May 2015 movie capsules

17 movies watched in May. Counts:
– 12 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 1,822.
– 5 revisits, including one (Captain Phillips) already reviewed here.
– 16 newly reviewed here.
– 4 newly reviewed in full. Two are revisits (and revisions of reviews previously posted elsewhere): The Elephant Man (slight downgrade) and Wild Strawberries. The other two are new to me: The Last Command and The Private Life of Henry VIII, a film I loved so much I wanted to eat it.
– 12 new or revised capsules, all below.
– The Turkish film Eskiya, capsuled below, is listed in several places with the English translation of its title, The Bandit. But after searching several sources contemporaneous to the film’s release, I was unable to verify that it was ever released under that name. Indeed, the only posters that turn up anywhere use the original title, and several 1997 articles in the New York Times that refer to the film always do so as Eskiya. Thus I decided to file it under that name, but if you have any information indicating that this was the wrong decision, let me know.
– I have made it my life’s mission never to see Casino again. Thank you for understanding.

Project breakdowns:
IMDB Top 250: Watched 7 films for this (The Elephant Man; Wild Strawberries; Eskiya; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; The Secret in Their Eyes; Casino; Gran Torino), one of which has since been voted off the island. Sometime during the month the IMDB changed their voting policies once again, which resulted in the sudden disappearance of several foreign pictures, mostly Indian, that have never found broad release or popularity outside their own countries. The high placement of several such titles, especially the crop of a half-dozen or so Bollywood pictures starring Aamir Khan, has long been controversial in the circles of a group of cultists who are ardent about tracking the 250, seeing everything on it, and posting a lot of blather on the IMDB message boards. We are seemingly OK with stupid American films being on the list, but not so with stupid Indian ones. At any rate, one casualty of this was the aforementioned Turkish melodrama Eskiya, which was highly placed at the beginning of the month and is, as of a couple of days ago, gone. One can speculate endlessly about whether the mysterious appearance and disappearance of films like this reflects an uncomfortable bias toward Western or “canonized” filmmaking by the IMDB, or one can accept that this game is an everchanging mess. Eskiya was by a considerable longshot the hardest film on the entire list to track down; it has never been issued on disc around here, nor are most databases even aware of it. Someone uploaded it to YouTube in slightly-less-than-decent quality, which was the only way I managed to see it. 74 films left in this project right now, 26 of those unseen, one high up on the list and currently in theaters (Mad Max: Fury Road) and I’ll probably be seeing it Saturday. Yeah, I’ve given in.
Best Actor: The fourth Oscar exercise began in earnest with a group of 6 films with an uncommonly high batting average. Only Disraeli disappointed; The Last Command, In Old Arizona, A Free Soul, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Private Life of Henry VIII all proved good or even great, with most of them closer to the latter than the former. As to whether the male lead performances that were thusly honored were truly worthy, that’s more debatable, but we’ll investigate that in the future. And before we give too much credit to the Oscars, it’s worth remembering that Hollywood in the ’30s was at the peak of its creativity, static early talkies notwithstanding. Six down on this project, 34 to go — including 25 I’ve never seen.
New Movies: Though I plan to try and actually make it to a movie theater in the next month, my use of Netflix to manage a glimpse at Selma and Mr. Turner indicated how much the last couple of years have changed my normal procedures; given the critical reputation of both, I’m sure I would have made a point to see them theatrically a few years ago. That also goes for…
2010s Catchup:Inherent Vice, which would have been fun to see on a large screen, though I don’t regret missing the inevitable consternation from my fellow citizens.
Other: Amber hadn’t seen Captain Phillips. Holds up very well for me, though I think now that I’d favor Nebraska as the Best Picture winner that year.

And here come the capsules.

Eskiya (1996, Yavuz Turgul)
After completing a thirty-year prison sentence, a legendary underworld figure takes on a troubled protege while seeking revenge on the man who informed on him and ran off with his wife. Taking cues from Unforgiven, Leon, Michael Mann’s work and various cable TV staples, this generic actioner is watchable but doesn’t seem capable of revitalizing the Turkish film industry, which is supposedly what happened. Şener Şen is oddly lifeless and passive in the lead role.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998, Guy Ritchie) [NO]
(Revisit; no change.) I think fookin’ Charlie Brown fookin’ said it fookin’ best: AUUUUUUUGH!!

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009, Juan Jose Campanella)
Slick, crowd-pleasing Argentine crime drama lurches back and forth between Dateline NBC brutality and the light-as-a-feather hijinks of an assistant D.A. and his hard-drinking associate. But see it for the jaw-dropping one-take chase scene inside a soccer arena, one of the most arresting shots in modern cinema.

In Old Arizona (1929, Raoul Walsh & Irving Cummings) [r]
Early talkie western with a pretty basic plot, about a charming fugitive gunslinger (Warner Baxter) and army sergeant (suave Edmund Lowe) in love with the same femme fatale (Dorothy Burgess), is quite intriguing for anyone with a special interest in early sound-era Hollywood. And as innocuous as it initially seems, it boasts one of the most startlingly, rather delightfully mean endings in movie history.

Casino (1995, Martin Scorsese) [NO]
(Revisit; no change.) Or: The Long, Long Trailer. What happens when three macho titans — Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci — who’ve made the same movie four hundred times are turned loose in Las Vegas? I totally and completely don’t give a shit, and the only reason anyone does are the healthy shares of extraneous cokehead violence designed for fanboy jackoffs, not to mention the lovely degradation and deconstruction of an initially strong female character. Excessive and smug in every way.

Gran Torino (2008, Clint Eastwood)
Grouchy widower helps young boy resist gangs, become honest red-blooded Amurican. I tend to feel that the narrative of adorable-racist-coot-is-actually-a-big-hearted-hero was worn out circa All in the Family, though there are some scattered (and very easy) laughs here. It’s pure schmaltzy bullshit but basically harmless.

Disraeli (1929, Alfred E. Green)
Talk, talk, talk in this creaky Vitaphone stage adaptation with George Arliss, old enough to actually remember the events depicted, as the title Prime Minister known for the Suez Canal purchase. Despite his distinctive countenance (and amazing hair) his performance, like the film, is nearly dull beyond tolerance.

Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay) [r]
Worthwhile drama of the events leading up to the Voting Rights Act suffers from unevenness; the scenes involving MLK (marvelously, believably brought to life by David Oyelowo) are nuanced, sophisticated and inspiring, while the stagy walk-ons by other historical figures (Malcolm X, LBJ, George Wallace, etc.) are broadly written and acted like scenes from a school play, or a Robert Zemeckis movie. Surely the most vivid film yet made about the Civil Rights Movement, nevertheless.

Mr. Turner (2014, Mike Leigh)
Inoffensive but aimless character study of painter J.M.W. Turner, balancing his callousness with his gradual softening but offering little insight to speak of into his work. This fusion of historical biopic, benign prettiness and utter narrative banality just sits there, and for an eternity. Timothy Spall’s lead performance is showy to the point of unintended humor.

Inherent Vice (2014, Paul Thomas Anderson) [hr]
By no means unique as a detective story wherein the pot-stoked plot becomes increasingly unclear, but this sad, strange neo-noir from Thomas Pynchon’s novel hinges upon a sense of loss and melancholy it’s too overwhelmed to fully articulate despite gorgeous dialogue, beautifully broken images and performances. It’s also screamingly funny, but even that merely enriches the paranoia. A loving, brutal cityscape laced with sleaze and kink but also unspoken and wary understanding.

A Free Soul (1931, Clarence Brown) [hr]
Provocative, surprisingly modern pre-code MGM melodrama about a free-spirited woman’s affair with a gangster client of her dad, an alcoholic lawyer. Potent shots of class-consciousness, violence and sexuality are muted in the aftermath somewhat thanks to Lionel Barrymore’s rather over-the-top courtroom finale, but the real attraction here is the category-5 hurricane that is the funny, luminous Norma Shearer, in a beautifully understated performance.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932, Rouben Mamoulian) [hr]
An imaginative and often downright surreal Paramount adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, with Fredric March genuinely unnerving in the lead. Rouben Mamoulian’s creepy-crawly atmosphere of wild angles and camera movements, odd close-ups and first-person perspective scenes, spookily foggy set design and a truly off-putting sense of dread and fear are intoxicatingly oppressive.

[Brief additional notes on The Last Command and The Elephant Man at LBoxd as well, linked here mostly for my own benefit; feel free to disregard.]

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