Untitled Document

I Found It At The Movies

 

A brilliant parody of my writing (sent in by a friend):

Wanting Moira, But Lately (1968) 2Dazzlingly commonplace film à clef from Darnton Esbruque ("Almost Men of Iron", "Glad Eddie Halls") which attempts, miserably, to pick up where Truffaut's "Citrouille de Honte; Citrouille de Joie" ("Ah, the Hat!") would have liked to have left off. Ostensibly about a County Cork butter-and-egg man who trades in his soul for a shot at the bigtime, we can't help but feel for leads Miles Sorstin and, to a lesser degree, Abby Houdt, as they plow through Esbruque's nonsensical libretto. Sven Onsterdank's vivid camera is the sole redeemer. But it's not enough to save this mess.

Reviews are in reverse chronological order of their writing.

5 Loved it
4 Liked it a lot
3 Liked it
2 Didn't like it
1 Hated it

 

Endless Poetry (2017)3At 87, Chilean master Alejandro Jodorowsky has earned the right to be self-aggrandizing. He exercises that right to the hilt in the autobiographical (circa [post-] adolescence) Endless Poetry. Still, although the film focuses on our protagonist’s coming of age as a poet who will save us from ourselves, it should be viewed much more broadly: as a plea for humanism. Surrealism abounds, of course.
Irrational Man (2015)1Woody Allen has apparently read Dostoevsky (brooding existentialist commits a senseless murder at his leafy Rhode Island college) but not Chekhov (a gun appears in Act One and is promptly forgotten about). The paper-thin plot also involves a ubiquitous love triangle, and is punctuated by passing references to Kant, Husserl, Heidegger and Arendt. Deep.
Cafe Society (2016)1Jesse Eisenberg stars as a Jewish kid from the 1930s Bronx who inexplicably finds bi-coastal success with both his career and with the ladies. With all the depth, heft, and sophistication of a glass of Cold Duck, Woody Allen’s typewriter has self-generated yet another fatuous love triangle with no appealing characters, no motivation, no humor. The references to Radio Days and Manhattan simply highlight how far this man has fallen.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)2Slow and ponderous, this sequel to the 1982 original is little more than a re-telling of Pinocchio, albeit decked out in impressive sets, lighting, and cinematography. Watch Spielberg’s A.I instead. Better still, listen to Gary Numan’s Replicas LP.
Spotlight (2015) 4Unobtrusively directed by Tom McCarthy, Spotlight is a harsh indictment of the Catholic Church’s perennial and pervasive sexual, psychological, and spiritual abuse of its children, told from the point of view of the four lapsed Catholic Boston Globe journalists (and their newly-arrived Jewish editor) who broke the story wide open in 2002. Double Bill: All The President’s Men.
Election (1999) 4Multiple points of view are all well-represented in this sharply observed and deftly assembled black comedy of a devoted Omaha high school teacher (Matthew Broderick) who becomes too involved in his students' election campaign. As he sours on an especially ambitious and narcissistic one (Reese Witherspoon), his whole life begins to unravel.
Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)2Two loser brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, who look nothing alike) decide to turn their lives around by robbing their parents’ suburban jewelry store. You can guess the rest. The mixed-up timeline in Sidney Lumet’s final film adds little to the proceedings, and the second act’s emphasis on family drama is insufficiently developed. Well-acted by all, but ultimately a misfire.
Fences (2016)4Constrained by its stage origins, Fences—the story of an embittered, flawed trash collector in postwar Pittsburgh who fails to acknowledge the loosening grip that racism holds on him; a failure with devastating repercussions for himself and his family—is nonetheless a deeply affecting drama greatly abetted by the standout performances of Denzel Washington and especially Viola Davis.
Loving (2016)2The true story of an interracial couple running afoul of Virginia’s vile anti-miscegenation laws, in Loving, director Jeff Nichols admirably concentrates on the couple itself rather than the team of ACLU lawyers that pleads their case. Alas, we learn very little about the two, beyond the fact that they are, indeed, in love. As it stands, their characters and their relationship are insufficiently textured to stimulate viewer engagement.
Hugo (2011)2A major misfire from director Martin Scorsese, Hugo is a stuffy, precious snoozer, a tale of an orphaned boy and his life inside a Parisian rail station, who becomes entangled with a toymaker, his ward, and a robot that may contain a key to his past. It then shifts gears to become an homage to early film artistry. A curiously flat 3D exercise that will bore kids and adults in equal measure.
Whiplash (2014)2J. K. Simmons seethes with a cinematic fury in Whiplash, the story of an ambitious young drummer (Miles Teller) who spars with his delusional and sadistic jazz band leader (Simmons) at a prestigious New York music academy. Confidently assembled with a Scorsese-like intensity, it’s sabotaged by a crescendoing lack of credibility.
Metropolitan (1990)3Amiable comedy documenting the trivial travails of the collegiate WASP elite of New York City, circa Winter, 1990. The UHBs (“urban haute bourgeoisie”) on display here are unfailingly articulate and pseudo-urbane, usually polite, and inhabit a world that Woody Allen would like to have written about, had he a sense of humor and a knowledge of gentile culture.
Welcome to New York (2015)3Gérard Depardieu is the caricaturized stand-in for Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Abel Ferrara's loosely fictionalized account of a piggish, entitled, and unapologetic sexual predator of Trumpian proportions (a high-level French statesman in New York, as was Strauss-Kahn) who finally gets caught. The pseudo-verité proceedings progress at the mercy of the performers’ ability or inability to improvise convincingly, but the overall result is quite effective. (Unlike herein, Strauss-Kahn was likely innocent.)
The Earrings Of Madame de... (1953)5Masterfully and elegantly constructed, filmed, written, and acted, in Max Ophüls's The Earrings of Madame de…  we observe how a frivolous white lie may lead to devastating consequences, when a French society woman sells off an unwanted gift from her husband (the titular MacGuffin), which takes on significance as it makes its way back to her from her extra-marital lover. An absolute gem of a film that starts as comedy then seamlessly transitions to tragedy.
The Hours (2002)2The actors (Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf) are the whole show in this ultimately shallow exploration of depression and homosexuality. We only learn enough about the tenuously interwoven lives of three women combatting mental illness and domestic dissatisfaction to keep the story and its morose themes moving along. Poor makeup, poor scoring, and expository dialogue don’t help, but a twist at the end does.
Greenberg (2010)3Ben Stiller is Roger Greenberg, a carpenter from NY who is just out of the mental hospital, recuperating by housesitting for his wealthy brother in LA, where he gets involved with the young au pair (who has problems of her own). He’s bitter and hurtful and can’t seem to learn from his past mistakes. Still, despite a dearth of sympathetic characters herein, those on display are imbued with sufficiently nuanced humanity to keep the viewer’s interest. Watch out for several sloppy continuity errors.
Brazil (1985) 5The phantasmagoric Robert Wiene-inspired mise-en-scène is the runaway star of Terry Gilliam’s masterfully presented Orwellian nightmare of an everyman (Jonathan Pryce) trapped in a British future/past where getting the paperwork right supercedes love and humanism. Brilliant cinematography, the masterful production design, and the high/low Pythonesque humor far outshine the triteness of the unconvincing romance. Double Bill: Blade Runner.
Fear X (2003)2Poorly scripted and thinly plotted, Fear X trades in Kubrick-styled imagery to tell its tale of a mall security guard (a deadpan John Turturro) on the trail of his wife’s murderer. The cold, bleak Wisconsin and Montana winter scenes abet the film’s mood, but it’s for naught as all culminates in an unsatisfying payoff.
The Purge (2013)2On an annual night of government sanctioned crime, a family is victimized by home invaders of various sorts. This B-level Shirley Jackson-inspired would-be socially conscious thriller needs to be far more clever to get a rise out of its viewers. As it is, it has all the compelling chills and intellect of your everyday slasher flick.
Infamous (2006)4Thoughtful and moving depiction of Truman Capote’s writing of In Cold Blood with Toby Jones's excellent performance capping a fine cast, Infamous effectively explores Capote’s inner world as he navigates between his artistic aspirations and his personal demons and desires while investigating the murder and murderers of a Kansas family.
Hello, My Name Is Doris (2015) 2Lighter than air NYC dramedy of a 60-something spinster who falls for a 20-something hipster co-worker, Doris spends little time engaging the viewer with likeable characters or motivations for their actions. It only takes off when old pros Sally Field and Tyne Daly share the screen.
Star Trek Beyond (2016)1Star Trek Beyond violates Gene Roddenberry's Prime Directive of placing complex characters in complex circumstances that test both their allegiance to the principles of liberty and humanism, and their allegiance to each other. It is a context-free shoot-em-up that resembles in name only the Star Trek universe. It can easily be skipped.
Barton Fink (1991)2The unevenly drawn Odets-esque titular character is a New York playwright summoned to Hollywood to pen B movies, but can’t lower himself to the task, although it’s clear that his artistic aspirations are mere pretention anyway. All goes down the garbage chute when he finds himself ensconced in a seedy purgatorial hotel murder investigation; if it's all in his mind, then it's doubly all for naught. As usual, the Cohn Brothers show disdain for their characters, and by extension, for humanity. Back to page one.
Don’t Look Now (1973)5Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie shine in Nicolas Roeg's Venice-set supernatural thriller of a little girl reaching beyond the grave to her grieving parents: the mother, a believer, the father, a doubting clairvoyant. Achieving a superb sense of place with its shooting and editing, and with excellent support from a cast of English and Italian unknowns, Don’t Look Now is a horror art film that is sure to chill and is unlikely to be forgotten.
The Train (1964)4Brilliantly shot in striking black and white, in John Frankenheimer’s "The Train” Burt Lancaster joins the French Resistance and does his formidable utmost to prevent the Germans from hauling a load of Impressionist masterworks back to Berlin. An action adventure movie that does not flinch from sweating the gritty details, Lancaster deserves special accolades for doing his own impressive stuntwork.
Wait Until Dark (1967)3A crook from Scarsdale (Alan Arkin, scenery chewing) and his two hires (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston, fine) terrorize innocent and blind Greenwich Village-dwelling Audrey Hepburn (also fine) in their quest for some Montreal heroin that’s gone missing. Far-fetched filmed play with a ruse that's much too complicated. Viewing tip: suspend your disbelief.
Virunga (2014)5Essential document of a Congo gorilla reserve, the corporations that recruit locals to wreak havoc and destruction on both the gorillas and the people of the region, and the heroes who would give their lives to protect their charges. Absolutely essential viewing, Virunga portrays our planet on the edge of the abyss.
Parents (1989)3An introverted boy comes to suspect his parents of cannibalism in Bob Balaban’s 50s suburban dream/nightmare, which maintains its impressive creep factor until the very end. Indeed, the mood is so studiously sustained that the result has too few dramatic peaks. In small roles, Sandy Dennis and Deborah Rush are typically excellent, as is the splendid Mid-century Modern art design.
The Revenant (2015)1A failed survival movie. Oh, he survives all right, but that’s all we learn about a remarkably inarticulate nineteenth century fur trapper in Canada’s Southwest (Leonardo DiCaprio) who loves his half-Pawnee son. A ludicrous setup establishes the tone, in which an acknowledged lunatic (Tom Hardy) is assigned to care for our injured hero, as DiCaprio proceeds to survive the CGI onslaught: a bear attack, going over a waterfall, falling off a cliff, and other minor scuffles. Rife with digital effects that cast doubt on the authenticity of the suspiciously stunning nature shots that periodically disrupt the gratuitous violence, The Revenant is irrelevant.
Gone Girl (2014)1Preposterously plotted and dreadfully scripted tale of a sociopathic woman (Rosamund Pike) trying to frame her unfaithful husband (Ben Affleck) for her own supposed murder, while the entertainment news industry has a field day. Gone Girl would never pass quality control as a 50 minute Law And Order installment…and yet it goes on for two and a half endless hours! Had it been an hour shorter and played for laughs, it might have been a diverting romp. Watch The Last Seduction instead. Hell, watch Basic Instinct!
Interstellar (2014)2Millennials’ favorite obscurantist Christopher Nolan is behind this amalgam of sci-fi clichés—climate has doomed the planet and we need to seek refuge elsewhere—that is passionless and boring, and is replete with dialogue that is at times inscrutable and/or inaudible (especially when Matthew McConaughey is talking, and even more especially when Hans Zimmer's intrusive Cliff Martinez-cribbed music is blaring).
Déjà Vu (1997)4A married man and an engaged woman meet by chance at the White Cliffs of Dover, and fall instantly in love. An accomplished and fully realized romantic trifle for adults, the vaguely supernatural Déjà Vu is Henry Jaglom at his Éric Rohmer best, both ruminative in its extended dialogues and intricate in its clever plotting; a little like Brief Encounter with an updated ending.
Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (2014)3Brilliantly staged (see also: Rope, Russian Ark), Birdman tells the story of a former Hollywood action hero (the nodding, winking--and excellent--Michael Keaton), who desperately tries to re-launch his career as a Broadway thespian. Alas, since we’re never provided evidence that he's ever had the chops to warrant this second chance, we can’t identify with his plight. Moreover, the various sub-plots trade in banal Hollywood clichés: the neglected alcoholic daughter (Emma Stone), the upstaging last-minute A-list recruit (Edward Norton), the cut-throat drama critic who would be fired on the spot for her unprofessionalism (Lindsay Duncan).
Tracks (1977)3Well-acted by all, but well-improvised by only one (The remarkable Michael Emil), in Tracks, Dennis Hopper is a shattered Vietnam conscript assigned to transport the body of a fallen friend cross-country on a train. At times somber, wistful, and moving, but increasingly overwrought, contrived, and undisciplined, this is nonetheless among lo-fi careerist Henry Jaglom’s most mature and compelling efforts, though, inevitably, with all his trademark shortcomings.
An Honest Liar (2014)4Engrossing and inspiring documentary of magician-turned-mystic debunker James Randi, hellbent on exposing the charlatans who separate the ignorant from the money (and even, at times, the medication) they need to survive (criminally, Uri Geller, and monstrously, Peter Popoff). His “honest lying” is put to its greatest test as, for decades, he hides from unsavory government agencies a truth that would ruin both his own life and the life of his partner-in-honesty. His joyful success, alas, is due as much to good luck as it is to the so-called justice system itself.
CitizenFour (2014)1Lifeless, uninformative, hotel room-based hagiography of data dumper Mark Zuckerberg (sorry, Edward Snowden) completely misses the real story, which is how and why our government is outsourcing our most sensitive security responsibilities to private firms like Booz Allen Hamilton, whose sole interest is their own bottom line, such that they hire unvetted loose cannons like Zuckerberg himself (sorry, Snowden). The reason is obvious: government complicity with American and British oil companies and their fascist partners in the blood-and-oil-soaked Middle East. 9/11, the Iraq War, and the security state are the inevitable results, and innocent lives be damned. (Just ask the good folks at CNN, who, at minute 53:35 graphically imply that the Jews are behind the entire surveillance program, and, by extension, 9/11 itself.) Update: Vladimir Putin is Zuckerberg's new boss (sorry, Snowden's).
San Andreas (2015)1What a quandary for Mrs. Golddigger Airhead: stay with her sociopathic capitalist thug of a soon-to-be second husband, or go back to her sociopathic responsibility-shirking soon-to-be-ex first husband? To add injury to insult, there‘s a big earthquake, too. Not only that, but her daughter is missing! How will it all be resolved?? Roland Emmerich is being bounced around in his grave.
Django Unchained (2012)3An outrageous cliché-laden post-modern absurdist black comedy Hollywood shoot-em-up about American slavery is almost certain to be despicable, but, just maybe, I’m willing to give Django Unchained the benefit of the doubt. After all, what could more outrageous and absurd that American slavery itself? If that’s the question Tarantino indeed wants us to ask, this film succeeds on its own very modest terms. If it isn’t, then shame on him.
Out Of The Furnace (2013)1A hot-tempered Coal Country Iraqi vet comes to the New York suburbs to make a quick buck in a fixed fight. It doesn't go as planned, and his brother comes searching. Dreadful, sloppy, incoherent moviemaking, and attempts by director Scott Cooper to avert accusations of racism in his portrayal of the all-evil-all-the-time Ramapough Lenape Nation (derogatorily called “Jackson Whites” herein, and who, preposterously, sport Appalachian accents despite their living 40 minutes from midtown Manhattan) by portraying them all with lily-white complexions, simply compounds his offense, and renders this film's awfulness far more than skin-deep.
Up The Down Staircase (1967)4Sandy Dennis is superb as always, but the whole cast—“teaches” and “pupes” alike—is outstanding in Robert Mulligan’s gritty and sensitive filming of the famed Bel Kaufman book, the story of a young teacher making her way in a rough over-regimented and under-achieving inner city New York high school. Tad Mosel's script brings the characters to life, Fred Karlin's score is oddly affecting, and Joseph Coffey’s photography is simply outstanding.
The Master (2012)4A shell-shocked WW2 vet with a hair-trigger temper (Joaquin Phoenix) falls into symbiosis with a charismatic Werner H. Erhard / L. Ron Hubbard-esque cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in this highly literary, brilliantly staged, and genuinely challenging drama by the supremely talented Paul Thomas Anderson. This is fine film-making indeed.
We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)1Tilda Swinton, in a one-note zombie-like performance, is saddled into this obnoxiously lensed cartoon-like investigation of her hermetically sealed monster of a son—no teachers, no therapists, no relatives, no neighbors—whose sociopathic persona is evident from the first frame of a go-nowhere, deeply offensive trivialization of a deadly serious topic: school violence. A comically transparent attempt to indict America, the only criminal in evidence here is director Lynne Ramsay.
Mother (2009)2A damaged psyche in provincial Korea destroys almost every life it touches, both before and after the body of a young girl is found. Good performances are undermined by a very unsteady first act, a story that lacks plausibility, and an overall air of unpleasantness.
Requiem For A Dream (2000)2People seek relief from the pain that life deals them, often with drugs. That is the theme, repeated over and over again, in Darren Aronofsky's increasingly concussive and over-the-top hyper-edited rock-video-masquerading-as-a-feature-film of a Jewish Coney Island boy (drug-addled Jared Leto, sporting an iffy Brooklyn accent) and his doting mom (Ellen Burtsyn, sadly exploited herein). Support from Marlon Wayans and Jennifer Connelly add nothing but the requisite eye candy.
Ex Machina (2015)2Highly derivative of Jerome Bixby's Star Trek script "Requiem For Methuselah", Ex Machina is a frustratingly pedestrian exploration of A.I., as a dupe (Captain Kirk) is recruited by a flawed genius recluse (Flint) to summon the emergent consciousness of a robot (Rayna Kapec). Especially undermined by the dumb anachronistic mistakes of said "genius", cynically employed to lazily advance the plot contrivances (using non-biometric, readily stolen security protocols, for example). Spoiler alert: Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics do not apply.
Dogtooth (2009)1A father shields his family from reality by keeping them imprisoned in his country estate, training them on his own twisted takes on life’s lessons (house cats are evil murderers, siblings can have sex with each other, Frank Sinatra’s your grandfather, you know, that sort of thing). This threadbare remake of Arturo Ripstein's El Castillo de la Pureza (1973) is like Pasolini without the artistry, the campy humor, or the spirited humanism. Adolescents unshaped by the trials and tribulations of real life may pour over some gruel-thin subtextual commentary on modern society ostensibly contained herein. Adults will shrug and move on.
No Country For Old Men (2007)2Undeniably entertaining, this filmization of the Cormac McCarthy novel in which a Texas Vietnam vet is on the run after finding a hot stash is, as with all the Coen siblings' movies, a wholly bloodless exercise in style. Potentially interesting characters are paraded before us and then dropped like hot potatoes, serving solely as vehicles to propel forward both the narrative's yawning implausibilities and the overarching artifice. The film thus fails both as story-telling and as character-study; at best, it's just dumb fun. The Coen siblings may be capable of making good movies, but they are emphatically incapable of making good art.
Manufacturing Landscapes (2006)5Slow and deliberate, evoking in equal measure Jia Jiangke, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Claude Lanzmann, Manufacturing Landscapes is a documentary that serves double duty, presenting both Edward Burtynsky’s remarkable high-clarity photographs of massive industrial projects (in China, mostly), and also their effects on our planet and on our species. Astonishing, hypnotic, artful, harrowing, depressing…but ultimately inspiring.
The Loneliest Planet (2013)1A shaky hand held camera with a predilection for poorly-framed close-ups and bland greeting-card-level long shots follows an American couple (about whom we learn absolutely nothing except that they are quick to smile, even at the casual racism they encounter) as they take a hike through the Caucasian countryside. With absolutely nothing or no one to identify with (the filament of a plot–which unfolds in its entirety in about 10 seconds—is clumsily contrived melodrama), The Loneliest Planet possesses all the emotional resonance of an MTV reality show.
eXistenZ (1999)3With B-movie revivalist David Cronenberg, it’s sometimes difficult to determine whether we’re witnessing the superficial limits of his talents, or their genuine depths. This ambiguity serves eXistenZ well, a Dick-ian Tron-meets-Matrix (meets Cronenberg’s own Videodrome) yarn of the merging of reality and its virtual counterpart (and, since it’s Cronenberg, the merging of high technology and icky, gooey biology). Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law play the psychologically and techno-biologically connected gamers in this is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex mind puzzle.
Magic In The Moonlight (2014)1We all remember sitting on the floor of our dorm rooms, smoking weed, pontificating about the limits of science, right? Wrong, I guess, since Woody Allen, at age 78, seems to think he’s really on to something new in Magic In The Moonlight, his inter-war Cote d'Azur-based tale of a supposed cynic falling for a supposed psychic. Ineptly written, stiltedly acted, and smothered in a nauseous orange filter throughout, it’s not even cringingly bad, since even a cringe requires some level of identification with the artiste. I am not embarrassed for Woody Allen; I am appalled by him.
Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986)5Taking the best elements of 70s grit-cinema, and combining them with the gruesome matter-of-fact graphic violence that genre ultimately licensed, the shoestring-budgeted Chicago-based "Henry" is a harrowingly realistic portrayal of an amoral sociopathic murderer, the lives he affects, and the lives he takes. Superb, though clearly not for all tastes. Double bill: Vengeance Is Mine.
Beyond The Black Rainbow (2010)2The appeal of stoner movies has always eluded me, and this ultra-slow paced, droning, knuckleheaded homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, THX-1138, 1408, and Phase 4, (4551?) is no exception. The amateurati will never learn that nothing genuine about the human condition can be effectively conveyed without deploying genuine human characters.
Cloud Atlas (2012)2Multiple Choice review. Question: What is the artistic merit of Cloud Atlas? (A) Cloud Atlas is a cinematic tour de force, a profound meditation on the grand cyclicity of the Human Condition, with each actor portraying a multitude of characters at various points in our cultural evolution, each enduring the indiscriminate vicissitudes of Life, but also the ultimate power of Love. (B) Cloud Atlas is a tedious and pedestrian composite of stock Hollywood clichés about the human condition, repeated and repeated and spread over three long hours. Answer: (B).
Bad Boy Bubby (1993)1 Sequestered and abused in every way by his mother, adult-child Bubby eventually leaves home and spends his time vocally imitating all the awful people he encounters. The writings of Jerzy Kosinski seem to have been the inspiration for this shaggy dog tale that would need far more than its amateurish dialogue, clunky staging, and poor lighting to overcome its complete absence of sympathetic characters and its unfailingly misanthropic worldview. It lacks the sensitivity of “Larry”, the black camp of “The Baby”, or even the offbeat quirkiness of “The Mind Of Mr. Soames”.
Boyhood (2014)2Soapy, episodic, very long, and, well, boring, Boyhood traces the life of a Texas family from the kids’ childhood to the onset of empty nest syndrome, focusing especially on an unappealing, mumbling kid as he evolves into an unappealing, mumbling adolescent. These sketches of middle-American banality just didn’t cut it for me. (And employing the same actors across twelve years real time is gimmickry, not artistry.)
You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010)2Woody Allen's heady obsessions: London’s ultra-rich and their pedestrian infidelities and petty jealousies. High drama ensues as a whole stable of one-trick pony characters have migraines, pop Viagra, and believe in the afterlife. No growth, no development, no nothing. Who cares!?
Snowpiercer (2013)1Bong Joon-Ho goes Hollywood. In our efforts to stem global warming, we froze the planet instead, and the sole survivors are riding a train in an infinite loop, fighting amongst themselves. That’s about it for Snowpiercer, a typical fast-cutting shoot-em-up with an inevitable populist bent. Tilda Swinton’s frumpy Elena Ceaușescu-esque homage is funny…for about five minutes. Excuse me, this is my stop.
The Gingerbread Man (1998)3Plusses: The lush, wet, moody, noirish Savannah setting, Altman’s superb roving camera work, Mark Isham’s haunting underscoring, and excellent performances from Robert Downey Jr. and especially Dennis Hopper. Minuses: the crummy by-the-numbers Grisham story of a flawed Clinton-esque lawyer (Kenneth Branagh) who falls for the wrong gal (Embeth Davidtz) and gets entangled in her secret plot to acquire her father’s fortune. Double bill: Body Heat.
Alex In Wonderland (1970) 2Donald Sutherland: neither his performance nor the character he portrays is sufficiently sympathetic to engage the viewer in Paul Mazursky’s autobiography-cum-homage-to-Fellini, Alex In Wonderland, an exploration of an up-and-coming anti-establishment (in posture only, of course) Hollywood director. A rare misfire during Mazursky’s remarkable string of early classics.
The Tree Of Life (2011)4Terrence Malick’s supremely beautiful “The Tree of Life” seems to be a highly personal meditation on the insurmountable pain inherent to human masculinity, a film that somehow manages to cross “The Great Santini” with “2001: A Space Odyssey”, though, typically now, flawed by gossamer plotting and pointillistic dialog.
The Dance Of Reality (2013)4In Jodorowsky’s most personal (and narratively coherent) film, the artist looks back on his childhood, and seeks a way to forgive his anguished parents, both traumatized by the anti-Semitism they escaped in the Ukraine (only, of course, to encounter it once again in Chile). Meanwhile, sensitive Little Alejandro (with the guidance of his elder self) reflects on his own ordeals with the gentile world. Perhaps not the masterpiece that Santa Sangre or The Holy Mountain was (the draggy middle act doesn’t help), but still, vivid, clear, intimate, compelling, and with all the master's surrealistic trademarks in typical abundance.
Ida (2013)4The annihilation of Polish Jewry enshrouds every steely, austerely beautiful black and white frame of Ida, in which a girl raised in a Polish convent is informed in 1961 of her secret, tragic origins. As she journeys beyond church walls and into both her death-soaked past and her equally doomed present, the final connecting threads of her race (personified by a lost, haunted aunt) are cut. Polish director Pawlikowski wisely avoids both the sentimentalization of a dead culture (one that he could not possibly understand), and the final mopping-up procedure of 1968.
An American Hippie In Israel (1972)3“The Way to Eden”. Impressively shot, insipidly scripted tale of an American Vietnam vet escaping to Israel to establish a new world order based on peace and love. As his gang of four end up stranded on their island of paradise, of course, it doesn’t turn out that way. It’s mostly just a nice photomontage of Israel from an earlier era, filled with scenes of laughter, dancing, and merry-making, until its “big statement” about “the human condition” takes hold. Stupid, silly, and fun.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)2Like the titular structure itself (a stand-in for pre-war Europe), The Grand Budapest Hotel is a top-heavy wedding cake—an overly sweetened trifle on the verge of tipping over —about an effete concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and his travails involving a valuable painting left to him by a guest. Hanna-Barbera-level sight gags and deadpan performances abound (cue a mutton-chopped Bill Murray cameo). I'd like to check out, please.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)1If you ever wanted to know how racism manifests itself among the hipster elite, look no further than Beasts of the Southern Wild, in which a backward, isolated community in the Louisiana bayou resists the encroachment of the liberal, modern world. Black-skinned ignoble savages are parodied and ridiculed in this surrealistic go-nowhere tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The Hal Roach-inspired art direction seals the deal.
Jellyfish (2007)2Dour, dreary, contrived, and inconsequential, Jellyfish consists of loosely interlocking stories of bourgeois, self-absorbed, casually racist Tel Avivians. Being so disdainful of its Jewish characters, it’s no wonder it won at Cannes.
Whore (1992)2Ken Russell’s mind-bogglingly, surreally bad response to “Pretty Woman”, the delicately-titled Whore is a jaw-droppingly awful amalgam of dreadful acting, dumb scripting, and bad editing, exploring the "true life" hardships of a tough-talking prostitute (Theresa Russell, laughably amateurish in her endless direct-to-camera monologues). Strange how it never made the midnight movie circuit though; it’s hilarious! With a final scene nicked from... Nights of Cabiria! Double bill: Showgirls.
The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)2Overwrought oddball Belgian melodrama of a dying child and her bluegrass loving parents that largely fails in making a “big statement” about the life-and-death consequences of institutionalized religious dogma, in part because the timeline is so jumbled—and the intercutting of bluegrass performances so incongruous—that the narrative has little opportunity to evolve organically so as to engage the viewer.
Santa Sangre (1989)5A masterful phantasmagoric melodrama that combines Fellini, Hitchcock, and Almodovar, and yet (it’s Jodorowsky, after all), Santa Sangre is a wholly unique and genuinely visionary tale of a boy traumatized when he witnesses his knife-thrower father murder his trapezist mother. It's very bloody, it's very funny, and it's visually mindblowing: a psychedelic psychological horror-thriller. Wow!
Holy Mountain (1973)5Alejandro Jodorowsky’s wildly imaginative and emphatically surrealistic “Holy Mountain” traces an arc from Jesus (mass hysteria) to Henry Ford (mass production) to Adolf Hitler (mass murder), as a small-time petty thief is coerced into joining forces with a band of big-time corporate thieves in a quest to discover the secrets of immortality. Its fantastically striking and often gruesome religious and fascist iconography is leavened with great humor throughout. Brilliant!
Irreversible (2002)5Horrifically violent but undeniably compelling portrayal of a rape and its aftermath. The supremely talented Gaspar Noé, like other modern masters (Spielberg, Scorsese, Almodovar), combines his brilliant artistry with a brazenly outspoken love of cinematic technique. As the camera pulls back (figuratively; the film is presented in reverse-order, along with some remarkably long takes) we are confronted with the ever-tenuous nature of societal norms, and how so easily they can be thrown into a state of imbalance; violence begets violence.
Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone) (1997)4Compelling portrait of a degenerate mind which has endured sufficient suffering and indignity to self-justify its violent hatred of just about everything and everyone. Travis Bickle is Gaspar Noé’s apparent inspiration for the rapid-fire nihilistic (and sometimes over-the-top funny) soliloquizing of the broken-down Parisian horse butcher in Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone), and it—unlike Taxi Driver—suffers somewhat from its unrelenting lack of empathy for its protagonist. Still, thrillingly shot and grippingly written. Highly recommended.
10th Victim (1965)3In the near future, society institutes legalized killing games as a safety valve, so that the natural instinct to murder can be satisfied without the chaos of war. The well-trodden Holocaust-inspired theme of institutionalized murder (Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, Star Trek's "A Taste of Armageddon", “The Running Man”, “Quintet”) is given a black comedy mod 60s Italian twist in "10th Victim". Speaking of twists, the ending has a few too many.
Wings (1966)4Somber and moving, Larisa Shepitko’s Wings explores the unfulfilling workaday world of a school mistress, once a heroic fighter pilot for the Motherland. Her daily trials are juxtaposed in flashback to her transcendent experiences during the Great Patriotic War, and to her lost chance at true love.
Zabriskie Point (1970) 2An incisive critique of the “American Way” by an outsider, or a facile continental swipe intent upon burying America, not praising it? Given its tenuous narrative structure, its amateurish acting, and its reliance on tropes instead of nuanced characterizations, Michelangelo Antonioni’s exploration of the 60s generation gap and anti-Vietnam activism among L.A college youth is almost surely best characterized as the latter.
Countdown (1967)3Sober not flashy; square not stylish—and it only ekes a “science fiction” designation by a matter of months—Robert Altman’s drama of the 60s space race thus bears the clear mark of studio intervention. Serviceable performances by Robert Duvall, James Caan, and future Altman actors Michael Murphy and Barbara Baxley, plus a good Leonard Rosenman score, can’t quite lift this bird off the ground. Double bill: Marooned.
Her (2013)2A thought experiment: what if A.I. advances to a point where our computers have personalities of their own? That's the been-there-done-that hook of Spike Jonze's “Her”, in which ineffectual nice-guy Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his operating system. Unfortunately, the result is neither thoughtful (it’s slow, it’s boring, and once passed the conceit, the plot goes nowhere), nor experimental (it’s just a remake of the 1984 film “Electric Dreams”).
Ladybug, Ladybug (1963)2With all the opportunities for bad acting in Frank Perry's underwhelming drama of a nuclear siren sounding at a rural elementary school, there isn’t a single bum performance in its sprawling cast. Indeed there are a number of standouts even among the many children, including unknowns Miles Chapin and Christopher Howard, and especially the supremely talented Alice Playten. Alas, the one bit of heightened drama, involving a girl in panic mode when she is disinvited to a bomb shelter, is rather poorly executed. Give this one a miss, and watch “Forbidden Games” instead.
Kapò (1960)4If Judaism had a devil, The Holocaust would be the time to make your deal. That is the theme of Gillo Pontecorvo’s engrossing drama of a teenage girl (Susan Strasberg) rising to steely Kapò rank in a slave labor camp, whose love for a handsome Russian soldier (Laurent Terzieff) may yet re-humanize her. Filmed only fifteen years after the war, it is understandably a bit soft around the edges, especially in its melodramatic latter half, but it's also effectively staged and well-acted throughout, and capped by a gripping and terrifying finale. Double bill: "Distant Journey".
Colpire al cuore (Blow To The Heart ) (1983)4The great Gianni Amelio’s first feature considers a studious, introverted teenage boy with a budding sense of morality born out of frustration with his emotionally unfulfilling family life. When he suspects his father, a professor, of involvement in leftist terrorism, his righteous indignation finds a perfect outlet for expression, and he pursues the truth at any personal or interpersonal cost. Spare, subtly wrought, and richly rewarding.
Les Enfants du Paradis (Children Of Paradise) (1945)5An unforgettable cinematic masterpiece exploring the intertwining lives and loves of thespian aspirants and others in mid-nineteenth century Paris, “Children of Paradise” is a sprawling, phantasmagoric, magnificently opulent production, one that never overshadows its superb acting, its brilliant writing, its intimate storytelling.
George Harrison: Living In The Material World (2011)2Martin Scorsese's hagiography of "The Quiet Beatle" is so out of focus you can’t even see the lines to read between. Airbrushed away are George’s preachy, screechy religiosity, his defense of parochialism ("The Inner Light", anyone?), his unmerciful don’t-tax-the-rich stance, his worst-of-all-the-Fabs’ solo output, his recurrent drug addictions (including the one that killed him, nicotine), etc. Look, of course I love George. But I love the truth more.
3 Backyards (2010)4Despite its contemporary setting, the film stock (or at least the color palette) and the lensing and scoring all hearken back to the late 1960s and Frank Perry's "The Swimmer" in director Eric Mendelsohn’s subtle and engaging meditation—presumably rooted in his own childhood—on empty lives yearning for transcendence, despite their lush and lovely suburban Long Island surroundings.
Gravity (2013)2Visually engaging story of an astronaut stranded in space (Sandra Bullock), undermined by a hackneyed script replete with expository soliloquizing and a cringingly clichéd back story. An attempt at Kubrick-inspired profundity in the last scene falls flat on its face.
Ace In The Hole (1951)4Bitter, cynical portrait of a hot-headed and arrogant journalist (Kirk Douglas) who’ll do anything for a big story to get his career back on track, even prolong the suffering of a man trapped in a cave collapse in the New Mexican desert. As he ringleads the inevitable media circus that erupts, finally, he finds himself in over his head. Overlook the over-acting and revel in the ever-relevant indictment of the media. Double bill: the previous year’s “The Lawless” by Joseph Losey.
Margin Call (2011)2Paper-thin plot of a financial firm in meltdown-mode circa 2008, punched up with Mamet-esque scripting full of portent and hot air (and lots of sweaty, short-focus, close-ups), which fails in its misguided attempts to humanize Wall Street villainy. As always, it’s the little guy (in this case the viewer) who gets stuck with a bill of goods.
All Is Lost (2013) 4Engrossing one-man adventure of a yachtsman (an excellent Robert Redford) lost in the South Seas. Almost without dialogue, the remarkably confident editing and lensing verge on the Spielberg-ian at times, and carry the plot along to the very end. Obvious double-bill: Cast Away.
Birth (2004)1Inexplicably, a little boy claims to be the reincarnation of a wealthy Manhattanite’s dead husband (who, inexplicably, we learn nothing about). Inexplicably, the little boy has no personality, and makes no attempt to convince the widow who he is (and instead gets dryly interviewed by her brother-in-law). Yet, inexplicably, the widow falls in love with the little boy. Even the music, by usually reliable Alexandre Desplat, is annoying. That, at least, is explicable: he's lowered himself to the proceedings herein.
The Disappearance Of Alice Creed (2009)2Stylish, low-budget, “Bound”-inspired three-character thriller about two men who kidnap a woman, and the love/hate-triangle that binds them. Long on contrived plot twists but short on plausibility and genuine human motivation. Spoiler alert: the big bad homo gets it in the end.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)3A soapy slice of Hollywood-ized lesbian life, Lisa Cholodenko’s third feature tells the story of an all-American a family with two moms (Julianne Moore, very good, Annette Benning, excellent) whose teenage kids seek out and establish a relationship with their sperm donor (an effectively obnoxious Mark Ruffalo). Hollywood-ized, because the steamiest sex scenes involve a lesbian cheating on her spouse with a man. Soap is an effective purifying agent, though if not used properly leaves a filmy residue.
24 City (2008)3Jia Zhangke wisely sticks to his strengths (mood and theme) and eschews his weaknesses (an unsure command of narrative structure) as he once again explores the human consequences of his country’s out-of-control growth, here focusing on lives transformed by the closing of an armaments factory in Chengdu. As his camera calmly interviews a mix of characters (some real-life; some portrayed by actors) they relate their often devastating life stories. Alas, the actors cannot compete, and those consequent bursts of artifice distract and detract.
L'enfant (2005)3In this spare, vibrantly shot Belgian drama of a young hateful hood hoping to unload his newborn son (at the expense of his girlfriend’s desires), one wonders whether the filmmakers have more disdain than sympathy for their verging-on-sociopathic protagonist. Viewers are left to fend for themselves through his harrowing ordeal; a rough and rather unpleasant ride, and marred by a denouement of questionable authenticity.
The Kid With A Bike (2011)4A young boy is abandoned by his father, and the good-hearted woman who takes him in risks losing him to a life of petty crime. Realistic, well-performed, and directed with a sure though never manipulative grip on viewer emotion.
Ira & Abby (2006)1The Upper West Side! Funny names like “Ira” and “Sy”! A neurotic Jew and a goofy shiksa fall in love! Oh, but life gets complicated! Jaw-droppingly awful sub-Bridget Loves Bernie tedium, with some genuine talent (Robert Klein, Judith Light, Fred Willard, Frances Conroy, Jason Alexander) downright slumming. Who greenlights this crap?
Mon Oncle Antoine (1971)5In the chilling winter of postwar rural Quebec, a small town prepares for Christmas, and a young boy begins to take on the crushing and illusion-shattering responsibilities of adulthood. Achingly gentle and masterfully presented exploration of the loss of childhood innocence, filmed with tremendous sensitivity and artistry.
Aftershock (2010)2A convincing re-creation of 70s and 80s China, good digital effects, and an excellent performance by Chen Daoming as a loving step-father, are all for naught in this soapy, sentimental, and downright trashy melodrama about the devastating 1976 Tangshan earthquake, and its aftereffects on a family of four, with all story threads tied neatly in a pretty bow at Sichuan's temblor thirty-two years later. Human tragedy deserves more respect.
Weekend (2011)2Boring and thoroughly inconsequential slice of life. Two guys (blokes, sorry) meet up for sex, and, for reasons never explicated for the viewer, find each other interesting. As they are getting to know one another—you know, doing drugs, talking about sex (often inaudibly)—the one asks the other, “Do you like art?” Deep.
Monsieur Lazhar (2011)4Having endured his own personal tragedy, an Algerian refugee in Montréal is (implausibly, it must be said) hired to replace an elementary school teacher who has committed suicide, only to confront an education system more concerned with avoiding litigation than with the psychological well-being of its charges. Touching, relevant, and extremely well-acted.
The Flat (2011)4The human capacity for denial is on bold display in this chilling Israeli documentary, as a few surviving spawn of the exterminated encounter the spawn of the exterminators over high tea and dinner parties, discussing their shared past as if conversing about the latest bestseller or Hollywood blockbuster. No one on either side claims to know, or seems to care, about how they are forever linked by the Holocaust. A poorly-read voice-over detracts.
Tell No One (2006)2Lots of smoking, lots of guns, and eventually a smoking gun, are all on display in this stylish though convoluted French thriller (one that could never be described as “taut”), in which a modest doctor’s murdered wife may or may not have returned from the dead. With subplots and unexplained scenes slipping and sliding in all directions, it’s downright impenetrable much of the time.
Blue Jasmine (2013)2Utterly typical mix-and-match of Konigberg’s stock caricatures—a hateful pill-popping wasp bitch (the protagonist, naturally), a hunky guido, a grocery bagger able to afford a sprawling Mission flat, etc.—in a lazily-scripted contrivance of what may be called “A Cable Car Named Desire”. One character slowly drags on a cigarette to punctuate his most searing and hurtful indictments. Now there’s a new dramatic device!
The Attack (2012)3Well-intentioned exploration of a sophisticated Israeli Arab’s confronting the fact that his wife has become a mass murderer of Jewish children. As he shares his findings with his colleagues, and crosses into the West Bank to figure out how all this could have happened, all plausibility goes out the window.
Out In The Dark (2012)2A flawed opening portraying an underdeveloped romance between an Israeli lawyer and a Palestinian student finding refuge in Tel Aviv is partially overcome as we encounter the inevitable: the security concerns of the lawyer’s compatriots, and the murderous homophobia and anti-Semitism of the student’s. Still, character development hence motivation remain thin and clichéd throughout, and the film does not achieve the grip it intends.
What Have I Done To Deserve This? (1984)4Only Fellini exceeds Almodovar’s ability to tweak reality just enough to seduce us into believing in the surreal. WHIDTDT is one of the Spanish master's darkest forays into soap-operatic hijinks, with the wonderful Carmen Maura as a poor, overworked, pill-popping Madrid hausfrau coping with her drug-dealing son, her brute of a husband, her child-abusing neighbor, a wayward lizard, and many other interlocking indignities, that is presented with all the weightiness of a cheese puff. "The Ramones' 'We’re A Happy Family': The Movie". Wonderful!
The Passion Of The Christ (2004)1Okay, so this Israeli dude called Yoshua, y’see—some guy with a way serious Jesus complex—well, he gets beaten to a bloody pulp as instigated by some Italian guy y’see, and for the next 2000 years and more, the dude’s followers, holding a misguided grudge, hunt and chase down the Israeli's countrymen, culminating in the systematic annihilation of 6,000,000 of them…ouch! Moving? Yeah, I wanted to move my bowels over every frame. Still, a homoerotic S+M extravaganza…yum! Peekskill local Mel Gibson directs.
Getting Straight (1970)2Despite clever lensing and editing, Getting Straight is a trite and superficial treatment of the student/youth uprising during the Vietnam War, that has more disdain than sympathy for its silly, stereotyped characters (Elliot Gould as a student activist back from the war, and Candace Bergen as—what else?—a wealthy WASPette). A few fairly impressive Gould speeches toward the end are insufficient to salvage the proceedings.
The Skin I Live In (2011)5A master surgeon (Antonio Banderas, finally acting again after a 20 year hiatus) loses his wife to an accident and his daughter to madness, and will do anything in his formidable powers to keep their memory alive. The Skin I Live In is Almodovar’s icy homage to Vertigo, updated for the modern age. Just as implausible, and just as fantastically compelling. Bravo!
Gummo (1997)2Every society has its underworld of poorly-educated, aimless, up-to-no-good types, but only in God-Bless-America might members of this class secure the funding to direct feature-length films. Somehow, one Harmony Korine, a footnote on the periphery of America’s anti-culture “scene” got lucky, and the apparently autobiographical Gummo is the result. Sole redeeming feature: Linda Manz in a frustratingly brief cameo, all growed up.
Out Of The Blue (1980)4The incomparable Linda Manz, absolutely riveting, is the whole show as an Elvis-worshipping punk-loving troubled teen, traumatized by a terrible accident and more, as she wanders the mean streets of Vancouver. When the camera is not on her, filmmaker Dennis Hopper indulges himself and his cast in Cassavetes-esque under-directed over-acting. The result is something between Taxi Driver and Barbara Loden’s Wanda. Nice cameo by Vancouver's own Pointed Sticks.
Marjoe (1972)4Exploited and abused by his criminal parents, toddler-preacher Marjoe Gortner somehow emerged as a remarkably intact and clear-headed adult. In this documentary, Gortner comes clean, confessing the tricks of his swindling trade, though seems incapable of shaking off his addiction to the criminal art of Christian evangelism. The result is something like Borat, had Sasha Baron Cohen interspersed the proceedings with some confessions of his own; almost as painful, though certainly not as funny.
The Boy In The Striped Pajamas (2008)1 One of the most disgusting and appallingly offensive movies ever made. In a serene and bucolic little corner of a death camp (!!!!), a plumpish, loafing Jewish boy with lots of free time (!!!!) befriends a little rascal of an Aryan boy on the other side of the fence (!!!!). When the Jew's father "goes missing", the little Aryan digs under the fence (!!!!) to help in the search and,...I dare you to guess the rest (yes, lots more exclamation marks). Weep for the poor Nazis!!!! It's almost enough to make me believe in censorship!!!!
Midnight In Paris (2011)2"...Moronic and infantile and utterly lacking in any wit or believability."...And I refuse to give Konigsberg points for the pretty shots of Paris. I mean, jeez, give a monkey a camera...
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)4Surely Kubrickian (Kubrick has often been accused of as much), Eyes Wide Shut is a spellbinding and at times creepily humorous exploration of would-be infidelity among the CPW elite, with a central set piece and basic theme ripped straight from the pages of The Magus (though the source actually pre-dates the Fowles novel). The cruel yet delicious joke (one which is ultimately distracting) is the casting of Tom Cruise in the role he was born (and married) to play: a cold and distant play-actor at humanity and sexuality. Bravo!
Amazing Grace (2006)1Amazing disgrace. The producers of this dunderheaded costume drama clearly have little but disdain for their audience. A laughably awful script (I kept on anticipating the next line!), one dimensional characters, and, apparently, a wildly inaccurate portrayal of history, combine to make a mockery of a deadly serious issue: the role of African slavery in the building and maintenance of the British Empire. For shame!
Control (2007)3Wisely avoiding aggrandizing its anti-hero, "Control" focuses on the very human trials of a young man (Joy Division’s talented but immature Ian Curtis), overwhelmed by his bad decisions (marrying too early) and bad health (epilepsy); fine performances from all involved, and a surprising lack of grandstanding from egomaniacal Dutch photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn. For a number of stylistic and thematic reasons, "The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner" might make a good double bill.
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)2“The inheritance of acquired characteristics” proposal turns out to have been right all along in this spectacularly dumb Hollywood piece-o-crap, in which, with drugs, the apes get super-smart and develop human vocal tracts (and, without drugs, the humans don’t age a day over the span of a decade!). The apes pass their acquired traits to their offspring, and—spoiler alert! spoiler alert!—havoc ensues.
Deconstructing Harry (1997)4Sure, it’s a world gone mad when the awful Kirstie Alley delivers a better performance than the remarkable Judy Davis, but such are the shenanigans in this mix of fact and fantasy (both in front of the camera and behind it), as Woody Allen plays himself as a sex-crazed writer who betrays family secrets and leaves a path of destruction in the wake of his life. The jump-cut editing is simply idiotic, but still, Deconstructing Harry seems destined to be Allen’s last great film. Clever touch (one of many): using Richard Benjamin to represent the Roth/Zuckerman-inspired narrative.
Streamers (1983)3Another in Altman’s series of filmed plays during his protracted (imposed) boycott of the Hollywood suits (read straitjackets), Streamers—David Rabe’s exploration of racism and homophobia/homo-eroticism among a small group of draftees waiting to be sent to Vietnam—possesses faults not of Altman’s making: a stage-bound purple-prose script, and a villain that lacks any complexity. The acting and the lensing are excellent, however; Altman should have jettisoned the script (as was his norm), and let his actors get to it.
Skidoo (1968)3You could do a lot worse than watching Jackie Gleason trip on acid, or, for that matter, watching Groucho Marx get stoned with Austin Pendleton out on a sailboat. Far better than its reputation, this deeply flawed mess of an attempt at late 60s topicality boasts an unbelievable cast—the stars just keep coming and coming (though no one really has anything to do)—and a wonderful score by Nilsson. Certainly worth a viewing.
Under The Volcano (1984)5John Huston’s penultimate masterpiece. Albert Finney delivers one of cinema’s great performances as the doomed former British consul in provincial Mexico at the dawn of the war, who is completely infuriating in his alcoholic self-destructiveness, yet still vulnerable and lovable, and possessed of sufficient clarity to foresee the coming Nazi maelstrom. Jacqueline Bisset is his devoted ex-wife, but it’s the secondary roles, all by Mexican players, that do the real work of fleshing out this character study. The finale, in a netherworld cantina of whores, drunks, and Mexican Nazis, is nothing short of mind-blowing. Watch this movie!
Waitress (2007)2Pleasant but slight—and slightly broad—slice of life of an unfulfilled southern waitress/pie-maker, that is more Linda Lavin/“Alice” than Ellen Burstyn/“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More”. Especially given subsequent events, I really wish I liked this film more.
The Delinquents (1957)3Required viewing for Altman fans, The Delinquents is a better-than-average 50s teensploitation film (a good boy falls in with the wrong crowd), that is, alas, future-blind regarding Altman’s revolutionary aesthetic. Still, elements of subversion are already evident. After all, the protagonist’s demise is indirectly caused by the sexual repression endemic to the era, and the whole film can easily be seen as a smoldering gay love triangle.
Gloomy Sunday (1999)1Tired variation on an exhausted supernatural theme (see also: The Ring, Monty Python’s “joke” sketch, etc.). In wartime Budapest (where the lingua franca is, supernaturally, flawless German) a Jewish restaurateur, a Hungarian tunesmith, and a German Nazi all fall for a personality-less beauty with hair and make-up from the 21st century (supernatural indeed!). The gossamer plot creeps at a snail’s pace, and a pretty melody is repeated “ad suicidam”. P.S. The actual composer of the melody was Jewish. Terrible film.
The Lawless (1950)4Slightly wobbly but very well-intentioned drama of anti-Mexican bigotry in central California, and the media’s cynical pandering to the ignorant’s basest fears. With its timeless (and timely) themes, and with quite a few fine performances, It’s too bad this early Joseph Losey film is not better known.
Still Life (2006)3Oftentimes hauntingly beautiful, but ultimately only partially satisfying study of just a few of the many millions of lives thrown into turmoil by the Three Gorges Dam project along the Yangtse. A flawed narrative is the main problem here, with Jia again having trouble establishing a coherent story arc out of characters that we might care about.
The World (2004)3This impressive feature from Jia Zhangke focuses on young migrants to Beijing, seeking and eking a better life amidst the soulless modernity that the Chinese capital has uncritically embraced, promising the world, but delivering so little. Still, there's no reason to assume that their lives would have been any more fulfilling in a less modern setting (indeed, none of these people seems to be able to articulate anything resembling genuine human feelings), and Jia spends far too much time on the soapy story rather than the compelling themes, which almost get lost in the shuffle.
The Resident (2011)1Is "The Resident" as good as "Psycho"? No, it's not. In fact, it's as bad as any film I've seen in quite some time, Psycho rip-off or otherwise. Paper-thin plot of a Norman Bates-type handyman at a swanky Dumbo loft, with no thrills, no budget, no nothing.
Eyes Wide Open (2009)4Intolerance and bigotry among the religious is nothing new, of course, but Eyes Wide Open takes us on a new course through this well-trodden ground, as we encounter a young Yeshiva student with a “bad reputation”, his budding romance with an upstanding Jerusalem butcher, and the suspicions of their community’s powerful (both the revered and the reviled). Wisely, unlike in the bad-old-days (and even in the not-so-bad-old days of Brokeback Mountain) when homosexuality in a dramatic setting inevitably lead to death, director Tabakman concludes with a decidedly less tragic—and far more haunting—ending.
Life According To Agfa (1992)2Stanley Kramer’s filming of Ship Of Fools was filled with subtlety, warmth and genuine affection for its terribly flawed characters. Life According To Agfa, a conceptually comparable microcosm of a world-on-the-brink-of-collapse (a small Tel Aviv bar standing in for the ocean cruiser to Nazi Germany), possesses none of these qualities: pretentious, simplistic, dreary, and with nothing but (justified) disdain for all its characters, except for a Christ-like Arab cook. The “shocking” ending is bound to provoke as much laughter as anything else. Sole asset: the Leonard Cohen-heavy soundtrack.
Teorema (1968)2Tedious re-imagining of the origins of Christianity—an alluring stranger seduces each member of a stuffy bourgeois household, thus unleashing their inner passions—the aptly-titled Teorema is a fly-by-night thought experiment mushroomed into an uninvolving self-indulgent exercise in artiness.
Boynton Beach Club (2005)3While it wouldn't be out of line to suggest that Susan Seidelman has lost her downtown edge (no Feelies or Richard Hell here!), she clearly is still quite capable of constructing an entertaining narrative, as this engaging, realistic, humorous, and only rarely heavy-handed slice of love and death and sex and lies (and even a little videotape!) among the senior set attests. Inspired: the casting, chock full of talented faces we haven't seen in far too long. Uninspired: the cheap flat lighting, though it could be that damnable Florida sun.
Salo (1975)3Yes, we've all heard the stories of Nazis masturbating while peeping into the gas chambers as their victims gasp their final breaths, and then, workday over, head home for a warm meal with the wife and kids. But isn't the truth sufficiently repellant? In Salo, Pasolini fetishizes the fetishist, hitting us over the head with the grotesqueries of torture, and its juxtaposition to (and, by hypothesis, its inextricable linkage with) modern bourgeois existence. These are very adolescent obsessions, though handled with style, finesse, and an admirable objectivity.
Little Murders (1971)3Jules Feiffer's absurdist exploration of NYC life—as the high-spirited 60s devolve into the crime-ridden 70s—suffers from first-time director Alan Arkin's opening up of the original stageplay, which results in a significant loss of intensity and claustrophobia. A big mistake, I think, which points to Arkin's inexperience, and his lack of confidence in the source material. Still, very interesting indeed, with a number of standout performances, among them Vincent Gardenia's and Doris Robert's. Double bill: "Where's Poppa?".
Il Posto (1961)5Wistful, bittersweet, humanistic, and endlessly enjoyable, Il Posto relates the story of a school-leaver's foray into the workaday world; an office job for life (or is that death). A remarkable, sensitive performance by young Sandro Panseri, who hopelessly pines for a new co-worker's affections, places this masterpiece somewhere between Chaplin and Kafka.
For A Lost Soldier (1992)3Although the filmmakers are clearly poor students of history (a hit song from years after the war, a Canadian Maple Leaf flag), such inaccuracies are hardly their main concern (and may be intentional). Instead we focus on the budding sexuality of a prepubescent Dutch boy, and his very much requited love for a handsome Canadian liberator who briefly alights at the rural seaside enclave to which the boy's parents have temporarily dispatched him. Interludes exploring the pair's growing love organically and tenderly turn sexual, though are bookended by confusing and poorly-conceived scenes set in the present. Double bill: "The Flavor Of Corn".
The Clash: Westway To The World (2000)3Joe: the agit-prop mastermind. Mick: the sensitive Jew. Paul: the good-looking brooder. Topper: the drug-addled dropout. Don Letts wisely lets our protagonists run the show in this documentary on the Clash, while only minimally disrupting the proceedings with silly punk-styled graphics that look like a Gap commercial—ugh. All come off as thoughtful and articulate, and there's a fine cache of great gig footage, thought the band's political bent—and their artistry—is studiously avoided. I saw The Clash at both Passaic's Capitol Theater and at Bond. Man, what a fantastic time to be a suicidal teen! Now, Cut the Crap!
Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune (2010)3The magnificent and finally tragic life of protest-folk pioneer Phil Ochs is explored in frustratingly superficial detail herein, with an over-emphasis on the tumult of the times (especially during its sagging middle section), and far too few forays into the tumult of Mr. Ochs' inner world.
Enter The Void (2009)4Marvelous and spectacular in the most literal sense. A tragic accident unites a brother and sister, and til death do them part. When death does arrive, we are taken on a remarkable full-circle journey (that is filmic, not psychogenic) mixing past, present, and future. Set in the blinding blinking neon of Shinjuku Tokyo, the visually stunning Enter The Void references The Lady In The Lake, Dark Passage, Touch Of Evil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fantasia, and 2001, yet is nonetheless a wholly unique and utterly mesmerizing cinematic experience, marred only by thematic triteness, overlength, and a rather flat performance by POV protagonist Nathaniel Brown.
Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)5The equal and opposite of Orson Welles' "F For Fake". In that documentary's exploration of the artist and the charlatan we knew exactly who was in control every step of the way. By contrast, in Exit Throught Gift Shop we are kept wondering throughout, led down garden paths, and ultimately into an endless Escher-stairway of infinite guesses. A masterful and completely enthralling mirror-roomed view of British street artist Banksy, and a remarkable right place/right time fan, Thierry Guetta, who unsuccessfully documents—and then successfully emulates—the artist himself. Or maybe this is just evidence that Andy Kaufman is still alive!
The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)222 years after the fall of Hitler, some German students hoped to bring back the good old days of violence, terror, and thuggery, effortlessly eluded the suspiciously inept security police, and naturally gravitated towards Palestinian terrorist ideology. Overstuffed and undernourished, The Baader-Meinhof Complex might have been more effective if some of these horrid people had at least a few likeable qualities; as presented, these sociopaths are just too easy to despise.
The Pursuit Of Happiness (1971)3Effective and incisive study of the Vietnam-era generation gap as a privileged college student gets railroaded into jail less for his "crime" (he's obviously innocent) than for his not playing by the social rules of the older generation. Underwhelming, but abetted by a great cast, as well as a memorable Randy Newman song.
The Human Centipede: First Sequence (2009)2Silly no-budget nonsense of a mad Teutonic doctor who hopes to create a human daisy-chain. Welp, there'll always be a Germany, I guess. Watch Pasolini's "Salo" for a less amateurish exploration of continental depravities.
Shutter Island (2010)2It's beyond me why Martin Scorsese would want to emulate one-hit-wonder/full-time-hack M. Night Shyamalan, but he does just that in "Shutter Island", a gothic mystery thriller set in a mental institution on a stormy New England island. Hitchcock also pops up in the guise of the Marnie-esque composite shots, and the blustery Herrmann-influenced (if not -inspired) score. Unlike Hitchcock—but just like Shyamalan—the denouement is a bust.
Moon (2009)2"Ground Control to Major Tom!" Utterly unoriginal science fiction. Take a lot of 2001- inspired mood and a lot of Blade Runner-inspired meditation on identity, and mix with some Star Trek and some Space: 1999. Jeez, even the music is a rip-off of Cliff Martinez's score for—wait for it!—the Solaris remake! And they can't even spell the word "satellite" correctly.
Out Of The Ashes (2003)4After a rocky start, Out Of the Ashes settles into a chilling groove, relating the story of a Jewish gynecologist who saved up to a thousand lives at Auschwitz by aborting Jewish fetuses, so that their mothers might avoid the gas chambers (Jewish children being the Nazis' greatest threat). During her bid for American citizenship, an investigative board, absurdly, is appalled by the abortions she performed, and suspects her of collaborating with the enemy.
Middle Of The Night (1959)4An excellent cast—including the wonderful Kim Novak contributing an admirably mannered performance—is featured in Paddy Chayevsky's oh-so-New York Freud-inflected meditation on the sadness of sex and aging. Beautifully filmed in black and white, this very adult drama is a film latter-day Woody Allen would have liked to make. Recommended.
Burn! (1970)4The never-ending saga of Christian European imperial designs is explored in visually striking detail in Burn, with effeminate dandy Marlon Brando as an English agent abetting a native uprising against the Portuguese, in order to secure British profits. Almost as much an ethnographic study as a strident leftist screed, "Burn" manages to combine surrealism with Brechtian socialist realism. Brilliant!
The American (2010)1Dutch rock photographer turned feature filmmaker Anton Corbijn certainly likes the pretty ladies and the bigass guns. That's pretty much all we learn about him and his ideas in this stunningly boring go-nowhere supposed thriller of an assassin hiding out in an Italian village. I saw this one on a trans-Pacific flight. I walked out.
The Fall (2006)2What hath rock videos wrought? Soulless vapidity, thats what. Tarsem Singh is another in a continuing line of talented art directors who has prematurely strayed into film directing with absolutely no idea how to assemble a coherent narrative with characters that one might care about (see also: Zhang Yimou, Tim Burton, Darren Aronofsky, etc.). Cross early MTV fast-cutting with the Travel Channel and Baraka-esque exoticism, and you'll get this completely uninvolving stoner's idea of a great flick.

Querelle (1982)2What is one to make of Fassbinder's final film, a surrealistic, intentionally stilted, stagey interpretation of the heretofore inimitable Jean Genet? High art, or tongue-in-cheek camp? A philosophical treatise on self-loathing and sexual identity, or a trashy softcore gay wankfest? Possibly all of the above, but probably none of them. The Sirk-ian hyper-artificial lighting and dramatic staging of these rough-and-tumble sailors-down-at-the-docks are insufficient to lift this dud out of the muck. The saddest joke is that it is far more genuinely campy than Fassbinder seems to have intended.
Waltz With Bashir (2008)4Visually striking and intellectually challenging animated documentary exploring Christian-on-Moslem violence in Lebanon, from the perspective of a young Israeli, who, 20 years after the early 80s Lebanon war, begins to confront his memories. The Israelis, unable to live in peace due solely to their neighbors' steadfast refusal to allow them to do so, stand helpless as Christians gleefully massacre Moslem civilians at Sabra and Shatila, much like Americans endured in Kurdistan a decade later.
Beautiful Ohio (2006)1Yet another supremely idiotic and pretentious film of a dysfunctional family in the Noah Baumbach tradition. When will these amateurs realize that a compelling narrative requires characters with whom the viewer can identify and sympathize? A few words of Hungarian are spoken (rather, mangled) by a misfit math whiz in the opening scene, and it's supposed to be a big friggin' mystery where these secret words come from. Haven't any of the characters heard of a reference desk? Bye bye Messerman.
s
Julie & Julia (2009)2Half an okay movie. As always, Meryl Streep is remarkable, here portraying the second titular character ("French Chef" Julia Child). The film comes to a halt when focusing on the first: a thoroughly unappealing and downright boring Brooklyn chick who thinks that emulating J.C. will give her life some meaning. Instead, she alienates everyone, especially the viewer. Nora Ephron's heavy-handed humor hardly helps.
How Awful About Allan (1970)3Was a time when the Big Three actually assembled some genuine talent for their telefilms, as in this 1970 production. A little bit Baby Jane (sans the humor), a little bit Norman Bates (sans the artistry) and a lot of cheap hokum are featured in this well-cast and marginally creepy Gothic tale of patricide, hysterical blindness, and family secrets.
Angel Heart (1987)4Ultra-stylish (and yes, ultra-silly) supernatural noir thriller of a 1940s Lower East Side private dick who finds himself ensconced in a case involving Harlem black magic and New Orleans voodoo. Angel Heart features two great performances (Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro) and one poor one (Lisa Bonet), though the real star is the brilliant art direction and lighting.
The Hurt Locker (2008)4Extremely tense, gripping account of an IED squad in Baghdad, that effectively shows how George W. Bush waged war not only on Iraq, but on our own young people as well. The narrative sinks into cliche on occasion, and reportedly, the supposed realism is a total crock. Still, although it's Hollywood, at least it's very good Hollywood.
Winter's Bone (2010)4Another triumph for director Debra Granik. In the Missouri Ozarks, a meth-cooking dad goes missing before a court date, putting his family and their land in jeopardy. His resourceful teenage daughter (Jennifer Lawrence), having steered clear of her extended family's criminal ways, must put herself in grave danger to find him before it's too late. Granik conjures a superb sense of place and mood, with virtually every scene pregnant with the hushed threat of explosive violence.
Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everyone Talkin' About Him?) (2006)4Finally! America's all-time greatest singer-songwriter, and really, the closest we have to a genuine "Fifth Beatle", gets a sliver of the credit he deserves. A who's who of pop artistry is featured in this wonderful documentary that gets everything right: Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, Paul Williams, and so many others are interviewed, relating Nilsson's incredible genius, and his premature and precipitous fall. Sadly missing are Pete Ham, Tom Evans, John Lennon, and of course Harry himself.
F For Fake (1973)5Brilliantly edited, thoroughly engrossing, and overwhelmingly intellectually appealing hodgepodge of fact and fiction, fake and forgery, as Orson Welles takes us on a deconstructive tour (de force) of the unexpected value of the charlatan in society, especially focusing on the forgery of art and the art of forgery, with the wonderfully appealing Elmyr de Hory as our (anti-)hero. Decades before its time in terms of technique, F for Fake may well be a masterpiece.
Friendly Persuasion (1956)4Leisurely-paced Civil War era soap opera (that succeeds far better as social commentary than as light comedy) of an Indiana family that begins to slowly rebel against its loving matron's manipulative religious beliefs. As war finally engulfs them, pragmatism prevails, and they abandon their Quaker-inspired pacifism. Fine performances by all involved, along with a great Dmitri Tiomkin score (and classic title song) make this a winner, though the happy ending is a bust.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They (1966)4Nightmarish depiction of a Depression era dance marathon at a California seaside resort; the poor desperate souls who will sink to any level of degradation to win the cash prize, and the amoral scoundrels who run the proceedings. Extremely well done, but unremittingly grim.
The Silent Scream (1980)2The Hitchcock/Herrmann homage in the opening credits unwisely sets this one up for disappointment from the start. Roger Kellaway's scoring remains interesting, but director Denny Harris is no Hitchcock, and (The) Silent Scream is merely an amateurish Psycho ripoff; not as bad as some, but not worth seeking out either. Juli Andelman is appealing as one of the college kids renting rooms in the doomed mansion; Yvonne deCarlo's role is little more than a cameo.
I Am David (2004)2A Bulgarian youth escapes from a post-war labor camp with instructions to head north to Denmark. Barely tolerable episodic adventure yarn for undiscriminating pre-teens; subtlety, realism, and good acting are clearly not priorities here. Only Joan Plowright emerges unscathed.
The Believers (1987)2Clumsy and style-less occult nonsense from once-credible director John Schlesinger, with Martin Sheen as a grieving Midwest widower who moves to New York only to find himself and his little boy increasingly at risk at the hands of some Santeria nogoodniks. Even "The Possession of Joel Delaney" was better than this garbage.
My Father My Lord (2007)5Searing portrait of a warm and loving Orthodox family in Jerusalem: a Rabbi, his devoted wife, and their sensitive and precocious little boy. But make no mistake: My Father, My Lord is a lucid and stinging indictment of the religious, and more broadly, of religion as a whole. The universality of its condemnation is underscored by its imperfect simulacrum of Orthodox practice. Beautifully and hypnotically presented, with a gorgeous cello-based score, it cogently makes its point and leaves us to think.
Rasputin The Mad Monk (1966)2The performers (especially Christopher Lee in the title role) chew up the scenery in this Hammer (and cheeser) assembly line production that lacks soul, conviction, and historical accuracy. A compelling feature film about Rasputin, one of the 20th century's most enigmatic figures, has yet to be made.
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (1968)5Devastating portrait of a good-hearted and lonely deaf mute (Alan Arkin in a career-making performance), and the lives he affects in a small southern town. Magnificently evocative of its time and place, this filmization of the Carson McCullers novel captures both the sweetness and the cruelty of the south in the 60s. A winner on every level.
Kadosh (1999)2This Jerusalem-based exploration of the stifling oppression of Orthodox women and the emotional stuntedness of Orthodox men is decidedly Bergmanesque: slow, studied, somewhat pretentious, and anthropologically questionable (for example, did any Jew—Orthodox or otherwise—give a hoot about the Gregorian millennium?), but it is at least superior to the trivial and Hollywood-ized "A Price Above Rubies". Might be worth a casual look.
Dead Tired (1994)3Enjoyable but very silly story that mixes fanciful and real-life stars, as actor-writer-director Michel Blanc comes to realize that he has a troublesome and law-breaking double moving in on his career. It's not Kafka, it's not 8½, its not Stardust Memories, and it won't save French cinema (which it acknowledges is in a sorry state) but it's good for a few laughs.
Talk To Me (2007)3Formulaic biopic of ex-con turned very plain-talking and charismatic DC media personality "Petey" Greene, enlivened by great performances by the whole cast, and a very enjoyable profanity-laced screenplay. Along with the country as a whole, it loses momentum after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Down To The Bone (2004)4In the Hudson Valley in the months after September 11th, a struggling young mother of two tries to get clean; no easy task with users and enablers all around her. Documentary-like independent feature with excellent, naturalistic performances, and no-nonsense direction by Debra Granik, who also co-wrote the superb screenplay. Highly recommended. [Full disclosure: I knew "Debbie" Granik in Edinburgh, during our respective third-years-abroad, 83-84]
Compulsion (1959)4A sordid Chicago murder that Middle America could really eat up, especially since the perpetrators were wealthy and arrogant intellectual homosexual Jews (Leopold and Loeb, here renamed Steiner and Strauss). Bradford Dillman is the more genuinely sociopathic "top" and Dean Stockwell the somewhat sympathetic and more complex "bottom". Minor flaw: despite Orson Welles' bravura performance as the atheist anti-capital-punishment crusader Darrow, the film actually slows down upon his late arrival.
Night Train (2009)1“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” with a Rod Serling twist sounds cool, yeah? It’s not! Dreadful dreadful movie of a found gem stash and a troublesome corpse on a train, with lousy acting, ludicrous scripting, and laughable special effects. Even its sole bright spot—the sets—is obscured by gaudy holiday lights. With Rocky Horror’s Richard O’Brien as…Mrs. Froy!! Hitchcock is rolling is his grave.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...And Spring (2004)2The setting—a temple calmly floating on a mountain lake—belies a tale of incipient sociopathy: childhood animal torture, adolescent rape, and eventually, of course, adult murder. I doubt it was the intention of Mr. Kim, but for me, this is merely a cautionary (and predictable) tale of the dangers of religious fundamentalism and its attendant cycle of sexual repression. There, I said it. So sue me.
13 tzameti
13Tzameti (2005)4Much like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, 13 Tzameti explores the appallingly arbitrary nature of life and death, or, rather, survival and murder, as a young French worker becomes unwittingly ensnared in the criminal underground. Repugnant, sure, but genuinely compelling, and marred only by its predictable finale.
in the loop
In The Loop (2009)1Obnoxious with a capital "O". Obnoxiously edited, obnoxiously filmed, obnoxiously scripted. Fans of TV's The Office might cozy up to these super-glib vignettes that focus on a sound bite slip-up from a Downing Street apparatchik during the last gasps of British imperialism in the Middle East, who ends up in damage-control mode in DC. All others, beware.
bug
Bug (2006)2Good acting, claustrophobic staging, and youthful, spirited directing aren't enough to salvage this offbeat misfire from William Friedkin. An exceedingly slow build up begins the sabotage of this psychological thriller of a schizophrenic who believes (duh!) the government has planted bugs in his system. It goes completely over the top when his symptoms are transferred to the down-on-her-luck woman he has shacked up with. Persona this ain't!
suture
Suture (1993)2Influenced by Frankenheimer's Seconds and Teshigahara's The Face of Another, Suture—a thinly-plotted story of murder and stolen identity—is marred by poor acting, overzealous camerawork, and college-level scripting with sophomoric references to Freud and Descartes. It's a "psychological thriller" with no psychology and no thrills. As the thief is white and the "lookalike" victim is black, is this supposed to be a commentary on race relations?
broken mbraces
Broken Embraces (2009)3Despite the typical wealth of talent on hand, and Almodovar's characteristic surplus of intrigue and multi-leveled madcap melodrama, Broken Embraces—an (acknowledged) homage to Peeping Tom (and Vertigo, and probably 100 other great films) in which a blinded filmmaker revisits his past and comes to resolve some long-standing mysteries—is somewhat uninvolving, lacking in the emotional opulence of his best films.
See No Evil (1971)2Moderately effective but thoroughly unpleasant thriller of a recently blinded Mia Farrow who slowly discovers a series of grisly murders at her relatives' country estate. Now, of course, the killer is after her as well, and thus ensues a rather repulsive and repetitive series of near misses, along with some questionable commentary on sex roles and class.
ZPG: Zero Population Growth (1972)3Crummy-to-middling Gerry Anderson-esque science fiction. In an overpopulated and over-polluted future, the fascist state (that actually has some cogent criticisms of 20th century society) outlaws the birth of children. As the law-defying parents, Geraldine Chaplin and Oliver Reed try their best. Earns points for its scattershot artiness.
marian
Marian (1996)3The continuing plight of European Roma is portrayed in graphic detail in Marian, the story of a neglected boy sent at the age of three to a harsh institutional setting by the Czechoslovak state, and who inevitably spirals into a life of violent crime. Unmannered performances and striking cinematography are partially undermined by a periodically confusing narrative that loses momentum in its overlong final act.
the two of us
The Two Of Us (1967)4Complex and moving portrait of an ignorant though kindly-hearted old peasant (an incomparable Michel Simon) who forms a loving relationship with a boy from Paris who, unbeknownst to the old man, is a Jew in hiding. All the while, Petain's poisonous propaganda pours from the radio. As always, Georges Delerue's scoring adds immeasurably.
mongol
Mongol (2007)2Mongol (ostensibly the story of a young Genghis Khan) bears all the hallmarks of an "international production": actors who can't relate to each other, and who consequently fail in resonating any emotion (Sun Honglei being the sole exception). Instead, emphasis is placed almost exclusively on repetitive blood-soaked action scenes. Might be worth a look if you've ever wondered what Mongolian sounds like when spoken with a thick Japanese accent...
The Great Gatsby (1974)2Stuffy and lifeless, Jack Clayton's interpretation of The Great Gatsby plays more like a 70s network miniseries than a legitimate filmization. With a script (by Francis Ford Coppola) hellbent on emphasizing the superficialities of plot rather than capturing the feel of the book, the actors are given precious few opportunities to invest their characters with nuance.
$ (1971)4Terrific thriller—the sort that seemed to come one after another in the early 70s—with Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn as a couple of high stakes crooks in Hamburg. Smart, funny, and exciting throughout, $ is also notable for its extended chase scene, lasting a good fifteen minutes.
1408
1408 (2007)4A smaller, leaner version of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining"? Perhaps. But a better comparison would be Jim Henson's experimental oddity "The Cube". A cynical myth-debunking "ghost writer" (John Cusack), haunted by his little girl's death, believes he is trapped in a hotel room in which many have died gruesomely. Is the psychological torture he endures there all in his guilt-ridden head? Genuine thrills keep this one quite gripping until the 2/3 mark, at which point repetition begins to set in.
demon seed
Demon Seed (1977)4The finest film David Cronenberg never made, in Demon Seed Julie Christie is raped by a rather ambitious and randy computer. Superior, chilling special effects (especially the topologically acrobatic obelisk) and funny Star Trek and Batman references overshadow the silly holes in the story. Rather effective, actually.
closer
Closer (2004)3It’s easy to see what attracted Mike Nichols (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “Carnal Knowledge”) to this four character play in which the characters, two intersecting (rather, crashing) couples, react off each other’s sexual and emotional insecurities in hurtful and hateful ways. While no one here is remotely likeable, and the story reads more like a telegram than a fleshed out drama, still, the stylized twists and turns and emotionally charged intrigues manage to hold one’s interest.
the girl in the cafe
The Girl In The Cafe (2007)1Rule, Britannia! At the G8 Summit in Reykjavik, the British do all they can to "wipe out poverty" while the rest of the world scoffs. Insufferably smug, self-righteous and politically simplistic, The Girl in the Cafe is an insipid soapbox screed—and a big fat wet dream for middle-aged heterosexual men—masquerading as an intimate May-October romance.
savage grace
Savage Grace (2007)2Personality disorders rarely make for compelling drama, as they deprive the narrative of motivation, development, and resolution. The studied, pretentious Savage Grace, which traces an incestuous and ultimately murderous upper class expat family from the 40s to the early 70s, provides a whole family of them. Though completely uninvolving, it's too inconsequential to thoroughly hate.
dawn of the dead
Dawn Of The Dead (2004)4I've always been of the opinion that only lousy movies should be remade, never good ones: why mess with a good thing, when you can instead improve upon a bad one? What a surprise, then, that this remake of the 1978 classic is so strong. This is a superior zombie flick: slick, smart, sophisticated, and a non-stop thrill-ride!
district 9
District 9 (2009)2Aliens stranded in Johannesburg. A too-obvious metaphor (the de facto Apartheid of France's Muslim banlieues, Australia's Aborigine slums, Pre-Holocaust Europe's Jewish ghettos, and of course, pre-liberation South Africa itself) coupled with laughable implausibilities in the story-telling (the team leader going door to door getting 2,000,000 signatures? The mothership being fully operational all this time? etc., etc.) make for a laughable, if fleetingly enjoyable, B-movie experience.
avatar
Avatar (2009)2Visually spectacular, Avatar is done in by a painfully hackneyed/vapid/banal "noble savage" story that would make even Aldous Huxley cringe. And what a coinkydink: the Na'vis' vocal tract configuration is identical to Homo Sapiens'! There's nothing new under the sun. Ours, or any other, it seems.
the island
The Island (2007)2Unable to cope with the guilt of his cowardice during the war, a man lives out his life as a charlatan mystic (is there any other kind?) at a seaside monastery. Despite (or, rather, exactly because of) the striking high contrast photography and unvaryingly somber tone, this reads suspiciously like a tongue-in-cheek genre exercise. I get the feeling that Director Pavel Lungin is trying to have one over on us, and I, for one don't appreciate being made sport of.
brother
Brother (1997)3A thuggish and suitably anti-Semitic and xenophobic youth, just discharged from a stint with the army, gets to apply the tricks of his trade when he secures employment as a hitman for his big bother's syndicate in St. Petersburg. Something of a Russian "Lacombe Lucien", "the banality of evil" is explored in painful, sometimes uncomfortably funny, but ultimately quite affecting detail herein. Definitely worth a look
russian ark
Russian Ark (2002)4All films are stunts at one level of analysis, but Russian Ark is a stunt like no other. In one seamless take we tour the opulent splendors of the Winter Palace, tracing its history from Peter the Great to the fall of Nicholas II. Viewers can choose to be distracted by the gimmick, or instead allow themselves to be enveloped by the dreamlike surreality where past and present, Slavophile and Westernizer, and nostalgia and revulsion manage to sit comfortably side by side.
the king of masks
The King Of Masks (1999)3Superb performances, excellent period detail, and well-handled explorations of human relationships (between master and pupil, high artist and street performer, the law and the masses) are the highlights of this pre-revolutionary Sichuan-situated drama of an old and kindly "king of masks" and his search for an apprentice to pass on his secrets. Its gentle and delicate charms are sustained until the last act, when, unfortunately, the story descends into hokum.
the sea inside
The Sea Inside (2004)2Despite a magnificent performance by Javier Bardem (acting only from the neck up and buried under remarkably convincing makeup), The Sea Inside does not make good on the promise of its title, as we get only fleeting glimpses into the tumultuous inner world of its protagonist, a quadriplegic who wants to end his life. And with too many undeveloped subplots, an ending that should have been overwhelming instead feels undercooked.
ae fond kiss
Ae Fond Kiss (2004)4Poor Glaswegian Roisin is getting it from all sides. She falls in love with an appealing Scottish-born Pakistani who is nonetheless an apologist for his family's and community's appalling bigotry, and meanwhile, her job is put in jeopardy due to the Catholic Church's intolerance of her "living in sin" with said Pakistani. Excellent naturalistic performances are a major asset.
whatever works
Whatever Works (2009)1Spent talent Woody Allen has made yet another hopelessly stagey, stiltedly-written, and questionably cast film about self-indulgent New Yorkers and their existential crises. God in heaven knows that I am sympathetic to bitter atheistic ranting, but I have simply run out of good will for Poor Woody One Note.
dark matter
Dark Matter (2007)1A promising Chinese grad student is rebuffed by his advisor, and eventually decides to take matters into his own hands. A superb performance by Liu Ye and a clever title do not overshadow the fact that Dark Matter gets almost everything completely wrong—wrong about American academic life, wrong about the nature of mental illness, wrong about personal responsibility. With its misplaced sympathies, the director ultimately embraces a perverse anti-intellectualism. Even Meryl Streep can't save this one.
the fool killer
The Fool Killer (1965)5In the rolling countryside of post-Civil War American Gothic, an abused runaway (Edward Albert) meets a shell-shocked veteran (the wondrous Anthony Perkins) who, despite his mental trauma, has a perfectly healthy hatred of religious hypocrisy. Very much of a piece with the better known Night of the Hunter, The Fool Killer is both darkly haunting and achingly wistful in its exploration of the pair's odd and tragic love, and is replete with highly stylized editing and cinematographic touches that belie its low budget origins. Most memorable.
ship of fools
Ship Of Fools (1965)5 On the eve of Hitler's ascent, a German cruise ship of, well, fools, leaves port in Mexico. The human condition is laid bare in this extremely effective (and affecting) melodrama by Stanley Kramer. Long and novelistic, Ship Of Fools is unsettling in its unflinching exploration of our foibles (after all, we're all on this ship). Many outstanding performers—among them Michael Dunn, Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, and especially Oskar Werner as the ship's deeply unhappy doctor—keep one engaged to the end.
the deep end of the ocean
The Deep End Of The Ocean (1999)2A movie about the abduction of a child had better be damned good if it hopes to overcome its lightning-rod subject matter. The Deep End Of The Ocean is, in fact, not good at all. The characters are poorly drawn, cliche-ridden, and wooden, including Michelle Pfeiffer who (imagine!) really misses her abducted son, and (yawn!) a cameo by Whoopi Goldberg as a down-home dyke with a heart of gold. And when they recover their son, what about his life? What about his friends at school? Was this turkey originally made for Lifetime?
solaris
Solaris (1972)4Tarkovsky's most conventional film is also one of only two that might be called derivative (see also The Sacrifice; Bergman). The existential and epistemological themes explored herein bear the clear mark of Kubrick, who also cagily framed his philosophizing within a science fiction context four years earlier. As with all of Tarkovsky's films, Solaris is possessed of long, lingering images, characters prone to protracted metaphysical discourse, and a stunning visual vocabulary.
shadows of forgotten ancestors
Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)5Transfixing, visually spectacular tale of a nineteenth century Carpathian peasant, his loves and his losses. Parajanov’s Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors, while superficially merely a series of day-to-day vignettes, is indeed a whole far greater than the sum of its parts; lyrical, epic, transcendent. A masterful, sensual feast, with haunting sounds and dreamlike images that are unlikely to be forgotten.
ashik kerib
Ashik Kerib (1988)5Stylized in the extreme, Ashik Kerib thumbs its nose at convention (both of the Soviet and Hollywood varieties), by mockingly—and overwhelmingly effectively—mixing and matching at will both its filmic and its cultural references. Clearly possessed of an erotic fixation on his protagonist (Yuri Mgoyan), Parajanov, late in his career, is working at the peak of his skills. A sumptuous visual masterpiece of gorgeous costumes, Caucasian folk arts, that, at 74 minutes, knows not to outstay its welcome. Highly recommended.
ikiru
Ikiru (1952)4A lowly anonymous bureaucrat is diagnosed with stomach cancer, and becomes obsessed with life, and those who are living it. Perhaps, in the short time left to him, he can learn their secret, and finally live for himself, and for others. Subtle, gentle, and devastating, Ikiru is marred only by an overlong second act.
a dirty shame
A Dirty Shame (2004)2Perhaps inspired by Baltimore's fin de siecle VD epidemic (yes, that was for real), John Waters' A Dirty Shame—the story of Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) and her neighbors, for whom a conk on the head induces an insatiable sexual appetite—fails due in great part to his own pioneering work in the filth genre of the 60s and 70s; this sort of flick plays in Peoria nowadays. Forced and contrived where Waters used to be free and spontaneous, A Dirty Shame is consistent with the assertion that you can't go home again.
forbidden games
Forbidden Games (1954)5Deeply affecting story of a Parisan girl (a five year old Brigitte Fossey in a remarkable performance), who witnesses the death of her parents in a Nazi air attack. Taken in by a peasant family, she forms a lasting bond with the young son (an equally appealing Georges Poujouly). The simple pleasures of childhood mischief and playfulness are relentlessly juxtaposed to—and ultimately overshadowed by—the awful realities of violence and war. The lyrical score and the haunting ending add immeasurably.
starman
Starman (1984)5Superior science fiction for kids and adults alike. Jeff Bridges is just great as an alien taking the human form of Karen Allen's recently-deceased husband. Stranded in Wisconsin, he coerces her to drive him to his rendezvous point in Arizona. Sure you can guess the rest and give it a miss, but you'd be depriving yourself of a genuinely heartwarming, moving, and imaginative cinematic experience. Simply wonderful!
them!
Them! (1954)4 "Attack of the Giant Ants"!! The action scenes are so effective—here like "Aliens", there like "The Third Man"—that one wishes for a bit less exposition, and a lot more "kill 'em all" violence. A cautionary tale exploring the dangers lurking ahead in our post-war atomic world, "Them!" boasts both brains and brawn.
the thing from another world
The Thing From Another World (1951)4 Extremely well done horror / thriller / sci-fi / monster movie of an intelligent blood-eating vegetable-man who crash-lands in Alaska (it's much smarter than it sounds!), with innovative overlapping dialogue that was highly unusual for its time (this was before Altman, who was innovative on this front even by today's standards). The only real disappointment is the unimaginative rendering of the alien itself.
phase iv
Phase IV (1974)4An astronomical anomaly unleashes an ant assault in Arizona. Microphotography is the star of this lean, stylish flick, courtesy of title-sequencing master Saul Bass. Don't expect much in the way of characters, plot, or even acting. Just dig the creepy, mysterious mood. The real mystery, however, is what possessed Bass to pursue such an offbeat topic.
the possession of joel delaney
The Possession Of Joel Delaney (1972)2Sporadically effective but mostly silly supernatural thriller of a Park Avenue divorcee (Shirley MacLaine), and her vaguely incestuous relationship with her troubled younger brother (Perry King) who may or may not be possessed by the spirit of a Puerto Rican killer. The Possession of Joel Delaney offers some evocative period detail of NYC in the depths of its 70s despair, but it's carelessly directed, moderately racist, and disquietingly unpleasant.
never a dull moment
Never A Dull Moment (1968)2Not your typical Disney fare—far too much mob-styled violence-by-innuendo makes it inappropriate for young children—Never A Dull Moment (a story of an actor mistaken for a mob hitman) unfolds in contradiction to its title. Dick Van Dyke is a brilliant mime, but neither he nor the gorgeous NYC cityscapes can elevate the paper-thin plotting and overall air of banality into something worth watching.
the spiral staircase
The Spiral Staircase (1946)2A traumatized woman who lost her ability to speak in childhood may be next in line for a serial killer targeting "imperfect" female victims. The splendid photography and lighting might be a reason to take a look at this soapy Gothic murder mystery set in a foreboding mansion on a dark and stormy night, but the hackneyed and melodramatic story might be a reason to approach it with caution.
the deep end
The Deep End (2001)4An intense and taut Hitchcockian thriller of blackmail on Lake Tahoe, with Tilda Swinton as the "any(wo)man" who'll do anything to protect her family. The Deep End is especially effective due to its complex characters, its plausible plot convolutions, and its overall sense of "Jeez, I could see this really happening to someone!" Fine work by all involved.
the river
The River (1997)1Unbelievably boring, pretentious, and amateurish film of modern alienation in Taibei. Well, it certainly alienated me! One-dimensional characters offer no way in for the viewer, engendering absolutely no sympathy for their "diseased" lives. Tsai Ming-Liang's "talent" is heralded as revelatory in some quarters. If ever there were a case of The Emperor's New Clothes, this is it! (Watch Todd Haynes' "Safe" instead.)
indian summer
Indian Summer (1993)1Inexplicably lensed with day-glo filters, Indian Summer depicts a reunion of 30-somethings at their teenage Jewish sleep-away camp. (Fear not! The film is sanitized fur de goyim; neither "Jew" nor "Israel" is ever uttered.) The humor is infantile, the drama banal. I was at Jewish sleep-away at just about the same time as these folks were, and I couldn't find anything to identify with here—that's how bad this film is. A most idiotic little movie.
steam
Steam (1997)1"Enchanted April, Part 2": Instead of the English finding their zest for life in Italy, here, Italians find their zest for life in Turkey. A businessman leaves his wife for a supposedly simpler life with a local boy in Istanbul. (Simpler? Just wait until the boy's parents find out!). With nothing to say, the film contrives a completely unmotivated and ludicrous finale. Don't wake me for "Part 3": "Turks in...Burkina Faso"?
hiding and seeking
Hiding And Seeking (2004)5Exceptionally moving documentary of a remarkable father—the child of Holocaust survivors—who tries to instill a little rachmonos (mercy) in his xenophobic sons, whose completely justifiable bitterness towards the gentile world manifests itself as genuine bigotry. After he and his family travel to Europe and find the Poles who saved his father-in-law's life, the father succeeds...maybe.
the prisoner of second avenue
The Prisoner Of Second Avenue (1975)2Even in a clunker like "Last of the Red Hot Lovers", Neil Simon imparted affectionate quirks to his angst-ridden, teetering-on-the-edge NYC protagonist, but here, Jack Lemmon's character is bitter, sardonic, and unpleasant from the git-go, and so instead of identifying with his urban plight, we can only sympathize with his ever-supportive wife (an excellent Ann Bancroft); come the resolution, we don’t even care. The few stabs at humor are broad, obvious, and over-punctuated by Marvin Hamlisch’s obtrusive scoring.
the conrad boys
The Conrad Boys (2006)2Amidst the antiseptic splendor that is the OC, we follow the life and love travails of a coming-of-age gay youth and his bad-boy squeeze. Apart from the lead (played by the director), the acting is somewhat assured at times, but really, this film has nothing to say, and doesn't know how to say it.
cutter's way
Cutter's Way (1981)4Smart dialogue, subtle characterizations, and thoughtful, detailed direction are the highlights in this underwhelming story of a driven, bitter Vietnam vet (John Heard, outstanding) and his reluctant, lackadaisical buddy (Jeff Bridges, solid as always) as they try to nail a local Santa Barbara fat cat for a sordid murder. (This version subtracts Jack Nitzsche's wonderful closing song, alas.)
gran torino
Gran Torino (2008)3However well-intentioned its only-in-America optimism, Gran Torino—the story of a hardened widower whose heart melts like butter as he falls in with his troubled Hmong neighbors—suffers from its non-professional cast, its tin-eared dialogue, and its campy employment of Catholic iconography. Sure, I welled up all the way through it, but I hated myself in the morning.
punk: attitude
Punk: Attitude (2005)3 A reasonably informative documentary about the origins of punk (The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, The MC5, The New York Dolls), it's New York heyday (Ramones, Television, The Voidoids), its exportation to London (Sex Pistols, Clash), its dribbling into Los Angeles (Black Flag, Weirdos), and its ultimate commercialization. The interviews vary from from the articulate (Chrissie Hynde, Mick Jones), to the ridiculous (especially uber-bozo Henry Rollins).
ushpizin
Ushpizin (2005)3It's not every day one gets to see a slice-of-life film set in Jersusalem's all-Haredi Mea Shearim neighborhood, but apart from the unusual setting—which, it must be said, adds a great deal to the picture—this well-acted dramedy is sweet enjoyable fluff, but not much more. And where was the pitom??
the new world
The New World (2005)2Terrence Malick is now batting .750. It will still earn him MVP, but here, finally, he whiffs. The two leads are both problematic. Colin Farrell as John Smith seems capable of only one expression (knitted brow, vacant stare), and Q'Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas is clearly of a different ethnic make-up from the Americans depicted herein. Most offensive, the European characters are clearly delineated, while the Americans are little more than an undifferentiated "red menace". This film is really just a tone poem; a gorgeous, sexy, ethereal tone poem, but a tone poem nonetheless. (And listen as James Horner apes Arvo Part.)
defiance
Defiance (2009)3A remarkable true story, passably handled, of Jews who escape to the forests of Byelorussia, and, against all odds, survive the Holocaust. Alas, all the standard Hollywood shortcuts are here—the schematic Jewish prototypes (the socialist intellectual, the pious religious thinker, etc.), the fast-cutting, confusingly filmed battle scenes, the unnecessary romantic entanglements—and thus the overall impact is needlessly muted.
the fountain
The Fountain (2006)1Imagine that the most pretentious, insipid progressive rock band of the 70s (say, Yes, or Emerson Lake and Palmer) were given 20 million dollars to make the movie of their dreams. They'd probably hand back something like this puddle of utter bilge. Stay away. Stay very away.
lacombe, lucien
Lacombe Lucien (1974)5Deeply affecting and complex portrait of a Zelig-like thug, who, upon being rejected by the French resistance, drifts into collaboration with the enemy, simply because it is something to do. His new-found sense of purpose—however banal—is put to the test when he becomes infatuated with a Jewish girl. Flawlessly rendered, Lacombe Lucien is a masterful exploration of how cowardice and stupidity may live awkwardly side by side with humanism and love within an unexamined self.
star trek
Star Trek (2009)2As with many Star Trek installments, this adventure patently translates into a very current event. Here, Nero the Romulan represents Ahmadinejad the Islamist, bent on destroying the Vulcan homeworld (that's Israel to you and me—Spock and the Vulcans always being Star Trek's stand-in for the Jews, who do not exist in the franchise). Far too many pointless action scenes break up the telling of the tale, and the "alternate timeline" provides a pat explanation for the many inconsistencies with Trek's canonical history..
carnal knowledge
Carnal Knowledge (1971)5Superb, haunting exploration of how dreadful men can be to women, Jules Feiffer's script follows Art Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson as they plow through relationships, wholly incapable of forming lasting bonds, cheating on each other as readily as they cheat on their women. Cynical, pessimistic, depressing, and, as directed by Mike Nichols, magnificently realized.
rosenstrasse
Rosenstrasse (2003)1Plodding, poorly paced, awkwardly staged, and boring, Rosenstrasse would have us believe that Germany was bursting at the seams with love for the Jews, except for a few strategically-placed nasties. We’re supposed to marvel at the supposed courage of a few Aryan women who want their “gentle” Jewish husbands back, and simply gloss over the fact that, by 1943, German and European Jewry were well on their way to extinction. I’ll have none of it.
the barbecue people
The Barbecue People (2003)3A complex (and complicated) exploration of a family of Iraqi Israelis, their long-held secrets, their shames and their lies, as they converge and collide for Israeli Independence Day in 1988. One suspects that many aspects of this subtle, beguiling, and rather inscrutable film make perfect sense to Mizrachis in Israel; the rest of us can only appreciate it from afar.
the grey zone
The Grey Zone (2002)5At the end of World War Two, as Hungary is finally being relieved of its 500,000 Jews, a young girl survives the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The Sonderkommando—the coterie of Jews the Germans use to keep the liquidation process running smoothly (for four months, after which time they are murdered and replaced)—find themselves saddled with an “unnumbered” problem. Raw and a-filmic, The Grey Zone is based on a true story.
paper clips
Paper Clips (2004)4As if the election of Obama weren't enough, we also have this moving documentary about a very ordinary southern town that embarks on a most unordinary project involving Holocaust remembrance; a further reason to feel proud and lucky that we live in America. Dayenu!
the lathe of heaven
The Lathe Of Heaven (1980)2Ursula Le Guin's thinly veiled defense of reactionary politics relates the story of a man who has the power to make his dreams come true, and his state-assigned therapist who attempts to harness this power to improve the world. As every attempted improvement backfires, the lesson is that we should just accept the world as it is. It's like a Twilight Zone episode as written by Bill O'Reilly or Pat Buchanan.
lilith
Lilith (1964)4Dramatically compelling (though scientifically flawed) story of a young veteran (a very young and handsome Warren Beatty), who, due in part to his late mother's mental illness, decides to work at a local private rest facility. There he meets Lilith (a very young and beautiful Jean Seberg), who manipulates him both sexually and psychologically. Beautiful black and white photography, and a subdued cerebral approach make for a haunting, lump-in-the throat cinematic experience. Gene Hackman practically steals the film in a brief cameo.
the visitor
The Visitor (2007)4A hardened widower finds his heart when he discovers two illegal immigrants innocently squatting in his city pied-à-terre. A quiet, studied drama of small vignettes and subtle characterizations that successfully navigates its cliche-laden narrative, The Visitor is a stinging indictment of the harsh vicissitudes of Bush/Cheney(/Nader)'s new order in America. Let's hope it fast becomes a period piece. Still, it should be remembered that illegal status is just that: illegal. (After a year-long work contract in Montreal I dreamed of staying in Canada, but I left because I am law-abiding.)
end of the world
End Of The World (1977)1I saw this movie when it originally came out (as the butt-end of a double bill with Laserblast—another real winner!). The only things I remembered were that it was very underlit, and the planet Earth gets blowed up real good at the end. Lovely. (I'll spare you the "spoiler alert", and just tell you that my memories were quite accurate—nothing else happens in this loser of a movie.)
sphere
Sphere (1998)1Barry Levinson lacks the skill to make anything remotely coherent out of this cross between Forbidden Planet, The Abyss, and especially Solaris. A fine cast is wasted as their characters—who are provided absolutely no training by the government—are sent deep underwater to investigate an alien presence that, of course, messes with their minds. Really, mind-numbingly stupid.
wanda
Wanda (1971)4In the unforgiving landscape of Pennsylvania coal country, an empty-headed waif walks away from her kids and falls in with a cruel small time crook. Barbara Loden's bleak and pathetic Wanda can be seen as the serious flip-side to "Strangers With Candy"'s Jerri Blank. Nicholas T. Proferes' cinematography in particular is extremely effective. Highly recommended.
come and see
Come And See (1985)5Completely gripping from the first frame to its appalling, horrifying ending, Come and See is a harrowing, unflinching, and overwhelmingly powerful depiction of German atrocities committed in Byelorussia during World War Two, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Unforgettable.
divided we fall
Divided We Fall (2000)3A rare "Holocaust movie" in which good and evil, or more prosaically, partisan and collaborator, are not so clear cut, Divided We Fall relates the story of a reluctant Czech anti-hero and his more genuinely heroic wife, who find themselves stuck hiding a Jewish youth. At turns tense and funny, the convoluted narrative is far too contrived (and the stuttered photography far too annoying) to be genuinely effective, but the shades of gray in the characterizations, including an ethnic German Nazi sympathsizer who probably has figured out the secret, is a refreshing change of pace.
the rules of the game
The Rules Of The Game (1939)4Part Python-esque slapstick farce, part scathing social commentary, part Upstairs-Downstairs domestic drama, part Altman-esque verbal ballet, this remarkable French film set at a country estate weekend party at the dawn of WW2 is way way ahead of its time, and can just as easily be misunderstood today as when it was first released.
targets
Targets (1968)5"God, what an ugly town this has become". So says Boris Karloff as he limos through the Valley to a personal appearance at a Reseda drive-in in this thematic cross between "Peeping Tom" and "Day of the Locust". A unique visual vocabulary (appropriated en masse by Tim Burton for Edward Scissorhands) combines with a superbly suspenseful story of a sniper on the loose. The result is a lean minimalist masterpiece, a genuine landmark of American film. Too bad no one's ever seen it!
the steamroller and the violin
The Steamroller And The Violin (1960)5Hauntingly beautiful story, set in the crumbling rubble of a Moscow under transformation, of a sweet and precocious child musician, and the kindly, lonely worker who takes a serious shining to him. The music (for church organ, solo violin, and full orchestra) and the photography (oftentimes with images multiplied in mirrors or distorted in rippling water) are enthralling, and the surprisingly linear narrative (with its wistful, dreamlike ending), is ineffably touching. For adults and children alike, The Steamroller The Violin would make a memorable double bill with The Red Balloon. A masterpiece.
the legend of the surami fortress
The Legend of the Surami Fortress (1984)4Parajanov's obsession with bilateral symmetry, his unwillingness to provide close-ups of his performers, and the stunning natural scenery, combine with primitive jump-cuts and casually jarring studio looping (such as echoic stage whispers in an open field) to create a heightened sense of unreality. Don't worry about the story (a Georgian folk tale); just revel in the remarkable imagery. This would make a thought-provoking double bill with the Chinese film "Ashima".
missing victor pellerin
Missing Victor Pellerin (2006)4Absolutely fascinating and totally absorbing mockumentary of a Montreal-based con-/fine-artist who mysteriously vanishes at the height of his popularity. It's part-expose, part-mystery, part-Rashomon POV exercise, part-self-referential parody, remarkably acted and painstakingly assembled. Don't miss this one!
what a way to go!
What A Way To Go! (1964)4Slight, silly, and corny...but also colorful, clever, and charming. This farcical tale of a woman (Shirley MacLaine, perfect) who keeps losing her husbands while gaining their fortunes, doesn't really hang together, but its who's who cast, backed by the likes of Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Nelson Riddle, and Edith Head, and the outstanding, outrageously opulent production, make for a genuinely diverting few hours.
rebel
Rebel (1985)2Slick, vibrant production, the always-appealing Matt Dillon, and, most of all, the late, great Ray Cook's magnificent orchestral underscoring, are, alas, insufficient to salvage this undernourished WW2 story of an American who tires of killing Japs, and deserts while on medical leave in Sydney. Especially marred by several absurd, anachronistic musical numbers (which Cook had nothing to do with).
hollywood dreams
Hollywood Dreams (2007)2At this late date it would be naive to think that Henry Jaglom would—or could—rise above his lo-fi indie origins, but here, he really sinks low indeed, as everyone in Bel Air goes gaga for a grossly unappealing "starlet" (Jaglom squeeze-of-the-week Tanna Frederick) who hogs all the screen time with her egomanical histrionics. It's like an L.A. "Smithereens", and all that that entails.
rachel getting married
Rachel Getting Married (2008)3Superbly acted fly-on-the-wall Cassavetes-styled portrait of a Borderline Personality, and the havoc it wreaks on her family, even during her sister's wedding weekend. But is it fair to expect viewers to marvel at the performers, and also expect them not to squirm in discomfort as they watch a family that will never, ever be healthy?
chicago
Chicago (2002)1With a second-rate book and a middling score, Chicago on Broadway was of interest primarily for its Bob Fosse choreography. You don't get that here, of course. Instead, you get close-ups and jump-cuts which fail to disguise the fact that no one here can dance, and a soundtrack that doesn't even attempt to hide the fact that most of the actors can't sing (the wonderful Queen Latifah excepted). You have been warned!
what's eating gilbert grape
What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)2A typically bloodless performance by Johnny Depp sabatoges this otherwise mildly diverting near-remake of The Last Picture Show. Why bother?
the fugitive kind
The Fugitive Kind (1959)3Tennessee Williams, Sidney Lumet, Marlon Brando, 1959: it can't miss, right? Well, not quite. Neither Lumet nor Brando seem sure what to do with this sub-par Williams melodrama about a small time hustler/drifter who, dallying with the straight and narrow, enmeshes himself in the romantic intrigues of a (poorly delineated) southern town. Oddly, there are too few dramatic peaks here, and the viewer is left rather dissatisfied.
malena
Malena (2000)2No story? No problem! No script? No problem! This endlessly repetitive tale of a boy obsessed with the town sexpot goes nowhere fast, is rife with a contrived sense of whimsy (then doom), and makes no use of its Fascist Italy setting. It's like a locked groove. Skip it.
the pawnbroker
The Pawnbroker (1965)5Way up Park Avenue, a Holocaust survivor (Rod Steiger)—a former professor who has succumbed to utter bitterness—intermingles with his pawnshop employee, an ambitious and sagacious Puerto Rican youth (Jaime Sanchez), as well as Harlem’s underworld of prostitution and heroin. As life whirls on all around him, the pawnbroker finds he cannot escape the loss he has endured, and all outstretched hands—from his employee, from a lonely spinster (Geraldine Fitzgerald)—are  coldly rebuffed. Boris Kaufman’s lensing (at once stylized and verite) and Quincy Jones’s exotic scoring, are major assets.
tempest
Tempest (1982)2While the scenes set in New York crackle with a modicum of wit and sophistication, the lion's share of this aimless, seemingly endless misfire by Paul Mazursky creeps at a snail's pace on a deserted Greek island, where Philip/Prospero (John Cassavetes) is supposedly looking to re-energize his unhappy (though financially successful) life. Despite a formidable array of talent on hand (Gena Rowlands, Raul Julia, Susan Sarandon, Vittorio Gassman, Molly Ringwald), this one can easily be skipped.
faithful
Faithful (1996)3The setting of a potential murder victim exchanging witty repartee with her would-be killer has been done to death, but Paul Mazursky can always be counted on to bring intelligence and urban wit to even the most mundane of tales. Here, he gets such engaging performances from Cher and Chazz Palminteri (who also scripted), and his direction is so slick and sophisticated, that even a cliche-laden tale such as this is pulled off with real panache.
dogpound shuffle
Dogpound Shufffle (1975)5Folks, if you have kids, or if you've ever been a kid yourself, you'd be wise to watch this wonderful, heartwarming story of an embittered tap-dancing bum (Ron Moody) and his sweet-natured mouthharp-playing young tag-along (David Soul), as they attempt raise the funds to get the former's dancing dog out of the East Vancouver pound. A true undiscovered gem, this film is a genuine marvel of intelligent direction, warm humor, fine performances, and uplifting music.
where's poppa?
Where's Poppa? (1970)3What the—!? Extremely odd (and oddly paced) low key black comedy in which an incompetent lawyer (George Segal) tries to rid himself of one woman (his senile mother, the always excellent Ruth Gordon, though she has little to do), and acquire another (Trish Van Devere). Appallingly offensive humor about Alzheimers Disease, black-on-white crime, male-on-male rape, child abuse, and incest (!!) limits the appeal, but God bless Carl Reiner for trying. Barnard Hughes is a standout as a fascist admiral.
fatal instinct
Fatal Instinct (1993)2Calling this spoof of legal/cop thrillers "hit-or-miss" would be charitable. This is a real disappointment from Carl Reiner, who should know better than to attempt the sort of verbal/visual pun humor mastered by the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team—Reiner's obvious inspiration here.
the face of another
Woman In The Dunes (1964)5The myth of Sisyphus. An entomologist, finding himself trapped at the bottom of a sand pit in the ramshackle house of a peasant woman, comes to realize that he has all he would ever need: sustenance, and companionship. Teshigahara’s erotic masterpiece is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and the ears.
distant journey
Distant Journey (1949)5“Auschwitz. Majdanek. Treblinka…Only a few survived.” There would seem only two ways to effectively convey the Holocaust in film. Spielberg’s unflinching verite approach, and this, Alfred Radok’s surrealistic expressionist nightmare, which replaces blood and gas with light and shadow, angle and curve. The remarkable mis-en-scene, with its multi-layered labyrinthine sets and Ravel-inspired score, conspire to create a genuine cinematic masterpiece. Watch this movie. You will never, ever forget.
a perfect couple
A Perfect Couple (1979)3In this lighter-than-air slice of urban romance, a plain Dick (Paul Dooley, excellent) and plain Jane (Marta Heflin, sickly looking) try to eke out a romance, away from their burdensome familial and professional obligations. A pleasant departure for director Altman, its partial success is tempered by inevitable comparisons to master-of-the-genre Paul Mazursky. (Unforgivably, the digital transfer of this music-heavy film—with its decidedly Starland Vocal Band-esque popcorn mush—suffers from flawed audio.)
fool for love
Fool For Love (1985)2In this "opened-up" filming of Sam Shepard’s play exploring long-buried family secrets and forgotten memories, Altman provides thoughtful, stylish direction in the New Mexican desert. Still, while the performers (including Shepard himself) do what they can with a maddeningly uneven, pretentious, go-nowhere script, when the pay-off finally comes, you may wonder if it was really worth the effort.
beaufort
Beaufort (2007)4Gripping and intense drama depicting the last days of Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, and the flawed, agonized young commander whose decisions can mean life or death for his troops. As Hezbollah’s rockets relentlessly rain down, one may be reminded of John Kerry’s famous question “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Greatly abetted by claustrophobic sets and very effective electronic scoring.
mekinda and melinda
Melinda And Melinda (2004)1Hmm. Well, apparently, one thread here is supposed to be a comedy, and the other a drama, but damned if I can tell which is which. In this tale of vapid, disgustingly rich NYC pseudo-sophisticates and their idiotic problems, tin-eared dialogue abounds, and Radha Mitchell's supposedly Park Avenue origins are betrayed by an accent that varies between Beverly Hills and Maida Vale. Really, this is truly awful filmmaking.
little children
Little Children (2006)3Unable to transcend its literary origins, Todd Fields’ exploration of Bostonian suburbanites in various stages of emotional stuntedness is fine on mood, but rather lacking in sympathetic characters. Indeed, among the harassers, adulterers, and pornographers portrayed herein, it’s a child molester (played by comeback kid Jackie Earle Haley), who finally emerges as the one character we identify with.
i'm not there
I'm Not There (2007)5How to convey the unconveyable? This question is usually asked in critiques of Holocaust literature, but may also be applied to artistic explorations of genius. Unlike Scorsese, who raised more questions than he answered about his subject, Todd Haynes, in this kaleidoscopic Felliniesque exploration of Bob Dylan, acknowledges that we can’t even begin to understand who or what Dylan is. Give it time, watch it again and again, and it will surely emerge as a masterpiece.
focus
Focus (2001)4Too Jewish? Superbly photographed and expertly lit in Hopperesque splendour, Arthur Miller’s exploration of wartime Father Caughlin-inspired American anti-Semitism takes a Kitty Genovese-like case as its jumping off point, as mistaken-for-Jews William H. Macy and Laura Dern confront the limits of their passivity in the face of racial hatred in deepest NYC. The support, led by David Paymer and Meat Loaf, don’t have enough to do, and the themes are hit a bit too hard, but the top-notch production compensates for the shortcomings.
a letter to three wives
A Letter To Three Wives (1949)4Thoroughly engrossing melodrama, laced with acid humor, of three Westchester wives who, as they're leaving for a day trip across the Hudson to Hook Mountain, receive a letter from a fourth woman, known to them for years as a rival, claiming to have run off with one of the their husbands. But which one? As we flashback into three turbulent marriages, we are treated to wonderful performances by all six (!) leads, as well as stellar support from the redoubtable Thelma Ritter and the rock solid Connie Gilchrist.
the history boys
The History Boys (2006)2Some Yorkshire boys do sufficiently well on their A-levels to get a crack at Oxbridge in this gratingly glib and hopelessly stagey production. The History Boys is appropriately multi-culti: a black kid, an Asian Muslim, a gay Jew, a fatso, yet Britain was so far behind the times socially in 1983 (I know; I lived there then) that the self-loathing speechifying herein could have come straight out of The Boys in The Band (which took place fifteen years earlier), especially in one cringe-inducing scene between the Jewish student and his closeted teacher.
night of the iguana
The Night Of The Iguana (1964)5John Huston filmed this highly stylized—really, vaguely surreal—interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ study of sexual repression and religious doubt. The leads—Richard Burton (as the hopelessly human whiskey priest), Ava Gardner (as the expat innkeeper—or was that Suzanne Pleshette…?), and especially Deborah Kerr (as the New England spinster)—are superb, all running from (for?) their lives in tropical Mexico. It’s enough to make me want to write a poem about Nantucket…
the bubble
The Bubble (2006)4A gay Arab from Nablus finds refuge and romance among a set of young Bohemians in Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street, but along comes Hamas and rains on everyone’s parade, that is, bursts their bubble. Eytan Fox’s morality tale would have had a greater impact were it a bit less intent on getting its message through in the big finish, and instead stuck with the daily trials and tribulations of its players. Still, the thesis that homophobia promotes terrorism is a compelling one.
lan yu
Lan Yu (2001)3Simple tale, subtly rendered, of a no-nonsense Beijing businessman who takes years to realize that the young architecture student he keeps for casual pleasures is really his true love. The domestic scenes especially are quite true to (Chinese) life, with friends and family oblivious to the romantic link between the two. Slightly diminished by an unnecessarily melodramatic coda.
solaris
Solaris (2002)3Hampered by several weak performances (including an appallingly mannered one by Jeremy Davies), this is nonetheless a surprisingly effective stripped-down interpretation of the Stanislaw Lem novel, in which an alien intelligence contacts human visitors by tapping their most guilt-laden memories, and conjuring replicas of the people who are the source of this guilt. Paradoxically, the replicas become more and more human-like as they begin to recognize their alien origins. An excellent performance by Viola Davis helps, as does the atmospheric score by Cliff Martinez.
michael clayton
Michael Clayton (2007)2R.D. Laing would have approved of this predictable corporate law drama, in which a manic-depressive lawyer (an excellent Tom Wilkinson) goes off his meds, and finally comes to his senses about his firm’s defending an Archer Daniels Midland-like conglomerate, responsible for poisoning the wells in rural Wisconsin. Tilda Swinton is also very good as a conflicted corporate villain, but the film really gives us nothing that hasn’t been done—and done better—many times before.
leonard cohen: i'm your man
Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (2005)1Amateurish and uninformative documentary dolled up with annoying special effects, consisting mostly of mangled cover renditions of many classic Leonard Cohen songs (fellow Montrealers Kate and Anna McGarrigle are clearly slumming here). Leonard himself gets in on the action, but only barely, embarrassing himself by lip-synching (poorly) in front of a clueless U2. Listen to the records instead.
advise and consent
Advise And Consent (1962)4Charles Laughton is outstanding as a loathsome Dixiecrat, but the whole cast is superb in this studied and somber portrait of a D.C. where policy is determined by who blackmails who. The scandalous skeletons include youthly dabblings in communist ideology, and same-sex romance. Some things never change.
exodus
Exodus (1960)3Leon Uris's epic novel about the founding of Israel is given a slightly flat but never boring treatment by Otto Preminger. It is quite faithful to history—the British colluding with European and Arab fascists to keep Holocaust survivors stateless, the internecine conflicts between the Irgun and the Hagana, between refugee Jews and Palestinian Jews, and (a good touch) the humanists that dotted all sides. Sal Mineo (who wasn’t Jewish) plays a far more convincing Israeli than does Paul Newman (who was—and runs the gamut of emotions from aleph to bet).
superbad
Superbad (2007)2Two high school buddies (Jonah Hill and Michael Cera,) trying to get alcohol for a party and "score some chicks", end up falling in love with each other instead. Shoddily directed, sloppily edited, and poorly ad-libbed (especially by Seth Rogan and Bill Hader), Superbad is partially redeemed by Christopher Mintz-Plasse in a very appealing performance as a lovable nerd. Achieving a new low in bodily fluid humor (pun intended), it's enough to give the “awful teen comedy” genre a bad name.
shampoo
Shampoo (1975)3It’s L.A. Dolce Vita as Warren Beatty beds every woman from the Palisades to the Cahuenga Pass while his life—and Western Civilization (Nixon’s '68 victory is prominently featured)—comes crashing down. Lee Grant, channeling Barbra Streisand, is especially good, as is the Beatles and Beach Boys-heavy soundtrack.
forrest gump
Forrest Gump (1994)1Oh, I see. All you need is a good and pure heart, and life will turn out peaches and cream, that is, you'll get stinking rich...even if you're mentally retarded (or so the Republican propagandists behind Forrest Gump would have us believe). Tom Hanks is constitutionally incapable of delivering a nuanced performance, and Forrest Gump may well be his career nadir. The one clever gimmick is stolen from Woody Allen's Zelig of more than a decade earlier.
nights of cabiria
Nights Of Cabiria (1957)5Fellini treads a remarkably fine line between heightened sentimentality and hopeless cynicism in this tale of a hard-nosed prostitute whose life changes forever in a sudden moment of completely unexpected candor. In a truly remarkable performance, Giuletta Masina might go from elation to heartbreak with a curl of her lip or a tilt of her head—Harpo Marx, Charlie Chaplin, and Lucille Ball all in one.
juliet of the spirits
Juliet Of The Spirits (1965)4A demure society woman (Giulietta Massina, playing against type) suspects her husband of taking a lover. As we explore her inner world, Fellini, drunk on color and Art Nouveau sets and costumes, provides kaleidoscopic and fantastical imagery where the apparent reality is no less bountiful in its splendor than is the fantasy. Nino Rota’s mod/mad carnival score is perfect.
duel
Duel (1970)4The camera and the editing are the real stars of this tale of an emasculated husband (Dennis Weaver) menaced by a sinister semi in the California desert. Almost without dialogue, we wonder for some time whether it’s all in his imagination. Genuinely avant-garde and wonderfully amoral, Spielberg’s first film (made for TV in under two weeks) is completely gripping from start to finish.
the keys to the house
The Keys To The House (2004)3An absent father returns to care for his now-teenaged son (the very appealing Andrea Rossi), mildly retarded and with severe CP. Not among his best works, The Keys To The House continues Gianni Amelio’s common theme of a young man finding (unromantic) love as a consequence of taking on new and unexpected responsibilities. While confronting some very painful truths, the film nonetheless seems slightly telegraphed, with a leitmotif of whizzing trains substituting for some much-needed character development.
heartland
Heartland (1980)5Wyoming, 1910: an ambitious widow and her little girl have left Denver for work on a cattle ranch in the rugged but stunningly beautiful hinterland, and, despite ongoing hardships, eventually find a sort of contentment there. Conchata Ferrell is remarkably good, as is her taciturn employer and eventual husband Rip Torn. Greatly enhanced by an especially moving ending, this film would make a terrific double bill with Days Of Heaven (yes, it's that good!).
ishtar
Ishtar (1987)3Mildly enjoyable nonsense. Hoffman and Beatty play dumb, lovable no-talent smucks who fancy themselves the next Simon & Garfunkel. Out of desperation they take a gig in Morocco, and, as the plot sprawls as maddeningly as the Sahara itself, they unwittingly end up ensconced in an internecine conflict with international implications: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern In Syriana. Paul Williams' songs are cleverly awful, not awfully clever (and no worse than his own preceding solo album, the sad, terrible "...And Crazy For Loving You"!).
brothers of the head
Brothers Of The Head (2005)2This Is Not Spinal Tap. A serious mock-rockumentary of a pair of conjoined twins who, strange as may seem, played punk in 1975, the year before it arrived in London from NYC (and named themselves after a Squeeze song released three years later). Brothers Of The Head is ultimately an exercise in style, making few attempts to emotionally grab the viewer. Clive Langer, who hasn’t written songs like this since Deaf School’s English Boys/Working Girls from 1978, does a fine job slumming.
peeping tom
Peeping Tom (1960)5By giving us a shy and handsome protagonist and a horrifying back story of child abuse, in Peeping Tom Michael Powell conjures heretofore unheard-of lump-in-the-throat sympathy for a serial killer. The Pirandello-esque murder technique involves the killer filming his victims watching themselves be murdered by him. Got that? Peeping Tom proves to be remarkably prescient in this over-photographed, all-trash-all-the-time world we live in.
the heartbreak kid
The Heartbreak Kid (1972)4When he finds the girl of his dreams, it’s shiksappeal gone wild as Charles Grodin tries to extricate himself from his premature marriage to Jeannie Berlin. The laughs come in fits and starts (indeed, much of the movie is downright painful to watch) but they hit hard on arrival. Eddie Albert is astonishingly good as Cybil Shepard's oh-so-dignified (and probably Jew-hating) father.
mikey and nicky
Mikey And Nicky (1976)3A Jewish hood (Peter Falk) gets his Catholic childhood friend (John Cassavetes) a gig, and then, crushingly, is assigned to “take care of him" after the latter absconds with mob cash. As they stumble around Philadelphia all night opening wounds old and new, Elaine May’s verite filming—more Cassavetes in feel—only sometimes succeeds. The amazing support (including Ned Beatty and William Hickey), alas, is wasted.
awake and sing!
Awake And Sing! (1972)3A bracing drama of a dysfunctional Jewish Bronx family during the ascension of Hitler, Clifford Odets's best known work sounds overwritten to modern-day ears. This filmed teleplay suffers from poor sound, and, much as I love 'im, Walter Matthau is miscast. Still, he and all the performers—especially Martin Ritt—are fantastic.
ed wood
Ed Wood (1994)1“It's so bad it’s g…” Well, it’s just so bad. Neither Tim Burton nor Johnny Depp would recognize a genuine human emotion if it came up and socked them in the jaw. This supposed “character study” of legendary Z-director Ed Wood leaves one ice cold: not a single insight into Wood’s inner world is even attempted. Martin Landau does a great job as a broken down Bela Lugosi, but other than that, this is strictly amateur hour.
black robe
Black Robe (1991)5A bleak and beautiful rendering of Quebec’s early seventeenth century missionary period, religious conviction in Black Robe is convincingly likened to a sort of mental disease, inducing its victims to act regardless of the human consequences. (The Catholic Church held its grip on this land until the Quiet Revolution of the mid twentieth century.) Georges Delerue’s stirring score, and the remarkable period detail, greatly enhance the effect.
this is england
This Is England (2006)4Electrifying performances (especially by Stephen Graham and the young Thomas Turgoose) are the highlight of this emotionally complex and wholly believable account of a northern boy’s seduction by, and ultimate rejection of, the National Front. There’s not even a whiff of sentimentality for its early-80s post-Rude Boy setting, and the film is all the more resonant for it.
house calls
House Calls (1978)3Everybody Loves Walter. And why not? The man's an American treasure. Any comedy set in a hospital is inherently flawed, but Matthau and Glenda Jackson are delightful together, while the supporting cast—Art Carney, Richard Benjamin, and especially Candice Azzara as a Coney Island widow—is fully game. -Dan Solomon
the return
The Return (2003)4A man returns to his family after twelve years, apparently having been isolated from the world, just him and the elements, with nothing but his wits to survive on. Taking them on a seemingly aimless roadtrip, he attempts to impart his acquired knowledge to his two boys, who are merely bewildered. The natural scenery is gorgeous, but, due to the nature of the narrative, the emotional payoff is somewhat muted. And did he really ever return?
love in the afternoon

Love In the Afternoon (1972)3Sort of “Brief Encounter” with a Parisian accent, Rohmer here makes the mistake of giving us a rather unlikeable protagonist, having him play out in real life what should be a wholly internal debate on fidelity. Were a woman so self-indulgently cruel to the men in her life, she would be called a tease, or worse. The acting and the dialogue are wonderful, of course.

safe
Safe (1995)5Had Kubrick been a humanist, he might have come up with Safe. Todd Haynes' camera keeps a (safe) distance as Carol White (Julianne Moore) find herself increasingly unable to cope with modern living, while egomaniacal charlatans try to rob her of what little humanity she possesses. In this definitive south-of-the Boulevard Valley movie, the dialogue rings appallingly true, while lurking underneath, ex-Necessary Ed Tomney provides an all-pervasive hum. An absolute marvel: the best movie of the 1990s.
careful, he might hear you
Careful, He Might Hear You (1983)5A lush and sumptuously staged period melodrama, CHMHY tells the story of a young Australian boy caught in a harrowing sibling rivalry among the elders in his life. Everything works here: the acting (especially the young Nicholas Gledhill as P.S.), the gorgeous color-drenched photography, and the verging-on-histrionic plot. Even the villain (Wendy Hughes) is portrayed as a complex and ultimately sympathetic character. The magnificently romantic score by Ray Cook is the icing on the cake.
claire's knee
Claire's Knee (1971)4In this irresistible slice of bucolic French life, a just-graying expat comes back to sell off his childhood summer home, and, right before his imminent marriage, gently inserts himself into the romantic intrigues of the young people he encounters. I don’t know if life really flows so easily, and if people are really this lovely, but, well…happy people with happy problems…
hiroshima mon amour
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)5A Frenchwoman, forever haunted by a forbidden love in provincial Vichy France, experiences an interlude of tenderness with a local man in post-bomb Hiroshima, and a flood of awful memories comes pouring back. As the city fades to sleep around them, the two are left to confront their impossible dilemma. Anyone who has loved and lost—especially in a foreign land—will find Resnais’s and Duras's work here almost unbearably resonant.
the face of another
The Face Of Another (1966)4A remarkable assemblage of film techniques, Teshigahara's The Face of Another nonetheless plays more like a very precocious student's project: technically stunning, but emotionally undernourished. Frankenheimer's Seconds (also 1966) would make a good double bill; it's a more humanistic meditation on identity in a technologized society.
carnival of souls
Carnival Of Souls (1962)5On a shoe-string budget and with cast of unknowns, director Herk Harvey has created a genuinely haunting cinematic experience, nearly (though not quite) in league with Peeping Tom, The Innocents, and even Psycho—the other macabre masterpieces of the era. Borrowing liberally from Rod Serling, and more subtly from Orson Welles (circa The Lady From Shanghai), it is, at last, an exploration of loneliness and alienation.
stalker
Stalker (1979)5A plea for peaceful coexistence among science, art, and religion. Tarkovsky’s microphone and camera find sounds and images of devastating beauty in the most unlikely of settings. Nothing redemptive occurs in the Zone (the forbidden region that may or may not have been visited by aliens), but the Stalker’s mutant daughter—tellingly filmed in color, as if she were the progeny of the Zone itself—may show the way to human salvation. A landmark artistic achievement.
starcrash
Starcrash (1978)4This Z-Grade spaghetti space opera does make one genuine contribution to civilization: it shows just how dumb Star Wars really was, for if that film were stripped of its lavish budget, it would be revealed, in its bare naked stupidity, to be no better at all than this gloriously awful but at times downright inspirational and exuberant nonsense. "The Shaggs" of cinema. Caroline Munro and former child preacher/swindler Marjoe Gortner star.
life is beautiful
Life Is Beautiful (1997)1The idea that a child can be shipped to a concentration camp, and be fooled by his father into thinking it's all a game, is not only absurd, it is, in the words of film critic David Denby, "a mild form of Holocaust denial." This is a deeply offensive movie.
rocketship x-m
Rocketship X-M (1950)3.0 StarsThe rather cavalier approach to pre-launch protocol provides a preview of the very soft science to come, but RX-M, along with Forbidden Planet and Robinson Crusoe on Mars, is about as "down-to-earth" as SF got, pre-"2001". Stunning black and white photography, one-hit-wonder Ferde Grofe's unobtrusive score, and Dalton Trumbo's sober screenplay combine to create an air of surprising seriousness.
syriana
Syriana (2005)2The script's willful obfuscation is merely a cynical ploy to disguise the fact that the writers lack the chops to create characters of any depth. The Americans must choose to deal with either an Arab Emirate playboy / tyrant-in-training, or his brother, a thoughtful would-be reformer. The latter opts to deal with China, and the Americans kill him and prop up the former. All the rest is dysentery.
an umarried woman
An Unmarried Woman (1978)4An East Side sophisticate gets dumped by her husband, and eventually falls for a Soho artist. Cutting edge in its time, it is a testament to Mazursky's genius that today, An Umarried Woman plays as a mere slice of life. The supporting cast—especially Lisa Lucas and the verite Penelope Russianoff—is wonderful.
man from earth
The Man From Earth (2007)4Well, Chekhov it ain't, but this talky, subdued one act drama by Jerome Bixby holds one's interest to the very end, challenging received wisdom concerning religion and science, and especially death. Toward the end, one character says he's going home to watch Star Trek. I wonder if the episode will be "Requiem For Methuselah," another Bixby-penned exploration of immortality.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) Perfectly capturing its time (though really, not dated at all—the themes are timeless), this movie reveals the “encounter group” culture as a house of cards: human nature and human foibles can’t be steamrolled by a charismatic personality encouraging us to simply “let go”. Mazursky allows his scenes, and by extension, his characters, to slowly develop, revealing (and allowing us to revel in) their refreshing intelligence.
Sullivan's Travels (1942)Beneath the slapstick and quick-witted surface of this Preston Sturges film lies a fascinating exploration of the role of artists in society. Should they explore socialist realist themes, or instead, opt for capitalist escapist fare? While Sullivan ultimately chooses the latter, Sturges, in this film at least, explores a middle ground.
end of the century
End of the Century: The Ramones (2004)Joey was the heart, Tommy was the brain, Johnny was the fist, and Dee Dee...well, Dee Dee was the dick. In 1974, four misfits from Queens journeyed to an unexplored musical land, set up camp, and stuck it out for more than twenty years. Everybody's second favorite band is featured in this very informative and carefully assembled documentary. Most revealing is the unrelenting unhappiness of the band members, a bitterness toward life, and especially toward each other.
who'se afraid of virginia woolf?
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)Boy Wonder Mike Nichols's directorial debut is a landmark cinematic achievement. Ernest Lehman's adaptation of Edward Albee's play is a heartstopper, and all four thunderously effective stars are remarkably photographed by Haskell Wexler. Only one thing: why would any academic want to be head of his department?
the 5000 fingers of dr. t
The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)5One of my all-time favorite childhood films (along with "Dog Pound Shuffle" [aka "Spot"], "The Boy Ten Feet Tall" [aka "Sammy Going South"], and of course, "The Wizard of Oz"), "...Dr. T" is a remarkable visual achievement, bringing Dr. Seuss’s Robert Wiene-cum-Busby Berkeley childhood nightmare to vivid life. The remarkably underappreciated Hans Conried is brilliant as always.
the tenant
The Tenant (1976)4The broad American English line readings give this film a somewhat whacked-out, feeling that (it might be argued) adds to the sense of dislocation endured by the meek Kafka-esque protagonist, a Pole in Paris played by Polanski himself (who is, lest we forget, a Holocaust survivor). After a slow start, Polanski, with his judicious use of zooming (that added so much to 70s cinema), begins to turn the screws on us tighter and tighter, as his character takes on the suicidal fantasies of his flat's preceding lodger. This tale of the onset of madness would make a good double bill with Altman’s Images.
walk the line
Walk The Line (2005)2Got a minute? Because that’s how long it’d take me to convey every excruciatingly clichéd nuance of this oh-so-by-the-numbers biopic. It’s amazing how these Hollywood hacks can take a life—any life—and make it read like everyone else’s.
The Way We Laughed (2001)Rich in atmosphere, this deeply moving drama from Gianni Amelio features his favorite actor—the amazing Enrico Lo Verso—as an uneducated Sicilian migrant in postwar Turin, doing all he can for his irresponsible little brother. In a shocking moment, the tables turn, and now, it seems the little brother must come to his older brother’s rescue. Few directors have Amelio’s sure touch and steady hand to successfully render such a subtle and affecting story. Masterful.
Enemy Mine (1985)The first two-thirds of this alien war film consists of a disguised tale of gay seduction, sort of "Robinson Crusoe On Mars" meets “Kiss of the Spider Woman” cleverly conceived and passably handled. Alas, it descends into shoot-em-up mediocrity, squandering its formidable merits.
Black Book (2006)Once, on an installment of SCTV that took place during "Sweeps Week", a special miniseries was plugged called "The Long Hard War", ostensibly about the horrors of WW2, but really just an excuse for some T&A. Hey, it was sweeps week after all, and Guy Caballero needed a winner. Along comes Paul "Showgirls" Verhoeven, and here, at last, we get to see "the Long Hard War" in all its glory. The only moment of any depth comes in the last 10 seconds of the film.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)One man's hard work pays off, and he makes a killing on Wall Street. A feel-good movie? Strange, I didn't feel so good as the filmmakers so callously ignored the endless lines at the soup kitchens and flop houses. I guess these losers deserved their lot. A Republican propaganda piece if there ever was one.
War of the Worlds (2005)One of the most effective nightmares ever committed to film, Spielberg’s remake of the Byron Haskin/George Pal original (a classic in its own right) is absolutely terrifying. The family drama, though inevitably somewhat trite, never overshadows the unrelenting and awful progress of the bigger story. We don’t always understand the strategies of the aliens, but why should we? They’re aliens!
24 Hour Party People (2002)Botched. Steve Coogan's one-note performance is only the most obvious of this film's many flaws, and he's in practically every (claustrophobically tight) shot. Tracing the Jim Morrison-inspired Ian Curtis's downward spiral to the pill-popping Happy Monday's brief holiday in the sun, Manchester's remarkably rich musical legacy is held at arm's length throughout. No Fall? No Any Trouble? I didn't learn a thing.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)Trite, contrived, and sophomoric. Some fine actors are wedged into this unappealing and superficial story that has the pretense of sophistication because Proust is mentioned—and by a bearded gay man, at that! Arkin deserves an Oscar, but not for this piece of tripe.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)"No hugging, no learning" indeed! Preposterous cartoon version of urban family life. The director generates not an iota of sympathy for any of these miserable, nasty people. Even the supposed denouement is a meaningless muddled mess. Hateful, bitter, and most unpleasant. To be avoided!
The Sugarland Express
Hostel (2006)4.0 StarsSelected for their nationality, innocent civilians in Europe take trains eastward, where they are tortured and murdered by gleeful madmen in a killing factory. Eli Roth's Holocaust metaphor looks intriguing on paper, but it is nothing more than a by-the-numbers gorefest.
The Sugarland Express
The Sugarland Express (1974)4.0 StarsThe remarkably fluid camera work and immaculately staged action scenes are an obvious taster of things to come in Spielberg's career. Most interesting, however, are the elements of uncertainty and ambiguity in how we relate to the characters, and the matter-of-fact depiction of Texas' abhorrent gun culture.
Steel Toes
Steel Toes (2006)4.0 StarsIn this quintessential liberal movie of a Jewish Montreal lawyer assigned to defend an Anglo neo-Nazi, superb perfomances by the two leads are partially undermined by unimaginative camerawork, stock attitudes, and a too-tidy ending. Still, it far outshines "American History X" in its exploration of the issues, and definitely deserved a better showing at the box office.
Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?
Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? (1983)3.0 StarsMichael Emil is a gas as a verbose neurotic in this Upper West Side story. The film suffers the typical Jaglom maladies (primitive production values, plot contrivances, mannered performances) but also possesses his usual strengths, especially in the subtle intelligence of the dialogue. A really good New York film. (Larry David has a bit part.)
Blume in Love
Blume in Love (1973)5.0 StarsA masterpiece. A keenly observed modern love story, filled with winning, sympathetic characters, nuanced, knowing dialogue and brilliant performances by all involved. Although certain attitudes are sadly (rather, thankfully) dated (some may feel fatally so, and they may be right; I'd like to think that Mazursky regrets his insensitivity), the rewards far outshine the flaws, and the timeless themes nonetheless prevail.
Lackawanna Blues
Lackawanna Blues (2005)Click to rate the movie 'Hated It'S. Epatha Merkerson only gets to genuinely act on Law and Order once in an NYPD blue moon, but when she does, it's always a treat. In this story of an upstate New York woman who pours her grief over a lost child into a life of caring and nurturing for others, she truly shines, and is surrounded by an amazing array of talent. Some of the editing is distracting, but that's a minor quibble.
Lackawanna Blues
Munich (2005)Click to rate the movie 'Hated It'Another Spielberg triumph, providing a very realistic (if untrue) "imagined" follow-up to the Palestinian mass murder of the 1972 Israeli Olympic team. The Israelis are portrayed as conscience-stricken (holding fire when a red-coated little girl is in harm's way—an obvious reference to Schindler's List), while the terrorists go on with their lives wholly untroubled by their dastardly deeds—enjoying poetry readings, and shmoozing with their shopkeepers. Sure it didn't happen that way, but it captures bigger truths. A great film.
The Terminal
The Terminal (2004)3.0 StarsNo one can assemble a film like Spielberg, and The Terminal, like everything he does, is a stunning production, concerning an international traveler caught in airport limbo when his home country's government fails. The weak link here is Tom Hanks, who is neither talented enough nor intelligent enough to bring any complexity to his role.
Still Crazy
Still Crazy (1998)4.0 StarsIn an era when "British comedy" is almost an oxymoron, and from a director not exactly known for his light touch, this was a delightful surprise. Even the unstomachable Billy Connolly is kept under control. Here's an intelligent and bittersweet story of a 70s schlock-rock band's reunion. Their songs steer from ELO-ish trip-pop (circa "10538 Overture") to Thin Lizzy-esque guitar rock, and they're really good! No surprise there, since Clive Langer, Jeff Lynne, and Chris Difford were involved.
Quintet
Quintet (1979)5Altman’s third masterpiece of the 70s, Quintet is a visually and sonically spectacular study of a world in its final throes of death, both spiritual and physical. Requiring multiple viewings to fully appreciate, even a first-time viewer will languish in the unparalleled cinematic splendor of a darkening frozen world where life has lost all meaning. Unbelievably, Quintet was released the same year as Tarkovsky’s Stalker, making 1979 one of the greatest years ever in cinematic history.
La Ceremonie
La Ceremonie (1996)1.0 StarsA very likable well-off family ultimately meets its demise at the hands of an uneducated hateful woman that the family has given every chance to. If the goal of this film was, preposterously, to encourage one to hate the poor and love the rich, this movie succeeds.
A New Leaf (1971)5.0 StarsIn a career of high notes, this may be Walter Matthau's highest of all. Elaine May's tale of a newly broke millionaire looking to marry—then murder—the mass of symptoms that is May's character is a hysterically funny movie that somehow fell through the cracks. Side-splitting scenes and unforgettable one-liners abound ("Don't let them out!!" "She has to be vacuumed after she eats!"). Essential viewing.
Where the Truth Lies
Where the Truth Lies (2005)3.0 StarsI was concerned when I heard that excellent if offbeat director Egoyan was given Rupert Holmes' superb novel to film. My concerns appear justified, as this movie has neither the look nor feel of the book, and ALL the leads are woefully miscast. Taken on its own terms, it's perfectly enjoyable, but not recommended for those who read (and, it hardly needs saying, loved) the book.
Imitation of Life: Double Feature (1934, 1959)
Imitation of Life (1959)4.0 StarsJuanita Moore gives a bravura performance in this deeply affecting melodrama, which ultimately focuses on a troubled black girl's ordeal with "passing". As Douglas Sirk directs, it is ironic that the colors here are so muted. This could have been intentional (given the subject matter), or it could be a bad digital transfer (I've never seen the film in a theater).
A Private Matter
A Private Matter (1992)3.0 StarsWell acted and surprisingly well-written: no easy answers to thalidomide pregnancy are provided, and the characters are convincingly multi-dimensional. The direction at times is a bit flat, which is especially surprising given Joan Micklin Silver's excellent track record, though she's clearly working on a tight budget here.

 

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