Sunday, October 28, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 10/21/2012

All About Eve (1950, Mankiewicz) **** A

Well, now I have to watch BORN YESTERDAY to see the performance that kept Bette Davis from the Oscar in one of the fiercest performances of the decade. Davis is the fading though still undeniably great star, and it's not hard to see that Davis is drawing on painful personal experience as her Margo Channing is slowly obsolesced by her conniving superfan-cum-amanuensis, the titular Eve (Ann Baxter). The rest of the cast does superb work (George Sanders was justly Oscar'd for his turn as a bitchy, Machiavellian impressario/theater critic), and at the half point Marilyn Monroe debuts like the real-life megaton bomb(shell) the fictional Eve is meant to represent. Baxter isn't as indelible as Davis, but perhaps that's by design in a film that mourns the way great actresses are cast out in favor of the new pretty thing, long before their own Awesomeness Expiration Dates.

My only real quibble is the "start at the end" framing device, which isn't particularly necessary, and deflates much of what should be revelations about Eve and her true intentions. This but seems to have been an extremely popular trope during Hollywood's golden years. Almost never does it work for me; not here, not in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, not in SUNSET BOULEVARD, not in . . . well, let's say it works infrequently, even in movies I think are landmark achievements in other respects. Am I wrong about this? What was the deal, classic movies?

The Searchers (1956, Ford) ***1/2 (B+) 

Sorry, but no, this isn't one of the 5 or 10 or 20 best movies of forever times, as seems to be the consensus these days. Which of course (as I apparently feel compelled to say any time I give less than four stars to a canonized movie) doesn't make it bad. Ford is an understated master as always; it's a gorgeous movie full of gorgeous shots, and Wayne is a powerful presence, but half the movie belongs to charisma-hole Jeffery Hunter and his oft-delayed betrothal to fellow charisma-hole Vera Miles (at least those crazy kids have something in common), which consistently derails the other much more interesting movie that keeps trying to happen. That movie is unquestionably great, though I think the film's rather inevitable ending (you're not going to end your picture with John Wayne murdering Natalie Wood) tries to let Ethan off the hook in a way that doesn't work after two-plus hours of vileness. Also, anybody who thinks that this movie is an outlier of racial sensitivity is forgetting the Indian bride played for yucks. (To say nothing about the stock "retarded" character, who is purely meant as comic relief and is about as funny as a clown*. Seriously, what the hell is it about 50s and 60s Westerns that thought that a retarded man or a dwarf or a retarded dwarf was necessary even in an otherwise dramatic piece? I don't see TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD interrupted for a five minute scene of Billy Barty getting drunk and making hilariously lewd advances on Dill — which, now that I've typed that: yes, of course that would be better). Still, credit where due for presenting Ethan warts and all, as both a brave man of action and a miserable racist son of a bitch, and to Wayne for committing his considerable screen presence to the endeavor. It's strength is in letting us sort it out, which does leave us with a much more nuanced moral landscape that your usual 50s oater. You know, even with the cop-out ending.

*Clowns are not funny. They are horrible.

Surf's Up (2007, Brannon, Buck) **1/2 (C+)

You know what? I think I've seen enough kids movies cut from the exact same wan 'hero learns a lesson' template. (The lesson in this case is: enjoy the experience, not the accolades. Is it learned? By the hero?*) Manages watch-ability primarily via (1) some occasionally nifty integration of the animated characters into what appear to be real backgrounds, (2) Jeff Bridges' reprisal as The Dude in animated surfer penguin mode and (3) fairly breezy sense of humor that never seems to be taking itself seriously. The faux documentary trope drops in and out as the plot demands, though the talking head portions are probably the most entertaining. "Thoroughly inoffensive" sums it up well.

*Yes, and yes. I suppose after all it's good that the protagonist's arc involves his learning not to care if he wins or loses, since that was my starting point.

The Master (2012, PT Anderson) ***1/2 (A-)

There's an extraordinary moment near the end of THE MASTER in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman repeats the word, "two." I won't give the context since it comprises a minor spoiler (and I'm pretending these are being read by people), but it was the moment for me that I decided that Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, cult founder, leader, author, and all around flim-flam man, really believes the new age time-travel past-lives moonshine he's peddling — which, come to think of it, might be what he sees in Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disaffected, sex-obsessed, disturbed and violent WWII vet who stumbles into his orbit. Apparently, Freddy is also a savant with a very odd specialty; he is preternaturally skilled in making hooch out of fuel, turpentine, and whatever other obviously poisonous household products are at hand. Nor is this a matter of necessity; Freddy appears to prefer his swill even when premium liquor is at hand. Stranger still, so seemingly does Dodd. Or, perhaps, Dodd simply appreciates a man willing to get high on his own supply. Sure, sometimes others get sick or even die from this shit, but they themselves never do. They are, as Freddy puts it, "smart about it." Down the hatch.

That's Dodd is full of it is never something the film really leaves in doubt, though the movie isn't particularly interested in exposé (it evokes Scientology but doesn't seem to mirror it). An early scene depicting a confrontation between Dodd and a skeptic proves conclusively that this "Master" is all potato and no chip. But still...his methods are effective in breaking down emotional and psychological barriers, and in fact his methods seem as though they could conceivably be of occasional benefit, if only they were stripped of demagoguery. Hoffman's imbues Dodd with the sort of charisma and intelligence that makes you *want* to believe, at least in the moment, that he's telling the truth. He's a man who know exactly what he thinks, and exactly why, which can be intoxicating even after you've figured out that what he thinks is ultimately full of nothing.

Which brings me to Paul Thomas Anderson, a man seemingly in possession of limitless formal skills as a filmmaker. I'll see any of his movies, for no other reason than the sheer intoxication of watching an artist who knows exactly what he is doing and why. Like Altman, or or Kubrick, or Scorsese (or many dozens of others to whom PTA is less frequently compared) we know in each film we are contending with intelligence and intentionality in service of craft. Anderson does extraordinary things as usual with image, with dialogue, with performance and (perhaps especially in this case) with sound, to create at all times a sense of deep experience. What's not clear in this case is whether or not it's ultimately full of nothing. Which is my extremely long-winded way of saying that I really sure as we sit watching this movie we are doing, what it's supposed to mean, or even if there is meaning to be had.

It's certainly possible that this is one of those films whose layers will reveal themselves over time, upon reflection and upon subsequent viewings (look: most 3.5 star reviews are not getting a review anywhere close to this long). But my initial impression was one of context excised. In some cases the missing context is overt and serves the story well (e.g., the fact that we aren't showing the meeting of Freddy and Dodd is because Freddy was blackout blotto and doesn't remember it; leaving it out underscores Freddy's role as our 'point of view' character). Nevertheless, my mode was one of constant expectation of a revelation that never really came, a constant "wow, this is really interesting to watch, and I sure wish I knew why it is supposed to be as compelling as I feel I should find it."

There's a moment around the middle of the run time when Dodd breaks down Freddy by forcing him to spend the day with eyes closed, walking from one end of a room (wood paneling) to another (glass window) and each time forces him to describe what he feels. It's pointless, it's repetitive, and the way it is shot and scored and acted had me on the edge of my seat for the catharsis that it seemed to think it was presenting, but I never really saw the point of it and I still don't. It's possible that Anderson has with THE MASTER become, like the Master, the delivery mechanism for a giant sham.

But if it is just a sham, it's a hell of an entrancing sham. I'll watch it again.

P.S. I don't know how I get out this review without talking about the performance of Joaquin Phoenix, who . . . holy crap. It's got to be one of the single most bizarre things I've ever seen. All crazy angles and distortions, his body and face a mess of discomfort, he's playing a young man who has somehow managed to make himself elderly, a bundle of muscle and rage turned inward on itself until it become sunken-chested weakness, filtered (I shit you not) through Popeye. It shouldn't work, it's horribly contrived, and it is inescapably believable. Hoffman does great work with a known archetype. Phoenix creates some sort of insane new archetype that will probably disappear forevermore.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 10/14/2012

Inglourious Basterds (2009, Tarantino) **** 1/2 A
"This work has been totally misunderstood" is the essential subtext of many of Quentin Tarantino's digressions (whether in life or by in-movie proxy via one of his characters) upon pop-culture ephemera and serious art and everything in between. Tarantino has served up everything from the true meaning of TOP GUN (homosexual proselytizing) to Superman (Clark Kent as the hero's cultural criticism) to (within this very film) KING KONG (white America's fear of black men). For crying out loud, were one to watch the entirety of the QT oeuvre chronologically, the very first scene would feature a character played by Tarantino himself, providing a (somewhat convincing) exegesis on the what Madonna's "Like a Virgin" really means. His signature style prominently involves recontextualization of existing work. No, he keeps insisting, this isn't about that. It's actually about this. This work has been totally misunderstood.

Having said all of that, Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS has been totally misunderstood, and, given that the director himself seems to promote the misunderstanding, I am left to wonder if he isn't punking the film world, or if he understood that the film he actually made wasn't marketable and thus agreed to market a different one, or if even the Great Gazoo of Subtext himself has failed to realize what his movie is REALLY saying.

This isn't a Jewish revenge picture. It's not even a revenge picture. It's a commentary on propaganda in film. It is perhaps the first movie I've seen that really takes a look at the fact that Nazis have become in our pop culture essentially inhuman beasts made for and fit for slaughter, rather than human beings guilty of terrible crimes. This is not to say that Tarantino has made an apologia for Nazis, but it does a brilliant thing: it forces an audience (an American audience in particular) to confront their reaction to pop-culture-assisted dehumanization. Imagine the scene, played out in multiplexes across the land; a group of people in a movie theater watching INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. Onscreen, a group of Nazi hoi polloi sit and watch a film about a German war hero, cheering each death of each dehumanized soldier. Suddenly, two parallel revenge schemes hatch simultaneously. Our heroes gun down Nazis like. . .well, like the vermin they are, while the rest of them burn to death, and the matinee audience for Quentin Tarantino's ostensible 'revenge' flick cheer this mass killing (probably) like . . . well, like the on-screen Nazi's who were just whooping it up as they watched the fictionalized death of a dehumanized enemy (QT even lets the Basterds kill Hitler to take the movie unmistakeably out of the realm of historical reality and into the realm of abstraction). The bait is taken; the trap is closed. The real-life audience has been put in the place of the film-life Nazi. It's a beautifully subversive way of presenting the theme.

Oh, also, it's beautifully shot, acted, and written, with three of the best suspense set pieces of recent memory ("Landa orders milk", "three glasses", and "Landa orders milk again") and the funniest punch line of the year: "Buon giorno!" This is Tarantino's best movie since PULP FICTION.

St. Elmo's Fire (1985, Shumacher) 1/2 (D-)

Short: This was not a good movie and I did not like it and I did not like the people in it and I did not like the things that these people did and I did not like the way what they did was presented either aesthetically or thematically.

Long: Boy, this isn't any good at all, unless you're looking for a vicarious laugh at the Eighties-ist of all things Eighties (To cite just one example: Rob Lowe in a sleeveless shirt and skinny bandana and poodle hair totally and unironically striking a bad-boy rock pose while, um, playing sax. Yeah.)

Shot with the eye for craftsmanship, composition, and trenchant detail we've come to expect from a Joel Shumacher film, ELMO'S follows a bunch of whiny, entitled, spoiled, unlikeable brats as they graduate from college and proceed to become miserable. At the end, they are still a bunch of whiny, entitled, spoiled, unlikeable brats (except for Mare Winningham and sort of Ali Sheedy) who now go to a different bar (spoiler). The film, while acknowledging that some of the characters are making some bad choices, clearly expects us to find most of them endearing and charming from start to finish, instead of vacuous losers (Moore, Lowe, McCarthy) or budding serial killers (Estevez, Nelson, also sort of McCarthy just on general principles). It also expects us to believe that Andie MacDowell is a doctor, which is against at least three articles of the Geneva convention.

Good song to roller-skate to, though.

8 1/2 (1963, Fellini) **** (A)

This movie just keeps unfolding further every time I watch it, and I find myself at a loss as to what to say except "watch it, and for the love of God please don't try too hard to understand it." Probably has the most seamless transitions from past to present of its kind. (Does anybody know, was it the first to do that trick? It seems unlikely for the release date, but it strikes me here as an entirely new trope.) Does surreal as well as any other Fellini I've seen, and Fellini does filmed surrealism as well as anybody whose name is not "Luis Buñuel." Mastroianni performs effortless deflation of his effortless cool with each new angle of his odd hat. The harem scene is hilarious and lacerating. The final freak parade is beautifully forgiving and celebratory. I really like this.

Oldboy (2003, Park) ** 1/2 (B-)

Huge points for style and for employing plot twists that at least make sense in the moment. Unfortunately most of those points get docked right back off again because I don't care for nihilism simply for its own sake. Still, the scene that I will call "A Man, A Plan, A Hammer: Hallway" has to make anybody's all-time list of amazing fight scene choreography (that said choreography makes use of impossible physics should be considered a feature, not a bug), and the parallels between the opening shot and a girl on a bridge are admittedly gorgeous. I just wish at the end I had even the slightest reason to give a crap.

Caveat: I watched this on a Netflix streamer that only had an English dub available. It was decently done as far as those things go, but I really hate non-Studio-Ghibli dubs, which seem to lean hard on the extraneous appended "huh?" in order to make the audio sync to the lips, and usually employ much worse actors than the ones who originally delivered the lines. It's possible that a subtitled version would make me more generous.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (2012, Darnell/McGrath/Vernon) ** (C)

This movie wasn't very realistic.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 10/7/2012

Lots of stars given out this week. What can I say? I tend to see movies that people I trust say are very good, and people I trust have gained that trust by being right a decent percentage of the time.  I'll try to get grouchier next time.

Mary Poppins (1964, Robert Stevenson) **** (A)

I think it's probably become diminished from the over-familiarity of some of the songs and scenes, but this comes close to being the best movie for families ever produced. It manages to be age-appropriate and engaging down to the very young (my kids loved it starting at age three) without losing charm or relevance for adults. It doesn't hurt that almost every song is a classic, lyrically and musically. Hard to miss how retrograde the gender politics are, given that the mother is essentially a witless dingbat, though even including a major suffragette story — with shout-out to Mrs. Pankhurst — in the background probably counts as a victory for Mad Men era Disney.

Van Dyke's accent is laughable, which is sort of the point for a character(s) clearly meant as comic relief, but he's also impossible not to watch, all rubber limbs and daffy grin. The children manage to seem headstrong and real without crossing into unforgivably bratty, and Andrews deftly manages to keep just enough of the title character's prickliness without ever making her less than charming. What sticks with me these days, though, are the visual flourishes, many of them sad or eerie: nannies like black handkerchiefs blown down the street. silhouette of chimney sweeps against the sky disappearing down the pipes (this is perhaps my earliest movie memory), Mr. Banks taking his slow walk to be sacked in a board room out of German expressionism; the classic shot of Mary's descent-upon-umbrella; and all those beautiful outdoor sets.

I also think there is evidence in the "text" of the movie that Mary Poppins is an ageless being who was once Burt's nanny, and probably his Uncle Albert's before him. But that's a story for another day (and probably for Neil Gaiman to tell).

Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese) **** (A)

Scorsese's dark poem of loneliness and alienation and menace still reverberates, even after the ubersleaze Manhattan of "Taxi Driver" received a "real rain" of sorts (courtesy not of an angry God, but of Rudy Giuliani — same diff?) . Watching this again after perhaps a 15 year absence, I'm struck by (1) how gorgeously it's shot; I'd remembered it as a grainy sort of color-drained Dogma 95 template, not Michael Chapman's flood of night-reflections and vivid color; and (2) the potential surrealism, which may not be precisely the right term, but given that our narrator is decidedly untrustworthy even to himself, I found myself wondering if/when we might be seeing the action filtered through the unhinged perceptions of our main character. Is the 'hero montage' following the shootout real? How real? Unsure if the final "chance" encounter with Shepherd isn't a return to obsessive stalking, though it played ambiguously to me. Not usually a fan of voice-over, though really how else can you get into the head of Travis Bickle? Is he talkin' to us? Is he talkin' to us?

Starman (1984, John Carpenter) *1/2 (D)

Man, was this weak sauce. Everything about this screams "80s TV movie" except for one scene in the opening minutes in where the alien incorporates as human, passing through some truly Carpenter-worthy stages of body horror before coming out the other end as Jeff Bridges with feathered hair. After that, they may as well have had one of the 2nd string directors on season 3 of "Simon & Simon" at the helm, with boring pacing, camerawork, and...I don't know, boring everything. The love story that develops is creepy in the extreme, given that it doesn't effectively deal with the fact that the Starman is posing as the husband of Karen Allen's grieving widow, and thus is playing on emotions that neither of them is really processing. I don't think that Bridges' sometimes-lauded, Oscar-nominated turn has held up that well, perhaps because it's become the template for every other Gentle Alien Too Good For Our Violent Species over the years. I suppose he should get credit for being the least annoying example of the annoying archetype he sort of created here, and he does do some subtle work, but I'm still going to blame him for co-starring in K-PAX (in the non-alien role) and taking Kevin Spacey right down the tubes for 12 years (and counting) now. As for the special effects, suffice to say, I envision BACK TO THE FUTURE snapping at STARMAN, Mark Wahlberg-style: "I'm the guy from your era that still looks cool today. You must be the other guy."

Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier) ***1/2 (A-)

Lars von Trier's most recent flawed-but-brilliant movie opens with one of the most astonishing collection of images I've seen in film, each a high-definition diorama unspooling in ultra slow motion, each containing the vivid specificity, vague symbolism, and inchoate menace of a dream that's on the cusp of nightmare. It isn't a spoiler to tell you that the final image in this seqence shows an immense planet colliding with Earth, first dwarfing and finally annihilating it, because while some of these images come to pass, others don't, or else occur, but only on a symbolic level. Will the planet Melancholia really connect, or will it just be a signifier of some deeper emotional truth?

I don't know if it's a demerit against MELANCHOLIA that it never manages to live up to the promise of its opening — I'm not sure a narrative is up to the task (and part of me just wishes that the whole movie was just a series of similar beautiful intangible wonder).

In brief, the film is divided very formally into two parts. In the first, a just-married couple arrives for their reception at a palatial home belonging to the sister and brother-in-law of bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst), only to see the party destroyed in excruciating increments by the bride's crippling depression. In the second, Dunst returns to the mansion to recuperate, as the titular planet does whatever it's going to do: either making its slingshot orbit safely around Earth or else enacting the complete destruction we saw in the opening moments.

The wedding is barely discussed in the second part, while the planet is not mentioned at all in the first (the timing isn't clear, but it's possible that the characters are not yet aware of it), yet we are clearly encouraged to conflate Dunst's depression with the potentially all-destroying dark orbit of the planet. That this sort of gonzo metaphor is usually successful probably speaks to von Trier's skills as a formalist, but the broad application of it also unfortunately has the effect of divorcing us most of the time from emotional empathy with the characters, which might be a flaw in a movie that's about the destruction of all known life in the universe. It's enough of a misstep to make this a really good movie instead of a great one. Justine in particular seems more like an idea than a person, though Durst plays the hell out of that idea (it turns out she's capable of an alien glare that's chilling enough to suggest a life-snuffing planet.) She manages to put very old eyes into a young face. But she never quite works as a person.

Similarly, Justine's interesting proposition – that mass destruction might not even be so tragic given how awful people can be – doesn't connect with the impact it should, because the people at the wedding party are, while occasionally and to greater and lesser degrees awful, they seem to be abstractions, not real people who have the alleged real relationships with one another they purportedly have. They're all planets on disconnected orbits.

Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman) ***** (A+)

Astonishing. I'm actually going to wait until I've had a chance to take it in again (soon, hopefully), before writing extensively about this. Suffice it to say that it's on my short list for the greatest movie of the decade, an aching, surreal, confusing, heartbreaking, funny, beautiful rumination on the state of the human condition and identity and the nature of reality itself. I say this as somebody who hasn't been skeptical of many of the other big Charlie Kaufman films, but I can't recommend this highly enough. It's the film version of some miraculous union of Pynchon and Dostoyevsky and Kafka.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 9/30/2012

The Big Lebowski (1997, Joel & Ethan Cohen) **** (A) 
Jeff Bridges and John Goodman must have known that they were turning in career-defining comedic work every second they spent on the set of this beautiful shaggy dog story, which is, in true noir fashion, mainly just about itself and the flavor of its own particular milieu. That this flavor is drenched not in hard-bitten 40s urban cynicism, but rather in early-90s LA shaggy-dog goofbally slackertude is the running joke, but the truth is that there's not much more attempt to follow the actual logical thread of the mystery in, say, "The Big Sleep", then there is in this. Less, probably, given that you actually can figure out what's going on, if that's what matters to you. Endlessly watchable, endlessly quotable (a personal unsung favorite is "You want a toe, dude? I can get you a toe"). Only Sam Elliot seems out of place, though I would happily watch a documentary comprising just a camera following him as he tried to figure out what the tarnation movie he was supposed to be in, anyway.

Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Stanley Kubrick) **** (A)
It's a shame that Sellers died young, or he (like Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers after him) could have gotten rich playing multiple characters in comedies, some of them in fat suits, many of them farting.

Um, this is a really great movie. You all know that, right? Hard to imagine how bracing the comedy would have been to an audience who probably literally did expect to die in nuclear combat toe to toe with the Ruskies. The lunacy of the war room seems less and less like satire with every passing year, doesn't it? — even as we start to worry more about cheap nano-drones weaponized with IEDs and biological agents and less about nukes. Kubrick deserves extra-extra credit for committing to a comic tone all the way into the inevitable Armageddon. Imagine this film focus-grouped into a happy ending, and shudder.

The only thing keeping this from my pantheon of 5-star movies is the fact that there are a few blunderbusses too many; I get the sense that if Scott and Peter Bull (as the Soviet ambassador) had been allowed to play a little less the buffoons, the sui generis horror of Sellers' Strangelove would have been even more effectively hilarious by contrast. (Note that Sellers himself played straight man in his other two roles. President Muffly is practically Bob Newhart.)

Fat City (1972, John Huston) ***1/2 (A-)
Man, this has to be a frustrating movie for anybody who wants it to be the genre boxing movie it appears to be at the outset; the old pug (Stacey Keach) on his last legs who sees a diamond in the rough (Jeff Bridges, startlingly young) and trains him to glory.

Having set up this premise, Huston spends the rest of the movie ruthlessly subverting it. Keach basically turns Bridges over to his former trainer and proceeds to completely forget about him for the rest of the movie. The trainer fools himself into seeing the same promise Keach did, taking him out on the road for a Montage of Victory—and then the kid turns out to be not a diamond, but a zircon. I don't remember for sure, but it's possible we never see Bridges win a single fight. He and Keach rarely cross paths again, the kid follows some of the pug's same bad choices, and makes a few of his own. At the end, they meet up again, the younger several miles behind the elder, but both on the same bad road bending off into nowhere.

This isn't a boxing movie. What it is is a startling, unflinching, frequently aimless look at poverty lived out in urban nowhere, of long hard uncertain labor and short paychecks and life fueled by nothing but pure stubborness and drinking and bad choices and loneliness—which for some people happens to include boxing.

It's imperfect. Like its characters, it meanders. Sequences go overlong. But certain scenes keep with me: A long sequence in which Keach seduces a hot mess (Susan Tyrell, Oscar-nominated) with an imprisoned boyfriend with nothing but genial persistence and the repeated slurred phrase: "you can count on me." A brutal final boxing match in which it becomes evident Keach's challenger is in even a situation even more desperate than his own. The odd dignity with which one man reclaims his home and woman. And the bracing moment when Keach's washed-up palooka laments that he'll soon turn thirty years old. I'd been assuming he was in his mid 40s.

The Hunger Games (2012, Gary Ross) ** (C-)
Fairly drab and semi-sensical distopian fairy tale about Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), a teen from an oppressed district within a fascist regime, forced to compete with other children from other oppressed district in the titular annual battle to the death, which really...complicates her love life?

Look, I'm not saying that this is a story that can't be properly told within the given framework, but since very real atrocities against human dignity are on display (to say nothing of a sheltered and degenerate aristocracy made wealthy on the pain and suffering of the masses, whose deaths are served up as reality-show entertainment) you're really going to need strong characters for it to not seem like post-Twilight YA-novel pandering. Unfortunately, the male leads are competing slabs of blah, so focusing on the "Team Peeta vs. Team Gale" dynamics—which the source novel also does—is tone deaf and confusing. Basically this is a move that attempts to ruthlessly send up US reality-TV culture but then concerns itself primarily with the question "to whom will the Bachelor give the rose?"

Lawrence acquits herself as the material allows, but really only recalls how she played a very similar character in WINTER'S BONE. Woody Harrelson provides a spark of life as the district mentor and former contest winner, and then promptly disappears almost completely. Meanwhile, the games themselves, which you'd think would provide our hero with moral quandaries aplenty, by and large eschews all that. A few of the contestants are Very Saintly Good, a few are Pure Evil Incarnate, and the rest are Nameless Meat, but in any event they are all allowed to kill each other off-screen or in disorienting blur, by and large without Katniss' assistance. This allows us to stop considering the morality of murder in the name self-protection, and instead contemplate: what in the name of God is that.. THING growing on poor Wes Bentley's face?

3 Women (1977, Robert Altman) ****1/2 (A)
I'm really not sure what to do with the fact that: (a) no less than three of the grandmasters of film have made what is essentially the same movie; and (b) that this same film represents an apex or near-apex in terms of craft, thematic strength, or emotional intensity.

In short, this is Robert Altman's PERSONA. Unless it's Robert Altman's MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Though, of course, MULHOLLAND DRIVE would have to be David Lynch's 3 WOMEN by way of PERSONA, wouldn't it, since this film predates Lynches by 24 years? But then again, since all three movies deal in startlingly consistent ways with strong female characters (Spacek is as good as she's ever been, Duvall turns in a career-best performance), dream logic, suggested suicide, shifting power dynamics, fluid and transposing identities within overt questions about the nature of time and of reality itself . . .it feels more as if all three directors have delved deep enough to come upon one of the subterranean ur-stories.

I'm talking about three movies as I talk about 3 WOMEN. Suffice to say there's a deep analysis to be made between these three, but that would be after many more viewings than I've put in. What strikes me about this particular one is that Altman really isn't the sort of director to get so deeply into psychodrama or menace or abstraction as to produce something like this. It may be the true outlier within his filmography; it certainly qualifies as such within the movies of his I've seen. There's an utterly cracked dream sequence near the end that hits notes that I didn't know he had in him. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I didn't know he had any interest in hitting them; it's almost as if Altman himself were taking on an ulterior identity.

It's also the outlier within the triptych. I'd say that Altman is closer to Lynch than Bergman (again, Lynch came later, but Altman almost seems to be channeling him here). What Altman adds is his trademark sly humor (example: a dress keeps getting caught in a car door) and a third character (PERSONA and MULHOLLAND are strictly duos) who does little but provide the disturbing priapic-alien swimming pool murals (which themselves cast enough of a spell over the proceedings as to claim third-character status) until, in the final act, she comes hurtling in from the ether to deliver us from dream into bloody reality and disorienting finality.