February 2016 movie capsules

28 movies watched in February. Counts:
– 20 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 1,958.
– 8 revisits — one, Pandora’s Box, fully reviewed; two others, It Happened One Night and Berberian Sound Studio, already tackled at length.
– 26 newly reviewed here, all but one of those given new or revised capsules, all found below. One film summarized down there, Before Sunrise, is a special case. It warrants a full review and I’ve written one before, in 2007, that I’m still mostly pleased with, but it was a joint review with another film — its sequel — set to be revisited in March. (There’s already a copy sitting next to my TV.) We’ve never done a joint review here before and I don’t expect to do them often; the blog’s not really built that way, and I have misgivings about it even in this case since the third film in the series, Before Midnight, received an individual essay. But the piece as it currently exists is sufficiently worth bringing over here that I’ll be revising it and covering the first two movies in a single post, probably in the next week or so.
– The Academy Awards happened — a sad, predictable display until the sudden upset at the finale — just as I was sitting down to write this and, as usual, put a wrench in this blog’s and this person’s claims of having seen and reviewed every surviving Oscar winning film in four of the five major categories. Worry not, though. The plan is to fix most of the gaps in March. Spotlight is back in theaters and we’re probably seeing it Saturday, if Zootopia, The Witch, Brooklyn and a belated encounter with the new Star Wars (Amber saw it already, I didn’t) don’t tempt us away or offer us more convenient showtimes. Room is already here from Netflix and thus in the bag, and I expect The Big Short to follow, uh, shortly. That covers Picture, both Screenplay awards, and Actress, which leaves with The Revenant; from what I know about that film I don’t think I can likely stomach a theatrical encounter, so it will in all likelihood remain a hole until next month. (The other possibility is that my extreme psychological difficulty with having gaps in two completed projects here will force me against 70% of my will to a screening in a few weeks if the movie’s still playing, but I think I’m past that sort of silliness.*)
– Though I of course won’t be putting the new capsules for the Oscar catchup titles together until on or around April 1, you can follow along both on Letterboxd and on the individual pages I made for the Picture and Screenplay projects.
– Monthly post delayed this month because I was lagging behind over at my music blog; I’m almost completely back on top of things now! It’s amazing what an increase in the amount of space you have in which to work will do for your productivity.
– * Oh god, the lies.

Project breakdowns:
IMDB Top 250: 6 watched (3 new/previously unseen): The Martian, The Battle of Algiers, Castle in the Sky, The Truman Show, Before Sunrise and Wild Tales. Remaining, based on the Feb. 29th version of the list: 29 films (15 new).
Best Actress Oscar winners: 6 watched (5 new): The Three Faces of Eve, Norma Rae, The Queen, The Miracle Worker, The Song of Bernadette and Still Alice. Remaining, with the winner at the 88th Academy Awards now included: 30 films (25 new).
Silent Era canon: 5 watched (3 new): Pandora’s Box, Battleship Potemkin, Destiny, The Iron Horse — all four excellent films — and Our Hospitality, a disappointment. Remaining: 46 feature films (41 new).

Talking of Buster Keaton, I continued slowly moving through the collection of his short films, one of which is on the list. Unfortunately I was less taken with Neighbors (1920, Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline) than with the first few films in the set. Keaton’s confidence in his story material seems to have lagged behind, say, Chaplin’s, and as the years go on the shorts increasingly feel like a series of unrelated blackout gags awkwardly strung together. It’s still funny, but without the very basic gesture of giving the jokes a coherent structure it all seems slightly underwhelming. This particular short starts out with an inspired notion about two lovers on opposite sides of a fence whose families hate each other, but the eventual mayhem is not worthy of Keaton’s genius.
2010s catchup: Watched 7: Nostalgia for the Light, The Martian (overlap with Top 250), Lucy, Clouds of Sils Maria, Blue Ruin, Mistress America and Wild Tales (overlap with Top 250).
New movies: Saw Hail, Caesar! theatrically, my first 2016 film; among films released in America in the latter half of 2015 I saw The Martain (an overlap), Clouds of Sils Maria and Mistress America on DVD. All those overlap with Catchup.
Other: Bucking Broadway came up because I bought Criterion’s release of Stagecoach that includes it. We continued with the Harry Potter films, numbers two and three, because the last one remains stubbornly on the 250.

Here are this month’s movie capsules!

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) Unlike some film school staples, this still retains its power to enthrall, especially at its most iconic moments (is there a single scene in movie history more influential than Odessa?). It’s also weirdly erotic, which seems like a contradiction to its didactic origins. It can’t possibly retain all of its impact today but even if you just take it on board for its imagery and editing, it packs an undiluted wallop. A far more effective demonstration of the sheer power of cinema at its base level than Birth of a Nation.

Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Patricio Guzmán)
Documentary that alternates between talking-head interviews and wild night-sky footage draws parallels between Chile’s dark political history — namely, the many disappearances during Pinochet’s dictatorship — and the famous clarity of its night sky. What’s here is quite interesting and sometimes sobering, but aside from some of the glorious astronomy lesson shots, it just isn’t very cinematic.

Hail, Caesar! (2016, Joel & Ethan Coen) [hr]
A day in the life of a fictionalized version of MGM studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has him dealing with caricatures of studio-era stars and directors while entertaining a job offer from another industry. A rare film from the Coens that communicates real joy at times, especially for classic Hollywood buffs and particularly in scattered musical numbers, and a surprisingly nonjudgmental portrait of a person who lives for his career. The directors’ trademark smarmy surrealism actually fits well here.

The Martian (2015, Ridley Scott)
Dialogue-heavy sci-fi about a smug astronaut (Matt Damon) left on Mars accidentally; after a couple of hours of exposition, rogue libertarians must save him. Less cinematic than Gravity, less humane than Interstellar — which I didn’t even like, but I miss it in the face of spending 140 minutes watching someone play a strategy game. It’s all very professional and expensive-looking and it’s not boring exactly, but it quickly gets repetitive and doesn’t extrapolate anything probing from its basic idea.

The Battle of Algiers (1966, Gillo Pontecorvo) [r]
(Revisit; upgrade.) Cinematically miraculous, hard-hitting narrative about the Algerian rebellion that feels uncannily like an act of risky photojournalism. To see it is to feel like you are not just witnessing but involved in the action. It’s a hard film to watch if you’re bothered by violent actions against innocent people, but it deserves credit for neither giving nor seeking easy answers. Because this is so political and of its time, with few traces of characterization, you can see its immense value without being actively moved.

Destiny (1921, Fritz Lang) [hr]
A young couple runs across certain doom when they meet up with Death, but they’re given three chances to make things right, which is really an excuse for Lang to wander into an Intolerance-style portmanteau. Comedy and melodrama ensue. Though its visual effects and blocking are primitive when compared to F.W. Murnau’s Ufa films of just a few years later, Lang’s early work of magic tomfoolery — supposedly based on a dream he had — is a majestically enveloping story, well and evocatively told in the best folklorist’s tradition.

The Three Faces of Eve (1957, Nunnally Johnson)
Ostensibly true story of a woman’s three personalities, presented with blandness and cringey discomfort as an opportunity for Joanne Woodward to play both docile and “slutty.” This might have camp value if it didn’t fall into an ugly presentation of domestic violence. It’s also too pat to feel really honest, like the last scene of Psycho drained of all irony and stretched to 90 minutes.

Bucking Broadway (1917, John Ford) [hr]
Many of the things that make Ford such a fascinating director are already in place in this early feature, a comedy-western about a broken engagement. It’s stirringly beautiful; the depth of the compositions renders it hard to notice the generally stationary camera. Ford lets his actors underplay and makes their emotions palpable through eyes and movements rather than trite title cards. It culminates in a poor climax exemplifying one of Ford’s less savory tendencies, of substituting violence for humor, but up to then this is mighty impressive.

Lucy (2014, Luc Besson) [c]
Idiotic action film relies on the faulty premise that we only use 10% of our brains; what happens when party girl Scarlett Johansson gets a package of narcotics surgically placed in her stomach that subsequently causes her to use more than 10%!? She gets mixed up with criminals and uses her BRAIN to appear on a nearby quack professor’s TV set. Etc. Misguided attempt to turn Hanna and 2001 into The Matrix is a dive into the deep end of Besson’s traditional mixture of lechery and pop-art brainlessness.

The Iron Horse (1924, John Ford) [hr]
A wide-eyed surveyor and his son caught up in rail fever are attacked by a group of Cheyenne and a short-fused white man; this sets events into motion that span decades and encompass love, war and revenge, and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Gripping, wildly ambitious epic western is still absorbing now because it’s so skillfully set up not just as the story of a hard-won achievement but of how the quest affects a specific group of people. Populist American moviemaking at its apex.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014, Olivier Assayas) [hr]
An absorbing, complex twist on Persona and All About Eve, chronicling a middle-aged actress’ insecurities and messy relationship with her long-suffering assistant, blown up life-size by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart respectively. Besides the often surprising visual loveliness implied by the title, the pleasure here is watching two actors do extraordinary work and bounce off one another in scenes that run an incredible emotional gamut even as they document a dissolution of warmth between people.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002, Chris Columbus)
Slightly more attractive, humorous and well-plotted than the first movie, but even more exhaustingly bloated, so kind of a wash. The child actors seem to have grown into their roles a bit but the script sticks them with far too much confusing exposition; oddly, the strongest parts are in the first half-hour before the actual story kicks into gear. In most respects this and Stone are the same film; Columbus only demonstrates anything beyond the simplest competence in one or two scenes.

Norma Rae (1979, Martin Ritt) [r]
Ritt’s fictionalized account of union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton’s part in the awakening of a textile mill is compelling if broad. Sally Field overplays her hand a bit with the accent and the whole thing has a bit of a Rockwellian quality, breezy yet all but absent of telling details and deep politics.

Blue Ruin (2013, Jeremy Saulnier)
Middling, well-photographed exploration of a methodical revenge perpetuated by a vagrant that goes wildly awry in full literary-irony style. Gripping and mysterious at first but it all feels too familiar after a while, and the occasional extremely violent scenes are jarring and hard to take.

Castle in the Sky (1986, Hayao Miyazaki) [r]
An orphan of mysterious origin falls to Earth under the protection of a self-reliant, hard-working kid and they soon find themselves on the run from pirates and the military because of a powerful stone in her possession. Entertaining Ghibli film is strongly directed, featuring some of the most striking action sequences and moments of genuine suspense in any animated film. At bottom, this is just a fine, well-told story, and it uses effects animation to erode its limitations.

Mistress America (2015, Noah Baumbach) [hr]
Lola Kirke is Tracy, a lost soul and aspiring fiction writer among many at Barnard College. She funnels her experiences of whirlwind nightlife in NYC with her stepsister-to-be Brooke (Greta Gerwig) into a short story she then submits to a campus literary guild while openly supporting Brooke’s cockamamie scheme to open up a restaurant in the city. Their intentions and various peripheral figures come to a head in a long Howard Hawks-like scene of screwball, dialogue-heavy chaos at a suburban house. Baumbach’s third comedy with Greta Gerwig is funny, sharp and cinematically daring, as usual.

Our Hospitality (1923, Buster Keaton) [r]
Keaton’s second feature is listless compared to his best work. The “plot” — a potentially brilliant parody of the Hatfield-McCoy feud as it impacts Keaton’s totally oblivious heir– becomes kind of a nuisance. There are great stunts — including one of the most breathtaking in film history at the climax — but hardly any big laughs, and as a story it feels disconnected and facile. Still charming as hell, of course.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004, Alfonso Cuarón) [r]
You can immediately tell a difference when comparing this to the two earlier films directed by Chris Columbus; Cuarón’s camera moves with far more agility and brings a much greater level of cinematic power and a knack for the grotesque to these films that remain little beyond illustrations of popular novels. He even changes the color scheme. The characters (save Hermione) are still limited and the script is only slightly less cluttered, but there are several truly inspired moments that can make an outsider almost comprehend this phenomenon.

The Truman Show (1998, Peter Weir) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) Weir might have made the definitive meditation on movies, TV, and reality here; he settles instead for a Capra fantasy about a man (Jim Carrey) who is unaware he is the subject of a reality TV show that airs 24 hours a day. Eerily prophetic, even for a film made as recently as 1998, but Weir is too fond of his characters to do anything except what amounts to — when you ignore the bells and whistles — a fairly conventional story about a lost soul, elegantly told.

The Queen (2006, Stephen Frears) [r]
A crash course on public relations, delivered in the surprisingly dramatic context of the struggle by new PM Tony Blair to mitigate the widespread scorn toward the monarchy’s silence in the days after Princess Diana’s sudden death. This isn’t very cinematic, but neither are most of Frears’ films; rather it’s an incredible showcase for its actors — Helen Mirren yes, but also Michael Sheen as Blair and the delightful James Cromwell as Philip — and for writer Peter Morgan’s remarkable ability to streamline a complex situation into a relatively lean and often sardonic script.

The Miracle Worker (1962, Arthur Penn) [r]
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke are both brilliant in this film about Helen Keller and her early encounters with her famous teacher Anne Sullivan; this is beholden to its stage and live TV origins but is still harrowing and impressively mature.

Before Sunrise (1995, Richard Linklater) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) [Full review next month; see above.]

The Song of Bernadette (1943, Henry King) [r]
This overlong dramatization of the story of Bernadette Soubirous — whose claim of having witnessed a vision of the Virgin Mary ultimately led to her sainthood — is an uncharacteristically somber and explicitly religious film for the studio era, and it certainly beats the daylights out of the following year’s Going My Way as far as Hollywood films about spirituality go. Unfortunately Jennifer Jones’ Oscar-winning performance is a bit weak; she’s molded as an overly eager empty vessel and it’s sufficiently unreal to work against the otherwise engrossing story.

Wild Tales (2014, Damián Szifrón) [r]
Like most portmanteau films, this extremely popular black comic anthology is hit-and-miss, made more frustrating by the near-total absence of meaningful connection between the individual stories. They’re all about some form of revenge and all include acts of violence, most of them ending ironically. The best sequences bookend the picture: an Agatha Christie-inspired opening aboard a plane is brutal, quick and hilariously morbid. The film closes with a devilishly constructed repudiation of yuppie relationship norms set at a big wedding, a blast of acid so invigorating it makes the whole thing worth your while.

Still Alice (2014, Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland) [c]
Julianne Moore slumbers through a trite story about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s and how it affects her yuppie family, especially a daughter she won’t stop pestering for doing what she wants with her life. Shot like a Lifetime movie, this is genetic and implausible and there’s essentially no good reason why it exists.

***

For the record: extra comments on It Happened One Night / Pandora’s Box

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