June 2015 movie capsules

20 films seen in June. Counts:
– 11 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 1,833.
– 9 revisits, including 3 already reviewed here (The Awful Truth (slight upgrade); The Best Years of Our Lives; Rebecca).
– 17 newly reviewed here.
– 1 newly reviewed in full here, a revisit and revision of an old writeup (Cool Hand Luke). Don’t know why I didn’t write much this month; said all I had to in the shorter bursts, I guess.
– 16 new or updated capsules, all below.
– Didn’t do much lengthy writing about individual films, but I’d like to call attention — if you’re interested — to some more general essays about recent movie-related matters in my personal blog. Here are some remarks on Method acting, specifically as it relates to two recent films: Mr. Turner and Inherent Vice. Here are some thoughts on the troubling career trajectory of former golden boy Cameron Crowe.
– One film I watched this month brought up a thus far unique problem. Back in 2005, I wrote a lengthy piece in response to Goodbye Mr. Chips, which according to past policies would have meant I transferred it over to this blog with some revisions. But every actual insight in the thing, once you got rid of all the rantings and ravings of an arrogant douche in his early twenties, could be pared down to about three worthwhile sentences. And I couldn’t think in a million years that I could justify spending much time writing an entire new essay about that particular film. Frankly, I can only take it as a positive sign that I find it easier these days to say less. At least, by god, I hope it is.

Project rundowns:
IMDB Top 250: Deliberately viewed 6 films for this project but actually the final count was 7, which becomes 8 if you count Rebecca, which I revisited for fun when its number came up. (Sublime as it is, I can’t sympathize with some recent critical thought that it could be seen as Hitchcock’s best film — it is nearly perfect, and in fact is the film that twenty years ago caused me to become truly infatuated with his American output, but it’s uneven and compromised compared to Notorious or Strangers on a Train, say. Which, you understand, is only a criticism by a matter of degrees.) The discrepancy comes from Inside Out, which entered the list the same week we happened to go and see it. The other entrants here were Mad Max: Fury Road (also a cinema excursion), Howl’s Moving Castle, Warrior, The Big Lebowski, V for Vendetta and Cool Hand Luke. No great shakes, frankly. Remaining films on this list to be examined or re-examined: 67, including 24 unseen.
Best Actor: Last month I was celebrating the improbable number of terrific films I’d already encountered as a result of this project. Well, that screeched to a violent halt. The occasional beautiful moment aside, nothing to write home about in the 6 films explored this month: Captains Courageous, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Sergeant York, Watch on the Rhine, A Double Life and Cyrano de Bergerac. This comment doesn’t apply to The Best Years of Our Lives; I took this project as an opportunity — I’ll use most any excuse — to revisit that masterpiece, and found it had grown even higher in my estimation. The lists on the Top 20 page above now reflect this revelation; my suspicion is that this film is destined to become only more important to me as I grow older and its emotions become more familiar and raw to me. This Oscar project encompasses 28 more movies, 21 unseen.
2010s Catchup: Caught Blancanieves and Ida, much-praised efforts from the last few years, on Netflix.
New Movies: I didn’t care a whole lot for Mad Max, which wasn’t a huge surprise since I don’t really like the originals much either, but it reminded me of how much I enjoy seeing movies theatrically and we made a concerted effort to do it twice more in June; though my long-standing Beach Boys obsession has been all but dormant for a while, I couldn’t miss Love & Mercy, and the gradually fading Pixar faith couldn’t keep us from Inside Out. Unfortunately, the experience of seeing the latter was frankly so irksome (not because of the film itself, though the ponderous short Lava was little help) that I may have reversed the pro-“cinema experience” attitude already. A sold-out afternoon screening of Ratatouille in 2007 was probably the best movie experience of my life; it seems increasingly doubtful that anything will ever quite live up to that day.
Recommendations: Embarrassed at how slowly I chip away at this, but this prompted my viewing of Casino Royale, which unseated Skyfall as my favorite film in the James Bond series. (I believe there are now five I have not seen: Licence to Kill, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace.)
Other: Amber needed something funny after a rough day, not always the easiest get within our huge yet surprisingly dour DVD collection. But she wasn’t with me when I saw the tremendous Cary Grant-Irene Dunne romantic comedy The Awful Truth last year. It didn’t disappoint me on second viewing, nor her on first.

And now, the capsules:

Blancanieves (2012, Pablo Berger) [r]
Imaginative revisionist silent retelling of Snow White is beautifully directed, with evocative visuals and editing, and an unusually accessible example of how nuanced, emotional and sophisticated storytelling can be without dialogue, though the story itself is ground so well-covered that it never becomes quite the sweeping, fresh modern fairy tale one hopes for. Maribel Verdu is great fun in the wicked-queen role.

Captains Courageous (1937, Victor Fleming) [r]
Spencer Tracy is wonderful in this cranky MGM Kipling adventure but there are too many overlong action sequences, and it’ll likely test your tolerance for movies about boys Learning to Be Men.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller)
Long-gestating fourth film in the series features admirable pacing, stunts and a bluntly feminist angle, although the editing remains as much a confusing irritation as in most modern action pictures. It’s one long balls-to-the-wall chase scene, which is an idea with some merit if only the characters weren’t such ciphers.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939, Sam Wood) [r]
(Revisit; major upgrade.) Robert Donat gives a nuanced, lovely performance as a prim schoolteacher in this sentimental, overlong story of his decades of service that kicks into emotional MGM high gear during its midsection, when he courts and marries Greer Garson; everything else seems superfluous.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004, Hayao Miyazaki) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) Likely Miyazaki’s most Western-friendly film, with a British children’s novel as its source. The premise of the chameleon-like shelter of the title is enthrallingly bizarre, and one riveting early chase scene has a strength and physicality unseen elsewhere in the director’s oeuvre; you feel as if you’re flying. But the story unravels slowly until it’s barely coherent and, as so often with Ghibli’s features, the human characters aren’t engaging enough to make the descent into fantasy routine emotionally resonant. But how can you not enjoy a movie that includes a sentient scarecrow named Turnip?

Sergeant York (1941, Howard Hawks) [r]
Not actually a war film, but rather coded propaganda about a good-hearted Christian pacifist (Gary Cooper, stoic and unpretentious as ever) coping with the inherent conflicts of killing “for country” in the WWI trenches and resisting the celebratory publicity that results. Despite intelligent dialogue and some bits of alarming violence it’s almost Rockwellian in its sentimentality, although the scene in which Cooper is lured away from seeking a murderous revenge and into a church instead is — for this wholly secular viewer — unexpectedly, deeply moving.

Warrior (2011, Gavin O’Connor)
Competent, technically assured sports drama about two brothers, one an AWOL Iraq vet and one a broke physics teacher, competing in a major Mixed Martial Arts tournament is sensitive and entertaining in the vein of Rocky and Chariots of Fire; like those films it doubles as social comment, in this case regarding the financial collapse and its effect on working families. Builds to an exciting Breaking Away-like climax, but you have seen it all before, so it’s really worth watching only if you have specific interest in MMA or in the sports movie genre overall.

Watch on the Rhine (1943, Herman Shumlin) [c]
Awkwardly acted, poorly directed propaganda with a weak script by Dashiell Hammett (!), from Lillian Hellman’s play, suffers from stilted dialogue and awful pacing; it’s essentially a chamber piece about a resistance fighter (Paul Lukas) hiding out in the U.S., undermined by local Nazi George Coulouris. Too much facile speechifying, too much talk in general, and the two or three potentially exciting scenes are badly bungled. The child actors make the kid in Shane seem like an accomplished thespian.

The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel Coen)
(Revisit; no change.) Jeff Bridges portrays a deadbeat stoner who’s mistaken for a rich man sharing his name, leading to much bumbling when he’s roped into a Raymond Chandler-like kidnapping case. None of this hangs together at all, though it’s occasionally very amusing for the first half before falling completely apart in an apparent bid for Blowup-esque sign o’ the times apathy. Beautifully filmed, annoyingly flippant, utterly facile, inexplicably popular.

Love & Mercy (2014, Bill Pohland) [r]
Sympathetic biopic of Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson is best when it focuses on a spry Paul Dano as twentysomething Wilson directing musicians, writing songs, bursting with promise despite breakdowns and abuse. John Cusack’s interpretation of Wilson’s shell-of-former-self 1980s floundering under the dictatorial guardianship of Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) is comparatively sour and depressing, but undeniably accurate. The sound design is absolutely brilliant, as is (of course) the music; walks the line between circus horror show and musical revelation as well as it probably could.

A Double Life (1947, George Cukor) [r]
Over-the-top Ronald Colman headlines this middling noir as an actor whose role in a Broadway production of Othello interferes with his perception of reality and fantasy, with bloody consequences. Entertainingly dark and sophisticated, but the characterizations are so thin that the burgeoning darkness never seems real or genuinely threatening.

V for Vendetta (2005, James McTeigue) [c]
(Revisit; major downgrade.) Pretentious and naive, libertarian-appropriated pap with scattershot Dreyer / Lang-derived imagery about terrorist activity from a Guy Fawkes mask-sporting Nice Guy who speaks in blank verse and the Natalie Portman who loves and is tortured by him. The intentions here are probably good and in terms of its attitude toward civil liberties and sexuality it is pretty subversive as comic book movies go, but like its Reddit-beloved sibling The Matrix it’s ultimately quite sophomoric.

Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter) [r]
Pixar envisions the battle between emotions inside the head of a preteen girl whose world is undergoing some upheaval as a showcase for comic timing and terrific character design. That said, the emotional content and story points feel overly familiar, the actual struggles are honestly a bit petty, and the characterizations of the girl’s parents are truly dire, on the level of a mid-’80s sitcom or some bad comic’s stand-up routine about the differences between men and women, y’aaalll. Disappointingly conventional on the whole.

Ida (2013, Pawel Pawlikowski) [r]
Stunning photography and aching performances enliven this minimalist story of a nun on the verge of taking her vows and how revelations from an estranged aunt about her confused, tragic heritage alter her intentions. A quiet, brief meditation on the long shadow cast by the Holocaust and the core of what informs our gravest decisions. This could be a master class on developing characters with little dialogue, as both the leads — refreshingly, two women on a road trip — are revealed to us as complete, complex human beings, their relationship real and telling.

Cyrano de Bergerac (1950, Michael Gordon) [r]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Slight but highly digestible low-budget Hollywood goo cannot hold a candle to Edmond Rostand’s beautiful, life-altering play, but it is entirely acceptable as hopelessly romantic entertainment. Jose Ferrer is good in the lead but William Prince is brilliantly empty as hollow pretty-boy Christian.

Casino Royale (2006, Martin Campbell) [r]
The best film in the James Bond series. Beyond its gritty origin-story elements, it destroys the 007 fantasy in favor of revealing a human being with a cold exterior; rather than transporting a seemingly invincible figure to the “real world,” this simply lays out how such a creature could never exist. For much of the film, Bond is weakened, flummoxed, stymied, even vaguely incompetent at times; Daniel Craig brings more dimension to the role than it’s ever had before. More to the point, the stunt sequences are outrageous and gripping and remarkable but never ridiculous.

Housekeeping Note: I also wrote a few stray thoughts about The Best Years of Our Lives and Cool Hand Luke on this month’s revisits; click the links if you care.

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