anything, an anonymous commenter suggested that it serves as a metaphor for "the competitive nature of post-war Japanese society," which I suppose applies equally well here; still seems awfully thin, though, especially since competition for resources is a universal truth, applicable not just to every nation but to every species. But that's less problematic here, simply because Crows Zero qualifies as relatively innocent fun -- kids recover almost instantly from punishment that would require months of hospitalization in real life, and the violence is stylishly exaggerated in ways that suggest animation (apropos, obviously, since the film was adapted from a popular manga). Gotta say the sequel seems highly unnecessary, but I'll probably check it out at some point.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982, Godfrey Reggio)

Wow, Man The Despoiler shows up way earlier than I'd remembered -- only 18 minutes in. I'd thought the nature-to-civilization ratio was more or less 1:1. Honestly, though, I can't say I much care what environmental/ecological/Hopi-ass thesis this film is trying to push, as the footage is so mesmerizing that it renders ideology irrelevant. Even if you're the sort of person who's happiest alone in the wilderness, you can't deny that the 20-minute time-lapse aria showcasing humanity's teeming masses renders our mundane lives intensely beautiful; nighttime freeway shots in particular are just breathtaking, with headlights and taillights producing different-colored contrails in opposite lanes. And while I've owned and enjoyed Philip Glass' score for at least 25 years, hearing it again alongside the images it was meant to complement really confirmed its allusive power -- "The Grid" can sound overbusy on its own, but perfectly captures e.g. the jittery high-speed hand movements of a little blond kid at a Defender machine. (Embarrassing confession: I was so young when I first encountered this film that I thought the track "Pruit Igoe" must be some Eskimo reference -- I guess the words reminded me of "Inuit" and "Igloo." Only much later did I find out about the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, and only now do I see that its demolition appears in the movie. Still not sure where the second 't' in 'Pruitt' went, though.) Not everything compels -- some of the early nature footage just looks like typical establishing shots for an outdoor adventure, and I'm not convinced there's any purpose to repeated portraits in which the subjects stare impassively at the camera for an uncomfortably long time -- and the unmistakable implication that we should be recoiling from what we're being shown can make the less eye-popping stretches feel a bit tiresome. Overall, though, it's a singular experience, and a welcome reminder of how enormous our tiny home in the universe can seem.

4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011, Abel Ferrara)

Key image for me here is perhaps the fleeting glimpse of gym rats running on treadmills, with its absurdist yet somehow fundamentally truthful suggestion that some people would still be concerned about keeping fit even in the face of Armageddon. That the world would go about its normal business right up to the end makes for a lovely, at times deeply moving idea, especially as punctuated by occasional plangent acknowledgements of loss; I'm not sure there's a more affecting moment in Ferrara's post-'80s oeuvre (still haven't seen the early stuff) than the Vietnamese delivery guy's Skype conversation with his family back home, very wisely left unsubtitled. But I'm afraid I do have to register the standard objections, beginning with Shanyn Leigh and her inexpressive anti-gaze-- not as problematic as it might be, given that she spends a big hunk of the film silently painting, but she's still pretty much half the cast, so finding her deeply uninteresting is a problem. Dafoe fares better, naturally, but often seems to be inventing his character as he goes along; there's a scene toward the beginning in which he wanders the rooftop muttering angrily and semi-coherently to himself (a Ferrara impression, judging from my one experience with the man back at NYU, around the time of The Addiction), but that aspect of his personality instantly vanishes, never to be seen or even hinted at again. The film feels sketchy and sparse in ways that don't complement its solipsistic vision -- the exact opposite of Melancholia, actually, which likewise isolates two protags but creates a richly imagined doomed world for them. All the same, I'm more drawn to the spasms of tenderness in evidence here than to Von Trier's straw-man misanthropy.

Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch)

Don't know quite what went wrong here, as the film has the rhythm and sensibility of a droll comedy of manners yet is almost never even remotely funny. I'd like to blame Noel Coward, who (in spite of my passion for Brief Encounter) has always felt to me like Oscar Wilde Lite, retaining the color and texture but very little of the flavor; virtually none of Coward's dialogue was retained, though, by most reports, and it's not as if Ben Hecht didn't know his way around fast-paced dry wit. One might note with some justification that Gary Cooper seems ill-suited to the demands of urbane mock-sophistication, but he does hold his own in e.g. Ball of Fire. In any event, and whatever the root cause may be, Design for Living never achieves anything more potent than purely theoretical amusement, as if it were a detailed outline waiting for somebody to come along and fill in the actual jokes. Which is a shame, because the central idea is quite bold: In essence, the entire film serves as prolonged rationalization for a long-term, three-way romantic relationship involving one woman and two men, flying in the face of just about everything Western society holds dear to this day. (I assume that's why even in the final seconds it's reaffirmed that there'll be no sex -- a "gentleman's agreement" that any sensible viewer must expect will be speedily broken.) There's just no zing to it, no fire, no sense of nimble play. Only when the boys crash the party at the very end, having finally agreed to share the object of their affection, does Lubitsch finally manage to stage a few bits of inspired goofiness. Far too late.

Letter Never Sent (1960, Mikhail Kalatozov)

Unimpeachable as pure cinema, marrying The Cranes Are Flying's stunning, expressionistic close-ups of human faces with the dazzling mobility Kalatozov would further develop in I Am Cuba. (Thus endeth my knowledge of his oeuvre, but it really does feel like a bridge between those two more celebrated films.) Certain sequences I'm not even sure could be duplicated today -- what did he do, just set a massive stretch of the Siberian Taiga on fire? In any case, file this among the medium's great trudge epics, as everything remotely dramatic -- Sergei's forbidden love for Tanya; the he-man vs. nerd conflict it inspires; even the titular unsent letter itself -- gradually gets tossed aside like our heroes' useless radio and burdensome packs, leaving only a brute tale of survival...or, in most cases, the barely acknowledged lack thereof. What holds it back from true magnificence is its nationalistic agenda, apparent in the opening title crawl and dominant in the finale (though it's thankfully otherwise fairly subdued). Ultimately, what's important isn't these characters' lives but the map of their find, which will end the Soviet reliance on foreign diamonds; Kalatozov has made a stirring testament to their Pioneer Spirit, more or less thanking the fallen for their sacrifice (while also intimating with those fluttering eyelids that Russia will always be a survivor). But that's a retroactive criticism, really -- in the moment, Letter Never Sent could scarcely be more harrowing or elemental, and Kalatozov declines to indulge in melodrama. There's no time to mourn the dead, who in two of three cases can't be buried anyway, and when Konstantin hands Tanya the note Andrei left behind, she never even glances down at it. Why should she? There's only one thing it could possibly say.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966, Terence Fisher)

Not counting the quick Horror of Dracula recap at the outset, Christopher Lee doesn't turn up in this one for 48 minutes (of only 90)...which is fine, really, because it's a much more entertaining film before he does. Reading about Hammer as a kid, I imagined stark, frankly horrific chillers, perhaps just extrapolating from the company name; in reality, they're mostly quite charming in their workmanlike Englishness, moving stock characters along a series of predictable narrative marks with brisk, economical assurance and the very slightest of winks. The early scene in which Father Sandor warns our heroes away from Karlsbad and its mysterious castle, for example, couldn't be more generically foreboding, yet it's performed with such sincere gusto that you just can't wait for these clueless toffs to stroll into that terrible matte painting and become DracSnacks. But while I recall quite liking Lee in Horror (made eight years earlier), he's kind of embarrassing in this entirely silent incarnation, constantly working his mouth to make sure we can see his novelty fangs and recoiling in exaggerated panic from crosses wielded by men. (He can hypnotize women into setting them down, and Lee is at his best by far when merely required to soul-gaze in extreme close-up.) And while I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone, it's a hilarious cheat -- imagine a somber speech in which the priest explains that a vampire can only be killed by a stake through the heart, by exposure to direct sunlight, by eating too many Cheetos, or by being burned with a crucifix, followed shortly by a climax set in a gigantic factory that's suddenly revealed to be Frito-Lay's manufacturing plant. It's not that silly, obviously, but as far as I know they just plain made that method up.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993, Lasse Hallström)

Another example of why I'm doggedly rewatching everything halfway decent from my formative years. I just assumed I didn't like this movie, because (a) 19 years later all I remembered was that DiCaprio plays mentally disabled, which sounds unappetizingly I Am Sammy; (b) the title is an abomination unto numerous nonexistent deities; and (c) Hallström has since become an utter hack, so I now just assume he was never any good. (Don't really remember My Life as a Dog, either; it's been over 25 years for that one.) But I must have at least mildly enjoyed this at the time, because it rarely steps wrong -- only the treacly guitar score actively stinks. Mostly it suffers from being overemphatic about underlining how trapped Gilbert feels, between Juliette Lewis' itinerant history and John C. Reilly getting ludicrously excited about purchasing a Burger Barn franchise and Steenburgen's sad housewife actually telling Gilbert she picked him for her affair because she knew he'd never leave town. WE GET IT. That aside, though, it's pretty wonderful, with striking performances even from the unknowns (particularly the girl who plays the younger sister, with her wild eyes and her nostrils constantly aflare); credible family dynamics and small-town detail; a generally realistic sense of life's frustrations and pleasures; and a climactic conflagration that caught me by surprise with its tender funereal power. Hallström acquits himself quite well, keeping things nicely low-key -- excepting of course DiCaprio, who perfectly embodies Arnie's propriety-impaired joie de vivre and richly deserved his Oscar nomination. Not quite a revelation, but a much stronger film than I dimly recalled. Could everyone stop making new movies for about 20 years while I'm reassessing?

Eraserhead (1977, David Lynch)

So many superlatives. Best sound design ever. Best nightmare evocation of young adulthood ever. Most disturbing "character" of all motherfucking time EVER. (Presaged by the classic line "Mother, they're still not sure it is a baby," which I suspect is the first thought most new parents have if they see the kid straight out of the womb, before it's been cleaned up.) I had a vague memory of finding some of the surrealism willfully obscure, but this time was deeply affected even by things I can't necessarily "explain" -- most notably the Lady In The Radiator, whose gigantic swollen cheeks still baffle me, but whose loving embrace of Henry in the final shot feels exactly right, especially in contrast with their earlier encounter. Really, the entire film works on such an intensely visceral level that trying to analyze it, even in a flippant capsule format like this, seems counterproductive somehow. Can any words even remotely evoke the flesh-crawling queasiness of e.g. Henry's visit to Mary's parents' house, in which he sits uncomfortably on the couch exchanging forced pleasantries with Mom while some ungodly squeaking/squelching noise threatens to drown out the dialogue? Is it worse when the source of that sound is unknown (and unacknowledged by anyone in the room), or is it somehow inexplicably worse when the source is revealed and it's not the horror show conjured up by your imagination? And to be honest I don't think I can even bring myself to talk about that...thing, except to admit that it hits the precise amalgam of repulsion and vulnerability that's capable of ripping my soul apart. Which I guess is the difference between David Lynch and somebody like Matthew Barney, who I don't despise as much as some of my more avant-gardey film-buff friends do, but whose similarly dream-symbolic approach to cinema lacks the emotional core that would make it powerful as well as arresting. Then again, that's exactly how I feel about Inland Empire...

Battle Royale (2000, Kinji Fukasaku)

Hate to just do a compare 'n' contrast job with Hunger Games, but (a) it's unavoidable given that I saw them nearly back to back (after having waited over ten years for a print of Battle Royale; not much point anymore, since its commercial run in L.A. was on video) and (b) the differences really are instructive and well worth noting. Collins' scenario has far more thematic and satirical heft, even in its diluted form onscreen -- remove the entertainment aspect and it's not even fully clear what BR's societal function is, especially since these kids obviously had no idea the program exists before arriving on the island (i.e., it's not being used as a deterrent). Moment to moment, however, Fukasaku's film thrills, startles and wounds in ways that put its American counterpart to shame. Despite having a couple of designated heroes and over twice as many combatants, not a single kid is faceless; every death registers, and the spectrum of reactions to their joint predicament -- suicide, pleas for cooperation, open rebellion against the system, homicidal lunacy -- acknowledges the messiness of human nature, which prevents even students who get offed shortly after we meet them from coming across as props. (It helps that they all know each other, as opposed to having been plucked from separate walled districts.) And then of course Fukasaku is a film director, not a screenwriter with a camera, and also has the luxury of not needing to deliver a PG-13 rating, so the violence is expertly composed rather than shrouded in shaky-cam. Truly exciting for the first hour or so, but it loses steam as it approaches the endgame, pulling a too-obvious fakeout and then seeming to ask us to suddenly care about Kitano's home life, or about Kitano at all frankly. In the end, it's not clear to me what Battle Royale wants to be about (yes, that old bugaboo), apart from perverse mayhem as a means of accelerating our collective pulse. But at least it works on that level.

The Ambassador (2011, Mads Brügger)

Brügger irritates me almost as much as Morgan Spurlock. With The Red Chapel, he was at least obtaining footage from the world's most isolationist country, even if the film's toxic smugness drove me out of my seat. But what the hell are his hidden cameras revealing here? That the poorest continent on Earth is a hotbed of corruption where everything is for sale? Knock me the fuck over with a feather, man. Worse, this time he spends the entire duration "in character," self-consciously performing the role of an amoral, racist mercenary not only in his interactions with the locals (where it's defensible) but even in the voiceover narration. A real journalist would have played tinpot diplomat for a little while, then gone home and written about it in detail, rather than play-act for us.

Island of Lost Souls (1932, Erle C. Kenton)

Hollywood to H.G. Wells: I wanna sex you up. Introducing the Panther Woman (billed by that name in the opening credits, alongside the actors!) makes Wells' anti-vivisection allegory play more like a progenitor of E.C.'s Vault of Horror, which featured a stacked, vacant-looking bimbo in virtually every story; Kathleen Burke succeeds in investing her version with a little pathos, but she's still mostly around to flash some leg and make the idea of miscegenation between man and beast seem seductive. And since Richard Arlen's a chiseled drip, we're inevitably drawn to Laughton, who deftly straddles the line between creepy and campy. ("You're an amazingly unscientific young man," he memorably sniffs at one point in response to some moral outrage.) What's most striking to my eyes is how matter-of-factly the film introduces its manufactured mutants, in broad daylight on the ship that rescues our hero, without the emphatic reveal you'd expect -- they're just wandering the deck like the regular humans, looking vaguely disturbing. I have no real sense of Kenton as a director, as this is still the only film of his I've ever seen , but that choice alone makes me curious. Nicely atmospheric; kinda creaky; mostly a pale shadow of its source until the last few minutes, when it suddenly metamorphoses into a keening, nerve-shattering nightmare vision so powerful that the early sound era can't contain it, meaning the movie just has to abruptly end. The pat irony of Moreau's fate (a complete divergence from the novel, also anticipating E.C.) is overwhelmed by the creatures' almost lascivious brutality; the survivors haul ass to sea, leaving us with the grave admonition of the angel to Lot and family: "Don't look back."

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Martin Scorsese)

Let's not pretend this movie isn't blasphemous. It clearly is. (Fine by me, since as far I'm concerned it replaces one largely made-up story with another, far more compelling one.) Protesters in '88 who hadn't seen it and got worked up about Jesus boning Mary Magdalene were misplacing their proxy wrath -- the real fuck-you to true believers occurs later in the temptation, when Paul tells Jesus that it doesn't matter whether or not he died and was resurrected, so long as people believe that he did/was. That the film ultimately has Jesus accept the cross and die exultant doesn't really contradict this very secular thesis, as Kazantzakis never provides a decent counter-argument explaining why Paul's ministry in the alternate, Jesus-lives reality is in any way problematic, or why it couldn't (ahem) accurately describe the actual reality in which we the viewers live. Instead, Judas and the other aged disciples show up at Jesus' deathbed to more or less guilt-trip him into fulfilling God's plan, with the tone of someone bitching that you promised to pick him up at the airport and then didn't show. Again, doesn't matter to me, and I mostly dig this all-too-human depiction of a figure who's traditionally beatific to the point of tedium; Dafoe gives good anguish, portraying Jesus as a sort of manic-depressive who vacillates between holy ardor and abject terror, and Scorsese encourages the actors to perform Schrader's script naturalistically, so that e.g. Keitel sounds credibly exasperated saying things like "No you listen. Every day you have a different plan! First it's love. Then it's the axe. And now you have to die! What good could that do?" Which is closer to how I'd imagine the disciples would truly react than, say, Matthew 16:22, in which Peter merely expresses his preference that Jesus not die, and gets called Satan for his trouble.

The Hunger Games (2012, Gary Ross)

Since I'm getting a halfway decent word count for my Las Vegas Weekly review, let me use this space to ask a few spoiler-heavy questions of folks who've read the book(s). [Answer at the blog, obviously.]

(1) Is any justification provided for the age range of 12-18? Ostensibly, the purpose of the Games is to keep the populace of the outer districts willingly enslaved, but seems like tossing pre-teen girls into the arena as chum for the college-age kids would only set off precisely the sort of angry riot that's provoked by Rue's death.

(2) Clearly Gale must play a larger role in the subsequent novels, but does he have a discernible function in the first one, or is he just a complete waste of space like he is onscreen?

(3) Does Collins actually write it so that the Asshole Alliance chases Katniss up a tree, decides to wait until starvation forces her to descend (itself not that credible, frankly), and then goes to sleep en masse, without taking turns keeping watch like any group with even a dozen functioning brain cells among them would surely do?

(4) What's the deal with the sponsors? So much is made of this early on, and then as far as I can tell the only result is two care packages that it's implied -- unless I completely misunderstood -- are sent by Haymitch. Which that's more like having your pit crew change your tires than like being forced to pimp yourself out to a national viewing audience, which is by far the story's most compelling aspect. Which brings me to, most crucially, and this I do intend to address at length in the review proper...

(5) Does the book make it abundantly clear, via Katniss' interior monologue, that her feelings for Peeta are manufactured, or at least that she initially believes herself to be feigning them as a cynical strategy? Because that's the impression I get from the Wiki synopsis, and the film seems to me to deliberately mute that angle, to the point where it's barely even perceptible to viewers like myself who are coming to the movie cold (while at the same time, I can see in retrospect, being very perceptible to those who already know via the book what's going on). "Afterwards, Peeta is heartbroken when he learns that Katniss's actions in the arena were part of a calculated ploy to earn sympathy from the audience," it says here, for instance, which is decidedly not how that bullet-train scene in the epilogue plays. Feels like Ross and the screenwriters worked hard to have it both ways, gutting the story's heart in the process. I'd like to credit Ross with being enormously subtle, but, y'know. Pleasantville. Seabiscuit. It's kinda hard.

The War Room (1993, Chris Hegedus & D A Pennebaker)

Arguably more interesting now than it was at the time, since it functions as a time capsule in addition to an intimate behind-the-scenes portrait of a campaign. Emphasis is entirely on manipulating the mass media, with virtually zero effort made to target voters directly (what are they gonna do, mail physical objects to their homes?); the team's jubilation about Brazilian TV footage showing that Bush's re-election committee had its flyers and such manufactured overseas, for example, quickly dissipates once the networks do some fact-checking and decide the story isn't as juicy as it first appeared. Gotta wonder how that might play out today. As I remembered, though, this is basically The James Carville Show, as well it should be given his endlessly entertaining amalgam of folksy + ornery -- I especially love the concession speech he extemporizes early on Election Day, as they await the first returns, which sounds exactly like what the loser always actually says even though Carville sarcastically laughs his way through the whole thing. Stephanopoulos, for his part, mostly looks junior-exec eager, but he does have one mildly startling moment in which he skates right up to the edge of offering political favors to a journalist for burying a Clinton rumor, seeming to realize at the last second that he's on-camera and abruptly pulling a Nixonian "That would be wrong." Such awareness makes me skeptical of fly-on-the-wall docs as a rule, but in this case it really does appear as if we're getting a fairly accurate sense of how the sausage is made (in rooms with lots of flies on the wall, I'm guessing; no it's not mixed, so there!), to the point where the film would be no less valuable a document even if Clinton had lost the election, or the nomination. If anything, it seems a tad skimpy at 96 minutes, skipping past Buchanan and the culture war, Sister Souljah, "I didn't inhale," etc. Sign visible in the background of several shots that ought to have been passed along to Al Gore: "If we buy it, we will win. FLORIDA."

All In: The Poker Movie (2009, Douglas Tirola)

I just can't watch this kind of rapid-fire, heavily expository, multi-talking-head documentary anymore, even about a subject I know and love. Tirola often cuts to someone speaking literally one sentence, so that you barely even have time to register who it is, or wonder what they're doing in the movie (Doris Kearns Goodwin? Evander Holyfield?); he clearly just interviewed every person he could think of, worked out the story he wanted to tell, and then went through the footage splicing in sound bites as if they were pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Excruciating. Doesn't help that he structures it all around Chris Moneymaker, who's only interesting for what he represents (the dream that you, an amateur, could win millions with a tiny investment), or that the landscape has radically changed since this movie originally premiered three years ago (acknowledged via a new prologue shot after Black Friday, plus no doubt newly shot material at the very end). But seriously, who wants to watch this kind of doc anymore? Is there still an audience? Just pick Phil Laak or Gus Hansen or some other charismatic pro and follow him around.

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, George Stevens)

Randomized queue decreed that the time had finally come to get this Best Picture nominee + Cannes Competition title out of the way. Knew it was hopeless, though, as I acted in the play in high school (as Otto Frank) and disliked it even then, Pulitzer notwithstanding. Sure enough, the film has the same monotonous rhythm, alternating bland scenes of cabin-fever bickering with repetitive "suspenseful" interludes in which the Annex's inhabitants are threatened with discovery; the knowledge that it actually happened can only ennoble Goodrich and Hackett's turgid sense of drama (they were comic writers at heart) so much. But I was unprepared for the sheer awfulness of Millie Perkins, who captures none of Anne's restless intelligence and is distractingly "adorable" (especially when whining about how homely she supposedly is -- they might as well have gone whole hog and cast Audrey Hepburn in the role). Stevens works hard to make this single-room production cinematic, and he does achieve one genuinely stunning effect: Anne and Peter's first kiss, which occurs in deep silhouette, after which Anne opens the door and light suddenly floods her astonished face. (A rare nice moment from Perkins, too, who seems well suited for less harrowing tales of young love.) Really, the whole idea of a dramatic work based on Anne's diary is deeply misguided, except insofar as it gives audiences an opportunity to sadly shake their heads. Barring wall-to-wall voiceover, all you've got, in lieu of a remarkable young woman's frustrated self-examination, is a bunch of people cooped up in a tiny space for a couple of years, getting on each other's nerves. For an equally tiresome current film saddled with pretty much the exact same problem, see, or rather do not see, The Forgiveness of Blood. Also, did I mention that this thing is three hours long? THREE. HOURS. LONG.

To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch)

One of those comedies in which the setup devours half the film's running time, without being especially funny or (in this case) cuttingly satirical for its own sake. Once Jack Benny starts impersonating Nazis, it's a hoot...yet even in the back half, there's a curious remoteness, as if everyone involved was too aware of the scenario's real-world ugliness to truly cut loose. You know the story about the line of dialogue that got cut in the initial release because of Lombard's death -- something along the lines of "What could happen in a plane?" In a way, the entire movie feels like it's walking on those sort of eggshells. As if it's been slightly defanged, even as it dares to mock Hitler and so forth. (And even the mocking sometimes verges on a proto-"Hogan's Heroes," especially w/r/t Sig Ruman's Col. Ehrhardt.) Cherishable mostly because it's one of Benny's only leading roles in the movies, along with Charley's Aunt (which I've never seen); he more or less pioneered the persona of the self-regarding schlemiel, and nobody's ever matched his impeccable sense of timing, which amounts to a series of exclusively vocal double-takes. Lombard isn't given nearly as much to do here, being stuck opposite the young Robert Stack in most of her scenes, but still manages to get laughs in unexpected ways -- one of her scripted lines is "Lieutenant, this is the first time I've ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes," which she delivers in a sort of dreamy rapture and then beautifully punctures with a breezy "Bye!" Good fun, but I'd rank it alongside lesser-heralded Lubitsches like Monte Carlo and Cluny Brown rather than all-time greats like Shop Around the Corner and Trouble in Paradise.

Being Flynn (2012, Paul Weitz)

Reviewed in brief for Las Vegas Weekly. Way better than I expected -- the first half-hour or so really crackles, and Dano's recessive nature seems to be working for him rather than against him for a change. But the movie I wanted it to be would feature this exchange at about the midpoint (where it starts to go wrong):

Paul Dano: Do you think I'm like my father?
Olivia Thirlby: I think you need to be slapped for asking something that retarded.
[Slaps him hard in the face, exits.]

Found Memories (2011, Júlia Murat)

Original title translates roughly as Stories That Exist Only When Remembered, which is way more evocative than either Found Memories or what I saw of the film itself. Murat spends 20 minutes just establishing that Every Day Is Much The Same in this sleepy village forgotten by time, shooting various mundane activities repeatedly from different angles à la The Turin Horse. (I didn't love the studied repetition there, either, but at least Tarr conveys an overwhelming sense of the world's indifference, as opposed to mere banality.) Things ostensibly perk up with The Arrival Of An Outsider in the form of a young photographer, but the film remains stubbornly low-key to the point of somnolence, and I just never got involved. Though that original title suggests that involvement only arrives in retrospect...

Chasing Amy (1997, Kevin Smith)

Still his best film (of the first five -- I gave up after Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), but that's saying even less than I remembered. What's maddening is the way he completely torpedoes a superb premise that he'd actually been handling with surprising candor and sensitivity, right up to the head-smacking moment when Alyssa justifiably goes apeshit in response to Holden's declaration of love ("There's no 'period of adjustment,' Holden! I am fucking gay! That's who I am!") only to suddenly start macking on him, and then subsequently reveal that all those years of sleeping with women were really just her effort at being inclusive. Uh-huh. Tragic, really, because a film that had made an effort to truly grapple with the fallout of that blowup could have been tremendous, even with these actors. (Jason Lee is of course peerless in this sort of role -- I'm amazed he didn't even place in the Skandies that year -- but Affleck and Adams are totally solid as well, apart from the unfortunate pitch the latter's voice hits whenever she yells). Instead, Smith abruptly turns it into a movie about his own pet hangup, viz. not being able to deal with a woman's (hetero)sexual history. And he kinda does okay by that one, actually, though I'm less impressed than I was in '97 by the suggestion that Holden and Banky are secretly attracted to each other (which now strikes me as further evidence that Smith doesn't comprehend the difference between friendship and desire, and somehow got the idea that we're all innately bisexual). His ineptitude as a filmmaker, however, remains legendary. I'm not sure which is the biggest howler: the huge thunderclap after Holden says "I love you," or the interrogation of Alyssa's past that he sets at a hockey game so that he can cut to a body blow on the ice after each indelicate question. Jesus.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones)

Tough to evaluate a movie I watched so many times as a teenager that I committed the entire thing to memory, but the fact that it can still make me laugh out loud after all these years -- at the Møøse-infested opening credits; at the coconut/swallow debate ("It's not a question of where he grips it"); at Lancelot sheepishly apologizing for slaughtering half the wedding party; at Tim the Enchanter and his absurd Scottish accent; etc. -- is an all-but-inarguable testament to its genuine enduring hilarity. On the other hand, however, I have to admit that it's a bit...well, bitty -- essentially a sketch comedy in which all of the sketches happen to be set during the same historical period. Unlike Life of Brian, which both tells a proper story (for the most part) and has a barbed satirical point to make, Holy Grail is strictly a laugh machine, so when you're not laughing -- I lose interest during Gilliam's animations, for example (also true in the TV show), and have never found Cleese's French taunter all that funny -- there's little else to divert you. Also, teenage me never once noticed all the fake close-ups that were clearly created in post via optical zooms, whereas now I wince every time the image suddenly degrades by at least 30%. The curse of cinephilia. Wish I'd been old enough during its first-run engagements to see how audiences of the day responded to the non-ending -- not just the postmodern anachronism and lack of resolution (both of which were a staple of Flying Circus), but the jaunty exit music that plays over a black screen for several minutes while you wait in vain for something more. Though I guess they did that sort of thing on TV as well, actually.

Reindeer Games (2000, John Frankenheimer)

So demoralizing to see Frankenheimer's distinctive close-ups expended on these cardboard morons. If you watched it with the sound off, you could potentially imagine you were seeing something halfway decent, though a couple of the more blatantly retarded plot twists would still come across (and if you were a bit confused about one of them, Affleck helps out by doing one of the hammiest ZOMG! double-takes of all time). I watched the "director's cut," which Frankenheimer apparently genuinely felt was far superior, but it's really hard to believe he wasn't aware that the movie's idiocy is genetically hardwired -- nothing that happens makes even one lick of sense, start to finish, with the final revelation so completely out of left field that the movie has to just shut down for like five minutes while the villain explains how it's even possible. (Because even if you've spent months -- or is it years? -- laboriously setting someone up as your fall guy, and now fully intend to kill him, it's only polite to satisfy his curiosity in extravagant detail first.) Attempts at humor flail jerkily about like the netted catch on the floor of a fishing boat, and there are random details throughout that make you wonder what the fuck screenwriter Ehren Kruger (whose Arlington Road coheres rather nicely) was smoking; when he needs to contrive a prison riot, for example, he decides the thing to do is to have the lunchtime jello so full of dead cockroaches that there's a giant carcass in every single inmate's tray. Some reviews seize on stuff like that and try to make a case for the film as an intentional parody of stupid Hollywood thrillers, but if that was Frankenheimer's intention, which I seriously doubt, he not only whiffed the tone entirely but forgot to inform Affleck, who alternates between earnest (most of the time) and smirky (when handed an identifiable if unfunny joke). Sinise does manage to make the dart-throwing scene work, though, I'll give him that. "Nick. I've been trying to hit you."

It Looks Pretty From a Distance (2011, Anka & Wilhelm Sasnal)

But up close it's ugly and torpid and sullen and Neanderthal and deliberately uncommunicative and obnoxiously eventless and convinced to its core that monotonous silence = high art and just generally the worst kind of fest-circuit phoniness imaginable, bwahahahaha. Nothing concrete to say about this one because there's nothing there -- its only agenda is to withhold anything that might grab the viewer's attention and thereby nullify its status as LE CINEMA BITCHES!!! Not remotely surprised to discover that the directors have crossed over from painting and other graphic arts, a move that bears fruit so infrequently that it's a wonder there's no campaign afoot to outlaw it.

Bernie (2011, Richard Linklater)

Not really sure what attracted Linklater to this particular real-life story, which isn't nearly as outrageous -- or even as interesting -- as the movie and its ad campaign insist. Given that inherent limitation, though, he has an enormously good time with it, again making terrific use of Jack Black's natural showmanship (a smash cut to "Seventy-Six Trombones" brings down the house) and tapping the playfully sleazy side of Matthew McConaughey (whose best moment is unfortunately ruined by the trailer, which cuts another shot into his beautifully timed pause). Best of all, needless to say, are the townsfolk interviews, featuring an ensemble so adroitly cast that I still wasn't 100% sure that material was scripted even as the closing credits rolled; reviews out of LAFF last year cited Christopher Guest, but while most of these talking-head sound bites are funny, they aren't ostentatiously funny -- it's all credible as something that a real person might say. I assumed they were non-pros, in fact, only to look up e.g. Sonny Davis, the hilariously crusty old dude who lays out Texas' regional affectations early on, and find a long list of credits dating back to the late '70s (including a starring role in that recent rediscovery The Whole Shootin' Match, which I still haven't caught up with). Wish it were more than just mildly amusing, and that MacLaine weren't still content to coast on crotchety mannerism, and that Linklater and co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth had found a way to explain why there's a climactic trial at all (given that Bernie confessed and clearly has no desire to evade punishment -- I can only assume it's because the D.A.'s office charged him with first-degree murder and refused to plea-bargain it down even to second-, though that's absurd if true), but as light entertainment goes, you could do considerably worse.

Romance Joe (2011, Lee Kwang-kuk)

Hard to believe that somebody could work as an assistant to Hong Sang-soo for years and think to himself, "You know what the festival circuit needs? Another Korean auteur making formalist anti-romantic comedies about socially awkward people who work in the film industry!" Granted, he's opted for a Saragossa-style Russian-doll structure rather than Hong's usual bifurcation, but I think I saw pieces of five different narratives in the 40 minutes I watched and was eager to return to exactly none of them. Get your own shtick, dude. Alan Rudolph didn't just package Altman in a different box.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Lewis Milestone)

Give it up to Milestone for directing battle sequences that still have the power to astonish over 80 years later, even compared to the groundbreaking contemporary films they directly influenced (namely Saving Private Ryan and its knockoffs). Actually, just give it up to him period, because the entire film is sensationally directed, to the point where it much more closely resembles late silents than early talkies. There actually is a silent version of All Quiet, as it turns out, shot simultaneously, and I really should watch that at some point, if only to see how it handles the incredibly stilted dialogue scenes that keep dragging the movie down. (Odds are it plays much the same, with the preachiness simply confined to intertitles.) Paul's extended apology to the French soldier he kills, in particular, plays as if he's reading some very earnest essayist's open letter, written years after the war ended; even granting that we're experiencing the gradual disillusionment of naïve youth, the level of aw-shucksiness can be toxic. When Milestone depicts the company's thinning ranks by following a pair of expensive boots as they're bequeathed from owner to owner, however, or shows Paul and friends wooing the belles across the river by dive-mooning them (oh, right, pre-Code), or locks the camera down for several agonizing minutes while the boys lose their shit after days of nonstop shelling, it's easy to forgive the occasional lapses into sorely dated moviespeak. Really surprised Lew Ayres didn't become a much bigger star, though maybe he was ultimately just a little too boyish for adult drama -- the Matthew Broderick of his era.