September 2015 movie capsules

15 movies watched in September. Counts:
– 9 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 1,863.
– 6 revisits, none of which had been previously viewed within the lifetime of this blog.
– Thus, all 15 newly reviewed here.
– This includes 3 new “full” reviews: There Will Be Blood, Touch of Evil and The 400 Blows. All three were wholly new pieces, hopefully making up for a dearth of original material lately.
– 12 new or updated capsules, all below.
– Spent less time watching and more time writing this month, thanks in part to life events including but not limited to getting married. It was sheer luck that we happened to run upon a series of fabulous titles on the IMDB list. I’ve been putting off writing something lengthy about The 400 Blows and Touch of Evil for years, so glad to finally get it done. It’s only fair to warn you that I foresee not nearly so much enthusiasm from our October slate.

Project breakdowns:
IMDB Top 250: Again watched 6 films on this list — There Will Be Blood (an overlap with Best Actor), Touch of Evil, The 400 Blows, Stand by Me, Persona (the only one of these I had not previously seen, and a long time coming) and The Princess Bride. Dual Rob Reiner films a freakish coincidence. A mission to wrap up the other big running project on my few free days in October will require us to take a month off from this one. But as things currently stand, 50 films on this list still require a look, of which I have never seen 18.
Best Actor: An absolute slog this month. Watched 6 winners, plus an extra (There Will Be Blood) due to its overlap with the 250. Reversal of Fortune was interesting and I’d already seen and felt conflicted over Philadelphia, but the rest — My Left Foot, Scent of a Woman, Leaving Las Vegas and Shine — are just the sort of shit you think of when you contemplate the awfulness of Oscar bait. This month we’ll be putting this project to bed with the last eight films (5 unseen) that remain to be tackled.
2010s Catchup: Was persuaded to look in on The Comedy, an action I regret taking.
New Movies: The culturally essential Timbuktu was my one qualifying picture this term.
Recommendations: At long last, after a lifetime of knowing its conspiratorial legend, The Misfits.

And now, the weather.

***

My Left Foot (1989, Jim Sheridan)
Warm but saccharine biopic of cerebral palsy-suffering author and painter Christy Brown is most remembered for netting Daniel Day-Lewis the first in his armload of Oscars, and his work here is of course extremely compelling, but Jim Sheridan’s interpretation of the material only sporadically rises above the generic. It’s hard to avoid the sense that Brown frequently comes across as a complete dick, particularly in his dealings with women.

Reversal of Fortune (1990, Barbet Schroeder) [r]
Half true-crime mystery, half infomercial for Alan Dershowitz’s capabilities as a defense attorney. Slick and entertaining, and the detective-work scenes are surprisingly raw and engaging a la the “war room” scenes in The Candidate, but there are limits to what we can learn about a man like Claus von Bulow (portrayed about three pitches above cartoonish by Jeremy’s Iron) in context like this, which makes the exercise seem a bit pointless. Far more palatable than most prestige films of this dire period.

The Comedy (2012, Rick Alverson) [NO]
Excruciating series of sketches about how Tim Heidecker and his lowlife friends, all of whom seem too old by at least ten years to be playing these parts, discover that ironic detachment cannot save them from Real Emotions, Aging, etc. This is an act of trolling made by and for people who have nothing but contempt for interesting, lively cinema.

Stand by Me (1986, Rob Reiner) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) Stephen King’s short story “The Body” about twelve year-olds going off to look for a dead body is brought to the screen in witty, bittersweet fashion by Reiner, who is helped a great deal by his four hugely impressive young actors, especially River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton. Despite withering glares at aloof parenting, this is a bit of a romanticized view of adolescence — regardless of time period (the late 1950s) — but at least they do get the amount of coarse language right.

Scent of a Woman (1992, Martin Brest) [NO]
Truly abysmal fusion of Rain Man and Dead Poets Society belongs in a special kind of early 1990s prestige-picture hell. A prep school kid acts as escort to a loudmouthed jackass (Al Pacino) who happens to be blind and a military veteran, and we are expected to eventually find the guy endearing in all his harassment and endangerment of people. At nearly 160 minutes, this is not merely ovelong but an act of war against the very concept of film editing.

Timbuktu (2014, Abderrahmane Sissako) [r]
Sketchy but valuable exploration of the 2012 Jihadist coup in Mali — in which everything from music to feet without socks became a crime — is sort of a West African variant on Altman’s Nashville, with equally brilliant music. The performances are wildly uneven, probably because the actors in the various subplots are so rarely required to mesh the way the film itself must, and the story feels somewhat haphazard. But as a compassionate act of protest, it’s a must.

Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) [hr]
The story here of an unstable actress and somewhat naive nurse whose roles reverse when they retreat to a beach cottage is somewhat overwrought, with overly literal dialogue, but the film is formally so fascinating, stark and innovative, the performances so exquisite, that it doesn’t matter much — we are still completely immersed in the terror and sensuality of this strange, high-contrast ride through a harrowing mutual unraveling. The opening avant garde montage is furiously unsettling, and Sven Nykvist’s photography is as astoundingly intimate and spare as ever.

Philadelphia (1993, Jonathan Demme) [c]
(Revisit; no change.) Demme’s strange, extremely subjective signature approach did wonders for the psycho-killer genre in The Silence of the Lambs, but he falls flat in his attempt to apply it to a Social Message movie featuring Tom Hanks as an AIDS sufferer who files a discrimination suit against the law firm that fired him. Hanks is good, but the idealistic script lacks every kind of real dimension — especially in its simplistic characterizations — and cops to cliché more times than can be counted.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995, Mike Figgis) [c]
Mournful ballad of a fallen, nihilistic Hollywood hotshot (Nicolas Cage) drinking himself to death, enabled somewhat by an all too accepting Vegas sex worker (Elisabeth Shue, terrific) who’s just glad to be around a guy who doesn’t flagrantly mistreat her. More openly sleazy than usual for Hollywood in the ’90s, but the lush lite-jazz soundtrack and the glamorous abandon of it all doesn’t help much with the impression that it’s trapped in the romanticizing of alcoholism and suicide. On the whole it’s hard to imagine what we’re expected to get out of this.

Shine (1996, Scott Hicks) [c]
A mountain of overused tropes in this biopic of David Helfgott (Noah Taylor, then Geoffrey Rush), prodigy pianist who was institutionalized for years: Jazz Singer-style overbearing father, the Understanding Woman, performance prowess and anxiety and the usual mad-genius clichés. It’s a true story rendered as vapid crowd-pleasing entertainment. The script by Jan Sardi might be more credible if the antagonist — the angst-filled, manipulative father portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl — felt at all believable as a human being, even an abusive one.

The Misfits (1961, John Huston) [r]
Melancholy portrait of post-marital angst has a newly divorced woman entering a circle of all-star cowboy weirdos and finding herself enamored of their freewheeling machismo but increasingly disturbed by their attitudes toward other living things, herself included. Arthur Miller’s dialogue is good, the story reassuringly small, the fluid camerawork engaging. Most modern viewers come to this to watch three actors (Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift) on the eve of untimely demises; all three are good, but upstaged by both Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter in subtler, more nuanced roles.

The Princess Bride (1987, Rob Reiner) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) Hilarious and rapid-fire fantasy about a separated couple dealing with a limitless supply of hazards — including Christopher Guest — in an attempt to reunite, all narrated by Peter Falk reading a book to his grandson. Full of boundless energy, swashbuckling action and irresistible charm — and despite having its every moment completely absorbed into the culture, it remains genuinely funny.

***

Some additional notes on There Will Be Blood and Touch of Evil offered here.

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