February 2015 movie capsules

15 movies watched in February. Counts:
– 10 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 1,791.
– 5 revisits, one (Sunrise — seen for the first time in an alternate version, described here but not significant enough to require any additions to the existing writeup) previously acknowledged on SOC and thus not included below, one (The Great Escape) not seen since pre-2002*.
– 14 newly reviewed (meaning, not seen since 2011* or earlier and thus not previously written up at this blog).
– 1 newly reviewed in full (Downfall, a revisit).
– 13 new or revised capsules, all below.
The Piano may be reviewed at greater length in the future; I just didn’t have time during this month and managed to say most of what I wanted to for now in limited space. Only God Forgives is extremely unlikely to be revisited — it joins Oliver! and Requiem for a Dream in the SOC blacklist.

Project breakdowns:
– The two completed Oscar projects (Best Picture and Best Director) were both disrupted by the winning of Birdman, which I have yet to see, in both categories last Sunday. This should be rectified well before the next update, with the relevant posts altered accordingly.
– A paltry 3 films on the IMDB Top 250: 3 Idiots; The Great Escape; The Avengers (the last a crossover title with 2010s Catchup). The first and last were new to me, the second I had not seen in many years. Currently stalled on two new movies (Interstellar and Whiplash) higher up, awaiting rentals in the near future. I really need to speed up on this. 91 movies left in this project — 34 unseen by me, 57 that need revisits.
– 4 Best Screenplay Oscar winners: Thelma & Louise, Howards End, The Piano and Sense and Sensibility. The first two new to me, the last two revisits. 14 films are left in this project, three of which are also on the IMDB Top 250. Only 6 of the 14 are unseen, one of which is the aforementioned Birdman.
– I have a running list of films that have been recommended to me over the years that I very slowly chip away at. From that list, this month I watched two films: El Topo and Old Joy.
– Not an official viewing project but I do keep up with the Criterion Forum’s lists of their members’ consensus favorites of the current decade. We’ll informally call this 2010s Catchup, which prompted everything else watched and reviewed this month.

* The reasons for using these specific dates will be explained in the new Introduction, which should be up in a few weeks.

Quickly I want to mention that things may look a little scattered at the moment — weird font changes and formatting quirks, etc. — and the reason is that I’m working on the third complete revision and editorial overhaul of the Movie Guide, though I’ve reached the halfway point and have decided to take a break to concentrate for a little while on some other projects unrelated to movie stuff. I expect to complete this by late April. It mostly consists of making some adjustments to the language and writing style so it will be more consistent and so there will be fewer things to embarrass me! Inspired by Mike D’Angelo, I’m also adding a notation for films I have not seen in a sufficient number of years (basically, since my adolescence) that my opinion may not be entirely trustworthy any longer. (That seemed less important when I first put this together; I was 22 then and being a teenager seemed like fairly recent history!) I will put something in this space when the project is complete to my satisfaction.

Here finally are the additions and updates from February to the Movie Guide. Again, click the title where available for sometimes slightly more expounding that wasn’t lengthy or substantial enough to warrant a full essay.

***

Thelma & Louise (1991, Ridley Scott) [r]
Callie Khouri’s screenplay about two women going on the lam after one kills the other’s rapist is for the most part an elegant creation — both title characters are strongly defined and fleshed out, and the manner in which the story spirals out of control is all too believable in our culture. The acts of revenge are cathartic, as is the flipping around of conventions within road, heist and buddy movies — thus making a troubling point about how women are typically depicted in Hollywood. It’s just too bad that they brought in Scott, of all people, to shoot it; there’s no subtle point in the script he deems unworthy of pointlessly amplifying. But thanks to Khouri, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, it’s easily his best film.

Only God Forgives (2013, Nicholas Winding Refn) [NO]
More garish basic cable bilge from the bilge merchant who brought you Drive, also starring popular petrified wood specimen Ryan Gosling. College students and bros will presumably get off on the bloodshed and “symbolism.” It’s so completely ridiculous that it’s harder to loathe than Drive, though just as intolerably smug and self-important.

Bastards (2013, Claire Denis)
Seedy crime film partially inspired by the works of Michael Mann serves to prove two things: that Claire Denis is an incredible director, and that we don’t need any more seedy crime films partially inspired by the works of Michael Mann, even from incredible directors.

Beyond the Hills (2012, Cristian Mungiu) [r]
Subtle, visually sumptuous but overlong and troubling fictionalized dramatization of the Tanacu exorcism explores a formerly romantic relationship between two women — one now an Orthodox nun — that’s fractured by the dividing line between skepticism and deep, unquestioning faith, a disparity that finally has tragic consequences. Mungiu absorbs us in the enthrallingly vivid, crushingly limited world of the rural Romanian church to such an extent that each step outside of its bubble is uncomfortably and deliberately jarring.

El Topo (1970, Alejandro Jodorowsky) [c]
Legendary cult western — about a mythic gunslinger and his bizarro encounters in the desert, to the slim extent it’s about anything — has some indelible images in the vein of L’age d’Or and various Magritte paintings, but it wears thin at least an hour before its conclusion. Its sophomoric surrealism is like the worst parts of Easy Rider stretched to feature length, but it’s impressed leagues of viewers (and not even just rock stars, acid heads and David Lynch) for whom “weird for weird’s sake” is plenty.

Howards End (1992, James Ivory) [r]
Another Forster adaptation from Merchant-Ivory. Despite overly busy production design, it’s absorbing, establishes its characters extremely well — thanks largely to luminous performances, especially those of Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter — and boasts a quick-witted screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The only problem is that Forster’s mannered payoff doesn’t translate well to the screen, especially because the film and Anthony Hopkins’ one-dimensional portrayal don’t give us much reason to like or forgive his Mr. Wilcox, disrupting what’s intended as a delicate balance of sympathies.

Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
Scarlett Johansson lures unsuspecting men to a gooey, solemn death for reasons that are never made entirely clear. As a sci-fi abstraction, Glazer’s third film is agreeable — with some wildly striking imagery and brilliant music and sound design — but as it bows to its story obligations in the second hour, it becomes disappointingly literal.

3 Idiots (2009, Rajkumar Hirani) [c]
Overlong, superficial and more than a little sexist, this Americanized frat-ish comedy about engineering students engaging in ordinary mischief then tying off plot strings ten years later has a few interesting points about education and success but never stops feeling like a motivational video one might be expected to watch at a high school assembly. Sprawled painfully over three hours, the story’s initially ordinary then becomes outrageous like a soap opera comic strip. Aamir Khan, here of course playing the Jesus figure who knows and imparts all, may be the most unremittingly smug actor ever photographed.

Old Joy (2006, Kelly Reichardt) [r]
The suffocating melancholy of this mundane camping trip delivers justified pangs of nostalgia and regret up to a point, but the two characters we spend the entire time with only occasionally feel like real people; they otherwise fill in the stereotypical blanks of the roles we can tell they’re bound to serve in their very earliest scenes. Still, the arc is admirably subtle and the melding of locations and mood music (by Yo La Tengo) is superb, and maybe the absence of surprise is kind of the point.

The Piano (1993, Jane Campion) [hr]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Holly Hunter is devastating in an absorbing, fable-like narrative of a mute woman caught first in an arranged marriage in New Zealand, then in a triangle when she begins giving dubious piano lessons to the weirdo down the street (Harvey Keitel). Between Campion’s stark color palette, the oddball humor in her script, a touch of genuine sensuality, the enchanting solo piano music and one of the best performances by a child (Anna Paquin) in any film, it’s hard to name a romantic movie more utterly beguiling, especially one driven completely by emotional subtleties rather than dialogue.

Sense and Sensibility (1995, Ang Lee) [r]
(Revisit; downgrade.) Ang Lee’s first English-language film might be one of the most aesthetically beautiful movies ever made, evoking springtime as effortlessly as Emma Thompson’s script reframes Jane Austen’s characterizations for a ’90s audience. She and Kate Winslet are both wonderful and the film is quite funny, but it loses its bite as it goes on in part because of the miscasting of the three major male roles (especially a halting, badly dressed Hugh Grant).

The Great Escape (1963, John Sturges) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) Irresistible classic ensemble adventure about Steve McQueen and company’s intricate escape from Luftwaffe imprisonment is a delight for all of its three-hour running time; if anything, there’s just enough detail and depth here that you just want more when it’s finished. This is how Hollywood screenwriting should work — believable dignity outweighs bravura heroism, and the sense of ebbing, flowing, intensifying rhythm is virtually without peer as an archetype of the action film.

The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon)
The finest exposition-spewing A-listers and smarmy rejoinders $220,000,000 can buy.

***

One further housekeeping note: the last three leftover essays are set to be posted in the next few nights. After that, we’ll have a regular schedule of just a couple long posts per month plus one like this. I hope you have enjoyed our canon-building exercise. See you next time!

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