at least some of the backlog

Top Drawer:

Bay of Angels – Jacques Demy’s Dostoevskian portrait of two compulsive gamblers who hook up and hit the Riviera casinos, with their relationship following the highs and lows, and lows and highs, of their fortunes. A platinum blond Jeanne Moreau makes abandonment simultaneously merry and miserable. The movie itself is poetry.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters – Despite being a friend’s favorite, I put off seeing it for the longest time because, well, it’s a documentary about Donkey Kong gamers.

That was a mistake.

Act of Violence – Winner about obsessive revenge, and the only Fred Zinnemann movie I can say I really like. Van Heflin plays the 1948 model of Don Draper/Dick Whitman; Robert Ryan is the cripple from Heflin’s past come back to play hell with his life. Great supporting work by a young and yummy Janet Leigh and (especially) an unafraid to show her age Mary Astor. (Astor’s washed-up prostitute could be the long-lost sister of Thelma Ritter’s Moe in Pickup on South Street.)

Wee Willie WinkieShe explains it better than I’ll ever be able to.

Solitary Man is a mid-life crisis movie that keeps its protagonist pinned and wriggling on the wall; except for one lapse during the opening credits, it does a great job of maintaining a wary distance from Michael Douglas’ disgraced car salesman. Ben Kalmen once had money, real money, but it’s gone now, along with his family and reputation, leaving him free to chase pipe-dreams and women young enough to be his granddaughters. The movie follows Ben over a downhill course lasting a couple of months, just long enough for his Pierre Cardin shirts to grow weathered and unshapely. He’s a survivor but he’s also a self-destructor, and he winds up taking a variety of beatings. Has he learned anything by the end? Jenna Fischer is terrific as the daughter who’s futilely trying to steer her dad into port; ditto Mary-Louise Parker, as an ex-lover who you really don’t want to mess with.

Good Stuff:

Mesrine – Biopic of the French bank robber Jacques Mesrine, who was such a bad-ass cross between Dillinger and Houdini that the French police finally said “Fuck it” and assassinated him on a Paris street corner. A four-hour gangster movie should leave a stronger aftertaste than this one does, but when it’s on, there’s no place you’d rather be. Some great work from Mathieu Almaric, Olivier Gourmet (who’s become the French Lon Chaney), and Cécile De France, but Vincent Cassel as Mesrine runs away with the show.

Five Star Final – Punchy 1931 newspaper flick from Mervyn LeRoy. Edward G. Robinson is the editor of a bottom-feeding tabloid, and his push to boost circulation destroys an innocent family. Good throughout but it really comes to life near the end when Robinson and Marian Marsh deliver soliloquies boiling over with grief and rage; these speeches are in a class with Sheila Reed’s haunted inflection of the line “What have you done with his body?” in Brazil and Helen Mack’s despairing takedown of the reporters in His Girl Friday. They put goose-bumps on you.

Mystery Street – John Sturges’ realistic murder investigation procedural, shot in Boston and its environs in 1950. Like Mann’s Border Incident it sports a Ricardo Montalban performance that’s so intelligent and charismatic that every Latin stereotype should’ve dropped dead from embarrassment. Happily, it and Act of Violence were released on a single disc; if you’re into noir even a little bit, this one’s a no-brainer.

We Own the Night – The director James Gray can sound like a shallow L.A. huckster when he talks, but the man makes good movies. Two People was his first great movie, one that finally shrugged off his Lumetian fascination with gray institutional corruption set to a low urban hum (you’d have to be a Lumet fan to make a movie—The Yards—about crooked subway train repairmen), but he’s always crafted fine characters, lined up serious acting talent to play them, and given them great settings to strut their stuff. We Own the Night, a movie which reverses Michael Corleone’s character arc, has all of this plus two first-rate action scenes: an utterly dazzling assassination in a driving rainstorm and a life-or-death foot chase through a wind-whipped canefield. Robert Duvall and Mark Wahlberg play the top cops, who happen to be father and son, chasing a Russian drug dealer; Joaquin Phoenix is the family’s wastrel second son, who has ties to the mobster. Gray develops his characters with painstaking attention to detail and realism, yet sometimes shoves them into preposterous situations. If you can get past that, you’ve got a good time ahead of you.

Tropic Thunder – Robert Downey, Jr. got all the praise for wearing blackface and talking in Redd Foxx’s voice, but Brandon T. Jackson—a real black actor—got all the lines that actually made me laugh. The movie spins a variation of the genre impersonation that made Adaptation’s last 20 minutes such a slog, but Tropic Thunder not only succeeds, it keeps the gag whirling for an hour or more. The stupidity of the characters played by Downey, Stiller, Black & Co. is done so gracefully it’s finally kind of lovely.

Also: Temple Grandin, Starship Troopers, and Jacques Demy’s Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Worth it:

Macon County Line – Inept and dull explo fodder until its last 20 minutes, when a decent thriller comes jumping out of the movie’s chest. Among other things it employs the subjective monster-cam that’s usually credited to John Carpenter, seven full years before Halloween came out. It also made me see Max Baer in, if not a new light, at least not such a dark shadow, for Jethro Clampett both produced it and played the increasingly psychotic deputy. He has a dilly of a moment when he explains to his young son how segregation is “just easier”; those words and the sweet, reasonable tone he couches them in have, I’m sure, echoed across the kitchen tables of our land in numbers past all reckoning. Buttoned up in his Southern deputy’s uniform, he’s closer to my vision of Lou Ford than Casey Affleck will ever be.

Also: Larry David’s Sour Grapes and Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips

Man, I Don’t Think So:

Once Upon a Time in the West – Woody Strode could’ve charged money for people just to come look at him: in the first five minutes of this thing he’s more beautiful than Brando was in Streetcar, more regal than Michelangelo’s David. And then Leone kills him, just so we can watch Charles Bronson for three hours. Duh! Morricone’s beloved score tips again and again towards bombast and sentimentality, and Bronson’s eye-averting impersonation of a harmonica player doesn’t help the situation. (Couldn’t Leone see this was a problem?) The less said about Cardinale’s flared nostrils or the script that seems written by a committee of glue-sniffers, the better. The deepest feeling comes from the one player who’s never been a name to American audiences: Gabriele Ferzetti, as the pathetically crippled railroad tycoon. When the dying robber baron lowers his head for a drink of filthy water, it’s the one time the movie rises to its reputation.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Something is rotten in the state of Sweden. Misshapen, overlong, and a manipulative load, Girl is art-house torture porn; like Shutter Island, it uses the Third Reich as a red herring just because Nazi torture equals yummy tony fun. I just hope the book everyone’s been reading on the subway is better in some crucial way than this thing. If it isn’t, Western culture is in bigger trouble than I thought.

Wonder Boys – I saw it when it came out but couldn’t remember much about it—got curious again after Solitary Man. Bad move: it’s cinematic Dad Rock. The slap-happy affairs, the transvestite pickup, the dead dog in the trunk, the piling up of Life’s Little Coincidences until we arrive at contrived solutions for all our problems…I mean, yuck. I didn’t like this jive when it was called The World According to Garp, and I don’t like it now. If we really did hear Neil Young singing “Old Man” whenever different generations share a bonding moment, life would be a Hyundai commercial. And who needs that?

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