November 2015 movie capsules + an extended apology for my own weird tendencies

22 films watched in November. Counts:
– 17 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 1,893.
– 5 revisits, 4 of them written up.
– 21 newly reviewed here, counting three 100% brand new full reviews — of Min and Bill, The Last Laugh and The Lodger.
– 18 new or revised capsules, which can be found below.
– And now, a word… a few thousand of them, in fact:

I’ve never been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and it would be unfair to those who have been to imply otherwise, but certainly fixations on things being in their correct order and on sticking firmly to a plan as I originally laid it out, regardless of convenience and logic, have been a part of my life almost as long as I remember. When I was around six and my dad and I regularly haunted all area pawn shops and yard sales for every Atari 2600 game we could find, I shelved them in my room in the order of their acquisition and got extremely pissed off at my brother when he laid the couple hundred I had out on the floor randomly and put them all back however he felt like it. That experience probably led to the equally dedicated list-making. Lists are something I richly enjoy and I don’t feel bad about it; despite not being mathematically inclined otherwise, I love the feeling of things falling into place, like the reviews and capsules here when they light up the Projects page as I go. Lists became a part of my film-watching at an early age as well, but mostly as a matter of practicality and later as a methodology behind a more creative pursuit — that is, of course, writing about movies. Again, one reason this blog satisfies so many of my creative impulses is that it’s an outlet for a love of film, a love of writing and a love of lists/organization, and I think all of these elements make it good. Readers have been very encouraging about my indulgence of all of it in this space.

But there are limits to the aid provided by a strict adherence to preordained formats and sequences. A major example is the approach I’ve taken here for the past two years in regard to the IMDB list. I know it’s a bit late to challenge this when we’re just a few months out from being done with the whole process, but bear with me. This list of 250 films changes in its contents and sequence on a daily basis, so anyone who’s thought about it for more than a couple seconds knows there would be little long-term purpose to attempting rigorously to seeing and writing up the films in the order in which they presently sit. It makes even less sense when you consider we don’t double up on what’s already been covered, and less still since there’s no consistency to it; 24 hours from now, #45 might be #46 and vice versa, which might — gasp — alter the order in which I will “have” to watch the films.

To be clear, no one’s actually ever told me this was stupid, and I appreciate it. We all have our hobbies and our weird tics that go along with them, but at some point recently I woke up and realized the gross ineffeciency this was causing. For example, this month there was a film I needed to watch (The Hustler) on Netflix Instant, set to expire on December 1st. As I’ve been controlling things in the past, this would’ve meant skipping it and then going to the trouble of finding a disc copy when its number actually came up. There’s no actual advantage to watching the films in correct order on even a list that does have a strict, set-in-stone ranking or logic (chronological or alphabetical, say); there’s even less on one that’s so elastic its lower reaches could be unrecognizable in a year’s time. But if I arrange it so that I acquire things based on how easy they are to see — streaming video if available, local libraries better yet, and then Netflix disc-by-mail and any needed purchases or illegal activities after all that — the net result is an actual advantage: I can see more films, write more in this space, and it will all make next to no difference to anyone who likes reading this stuff.

One element of this epiphany was that I’ve changed my plans on where we’re taking this thing after the 250 is finished, and actually in the more immediate sense as well. I’ve been trying to make cinematic literacy sort of a mission for well over a decade now and yet there are still so many major films I have never seen, including the bulk of all world cinema classics and a fair number of Hollywood movies, and given that this blog is supposed to be my path through the maze it’s come to bother me a bit. The Oscars project will continue just as it’s been going, as I think it’s mostly been a successful and enlightening venture. The next several projects I had originally slated — which included the biggest-grossing domestic hits, the National Film Registry, and the AFI 400 — will be rearranged because they all primarily favor U.S. films and I really need to get to work on this blog’s egregious bias toward Hollywood cinema. It may turn out that Hollywood is my biggest area of knowledge and passion anyway, but right now we don’t really know that. So with all that in mind and with the aid of some privately polled lists created at a forum I visit, we are — starting this past month, running parallel with the IMDB 250 — making a journey through the international, arthouse and yeah, classic Hollywood “canon,” starting with the silent era and moving on from there.

Were I getting this off the ground now, the AFI and IMDB lists probably wouldn’t be my starting point, but once again, this is chalked up to a fixation I can’t explain. Back in 2006 when I first attempted something like this, I gathered every list, poll and canon I could think of and sequenced them and I’ve been bizarrely steadfast about sticking to that sequence. All it took to change that course was my mind wandering and suddenly asking “why?” and not having a good answer. It’s appropriate though that we began when we did because those are both the lists I attempted to work on back in ’06-’07 and never properly completed. Now they’re done or close to it so the loose ends are tied. That means the silent area and 1930s canons will become a main focus here during and after completion of the 250, then I plan to alternate the canon lists with other previously planned excursions.

My immense personal flaws would normally not be something I’d bring up here, especially when I can’t really explain them away or defend them, but I’m doing so because getting past them is going to mean this blog is going to suddenly be a hell of a lot better, faster, more seasoned, and I hope the work will be more interesting and fun to read as a result. Thanks for the indulgence. I’ll be adding the alphabetical “canon” list shortly after I post this.

The tag system is currently messed up on this site due to the blogger’s laziness; I will try to fix it in the coming month or so, but based on my stats it doesn’t seem that the tags are frequently used anyway. Another issue is that I’m in the middle of a server change on the site I’ve used for years for my images, so a number of them are broken, and I’m now seriously considering reformatting the older entries to look more like the new ones and to generally tidy up and streamline everything. Your feedback on both counts would be appreciated.

Project breakdowns:
IMDB Top 250: My new monthly goal is 6 of these and this month I did 5, so right out of the gate I’m fucking it all up, but I’m very busy on other matters right now and I’ll make up for it in December. With ordained sequencing out the window, we tackled: In the Name of the Father, Prisoners, Hachi, The Hustler and The Terminator. The first three were new to me, and I hadn’t seen The Terminator since eighth grade. It, uh, lived up to my memories. Remaining films in this project: 35 (15 unseen). This should be finished in the late spring, at which point I’ll switch back to just two major projects going simultaneously.
Best Actress Oscar winners: The excitement of a new project! Managed 6 of these. Barely two weeks into this I decided to throw out the inclination to see them chronologically; I don’t think we’ll lose any valuable perspective as a result. Thus, the strange experience of kicking off with the all but impossible to find Coquette, then the MOD-only films Min and Bill, The Sin of Madelon Claudet and Dangerous, then the Norma Shearer vehicle The Divorcee and finally Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Remaining films in this project: 45 (40 unseen!). If anybody has a line on a copy of The Trip to Bountiful that they can loan to me, please let me know.
Silent Era Canon: The excitement of another new project! Thanks to Amazon Prime’s generous selection of silent films as well as my own library system’s solid collection of them, it was a cinch to kick things off with 5 films this month — Man with a Movie Camera from the Soviet Union, Nanook of the North from America, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Last Laugh from Germany, and The Lodger from Great Britain. I’d only seen two of those before and even they were a revelation in improved prints; this promises to be a profoundly educational and fascinating experience and I’m so excited to finally be doing it. Remaining feature films in this project (not including shorts, which will be written up in these monthly posts as we go): 62 (only four of which I’ve already seen!). While we’re at it: one of these, Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration (1915), is proving impossible to track down affordably; any help would be gratefully accepted.
2010s catchup: Opened up the floodgates and did 4 of these: Snowpiercer, Child’s Pose, the absolutely glorious Computer Chess, and Museum Hours; technically the 250 entry Prisoners is also an overlap with this, so 5.
Other: When we were in Walt Disney World, Amber bought a Thumper and a stylized Bambi mug. Therefore, we watched Bambi. It’s a great film. I don’t feel prepared to write a complete essay on Bambi at the moment; it deserves more devoted attention than I can provide it at the moment. It will surely come up on some list or another soon enough. For now, the extant capsule stands. I still agree with it.

CAPSULES:

Coquette (1929, Sam Taylor)
Bogged down under the usual constraints of talkies in the ’20s, this is lurid even by the standards of domestic melodramas, particularly Mary Pickford’s broad overacting. She plays a rich girl whose overprotective dad goes to hyperventilating extremes when he doesn’t like her unclassy boyfriend. Of interest solely to those seeking either unintentional hilarity or insight into the creaky problems of early talkies; also contains the silliest courtroom climax in film history.

Snowpiercer (2013, Joon-ho Bong)
Science fiction-tinged actioner with George Romero-like sociopolitical commentary doesn’t lack for imagination despite its bloat and excessive violence; it’s about a train speeding eternally — through a post-apocalyptic, frozen Earth — that’s been segregated by class, and a revolt against its power structure. The premise and art direction are good, the shots of black comedy welcome; the plot itself is popcorn traditionalism fused with the easy “subversion” of V for Vendetta.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928, Herbert Brenon) [c]
Disappointingly maudlin story of a circus performer (Lon Chaney) dealing with an unrequited infatuation toward a girl he raised (14 year-old Loretta Young) — yes, creepy, though nearly identical in premise to Frank Borzage’s Lazybones — only has a handful of opportunities to put its leading man’s talents on full display; it’s otherwise a slow-as-molasses, overly conventional melodrama deserving of its obscurity.

Child’s Pose (2013, Calin Peter Netzer) [r]
A contemplative tragedy about grief and guilt, following the aftermath of a fatal car accident as it falls in various ways upon the family of the man responsible — in particular his mother, played with devastating honesty and ambiguity by Luminița Gheorghiu. Those seeking catharsis or a narrative that winds itself up will be disappointed, but as a story wholly absent of heroes and villains it doesn’t seem far from something as wise and moving as A Separation.

Computer Chess (2013, Andrew Bujalski) [hr]
Brilliant pseudo-document of a computer programming tournament circa 1980, shot on outdated video cameras, fully captures a culture, tempered by surrealism. Odd, memorable characters — performed with aplomb by a cast of improvisers — populate a hotel conference room; the focus is on frailties, errors and urges that exist outside the framework of the structured thinking implied by the group’s chosen field — the lines that fray between the left brain and the right.

The Divorcee (1930, Robert Z. Leonard) [r]
Norma Shearer divorces her jealous moron of a husband; life ensues. Maybe if you shut this film down two thirds in, its treatment of her free spirit and passion would ring true. Instead it’s absurdly moralistic and highly dependent on abhorrent double standards. A pity, because at its liveliest moments this is a kinetic treat — like a film that wishes it could be a screwball Comedy of Remarriage but can’t get there — and Shearer is magical as always.

The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931, Edgar Selwyn) [r]
Relentlessly bleak tearjerker from MGM wherein a woman (Helen Hayes) has a child out of wedlock then is abandoned by her boyfriend and spends the rest of her life suffering one indignity and setback after another while attempting to pay for her son’s education. So pessimistic and despairing you have to kind of admire its chutzpah, and it does have solid performances.

Museum Hours (2012, Jem Cohen) [r]
Elliptical, quiet immersion into the lonely power of art museums, married to an anti-aethesticism philosophy of filmmaking. Equal time is made for conversation between friends and strangers and for the hidden ways in which art infects and alters our relationship with the world around us. Though undeniably beautiful, this wears its lack of focus proudly, but see it if you like a film that makes you feel you’ve really traveled somewhere.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov) [hr]
An exhilarating if abstract symphony of a hybrid Soviet city and a miracle of frenetic, playful editing. In just over an hour it explores the possibilities of its own form more than a narrative feature ever could. Even for a story-stalwart like me who admires avant garde film but normally can only take it for about twenty minutes or less, the wisps of people and reality this captures are invaluable.

In the Name of the Father (1993, Jim Sheridan) [r]
Raw, impassioned dramatization of the horrifying story of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, falsely accused and imprisoned for an IRA bombing in 1974 during a rash of paranoia about terrorism. Functions as thriller as much as it does historical drama, taking care to define a youth that’s vibrant and almost enviable in its petty aimlessness so clearly that it almost physically hurts when it’s stripped away. It doesn’t stray much from convention in regard to how to turn something like this into a capital-m Movie, but it really doesn’t need to.

Nanook of the North (1922, Robert J. Flaherty) [r]
Flaherty’s initial “docufiction,” a mostly staged exploration of an Eskimo hunter’s day to day life, is celebrated for establishing the potential for documentary as poetry. It doesn’t wear well today for non-students, so reliant on obvious contrivances and cutesy, racist asides revolving around the “simplicity” of the people whose cheeriness and expertise it’s supposed to be celebrating. It’s easy to see, though, why it kicked off an entire genre of ethnographic docudramas; its ability to transport one to an unfamiliar world is still compelling if not absolutely arresting. Along with Intolerance, one of the finest early examples of film editing as an art unto itself.

Prisoners (2013, Denis Villeneuve) [r]
This crime-fiction pulp about the fallout from the disappearance of two young girls grows more and more preposterous as its two and a half hours unfold — as absorbed as one is in it, its reliance on absurd coincidences and a completely ridiculous, Friday the 13th-like resolution become hard to tolerate in the moment and inexcusable afterward. Helpfully, most of the performances are solid; Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal sometimes slip into melodrama, and casting Paul Dano as a weirdo is not exactly a stroke of originality, but all three are compelling.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974, Martin Scorsese) [r]
Scorsese’s out-of-place, hyperactive blocking and camera movements are mostly a distraction from this low-key drama of a widow packing up and trying to make a life for herself. The script by Robert Getchell is often perceptive — though too often forgiving of its male characters’ bonehead masculinity. The cast is outstanding, particularly the brilliant Ellen Burstyn but also Diane Ladd and a very young Jodie Foster, adding flavor and dimension to a flawed film and all but redeeming its issues. Also memorable for its rare and satisfying sense of America in 1974, detailed and steeped in its era without feeling dated.

Hachi (2009, Lasse Hallström) [NO]
Really?

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Wiene) [hr]
(Revisit; major upgrade.) Chilling, truly disorienting prototype of the horror genre borrows considerably from traditional silent melodrama in its story of a sleepwalker terrorizing a town, hypnotized by the deranged director of a nearby asylum, but it flies into a delightful cinematic bliss thanks to its remarkable production design and unforgettable, angular sets. This film alone seems to have fathered German Expressionism as we remember it; it’s one of the few times cinema lives up to the ideal of transferring our strangest dreams and nightmares to celluloid. The string-pulling Caligari is a stand-in for the boldly irrational artist overlording all that we see; he is cinema.

Dangerous (1935, Alfred E. Green)
Weak, talky romance melodrama from Warner Bros. has bland architect Franchot Tone delving into a self-destructive affair with drunken past-her-prime stage actress Bette Davis; the latter won an Oscar, but this isn’t the place to gain an understanding of her enduring appeal (camp or otherwise). The story takes no opportunity to explore any of its characters or situations in any but the most generic manner. On the other hand, Davis does get to deliver the unforgettable line “You cheap, petty bookkeeper, you! Every time I think that those soft, sticky hands of yours ever touched me it makes me sick!” but little else makes this worth even its brief 75 minutes.

The Hustler (1961, Robert Rossen)
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) A general vibe of low-key sleaziness runs through this drama about a pool hustler played by Paul Newman; shot like a telefilm and all too believably capturing the dead-end despair of his chosen profession and its setting, this is credible enough until it introduces Piper Laurie as a female punching bag whose purpose in the film is essentially to be abused and discarded and thus force Newman to “grow up.” One’s tolerance for the rest depends on how exciting you find the game of pool; there’s a lot of it here.

The Terminator (1984, James Cameron)
(Revisit; no change.) Extremely violent action film plods along with little thought seemingly given to how we are expected to connect to or care about it. Schwarzeneggar is certainly believable and the pacing is taut, but this is the same crass, cipher-filled macho posturing as any more generically manufactured action movie one can name, skillfully but absently directed by Cameron.

***

Additional observations at Letterboxd on fully reviewed films:
The Lodger
The Last Laugh
Min and Bill

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