Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Week of July 28th:

Frenzy (1972): Everywhere I look, there's a darkness... Alfred Hitchcock's darkest joke is also one of his grandest, an iconic wrong-man thriller given a contemporary viciousness and pumped up to Kafkaesque levels of persecution, and Jon Finch is in his own way the perfect protagonist, so beaten down by life that a murder rap is just another thing for him to impotently defy. But here's the thing: While a good deal of the film (especially the ride in the potato truck) is sick squirmy fun, there's something that most people miss or at least don't feel like discussing. Hitchcock beats Michael Haneke to the punch a good 25 years prior to the latter's ascendancy in indicting his audience for what they're not walking out on. Pay attention to the structure: The opening half-hour shows us a callous society obsessed with bloodlust, lacking any basic concern for the downtrodden and joking through in that black, head-down British way ("In one way I rather hope he doesn't [get caught]. We haven't had a good juicy series of sex murders since Christie. And they're so good for the tourist trade."), and we figure yeah, it's all a nasty larf, innit though? Then comes the uncomfortable rape and murder of Barbara Leigh-Hunt, shown to us unsparingly and unedited so that we're smacked full in the face with the ugly atrocity of it all. For a minute, you can see Hitchcock disgusted with the society he sees around him and letting both birds fly. Lovely, lovely indeed. Grade: A-

Heartbeat Detector (2008): Starts off vague and barely connected to itself, with emphasis on atmosphere and intimation; what with the air of mystery and the obsession with music, the general feel one gets from the first half of this is that of an Olivier Assayas film but without Assayas's intimidating formal command. (There's a party scene that falls just short of being a direct lift from Cold Water.) Then the film stumbles into its answer-everything phase, and it goes from being irritatingly insubstantial to teeth-grindingly obvious. By the final monologue, my ability to care about the lessons director Nicolas Klotz was trying to impart had more or less atrophied to nothing. There's probably a fine film in this undisciplined mess, and that fine film is probably a lot shorter than the 130 minutes over which the film stretches. At least there's Mathieu Amalric, giving doing his usual solid work in the service of nothing much. Also: While I'm sympathetic to some of the film's political stance, isn't this essentially a cinematic representation of Godwin's Law? Grade: C

Horror of Dracula (1958): Robust re-interpretation of Bram Stoker's oft-filmed horror classic. Between Terence Fisher's nicely atmospheric direction, Peter Cushing's authoritative portrayal of Van Helsing and Christopher Lee's justly-famed turn as the Count, there's a lot to like here. It's easy to see why this was a starmaker for Lee -- he has the dapper countenance and charisma of Lugosi, yet his version of the Count is far more feral and savage. Simply put, he makes the vamp feel dangerous again. Good job, everyone. Grade: B

The Lovers (1958): Here's your incandescent Jeanne Moreau. Here's your young, vibrant Louis Malle giving his all in deconstructing another genre after the triumph of Elevator to the Gallows. Here's your fashionable emptiness wielded like a straight razor three years before L'Avventura. Here's your rich-man/working-class dichotomy as a social-commentary structure without feeling cliched or obnoxious. Here's your slow-burn ground-floor plot leading into an unexpected explosion of deliberate fairy-tale magic realism. Here's your still-potent black-and-white eroticism (the scandal is understandable). Here's your surprising glimpse at Jeanne Moreau's titties. Here's me feeling pretty satisfied. Here's me kinda falling in love with Louis Malle. Grade: B

The Naked Venus: (1959): About as good as a nudist-camp film could ever be, really. For one thing, it's got a real director behind the helm -- Edgar G. Ulmer, the poverty-row auteur best known for Detour. The clean black & white photography helps as well. The film's best innovation, though, is exceedingly simple: The nudie-camp scenes (which are surprisingly scant) serve the plot and not the other way around. That said, this is really no more than a trashy divorce-court TV-movie potboiler that, on occasion, shows us some titty. It's a friggin' masterpiece next to Diary of a Nudist, but it's still just a nudie-camp movie. Grade: C+

No Telling (1991): Ground-level modern-dress mutation of the Frankenstein story gains a lot of force from the simple act of being a character piece first and a horror movie second. Director Larry Fessenden, also responsible for Habit and Wendigo, has a special talent for using horror elements as an expression of emotional distress, and here the standard toying-in-God's-domain megalomania experienced by government scientist Geoffrey Gaines is an illustrative flipside to his relationship with his ever-more estranged wife Lilian. His attempts to create new life bump up against his inability to keep any life within his marriage. (There's also metaphorical import in the couple's stumbling, unsuccessful attempts to conceive a child.) Earnest, well-acted and very placid, this nonetheless rewards the patient with a genuinely pathetic nightmare figure at the end, where Geoffrey's attempts to control Nature literally fall apart before him. It's a little bit horror, a little bit social commentary and a little bit tragedy. Grade: B

Storm Troopers U.S.A. (1969): What the fuck is this? Really, I can't describe the delirium that wafts off this strange, ill-advised Florida-lensed motherfuckery. There's a prologue that compresses Nazism into a five-minute history lesson, then there's some manner of plot that involves a modern-day Nazi splinter sect in America trying to rain terror down upon the populace by storming into a hotel and taking everyone hostage, then they're all undone by their libidos and there's some fight/chase scenes that are unexpectedly enjoyable if only for their convincing savagery. And that's just the bare outline. I haven't even gotten into the daffiness on the side, like the mind-blowingly awful choreography in the sequence where a mole in the Nazi organization is murdered or the cheesy charms of the three sailors on leave who float through this film like walking adverts for America awesomeness. Apparently, this never received a theatrical release, which doesn't surprise me, as people's brains might have melted on contact. Really rather amazing, this one. I'd go on, but you should really just see it for yourselves. Best ten bucks you'll ever spend. Grade: B+

Trigger Man (2007): Minimalist spin on the Deliverance genre is, if anything, way too minimalist -- there's a fine line between "nothing" happening and nothing happening, and Ti West's screenplay lands firmly on the wrong side of the line. Furthermore, West's technique stymies his intent; while something like this really calls for rigorous discipline a la Gus Van Sant's Gerry, West instead belongs to the handheld shake-n-zoom school of filmmaking. The general paucity of incident and the unsteady camera cancel out any potential positive effects that might have arisen from each technique individually, so what we're left with is in essence a really bad home movie. The bit with the female jogger: time-padding at its lamest. Grade: D

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Quick announcement: Because I apparently feel I don't have enough to do, I'm now penning weekly reviews for a relatively new culture-centric site, Halo-17. My inagural review last week was of Larry Bishop's dreadful Hell Ride. This week it's Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two. I'll put up a link whenever a new review goes live.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Week of July 21st:

Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958): I'm not sure this film is actually intended as a comedy. I guess the situations conceived by director Mario Monicelli are buffoonish enough to qualify as intended amusement, but a pallor of failure coats the characters, so that most of the jokes land with a wet thump and the actors are reduced to a lot of flailing and shouting in order to make the film seem livelier than it is. Didn't make me laugh, at any rate. What a sad bastard of a movie. Grade: C

Diary of a Nudist (1961): Congratulations Doris Wishman! You achieved something with this nudist-camp-expose that I didn't think possible: You made tits seem boring. I mean, Nude on the Moon was no great shakes, but it comes off like goddamn 2001 compared to this dispiriting jigglefest. Also: Having naked kids running around in addition to the acres of nude femme flesh may have helped your "just education" case if Johnny Bluenose decided to sue on grounds of indecency, but that doesn't stop it from feeling really creepy. No wonder this genre died an unlamented death. Grade: D+

A Night to Remember (1958): Archetypal British prestige project, for better and for worse: This detailed tapestry about the sinking of the Titanic is meticulous, sober and respectful, festooned with dignified professionalism in front of/behind the camera and mostly free of histrionics. It's also as dead and bloodless a film as you're ever likely to see. Sometimes keeping a stiff upper lip means that you're just stiff. Given a choice between this and James Cameron's cheeseball melodramatics, I'll take the latter every time. Grade: C

A Song Is Born (1948): Seven years seems like an awfully small turnaround window for a director to be remaking his own film. But even Howard Hawks needed to get paid, so here's a jazz-age redux of Ball of Fire. The main surprise: Despite the legendary director's extreme distaste for the film, it ain't bad. The structure of Ball of Fire is left more or less intact, yet enough room is left for some terrific musical numbers featuring the likes of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and a number of other musical greats. Also, the charming Danny Kaye is a marked improvement over Gary Cooper, if for no other reason than Kaye doesn't come off like he's made of oak. Hawks's direction, unsurprisingly, is pretty perfunctory (the climactic musical-number-as-ambush is as lazy and slack as anything in any great director's oeuvre); meanwhile, Virginia Mayo tries her best, so I guess I can't fault her for not being Barbara Stanwyck, but the difference is noticeable. Still, if it's not on the level of a classic, it's still a pleasant diversion jam-packed with great tunes. Nothing wrong with that. Grade: B

Tell No One (2008): And now, a thought experiment for those of you who've seen this film. Close your eyes and imagine the no-doubt-in-the-works English-language remake. Let's just say that, as an example, hack extraordinaire Gary Fleder was at the helm of this remake. As for a screenwriter for the adaptation... oh, I don't know, let's assume Wesley Strick. Just let your mind spool through the plot and see how it might appear. Got that image? Hey, isn't that funny? It'd be exactly the same moronic, contrived film, wouldn't it? Some things, it seems, transcend translation. Grade: D+

The Violent Professionals (1973): Awesome, over-the-top Italian police drama about a loose cannon cop who decides to avenge the death of a uniformed friend by going undercover and single-handedly destroying an entire crime syndicate. This meathead is pretty merciless, but then he is going up against guys who shoot pregnant women for no reason during the course of a bank robbery, so I guess you gotta be hard. Absolutely no good for anyone at all, but pretty deliciously entertaining in a one-damn-thing-after-another way; between the shoot-outs and the car chases and the beatings and all the silly '70s posturing and the occasional bit of inexplicable business (i.e. the bit where some low-level thugs have the cop strip jaybird-naked), I was never bored. Turns dark and cynical at the climax, as these things are wont to do. Grade: B

What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966): Woody Allen's "debut" film, a comically redubbed Japanese spy flick, is really kind of inexcusable. Irrepressibly sophomoric and silly, overflowing with bad puns, cheesy vaudeville gags and leering sex humor, this film should be an embarrassment... but goddamn, is it ever funny. I'd like to say I'm bigger than this, that I didn't giggle at a villain named Wing Fat, the idea of "a non-existent but real-sounding country," and a man threatening to have his mustache eat another guy's beard, but I'm not -- this made me laugh a lot. If only everyone's juvenilia could be this much fun. Grade: B+

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Week of July 14th:

Antibodies (2007): At this point, I'd say that the twin influences of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en have arguably been even more damaging to world cinema than that of Pulp Fiction. Truth be told, this German genre entry isn't as bad as most -- André Hennicke cuts a menacing figure as the perverted antagonist (give the guy a couple choice roles and he could turn into the next Ulrich Mühe), and young director Christian Alvart demonstrates a striking eye for composition, especially in regard to his city/country dichotomy (country mostly darker earth tones, city filled with swaths of red and sickly greens amid high-contrast light). Unlike many of his ilk, Alvart might have the chops to someday stop stealing from David Fincher and actually become the next David Fincher... but first, he's going to have to do something about that thick streak of thundering pretentiousness that would embarrass even the guy who tried to make an AIDS allegory out of the third Alien movie. It's one thing to try and turn your garden-variety serial-killer movie into a treatise on the nature of evil; it's quite another to make it all a grand, galumphing Biblical allegory featuring a killer named Gabriel Engel and a climactic half-hour that references the story of Abraham and Isaac three times just to ensure that everyone in the audience gets a good whack in the temple by the symbolism shillelagh. I'll be keeping tabs on this Alvart guy, but he needs to calm the fuck down a bit in my opinion. Grade: C

Cloverfield (2008): I'm glad to see I'm not the only one whose major reference point when viewing this first-person disaster flick was Miracle Mile rather than The Blair Witch Project. Beyond that, this movie is surprisingly good in my opinion. The first-person gimmick is well-utilized, revealing and withholding information (narrative and visual) as needed without feeling cheap; neither does it make a big deal out of it and drown itself in ouroborian self-referential douchery a la Diary of the Dead. The acting isn't Oscar-caliber, but it's as good as it needs to be to get across the character types. There's also a solid sense of place, which gets into what the film does best: By giving us believable group dynamics coupled with a sharply-detailed sense of panic and fear and parceling out information on a need-to-know basis, the filmmakers have (purposefully, I'd wager) crafted the potentially best metaphor-for-9/11 horror movie one could hope for. Grade: B+

The Dark Knight (2008): Why should I write anything about this when so much is already available on the great big World Wide Internets. Especially when one of those things is Kent Beeson's Watchman article, which is stellar to the point of being definitive. I should add that the emphasis is indeed on the human need for belief, much as it was with Christopher Nolan's previous film The Prestige, which opens the window towards a more spiritual-minded inquiry. Someone else more intelligent than I should unpack that thread some day, as I really need to see both this and The Prestige more than once before I attempt that. Short version: Awesome stuff, exciting and thought-provoking in equal measure. Losing David Goyer's phone number was the smartest thing Nolan ever did. Grade: A-

Earthquake 7.9 (1980): It's like Japan looked at Earthquake and said, "Like all American products, we can make that cheaper!" The problem is that films are not cars, and when you try to do Irwin Allen on a John Cassavetes budget, all you end up with is a shoddy, cruddy embarrassment. For those keeping tabs, there's about forty minutes of soap-opera plotting, then there's about ten to fifteen minutes of quake destruction, and then there's another forty minutes of melodrama and emoting and tears except now everyone's either wet or on fire. The quake effects are actually pretty cool and more savage than expected (a dude gets eaten by the earth!); everything else in the film stinks of sadness, shit and failure. Most dispiriting aspect: The screenplay was written by Kaneto Shindô, who in better times wrote Fighting Elegy and both wrote and directed Onibaba. How far the mighty have fallen, etc. Grade: D

Five (1951): Sometimes obscure films are obscure for a reason. Case in point: Arch Oboler's high-concept post-apocalypse allegory, in which the whole of humanity is reduced to five individuals living together in a mountain cabin and trying to restart humanity. The terrific opening five minutes promise a dynamic, chilling what-if narrative that never shows up; what we get instead is a flat, logy film that talks its ideas into concentric circles and makes its characters serve the lockstep narrative rather than letting a story arise from believable conflicts. Ending unexpectedly nasty, at least until it jumps at the first glimmer of false hope. (Not that I'm endorsing blind nihilism, but the sudden turnaround after the third act's hell descent rings hollow.) Oboler later gave the world a notoriously awful pair of stinkers in Bwana Devil and The Twonky, and somehow I'm not surprised. Grade: C

He Ran All the Way (1951): Sweaty, paranoid film noir, a potential precursor to The Desperate Hours, about a high-strung young man who commits a payroll robbery, watches it all go bad and holes up in the apartment of a young woman he meets at a public pool. John Garfield, in the lead, strikes a rather impressive balance between charming and frightening -- his mercurial squirminess captures the idea of a nice guy trying to act the big shot, his toughness a facade for loneliness and panic. Shelley Winters is also good. What with the film being crafted by several persons caught in the blacklist fervor, it's easy to read metaphorical intentions into the film's depiction of a man helplessly struggling against a situation until it seems all the world is united against him; even without that, though, it's solid stuff. Grade: B

The Horse's Mouth (1958): Alec Guinness is stellar in this British eccentric-artist flick, turning in a far better performance than the film really deserves. Not that there isn't the elements of a great film here -- oftentimes, it works quite memorably as a ruminative drama about creativity and self-destruction, a Portrait-of-the-Artist-as-Bastard work which nevertheless keeps a lighter touch that helps it from succumbing to the kind of wearying misanthropy that mars, say, Love Is the Devil. It's then a damn shame that director Ronald Neame confuses lightness and silliness, allowing the good parts of the film to be interrupted by a raft of far-too-broad comedy. Gets better as it goes, and thank God -- the first twenty minutes or so are enough to induce headaches. Grade: B-

The Lineup (1958): Tight, pulpy crime drama with an ace in its sleeve. Don Siegel starts the film as the kind of police procedural one would expect from a film based off a TV show that was created in the wake of "Dragnet," but the focus shifts for good once hired thugs Dancer and Julian get off a plane from Florida. The odd-couple contrast between the two (Dancer is a violent trigger man; Julian is a suave brains-type who likes to record people's dying words in a little notebook) seems straight from stock, but Eli Wallach and Robert Keith sell it uncommonly well. Wallach is the real MVP as the unhinged Dancer, and the film tends to follow his lead -- he starts as composed as his partner in crime, but as things get grittier his psychotic side becomes more prevalent, and as he gets more violent, so The Lineup gets tougher and more lurid. Siegel's talent for hard-hitting, punchy action is in full flower even at this early stage in his career, and like his adaptation of The Killers, he gets a lot of mileage out of the simple shock of carrying the violence a step further than expected. Were that all television adaptations this neat. Grade: B+

Rolling Thunder (1977): This movie would be terrific if it didn't want to be Death Wish. Like Bob Clark's Deathdream, this deals with the discussion about Vietnam-era post-traumatic stress disorder by framing it inside a genre film; unlike Clark's film, director John Flynn isn't much interested in using it beyond plot reasons. One wonders what the original screenplay by then-neophyte Paul Schrader looked like -- I imagine it would have borne closer resemblance to the excellent opening half hour, in which William Devane struggles to adapt to a home life he no longer fits into after returning from seven years in a POW camp. This section of the film is so compelling, with Devane turning in a lovely, quiet performance, that it's a major disappointment that the plot decides it would rather be about a merciless vigilante. What was a fine character study subsequently devolves into a mean, dumb and violent road-trip/revenge movie, with the added bonus of a completely useless shaggy-dog subplot involving policeman Lawrason Driscoll. To watch Devane and Tommy Lee Jones, fantastic as a fellow soldier for whom awkward, haunted silence has since become a way of life, is to pine for the movie that could have been. Grade: C+

Toys Are Not for Children (1972): In what dank, slimy fucking hole did Something Weird find this? And is tehre anything else in there? Stanley H. Brassloff's glorious grindhouse fable is several degrees more ambitiously crafted than the average sleazoid platter-burner. It's also several degrees more ill. The narrative is textbook Electra-complex stuff -- young Jamie Godard (Marcia Forbes, creepily convincing) gets stuck in arrested development after her parents split, eventually developing an unhealthy attachment to the dolls and stuffed animals her absentee father would send her as gifts. This bodes not well for Charlie (Harlan Cary Poe), the man she marries at film's outset, since our Jamie at this point knows nothing of the sex act; it bodes even worse for him (and everyone else) after she slides into a life of prostitution via Pearl (Evelyn Kingsley), a matriarchal friend and professional whore who might know where to find Jamie's daddy. The rest of the film should really be experienced as cold as possible; suffice to say, everyone's ugly, venal and out for their own gain, none more so than Jamie, who despite her naivete and lack of guile has a plan in mind the whole time. The depths this plumbs are really rather icky, yet there's a fascination about it all, not only from a how-low curiosity stance but from the fact that there's real technical and narrative accomplishment here. Especially surprising is Brasshoff's occasional use of achronology, skipping across time to show how events and mindsets connect to form Jamie's warped world (most effective instance: careful editing used to suggest both young Jamie and current Jamie watching a pivotal argument between Mom and Dad). We're given, in essence, a life refracted right before it shatters for good. Queasy, voyeuristic and wrong on every possible level, but unlike most skinflick fodder its trangressions pack a real gutter kick. Grade: B

The Tracey Fragments (2008): Bruce McDonald's quasi-experimental teenpocalypse is pretty fabulous from a technical standpoint, with the screen fragmentation providing both a sharp approximation of the average flighty teenage mindset and a better commentary on modern information overload than Southland Tales. I could watch this on mute all day if I had to. But the story... oh dear, the story. I'm not annoyed that this tale of a wayward girl named Tracey (the ubiquitous Ellen Page) indulges in cliches aplenty; no, the film truly falters when it strikes out for unexplored territory. With restless, compelling image splintering like we get here and imaginative detours like Tracey's tabloid reverie, I'd forgive this being just a film about the kind of volcanic teenage angst we get in films like thirteen. But when the narrative hinges on a young boy being hypnotized into believing he's a dog, or when the retarded rising action of the film climaxes with a conveniently-placed aluminum can lid, my generosity dries up pretty fucking quickly. Still worth watching in the literal sense anyway, and there's also Ms. Page, proving that her sardonicism remains appealing even stripped of wit and tilted towards toxic. Grade: B-

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Week of July 7th:

Breakfast of Champions (1999): Kurt Vonnegut's great, grumpy midlife-crisis novel is about as close to unadaptable into cinema as a novel can get because it's propelled almost entirely by Vonnegut's omniscent narration. Any director brave enough to attempt such an endeavor would need to recognize that the plot of the work is secondary to the tone (the book continues for some fifty to sixty pages after the climax of its ostensible plot); as such, capturing a mood and a point of view would be more important than moving the characters from Point A to Point B. Alan Rudolph's unfairly reviled run at the novel, then, can despite its faults (of which there are many) be seen as a interesting interpretation. The tone vacillates from mugging chaos to quiet despair, and while the more outsized portions of the film don't really work, the contemplative and downcast scenes work about as perfectly as they could be hoped to work. Acting is erratic as well (Omar Epps turns in a puzzling man-child performance that might be the worst thing anyone's done in front of a camera in the last ten years), but Rudolph gets a marvel of a performance out of Bruce Willis. As faltering car salesman Dwayne Hoover, Willis tilts his natural tendencies towards wiseassery and smirkiness just enough so that it feels desperate, the behavior of a man who's losing the battle to paper over the cracks in his carefully-controlled facade. Willis and Albert Finney, as misanthropic sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout, represent the true soul of the narrative, and everything surrounding them is mere noise; their ultimate meeting propels both men towards epiphanies that preserve the ideas of Vonnegut's narrative while remaining a bit more hopeful. (If "Make me young" in the novel is a cry of helplessness in the face of the feeling that your life has been wasted, the film frames it as a serene striving towards a paradise that exists beyond the edges of a human's fragile mental stability.) Rudolph's film is imperfect, but to say he doesn't at root get at and communicate what the story's about is to be obtuse. Grade: B-

The Edge of Heaven (2008): Hermetic and didactic in equal measure, Fatih Akin's contribution to the irksomely popular everyone's-connected genre brings nothing to the party that wasn't already covered as badly as possible by Babel and Crash except a different set of languages. Clumsy screenwriting rife with enough contrivance and coincidence to gag a goat sink this one with a quickness. Just the "Temple of Love" scene in Head-On is superior to the entirety of this. Grade: C-

Funny Games (2008): Even more so than Gus Van Sant's Psycho, Michael Haneke's English-language Xerox of his notorious audience-baiting anti-thriller proves that shooting the exact same movie twice won't result in the exact same movie twice. It could be a consequence of the act of meticulous, fussy recreation or it could be a mere quirk of translation, but what felt mean and unexpected in Austria comes off as studied in the United States. Furthermore, Michael Pitt is a poor substitute for Arno Frisch -- his particular brand of smarm comes off as foppish, not menacing, with his condescension borne out of haughtiness instead of cruelty. That said, the material is still hideously effective, and if Pitt falls asleep on the job, the remainder of the cast more than ably picks up his slack. Especially Brady Corbet. An intellectual curiosity, to be sure, but it's still Funny Games. Grade: B

Hancock (2008): This movie would probably be a lot more interesting if it knew what exactly it wanted to do. Some of the comedy works (when it's not being blunted by the editing) and some of the ruminatory responsibility-of-heroism drama works (when it's not being subsumed in treacle), but the tones manage to mesh exactly once ("Oh, no you didn't!"); most of the time, it's like watching two films that keep interrupting each other. Acting is uneven as well: Will Smith once again subverts his image to great effect, but Jason Bateman's coasting and Charlize Theron turns in the single worst performance of her career. Then there's Peter Berg's horrid direction. Everyone's on Christopher Nolan's stick for his visually confused action scenes, but he looks like Don fucking Siegel when compared to the butchery Berg's whipped up for this film. His whip-blur action direction looks like he's trying to get his Greengrass on, but all it tells me is that he couldn't direct a bullet out of a gun. Despite all the negativity, I think this film does have moments (the bank robbery centerpiece is pretty great). But it could have been way better. Grade: C+

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008): Superior in pretty much every way to the first Hellboy for one reason -- Guillermo Del Toro has stopped pretending he cares about the human characters in this universe. Everything that works about this film (the cleaner, less splayed-about plotting; the mind-melting visuals; the villain who is actually given enough screen time to be a presence) stems from Del Toro concentrating almost solely on the freakier aspects of the world with which he's playing. Still not perfect -- Abe's lovelorn subplot seems ill-advised, for one -- but at least this second installment delivers on the rip-snorting entertainment/eye-candy gluttony promised by its offbeat premise. Grade: B

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952): Michael Redgrave was the shit. Oscar Wilde was the shit. Anthony Asquith was, if not the shit, a perfectly solid British director who could be counted on to class up the projects he took. Thus, this movie is mostly the shit: a well-timed, expertly acted and sharply funny filmic adaptation of a theatrical perennial. Rupert Everett and everyone else involved with that asinine redux that came out a few years back should be bloody well ashamed. Grade: B+

Lifeboat (1944): Now this is how you do propaganda, folks. Taut, skillfully crafted close-quarters thriller never lets its ideological concerns get in the way of Alfred Hitchcock's intent to provide grand, exciting entertainment. Hitchcock's direction is typically masterful, making the most of the setting's claustrophobia and using physical crowding as a metaphor for mental/ideological friction; John Steinbeck's screenplay, meanwhile, works with subtlety in unexpected ways (even the German villain is not shown in mere black-and-white terms) while parceling out its plant-and-payoffs in expert fashion. Surprisingly gritty and violent for the era, as well -- the impromptu amputation must have been a real jolt in the '40s. Terrific stuff, really; I think I'm gonna go buy some war bonds now... Grade: A-

Shine a Light (2008): Part concert documentary, part meditation on aging. Martin Scorsese's filmed record of a two-night stand by the Rolling Stones is foremost just that -- recorded concert footage. As such, it's a pretty good entry in the genre; the Stones aren't in their heyday anymore, but they can still blow the hat off the house when they get rolling ("Sympathy for the Devil," "Brown Sugar," an awesome version of "Champagne and Reefer" with Buddy Guy) and I wish I had could muster up the kind of energy that Mick Jagger, a man nearly forty years my senior, can apparently summon at will. But there's no getting around the fact that he is old enough to collect Social Security, and there's also no denying that the first couple of songs ("Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Shattered") find the band struggling to find their groove. Scorsese deals with this gap between what the band was and what they are now by splicing in interview footage from various points in their history, so that their progress from rock-n-roll bad boys to icons/traveling nostalgia act is always in the back of the mind. Considering how often the Stones' music pops up in Scorsese's films, there's a certain level where one could infer that Scorsese is thinking not just of their march away from youth but his own as well. Shine a Light is a blast, yet there's something slightly melancholic about it. Not for Jack White, though -- he looks like the happiest boy in the universe when he shows up for his onstage guest shot. Grade: B+