March 2015 movie capsules

17 movies watched in March. Counts:
– 11 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 1,802.
– 6 revisits, including 1 (Panic in the Streets, prompted by my finding the Fox Film Noir DVD in a $2 bin!) already reviewed here.
– 16 newly reviewed here.
– 3 newly reviewed in full, all revisits: Sling Blade, Almost Famous (slight upgrade) and Die Hard.
– 13 new or revised capsules, all below.
– Disregarding superhero / Harry Potter things, Good Will Hunting was maybe the most famous American movie made within my lifetime that I hadn’t seen, though that’s not really a scientific conclusion. (Now I guess it’s Cast Away or something?)
– Minor housekeeping note: the essays about Yellow Submarine, Bride of Frankenstein and Hannah and Her Sisters were the last few completed pieces I had from before I did the overhaul on the blog format. I was just really, really lazy about posting them so it took me all month (and I was concentrating a lot on the music stuff this month anyway).

Project breakdowns:
Makeup: I’m back to 100% on the Best Picture and Best Director Oscar projects. Birdman was this year’s winner in both categories as well as in our current Oscar rundown (Screenplay). The relevant pages have already been updated.
IMDB Top 250: In a typical display of this list’s violently volatile nature, a month ago Birdman was halfway down and now it’s completely gone. C’est la vie. Anyway, discarding that mishap we knocked out 7 titles on this list — Good Will Hunting (an overlap with Best Screenplay), Whiplash (an overlap with 2010s Catchup), Die Hard, The Hunt, Heat, Pan’s Labyrinth and My Neighbor Totoro. 84 films remaining in this project — 51 revisits, 33 unseen (one of which — The Imitation Game — overlaps with Best Screenplay). I’ll hopefully get to Interstellar, last blank spot toward the top, this month.
Best Screenplay: Watched 6 winners: Birdman (see above), Sling Blade, Good Will Hunting (overlap with IMDB 250), The Cider House Rules, Almost Famous and Gosford Park. We’re down to only 8 films remaining on this project, only 2 of which are unseen (including the aforementioned Imitation Game), so I’ve decided to make a point of finishing it in April. Look for a long post about this sometime in the latter part of the month.
2010s Catchup: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Behind the Candelabra, Birdman and Whiplash all are a part of this, though of course the last two came up for other reasons simultaneously.
New Movies: Saw three films this month that were still playing in theaters as of when I caught up with them, without setting foot in an actual cinema: Virunga (thank you Netflix), Birdman (thank you Amazon), Whiplash (than you Redbox). I can’t say I’m missing the Experience much these days, honestly, which scares me a little.
Drunk: We watched The Craft because we were drunk.

***

Birdman (2014, Alejandro González Iñárritu) [r]
Elaborately staged magical-realism comedy, shot by the great Emmanuel Lubezki to resemble one long take like Rope, about a washed up superhero actor (Michael Keaton as Michael Keaton) attempting to rejuvenate his own legitimacy with a Broadway show. Excessively clever and self-aware, with some very tin-eared dialogue, but it does have some genuine laughs and a couple of moments of winning lunacy, particularly Keaton’s dreamlike slog through Times Square clad only in briefs.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013, David Lowery) [r]
Wispy story of a habitual criminal taking the fall for a police shooting his beloved committed is moony and cripplingly overserious but does have good characterizations, feels genuinely romantic and vital, and packs it in after a lean 90 minutes. It takes place in 1971 but aspires to a more distant time despite owing a good bit to Badlands. Rooney Mara is extraordinary — delivering a bracingly realistic performance in a film that can’t live up to it.

Good Will Hunting (1997, Gus Van Sant)
A generation-X date movie about the apathy of its lead character, a brilliant Bostonian orphan who doesn’t Apply Himself played by Matt Damon (who also wrote the script with Ben Affleck). As a rogue psychology teacher, Robin Williams gives a few speeches about relationships that achieve something resembling wisdom and an extremely warm Minnie Driver fills a typically, insultingly underwritten love interest role with more enthusiasm than it deserves. But the best thing about this time capsule is Elliott Smith’s music, which is far beyond it artistically.

The Cider House Rules (1999, Lasse Hallstrom)
Eternally babyfaced Tobey Maguire is an orphan who becomes a reluctant abortionist, then flies the coop and Sees the World, which translates to picking apples, solving black people’s problems and gazing adoringly at Charlize Theron. Novelist and screenwriter John Irving’s liberal cynicism is tempered as ever by his love of gooey sentimentality, helped along by Rachel Portman’s syrupy score. It’s interesting to see such a bizarre cast thrown together but the result is just Miramax Oscar bait blandness.

Gosford Park (2001, Robert Altman)
The Rules of the Game + Murder by Death + soap operatics of future Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes + All-Star Cast + Altman still staging everything like you’re the odd one out at a party full of compulsive talkers = this. It’s not bereft of charm and humor and even pathos, but it remains a murder mystery wherein the murder only happens after 75 minutes and in which an inexplicable, historically inaccurate facsimile of Ivor Novello plays the piano for seemingly hours.

The Craft (1996, Andrew Fleming) [c]
Typical ’90s teen film in which the semi-fun premise — of Fairuza Balk leading a small coven of high school witches — lasts about ten minutes before the Important Moral Point (I guess) has to take over. It’s Heathers for the post-grunge era, kinda, and feels like the result of a lot of studio meddling. (Only the squeaky-cleanest of the characters comes out on top.)

Whiplash (2014, Damien Chaelle) [r]
An engrossing sports movie with drums instead of balls. Miles Teller strives for jazz drumming greatness under the iron fist of psychotic instructor J.K. Simmons (channeling R. Lee Ermey); the film doesn’t quite promote the latter’s method of emotional abuse to get “artistic” “results,” but it comes close enough to make sane people pretty uncomfortable. Extremely tense, even when its story becomes truly ludicrous, but the flabbiness of the characters on the fringes is a major debit, as is the cartoonishness of the plot and the leads.

Virunga (2014, Orlando von Einsiedel) [hr]
A harrowing but unrelentingly beautiful film, and a scathing exposure of capitalism run amok; intended at first to be a document of Congo’s great national park, its staff’s dogged protection of its animals and continual battle against poachers, it instead becomes a sickening look at how war — and at that, war motivated by commercial interests — destroys normal life. It’s about how cruel and evil, but also how genuinely dedicated and compassionate, human beings can be. The photography of the park and its wildlife is stunning even on a small screen.

The Hunt (2012, Thomas Vinterberg) [NO]
A narrative of the suffering of a male schoolteacher falsely accused of molesting a young girl. Vinterberg was apparently hired by mouth-breathing men’s rights activists to put on film all of their paranoia about the constant swirling threat of bogus rape charges. The furthering of this misogynist narrative is the last thing we needed in the age of Twitter and Reddit.

Heat (1995, Michael Mann) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) Sprawling L.A. romance between two men: Al Pacino’s obsessive cop and Robert De Niro’s methodical, emotionally contained professional thief. Mann’s alternately ridiculous, generic, and tense fact-based crime thriller was originally written as a telefilm and seems to yearn for more time; it remains exciting for 170 minutes but fails to fully explore any of its occupants beyond the two leads.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo del Toro)
(Revisit; no change.) Genuinely imaginative at times, this fantasy film about a sullen but enterprising young girl dealing with a cartoonishly evil buffoon of an army stepdad in WWII Spain is nevertheless fatally maudlin with no nuance to its characters. Ivana Baquero’s central performance is marvelous, but it feels like the entire movie is a simple exercise in applying explicit gore and unforgiving brutality to traditional tropes of children’s films, which are much more effective when they’re subtle anyway. Exquisite production design is also hampered by fairly rote CG effects work.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Hayao Miyazaki) [r]
Two sisters cope with a creepy new house and a mysteriously hospitalized mom by discovering the wondrous nature around them and befriending a trio of cuddly critters that only they can see. Includes some of the loveliest backgrounds in any animated film, and at least one of the most enchanting moments in cinema, period (a long sequence at a bus stop), but the characters feel like ciphers and the story trumps up mild moments of conflict and fear instead of embracing its smallness. Still, any movie with a “Cat Bus” is OK with me.

Behind the Candelabra (2014, Steven Soderbergh) [hr]
Absorbing, complex character study of Liberace (Michael Douglas, towering) and his young “secretary” Scott (Matt Damon, subtle and brilliant) is more than just a black-comic depiction of obscene wealth; rather, it’s a moody exploration of how an unbalanced, dysfunctional relationship breaks down into resentment and numbness. Its depth might not be immediately apparent but it’s a fair bet that its pangs of loneliness will linger.

***

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