Legally Blonde

2001 US Robert Luketic

Ah, the story of Elle Woods: seeming West Coast bimbo turned East Coast student at Harvard law. It's a good, simple, "high" concept executed to within inches of the formula. Some of the gags ("bend and snap") are moronic and repeated, but humor's not all bad. It should make you laugh; you'll have a good time. Unfortunately, whatever credit goes to the screenwriter and Reese Witherspoon (and Bruce Thomas as "UPS Guy"!) does not go to the filmmakers. The film itself comes out dull, boring, and—dare I say it—blonde. Not up to par with, like, Clueless.

Park Row

1952 US Samuel Fuller

Sam Fuller's [sincere] love letter to the ideals of a young American newspaper-business unfolds like a dime-bag version of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane—complete with a Declaration of Principles and a dose of wickedly-good images: tracking across the film's lone set, a reconstructed Park Row; closing in on characters, turning office balusters into jail bars; squeezing as much out of a buck as possible. Gene Evans plays Phineas Mitchell, a good reporter treated badly by his employer; he quits, then sets up his own rival press. Ex-boss now-enemy Charity Hackett, played fiendish dominatrix by Mary Welch, poses business and romantic problems, slithering, dazzling in her only film role. Let me tell ya: it's a powder-keg of an 83-minutes, without much let-up. And though it gets a tad sentimental, with too many speeches, we must remember that this is Fuller. If ever a filmmaker deserved to get a bit doe-eyed and romantic...

Merrill's Marauders

1962 US Samuel Fuller
✰✰ 1/2

Samuel Fuller's war films are all worth watching, but this one won't top any lists. It's about a stubborn, courageous U.S. Army commander who leads his men on a bushwhack through WWII-era Burma, cleaning out the Japanese. There are a lot of characters, not a lot of time to get to know them. War is shown as exhaustion, the winner being the one able to stretch himself the thinnest without snapping. Action itself is thick, 95 minutes without relaxation. One of the best sequences (there are several amazing ones) shows the effects of war by showing a handful of spots twice: once clean, before combat; once after, with bodies and destruction strewn all around. Interactions between foreign soldiers and native villagers are touching. Unfortunately, these highlights occur on an ordinary backdrop: film is workmanlike, for the most part. Fuller's toughness is here, but not quite his talent, his heart. Still, it's interesting to consider '62 and think of the film as sensing Vietnam.

Marley & Me

2008 US David Frankel
✰ 1/2

There's only one proper way to do a "dog film" without turning your work into mush, and that's by refraining from killing the cute, cuddly guy at the end. Marley & Me not only fails at this—but does so spectacularly, milking the death with cross-cuts (little kid watching doggy home videos / the dog being killed by injection) followed by a lengthy canine funeral. Neither Owen Wilson nor Jennifer Aniston are particularly good actors, which doesn't help, though at least Wilson keeps most of the goings-on goofy. Alan Arkin is a supporting pleasure. The story is predictable, formulaic; I didn't mind. The dog's antics are fun for people who like dogs. A sub-plot involving TV actor Eric Dane goes nowhere throughout the movie. I guess I should also say that this manipulative piece of trash made my eyes water. Damn you, David Frankel. Damn you!

Winter Kills

1979 US William Richert

I picked up this film-I'd-never-heard-of because it was mentioned in Greencine's "Political Thrillers" primer. Based on a novel by Richard (Manchurian Candidate) Condon; starring Jeff Bridges, Walter Huston, Anthony Perkins; a film "faithful to the book's overall melancholy tone"—what could possibly go wrong? How about this: it's either very, very bad or a freakin' pastiche! Melancholy mood, my ass. Any value the movie possesses is due to a few performances (hint: not Jeff Bridges) or the sheer strength of its unrelenting weirdness. Many of the scenes defy description. Others: Bridges arguing with Pop, then astride a horse, riding to some place up in the mountains (montage) just so that he can scream his frustrations to the wind. Is it stupidity, is it surrealism? I dunno. Whatever the heck it is, I didn't like it. I suppose other people think it's brilliant, so let's chalk it up to my own tonal wiring. I do admit it's colourful, though.

The New Protocol

2008 FR Thomas Vincent

Captivating, low-key French thriller about a father who loses a son and goes after the pharmaceutical company that may have been responsible for his death. As paranoia grows, so do implications of immoral business practices both within France and without. Throughout, however, Vincent's camera remains fixed in the grey everyday, grounding big ideas by expressing them personally rather than emphatically: car chases, conspiracies seen through the eyes of a grieving parent. Suspense, drama are earned. Debt is paid to the American paranoia films of the 1970s. The delicious Marie-Josée Croze plays a damaged, crusading nutjob (or is she?) who helps our hero in his quest. Ambiguity hovers like a fog, but the ending is an uppercut. The New Protocol explores the same territory as Fernando Meirelles' much-lauded and more-popular The Constant Gardener, but is the better film. A good, smart thriller—it's been a while. Original title: Le nouveau protocole.

Cry of the Owl

2009 CA Jamie Thraves

A harmless peeping Tom has the tables turned when he's caught in the act, and then increasingly coveted by his former subject. Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, the plot of this plot-heavy film makes almost no sense. Yet there's a certain glee in watching it unfold, every twist and turn leading further and further into zaniness; and there's a joy in the artificiality of the performances (Paddy Considine & Julia Stiles), the small perversions that you imagine lurk just beneath the surface. Ultimately, the film's flaws are unforgivable, but it was still funner to watch and subsequently fume-and-fuss over than loads of other, bad and sensible, movies.

The Caller

2008 US Richard Ledes
✰✰ 1/2

Yeah, it's a bit corny and too-much into Coppola's The Conversation—but can anyone truly resist Frank Langella and Elliott Gould? Once you buy into low-budgetry and lite politics, settle into a cozy zone and watch two great actors make the most of their roles. The set-up ain't too bad, either: a big-time exec with a guilty conscience and job at a shady international company pays a small-time private dick with a thing for birds to spy on him. There's also a French, wartime back story and some present-time relationships with women. Perhaps too much cynicism will ruin the film; but I was in a good mood, I bought in, I was moved.

The Baader Meinhof Complex

2008 DE Uli Edel

There's something to be said for portraying a series of based-on real life actions in chronological order; and something else entirely for showing those same actions in chronological order while also adhering to any kind of dramatic structure. Uli Edel's bright and shiny depiction of the RAF speaks only for the former: it's a chaotic mess. Big guns, loud noises, nude girls—what fun! Anyone not familiar with the history will likely get lost. Or is that the point? Since the film has nothing new, important, smart, or witty to say about its topic, perhaps confusing the audience seems the next-best effect. Politically-neutered, big budget German cream-puff that pretends to taste spicy. Original title: Der Baader Meinhof Komplex.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

2008 US Scott Derrickson

Pretty-cool effects fail to save this Al Gore-ish remake from sucking air into its gills and dying a slow, philosophically painful ("Nothing ever truly dies. Everything is simply [...] transformed.") cinematic death. Ably-made, but acting sucks—Keanu Reeves being the least of the problem. Jennifer Connelly has been shit ever since she shaved off her unibrow, and Klaatu should have killed Will Smith's kid when he had the damn chance. What an annoying brat! Otherwise: I haven't seen the original, but this one tries to be Green and well-meaning, like a dumb kid's science project. You smile, because what else can you do? Though it is hard to stomach the "progressive" attitude when you know the filmmakers have a black kid with a white stepmother and a throwaway scientist character named Yusef only so that, generations from now, when our great grandchildren are studying our cultural artifacts, they'll watch The Day the Earth Stood Still (yeah, right!) and say, "Gee, interracial marriage and smart, America-friendly Arabs—what a brave and daring portrayal."

The Salvation Hunters

1925 US Josef von Sternberg

The hapless trio, Children of the Mud—the Boy, the Girl, the Child—defeat the Brute, discover their inner faith, and become Children of the Sun. The beginning, on a barge, "giant claw" of a dredge menacing and symbolic in the background, foreground, ever-present; magical, other-worldly, fifteen minutes of the most-wonderful silent cinema! Then, like flakes of caked mud, these qualities are stripped off, lost, the story moving from barge to city, from city to climax in the country. Overall quality remains, but it is no longer brilliant—simply good. Rich fantasy sequence withstanding, balance tips too far toward reality. Is Tag Gallagher right: is it "hard now to appreciate the bomb-shell that Sternberg's first feature must have been in Hollywood"? I can't say, but it takes a mere pinch of patience to see that Sternberg's $5,000 (about $50,000 today) hour-long debut contains poetry, beauty, moments of the sublime. If you can, experience it.

My Brother's Wife

1966 US Doris Wishman

Unloved housewife Mary falls for suddenly-arriving, lecherous bro-in-law Frankie. Husband Bob unaware, while Frankie steams it up with former flame Zena. Tragedy strikes—in the beginning. Film starts in the present, followed by a long flashback. Inspiration: film noir? Double voice-overs, shadows, Frankie as homme fatale. Sound is wholly over-dubbed, not matchings lips, camera dipping to capture headless bodies and tangled feet. Editing is rough. Really, a terrible film, but watchable sleaze-plus. Catchy jazz soundtrack never stops, like in a silent film. Compositions are often striking, adding to melancholy mood of empty lives (bad characters? yes, but it works). Random insert shots of objects, whatever happens to be around. Some nudity, no sex. Sometimes erotic, mostly bored. Wishman cuts whenever anything heats up. Transitions usually in the form of a camera zooming into black.