/The French Connection/ (1971, William Friedkin): 68
A first-rate procedural that also aspires to serve as a compelling character study and never really quite gets there. Apart from the random "pick your feet in Poughkeepsie" bit, Popeye Doyle is kept far too busy doing actual police work to establish a personality more distinct than generic hothead, which makes the film's last few seconds feel like a Hail Mary bid for psychological depth -- Friedkin and Hackman just haven't earned an ending that startlingly unresolved. (It's still kinda thrilling, though, especially when you consider that this was a box-office smash and Best Picture winner. Them were the days.) All of the standout sequences function virtually without regard to the dramatis personae: You could put Frank Bullitt behind the wheel of that LeMans during the high-speed chase (still the most insanely harrowing ever filmed, for my money, and I've seen The Burglars), or have Harry Callahan perform the beautifully orchestrated subway-car minuet with Fernando Rey (cat and mouse at its finest), and it wouldn't make an iota of difference. It's a pungent portrait of a bust with delusions of grandeur. And am I the only one utterly let down by the scene in which they tear the car apart searching for the heroin (which oddly prefigures Hackman destroying his apartment looking for the microphone at the end of The Conversation)? So much screen time is expended on this that you're primed for the hiding place to be diabolically clever, and then the dude just says, in effect, "I looked everywhere except the guest bathroom"—and, sure enough, it's in the guest bathroom. WHY DID YOU NOT LOOK THERE.
Crows Zero (2007, Takashi Miike): 64
Had a good time with this but I'm having trouble thinking of anything remotely interesting to say about it, because it's just two hours of Japanese high-school kids beating the shit out of each other. School is depicted exclusively as a battle zone (I think there might be one lickety-split scene set in a classroom, and the handful of teachers we briefly glimpse are beyond ineffectual), with a rigidly enforced hierarchy one can only attempt to challenge via brutal, bloody warfare. But while Miike takes this absurd scenario seriously, he's also in one of his playful moods: funniest bit has moody hero Genji furtively consulting notes on what to yell in the midst of a badass rampage, and the rainsoaked clashing-armies finale gets crosscut with a life-or-death surgical procedure, the ritual execution of a key supporting character (already shown in the prologue), and the movie's sole female performing a cheesy J-pop ballad onstage. When I complained that Battle Royale didn't seem to be about much of anything, an anonymous commenter suggested that it serves as a metaphor for "the competitive nature of post-war Japanese society," which I suppose applies equally well here; still seems awfully thin, though, especially since competition for resources is a universal truth, applicable not just to every nation but to every species. But that's less problematic here, simply because Crows Zero qualifies as relatively innocent fun—kids recover almost instantly from punishment that would require months of hospitalization in real life, and the violence is stylishly exaggerated in ways that suggest animation (apropos, obviously, since the film was adapted from a popular manga). Gotta say the sequel seems highly unnecessary, but I'll probably check it out at some point.
/Koyaanisqatsi/ (1982, Godfrey Reggio): 73
Wow, Man The Despoiler shows up way earlier than I'd remembered—only 18 minutes in. I'd thought the nature-to-civilization ratio was more or less 1:1. Honestly, though, I can't say I much care what environmental/ecological/Hopi-ass thesis this film is trying to push, as the footage is so mesmerizing that it renders ideology irrelevant. Even if you're the sort of person who's happiest alone in the wilderness, you can't deny that the 20-minute time-lapse aria showcasing humanity's teeming masses renders our mundane lives intensely beautiful; nighttime freeway shots in particular are just breathtaking, with headlights and taillights producing different-colored contrails in opposite lanes. And while I've owned and enjoyed Philip Glass' score for at least 25 years, hearing it again alongside the images it was meant to complement really confirmed its allusive power—"The Grid" can sound overbusy on its own, but perfectly captures e.g. the jittery high-speed hand movements of a little blond kid at a Defender machine. (Embarrassing confession: I was so young when I first encountered this film that I thought the track "Pruit Igoe" must be some Eskimo reference—I guess the words reminded me of "Inuit" and "Igloo." Only much later did I find out about the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, and only now do I see that its demolition appears in the movie. Still not sure where the second 't' in 'Pruitt' went, though.) Not everything compels—some of the early nature footage just looks like typical establishing shots for an outdoor adventure, and I'm not convinced there's any purpose to repeated portraits in which the subjects stare impassively at the camera for an uncomfortably long time—and the unmistakable implication that we should be recoiling from what we're being shown can make the less eye-popping stretches feel a bit tiresome. Overall, though, it's a singular experience, and a welcome reminder of how enormous our tiny home in the universe can seem.
4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011, Abel Ferrara): 57
Key image for me here is perhaps the fleeting glimpse of gym rats running on treadmills, with its absurdist yet somehow fundamentally truthful suggestion that some people would still be concerned about keeping fit even in the face of Armageddon. That the world would go about its normal business right up to the end makes for a lovely, at times deeply moving idea, especially as punctuated by occasional plangent acknowledgements of loss; I'm not sure there's a more affecting moment in Ferrara's post-'80s oeuvre (still haven't seen the early stuff) than the Vietnamese delivery guy's Skype conversation with his family back home, very wisely left unsubtitled. But I'm afraid I do have to register the standard objections, beginning with Shanyn Leigh and her inexpressive anti-gaze—not as problematic as it might be, given that she spends a big hunk of the film silently painting, but she's still pretty much half the cast, so finding her deeply uninteresting is a problem. Dafoe fares better, naturally, but often seems to be inventing his character as he goes along; there's a scene toward the beginning in which he wanders the rooftop muttering angrily and semi-coherently to himself (a Ferrara impression, judging from my one experience with the man back at NYU, around the time of The Addiction), but that aspect of his personality instantly vanishes, never to be seen or even hinted at again. The film feels sketchy and sparse in ways that don't complement its solipsistic vision—the exact opposite of Melancholia, actually, which likewise isolates two protags but creates a richly imagined doomed world for them. All the same, I'm more drawn to the spasms of tenderness in evidence here than to Von Trier's straw-man misanthropy.
Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch): 46
Don't know quite what went wrong here, as the film has the rhythm and sensibility of a droll comedy of manners yet is almost never even remotely funny. I'd like to blame Noel Coward, who (in spite of my passion for Brief Encounter) has always felt to me like Oscar Wilde Lite, retaining the color and texture but very little of the flavor; virtually none of Coward's dialogue was retained, though, by most reports, and it's not as if Ben Hecht didn't know his way around fast-paced dry wit. One might note with some justification that Gary Cooper seems ill-suited to the demands of urbane mock-sophistication, but he does hold his own in e.g. Ball of Fire. In any event, and whatever the root cause may be, Design for Living never achieves anything more potent than purely theoretical amusement, as if it were a detailed outline waiting for somebody to come along and fill in the actual jokes. Which is a shame, because the central idea is quite bold: In essence, the entire film serves as prolonged rationalization for a long-term, three-way romantic relationship involving one woman and two men, flying in the face of just about everything Western society holds dear to this day. (I assume that's why even in the final seconds it's reaffirmed that there'll be no sex—a "gentleman's agreement" that any sensible viewer must expect will be speedily broken.) There's just no zing to it, no fire, no sense of nimble play. Only when the boys crash the party at the very end, having finally agreed to share the object of their affection, does Lubitsch finally manage to stage a few bits of inspired goofiness. Far too late.
Letter Never Sent (1960, Mikhail Kalatozov): 69
Unimpeachable as pure cinema, marrying The Cranes Are Flying's stunning, expressionistic close-ups of human faces with the dazzling mobility Kalatozov would further develop in I Am Cuba. (Thus endeth my knowledge of his oeuvre, but it really does feel like a bridge between those two more celebrated films.) Certain sequences I'm not even sure could be duplicated today—what did he do, just set a massive stretch of the Siberian Taiga on fire? In any case, file this among the medium's great trudge epics, as everything remotely dramatic—Sergei's forbidden love for Tanya; the he-man vs. nerd conflict it inspires; even the titular unsent letter itself—gradually gets tossed aside like our heroes' useless radio and burdensome packs, leaving only a brute tale of survival...or, in most cases, the barely acknowledged lack thereof. What holds it back from true magnificence is its nationalistic agenda, apparent in the opening title crawl and dominant in the finale (though it's thankfully otherwise fairly subdued). Ultimately, what's important isn't these characters' lives but the map of their find, which will end the Soviet reliance on foreign diamonds; Kalatozov has made a stirring testament to their Pioneer Spirit, more or less thanking the fallen for their sacrifice (while also intimating with those fluttering eyelids that Russia will always be a survivor). But that's a retroactive criticism, really—in the moment, Letter Never Sent could scarcely be more harrowing or elemental, and Kalatozov declines to indulge in melodrama. There's no time to mourn the dead, who in two of three cases can't be buried anyway, and when Konstantin hands Tanya the note Andrei left behind, she never even glances down at it. Why should she? There's only one thing it could possibly say.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966, Terence Fisher): 53
Not counting the quick Horror of Dracula recap at the outset, Christopher Lee doesn't turn up in this one for 48 minutes (of only 90)...which is fine, really, because it's a much more entertaining film before he does. Reading about Hammer as a kid, I imagined stark, frankly horrific chillers, perhaps just extrapolating from the company name; in reality, they're mostly quite charming in their workmanlike Englishness, moving stock characters along a series of predictable narrative marks with brisk, economical assurance and the very slightest of winks. The early scene in which Father Sandor warns our heroes away from Karlsbad and its mysterious castle, for example, couldn't be more generically foreboding, yet it's performed with such sincere gusto that you just can't wait for these clueless toffs to stroll into that terrible matte painting and become DracSnacks. But while I recall quite liking Lee in Horror (made eight years earlier), he's kind of embarrassing in this entirely silent incarnation, constantly working his mouth to make sure we can see his novelty fangs and recoiling in exaggerated panic from crosses wielded by men. (He can hypnotize women into setting them down, and Lee is at his best by far when merely required to soul-gaze in extreme close-up.) And while I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone, it's a hilarious cheat—imagine a somber speech in which the priest explains that a vampire can only be killed by a stake through the heart, by exposure to direct sunlight, by eating too many Cheetos, or by being burned with a crucifix, followed shortly by a climax set in a gigantic factory that's suddenly revealed to be Frito-Lay's manufacturing plant. It's not that silly, obviously, but as far as I know they just plain made that method up.