Films Seen October 2011

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

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/Cape Fear/ (1991, Martin Scorsese): 57

Really surprised in retrospect that Scorsese allowed Max Cady to be turned into an unstoppable inhuman supervillain, even if that was all the rage at the time. (Most recent credit for screenwriter Wesley Strick: the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot.) De Niro hams it up unmercifully, substituting a sneering drawl for character; I never saw his Fearless Leader, but it could hardly be much more cartoonish. Which is a shame, because the unnatural order he's so garishly upsetting has real bite. Even if Cady is now meant to be just a projection of this family's unspoken anxieties, they deserve a richer avatar; Juliette Lewis in particular is every bit as freakishly unguarded as I remembered, her halting self-consciousness the perfect distillation of adolescent curiosity and confusion. (She's so good that she even manages to briefly settle De Niro down a bit.) Scorsese, for his part, seems to be working hard to live up to Herrmann's score, which was arguably too fervent for the '62 version (a rather modest thriller, as I recall). Yet the film works best at its most restrained, as with the monofilament tied to the teddy bear, whereas grandiose flourishes like Cady on the wall beneath a fireworks display come across as overexertion. Ultimately this seems less like a remake of a (very) minor classic than like Scorsese's game contribution to the then-burgeoning [Whatever]-From-Hell genre -- it could just as easily have been The Hand That Rocks the Cradle instead, really. Once the bad guy gets set on fire and returns scarred but unfazed to wreak further havoc, any pretense of consequence is pretty much shot.

Deep Red (1975, Dario Argento): 53

I'm clearly never gonna get the hang of savoring this genre's stunning setpieces and just ignoring, forgiving or at least tolerating everything else (which is why I love the nonstop abstraction of Amer). Once Hemmings finds the house and starts wandering through its rooms accompanied by Goblin, it's goosebump time; the final 45 minutes are undeniably masterful, an elegant tour de force of sustained apprehension. (They also feature one of the most freaky-disturbing shocks I've ever experienced, when that...thing suddenly prances into the room, not so much without warning as without even the tiniest hint of preparation or foreshadowing. And indeed it doesn't make a whole lot of retroactive sense once the killer's identity is revealed, but somehow I don't think my next several decades of cardiac-arrest nightmares are gonna split those hairs.) But the preceding hour-plus, with the exception of two brief gory interludes, is deadly in entirely the wrong way. Argento simply cannot shoot a non-stuporous scene of two people having an ordinary conversation; his logy notion of sexual tension is especially laughable, which is a bit sad considering that he was banging Nicolodi himself. (Was Asia conceived during this shoot? The timing is right, born September '75.) Consequently, long stretches of the ultra-expository first half are completely flavorless, reminiscent of the filler scenes in any number of made-for-TV mysteries from the era. If you disagree, and actually find the film enthralling from start to finish, that's one thing -- baffling to me, but defensible. But I found several reviews that more or less admit that it's 70% tedium, yet still give it the highest possible rating and deem it a classic or a masterpiece or both, entirely on the basis of the 30% that (literally) kills. That way lies the impending canonization of Red Eye.

/Shit Year/ (2010, Cam Archer): 77

Not sure a movie could get much more fragmentary and diffuse and still hold together. Obviously it helps to have an actor like Ellen Barkin at the center -- her performance is all the more extraordinary when you consider that she has no conventional "arc" to play, just a series of disconnected moments ranging all over the map in tone and intensity. But Archer (whose Wild Tigers I Have Known I didn't just W/O of but actively fled; seems he just needed a less callow vehicle for his anxieties) provides a stunning free-associative context for her mercurial wandering, constructing a state of mind via jagged shards of pure emotion juxtaposed with shaggy digressions, all of it edited in a clipped, brusque way that catches you continually off guard. I can see how the sci-fi element strikes many as pretentious, but those scenes work for me precisely because they're given no more emphasis than anything else, just as the ending seems absolutely right in its offhanded playfulness. And I'd think even dissenters (who are actually in the majority, but I'm sick of the word "haters") would have to concede that this is one of the most gorgeous black-and-white films in recent memory, if largely by virtue of not trying to be ostentatiously gorgeous. In all honesty, I'd expected to be less impressed on second viewing, figuring my low expectations had influenced my judgment, but its amalgam of formal bravado, sardonic humor, refractory inconclusiveness and unapologetic solipsism (which, again, seems way more palatable when transferred to an actress in her mid-50s) knocked me out all over again. Nobody else seems to agree, but that's okay -- given all the wildly acclaimed movies I find disappointing, it's refreshing to have a beat-up orphan to defend for a change.

Obsession (1976, Brian De Palma): 54

Wow, he even gets Herrmann to rip off his own score! Given the relative inaccessibility of Vertigo at the time, I'm not particularly hostile to the notion of a feature-length homage -- especially one that veers as far afield from its source as this ultimately does. And I was unprepared for De Palma's magnificently classical approach to this material: lush, studied (imagine how alien Robertson's performance must have seemed in the midst of the '70s post-Method heyday), unironically italicized. But apparently there's a law requiring every De Palma movie to go full retard at some point, and the big twist here, when it finally arrives, is so completely preposterous that you can only gape in disbelief -- that's the longest fucking con on record, I believe, by the world's most patient rapscallion. And I can't even blame Schrader, as all reports indicate he was livid about how his script had been trashed. De Palma very nearly pulls it all out in the finale, with fevered slow-motion cross-cutting -- on second thought, fuck classicalism! -- building to a ending so operatically tragic that I was prepared to forgive every contrivance necessary to arrive at it...and then he (or somebody) totally chickens out, just as he (or somebody) previously did by turning the marriage into a corny rippling-effect dream in order to duck the whole [SPOILER!] angle. Basically, yet another De Palma film I would love were it not so fucking dumb. But I guess that's my problem.

Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh): 66

Two men stand on a train platform, sharing an emotional farewell kiss; as their lips part, with the intensity of the moment still very much lingering, we hear indistinct catcalls from off in the distance. One of the men glares furiously in the dickwads' direction. "Just ignore them," the other says, but he can't quite yet, keeps glaring, looks as if he might walk over and start a confrontation, then finally turns his attention back to his lover. I've made that exchange sound longer than it plays -- it's maybe ten seconds of screen time, a quick blip. But it represents everything I wanted this movie to be, and briefly thought that it actually might be. Whereas the earlier scene in which the same two men animatedly argue about how the straight world conspires to make them hide their sexuality represents everything I feared this movie might be, based on queer cinema's mediocre track record. Perhaps what I'm asking for is simply impossible -- maybe there's no way to be truthful about the gay experience without having the characters talk nonstop about being gay. Certainly I have no right to demand that marginalized voices edit themselves for my sake. And I recognize that if society found some significant aspect of my identity repugnant, that would probably be a frequent topic of conversation when among peers. But still. These two actors are so fantastic (especially Chris New, who gives Glen exactly the right quotient of relaxed arrogance), and the first lengthy scene between them, involving the tape-recorded interview recounting the previous night, hits so many gorgeously inquisitive and frankly erotic notes, that my heart just sank when the coming-out anecdotes and gay-marriage debates kicked in. What had begun as an offbeat romance in which gender/orientation seem incidental (without their particulars being elided -- quite the contrary) turned into a very well-acted and refreshingly low-key tract. Which is still far superior to most of what I've seen come out of NewFest and Outfest and etc., but I hope I live to see the day when a gay filmmaker can truly make something like Before Sunrise, taking the characters' attraction to each other for granted.

/Dead Alive/ (1992, Peter Jackson): 70

Funny to recall how apprehensive I was about seeing this the first time, based on its reputation as the goriest movie ever made -- one might as well live in fear of "Rabbit Seasoning" after learning that Daffy gets his beak shot off again and again. Jackson leans too hard on the gross-out for my (uh) taste, but his slapstick violence owes so much more to Mack Sennett than to George Romero that you can't help but giggle, even as "people" (read: living mannequins) are repeatedly stripped of all flesh like Thanksgiving turkeys. Perhaps perversely, I prefer the first two acts, when Lionel is valiantly attempting to pretend this zombie apocalypse isn't happening, to the extended bloodsoaked finale; Paquita's wide-eyed, broken-English optimism bounces off bits of casual ghastliness, creating a winning comic tension that gets a bit lost once the party gets underway and heads start to roll (or rather to slide). And the film loses me completely at the rooftop climax, with Mum for some reason re-emerging as a lucid behemoth that resembles the ugly puppets in Genesis' "Land of Confusion" video. For the most part, though, there's no other word for it than "delightful," as sick as that adjective may seem in this context. Certainly I'd rather see Jackson return to making this kind of cheerful throwaway nonsense than continue to bid for sustained respectability via grotesquely ill-conceived prestige-lit adaptations. If Raimi could make it home again, surely so can he.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981, Frank De Felitta): 49

Easy to see how this could have been terrifying to an impressionable youngster who saw it when it first aired (I was 13 at the time, perfect age, just didn't happen to tune in), but it seems pretty tame now -- not just in the explicit-gore sense mandated by network TV, but in the bizarre way that it marginalizes its bogeyman, who has less screen time than that sorrowful-looking dude who pops up in most of the Decalogue films. Indeed, I was convinced for most of the second half that there was no killer, and was becoming more and more impressed with what appeared to be a multi-character slasher variant on "The Telltale Heart," even if Charles Durning is the only one of the four principals with the capacity to pull that off. Ending pretty much squashes my interpretation, alas, though there are still elements I don't understand, e.g. when they dig up the grave and confirm that the body 's actually in the casket, why don't we see it? I'd assumed the inconclusive camera angle was Significant, but in retrospect I wonder whether it was just a budgetary issue, or if Larry Drake wasn't available that day. Once revealed as straightforwardly vengeful, it's a fairly tepid affair, notable primarily for how loathsome it makes all of its victims; De Felitta has little feel for generating tension or anxiety, and while the film is handsomely shot, its rhythms are unmistakably televisual (in a plodding '80s way). Also, scarecrows are not creepy. Being up on a post makes you look vulnerable, not menacing.

Kuroneko (1968, Kaneto Shindô): 68

Plays to my love of the overtly theatrical in an otherwise naturalistic context -- it's often hard to tell where the actual forest leaves off and the set design begins, in part because those are the spindliest damn trees I've ever seen. One uncanny effect in particular I can't recall ever seeing elsewhere, though it's so striking you'd think people would have pilfered it like mad: motionless medium shot of a dude sitting in a house, but the view through open doors to his left (taking up roughly the right third of the frame) is a traveling rear projection through the woods, carefully composited to make it appear (though not at all realistically) as if the house itself is moving. And Shindô finds numerous other ways to enliven what's really a pretty pedestrian ghostly-revenge tale, complicated by carnal interludes that seem to presage a heady reckoning that never quite arrives. Or it does, sort of, but for the wrong character, and entirely offscreen. Given all that conjugal intensity, the climactic mother-son battle feels like a non sequitur, albeit one involving the awesome sight of a middle-aged woman performing proto-wire-fu with her own severed cat arm clutched between her teeth. (I may also have been slightly distracted by Mom's method of getting Junior to let her inside, which is only one step up from the land shark's "Uh...candygram!") Stronger on atmosphere than narrative, in short, which tends to be a liability of the genre; I'll have forgotten the story a few years from now, but will vividly remember the woman's ponytail that flips back and forth in a way unmistakably suggesting a feline readying for the pounce.

Margin Call (2011, J.C. Chandor): 58

Intelligent, gripping, utterly persuasive...except that roughly every ten minutes Chandor fears we might not be getting it and applies the sledgehammer, to severely alienating effect. At times I started to wonder whether the self-aware monologues were intended as comedy, given the absurdly specific figures being casually tossed around: Paul Bettany knows off the top of his head precisely how much money he's blown on hookers and strip clubs in the past year ($76,520), while Stanley Tucci has no trouble mentally calculating that the bridge he once built has to date saved residents of the communities it spans 1,531 man-years of driving time. It's as if every so often the movie plays a game called But What Would This Character Say If Briefly Possessed By The Spirit Of Paul Krugman? Just let them be venal and short-sighted (yet human) and allow us to fill in the part about how the country's wealth has been almost completely disengaged from goods and services. When Chandor actually does so, which is much of the time, Margin Call makes the spectre of economic annihilation look both perversely thrilling (Scott Tobias aptly called it "the Fail-Safe of our time") and discomfitingly beautiful, bathing tight-lipped recriminations and hasty cost-benefit analyses in the dim purplish light of the firm's glowing monitors. As in Contagion, one gets a sense of the frightening swiftness with which lives and livelihoods can be demolished, in this case by the self-interested decision of a single individual* -- admittedly one who looks like Claus von Bulow and sounds like Scar from The Lion King. And speaking of the uniformly fine cast, who woke Kevin Spacey up? His final speech to the troops is stupendous, blending sincere respect and concern with barely concealed self-loathing until you can't distinguish between the two; it's the least showboat-y, most delectably nuanced performance he's given in at least a decade (in a theatrical release, anyway -- I haven't seen Recount). If only the screenplay had been so firmly committed to impassioned understatement.

* The implication that Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns or whoever this is meant to be could have prevented the current crisis by behaving more ethically at the eleventh hour seems pretty untenable, though I should note that I've never really been able to comprehend how the market works and had trouble following even the parts of this film that were clearly dumbed down expressly for the sake of folks like me.

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011, Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman): 62

Suffers, like Beats Being Dead, from being part of a weak triptych -- had this been a stand-alone film (minus the retcon prologue, of course), I'd be even more enthusiastic. Granted, most of its best bits are derivative: Toby's straight out of The Shining; babysitter stalked by thing wearing a sheet nods to Halloween (and one-ups that particular scare, if you'll permit me a moment of blasphemy); finale plays like Rosemary's Baby as shot by Brakhage, etc. But Joost & Schulman, despite owing this gig to a movie that demonstrates zero formal expertise, prove far more adept than their predecessors at exploiting the surveillance-camera conceit to maximum effect. Everybody's crazy for the fan-cam, with good reason -- nothing more effective than being forced to look away from what you're frightened to see -- but that's only the most spectacular example; placement of the camera in the girls' room renders it magnificently useless (it's as if Zapruder had been in the limousine's front seat, trained on the road ahead), and even simple, obvious ideas that had been inexplicably ignored in the earlier films, e.g. having people in danger obscure the view with their bodies, do the job quite nicely. A pleasure to see wit make an appearance, too, in such knowing touches as the Teddy Ruxpin doll (introduced early so that we'll be eyeing it suspiciously throughout) and the tea party (with our hero indulgently patting his invisible tormentor on the shoulder by way of chumming it up with Kristi). Knowledge of how various elements fit into the series' mythology renders them less unnerving than they would have been in a vacuum, alas, and once again we can relax to a certain extent because we know both girls will survive to be haunted anew as adults; I'm not eager to see Paranormal Activity 4, by any means. Nice to see that even a mediocre franchise like this can be redeemed by intelligence and fundamental craft, though.

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010, Tod Williams): 45

Same basic structural weakness as the original, but that proved to be of little consequence, because I wound up watching this not as a horror film but as a perverse extratextual mystery: How the hell can anything remotely terrifying happen to this family, given that Katie and Micah never once mention it just a few weeks later? That there is, eventually, an answer (both logical and ludicrous) to that question doesn't much mitigate the fact that I remained blithely unconcerned for the protagonists throughout, secure in the knowledge that the only real danger was a ferocious retcon. (Some of you may recall that I had the same basic issue with Ringu/The Ring -- if I know you're not scheduled to die until Thursday, Monday's ostensible threats are gonna leave me yawning.) And while you'd think that the money angle in Hunter's nursery features a view of a mirrored closet door and a smaller mirror in a room across the hall for a reason, Williams can't be bothered with formal ingenuity -- the cameras are strictly an established gimmick, employed in the most dully functional manner imaginable. (Honest, I was grumbling to myself about this even before seeing the new one, though admittedly I had caught wind of the fan-cam on Twitter.) Had I been watching this series in real time, I would have concluded that it's creatively exhausted (not that it had demonstrated that much creativity to begin with) and vowed to keep well away from any third installment. Unless of course they hire somebody interesting to direct...

Paranormal Activity (2007, Oren Peli): 49

Got briefly excited when the opening scene revealed that there would be no establishment of false tranquility: Spooky shit's already happening, that's why he bought the camera. Hallelujah! And I immediately dug both actors, who handle light improv quite ably. So hell yeah, bring on the terror. Or the emotional meltdown. Or the, I dunno, the far-fetched sociopolitical allegory, maybe. Something, fer chrissakes, other than just a monotonous rhythm of increasingly nervous conversation by day and standard-issue poltergeist shenanigans by night. Unlike The Blair Witch Project, which was essentially a brutal character study disguised as a found-footage horror film (perhaps not by design, but it doesn't really matter), Paranormal Activity has nothing on its mind except BOO!, and apparently works reasonably well on that level for many; I only get frightened by the utterly inexplicable, so the sole moment that truly creeped me out was Katie standing at the foot of the bed watching Micah sleep for several hours, which Peli found mild enough to place during one of the first few nights. (He does circle back to it for the finale, but that only raises inadvisable questions about the roundabout nature of this demon's three-week possession strategy.) Having the ghost expert return only to flee before he even gets in the door was a witty touch, but it's the only real divergence from the film's cycle of mostly banal visitations, which sorta kinda escalate in degree but are generally so disconnected from each other that they seem interchangeable. After a while it was just, Okay, what's tonight's booga-booga gonna be?

/Last Exit to Brooklyn/ (1989, Uli Edel): 43

This might have been my first experience with what we now call miserablism, though I can't for the life of me remember whether I saw it or before or after reading the novel. Either way, it was immediately clear that the power of Selby's work resides almost entirely in his use of English vernacular syntax as a battering ram, which has no analogue in Edel's thoroughly normative adaptation. (I'm not in love with Requiem for a Dream either, but Aronofsky at least made an effort.) Screenwriter Desmond Nakano, who would go on to write and direct White Man's Burden, threads the book's barely-related chapters into something approximating a single narrative, though characters still tend to appear and disappear at what seems like random -- Georgette's story in particular seems baffling in this context, as (s)he's utterly forgotten once killed. Faithfully punishing and grim otherwise, to no real purpose except by way of noting that life sucks for the marginalized; the various downward spirals are staggered a bit here, rather than melding into one horrific montage as in Requiem, but the effect is still the same: POUND POUND POUND POUND POUND POUND POUND POUND. Even the comparatively lighthearted storyline involving the shotgun wedding seems despairing in this context, since it's effectively offered as a best-case scenario. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jerry Orbach manage to shove partway through the oppressive doominess, and there's a weird fascination, carried over from the novel, in the amalgam of open flirtation and contempt with which neighborhood toughs (including a very young Sam Rockwell!) regard the drag distinctly opposed to Harry's pathetic closet case, rendered a cliché before his time by bug-eyed Stephen Lang, desperately telegraphing everything. Can't say I'm sorry I've avoided Edel ever since, though.

/Beginners/ (2010, Mike Mills): 75

Raved about this previously (I really need to devise a format for repeat viewings of new films, of which there are gonna be a lot in the next few months), and am happy to find that it remains quietly affecting even when not subverting my low expectations. Amazing how many elements that sound nauseatingly quirky à la Gigantic on paper -- the subtitled Jack Russell, Ewan and Mélanie's meet-mute, The History of Sadness -- Mills manages to pull off just by taking them seriously, resisting his wife's penchant for quasi-comedic exaggeration. On the flip side, Ms. July gave her couple the considered estrangement they needed, whereas the corresponding crisis in Beginners gets rushed to the point of incoherence: Girl moves in, girl instantly starts crying, boy instantly feels miserable and says so, girl instantly moves out, boy instantly repents, the instant end. Having them confess their commitment-phobia during earlier pillow talk does not absolve you from dramatizing the actual dissolution, and neither does depicting the genesis of that fear on Oliver's side, however brilliantly. (Mary Page Keller remains my top pick for Supporting Actress.) Detail that had to come from real life: "You don't know what a camisole is?"

/Sid and Nancy/ (1986, Alex Cox): 60

Never would have guessed at the time that it'd be Oldman, not Webb, who'd go on to become a major star -- he turns in a solid impersonation whereas she embodies a screeching reservoir of bottomless need, miraculously making you feel protective of someone who's all but unbearable. Thing is, though, they're both miscast, simply by virtue of being 30 (or nearly so in Oldman's case). These were just babies, still largely unformed, and there's no way an actor, however accomplished, can completely eradicate visible evidence of life experience; you can see a trace of the real Nancy Spungen every time Courtney Love appears, looking genuinely unscarred and adrift at 21. Heroic effort nonetheless, with the film gaining power as it moves away from the pro forma biopic scene-setting of the first couple reels (Lydon gets a particularly raw deal) and settles into the duo's toxic codependency. That they were also junkies inevitably means a certain amount of tiresome wheel-spinning -- all drug addicts are tedious in exactly the same way; only options are bore us or lie -- but Cox counters with increasing surrealism, culminating in that iconic slo-mo kiss amidst falling garbage (which I'd nominate for a place among the 25 or so greatest shots of all time). Film as a whole romanticizes its subjects and their milieu without pretending the ugliness didn't exist, which is an impressively tricky line to walk; I don't think it ultimately earns its fairy-tale wish-fulfillment ending, but Sid dancing to K.C. and the Sunshine Band with the black kids just beforehand somehow almost sells it, even if I'm not quite sure why.

/Leap Year (Año bisiesto)/ (2010, Michael Rowe): 73

Previously addressed here. I'm generally unreceptive to films about sexual masochism, but Rowe takes precisely the opposite approach from most, employing "shock cuts" from degradation to extreme tenderness and contentment; for the first time, I actually feel like I sort of understand the S&M mindset. (Though I imagine many folks in that community would insist that one need not be lonely, miserable and/or an abuse victim to find such a relationship fulfilling.) And while I was impressed anew by Del Carmen's perfectly uninflected performance, the most riveting moment this time came courtesy of Gustavo Sánchez Parra, who wordlessly conveys Arturo's sheer horror at the realization that Laura is describing a bona-fide plan, not a fantasy. Still not in love with the titular countdown, though -- this wasn't a scenario that needed a tidy structure imposed upon it.

The Three Musketeers (1973, Richard Lester): 48

"Musketeers? Seriously? No, it's just...I really could've sworn you said Three Stooges. We were just about to shave Oliver's head. No, no, that's fine, we'll make it work somehow." A bizarre approach to classic lit, and one that I'd surely treasure if it actually made me laugh consistently. Trouble is, Lester's cast the film almost exclusively with actors who just aren't funny, some of whom apparently weren't informed that certain tonal liberties would be taken. Reed and Chamberlain have roughly the correct proportion of drollness and brio, but because the film follows Dumas père pretty closely (apart from splitting the novel into two films -- I have Four Musketeers here as well, will get to it at some point, probably right after Conan the Destroyer), the title characters wind up sidelined for the entire back half of the movie, stranding us with Michael York and his perpetual expression of wide-eyed idiocy. Some scenes are handsome, earnest and functional in the standard costume-drama mode, while others would fit comfortably in Start the Revolution Without Me (a film I desperately want to revisit); action setpieces frequently straddle both approaches, to the point where many duels involve planks of wood or even wet towels rather than swords. If you described this film to me -- even using my own words -- it would sound delightfully bold and unconventional. Somehow, though, the actual experience of watching it was mostly frustrating and dull. Bummer.

Incendies (2010, Denis Villeneuve): W/O

No shortage of high drama here, yet I never got remotely involved. Maybe I've been spoiled by Margaret: Opening scene finds two siblings discovering, courtesy of their late mother's employer (the executor of her will), that their father, who they believed dead, may in fact be alive, and that they may have an unknown brother to boot. Daughter sheds silent tears. Son sits there impassively, then declares his intention of ignoring this revelation plus all Mom's wishes concerning her interment. Are we meant to be intrigued by the question of which of these reactions is the more contrived? Flashbacks kick in shortly thereafter but appear no less clunky and unidimensional than the present-day material. This was a foreign-language Oscar nominee, right? [Checks.] Biutiful, Outside the Law, In a Better World, Incendies. How the hell did Dogtooth get a slot alongside all this worthiness?

/Life Is Beautiful (La vita è bella/ (1997, Robert Benigni): 72

Still an audacious, pitch-black parable of denial, not the grotesquely sentimental ode to the human spirit that both partisans and detractors mistook it for; I stand by most of my epic defense of 13 years ago. But I have to admit now that Benigni seems unwilling to commit wholeheartedly to his conceit (which is almost certainly what won him multiple Oscars, so timid like a fox). Nicoletta Braschi's performance doesn't bother me as much as it apparently did at the time, but the decision to have Dora follow Guido and Giosué to the camp could scarcely be more misguided -- that she's segregated from them only undermines Guido's fantasy, and every interlude involving communication between them stops the movie cold to no intelligible purpose apart from giving Braschi something to do in the second half. And then there's the German doctor, whose inevitable reappearance, though powerful in itself, writes a check that the final act not only can't cash but fails to even recognize as a conveyance for legal tender. It can't be coincidence that Guido's look of dawning horror, as he's offered not a means of escape or assistance but a pointless riddle, is immediately followed by the only visual evidence of mass murder in the entire film (stylized in a way that some found tasteless, but it's clearly intended to represent everything he's chosen to ignore prior to this moment)...and yet Guido neither snaps out of it and acknowledges the nightmare he's entered nor deliberately retreats into willful blindness. He just forges on as if those two scenes had never happened, with the finale precipitated only by the end of the war and impending liberation. These lapses aren't fatal, but they are damaging, especially given how susceptible to misinterpretation the film was in the first place. I'd perhaps be more forgiving had Benigni used his crossover success for good rather than (by all appearances; I've steered clear) unholy evil; as is, I can see his tailspin beginning right here.

/The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!/ (1988, David Zucker): 67

Here's a genre (or subgenre, I suppose) that's deader than the Western and the Musical combined, surviving only in stuff like the Scary Movie franchise that regularly turns up on worst-of-the-year lists. (Even the two sequels to this film were pretty patchy, actually.) As ever, I tune out during the toilet humor -- literal in the case of Drebin hitting the bathroom with his radio mic still on -- and there are too many baseball jokes in the third act for my personal sports-apathetic taste. But it was here that ZAZ truly perfected the escalating-absurdity gag that just keeps on giving: opening-credits "cop car" that invades a women's locker room and rides a rollercoaster; the litany of subsidiary disasters that befall Nordberg after he's shot (that Simpson does nothing except take punishment is now oddly cathartic); gasoline truck --> rocket launcher -- > fireworks factory; etc. And while Leslie Nielsen rocking the deadpan is a given, I'd forgotten how deftly Priscilla Presley underplays all of her silliness -- even her recoveries from pratfalls are nonchalant. Not as inspired as the show, which had the advantage of brevity (per episode, I mean; I was heartbroken by its cancellation), but anyone who doesn't convulse at the sight of Drebin taking a pillow to the face might as well just give up on the concept of joy altogether.

/Scarface/ (1983, Brian DePalma): 52

Considerably more nuanced than one would guess based on its cultural legacy, though that's still no excuse for it being three hours long. As usual with rise/fall narratives, the rise consistently thrills but the fall is kind of a drag; Tony never comes across as someone who'd wind up face-diving into giant mounds of cocaine, and it's borderline offensive, to say nothing of ridiculous, that he's ultimately toppled not by greed or envy or hubris -- or even by his token Hecht-derived overprotectiveness toward his sister -- but by his refusal to allow innocent women and children to be murdered. Montana the Martyr, {spit-take}. By powerful contrast, the film takes amazingly realistic pains, just for example, in depicting his conquest of Pfeiffer's empty beauty, having her tacitly encourage him by not protesting when he declares his intentions, but also acknowledging that she'd stick to Loggia's kingpin until he's actually killed, then just gather her things in resignation. Combination of Stone and De Palma can be bracing, too, most notably of course in the infamous chainsaw scene -- for two decades, I'd remembered only the actual hideousness (which isn't all that explicit, turns out), but henceforth I'm more likely to recall the camera elegantly turning away from the approaching carnage, drifting out the window and across the street to where Tony's buddies wait in the car, listening to music and flirting with some random girl who's wandered by. As for Pacino, either you enjoy him making "cockroach" a three-syllable word or you don't. It's an absurd performance but riveting nonetheless, the unapologetic embodiment of all things uncouth; every sentence and gesture, no matter how fleeting or casual, amounts to "fuck you."

The Color Wheel (2011, Alex Ross Perry): 41

"There are people who watch this film and say they find the characters uninteresting or overly irritating. Those people are assholes who either have the most inexplicably charmed lives or a deluded sense of self-satisfaction for crafting a world free of conflict, larger-than-life personalities, or actual human beings." Or maybe we assholes just don't enjoy watching people who talk exactly like that at 500 wpm in allegedly casual conversation. Barely tolerable protagonists aren't the problem here -- I adore Margaret, Buffalo '66, The Forest for the Trees, and numerous other deliberately off-putting films, and I fully respect what Perry and Altman are trying to do. I just don't think they do it very well, either as writers or as actors. Their dynamic feels almost Borscht Belt, like Henny Youngman doing mumblecore: no actual jokes, but nonstop belligerent patter that falls into an unrewarding chasm between verisimilitude and comedy. On paper that may sound intriguing, but as executed it often plays as if Saturday Night Live had decided to allot 12:50 a.m. sketch time to a couple of microindie film geeks. (The scene with the motel clerk, in particular, is cringeworthy in all the wrong ways.) Intended to W/O, but various admiring reviews more or less conceded the film's insufferability and spoke vaguely of some climactic coup de cinéma that justifies the ordeal, so I forged on; what actually happens is that Perry and Altman make a blatant bid for sympathy by surrounding their merely irritating fuckups with cartoon cretins (I gave up hope when one dude poured a glass of wine into Colin's shirt pocket for no reason and he just stood there blankly watching), then conclude with an ostensibly shocking turn of events that frankly just feels like a Hail Mary pass -- the kindest adjective that comes to mind is "unpersuasive." (Yes, it's foreshadowed, and no, that doesn't help.) I'm not writing Perry off yet, but judging from The Color Wheel he's got more ideas than chops.

/Bullets Over Broadway/ (1994, Woody Allen): 75

Pretty much the last gasp of Allen as a prodigious comic voice -- he's made some movies I like since, but none primarily because they're hilarious. "Yeah, I did a musical revue in Wichita. Maybe you heard of it, it was called Leave a Specimen." He just ran out of those at some point. Wish he didn't state the film's theme quite so bluntly, with multiple discussions of whether artists do/should create their own moral universe -- much more than Husbands and Wives, this film feels like a direct response to the Soon-Yi scandal -- but the fact that it's couched within such a broad, goofy comedy makes it go down fairly easy, especially since the premise itself doesn't exactly qualify as subtle (yet still works like gangbusters). Cusack makes for one of the more successful pseudo-Woodys, and has a fabulous rapport with Palminteri -- their scene together in the bar may be unique in Allen's filmography, in that it genuinely looks like two people having a conversation rather than reciting dialogue. (There's even a non-strategic lull!) But then, the entire cast excels. Terrific though Wiest is, I'd have given the Oscar to Tilly, whose riff on Lina Lamont threatens to out-screech the original; Broadbent, for his part, deserves some sort of special award for making his character more than just the lazy, slow-fuse fat joke that existed on paper (and unfortunately portended the wit quotient of crap like Small Time Crooks and Curse of the Jade Scorpion). Not one of Woody's greatest, by any means, but so much sharper, funnier and more assured than most of what's followed (including this year's inexplicably well-regarded mediocrity) that in retrospect it looks nigh-well miraculous. Had I known what was coming, I wouldn't have shrugged.

/Wings of Desire/ (1987, Wim Wenders): 54

Think I'd love this as a silent film, as it's mostly the poetic language that puts me off. Whenever human thoughts are just an indecipherable buzz in a language I don't speak, as in crowd scenes, I mentally project myself into the lives of those random faces, sometimes to deeply moving effect...but then Damiel or Cassiel will zero in on somebody in particular, and we'll hear her saying things like "Longing. Longing for a wave of love that would stir in me. That's what makes me clumsy. The absence of pleasure. Desire for love. Desire to love," and the spell is immediately broken. (Peter Falk's internal monologue is so comparatively mundane that I wonder whether he wrote much or all of it himself.) Also, Damiel's decision to "fall" seems either under- or overdramatized -- I don't need the entire movie to be about his transition from spirit to flesh (as I gather is the case in City of Angels, which I never saw), but having him take the plunge 3/4 of the way through, only to watch Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and listen to Solveig Dommartin's (sigh) poetic monologue (thankfully only about five minutes long, rather than the 15 or so it had become in my memory), seems like a half-assed attempt to impose some sort of structure upon what's really just an unusual specimen of city-symphony. Everybody just shut up, stop doing things, and let the camera glide through the Staatsbibliothek and alongside the Wall that would no longer exist just two years later. Can you not see that you're creating a beautiful time capsule, not a drama? (Or a goddamn poem?)

/Margaret/ (2011, Kenneth Lonergan): 80

Now that I've read a draft of the screenplay (184 pages, dated 15 July 2003), it's clear that Lonergan was in no way attempting to "find the movie" in the editing room, as various news stories have suggested -- what's onscreen is pretty much exactly what he conceived, except that giant chunks of it are missing. He evidently spent years trying to figure out how to cut the film down to less than 150 minutes without totally crippling it. Which was in fact a near-impossible task, as its meaning is encoded in its sheer muddled sprawl -- it's as if someone had forced Akerman to bring Jeanne Dielman in at 149:59. What's amazing is how close it nonetheless comes to magnificence, which is in part a testament to how stubbornly Lonergan clung to various semantic debates ("bravo/a/i," "strident," Lear IV.i) that would surely seem like obvious cuts to Searchlight suits. And what I previously wrote about him using messiness as an organizing principle turns out to be an understatement. At the (minor, I think) risk of getting into trouble, let me share with you two pages from a scene that didn't make it into the release version, just by way of demonstrating what Lonergan's intentions were, and how fortunate we probably are to have even this long-delayed, heavily bleeding remnant. If I handed these pages in to my agent, he would have me committed.

Candyman (1992, Bernard Rose): 37

See, I skipped this in first-run because I'd already been burned twice by Rose -- Paperhouse in particular being a textbook case of narrative incoherence defeating conceptual promise. And sure enough, Candyman tosses urban legend, racial hostility/condescension, encroaching madness, Clive Barker's obsession with pain-as-ecstasy, and various other elements into a shock-cut gumbo that makes no damn sense whatsoever. What's more, that fuzziness actually works against the film's effectiveness as horror, rather than for it -- there's a reason kids don't sit around the campfire whispering "and if you say his name five times, somebody else will get viciously murdered and the police will have every reason to think you did it...and maybe you did!" Some cut-rate Mr. Señor Love Daddy with bees buzzing inside his guts doesn't get me shivering, and I'm damned if I can work out what Candyman's origin as a lynching victim of sorts has to do with the heroine's gradual metamorphosis into an avenging paranormal figure (completely unrelated to urban legend; Xander Berkeley isn't deliberately summoning her in the final scene), or what either has to do with the notion of bogeymen as modern-day gods in need of worshippers (an intriguing idea that's merely pronounced in echo-treated voiceover, never actually explored). It's more overtly thoughtful and ambitious than the average horror movie, certainly, but that doesn't make it smart; far better to focus on actually horrifying and let the sociological subtext take care of itself.

/Amadeus/ (1984, Milos Forman): 69

Not bad as Best Picture winners go -- apart from Rain Man, for which I have a perhaps unaccountable soft spot, this is probably my favorite from the '80s. (Need to see Terms of Endearment again, but I'd be surprised.) Frustrated mediocrity's clash with vulgar genius makes for an inherently compelling subject, and Abraham sinks his teeth into the pointedly non-title role, keeping it a little reptilian in the flashback scenes in order to heighten the rapture he conveys when describing Mozart's music to the priest -- he even manages not to be upstaged by his old-age makeup, which is exceedingly rare. (Hulce is sporadically good too, but leans way too hard on the obscene giggle.) Strong location work, refreshing absence of period stuffiness, sharp supporting turns by Jeffrey Jones and Elizabeth Berridge, one tour de force (dictating K.626), score doesn't suck. But the gulf between Mozart and Salieri has been dumbed down so much that the latter's anguish isn't nearly as powerful as it should be. I don't overly mind that Shaffer has Mozart hold Salieri's work in contempt, contrary to historical record -- that at least allows for memorable flourishes both visual (Salieri unmoved by a thunderous ovation, desirous only of Mozart's approval) and verbal (best pseudo-compliment ever: "One hears such sounds and what can one say but...Salieri!"). But there's a difference between mediocre and feeble. Depicting Mozart's gift by stripping some of Figaro down to bare bones, assigning the kindergarten version to Salieri, and then letting Mozart rebuild it impromptu...I mean, come on. That's like making the case for Shakespeare by having him rewrite a rival's speech that begins "So, should I kill myself or not? I can kind of see both sides." It only cheapens an otherwise arresting portrait of unendurable envy.

/The Arbor/ (2010, Clio Barnard): 81

It's not a gimmick. Or, I dunno, maybe it was something of a gimmick at first (given that Barnard had previously created theater pieces using the same technique), but its use here is so brilliantly conceived that it transcends gimmickry. Dunbar's work was intensely autobiographical and yet also (at least in the case of the titular play) deliberately artificial, and this film walks the same arresting tightrope -- not just in terms of having actors lip-sync the interviews, and the cognitive dissonance created thereby, but in the juxtaposition of those performances with excerpts from The Arbor itself, performed on location (as the actors from the lip-sync sections observe, in character, thereby quasi-fictionalizing the neighborhood), as well, I'm getting kinda dizzy here...archival footage of the real Dunbar and her family, shot for television during her initial burst of success. How many freakin' layers of representation is that, I lost count. To be sure, it's a weird push-pull on the emotions and intellect: Lorraine's history in particular is unrelentingly bleak, yet our constant awareness that we're hearing the actual woman and watching an actor makes it almost impossible to either fully empathize or fully detach. Which of course is the entire point, and I've been waiting my whole life for someone to bulldoze the notion of documentary authenticity/objectivity with this degree of mind-altering flair. In fact, all that holds The Arbor back from my personal canon are the glimpses it occasionally affords of how it could have been even more stunning, viz. by combining separate interviews into a single overtly theatrical text of Barnard's own devising -- think of Lorraine and Lisa standing side by side as each recounts her memory of the fire that broke out in their childhood bedroom, or (especially) of the camera circling Lisa and others in their seats as each in turn recalls the premiere of A State Affair. Something about seeing these "characters" in close proximity yet not quite interacting hits even harder than does the lip-sync process alone, and I wish Barnard had found more occasions to go that route; also wish the play didn't recede quite so much in the latter half, even though finding parallels between its narrative and Lorraine's plight must have been tricky. Quibbles, quibbles. Just imagine me lip-syncing to Johnny Depp as Ed Wood: "This story's gonna grab people. It's about this guy, he's crazy about this girl, but he likes to wear dresses. Should he tell her? Should he not tell her? He's torn, Georgie. This is drama." (Hmm, bit of a reach, isn't it? Now that's a gimmick.)

/Straw Dogs/ (1971, Sam Peckinpah): 30

Lots of smart folks, including Peckinpah himself, have attempted to make a case for this as something other than vile misogynistic Neanderthal bullshit, but I remain unconvinced. If his intention was to make David the movie's stealth villain, I think he completely whiffed; Hoffman was then a formidable enough actor to provide the character with multiple shadings (and the moment where David doesn't warn Amy that her cat is hanging in the closet does suggest a sadistic streak), but his actions in the finale are too well-justified to provoke any real discomfort in those inclined to cheer him on. (Also, I was surprised and disheartened by how closely the final act conforms to what would become Hollywood thriller convention, what with the carefully planted trap that dispatches the final marauder in unexpectedly gruesome fashion and the weary sigh of denouement-heralding relief followed by SURPRISE! STILL ONE DUDE LEFT! The line between this film and something like Pacific Heights -- anyone remember that one? -- is alarmingly thin.) At best, we're talking about a painfully reductive view of masculinity as sheer poison, which no thanks as far as I'm concerned. But then there's the rape scene, which I gather it's no longer fashionable to find grotesque and appalling and frankly indefensible, but which I consider roughly 1000x more offensive than its far more hideous counterpart in Irreversible -- say what you will about Noé, he's not suggesting for an instant that women secretly dig being brutalized. Obviously one could write a book on this subject, but let me just quickly say: (1) I am aware that many women (and men) have rape fantasies and/or get off on submission -- that does not mean they'll wind up tenderly kissing someone who actually assaults them, ex- or no; (2) there's a huge difference between genuinely tackling the thorny potential reality of a rape victim responding sexually even as she's terrorized (which would really demand an entire film unto itself, and for all I know there is one -- surely there's a novel) and what Peckinpah does here, which is depict a decisive moment where Amy's switch flips and she completely welcomes what's happening to her, rising to meet him and caressing his face with her hands, etc. (There's also a cut to her smoking a cigarette afterwards that has to have been intended as a sick joke.) Anyway, I could go on, but bottom line: superbly made does not trump hateful.