Leftover capsules, part 2 of 2

You will notice a preponderance of films below from director Frank Borzage; that’s because I bought myself the massive boxed set Murnau, Borzage and Fox when I heard it was about to go out of print and was/is the only way to get 7th Heaven and Bad Girl, two of my favorite discoveries of recent years, on DVD. I will talk more about the boxed set at my personal blog within the week; quite apart from the films themselves, the bulk of which are reviewed here, it’s an extraordinary collection that comes very strongly recommended.

***

Missing (1982, Costa-Gavras) [r]
Interesting and politically sharp procedural mystery of sorts — based on the risible true story of Charles Horman — suffers from off-pitch performances throughout and only catches visual fire in a bloodcurdling scene inside a horrifically disorganized makeshift morgue. The biggest sour note is struck by Jack Lemmon, playing the well-to-do old-world hangups and grumpy self-righteousness of Disapproving Dad all too straight, essentially melding a real person into a stereotype.

All About My Mother (1999, Pedro Almodovar) [r]
Sensitive, evocative characterizations are the prime selling point of this lopsided narrative. Particularly when the four central women are gathered together and enjoying themselves, there’s something refreshingly real and unfussy about their interaction. The story — organ donor melodrama, long-lost theater people and dead offspring — bears less scrutiny.

Magic in the Moonlight (2014, Woody Allen) [r]
Colin Firth plays sort of a Richard Dawkins circa Twitter caricature: he’s a skeptic, he’s right about lots of stuff, but he’s a complete fucking prick about it. Though the movie delays it as long as possible, he does find himself drawn to the charlatan played by Emma Stone, who isn’t much of a character. As ever, Allen fits some surprisingly strong and searching moments into a fairly silly, frothy narrative, and the eye-popping camerawork and color courtesy of Darius Khondji justify some of the dross.

Places in the Heart (1984, Robert Benton) [c]
Forgettable, unfocused Depression melodrama is written and shot like a Hallmark Hall of Fame telefilm — volleying back and forth between the contrived, sentimental comings and goings of Sally Field (who won an Oscar for speaking in hackneyed monologues), Danny Glover and John Malkovich all playing vastly beneath their abilities in a tale that peaks with a cotton-picking contest (that’s after the tornado and before the KKK intervention, in case you wondered); and some soap opera material involving the extramarital affairs of characters that we have no reason to care about. Does anyone remember this movie five minutes after it ends?

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971, Robert Altman) [r]
Altman’s habit of letting it feel like we’re witnessing the stories that are central to his films strictly by accident is maddening. This neo-western’s mumbled dialogue and excessive use of the zoom lens is cute to a point, but there are ways in which it seems possible to be too idiosyncratic — particularly when the shots of convention border on being parodies of movie tropes, Evil Land Developer and all. Nevertheless one of the most visually attractive films of its time thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond’s lyrical photography; the ache of winter melancholy is intoxicating.

Anna Karenina (2012, Joe Wright)
It’s nice that Joe Wright’s weird adaptation makes a play at spinning Tolstoy into something alive, sensual and invigorating, and there are moments of passionately realized cinema in the opening half hour. The flourishes would make more sense if he put us inside the characters’ heads, an idea that doesn’t gel with Tom Stoppard’s OK script, which adds little to extant understanding of the literature it means to enhance. The performances are all fair, though only Jude Law as Count Karenin seems to communicate any sort of real pain (or cruelty).

A Touch of Sin (2013, Zhangke Jia) [r]
Gorgeously directed tract of sorts about violence, murder and suicide in China is meant as a challenge to cut-and-dried morals — we are by turns repelled by the bloodshed and drawn to it — and to the conventional wisdom of political reality there. But it could just as easily be set in the U.S. One only wishes that it didn’t consist of four wholly disconnected episodes — each of them, particularly the finale, could be a feature of its own.

A Room with a View (1986, James Ivory)
Pleasant and at times very funny comedy of manners from Forster’s novel, with mostly good performances — Helena Bonham Carter doesn’t seem quite ready for this kind of material but Maggie Smith is perfect, and it’s fun to see Daniel Day-Lewis as a socially incompetent scoundrel. The characters and their relationships in the film aren’t very well-defined aside from some very of-another-time conflicts between societal ideal and passion, but you likely already know what you’re getting into with this.

Lazybones (1925, Frank Borzage) [hr]
Enchanting and beautifully acted silent comedy-drama about a layabout who takes care of an orphan girl to protect an injustly shamed woman. Borzage may not move the camera much here in the pre-Sunrise era, but the way he captures details of human behavior and relationships is as staggering to behold in this tale of accepting disappointment as in Bad Girl and 7th Heaven. There’s a mildly troubling plot twist that dates it but also occasions a forecast of Lon Chaney’s role in The Unknown!

Wuthering Heights (2011, Andrea Arnold)
I appreciate how much less talky this is than the William Wyler version, and the child actors are magnificent, but it doesn’t reveal anything deep or new about these familiar characters. It’s still a grim, dour story — especially in the manner it’s popularly adapted — and whatever insights the novel has tend to be overly simplified as cinema. Arnold’s style is lyrical and swoony, even reverent — and then out of nowhere and completely inappropriately, in comes fucking Mumford & Sons. Whose failure to say no do we blame for that one?

Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison) [c]
Middling series of conversations between and monologues from vacant stereotypes of New York Italians in a very humdrum love triangle plot. There are some enjoyable performances, particularly those of Olympia Dukakis and Danny Aiello, but you have to cut through the dross of a slobbering, slack-jawed Nicolas Cage giving overwrought speeches and pretending to be really into “opera.” John Patrick Shanley’s verbose, overly theatrical script is an embarrassment that somehow scored an Oscar.

The River (1929, Frank Borzage) [r]
Only a fragment of this charged romance still exists — if a lengthy one — and it doesn’t contain very much of the actual story information. We’ll log it as an incomplete, though the one thing about it that really tickles, wild pre-code eroticism notwithstanding, is the way Mary Duncan keeps rolling her eyes when Charles Farrell shirks sex in favor of playing checkers or whatnot. An interesting and beautifully photographed curiosity as it now stands, but little else.

Control (2007, Anton Corbijn)
While very stylish, well-acted and of course stuffed with glorious music, this biopic of Joy Division’s troubled frontman Ian Curtis doesn’t illuminate anything — straightforwardly dramatizing scenes we’re familiar with from books about the band. If you love the Factory era, you’ll eat up the period flavor, but maybe Curtis would’ve been humanized more to us if an attempt had been made here to make the film feel like what he must have felt in those chaotic years. Instead it’s a remote tragedy, all too rational and dispassionate.

Street Angel (1928, Frank Borzage) [hr]
Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell essentially reprise their roles from 7th Heaven and the virtues are nearly uncountable: the astounding camerawork, the surreal sets, the phenomenal acting, and director Borzage’s endlessly striking ability to capture odd, eerily real little moments, especially moments between couples. To boot the tale has a sweep, scope and feminist streak that put it in the neighborhood less of Borzage’s other films than something like Pandora’s Box. But the finale sours it a bit; like Sjostrom’s The Wind, it would be better if it went all the way with its cynicism.

This Is Not a Film (2011, Jafar Panahi) [hr]
Filmmaker Jafar Panahi documents his time under house arrest in Iran. What’s most moving is how this defines the creative mind as something that can’t be suppressed. As cinema, it’s at first constrained and mundane by necessity but in the final twenty minutes it becomes a comedy, a probing suspense, a harrowing celebration. In not attempting to tell a story, he ends up telling more of them than one can really count. In an age of multiplexes filed with the humdrum, cynical and dire, as life-affirming a film as I can name.

Lucky Star (1929, Frank Borzage) [r]
More City Girl than Sunrise (but with the wit of neither), this is probably the weakest of Borzage’s surviving Fox silents. There’s actually not a thing wrong with it per se — it’s well-acted and quite romantic — but the story is sugary, humorless and not particularly interesting. It does have an incredible sense of rural atmosphere, but you expect that from the studio in this era. Gaynor and Farrell must have felt like pawns in a serial drama by this point.

Mud (2012, Jeff Nichols) [c]
Great Actor Matthew McConaughey looks like a swamp monster who has trouble digesting food in this highly telegraphed collection of suspiciously familiar subplots about growing up rural leading up to a ludicrous climax straight out of a made-for-cable feature. Every woman in the film is treated as a buzzkill for existing and is talked about in a manner lifted from erotic pulp novels circa 1957 and/or Reddit. From the writer-director of the equally overpraised Take Shelter, this almost couldn’t be more misguided or preposterously lazy.

They Had to See Paris (1929, Frank Borzage) [r]
Another complete trifle from Borzage’s Fox period, a weak comedy of stock poor-people-strikin’-it-rich plot points and gags, but historically interesting for its painfully ragged early use of sound and for Will Rogers’ charmingly incompetent performance. Borzage is completely subsumed here but it was quite a big hit for him. Also features a bizarrely suggestive scene of two men waking up together, for what that’s worth.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988, Stephen Frears)
The obvious Oscar bait in the costumes and art direction here is offset by the bizarre performances, which are pitched as though the film is lampooning Merchant-Ivory while longing for such prestige. John Malkovich’s Valmont is a Nosferatu figure, shot from below with emphasis on that cruelly shaped, dispassionate face. The rest of the cast mostly just dances around him and Glenn Close, who’s in full Fatal Attraction mode. Stodgier and more artificial than it could have been, this nevertheless is more entertaining than most films of its ilk from the ’80s.

Song o’ My Heart (1930, Frank Borzage)
One of those circa-1930 films revolving entirely around the novelty of people talking (and singing) on film. Watchable now, but barely.

Dead Poets Society (1989, Peter Weir)
(Revisit, no change.) Weir’’s impossibly sappy tale of prep-school boys and the teacher who inspires them is hackneyed in a specific manner that implies it’s ideally designed for adolescent viewing, or for the enjoyment of adults with a rather severe persecution complex (so it’s very popular with educators). It’s basically one long straw man argument, suffused with English class platitudes.

Liliom (1930, Frank Borzage) [r]
For the first half-hour this bizarre concoction, remade as Carousel, is absolute mastery — Borzage shooting a sound film with every bit of the confidence of the best Fox silents. The story is kind of a dog, especially with its justification-of-domestic-violence subtext. While it’s interesting to hear Charles Farrell’s voice — a scrawny little squeak — in his role as a irresponsible carny and bad husband, it’s hard to buy him as a real person or accept the relationship he has with his wife Julie as remotely plausible. But see this for the visuals. It’s sumptuous and almost surreal in its drunken, half-mad beauty.

Ghost (1990, Jerry Zucker) [c]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Though Whoopi Goldberg is genuinely funny and the actors in general do the best they can with very maudlin material, this Bruce Joel Rubin pap about yuppie Patrick Swayze posthumously making good on love and crooked accounting is all very much a relic and its far-reaching cultural impact is hard to understand. The story is incredibly senseless, in both its actual narrative and the bizarre morality it seems to suggest, set up solely to push easy pleasure buttons for people who expect very little from a night at the movies.

After Tomorrow (1931, Frank Borzage) [r]
Sonya Levien’s script is impressively unwavering in casting attention toward a young couple dealing with economic distress, the blossoming of adulthood and a real sex life (yes, they say the word) and the demoralizing shade thrown by their respective moms. It’s kind of a reverse Make Way for Tomorrow, wherein it’s the kids who are sympathetic and heartfelt and trying and their parents who are one-dimensionally cruel and underwritten. Borzage captures several exhilarating moments of realistic coupledom but falters into pat sentimentality at the conclusion.

Like Stars on Earth (2007, Aamir Khan) [c]
All but insufferable. Why does every movie about an Inspiring Teacher have the exact same scene in which the other instructors have a good laugh over his Unorthodox Methods while the Hero releases some coolheaded bon mot and strides triumphantly out to save more young lives? But one thing here is kind of magic, Darsheel Safary’s performance as the young boy Ishaan. When the film’s dedication is to reeling us into his world, cut off by dyslexia, it establishes a surprisingly clever and expressive language that utterly shames the rest of it. Safary is perfect throughout — his face says more in silence than the other actors reveal in their pages upon pages of hollow do-gooder dialogue.

Young America (1932, Frank Borzage)
Slightly grittier variant on Skippy, with an interesting performance by Ralph Bellamy as a juvenile court judge, a pretty tiresome one by Spencer Tracy as a grouchy druggist. The characters are defined well and the final product is extremely sentimental but breezily entertaining, at just 70 minutes. Borzage shows good eyes and ears for friendships between children, despite the maudlin stuff.

***

All of the above will be added to the Guide very shortly, and regular posts of this sort will begin approximately a month from now!

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