January 2016 movie capsules

30 feature films watched in January. Counts:
– 24 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 1,938.
– 6 revisits, two of which inspired brand new full essays here: Anatomy of a Murder and Strangers on a Train. Additionally, one short subject seen this month warrants attention and will be addressed below.
– All 30 films newly reviewed here.
– 27 new or revised capsules (with one of them a joint capsule for a two-part film), all below.
– Do you like reading me type too many words about movies? Well, imagine how great it’d be to listen to an actual smart professional doing the same thing, with words and voices and everything! Over at my personal blog I’ve been singing the praises of Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This and since this is a movie review zone and all, I’d like to direct you to my comments over there if you’re interested, and then to the podcast itself, which is splendid and which you will really like. It’s just started a new season, about the Hollywood blacklist!
– I don’t have a lot to say about the Oscar nominations this year because I’ve yet to see most of the important movies in play. At the moment I’ve only actually seen one Best Picture nominee — Mad Max: Fury Road — and only a handful of 2015 releases, period. (I have a copy of The Martian waiting for my attention, but it’s just so damn long.) I will say that while I agree with the thrust of the Oscars So White campaign, I think the much more serious problem is the paucity of nonwhite performers and filmmakers in the pool of potential nominees; if Hollywood doesn’t solve its own horrendous diversity problem, there’s little point in expecting its award ceremonies to do the same. With that said, the recent rule changes in the Academy’s procedures are obviously a step in the right direction; there is a lot of clutter in that particular shoebox. Regarding the films that I can comment on: I don’t think Mad Max is as good a film as everyone says but it would be kind of fun to see it take the big one because it’s such a left-field choice for the Oscars; Carol is a splendid movie and Rooney Mara deserves a statue, although Jennifer Jason Leigh deserves one even more for a career’s worth of outstanding, terribly underrated work (although you couldn’t pay me to get into the theater for Hateful Eight).

Project breakdowns:
– IMDB Top 250: I thought I only did six of these this month but it turns out it was seven! Aside from the aforementioned Anatomy and Strangers, those were 8 1/2 (really miss my number pad on this laptop), The Bourne Ultimatum, Twelve Monkeys, Monsters Inc. and the new-to-me Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Present count, taking the latest update of the list into account, has me 34 movies away from completing this task, almost half of those (15) films I’ve never seen.
– Best Actress Oscar winners: A fine gathering of six films this month included three from the 1940s — Gaslight, Johnny Belinda and the hard-to-find To Each His Own — plus one each from the ’30s, ’60s and ’80s: Jezebel, Hud and Coal Miner’s Daughter. And not a real dud in the bunch! (Johnny Belinda is a bit lackluster compared to those others but still decent.) To Each His Own and Gaslight are both entering my personal pantheon for very different reasons. Like I’ve said before, nothing I do at this blog is as consistently surprising as these Oscar projects. Talking of serendipity, we’re exactly 34 films (29 unseen) from finishing this project as well.
– Silent Era canon: Of course I find myself constantly anxious to get back to work on this set of movies! I found time for seven — none of which I’d ever seen — this month, though I initially counted them as six because I was unaware that Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen is and always has been divided into two distinct movies. The others were a Griffith (Broken Blossoms), a couple of derring-do Douglas Fairbanks movies (The Thief of Bagdad and The Black Pirate) and two spooky gems: the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera and the unforgettable Swedish witchcraft documentary Haxan. Features remaining: 50 (43 unseen).
– 2010s catchup / New Movies: Dunno if it’s because I’m learning to manage my time better or what but I actually managed to fill a number of big gaps from the current decade in January: Fish Tank (technically 2009), big “arthouse” “hits” The Past, No and Martha Marcy May Marlene, big Hollywood title Foxcatcher, and a few films omnipresent on ten-best lists for this past year, which overlapped with “new movies”: Sicario, Phoenix (2014, but no one here saw it till 2015) and hey, we got ourselves seated in a real actual movie theater and saw Carol.

As part of the 2010s catchup maneuvering, I caught Don Hertzfeldt’s Oscar-nominated short World of Tomorrow, and I’m afraid I was a bit less taken with it than most. Hertzfeldt’s work is almost always charming and funny, but this science fiction story about a young girl learning the terrifying truth about her bleak future in an entirely mundane fashion is a bit rote. Somehow its beautiful despair seems a tad phony to me, though that’s less bothersome than how badly Hertzfeldt’s modest design work clashes with the breadth of the story he’s attempting to tell. It’s streaming on Netflix and my wife and I are in a minority so you should definitely have a look at it. It’s recommended, if mildly.
– Other: I bought 49th Parallel in the Criterion sale at B&N and it came with a weird Powell & Pressburger propaganda mini-feature called The Volunteer, easily the worst film of theirs I’ve seen if it even counts as a film. And the DVD I acquired to see Gaslight for the Best Actress project came with both versions; I enjoyed the more streamlined 1940 British thriller, but unexpectedly found George Cukor’s Hollywood remake far better, for reasons clarified below.

The capsules for this month follow, with slightly longer Letterboxd writeups behind the links.

Fish Tank (2009, Andrea Arnold) [hr]
Nothing about this story — of a hotheaded British teenager becoming attracted to her mom’s boyfriend while coping with the lingering threat of boarding school — is particularly unfamiliar, but the characters feel fully formed, the composition and photography are as beautiful and distinctive as a Wes Anderson film sans gimmickry (shot in Academy and with eye-popping colors that give Mia’s drab surroundings a dreamlike flair), and our entrance into a brief chunk of this impulsive 15 year-old’s angry young life lingers as though personally experienced.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924, Raoul Walsh) [r]
As visually dazzling as reputed, with outstanding special effects and production design (courtesy of William Cameron Menzies) that give a childlike feeling of grand adventure. This is most compelling and fun in the first half hour, when Douglas Fairbanks is still an amoral bastard stealing stuff from everybody. Once romance and “learning” kick in the film becomes kind of a slog, though still a visual feast, and Fairbanks’ physicality is something to behold. Very much an antecedent of the Gunga DinRobin Hood-George Lucas school of spectacle.

The Past (2013, Asghar Farhadi) [r]
Old-fashioned melodrama about a man traveling to Paris to grant his wife’s divorce only to be caught up in a web of secrets and lies is essentially a daytime soap with good acting. Farhadi’s empathy for his characters comes across in every moment, and he has a real understanding of the way people in interpersonal duress communicate. However, the story comes about its various plotty turnarounds entirely through dialogue, which is mercifully clean and free of excess but there is so much of it that this can feel as talky as a 1930s stage adaptation.

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980, Michael Apted) [r]
Sissy Spacek’s absolute embodiment of the great Loretta Lynn from age 14 to career peak is so riveting — her singing voice a remarkable dead ringer, her mild frame and visage tapping into astounding depth even as she plays a teenager at thirty — it nearly excuses all of this film’s excessive biopic conventions. We rush at breakneck speed through Lynn’s life and career, the biggest problem being we want more: more music especially, and certainly more of the equally riveting Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline. At its best, though, this soars.

The Volunteer (1944, Michael Powell)
Extremely dry propaganda doc from Powell and Pressburger about a couple of theater people who join up in the Fleet Air Arm and run into each other a few times over the years. The boredom is one thing, sort of expected in this kind of didactic and mostly artless material, but the attempts at humor are really desperate and irritating. Works only as a time capsule; quite a strange outlier in style and substance for its creators.

Gaslight (1940, Thorold Dickinson) [r]
Terse, harsh Brtish thriller of a murderer (Anton Walbrook) inflicting psychological terror upon his wife works better as a harrowing portrait of terrifying sadism than as a conventional mystery, which it the direction it eventually takes. Less flowery than the Hollywood remake, but also less nuanced.

Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold) [r]
Mannered variation on Vertigo has a concentration camp survivor (the outstanding Nina Hoss) who’s undergone a facial reconstruction pursuing her husband, who believes she died in the war and is looking for a handout. A bit too formal and airless, but stick with it for one of the most impeccable ending scenes in modern cinema.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925, Rupert Julian) [hr]
Lon Chaney’s signature role, and it’s a wild one. After so many decades of horror outcasts with gentle hearts and even after seeing any of Chaney’s other films, it’s oddly refreshing that his Erik is so unambiguously evil. This is deftly directed and is among the absolute strongest showcases for the influence of German expressionism on American films as early as 1925; the spectacle is something to behold, from the outlandish set design of the catacombs to a surprisingly chilling color sequence suggestive of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

(1963, Federico Fellini) [r]
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) Fellini’s black & white films are a treat to look at, breathtakingly stylish, lovingly composed, and full of expressive, fluid, impeccably designed movement that weaves in and out of the carefully crafted world in three blooming dimensions. But almost no scene in this film doesn’t overstay its welcome, and in such an episodic and jumbled narrative that tendency adds up quickly. More than in most films about filmmaking, the traces of self-criticism here are moving, but the too-much-is-never-enough sensibility is hard to take.

To Each His Own (1946, Mitchell Leisen) [hr]
On paper this is a soaper in the fashion of The Sin of Madelon Claudet, with Olivia de Havilland as a woman forced to give up her son after her fighter-pilot boyfriend is killed in action. However, as beautifully staged by Mitchell Leisen, written with wit and major emotional payoff by Charles Brackett and with its lead characterization exquisitely presented by de Havilland, this stands as a prime example of Hollywood tearjerking at its best. Imbues each portion of its sprawling story with levity, restraint and a warmth it comes about naturally.

Häxan (1922, Benjamin Christensen) [hr]
Eerie survey of “witchcraft through the ages” is a presentation more than a movie, but it breathes with a keen sense of fun and absurdity without shying from the extreme horror documented herein. Christensen’s commitment to skepticism is commendable here, as he explores the way unenlightened superstition destroyed and killed innumerable women. His points are still relevant even if details may date it, and the cinematic flourishes that anticipate a century of horror films are dazzling.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Paul Greengrass) [r]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Despite exciting action sequences and long-awaited plot resolutions, the third film in the series isn’t much that you haven’t already seen. It works best toward the beginning during an interesting bit of business about a Guardian reporter, really stretches credibility with badly edited chase sequences later on. Overall, very entertaining, but anything past this is entirely unnecessary.

Broken Blossoms (1919, D.W. Griffith) [r]
Griffith gets a chance to show genuine lyricism as he tells the atypically progressive story of a chance romantic encounter between Lillian Gish’s usual fragile waif and an opium-addled but kind Chinese immigrant portrayed in yellowface by Richard Barthelmess. Like much of Griffith’s work the story is full of hasty bold strokes, but there are some poetic moments and impressive shots, and Gish is of course excellent; the film is a slick enough affair that it’s hard to believe it dates from prior to 1920.

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924, Fritz Lang) [r]
Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924, Fritz Lang) [r]
Lavish Ufa production “dedicated to the German people” essentially invented the epic fantasy film; what’s amazing is that thanks to Lang it feels, technically and dramatically, no more “primitive” than any of the thousands of productions that owe a debt to it. Story-wise, it has all the limitations inherent to any film adaptation of a work of epic poetry with the inevitable ciphers and the many plot convolutions, but there is so much to see here that one can hardly feel much except awe.

Sicario (2015, Denis Villeneuve) [c]
A pointless, nihilistic bloodbath that, like the director’s other films, essentially exists to slickly flaunt its own cartoonishly bleak worldview. Emily Blunt is good as a fish-out-of-water FBI agent sent on a cartel-related wild goose chase, but the movie has no idea what to do with her and essentially barricades her from her own story. The ironies are forced and the journey we take to get to the various sophomoric “the world is straight FUCKED up, maaaan” messages is repetitive, sour and blunt-force.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, Sean Durkin) [r]
Sad, stilted chronicle of the paranoia abiding an escapee of a Manson-like cult, her story told in flashbacks while she tries to assimilate with her estranged sister. Intriguing and well shot (with a faded look that resembles old Polaroids, inspired partially by Margot at the Wedding) but harmed a bit by its distance from its lead character and the abruptness of its ending, though these aspects do linger in the mind as symptoms of broadly credible storytelling. Elizabeth Olsen is engaging and tragic in the lead.

Foxcatcher (2014, Bennett Miller) [r]
Stark true story of wealthy wrestling coach and murderer John Du Pont hangs back and illuminates little. The characterizations are superb, brilliantly capturing the subtle jealousy that brews between two inarticulate, lost men — Steve Carell’s Du Pont and Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz. This is not a mood you’ll want to revisit much, but it is effectively rendered. Carell is good if gimmicky as Du Pont; Tatum is absolutely superb.

Jezebel (1938, William Wyler) [r]
This is an attempt by Warner Bros. at taking a slice out of the Gone with the Wind market a year ahead of its release — though it’s black & white and thus cannot live up to such lofty aims, it is undoubtedly one of the studio’s handsomest productions of the period. The rather insipid story of an obstinate woman’s backfired bid at gaining back the affections of an ex-fiancee set against the peak of Yellow Fever in 1850s New Orleans, it’s really only worthwhile in dramatic terms because of Bette Davis’ exciting brattiness.

Hud (1963, Martin Ritt) [r]
A neo-western absorbing and resonant in its lethargic despair, thanks to sophisticated performances and the beautiful photography by James Wong Howe, that’s superficially about a foot-and-mouth epidemic threatening a shutdown of a family-owned farm, but really explores the infighting and complex history of that family. Major debit is that star Paul Newman plays a complete asshole, and while the film expects we’ll come to loathe him, it’s still not exactly a blast to spend time with a cocky loner so committed to taking the easy way out in every possible respect.

The Black Pirate (1926, Albert Parker) [r]
Douglas Fairbanks’ sheer charisma, agility and comic sensibility are all but ageless, such that it’s just fine this hackneyed two-strip Technicolor adventure story of a vengeful hero saving a princess from ruthless pirates is built around him and his outrageous, well-designed stunt sequences. The straightforward entertainment value of all this serves to prove that the popular films of the ’20s can sometimes translate as well to our time as the unquestioned artistic triumphs.

Twelve Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) Warped, sometimes delightful sci-fi actioner has Bruce Willis traveling back in time to determine the source of a deadly virus; the film is about a hundred times more idiosyncratic than that summary implies, and in fact is a popular variation of sorts on Brazil and La Jetee. Willis is excellent, his brokenness and self-doubt a perfect antidote to action hero stereotypes, and Brad Pitt’s probably never been better. There’s something amusingly subversive about seeing Gilliam’s brand of wild ideas and almost unnecessarily elaborate production design in service of a big studio movie.

Monsters, Inc. (2001, Pete Docter) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) A brilliant Pixar film about an alternate universe filled with monsters devoted to scaring children, one of whom somehow finds her way into this world and creates pandemonium. With great characters and some portions that echo classic Looney Tunes, many others that are unexpectedly moving, this is entertainment that’s massive in all senses.

No (2012, Pablo Larraín) [r]
You don’t need any prior knowledge about the unseating of Pinochet to be pretty involved in this story of an ad-man (Gael Garcia Bernal) who becomes a harbinger of things to come in his “selling” of a side (the correct side) in a democratic election, the 1988 Chilean plebiscite. The film is appreciably ambiguous about the means of achieving a result it views as necessary, and there’s a lot here to mull over — as much about advertising as politics. The archival material is fascinating and seamlessly integrated.

Carol (2015, Todd Haynes) [hr]
Richly sad but surprisingly hopeful love story from Patricia Highsmith’s pseudonymous romance novel The Price of Salt has Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett connecting in early 1950s NYC and traveling together to escape the difficulties of the latter’s divorce. Everything the 16mm camera captures is somehow magical; the entire world of the film seems bathed in the haze of a fevered love affair. The characters and performances are developed gradually, no shortcuts taken, and end up so complex and real that the slightest changes in facial expressions can feel like earth-shaking plot points.

Gaslight (1944, George Cukor) [hr]
Lavish MGM psychodrama is judged by some to tone down the British thriller it’s based on, but with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer taking over in the roles of a toxic husband and the long-suffering wife he’s trying to drive insane, we earn a subtler, effectively simplified story and a well-deserved climactic catharsis. We often question ourselves just like Bergman thanks in part to the elaborate, shadowy sets that make the night scenes genuinely spooky and unnerving; you can feel the madness begin to permeate. No wonder the title has entered the cultural lexicon as a word for the emotional violence it exemplifies.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984, Hayao Miyazaki)
Dry run for Miyazaki’s later Princess Mononoke is equally reliant on the viewer enjoying the intricacies of the fantasy genre; for the rest of us, it boasts gorgeous backgrounds and a solid environmentalist message. It’s nice to see a film like this with a girl hero, too.

Johnny Belinda (1948, Jean Negulesco) [r]
Superficial social-problem melodrama brings us the dependably boring Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute woman working for her father, a farmer in Nova Scotia. The most inappropriately wacky rape scene in history — it involves someone maniacally pretending to play a violin — sends the already shunned heroine into the semi-exile of a pregnancy out of wedlock, though she receives considerable help from a kind (if slightly oily) doctor played by Lew Ayres. This is a breezy, competent production and despite its obvious bows to the patriarchal structures of its time, it does call out the societal shaming it depicts.

***

[Further remarks in the Letterboxd writeups for: Anatomy of a Murder / Strangers on a Train]

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