December 2015 movie capsules

27 feature films watched in December. Counts:
– 21 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 1,914.
– 6 revisits, none of which were among the month’s full reviews, which I believe is a first. Also screened three shorts relevant to current projects, which will be addressed in the Silent Era breakdown way down below this.
– All 27 newly reviewed here, with new essays on Blue Valentine, Strike and Faust, none of which I had seen before. Incidentally Faust is now my favorite film I’ve seen for the first time since starting this blog.
– 24 new or revised capsules, produced below.
– The changes in procedure described last month have worked out wonderfully. It also pleases me that there’s been an uptick in fully original content here and I’m hoping I can keep it up. The lion’s share of long reviews I wrote at my old blog have now been transferred over, with a few big exceptions, and I’m now choosing not to transport a few of those (Amores Perros and Nosferatu turned out to be examples, the latter because I now sharply disagree with my old conclusions, the former because most of it was appropriate for a personal blog but not this space). Another element here is that those old reviews — since they are now nine years old or older — look very thin to me now that I’m already second guessing some of what I was doing when I started this blog.
– In that spirit, I’m still tinkering with (and re-tagging) stuff on the back end of this blog’s history — during downtime I’m slowly reformatting the old entries, from the beginning; if you look at the index pages for the first couple of months you’ll see the long reviews now have snazzy featured images, and the posts themselves are less cluttered with screengrabs, now limited to one per writeup. In terms of text, I’ve been correcting a few mistakes and adjusting some things for clarity but nothing significant except that I drastically cut down the review of The Godfather and it’s a bit tidier and more mature now. I imagine there will be other changes made, especially to the very old stuff that I edited and moved here (anything I wrote before 2012 gets a notation/apology at the bottom in small print), but I’m not doing any new writing — just cutting things out and occasionally moving stuff around. A consistent casualty will be anything apologizing for my views not aligning with consensus, or “warnings” that what you’re about to read is “against the norm” or whatever; I hate when other people do that — it comes off as either unnecessarily defensive or uncomfortably self-satisfied — so I’m going to nix any instances of it here.

Project breakdowns:
IMDB Top 250: Got 7 more movies under the belt, most of them not new to me, a few (Stalker, Amores Perros and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) actually films I first saw when I tried this once before. Childhood staple Jurassic Park was a fun nostalgia trip (my relationship to it is similar to what A.O. Scott describes for Star Wars: I painfully recognize all of its story inefficiencies but it takes me back so completely I forgive it), and old favorite Groundhog Day inflicted its usual combination of comfortable stress relief and stress emphasis. This was my first time with the legendary kitsch-horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, primarily recommended for schlock addicts, and Papillon, a film I’d looked forward to and dreaded for years since reading the excellent book. We are left now with 36 films left to review, only 11 of which aren’t already in the Guide. However, those numbers are based on the most recent iteration of the list I’ve uploaded here, and I understand there’s been a rather rude entrance toward the top since then. I’ll capture it again shortly. Oh, and since I don’t remember mentioning it elsewhere: It makes me very happy that Sunrise has now earned a very respectable position on this list.
Best Actress Oscar winners: Saw 6 of these, all new to me. The expiration of hundreds of big studio movies on Netflix at the end of the year meant I fast-tracked The Hours and The Iron Lady, the unbelievably banal latter of which made the decidedly ordinary first look like an artistic triumph. Also managed the decent moldy oldies The Good Earth and Morning Glory, the quite worthwhile if morally suspect Monster and the extremely unexpected noir I Want to Live!, a starkly ahead-of-its-time capital punishment story and the best of Robert Wise’s films I’ve yet to see. This one and Min and Bill are the two canon-level discoveries made from this category so far. Still to come: 43 more of these (I miscounted last month, sorry), including 37 never previously seen. Per last month’s request: 1985’s The Trip to Bountiful, prohibitively expensive on DVD, has now shown up on Hulu (and Youtube) so I believe I presently have access to all 43 films needed, though I will have to purchase a few; send ur Paypal donations to poisonmail at aol.
Silent Era canon: Knocked out 5 silent features here in what’s rapidly become my favorite of our projects so far. Beyond the lengthily expounded upon Faust and Strike, we saw another film by each of their directors: Murnau’s Nosferatu, which I saw long ago but failed to appreciate, and Eisenstein’s October, the only disappointment so far although there is a great deal in it to admire. There was also the earth-shaking horror film The Golem, the influence of which may outstrip even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Additionally, three of the shorts on the canon list came under scrutiny and because shorts aren’t included in the Guide I’d like to address each of them here. (I’ll repost these on the full project page when it’s done.) All three rate a full A+ grade.

Designed to play before and during the intermission of a ballet, Entr’Acte (1924, René Clair) is a dazzlingly inventive silent surrealist piece infused with humor and rhythm. Because it eventually acquires something resembling a story, it probably doesn’t qualify as pure avant garde, but its free-associative frenzy is infectious; Clair’s drunken, pure joy over what the camera and film editing can accomplish is something to behold. If you’d like to see this you can find it online or — preferably — on Criterion’s DVD of A Nous La Liberte, about which more in a moment.

The cultural touchstone Un Chien Andalou (1929, Luis Buñuel), a collaboration with Salvador Dali, is probably the most famous surrealist film of all; I first saw it many years ago in a history class that briefly addressed surrealism and dadaism and got quite the jolt out of its signature, stunning moment: the nonchalant and graphic slicing of the woman’s eye in the first moments. When I saw the film again while doing self-imposed research on Alfred Hitchcock’s professional relationship with Dali, what struck me most of all was the humor in the immediate cutaway from that completely out-of-time, sinister act of violence with a title card announcing “FOUR WEEKS LATER” and an innocuous shot of someone biking down the street. That oblique, vaguely threatening comic sensibility is what makes Un Chien as well as its feature-length cousin L’Age d’Or linger in the mind — they are both actually hilarious, unnerving as they may also be. Knowing I was going to need to revisit it for the canon project and that I’d long needed to own a copy anyway, Amber bought me the Facets DVD that’s recently gone out of print. This is a very easy film to see, though, and most folks aren’t weird enough to need to see it more than once. Me, I’ll treasure it.

Finally: If your local library has Kino’s three-disc collection of Buster Keaton’s short films, I implore you to take it home as soon as possible. As good as Keaton’s features are, he’s even stronger in brief bites that allow you to deeply appreciate his ingenuity. Everything on the set that I’ve watched so far is wonderful, but the canon item to address is One Week (1920, Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline), a balletic masterpiece of physical comedy, immaculate set design, and even coy sensuality (!) that will make you laugh and fill you with energy. It’s about Buster and his wife building a tinker-toy of a new house that, almost incidentally to their own ineptitude, causes nothing but chaos when it’s finally (sort of, briefly) standing. The film’s an exuberant, unstoppable joy, and it’s in great company on the Kino set.

Not counting short films, 56 movies left to go in the silent canon project, 49 never before seen by us here. I have still been unable to find Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration; please advise if you have any tips.
2010s Catchup: Busy month for this, also in part because of Netflix streaming expirations; that’s what brought us to I Wish, Sightseers and Pina; other happenings encompassed the aforementioned Blue Valentine as well as the I’ve-been-meaning-to-see-this-for-years mainstays Never Let Me Go and Margin Call, and that rarest of beasts: a horror film I loved, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.
Other: Saw no actual new movies or straightforward recommendations in December probably because of so many knocked out in the category just above this one; however, various ancillary obligations involving other projects sent us to two odd-man-out selections. A Nous La Liberte came up because its DVD, available at the library, was the easiest way to see the same director’s silent short Entr’Acte. In less fun news, the stubborn presence of the final Harry Potter movie on the IMDB Top 250 is going to require me to sit through the other seven, which knowing me will take a long, long time; I’ve borrowed the first three from my mom and have so far only gotten through the first one. I know most everyone reading this probably loves these things but they probably couldn’t be less “for me”; we shall see, though. (And I’d rather watch them than LOTR again.)

After all that endless chatter: at last, the capsules!

Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg) [r]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) No one who was nine years old during the release of this theme park disaster film with revived-by-DNA dinosaurs run amok can be fully objective about it, despite its dramatic shortcuts and surplus of buildup to a facile anticlimax. It’s got nothing on Jaws as a narrative or an exploration of character but nearly matches it on cinematic spectacle and in its consistently outstanding suspense sequences.

I Wish (2011, Hirokazu Koreeda) [r]
Good-hearted if overlong story of two groups of schoolchildren — led by a pair of brothers who are living apart after a family crisis — who hype themselves up on a “miracle” that can make a wish come true for each of them. A must-view for anyone whose parents split up, though it’s hard to believe the boys’ mom and dad were ever a couple (like Wallace Beery and his wealthy ex-wife in The Champ). Good, naturalistic acting from the leads.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001, Chris Columbus)
Bad plotting, bad CGI, random “stuff” happening all the time, an exhausting number of cutesy-pie cameos from seemingly every living British actor, slavish adaptating of source material (J.K. Rowling’s series of novels immensely popular with both kids and adults) that doesn’t lend itself well to a cinematic retelling, but hey… it is what it is. [Note: As with LOTR, I reserve the right to reuse this capsule for future films in the series.]

Sightseers (2012, Ben Wheatley) [hr]
Mischievous black-comic road movie about a young woman vacationing with a boyfriend who turns out to harbor some unsavory tendencies. Functions as a rural British travelogue (gorgeously shot by Laurie Rose) as well as a diabolical combination of Badlands and Kind Hearts and Coronets whose humor is understated, making violence into a punchline without being flippant. As the sad-faced Tina, Alice Lowe gives a magnificently deadpan but somehow richly soulful performance.

The Golem (1920, Paul Wegener & Carl Boese) [hr]
Ufa’s surviving treatment of the Jewish legend takes place in Prague during the Middle Ages: an edict barring Jewish citizens from a ghetto is lamented by a Rabbi, who takes the unorthodox step of fashioning a mechanical man from clay and sending it out to take action and reverse the oppression. Unnerving, strange film contains some of the most impressive visual effects of the silent era and is the film equivalent of great folklore, so immense was its impact on the horror genre.

Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)
(Revisit; no change.) Monochromatic in appearance, trancelike and oppressive in its slowness, this celebrated Russian science fiction tells the story of three men attempting to enter the Zone, a fantastic place whose true nature is never properly explained. Watching this is similar to taking a ponderous walk around a nuclear test site with a couple of philosophy majors — its influence and seriousness are undeniable, but for someone not on its wavelength it’s merely a source of frustration.

The Good Earth (1937, Sidney Franklin) [r]
Engrossing Pearl S. Buck adaptation proves MGM’s capability with lavish popular entertainment is unquestionable even now, despite various dated elements (particularly the casting of two white actors as a Chinese farming couple, good as their performances are). The pointed anti-capitalism bent has remained relevant, but even more impressive are the special effects; the storm and locust invasion sequences are awe-inspiring even now.

Nosferatu (1922, F.W. Murnau) [hr]
(Revisit; major upgrade.) It’s odd today to see the bold strokes of the Dracula legend reenacted without any kind of a perverse twist or injection of humor. It’s all so unerringly straightforward, but Murnau’s bizarre special effects, dazzling sets and locations, and splendid expressionistic photography are worthy of awe even if the story feels weak. On the other hand, the enigmatic Max Schreck gives us probably the most effective vampire character ever captured on screen. An indispensable movie.

À Nous La Liberté (1931, René Clair) [hr]
Endlessly plundered by filmmakers from Chaplin to Kubrick to every Warner Bros. animator and beyond, this classic, socialist-tinged, exuberant French satire of industrialism — about a prison escapee who becomes the wealthy owner of a phonograph factory — manages to fuse poignant, full characterization with farce and utter visual enchantment. More elegant than funny, but briskly entertaining and modern.

Margin Call (2011, J.C. Chandor) [r]
The best thing about this financial crisis soap opera is the conceit of its eve-of-recession histrionics all taking place in about 36 hours, which renders the first act impressively taut. Sadly, the dialogue is sub-telefilm shit; all of the characters in the massive cast sound like they’re constantly giving rehearsed pep talks.

Monster (2003, Patty Jenkins) [r]
An economical and brilliantly acted portrait of two complex women in a love affair that has the unpredictable, emotionally fiery feel of reality. Unfortunately it’s in service of a biography of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and — complex a figure as she was — it’s thus a highly unpleasant viewing experience, regardless of one’s very human fascination with crime and murder. Charlize Theron’s embodiment of Wuornos is startling only afterward, such is her disappearance into the role.

Amores Perros (2000, Alejandro González Iñárritu)
(Revisit; no change.) [Note: The linked Letterboxd writeup condenses my old review from 2007.] This three-episode jumble of hyperactive stuff, all of it involving dogs and miserable people, has its riveting elements — confined mostly to the first and last segments, the middle one being a riff on idle rich angst — but doesn’t really hang together at all and goes on an hour longer than it should.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962, Robert Aldrich)
Lurid story of two sisters, former celebrities, driving each other mad in a dimly lit mansion is sheer camp, though stunningly photographed. Joan Crawford seems to think she’s in a serious film whereas Bette Davis knows it’s silly and doesn’t care, and hers is the more interesting performance by far, with her sadism sometimes offering a sense of what real abuse is like. Otherwise, the borrowings from Sunset Blvd. and Psycho come at the expense of all subtlety.

Pina (2011, Wim Wenders) [r]
Lovingly shot Wenders tribute to the German choreographer Pina Bausch was intended as a collaboration between them, but she died before production and instead it became a eulogy. It’s fascinating to watch these bodies in motion on constructed sets as well as on city streets and in parks, but the spell cast by the music and dancing is broken every time there’s a cutaway to an interview, and they’re constant; devoted just to the dancing, this could have been more immersive (and longer).

Morning Glory (1933, Lowell Sherman) [r]
Elliptical narrative wrung out by RKO from Zoe Akins’ play features a very young and already mesmerizing Katharine Hepburn as a starry-eyed, naive but ambitious young actress attempting to land a career-making role, chattering an unstoppable mile a minute while cavorting around at play auditions and parties. The film’s stage origins are made explicit by the extreme length of each of its scenes, but there’s some good dialogue and some interesting calls ahead to All About Eve.

Papillon (1973, Franklin J. Schaffner) [r]
Faithful adaptation of Henri Charrere’s wonderful (if largely fabricated) autobiography about his time in the French penal system and his many escape attempts boasts superb performances by Steve McQueen and a well cast Dustin Hoffman. There’s a grand sense of adventure and unassuming boldness that speaks to Schaffner’s underrated qualities as a fine popular director.

I Want to Live! (1958, Robert Wise) [hr]
Opening as a hard-boiled, hyper-stylized noir about the messy life of a prostitute — Barbara Graham, played with great sophistication by Susan Hayward — trying to go straight, this makes an impeccable tonal shift into a heartbreaking screed against capital punishment, harrowing in its attention to dismaying detail. Barbara as we come to know her is among the most convincingly three-dimensional woman characters in the studio era.

Groundhog Day (1993, Harold Ramis) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) Bill Murray’s wiseass weatherman is amusingly forced to endure the same day of cheerful small-talk and bad weather over and over, and anyone who struggles with relating to other people will find something resonant about his forced search for self-improvement. It’s also a bit of a nightmare — the day stretching into years, the ghostly tones of the Pennsylvania Polka echoing into infinity — and cinematically risky in its use of repetition and resourceful staging.

The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent) [hr]
Oppressively spooky Australian horror follows a single mom (Essie Davis) coping with a screeching and violent six year-old, her protracted grief from the death of her husband, and the unsolicited appearance of a grim Edward Gorey-style picture book on her kid’s shelf. Writer-director Kent expertly flaunts our fear of the unknown and makes resourceful use of jumpy sound design, beautiful compositions and art direction, and a general Repulsion-like atmosphere of palpable dread.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, John Ford) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) [Note: The linked Letterboxd writeup condenses my old review from 2007.] Another small town subverted, another astoundingly weird and wonderful cast (James Stewart and John Wayne’s coeexistence adding to the surrealism of the entire production). Stylistically, this rivals Hitchcock’s Marnie as the most seamless integration of abstraction and convention in a narrative film of the ’60s, but its story and character work are only sporadically as insightful and emotionally weighty as Ford at his best.

The Iron Lady (2011, Phyllida Lloyd) [NO]
Meryl Streep’s performance of Margaret Thatcher at various ages is obviously competent but not really anything special for her anymore, and even if it had been a miracle, nothing could save this badly written, badly conceived, badly staged chronicle of the controversial PM. My politics are, to say the least, at odds with Thatcher’s and I don’t have a positive view of her legacy, but I really don’t think that’s the problem here.

Never Let Me Go (2010, Mark Romanek)
Highly formal science fiction centering entirely on a love triangle set against a dystopian alternate history comes off like Harry Potter and the Romantic Replicants; the stars are attractive and it’s all very professional, but it reaches valiantly for devastating emotional catharsis it’s much too Merchant-Ivory polite to actually reach.

October (1928, Sergei Eisenstein) [r]
Another of Eisenstein’s visually sumptuous silent propaganda films, but in contrast to Strike and Battleship Potemkin this dramatization of the Revolution is so overloaded with icons, frenetic fast cutting and wild imagery that it’s on the faint border of incoherence, more avant garde than Intolerance-comparable storytelling.

The Hours (2002, Stephen Daldry)
Hollow, overwritten, overacted Oscar bait has heaps of unsubtle Thoughts about repression, particularly in conjunction with same-sex attraction, and ties it all — in three distinct A Letter to Three Wives-style episodes — to Virginia Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman). Superficial as hell but mercifully short, and apart from some bizarre dialogue the performances aren’t awful.

***

Additional observations at Letterboxd for fully-reviewed films:
Blue Valentine
Strike

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