Saturday, March 31, 2007

Bio-Dome (1996)

[Seen for the White Elephant blogathon. Format reused from my review of The Stepford Wives, which was itself lovingly ripped off from Ebert's review of Halloween: H20.]

What can one say about Bio-Dome, a film so bad that it essentially killed the career of professional crap merchant Pauly Shore? Desperately unfunny, the film offers nothing to engage the interest on the surface. Thus, I was forced to make my mind wander off on tangents so that it didn't tear itself from my skull in rebellion. Here, then, are the thoughts that kept me from going insane during Bio-Dome.

* Funnier than anything in the film is the suggestion that girls who look like Joey Lauren Adams and Teresa Hill would be caught dead around Bud (Shore) and Doyle (Stephen Baldwin). Believe me, I've seen some offbeat pairings that make my sensibilities cry foul, both in film and real life. But, ya know, no fucking way.

* I never realized it before, but Pauly Shore's stoned California drawl is a hair's breadth away from the stereotypical queer voice. It has the same lilt, the same round vowels, the same slight lisp. Could Mr. Shore, in fact, be a closet case?

* If the above is true, it would certainly explain the odd overtones of sadomasochistic romance between Bud and Doyle. Consider that the first thing in the film is Bud smashing Doyle over the head with a book so the two can avoid going out with their put-upon girlfriends. Consider the infamous scene where Doyle chews Bud's toenails (with Bud commanding, "No, not that one! The one with the corn on it!") Consider the bit where they fight for a bed but eventually end up sleeping together anyway, with Doyle getting shafted out of the blanket. This is conceivably the only relationship in which Pauly Shore could be considered the top.

* This is the sound of what you don't know (killing you) / This is the sound of what you don't believe (still true) / This is the sound of what you don't want (still in you) / TPC, motherfucker / Cop a feel or two!

* The opening credits are a barrage of loud music (by the band Fourth Grade Nothing) and quick-cut abstract imagery. It's like a bonus music video before the film. It's also completely unrelated to the film at hand; thus, it's the best thing about the whole thing.

* Kylie Minogue was deep in the image-tweaking phase of her career when she consented to appear in this. As far as that sort of thing goes, it's way, way less dignified than her duet with Nick Cave. Or, say, if she'd agreed to do a donkey show in Tijuana.

* Nice hair, William Atherton.

* I stayed sober during this film. Why? There was a twelve-pack in the fridge. This all could have gone much easier if only I'd cracked into a few beers.

* Just to compound my hatred, this film kept crapping on things I like. The Rugburns song "Suburbia" shows up in the opening scene. Shore imitates Frank Booth from Blue Velvet during an inexplicable scene involving junk food and nitrous oxide. The big dome party includes the aforementioned Fourth Grade Nothing badly covering Cheap Trick's "He's a Whore" (which I love because of Big Black's slash-and-burn version of it at the end of their seminal album Songs About Fucking). And there's a shot near the climax that visually quotes the bit where Martin Sheen rises out of the water at the end of Apocalypse Now. And what's worse than a terrible movie? A terrible movie that keeps reminding you that you're forgoing time with valid, useful works of art to wade through crap instead.

* I like Cadbury Cream Eggs. Why have they been so difficult to find this year?

* The best thing Stephen Baldwin ever did for the craft of acting was stop. I enjoy him much more as an evangelical Christian -- he's much easier to ignore that way. (How does one go from The Usual Suspects to this in less than a year, anyway?)

* Four months on, I still have yet to finish my review of Out 1. I should get on top of that soon.

* Joey Lauren Adams wears a shirt with a cut-out window on the chest at one point in this film. It's certainly a fetching choice of clothing, but I think I spent much of the time wondering where her breasts went. I know she's got 'em. I've seen Mallrats.

* My girlfriend fiancee wouldn't let me throw my Chippewa boot at the TV, not even after I promised to buy her a new TV afterward. I shouldn't complain, though -- she was sporting enough to watch it with me so that I wouldn't suffer alone.

* Hey, credits! YESSSSSS!

Grade: D-

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Hills Have Eyes II (2007)

Has Wes Craven always been nastily conservative, or is this a recent development? I mean, The Last House on the Left was essentially telling the world that the counterculture will kill you, but it was framed within a larger statement about the innate bestiality of man and the soullessness of violence. (Never mind that the film's terrible, that IS what it's trying to say.) But between the valentine to Homeland Security that was Red Eye and this film, which he scripted with his son Jonathan, it's like he's not trying to hide it anymore. It has all the subtlety of WWII propaganda: The Enemy, which lives in tunnels in the desert, is a bunch of inhuman hulking murderous mutants, and they want to kill our frightened & inexperienced soldiers (mostly the minority ones) while raping/miscegenatin' with our women so as to destroy the America we all love. Why? Because, well, that's what they do. Not that I'm a Taliban lover or anything, but shouldn't we as a culture be above stone-dumb stuff like this? The real enemy is scary precisely because they ARE human. We don't need to be turning them into pustule-riddled mutants to make them terrifying. Odd how 300 doesn't bother me, but this crude thing does. (It's also odd that this film seems to buy into that which its predecessor satirized.)

Even if you discount that (and it's pretty easy to discount -- didn't even hit me until the noxious climax), this sequel to Alexandre Aja's not-good-but-interesting film is a waste of celluloid. Aside from one good jump involving a sinkhole, Martin Weisz telegraphs every single sting he has and leans hard on grotesquerie for its own sake rather than making something out of it. He does nothing to distinguish his film, visually or atmospherically, so the only sport is waiting for the clueless National Guard recruits who run through this film to get butchered in increasingly-unpleasant ways. It seems this film's sole intent is not to be frightening or disturbing but unpleasant; by the time the graphic mutant rape scene arrives on scene, that ugly intent has been achieved with flying colors. The cast, mostly novices, is uniformly terrible; the only note of distinction is how many of them look like more famous actors, with Jessica Stroup in particular coming off like a poor man's version of Melissa George. (Think about how sad it is that there's a lower-budget version of the chick who thought Turistas was a good career move.) Hopefully, this thing will sink into the scrapheap of cinematic history just as quickly as 1985's The Hills Have Eyes Part II.

Grade: D
300 (2007)

I'm with Kent Beeson when he states that the political/social aspects of Zack Snyder's gonzo gladiatorial gargantua are so over-the-top that to take them at all seriously is absurd. (Then again, people still pay attention to Ann Coulter, so maybe we shouldn't be dismissing this out of hand.) Intentional or not, though, the fascistic/anti-minority/pro-conformity ideas at the heart of 300 render a stupid movie that much stupider. Then again, maybe stupid is the wrong word, since it still implies the presence of a brain; by all evidence, not a single neuron's worth of thought went into the creation of this film. This is groin-level filmmaking, filled with testosterone and bulging muscles and macho man-on-man violence. Stylized to a ridiculous degree, the battles are theoretically impressive, but they're all motion without purpose -- they never feel alive. Meanwhile, the less said about the parts where big men aren't swinging swords, the better; every stilted line is shouted, declaimed rather than delivered, as though if we're intimidated by the volume we won't notice how lame the dialogue is. How this differs from the average supercheap Italian peplum, other than the shiny coat of new digital paint, I don't know. Just get it the hell away from me. Y'all are welcome to it.

Grade: D
The Browning Version (1951)

[Requested, in a fashion, by drift wood.]

Michael Redgrave gives an extraordinary performance in Terrence Rattigan's meditation on stifling English mores and wasted lives. Redgrave plays Andrew Crocker-Harris, a straight-laced professor mocked by his charges, disliked by his peers and loathed by his wife. In most films, this man, stern to the point of being termed "the Himmler of the lower fifth," would be an easy target for ridicule, but Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith (whose solid direction lets the text stand on its own without letting it devolve into staginess) have other aims. Crocker-Harris is indeed a cold and emotionally dead man, but he did care once, and he still tries to give what he can in service to his job; compared to the sickening gladhanding and falsity exuded by Headmaster Frobisher (the scene where he tells Crocker-Harris that early retirement will divest him of his pension has the headmaster barely containing his amusement at crushing Andrew's spirit), Crocker-Harris seems almost noble. Rattigan's sharp script summons up unimaginable cruelties in the space of a few words, mainly in the scenes between Andrew and his wife, yet it also leaves room for us to see the tragedy of the professor's predicament. The stiff upper lip he was told to affect stiffened his heart as well; thus, we long to see this harsh but essentially decent man wriggle away from that which has kept him bowed for so long and find something better, happier, if even for a moment. I think the climactic speech is a bit of a miscalculation (it apparently wasn't in the original play), but it does also allow us this catharsis. After a life of failure, the victories for Crocker-Harris are small, but he takes them anyway.

Grade: B+
Culloden (1964)

Peter Watkins in historical recreation mode, this time recreating a rather shameful botch of a battle between British armed forces and a poorly-organized cadre of Scottish rebels. No filmmaker, alive or dead, has mined the faux-documentary field with as much formal accuracy or effect as Watkins (I say this being only three films into his oeuvre, too), but I think Culloden pushes that a bit too hard. The on-site announcer, excitedly jabbering about the superiority of the British and how great it'll be when the king's men take out these rabble-rousers as though he were giving play-by-play for a basketball game, especially strikes me as overstatement of Watkins's case, an unnecessary prodding to outrage in a situation where historical fact was outrageous enough. Despite this and a tendency towards repetition (as if we're not getting the message), Watkins's film is still a strong and angering piece of work. Using an egregious example from the past, he sketches out how those in power rarely have the best in mind for their subjects and how economic inequality can lead to class warfare and abuses of power. (The feudal system of Scotland's clans is explicitly outlined, leaving no doubt that these men are here because they are, in essence, property.) As the film weaves on, past the battle into the true atrocities, the documentary approach gives the proceedings a sense of credibility that would be absent from a straight narrative recreation: We may not have been there to witness these things, but it certainly feels as though we are. Firebrand Watkins was a unique creation in the era's cinema, but he clearly knew what he was doing. Would that today's political grandstanders had the force of his arguments.

Grade: B
Vampyros Lesbos (1970)

Well, it's not Nude for Satan, but it's certainly on the same wavelength. Apparently Jess Franco got up in the morning and ate a big bowl of Crazy Chex before making this loopy lesbian version of the Dracula tale. The basic outline is there (female lawyer gets called to deliberate upon unusual case, travels to house in a far-off remote location, falls under spell of powerful female vampire), but more often than not Franco wanders away from the ostensible plot to do his own thing, whatever that thing may be. He packs it to the gills with femme nudity (always appreciated in my wheelhouse), follows minor characters for elongated spells, zooms in on everything he sees and continually cuts to a ridiculously-symbolic scorpion simply because, I guess, there happened to be one hanging around the set. There's no real momentum to the film due to the constant character-hopping; rather than being a liability, though, it gives the film the impression of drifting along in a dreamy haze, which I suspect was exactly what Jess wanted. Does the film hang together? Not really -- there's a lot of puzzling side excursions and dead ends, the bit with a crazed sadist, played by Franco himself, who holds Ewa Strömberg hostage for a while being the weirdest and least necessary -- but I think I liked it anyway. Aside from its trashy moxie, it also looks quite impressive; this was made back when Franco still occasionally cared about what his films looked like and still had a bit of money in his budgets, and as such the rich visual scheme is surprisingly intoxicating. The screaming reds, in particular, jump right the hell off the screen and land in your lap. Vampyros Lesbos is not so much a film to evaluate as it is one to flow with, groove on and occasionally make sport of. Good and bad don't seem to enter into the argument -- it simply is as it is, and you either get into its weird, fractured lunacy or you stick your tongue out and tell it to fuck off. I belong in the former camp.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The War Game (1965)

Terrifying speculative "documentary" that depicts what might logically happen to British society in the event of a nuclear strike derives much of its power from its sobriety. As propriety crumbles to dust in front of our eyes, the starched narration refuses to alter its tone (we might as well be watching a film about soybeans). This just emphasizes the stark horror of it all; as the film exhaustively wends its way through the decline, the affectlessness begins to take on the ring of the somber and the hopeless. It's a cataloguing of potential atrocity, affecting and evocative (a shock wave is described as "an enormous door slamming in the depths of Hell") and totally believeable, possibly because writer/director Peter Watkins based his speculations on the reactions of the populace at Hiroshima, Dresden and several other sites of WWII mass destruction. The devastation, of course, continues beyond the inital blast -- as the narrator intones at one point, "When morale falls, ideals fall," and this disintegration of values proves even more frightening than the spectre of immediate annihilation. The War Game runs only 45 minutes, but it packs punches that elude films three times that length; it can, indeed, be said to be one of the few true anti-war films, as there's no excitement in between the explosionsm only chaos and confusion. This is vital stuff.

Grade: A
Chloe in the Afternoon (1972)

Eric Rohmer's closing film in his Moral Tales cycle, about a married man who becomes involved in an offbeat releationship with the former flame of an old friend, has as its main concern the difference between the ephemeral and the evergreen. What I like about Rohmer's take on this is that he doesn't set it up as a black-and-white dichotomy; Frédéric is restless in his stable life, but he's not unhappy. He dreams of hypnotizing women to bend to his will and he enjoys watching women walk by on sidewalks and in cafes because "you don't see them grow old," yet none of this has been damaging to his marriage -- rather, he takes this possibly-destructive desire and channels it into his love for his wife. The red flags fly when Chloé wanders into his life, but the danger comes not from the simple act of temptation as much as it does the increasing amount of time Frédéric devotes to his afternoons with her; and how that leads into a sort of commitment. His pleasure in the temporary is threatened by the presence and personality of Chloé -- she takes every opportunity to shatter the fantasy image of The Single Girl, using her acidic tongue ("I know you're not a friend") and spatial distance (she disappears for weeks on end and speaks of never letting people into her apartment) to create a level of desire within Frédéric that can't be satisfied by his harmless thoughts. Despite her spiky flightiness (sharply portrayed by Zouzou), I think that Chloé does indeed fall for Frédéric, which would justify the literal translation of the French title (Love in the Afternoon); the crucial quandry, though, is whether the feeling is mutual on his part. Without revealing anything, I'll say that the final scene, in this respect, is a beautiful intertwining of the film's two driving impulses. Rohmer's finest and subtlest touch is the presence of time itself -- note the calendar in Frédéric's office and how it keeps up with the progress of the plot. The message seems to be: time is fleeting, spend it wisely.

Grade: B

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Return (2006)

Let me see if I have this straight. The Return has a prologue where nothing happens. Then there's the main body of the film, which involves Sarah Michelle Gellar wandering around looking vaguely frightened and tense for about an hour. Nothing really happens there either, but it all suggests that it's building towards something. Then the ending rolls around and nothing continues to happen. Finally, the credits roll. This last thing is the most significant development the film has to offer. Oh joy.

Grade: D-

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Window (1949)

The script's the thing with this tight, exciting thriller. It starts with a familiar premise -- the little boy who cried wolf -- and once the setup is past, it runs smooth as butter down the line. Bobby Driscoll is as credible a child actor as you'll find in essaying the part of Tommy Woodry, a young boy who can't get anyone to believe he's witnessed a murder, but it's what surrounds him that truly compels. This is a child's-eye noir, and as such it's a cutting expression of childhood anxieties. The film does a fine job of making the adult world menacing and vaguely unknowable; Tommy's truth is fobbed off by patronizing cops and exasperated parents (the scene where Mr. Woodry uses the spectre of paternal pride as an emotional blackjack with which to silence Tommy is a creepy highlight), but the fact that it is the truth gets him in trouble with the nasty folks upstairs. It's not often you see a bad guy slug a kid onscreen, but that sort of unexpected brutality, bringing the sensibilities of noir to an after-school morality play, is what makes the movie special. It's willing to take that chance because it feels right for the character who does it, yet it still convinces that Tommy could elude and outwit him at film's end. The Window is a film that knows its situation, knows its characters and knows its audience. It's damn entertaining, too.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Mauvaise Graine (1934)

(Belatedly written for the Billy Wilder blogathon.)

Billy Wilder's directorial debut saw him splitting duties with Alexander Esway, which seems appropriate given that the resulting film is something of a compromise between then-prevalent styles and the iconoclastic combination of cynicism and heart that Wilder would eventually make his stock in trade. This, in fact, is a film of schisms -- it's halfway between farce and tragedy, halfway between a silent and a talkie, halfway between sweet and seedy, halfway between predictable and unexpected. The setup scenes, wherein we meet our eventual hero Henri at his least interesting (i.e. he's a spoiled rich boy on Daddy's dole), are insufferable; thankfully (and surprisingly), this only lasts about ten minutes before Henri inadvertently runs afoul of a gang of car thieves, and after one really cool silent-movie-style chase later, the movie proper -- with Henri becoming a part of the gang and a man at last -- begins. At the least, this marks the origins of Wilder's fascination with all things underhanded; Henri manages to improve as a person and find love only by becoming a criminal, which strikes me as wonderfully perverse. As such, the film provides far more interest when it's setting up or running through a con (like the parking-lot gambit) than when it's moving through its romantic paces, and I can't help but think that the nascent sensibilities of Wilder are responsible for this emphasis. Likewise, the cheerfully quirky side doodles (like young thief Jean's tie obsession) point the way towards the man who would later have Fred MacMurray tell Edward G. Robinson that he loved him and get Jack Lemmon to strain spaghetti through a tennis racket. Too, the serious turn of the third act seems a piece with Wilder's later comic creations (even Kiss Me, Stupid broke past its sitcom setup to find the bruised heart beneath). The clash between sensibilites occasionally flattens the film, but it also keeps it off balance and thus interesting. Mauvaise Graine is a strange thing, most valuable these days for its historical import, but it's entertaining all the same.

Grade: B
The Intruder (2005)

I suppose it's significant that the major recurring image in Claire Denis's wispy globe-trotter is that of a tracking shot over the glassy surfaces of bodies of water, since The Intruder never breaks past the surface of anything. Its images are seductive for a while, and its use of recurring tropes (dogs in particular) keeps the mind engaged through the first half. Eventually, though, it becomes clear that Denis is leaning hard on her visuals and telling the story in nonlinear fashion precisely because she didn't have much of a story to tell; maybe she's hoping that, if we're dazzled enough by the pretty pictures, we won't notice that the film isn't about anything, but that trick doesn't generally work on me when Hollywood tries it, so it didn't work here either. There's intimations early on that this could all be the final jumbled thoughts of a man who has died (most notably a preacher at the pulpit intoning, "This is the second death"); if so, I kinda wish he'd died much, much quicker.

Grade: C
Death Walks on High Heels (1971)

This robust giallo is a bit smarter than the average genre entry. The devious screenplay holds several surprises, as many of these films do, but it also contains a welcome amount of common-sense reactions from its characters (i.e. when Nicole the heroine is threatened by a masked man, her first course of action is, sensibly, to leave the city). There's also the expected amount of red herrings, last-minute twists and incidental characters holding vital clues, but it's constructed tightly enough that it never wears or feels formulaic. There's a sudden shift in dynamics halfway through, wherein the film shifts tone from its modest first half and careens wildly about through slasher madness, creeped-out voyeurism, bizarre comedy, carefully-parceled police procedural and all-out slugfest; fortunately, director Luciano Ercoli keeps this all under just enough control that it proves dynamically entertaining. Also not to be discounted: The last-act revelation of the Unexpected Killer is prefaced by a whole bunch of scenarios with people, intentionally or otherwise, passing as something they aren't (Nicole doing a striptease while made up as a black woman; her crude boyfriend Michel constantly mistaken for her pimp; a blinded man continuing to play blind even after his sight starts to return). Structurally sound for the genre and thematically intriguing, this obscurity deserves to be considered a minor giallo classic.

Grade: B
Hot Thrills and Warm Chills (1967)

The highlight of this film comes right in the opening scene, wherein majorly stacked lead actress Rita Alexander shimmies to a (non-diegetic) salsa soundtrack while balancing a champagne glass on her Russ Meyer-sized bosoms. Then the weak excuse for a plot begins and this reveals itself as incompetent, carelessly-made rot. The story lurches forward indiscriminately and incoherently, but that's a forgivable flaw considering the low low standards of the sexploitation genre -- it's to be expected when two-thirds of your running time is comprised of people pretending to fuck. The fatal weakness, then, is that the sex in this film is unforgivably dull. Director Dale Berry doesn't even give us the goodies in a couple scenes, choosing instead to shoot the sex as a long close-up on the faces of the two rutters. There's one odd scene that anticipates part of the infamous rape scene in Straw Dogs, but I'm not one to reward accidental foresight. So the sex sucks, the story is shit and the incidental details aren't crazy enough to compensate. Fuck this film in my opinion.

Grade: F

Monday, March 05, 2007

What We Talk About When We Talk About Fate: A quick thought on a darker reading of The Double Life of Veronique

(Written for the Kieslowski blogathon.)

The Double Life of Veronique marked an interesting transition for the late, great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski. Long a purveyor of social realism, he had nevertheless been inching towards a less concrete view of things (i.e. the ethereal finale to A Short Film About Love). Veronique, then, saw Kieslowski abandoning any pretense of realism and launching himself headlong into the realms of abstraction.

As such, there's a lot going on in Veronique. The obvious running trope is the mass of doublings within the film's structure -- not just the expressed similarities between Weronika and Veronique but reflections, twinned shots, repeated actions, etc. Kieslowski, though, is canny enough to give us the symbols but not to lead us to a specific meaning, so that there's all kinds of things that can be divined from the film's fascinating depths. Open interpretation often leads us down some strange alleyways, and there's one major segment of Veronique, as outwardly lovely a film as any, that I believe points towards a deep pessimism concealed underneath the burnished golden glow.

To put it succinctly: Despite its emphasis on commonality, The Double Life of Veronique might be about the possibility that how we're all alone in the universe and God doesn't know what He's doing.

There's two complementary scenes that open up this possibility for me. The first is the scene where Veronique goes to see the puppet show. Initially, she is transfixed by the manipulations in front of her, much like the rest of the audience; eventually, though, she catches a glimpse of the puppeteer reflected in a pane of glass. From that point on, she can only pay attention to the puppeteer and later becomes obsessed with him, going as far as to tell her father that she's in love. She is essentially experiencing a religious epiphany -- she's seen through the mechanics of everyday life and caught a glimpse of the divine. (It's not like Kieslowski's being subtle about this, either -- the puppeteer's truck has an angel painted upon its side.)

It's the latter scene that gives me pause. Veronique receives a package in the mail containing an audiotape; on the tape is cryptic ambient noise. She deciphers the location through vague clues and shows up there to find that the tape was indeed sent by the puppeteer. When pressed as to why he's drawn her out, the only thing he can say is, "Because... I don't know." If he is indeed a stand-in for God, this is possibly the most terrifying answer he could have given. It's bad enough for Veronique that she feels the loss of her dopplegänger (if, as Scott Tobias suggests, the two women share a soul, that would leave Veronique adrift with half a soul), but now she has to deal with God telling her that he has no clue as to the purpose or meaning of everything she's gone through for Him.

(There's also something to be said for the fact that the puppeteer is also an author of children's books -- is this Kieslowski making a snarky comment on the Bible? Or am I stretching?)

So there it is. Are all the parallels in The Double Life of Veronique merely meant to make the underlying chaos and of life that much more arbitrarily cruel? Or am I seeing something that is there unintentionally? The gentle, seductively mysterious nature of the rest of the film would seem to dispel this sort of reading. But I remain intrigued. I'll have to take another look at this to confirm my suspicions, but for me this hews closer to Blind Chance than most seem to think.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Reno 911!: Miami (2007)

So, yeah. The creators of the very funny show "Reno 911" made a movie. They inflated the running time from an average episode's 25 minutes to a slim feature length of approximately 80 minutes; however, they forgot to fill up the extra hour with anything resembling a decent joke. The dry, loopy timbre of the scatology of the show is apparently a fragile thing, as it doesn't survive the change in aspect ratios, and we're instead left with obvious punchlines, endless riffing on the sexual identities of some of the cops, and Paul Rudd (in a rare terrible performance) doing a painfully unfunny Scarface spoof. There's a hilarious sequence centered around a topless beach and a dead whale, and there's a few scattered laughs beyond that. Plus, no film that features Patton Oswalt firing an Uzi can be all bad. But Lord, does this cheap, lazy film ever give it a shot.

Grade: C
Viridiana (1961)

Ever ready to gnaw on any hand that tried to feed him, Luis Buñuel celebrated his return to Spain, from where he'd been professionally exiled for making a film (L'Age d'Or) deemed heretical, by making a film that exudes heresy and profanity from its every frame. Far from aimless provocation, though, Buñuel's film is about the relentlessness of corruptibility. Of course, there's the obvious; Silvia Pinal's title character starts as an oasis of good in a moral desert, but the film gradually wears her down -- it starts with small things, like Fernando Rey convincing her to trade, just for one night, her initiate's habit (a symbol of unassailable purity) for a wedding dress (a symbol of purity that is meant to be cast aside) but eventually descends into cruelty and defilement. If one cares to look for it, though, everything in the film is corrupt in some manner. There's your crucifix revealed as a hidden dagger. There's your jump rope -- a harmless children's toy -- fashioned into a suicide's noose. There's your scene with Francisco Rabal buying an abused dog's freedom only to have another pass him by unnoticed (the futility of doing good works in a Godless world?). This all leads up to the famed beggar's-banquet sequence, as magnificent and anarchic a setpiece as ever devised by the brilliant director; the infectious energy, harmless at first, turns messier and angrier, with a pitstop for a potshot at Da Vinci's "Last Supper." By the dissolate end of the feast, all Pinal's noble intentions have been literally smashed to rubble. Buñuel's sprightly prankish spirit conceals a film that's bleak and cynical, a wrung-out comedy in the way that Little Murders is a comedy; when a beggar says at the climax, "Don't worry, miss. We're all decent folk," it's meant as an ironic joke, but the laughter it provokes is hollow and choking. Satire doesn't get much more slashing than this.

Grade: B+