Pariah (2011, Dee Rees): W/O
So tonight we're gonna party like it's 1995. If Weekend feels like at least a bit of a step forward for mainstream queer cinema, this well-meaning inspirational clunkfest represents two steps back; I knew it was hopeless almost immediately, when a minute-long sequence of the protagonist staring pensively out a bus window was accompanied by some horrible acoustic folk-blues number with the lyrical refrain "Got to keep doin' my thing / I got to keep doin' my thing." Do you now. Performances all seem solid enough (though the bratty younger sister's a bit much), but it's tough to create an indelible character when every scene has exactly one unmistakable, dogmatic function, leaving zero room for grace notes or sidelong observations. And here's precisely the sort of boorish, in-your-face bigotry that Weekend so deftly avoided; I'm sure there really are still assholes out there accosting slightly butch women with hateful remarks about how they're too ugly to attract a man, but they don't make the most effective dramatic antagonists. Why am I about to leave for Sundance again...?
/Modern Romance/ (1981, Albert Brooks): 90
Switch the Quaaludes to soju and have Robert pursue a different-but-similar woman in the second half and this could be a Hong Sang-soo picture, though its depiction of masculine anxiety is much more overtly comedic. It also uncannily prefigures the Onion's classic story "Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested," except that Brooks understands how sheer relentlessness can in fact create a folie à deux that ensnares otherwise sensible women; the movie's greatest triumph is the sheer horror inspired by what would constitute a traditional, clichéd happy ending in a Hollywood romcom. (I do wish he'd omitted the closing title crawl, which is funny enough but detracts from the perverse power of that final "romantic" crane shot.) Significant (vis-à-vis Hong again) that Brooks makes his alter ego an editor rather than a writer or director—not only are the post-production hijinks endlessly hilarious, they reflect Robert's ability to "cut" obvious but discomfiting truths from his mental narrative of the relationship, or to imagine that everything can somehow be "saved" by an inconsequential gesture (new footsteps, stuffed giraffe). That Robert recognizes professionally what he can't grasp in his personal life is just one small aspect of this film's unyieldingly painful honesty, and the real glory is that most of the time you're laughing too hard to even process that bleak worldview. Shame that Brooks doesn't really know what to do with the camera, but at least his primitivism errs on the side of long takes, stasis and "dead air," which is wholly appropriate. Utterly tragic, full stop, that the other Brooks, James L., has never acted since. I have never not lost it when he mouths "little weasels."
/The Searchers/ (1956, John Ford): 66
Time to bite the bullet and admit—as much to myself as to you fine people—that I just don't love The Greatest Western. Easiest way to rationalize this heresy is to pick a fight with the ending, which has always felt baldly contrived; I've read heroic interpretations of Ethan's sudden decision to cradle Debbie in his arms, but never a sensible word regarding Debbie's equally sudden (and patently ludicrous) about-face when Martin comes for her. Truthfully, though, the film's disregard for the harrowing reality of an assimilated captive's ordeal is only one of many speedbumps. Martin and Laurie's frustrated romance, for example, while often entertaining for its own sake, doesn't really work as a counterpoint to Ethan's quest, even though Martin being part-Injun would seem to suggest numerous fruitful avenues. And a number of light-hearted interludes are just embarrassing, viz. Martin's inadvertent purchase of "Look" or anything involving the simpleminded Mose. There's more than enough greatness—in Wayne's unforgiving performance; in Ford's canny use of interiors and exteriors (despite my grousing above, it is significant that Debbie acquiesces inside a tepee); in touches as magnificent as the death of Lucy's fiancé Brad, revealed solely by implication via Max Steiner's score—to compensate for these lapses, but I can no longer bring myself to pretend that they don't exist, or that they don't hamstring the movie to a sizable degree. Even if that perfect final shot still makes me want to try.
/The Long Kiss Goodnight/ (1996, Renny Harlin): 68
Kind of amazing to discover that this film's utterly disposable, who-even-cares? villain plot conforms precisely to the paranoid fantasies of the 9/11 Truth movement, even throwing in a quick reference to the '93 World Trade Center bombing (which is unrelated to the actual diabolical Muslim-fall-guy scheme). Ironic, too, since even Big Dumb Hollywood Action Movies are rarely so giddily unconcerned with real-world plausibility. Harlin's relish for fervid excess meshes beautifully with Shane Black's then-developing knack for the pungent one-liner; Samuel L. Jackson commenting on his own dialogue ("I would have been here sooner, but I was thinkin' up that ham on rye line") is just the verbal equivalent of Geena Davis taking out a squadron of hit men using a gun still lodged in somebody else's pocket. (Speaking of which, that's twice Black has used the gun-hidden-next-to-my-dick bit. Arguably once too many.) Enormous fun, but more so when the action is rising than when it starts falling—partly because the premise suggests a piercing melodramatic dilemma in which this goofy film is almost wholly uninterested (Samantha's husband just vanishes until the coda, and her daughter is Generic Moppet #406), but mostly because Davis can dance the White Swan but isn't terribly convincing as the Black Swan. A short frosted-blonde haircut and heavy eyeliner only do so much. (Sad observation: She turned 40 the year this film came out, and has not played a leading role in a feature film since.) If for no other reason, I'll always treasure The Long Kiss Goodnight for revealing that I'm not the only one who always heard that line as "I'm not talkin' 'bout the linen." Faulty meter, England Dan and/or John Ford Coley.
Belle Epine (2010, Rebecca Zlotowski): W/O
[Pedigree: Cannes '10 Critics' Week; ND/NF '11]
Léa Seydoux's lack of affect served her well as an icy assassin in Ghost Protocol, but I've had trouble with her in other contexts; anchoring a delicate character study seems well beyond her sullen, pouty means at present. Which is particularly problematic since Zlotowski is admirably determined to avoid emotional signposting, opening the film in medias res with the protagonist's acting out (actually with the consequences for same, so one step further removed) and only gradually revealing the fairly banal reasons for it. Another case of just-never-grabbed-me...and it's only 80 minutes long, so I watched fully half of it before throwing in the towel. Note to self, though: This director is heavily into casual female nudity.
/Menace II Society/ (1993, The Hughes Brothers): 44
Never did understand the hoopla surrounding these guys—Menace II Society premiered in Director's Fortnight, if you've forgotten, while Dead Presidents was in NYFF—and I gotta say I feel like I've been entirely vindicated by posterity. Extensive use of retrospective voiceover here deliberately recalls GoodFellas, but Henry Hill didn't spend the entire movie being prodded to better himself; despite the absence of a didactic role model à la Laurence Fishburne (though Charles S. Dutton turns up briefly to serve a similar function), this is arguably even preachier than Boyz n the Hood, continually offering Caine escape routes from The Life even as it sets up the dominoes that'll take him out. In theory, I can get behind the tale of a sensitive young kid whose potentially bright future gets destroyed by the hopeless corner of the world into which he was born, but not when that's constantly being highlighted and underlined, to the exclusion of not just a gripping narrative but any real sociological interest or even just memorable texture. Everything's subordinate to the message/moral, with which no rational viewer could possibly disagree, so there's nothing to do except await the inevitable. (That Jada Pinkett Notyetsmith's innocent kid doesn't wind up getting killed in the crossfire afforded me one less opportunity to roll my eyes, it's true, but a good movie wouldn't appear to be setting that moment up in the first place.) Alternately bland and preposterous (they don't even think to wipe the Korean liquor store of fingerprints?), with only the occasional fluid tracking shot and some decent performances to recommend it. The Book of Eli seems roughly where they've always belonged.
/Bambi/ (1942, David D. Hand): 46
I'm as surprised as you probably are (although the film's Wikipedia entry claims that contemporaneous reviews were mixed to negative). No question that it's beautiful, but it doubles down on all the most cloying, simpering aspects of the early Disney house style, from aw-shucks vocal characterizations to that heavenly-choir effect in every damn song. People always talk about being traumatized by the death of Bambi's mother, but nobody ever mentions (or seems to remember) that the film immediately fades to black and then fades up a year later on a bunch of birds twittering gaily about how swell springtime is (RT @robinredbreast oh yeh i'm horny as hell LOL); the loss is no sooner felt than completely forgotten. And that moment occurs about 40 minutes into a movie that's only 70 minutes long, preceded by nonstop bashful-wobbly adorableness and followed by a delusional primer on romance that no doubt warped an entire generation. Only the climactic fire suggests a film intended to elicit a more vital reaction than "Aww!"—it's significant that "man" (as opposed to just "hunters") plays the unseen heavy, depicted as the spoiler of everything that's good...though of course even this pointed stance ignores the inherent cruelty of nature itself, as a deer is far more likely to be killed by a cougar or jaguar than by a bullet or a man-made inferno. You may feel that I'm being unduly critical of a movie made for children, but I'll be enormously surprised if I feel this way about Dumbo or Pinocchio, both of which find room for personality, humor, and complicated (if not complex) emotions en route to their preordained happy endings. Bambi is aptly named; it's the Barbie of talking-animal cartoons.