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Real-life movie moment

The movie: “Mystery Men” (1999); dir. by Kinka Usher; starring Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, Geoffrey Rush, Greg Kinnear.

The moment: While shoveling piles of snow out of the driveway, I unearthed the frozen-solid corpse of a baby mouse. As I flung it off the shovel, it fell a few feet in front of the cat … who beat feet like Pete Doherty from a Narc-Anon meeting.

The correlation: I like to think that Dr. Heller would be proud of this, my discovery of the Deployment-Ready Mousenator, a new non-lethal weapon even simpler and more effective than, say, a Blamethrower.

No. 23: “Reservoir Dogs” (1992)

“Somebody’s shoved a red-hot poker up our ass, and I want to know whose name is on the handle!” ~~Mr. Pink

Conversation seems like the antithesis of senseless violence; talking is what reasonable, sound-minded adults do. Quentin Tarantino’s world doesn’t work that way. Think back to 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” where Pumpkin and Honey Bunny share a congenial pre-robbery breakfast, or to last year’s “Inglourious Basterds,” where Col. Hans Landa politely interrogates French farmer Pierre LaPadite. In Tarantino World, chats don’t lead to more chats, they precede or lead to bloodshed.

To understand the genesis of this jolting technique is to see “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino’s lean, mean blood-spattered tale about a diamond heist gone bad wrong. The opening sequence, set in a diner, merits special attention because it comically sets us up for a whiplash-inducing plot turnaround and introduces the criminals: Mr. White (Harvey Keitel); Mr. Orange (Tim Roth); Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen); Mr. Brown (Tarantino); Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi); Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker); Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn); and Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), Eddie’s father. Initially we only know them as eight nameless friends in an L.A. diner and prattling on about the real meaning behind Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” (Mr. Brown’s thesis: “It’s a metaphor for big dicks!”) and the relative merits of food service tipping (“I don’t tip because society says I have to,” Mr. Pink argues). All this chatter seems funny but harmless, just a few guys shooting the breeze over coffee.

Not five minutes later Tarantino pulls the pin on the grenade in his pocket and blows all to hell that sense of friendly calm. It’s a gutsy move, and it pays off big-time, so disorienting us that we spend the rest of “Reservoir Dogs” scurrying around like drugged rats lost in a maze. And because this director presents nothing as-is and has a sincere opposition to straight storytelling, the finer points of the heist remain a mystery right up until the last. After the diner Tarantino throws us into a getaway car driven by White, with a screeching Orange in the backseat bleeding from a gunshot wound. They make it to a warehouse, the post-robbery meeting site, joined shortly after by Mr. Pink, who’s positive that the job was a police set-up. 

Remaining details come in fits and starts in no particular order: Joe, an aging but still fearsome gangster, hired White, Orange, Blue, Pink, Blonde and Brown to rob a jeweler. The plan went sour; now a few men are AWOL, Blue’s dead and Orange isn’t far behind. Saying more would do an unforgivable disservice to Tarantino’s rapidly changing script (he was “Memento” before “Memento” was cool). He structures “Reservoir Dogs” as a riddle for viewers to reason out, but he doesn’t leave it there. So Tarantino pumps in loads of violence — including a disturbing torture scene involving Mr. Blonde, a kidnapped cop (Kirk Baltz), a razor blade and gasoline set to Stealers Wheel’s upbeat “Stuck in the Middle with You” — and loads of profanity-laden dialogue, mostly keyed-up shouting matches but sometimes grimly funny exchanges (White’s pre-heist advice to Orange comes to mind). If Tarantino can do nothing else, he can write lines that make chuckle in that way where the laughter quickly gives way to nausea.

Another thing Tarantino does well? He knows how to pick ’em. The crack team of actors in “Reservoir Dogs” might be one of the best ensemble casts ever*. Keitel and Roth play the two crooks with the most fleshed-out characters (White’s been working long enough he can afford to be kind to the newbie Orange, whom he defends as “a good kid”), and both do fine work. Madsen exudes the kind of ominous amorality that requires a shower to shake off. Tierney and Penn leave lasting impressions, molding powerful characters out of Joe and Eddie, while Buscemi, a skillful character actor, imbues Mr. Pink with a twitchy, wild-card comic energy best illustrated in a throwaway scene:

Mr. Pink: “You kill anybody?”
Mr. White: “A few cops.”
Mr. Pink: “No real people?”

Let that scene marinate for a minute, and suddenly the beauty of “Reservoir Dogs” hits you right between the eyes.

*This is a subject of debate between Ross and Ross.

Review: “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)

Banish all thoughts of the regrettable “Island of Dr. Moreau,” “Don Juan Demarco” or even Col. Walter E. Kurtz; this is how Marlon Brando deserves to be remembered. Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” trimmed down and censored from Tennesse Williams’ play, is a snapshot of Brando when he was bursting with rakish charm and talent. As the volatile Stanley Kowalski, he all but melts lens right off the camera; he fills up the screen with his intensity. This is the performance that illustrates why Brando is still considered not just a great Method actor but one of the all-time great actors.

So Brando is a revelation. That point asserted, the actor — though mesmerizing and explosive — is not solely responsibile for charging “A Streetcar Named Desire” with predatory tension. In this task he has an unlikely companion: Vivien Leigh, every bit as mannered as Brando is not. She plays Blanche DuBois, living with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stanley in New Orleans’ French Quarter after a breakdown, as a hunter. With all the focus on the sexual tension, no one seems to notice that innate cunning is what makes Stanley and Blanche natural enemies. Since predators have a keen ability to peg their own kind, Stanley senses that Blanche preys on people. Unlike her brother-in-law, Blanche doesn’t use force to get what she wants, relying instead on a cultivated air of mannered, fluttery femininity; she uses people out of emotional necessity. But her façade is cracking, and the weaker Blanche gets the more Stanley readies himself for the pounce. The lead-up to that attack — censored initially, restored in the 1993 director’s cut — is nerve-wracking.

The Blanche/Stanley conflict hammers hard on the play’s pointed theme of illusion (the America of gentility and refinement) and reality (the rougher, more cutthroat immigrant America), with Blanche unwilling or unable to embrace the realities of her sister and Stanley’s life. Even more interesting, that juxtaposition seems to manifest itself naturally in the very different but equally effective acting styles of Leigh and Brando. Leigh — who admittedly does pour on the “Southern charm” a little too thick a little too often — uses planning and a great deal of forethought in constructing Blanche’s revolving door of personalities. From smoothing her hair to smiling wistfully at Mitch (Karl Malden), a friend of Stanley’s who falls for her shrinking violet act, every gesture and expression is deliberate. The way she seduces a nervous teen-age boy collecting for a newspaper, for example, is remarkably cool-headed. Improvisation has no place in her performance; Blanche lives to create enchantment, to “tell what ought to be truth.”

Then there’s Brando — nothing about what he does feels calculated. He’s running on animal instincts; Stanley wants what he wants right then and right there, and he doesn’t care to analyze his motivations. Note his ghoulish smirk as he corners Blanche, which wordlessly signals his bad intentions (getting some help from Alex North’s dramatic score), or listen to his drunken caterwaulling for his wife in the cliched-but-still-momentous “Stellaaaaaa!” sequence by the staircase. Perhaps the best example, though, is the infamous dinner table scene — partly improvised by Brando — where Stanley, napkin still tucked in his shirt, “cleans the table” by snatching up his dishes and smashing them on the wall. There’s a verocity in these moments that seems authentic, like Brando aimed for anger but overshot his mark with scarily persuasive results. Malden and Hunter fall somewhere in-between Leigh and Brando on this scale, as both essentially play trapped victims: Stella can’t override her sexual attraction to her husband, and Mitch, lonely for female companionship, falls for Blanche’s act. He just plain wants somebody.

Come to speak of it, “A Streetcar Named Desire” seems, above all, to be a study of want. The characters all want something different, but they think they need it to feel “right.” For Stella, it’s sexual attraction that keeps her entangled with Stanley. Blanche labors to create magic and illusion (by depending “on the (sexual) kindness” of strangers, which prompted censors to demand Kazan to skirt this point). And Stanley thinks he needs Stella, but what he’s really after is control and domination. He goes around believing himself to be king, but he forgets even rulers take a fall.

Grade: A-

No. 22: “The Lives of Others” (2006)

Germany’s “Das Leben der Anderen,” Oscars’ 2006 pick for Best Foreign Language Film, is that rare gem: a thriller that engages the emotions instead of bombarding the senses. There are no explosions, no high-speed car chases; no, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s too smart for that. Instead, he crafts a taut, deliberately paced masterpiece where the dramatic tension emerges from subtle character development and interactions. No one character acts as we expect, and so the atmosphere is one of amazing tension — even more amazing when we consider this is von Donnersmarck’s first film.

The tension begins when viewers understand the setting: The year is 1984 (how Orwellian), and East Germany’s citizens remain firmly under the thumb of socialism. Moreover, everyone lives in fear of the Stasi, the official secret police of East Germany. These fears take human shape in Gerd Wiesler (a beyond-brilliant Ulrich Mühe, who died in 2007), a cold, calculating Stasi captain who believes so fervently in the ideals of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that he suspects everyone he sees — even a university student who suggests Wiesler’s interrogation methods are too “cruel” — of being a traitor. So he’s more than willing to accept an assignment from his superior, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), to surveil well-known Socialist playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his live-in actress girlfriend Cristina-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). At first eager to uncover a whiff of anything nefarious, Wiesel slowly warms to the couple, becoming a silent observer of their everyday lives. And when he learns the true reason for the assignment — Culture Minister Bruno Hempf (an intimidating Thomas Thieme) wants Cristina-Maria for his own — Wiesel begins taking small but life-altering steps to protect the two people who, most unexpectedly, have melted his steely, single-minded resolve.

The key to any character-driven thriller is a slow, measured pace, and von Donnersmarck creates a world where events unfold naturally and unpredictably. Such is the case in “The Lives of Others,” and the atmosphere of social unrest — socialist East Germany, after all, was a place where no one was above surveillance — ratchets up the tension to near-unbearable levels. This is a world where an ill-timed anti-party joke lands the teller a buried-in-paperwork, go-nowhere desk job, or forces one lover to brand another a party traitor to save a career. Anything can (and does) happen, and so von Donnersmarck draws us into his serene but frightening world.

But a slow-burning thriller requires nuanced performances, and “The Lives of Others” is filled with them. Thieme personifies arrogant entitlement as Hempf, a man possessed of an overdeveloped id who uses fear to take what he wants when he wants it. (His scenes with Gedeck are unnerving.) In Grubitz, Tukur shows how power — and the fear of losing it — can corrupt a decent man to his very core. His lack of ferocity, his cool detachment, makes him more than fearful; it chills you to the bone. Koch and Gedeck, to the contrary, inject “The Lives of Others” with a sense of life and color with undertones of fear. Koch’s Dreyman knows how to play the system to get his works published, but an unexpected tragedy forces him to realize art created within government-imposed boundaries is meaningless. And Gedeck delivers a fine performance as a woman torn between saving her own career and remaining steadfast to the man who supports and loves her.

Make no mistake, though, that “The Lives of Others” belongs to the late Mühe. His work here is profoundly effective; his performance is, in a word, flawless. With the tiniest of tiny gestures (slanting the corner of a lip, furrowing a brow), he conveys Wiesel’s transformation from a chilly observer to a participant. As he gets to know Dreyman and Sieland, he opens himself up to hope, to the belief that a world of color and music and love is possible. In lesser hands the transformation would have seemed improbable, but Muehe makes it touching, astounding and wholly believable. And his revelation of a performance makes “The Lives of Others” a contender not just for the best foreign film of 2006, but the best film of 2006 period.

Review: “Showgirls” (1995)

I don’t know about you, but for me the moment Elizabeth Berkley licked the stripper pole in “Showgirls” was the moment the movie became a contender in the Worst Movie Ever Made race.

And that’s just what the first act had to offer.

Thus, it seems entirely appropriate that, when speaking of the movie that Roger Ebert called scriptwriter Joe Eszerthas’ “masturbatory fantasies,”  it’s wisest not to try to find positives in the vast, skeezy wasteland that is “Showgirls.” Because any movie where the actors swear, straight-faced, that what looks to be a full-body seizure reveals “natural” dancing ability, or where two actresses bond over a shared love of Doggy Chow, isn’t a movie directed by a man with a lot of shame. Or self-awareness. Or, ahem, talent.

Before launching into my personal justifications (a catalogue of crap, to put it less delicately) for why “Showgirls” merits very serious consideration for the Worst Movie Ever Made award, though, some background information may be in order. In “Showgirls” Eszerterhas takes us into the mind-numbingly stupid — and icky — world of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), a mysterious girl from “different places” who comes to Las Vegas to pursue her dream of being a showgirl. Alas, this is not to be at first, and she winds up stripping in the Cheetah Club, the kind of club where simply touching the doorknob puts one at risk for contracting an incurable STD. She meets Nice People — James (Glen Plummer), who really likes Nomi but can’t seem to quit slaying those hoodrats, and Molly (Gina Ravera), a seamstress at the Stardust Hotel which hosts Goddess, a classier semi-nude show — and Villainous Types, like Cristal Conners (Gina Gershon), the star of Goddess, and hyper-sleazy Goddess show bigwigs Zack (Kyle MacLachlan) and Tony Moss (Alan Rachins).

Catfights and vigorous random sexual encounters abound as Malone tries to claw her way to the top. Poor, poor Nomi. It’s hard out there for a showgirl.

Now that the stage has been set, let’s press on to a CV of crap:

  • Elizabeth Berkley — Her performance as wannabe Vegas showgirl Nomi Malone (she has a Mysterious Past, sadly unperky nipples and can go from straight to bisexual in 15 seconds flat) is so artless, wooden and fake that it pushes “Showgirls” from tolerably tacky garbage to garbage period.
  • Nomi’s dancing — As bad as Berkley’s acting is, her dancing is worse. It’s impossible to watch her jerk, twitch and writhe on stage and not recall the infamous Jessie Spano caffeine-pill freakout. The real tragedy in “Showgirls,” though, is that Nomi isn’t on uppers. Pity — those things worked wonders for Jessie!
  • The dialogue — Had the actors in “Showgirls” had any choice in the matter, they’d probably have elected to talk like, I don’t know, regular human beings. Instead, Eszerthas forces them to use lines like “You can’t touch me, but I can touch you. And I’d really like to touch you,” “you’re gonna be a big star. Your face is gonna be up on billboards” or “she looks better than a 10-inch dick and you know it.” Look at the actors’ faces when they drop drivel like this; even they can’t believe what they’re hearing.
  • That Swiss Cheese slice posing as a “plot” — Most movies require suspension of disbelief, but “Showgirls” demands a lobotomy, preferably one that’s self-administered with a screwdriver or a dull nail file (whatever’s handiest). Things happen here so randomly you wonder if Eszerthas interacts with real people or just blow-up dolls: Nomi nearly attacks Molly in the opening scenes, then Molly invites her to live in her trailer. What? Cristal and Nomi have a shared moment over their taste for dog food. Riiiight. Whenever two women appear on screen, they seem nanoseconds away from a vigorous makeout session. Of course they are!
  • The characters — Every character unfortunate enough to have lines in “Showgirls” comes across as phony, flat, atrociously written and utterly annoying, and Nomi is the worst. Every time she opens her mouth you silently pray for an anvil — manna from heaven! — to smash her flat. Or maybe that’s just what I spent 120 minutes doing.
  • And, naturally, the pole-licking bit. Because no other scene so perfectly encapsulates what “Showgirls” is all about: unadulterated and ill-lit sleaze. Oh, and because no other scene ever provoked such an immediate and violent desire to gargle with Clorox and rubbing alcohol.

Grade: F

“Avatar”: post-review musings

Given that “Avatar” topped nearly every critic’s Best of 2009 list or got some kind of honorary mention, I wondered post-viewing why it didn’t make mine. The first answer is the obvious one: I didn’t see the film before I made the list. M. Carter @ the Movies just had to — just had to — wait, dontchaknow, until all the hype died down. So I waited … and waited … and waited until I determined this movie had produced a Jason Voorhees brand of hype that would not go belly-up for years. So I went, I saw, my eyeballs went ablaze with joy at what they were seeing. What I saw convinced me that “Avatar” had blazed a new trail (hence the review title) for CGI in particular and filmmaking in general.

And yet I made no plans to review my top 10 list.

So I went back to pick through my original choices. Were they more flawless than “Avatar”? Certainly not. “Inglourious Basterds” had its fair share of problems, including sorely underdeveloped characters, while “(500) Days of Summer” had that dreadful sellout of an ending. And “The Hangover”? I mean, it’s a movie about four dudes getting wasted in Las Vegas! “Citizen Kane” it surely, surely ain’t. How could “Avatar” not merit a spot in this list?

Perhaps Vanessa at The Movie Ness said it best her review: The visuals wowed me for sure, but overall “Avatar” didn’t win my heart. I didn’t fall in love with it the way I did with “Up in the Air” or “Up.” I’m a character girl, and too many of the ones in “Avatar” felt … well, recycled. The music seemed to suffer the same problem. And I’d imagine most people would say something like “who cares about the characters? LOOK at the FRIGGIN’ COLORS!” But Cameron went this far in the name of originality for the visuals; why not go a bit further and give us a story that’s just as inventive?

Minor quibbles, though. Even though “Avatar” didn’t make my list, I cannot disagree with one thing: With this film, James Cameron has changed the face of CGI as we know it. “Avatar” is a hell of an achievement and deserves to be recognized as such.

Cameron blazes dramatic new trail in “Avatar”

One life ends and another begins when paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) agrees to infiltrate Na'vi culture in "Avatar."

Horatio: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

Hamlet: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
~~”Hamlet” (Act 1, Scene 5)

Before James Cameron’s gorgeous, vividly imagined “Avatar” absorbed me into it completely, Horatio and Hamlet’s exchange ran on loop throughout my mind. Though it’s doubtful Cameron based four years of hard work around a few lines in “Hamlet,” he nonetheless gives dazzling life to these words in “Avatar.” The director has implored us, just as Hamlet implored Horatio, to open our minds to the infinite possibilities of the universe, things our brains tells us are illogical or improbable. He wants us to believe big and dream bigger, and by the time “Avatar” comes to a close — 160 minutes never seemed to so quick — he’s made starry-eyed believers out of the lot of us, skeptics, optimists and everyone in-between. This is a film that will change the way you see your world, and one that redefines “possibility.”

“Avatar” begins, however, with a very human and somewhat familiar story. The year is 2145, and humankind has set up camp on the planet Pandora intent on harvesting unobtanium, an invaluable mineral, initially through bartering and other peaceful measures. Corporate tycoon Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the rough-edged Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) — both unfortunately written as one-note, stereotypical villains — would prefer to blast their way through the native inhabitants, a race of lean, tall, blue-skinned humanoids called the Na’vi who refuse to relocate or give up their land. For awhile, though, Dr. Grace Augustine (a cheerfully mouthy Sigourney Weaver) has convinced Selfridge and the colonel to let her interact with the Na’vi using avatars controlled by humans. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine called to Pandora when his twin brother, trained for years to inhabit an avatar created specifically for him, suddenly dies. Initially indifferent to the task, he finds with each trip into the Na’vi world more to love about the culture, such as their intense, respectful connection to the land and to Eywa, their maternal deity manifested in all living organisms. He also takes to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, who gets better with every part), the daughter of Na’vi’s leader who acts as his wary cultural attaché. She inherently mistrusts him. “Sky People cannot learn; you do not see,” she observes.

Though Neytiri is wrong about Sully, who finds his avatar life more fulfilling than his actual life, she is not wrong about many of Pandora’s human colonizers. Col. Quaritch, played with unkillable, Rambo-esque menace by Lang, views the Na’vi not as native inhabitants but as hostile enemies in need of extermination. To Selfridge (gripe alert: Ribisi deserves a deeper part than this), they are a nuisance in need of removal and the “how” doesn’t matter. And so “Avatar” becomes a film about the battle between humans consumed by Manifest Destiny-styled entitlement and the land’s native inhabitants. Cameron has an agenda and sways our sympathies accordingly, with our internal conflict manifested in the person and avatar of Jake Sully. And while Cameron pushes his agenda hard, he softens the message somewhat with the love story of Jake and Neytiri. Neither story is especially revolutionary; the same is true of a few characters, ill-written and flat, and the ending, a little disappointing in its predictability. Still, the interwoven stories ground this awe-inspiring, fluorescent world of make-believe — in a good way.

Besides, Cameron’s smart enough to know that visuals excuse a multitude of plot/writing sins. So much has been said about the visuals in Cameron’s multi-year, multi-billion-dollar labor of love that to say more seems unnecessary. However, “Avatar” is above all else a visual experience, and one engineered painstakingly to retain traces of our human world and expand it simultaneously. What Cameron achieves in the film is the successful marriage of computer-generated imagery (awe-inspiring to say the least) and real people. Never before have reality and fantasy meshed so beautifully, and never before has such a union seemed so astonishingly real. One scene stands out in a handful of others: a moment between Neytiri and Sully, visible to her in human form for the first time. There is tenderness in her face, the likes of which we’ve never seen in a CGI character, and there is fascination in Sully’s. He sees for the first time what he believed to be impossible, and he is changed. So are we.

Grade: A-

No. 21: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)

Nick: “You’ve all gone crazy. Nuts.”
Martha: “Relax. Sink into it. You’re no better than anybody else.”

George (Richard Burton) likes to paint himself as the put-upon husband, an innocent victim shocked by the viciousness of his marriage. His wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) knows better. “You married me for it,” she hisses at him, and right there she breaks through the skin layers and bone and hits the marrow. George feeds on her boozy tirades, but it’s more than that. Martha’s tantrums give his life — which, he’s concluded, is nothing but a string of compromises and failures — a bizarre kind of purpose. With her, he’s browbeaten and emasculated; without her, he wouldn’t exist at all.

Fulfilling, lasting marriages are hardly built on such relationships, but great movies are. (Happy marriages don’t sell as many movie tickets.) Adapted from Edward Albee’s incidiary Broadway play, Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” works beautifully as a study of marital misery — sadism, masochism, abuse (all kinds), profanity and alcoholism included — and an explosive/quietly revealing character study. How can a film be both at once? The pyrotechnics come nearly every time Burton and Taylor open their mouths. They take the heat between them to dark places, lunging at each other like starved pitbulls. Both go so far that the line between acting and reality isn’t just blurred, it’s totally erased. Albee’s biting dialogue, mostly preserved here, is what provides the gentler insights into the dynamics of George and Martha’s marriage, their individual character and that of their unfortunate guests, Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis), as well.

And what an unholy flaming hell the couple’s unwitting guests find themselves in. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” begins with what, somehow, we sense is a familiar scene: George and Martha, fairly well-liquored, stumble in from a social gathering held by Martha’s father, president of the bucolic New England university where George teaches history. She mimics Betty Davis’ “what a dump!” and claims she can’t remember where she heard it. Taylor’s face clues us in that she’s baiting George. Burton sighs, but he’s barely hiding a smirk that suggests he knows the game well and enjoys it. There’s no time for a battle, though, before their guests arrive. Why a visit at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning? Martha’s father arranged it, and George has resigned himself to accommodating the whims of his employer, whom he calls “the white mouse with tiny red eyes.”

In come Nick, new to the university’s biology department, and Honey, both nervous and looking for any excuse to split. Presented with fresh blood, Martha and George aren’t about to let that happen, so drinks are poured and the trap is set. So commences the first of two wars, with the hosts hurling scaldingly insults (one of the best: “Martha is 108 … years old. She weighs somewhat more than that”) and picking open old wounds related to their mysterious son. Next is “Get the Guests,” where Martha and George intend to divide and conquer their weaker guests — Martha by bedding Nick and George by preying on Honey’s fragility. Segal, in his moments alone with Taylor, lets sadness and recognition pass over his face, and his still moments with Taylor, including a drunken porchfront tête-à-tête and a scene where she admits George is the only man who’s ever made her happy, are some of the film’s best.

But let’s boomerang back to the fights, which earned Taylor that Best Actress Oscar and Burton that Best Actor nomination. Whether it was life experience (Taylor and Burton married and divorced each other twice), raw talent or some combination that made them such a great team here is anyone’s guess; the power of their work, however, is undeniable. Such towering rage their words have, and such pain we see in those expressions as they play their one-up-on-you games. Their energy, captured expertly and artfully by Ernest Lehman, is what pushes the film from showy melodrama into the kind of psychological subterfuge that leaves us drained, reeling and affected for days to come.

No. 20: “Requiem for a Dream” (2000)

“Somebody like you can really make things all right for me.” ~~Harry Goldfarb

Be forewarned: Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” is a dismal affair, a punishing bit of filmmaking that stuns the senses with rapid-fire camera work and empties the soul of all possibility. Certainly the “thing without feathers” that poet Emily Dickinson wrote of cannot be found here; instead, Aronofsky drags us to the bottom and leaves us there, numb and disoriented and fumbling blindly for some kind of exit.

But for those who can stomach this kind of bleakness, all these qualities are what make “Requiem for a Dream” a true work of art. It is the creation of a major new talent absolutely unwilling to compromise his vision in order to pacify anyone, including the MPAA. Aronofsky refused to change or excise any part of “Requiem for a Dream” even after the organization slapped the film with an NC-17 rating. He was right to stand firm; each scene is necessary to build the slow-then-all-at-once momentum, which has the feel of that inevitable slide from casual drug use to full-blown addiction.

That slide is the same and it is different from every character in Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” There is Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), whose only ambition in life is to snort or shoot smack with his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and his pal Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). For Harry’s lonely, frumpish mother Sarah (Ellen Burstyn), it’s a combination of uppers and downers that does her in. Her addiction is, perhaps, the most tragic because it is accidental. She mistakenly believes a telemarketing call will land her a spot on her favorite television show (hosted by Christopher McDonald, all phony, creepy smiles here) and thinks diet pills will slim her back into her favorite red dress. Early in their addictions, each has dreams that seem simple enough and completely attainable: Harry wants to earn enough money to help Marion her own dress store, Tyrone wants financial security and Sara wants to recapture happier times by losing weight and impressing her friends on television.

What Aronofsky drives home with relentless force is the way hard-core addiction blunts individuality, reducing every addict’s life to the same schedule: get high, come down, look for the means to get high again. Sara, Harry, Tyrone, Marion — the how or why any of them started doesn’t matter because their lives, at the end, are headed down the same spiral. Rather than depend solely on his actors to communicate this stomach-churning downshift, Aronofsky uses the camera. The characters appear on split-screen early on. Later, the director uses quick scenes of repetition: powder-into-spoon-into-syringe-into-veins, or pill-in-hand-then-mouth, followed by pupil dilation, sighs. Then the process becomes more rapid and appears more often, signaling the deepening of addiction. Aronofsky also makes unnerving use of extreme close-ups, most notably in a shaky scene where Tyrone, spattered with blood from a deal gone bad, flees the police. Even more disturbing is the close-up we get of Sara’s jittery face during her return visit to the doctor who prescribed her uppers, where it’s clear she’s losing her grip on reality and he can’t be bothered to notice. Backed by Clint Mansell’s wrenching score, these techniques are as disturbing as they are effective.

Perhaps more unsettling are the actors themselves, who elevate the term “dedication” to a new level. Each scene requires them to dig lower into depravity than the one before, and yet none of them recoil in the slightest. Wayans, never accused of being a particularly gifted actor, plays it low-key as the mostly-levelheaded Tyrone, while Jared Leto perfects the brand of bruised soulfulness he created for “My So-Called Life.” Always a painfully open actress, Connelly goes further than ever before, baring body and soul; her Marion is a walking, festering wound. Ultimately, Burstyn leaves the most and damaging impression. By the end, Sara has hit lows no human being should ever, ever see. Pills have taken her so far into her own head that she can’t process the living world. It is her face we see in the end, and it is her dead eyes that tell us drugs take us to places we can’t come back from.

A quest for crap

Sometimes you get a notion in your head and you let it run you crazy. Such is my situation since last night, when I finished reading David Gilmour’s “The Film Club,” a memoir about three years he spent watching and discussing films with his teen-aged son, Jesse, for the university’s book club. There’s a paragraph of two in there where he spends more time describing “Showgirls” — that steaming crap-pile he christens The Worst Movie Ever Made — than many of the classics, like “Citizen Kane” or “Murmur of the Heart.” Which planted a dangerous idea nugget: What IS the worst movie ever made?

Given that so many of us hobby bloggers (me included) tend to watch only “great films” or ones we know we’ll like/love, this seemed like an intriguing challenge, bird-dogging bad movies. And not “bad in a good way” movies — the kind I’m talking about are the dregs, the ones that scrape the filthy, stinky bottom. Here are a few of my suggestions:

  • EVERYTHING Ulli Lommel has done or will do
  • “Showgirls”
  • “Asylum”
  • “Primeval”
  • “Sweet November”
  • “Death Race”
  • “Vantage Point”
  • “Hide and Seek”
  • “Chaos”
  • “The Smokers”

This is a quest that’s weeping for a little help. Pony up some suggestions, blog readers — what are some of the worst movies you’ve ever seen? Be not gentle in your choosing; give me the terrible, the awful, the so-damn-bad-I-wish-it-could-be-unmade worst of the worst.