Playing Catch-Up — Get Low; Ex Libris: New York Public Library; What We Do in the Shadows

get low

Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2009). A wry comic drama all baled up in folksy charms, Get Low is so thoroughly pitched toward star Robert Duvall’s strengths that its difficult to imagine the film existing in a universe without him. Duvall plays Felix, a curmudgeonly man living a hermit’s life in the woods outside small Southern community in the nineteen-thirties. He emerges from his seclusion in order to stage an early funeral, presumably so he can hear what the townsfolk might say about him. Eventually, it becomes clear that Felix is really using the event as a means to edge toward a confession about the dire mistake that sent him guiltily into solitude in the first place. Aaron Schneider presents the material with a personality-free base capability that makes the already drab material settle into a misty Hallmark Channel doze. There are some nicely lived-in performances among the supporting cast — Lucas Black and Sissy Spacek are the strongest — but the lead role too often invites Duvall to resort to colorful indulgence, a tactic Schneider clearly welcomes.

 

ex libris

Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, 2017). On the basis of the grumbling reactions of the viewers around me at the completion of Frederick Wiseman’s latest direct cinema documentary, I feel compelled to emphasize that the venerable filmmaker’s lengthy, firmly unadorned approach to depicting the workings of the New York Public Library might not be to everyone’s liking. It’s effectively the polar opposite of Michael Bay: all substance, no bombast. To me, Ex Libris is an object of near-endless fascination as it quietly, insistently makes the case for libraries as vital hubs for communities. They are founts of learning, erudition, support, and engagement in an era of hollowed-out spectacle and venomous anti-intellectualism in the broader culture. With methodical care, Wiseman observes the myriad ways the New York institution bolsters the citizenry, including after-school programs, senior citizen engagement, and implementing a municipal program to provide internet access to people who would otherwise be in digital darkness. Because Wiseman simply points his camera and avoids edits for as long as he can, interest is always prone to waning if he spends too much time in an area the viewer finds dull. I had no problem with the repeated and necessarily repetitive administrative meetings, but the slam poem — which usefully demonstrates the diversity of library programming — felt endless to me. A recent Twitter dust-up about the viability of libraries ended with the dimwitted pundit who initiated the whole thing conceding defeat in the face of heated counterarguments. He could have saved himself a lot of grief had he watched Wiseman’s documentary before opening up his tweet-hole. It’s inconceivable to me that anyone could sit through the film’s three-plus hours without coming to the iron-clad determination that the enduring institutions are a pure public good.

 

shadows

What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, 2014). I had to do a little homework before my weekend moviegoing, you see. This comedy — structured as a rundown Real World with vampires sharing a flat — is understandably adored by many. I find it hit-or-miss, but the hits are plentiful and usually strong enough to make the clunkers wholly forgivable. Co-director Waititi is especially funny as the sweetest, most vulnerable member of the blood-sucking household. Waititi and co-director Jemaine Clement also deserve praise for actually building discernible, engaging storylines into a comedic approach that usually default to scattershot plotting designed to leave room for whatever random assemblage of gags are generated during the filming process. The clearest comic victory, though, comes from the crew of werewolves led by a genially insistent alpha played by Rhys Darby. The humor derived from the roaming pack of lycanthropes is the most inspired realization of the film’s merging of the fantastical and the mundane.

Ozu, Polley, Sullivan, Tourneur, Zenovich

Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (Marina Zenovich, 2013). Richard Pryor had a live that was singularly amazing (deeply troubled childhood, an impact on the art of stand-up comedy like no other and a personal life fraught with peril and bad decisions), so much so that it seems almost impossible to contain it within a single film. He couldn’t do it with the thinly fictionalized Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, and Marina Zenovich–inadvertently, no doubt–does her level best to prove that the documentary feature format similarly has no hope of containing the man’s unbalanced magnificence. She clicks through the basic data points of Pryor’s life adequately, but he never comes vividly to life, an especially problematic given that unbridled vividness was among Pryor’s greatest gifts. Zenovich built her most notable previous documentary, again a portrait of troubled celebrity, on building a case of faulty absolution. Without a similar end goal, the director almost seems disengaged, sinking her film with a dearth of passion.

Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011). Sarah Polley’s feature directorial debut, Away From Her was tender, intelligent and empathetic. Her sophomore outing is, in some ways, the complete opposite. Creating an original script (rather than adapting an Alice Munro story, as she did with Away From Her) proves more difficulty. Lacking the structure and insights provided by a skilled writer (a Nobel Prize-winner, no less) Polley winds up with a meandering, emotionally rickety tale of a marriage splintering, in part because the wife becomes infatuated with another man. The story is so muddled that it even humbles the heroically inventive actor Michelle Williams, whose usual capability to share the deepest nuances of her characters can’t rescue the material. That she has to play key, heavily dramatic scenes against badly miscast costars like Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman only compounds the problems, though not as much as Polley’s most poorly judged diversions. The worst of these is a bizarrely unnecessary extended montage of experimental sex engaged in by the two lovers.

Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu, 1953). The tenderest of films, Tokyo Story is widely considered to be not only Yasujirō Ozu’s masterpiece but indeed one of the historic peaks of cinema (ranked third on the most recent iteration of the vaunted Sight & Sound poll). It’s undoubtedly a careful, beautiful work, depicting an elderly Japanese couple’s excursion to visit their grown children and the unexpected, quietly heartbreaking aftermath. Ozu focuses on the ways that distance builds up between the people who are theoretically supposed to be the closest–the kids find ways to avoid spending time with the parents, the parents ruefully discuss the ways the children have wound up as disappointments–which only serves to make his depicting of the uneventful progression through life all the more melancholy. The small connections–made for whatever reason, under whatever circumstances–are the finest grace that can be achieved, something Ozu acknowledges without feeling the need to underscore it, a restraint the elevates the beauty of the whole piece.

Special When Lit (Brett Sullivan, 2009). The history and enduring nostalgic culture of pinball games is especially fertile ground for a documentary, and Brett Sullivan heaps an admirable amount of material into his film, from the disrepute of the device for many years to the freakishly devoted collectors and competitors of today. Eventually, he puts a little too much weight on an annual pinball tournament, undoubtedly hoping for the same sports film structure that once bolstered the entertainment value of Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. With Special When Lit, though, it’s a misstep. The individual participants and their respective sagas haven’t been developed enough to make the outcome truly matter, from a dramatic standpoint. The film is far better when it’s dishing out widely different slices of life, all beholden to the trajectory of a silver ball.

Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957). A characteristically moody and unnerving horror film from a director greatly adapted at painting with shadows. Dana Andrews plays an American skeptic who comes to London for a conference where he’s prepared to debunk stories of the nefarious mysticism of a satanic cult. Naturally, he begins to find the reality a touch more troubling than he expected, especially when he partners with a lovely young woman (Peggy Cummins) to get to the bottom of the suspicious death of her professor brother. Jacques Tourneur wanted to build the film on mounting darkness and relative subtlety, but, being the nineteen-fifties, the producer and studio were more invested in getting a monster in there. The beastie they imposed on Tourneur is actually pretty spectacular in its design, even if it had the rubbery stiffness typical of the era (then again, so does Andrews). The bigger problem is that the creature is revealed far too early, eliminating uncertainty about whether its hucksterism or truly paranormal problems that are besetting the protagonists. It’s a compromised film, to be sure, but Tourneur’s stylish gloom makes certain that it’s at least interesting.

Donen and Kelly, Frankenheimer, Salina, Skolimowski, Téchiné

Flow: For Love of Water (Irena Salina, 2008). Because there are few things we enjoy in our house than watching documentaries that offer an assessment, in painful detail, of how humanity is engaged in self-inflicted extinction through carelessly destructive exploitation of one of the most necessary substances for human existence. It make for a fun night of movie-watching. Real popcorn fare. Irene Salina’s film is compelling and suitably frightening, although it occasionally tangles itself up because there’s simply so much ground to cover. As admirably as it presents the scope of the problem, there are definitely times when it seems preferable to have a film that instead concentrates on one particularly telling story, such as Nestle’s incredibly nasty machinations in Michigan. Still, Salina’s efforts are sturdy and admirable, making Flow a solid example of cinematic journalism.

Moonlighting (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1982). A key early film for Jeremy Irons, Moonlighting casts the future Oscar winner as the head of Polish work crew that has been sent by their boss to illicitly remodel his London flat. While there, the first Solidarity protests break out in their homeland, effectively cutting them off from their families, a fact that Irons’s characters keeps from the workers, in part to make sure they stick to the job in front of them. As modern independent film increasingly threatens to drown in its own thick quirkiness, there’s a irresistible nostalgia to a film like this. There was a time when art-house fare was far more likely to be built on quietly insightful observation and nuanced performance. Writer-director Jerzy Skolimowski crafts a film that’s almost shocking in its elegant simplicity.

The Train (John Frankenheimer, 1964). A stiff-lipped World War II drama centered on a French railway inspector who uses all manner of deception and feigned complications to thwart a Nazi officer’s attempts to commandeer a vast stockpile of art masterpieces for the Third Reich. Since the French railway inspector is played by Burt Lancaster, he doesn’t have an ounce of European refinement to him (the actor doesn’t make even the slightest attempt at an appropriate accent), but he also seems like he could snap the whole German army right in two if it came down to it. He also radiates the sort of self-confidence it would take to pull of the massive scheming required. John Frankenheimer’s directing is rigorous, intelligent and just a touch too stolid to really give the film the spark it needs. There’s a strong sense that it would benefit from being a bit more fun, a little more raucous, embracing the backwards heist aspect as readily as it luxuriates in the transplanted nobility of its docudrama plot.

Singin’ in the Rain (Stanely Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952). It’s remarkable that this film was largely considered a slight affair when it was made, almost a throwaway, certainly in comparison to An American in Paris, the Oscar-feted effort that Gene Kelly made with director Vincente Minnelli the year before. It was primarily a vehicle for recycling some of the lesser-known entries in the MGM catalog of songs written by the studio’s Arthur Freed, with nearly every number pilfered from a prior musical. That included the title song, which first appeared in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Those modest aspirations yielded a film that can make a hard-to-dispute claim to be the finest musical ever created in Hollywood. An enormous amount of the credit for that is undoubtedly due to Kelly, whose conceptions of the musical numbers demonstrated an unerring sense of how to best take advantage of the strengths of his fellow performers, or even disguise their weaknesses. He could see that the fluid charm and boundless energy of Debbie Reynolds was going to help carry her through a lot, but he also knew that he’d better find a way to bring in Cyd Charisse when he had something more demanding in mind. I maintain that Kelly’s rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain” is the single greatest scene in film history, but I must admit that this time around I got the greatest pleasure from Kelly’s fantastically joyous duet with Donald O’Connor on “Moses Supposes.”

The Girl on the Train (André Téchiné, 2009). André Téchiné’s drama about a young Parisian woman (Emilie Dequenne) who has a somewhat directionless life is fascinating less because of what it says about society’s reactions to sensationalism and the transgressive need of some to earn that affection than the unique nature of its narrative structure. Dequenne’s character leads a somewhat directionless life, in part because she can’t quite hone down her awkward idiosyncrasies effectively enough to get herself into the conventional workforce. When her boyfriend endures an especially brutal fate due to some illicit activities he undertook, rupturing their relationship, she makes an especially troubling, even inexplicable choice. In a more conventional version of the story, the film’s third act would essentially be the entirety of the film, but Téchiné instead opts to treat the crux of the narrative as almost an afterthought, which serves to heighten the callous flippancy of his protagonist’s choice. It’s a soft, ruminative approach that he employed to lesser effect in his next film, but it works nicely here. It’s a movie about the corrosive allure of melodrama, after all. Playing it as lean and straight as possible makes the stark folly of the film’s central choice all the more tragic.

Jason, Milestone, Minnelli, Scorsese, Shelton

Humpday (Lynn Shelton, 2009). While I don’t always give the background on my viewing choices, I will note that this finally made its way from out queue to our screen in preparation for watching Lynn Shelton’s excellent follow-up. I’m mostly sharing that to give myself a public chastisement. Humpday is pretty terrific, providing a surprisingly plausible narrative progression to an utterly implausible scenario. Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard play old college buddies whose reunion after several years apart winds up involving an odd pledge to make a man-on-man pornographic film together, in direct opposition to their heterosexual tendencies, for Seattle’s HUMP! festival. Shelton has a beautifully understated style, but she doesn’t forget the value of smart narrative technique–a well-placed edit, a telling piece of dialogue–that suggests a focused skill behind the looseness. The movie is consistently funny and surprising wise, absolutely nailing the way that baldly accepted male hierarchical one-upsmanship can be a nearly inescapable trap.

The Mad Miss Manton (Leigh Jason, 1938). Consider it a mere warm-up for the far superior pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve three years, and The Mad Miss Manton is an reasonable curiosity. Entirely on its own merits, the screwball comedy about a wealthy socialite and her wealthy friends getting mixed up in a stuffy newspaperman’s investigation of a murderous conspiracy is a little daft and drippy. Stanwyck is terrific as always, flint, charming and bulldozing her way through scenes. Fonda, on the other hand, hasn’t yet found his footing in film, pressing too much in a manner completely at odds with the winning naturalism that would eventually be his calling card.

Who’s That Knocking at My Door (Martin Scorsese, 1967). Only Martin Scorsese could make a convincing film that includes a scene of young man wooing a woman he’s just met by earnestly and enthusiastically discussing the John Ford film The Searchers. Scorsese’s debut feature, expanded from a student film, is all ragged edges and amateurish charm, sort of a first draft of the later masterwork Mean Streets with its lost and questioning street-smart hero struggling to contain his thuggish instincts as he falls in love with a girl who represents the innocence always denied him. Harvey Keitel is even in it, playing J.R. instead of Charlie, ridiculously boyish in his instinctual, quietly charmed and charming performance. Scorsese’s skills aren’t fully evident, but his passion is squarely in place, giving the film a bracing energy recognizable as the predecessor of the seismic achievements to come.

Edge of Darkness (Lewis Milestone, 1943). Now here’s some full of craziness, a bold, brash war film with outsized ambition about a Norwegian village that fought back against Nazi occupation in World War II. Taken from a novel by William Woods and written for the screen by Robert Rossen, who’d direct such greats as All the King’s Men and The Hustler in the future, the film is all vividly heightened drama as the resistance leader played by Errol Flynn (a character wonderfully named Gunnar Brogge) rallies the largely compliant or fearful citizens to wrench control of their home from the Nazis, even if it can only lead to a massacre on both sides. Even when the storyline seems a little rote, director Lewis Milestone brings a gonzo emotional ingenuity to the proceedings, making the film flush with such grandiosity that it starts to seem like the only reasonable way to capture the intensity of war.

The Clock (Vincente Minnelli, 1945). This sweet, wistful drama about a young soldier on his way to the front in World War II who falls in love with a young woman he meets in Penn Station is an agreeable trifle that’s most notable for a handful of trivial tidbits about the production. It features a massively impressive set that’s a recreation of the bustling New York City train station, it was the first starring role for Judy Garland that didn’t necessitate a musical number and it was her second outing with director Vincente Minnelli (after the previous year’s Meet Me in St. Louis) who would become her second husband less than a month after the film was released. Garland is quite good in the film, as is Robert Walker as the G.I. she falls for, but there’s finally not much to it. The Clock is a wisp of a thing, detrimentally favoring soft charm over any hint of complexity.

Brooks, Hansen-Løve, Noyce, Polanski, Teshigahara

The Quiet American (Phillip Noyce, 2002). Occasionally there will be a movie that adheres to a classic narrative structure that is also stolid, humorless and painfully dull that a small but vocal bundle of critics will tout as a dwindling example of cinematic material created for adults. I get that full-time critics were spending the end of 2002 gritting their teeth and covering their eyes while watching supposed comedies and franchise-killing sequels, but they still needed to grade on a helluva curve to find nice things to say about this dire adaptation of the Graham Greene novel. Michael Caine received his sixth and perhaps final Oscar nomination as a British journalist stationed in Vietnam in the early nineteen-fifties, reporting on the end of one war and gradually realizing that American agents are laying the groundwork to bungle into another. Award attention or not, Caine is leaden in the role, withdrawn and internalized to a fault. At least he’s respectable, a term that can’t be bestowed up Brendan Fraser, entirely out of his depth as a compromised American. Philip Noyce directs with a sedateness that suggests he’s concerned he might wake someone if he’s not careful.

The Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2009). Writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s ruminative drama focuses on a French film producer named Grégoire, played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing. He has a reputation for prioritizing artistry over profits, and it gradually becomes clear that this has put his company into a dire financial situation. His hectic work life is contrasted with the far calmer, clearly nurturing time he spends with his wife and three daughters. Hansen-Løve’s approach is so relaxed that it’s initially difficulty to determine exactly where the film’s gravitation pull is coming from. Then the film takes a grim turn, and it becomes clear that there’s a sly upending of narrative conventions at play against a European considerations of fate, mortality, love and family that is characteristically chilly. The film is perhaps too formally refined to provide the sort of emotional tug that would be gratifying, but Hansen-Løve’s covert shrewdness can’t be denied.

Deadline – U.S.A. (Richard Brooks, 1952). Just the third directorial effort by Brooks to be released, Deadline – U.S.A. is a stern snarl of film noir, casting Humphrey Bogart as the editor of a big city newspaper who gets word that the publication’s sale to a competitor is pending and they’re sure to be shut down. He starts his own fiery crusade to save the paper, either by nabbing the one big story that will prove the value of the the hard-hitting journalism he and his cohorts practice or through arguing against the validity of the purchase in court. Brooks taps into the sweaty urgency of the story, ultimately packing the film with characters and competing storylines slightly past its breaking point. In particular, a subplot centered on the pending remarriage of the ex-wife of Bogart’s character starts to feel a little obligatory. It’s sadly amazing how pertinent some of the film’s commentary on journalism remains.

Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski, 1962). Roman Polanski’s feature directorial debut is, in many ways, simplicity itself: a couple picks up a hitchhiker on the way to an overnight excursion on their boat, eventually inviting him to join them out on the water. The film is a study in competitive psychological bullying as every combination in the trio, but especially the two men, engage in bitter bouts of immature one-upsmanship. While not every detail in the script Polanksi wrote with Jakub Goldberg makes perfect sense, the director has style to spare and always strikes the right balance between style and clear, concise storytelling. He’s clearly finding his way somewhat, but the visual panache that was his trademark for the bulk of his career is already winningly evident.

Pitfall (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962). Pitfall is the debut feature from Hiroshi Teshigahara, who years later became the first Asian nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director (for The Woman in the Dunes) and still remains the only Japanese director besides the great Akira Kurosawa to be so cited. The film is dreamlike–even boasting a touch of the surreal–as it follows the conflict between dueling unions at a couple of different area coal mines. There is an almost spectral menace that sets the misery into motion with the assassination of a seemingly unrelated figure, an action that may or may not have been intentional. Teshigahara directs with a sublime steadiness that is instrumental to the film remaining effective as ghosts and other untethered elements come into play. It merges mood and political pointedness in striking ways.

Arteta, Feig, Hayward, Malick, Ritchie

Youth in Revolt (Miguel Arteta, 2009). This was Arteta’s first film in almost a decade after some quick, buzzy success to kick off his career. All the time between features didn’t eliminate his slightly arid style, which has a tendency to deaden the drama after a while. More problematically, the film exhibits a offbeat pushiness as it heaps in quirky details and disaffected anguish. It simply tries to hard. Michael Cera plays a sweet, timidly pining young man who conjures up an imaginary tough-talking alter ego who drives him to get the girl while also slipping deeper into a quicksand of miserable trouble. The only appeal to the whole thing is getting a glimpse of how Cera might approach a role that deviated significantly from his stock persona, although here it’s too much of a contrivance to really allow him to show what he could do. As the woman who wins his heart, Portia Doubleday gives one of the most uncharismatic performances in such a role since Iben Hjejle nearly sunk 2000’s High Fidelity.

Jonah Hex (Jimmy Hayward, 2010). Here’s a safety tip: if you build a drinking game connected with the viewing of Jonah Hex that requires taking a slug every time the title character’s full name is spoken, try to be consuming a beverage more forgiving than vodka when you do it. Of course, it’s not honestly advisable to watch Jonah Hex under just about any circumstances. A woebegone adaptation of a fairly oddball DC Comics series about an Wild West gunslinger, the film is a muddled mess, astoundingly ill-conceived from start to finish. John Brolin snarls his ways through the role, but the makeup effects that place some bands of scarred skin running like a footbridge across one side of his mouth also impede his ability to speak, making most of his tough-guy lines sound like they’re being delivered through a round of gargling. Even John Malkovich playing his villainous role with the sort of visible disinterest and contempt that he usually brings to these paycheck roles doesn’t generate enough amusement to make the endurance test of watching the film worthwhile.

Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978). Well, it’s plainly a masterpiece. For all the appropriate praise heaped on the imagery and the cinematography credited to Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, I think it’s Malick’s writing that stands as the strongest element of the film. The story of a trio of itinerant workers who briefly settle on a Texas farm in 1916 is narrated by the youngest member, a teenager played with a staggering naturalism by Linda Manz. It’s as rich and deliberately spare as a minimalist novel with Malick doing his best to wring meaning and import out of every little word, every tiny gesture, every glance at a better life up the hill. The film is a clear cousin to it’s predecessor, Malick’s 1973 feature debut Badlands, but that earlier effort’s earthiness and edgy humor are replaced by a blooming poetry. It’s debatable as to whether it’s Malick’s finest work–and a case can surely be made as it is–but it’s undoubtedly the film that defines him as a cinematic artist.

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011). I understand the marketing logic behind pitching this as a sort of “Hangover for Girls!,” but it sure does the film a disservice. As opposed to the ludicrously overpraised Todd Phillips comedy, there’s actually a story here beyond the glancing crudities and improvisational scraps. It’s not an especially novel one, but it’s told with just the right mixture of bravery, warmth and aplomb to overcome some of the slack in the film’s construction. Kristen Wiig plays a woman whose capability to sink every lower into her stalled mid-life funk is compounded by her best friend’s pending marriage and the evident picture-perfection that comes along with it. Wiig regularly overdoes it in her showcase moments on Saturday Night Live, but film has generally brought out a far more appealing subtlety in her approach, and Bridesmaids even proves she can genuinely act, investing her character with a believable coil of vulnerability, frustration and regained grit. Feig’s direction is largely of the shot-reverse-shot efficiency that he’s honed in television, but he also has a knowing way with emotional balance that keeps key moments from getting too harsh or too maudlin. And if he’s the one who figured out that Jill Clayburgh was the exact right person to play Wiig’s mother then he deserves extra credit for his efforts.

The Candidate (Michael Ritchie, 1972). It may now be looking as rickety and unsafe as a jalopy in a Ma and Pa Kettle movie, but it’s worth remembering that the American political system has been broken for a long, long time. It’s been nearly forty years since Jeremy Larner won an Academy Award (over both Luis Buñuel and Louis Malle) for writing this withering, resigned deconstruction of the endless compromises that go into taking a handsome fella from fervent idealism to viable candidate for the United States Senate. Robert Redford plays the main character, and if it’s not exactly a deep, intricate performance, it’s surely one that ingeniously exploits the actor’s magnetism and star power. There’s probably nothing in the film that a modern audience would find especially shocking, but it still offers a bleakly comic portrait of the apparently impossibility of introducing ethics into the country’s political process.

Carpenter, Cronenberg, Ford, Truffaut, Wright

Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011). Well, I’ll say this for director Joe Wright: He’s not going to be pinned down. He made his feature debut with a Jane Austen adaptation and followed that with a prestige picture based on a Ian McEwan novel. Then came a fairly drab issues picture largely about the homeless community in Los Angeles. The bank shot away from that reunites him with Atonement Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan for a bizarre action film about a teenage girl who was raised in isolation to be an unstoppable assassin. The film is balanced awkwardly between stylish action and moody artiness, rarely finding its true footing. It lacks enough insight and cleverness to be wholly satisfying and attempts to add characters shaped by satiric instincts around the fringes of the story only serve to make it more of a muddle. Cate Blanchett plays a government agent that becomes the target of the title character’s surge for revenge. It’s a shockingly bad, overplayed performance from an actress who once seemed capable of accomplishing absolutely anything onscreen.

Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002). Novelist Patrick McGrath adapts his early nineties work for the screen, and David Cronenberg directs it with a gloomy restraint. There’s certainly plenty of psychological meatiness for Cronenberg to sink his sharp teeth into, but there’s a general lack of zest to the work. It’s solid, but it also feels a little like the director marking time, waiting for real inspiration to strike. Ralph Fiennes plays a man released from a mental asylum and taking up residence in a grim halfway house. He’s haunted by the pains of his childhood, which he manages to fully step into and observe. Fiennes is the master of internalized emotion, but he takes that skill perhaps too far. His character becomes a shambling cipher. Miranda Richardson, however, is blazingly sensational in a performance that essentially encompasses multiple roles. Over the years, her uniquely forcefully approach has tended to overwhelm the roles she takes on, but she finds the perfect match for her talents in Spider. I almost wanted her to take a bow after the closing credits and leave the stage for good. It’s almost inconceivable that she finds another opportunity that suits her better.

A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009). This heartfelt adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel suffers somewhat for a pronounced case of First Time Director’s Disease. Fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford seems determined to build so much style and technique into the crafting of the film that he often loses sight of the important task of telling his story in a meaningful, penetrating way. That improves as the film progresses as Ford starts showing up less and simply ceding the heavy lifting to Colin Firth, playing a nineteen-sixties closeted gay college professor in mourning for his partner. Further constrained by a society still unwilling to acknowledge the value of his love–even his best friend, played by Julianne Moore with the flamboyant authority of a flung boa, can’t help but see his long-term relationship as something of a phase he should be able to easily shake off–Firth conveys the restrained, roiling agony of his character with devastating empathy. There are many who feel that Firth’s Best Actor Oscar should have this title etched into the based instead of The King’s Speech. He’s excellent in the film he won for, but the advocates for the greater worthiness of his work in A Single Man surely have a point.

Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1962). One of the films that defines French New Wave, François Truffaut’s film about two friends and the young woman they both love–at different times, in different ways–is another sterling example of the French director’s almost unmatched feel for the intricacies of human emotion. The film is also packed with Truffaut’s playful approach to the mechanics of filmmaking. He tinkers with the image, the frame, the soundtrack, the lighting in ways that open up all the possibilities of film, which in turn expand the potential of the narrative itself. Rules aren’t made to be broken with Truffaut; they’re made to be adored and repurposed, rambunctiously applied in inventive new ways. As is the case with all of Truffaut’s finest work, he seems to be reinventing the language of cinema not by discarding it, but by embracing it. The schism of that is a joy to watch.

Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974). For his directorial debut, John Carpenter collaborated with his friend Dan O’Bannon on a story about a spaceship deep in outer space that is the locale for a series of especially vexing problems, including a hostile alien shaped like a giant undulating beach ball and an explosive device that malfunctions, deciding that it needs to explode just below the hull of the craft, a decision in announces in a creepy, calm voice that marks it as a cousin of the HAL 9000. Shot on the cheap and in the spare time of the collected cast and crew, the film is jubilantly amateurish as it simultaneously spoofs and pays loving homage to the science fiction genre. It’s not exactly something that can be called good, but it’s surely enthusiastic, coming across as a scrappy precursor to any number of YouTube mini-epics made by people who love movies so much that they too want to point a camera and yell “Action!”