March 2016 movie capsules

27 movies watched in March. Tallies:
– 21 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 1,979.
– 6 revisits, 2 of them (The Lavender Hill Mob and Notorious) already reviewed here; Grand Illusion and Diabolique received full reviews. So did Before Sunset in conjunction with its predecessor.
– 25 films newly reviewed here (plus Before Sunrise from last month’s batch now reviewed in full), including the 3 full reviews described above plus one more, for The Circus, a new-to-me Chaplin that made a huge impression on me.
– 21 new or revised capsules, all below.
– This month’s post was delayed a bit because I’m currently ON VACATION (balloons! streamers!) and will continue to be until next week. I apologize for the inconvenience.

Project breakdowns:
Makeup: Spotlight and The Big Short — both wonderful movies, to my mild surprise — brought us up to date on two of four completed Oscar projects: Best Picture and Best Screenplay. A single film stands between us and nirvana and it is The Revenant, which was filmed in the snow and people died or something; I seem to have successfully dodged it theatrically but it’s out on DVD in mid-April and then there will be no escape.
IMDB Top 250: 6 titles knocked out! Before Sunset (which has since fallen off the list), Grand Illusion, Diabolique, Spotlight, Room and Memories of Murder. Also rewatched Notorious for, y’know, research purposes and goddamn I love it more than most things. I updated the list just a few days ago and as of that latest revision we have just 24 films (12 unseen) left on this, which puts us on track — as I’d planned — to wrap it up, with a bit of a last-minute push, in June. There’s one film on the list I’m having trouble finding — PK — but it’s so close to the bottom I have a feeling it won’t even matter in the end.
Best Actress Oscar winners: Slacked off a bit on this, mostly because I ran out of time and energy toward the end of the month. Completed 5: the latest winner Room (uggggh), Monster’s Ball (hmmm), Funny Girl (yeeeuuugggh), Erin Brockovich (ehhhhhhhhh, ok) and Children of a Lesser God (aaaaaaaarrrguuugh). I had The Blind Side checked out and sitting on the shelf by the TV for literally almost the entire month and my desire to do anything except watch it consistently outweighed my commitment to you fine folks, sorry [waves tip jar]. Remaining: 25 films (20 unseen).
Silent Era canon: Having already ransacked the nearby libraries, I’ve almost run out of Amazon Prime films in this category to watch, which means we’ll soon be resorting to the stuff that’s on Youtube, which despite the video quality appears to be a goldmine for public domain materials I need. At any rate, watched 5 features, as usual the biggest thrills I had this month movie-wise: The Circus, Steamboat Bill, Jr. Mother, Queen Kelly and Spies. Feature-wise, remaining: 41 (36 unseen).

I received the outstanding Unseen Cinema as a gift in December and I’m slowly working my way through it; it’s recommended for a lot of reasons unrelated to this project but it does contain two short films on this list. The Fall of the House of Usher (1938, James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber) is one of a number of avant garde cinematic deconstructions of Poe in the 1920s, including the Epstein version of Usher from the same year. The Watson & Webber short is quite a radical adaptation with much stirring and disruptive imagery, playing a great deal with mirrors and rhyming by shooting through prisms. There’s barely any semblance of conventional storytelling but it’s a visually intoxicating quarter-hour that pretty handily does away with the notion that cinema “advanced” with the entrance of sound. The purely abstract Ballet Mécanique (1924, Fernand Léger & Dudley Murphy) is comprised of a Dadaist succession of shots of machinery with some other haphazard experimental material. It’s striking, but at nineteen minutes somewhat less so than the earlier Le Retour à la raison, a film Man Ray made before providing some assistance to the makers of Mécanique. Ray’s film is scrappier, more playful, less organized, and thus more resonant. However, both the listed films are fascinating, and as with a lot of avant garde, this really comes down to taste and patience.
2010s catchup: Overachieved as usual here in part due to Netflix expirations, with 11 films — Rabbit Hole, Spotlight (overlap), Room (overlap), A Most Violent Year, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Biutiful, A Most Wanted Man, Side Effects, Anomalisa, The Big Short (overlap) and Shaun the Sheep Movie.
New Movies: Went out and saw Spotlight and Anomalisa with cash money in movie theaters, the latter long after I’d assumed I wouldn’t have a chance; to my surprise the 2:00pm audience was pretty receptive to the film. Room, The Big Short and Shaun the Sheep Movie all overlap with 2010s catchup.
Other: The Unseen Cinema box is home thus far to just one feature-length title, Portrait of a Young Man in Three Movements, the first capsule you’ll see in a moment.
Additional Rewatches: Along with Notorious, I got to finally show Amber The Lavender Hill Mob.

Capsules follow.

***

Portrait of a Young Man in Three Movements (1931, Henwar Rodakiewicz) [r]
Consisting mostly of static shots of the ocean and crashing waves as well as some footage of a factory and various other settings — no humans — and intended to be seen in complete silence, this avant garde film is initially quite hypnotic, but the second and third “movements” seem wholly superfluous. If you’re impatient, watch the first movement and you’ll get the idea.

Rabbit Hole (2010, John Cameron Mitchell) [hr]
Subtle, sobering, impressively believable story about a bereaved couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) still struggling with their grief eight months after the accidental death of their son. Both central characters are as complex and contradictory as real people. This is more of a moment in time than a story — deftly adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own play, and directed with completely palpable familiarity and discomfort with the suburbs by Mitchell.

Spotlight (2015, Tom McCarthy) [hr]
This methodical play-by-play of the Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovering the scale of that city’s perception-altering, distressingly broad Catholic sex abuse scandal is one of the most exciting mainstream films in a long while. McCarthy imparts potentially confusing information expertly, and renders the researching and writing of newspaper articles into something as riveting as Indiana Jones escaping a snake pit.

Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson) [NO]
Lurid, exploitative, maudlin, often nonsensical garbage about a kidnapped woman attempting to escape the small room in which she’s lived with the son she had by her rapist for years. The ideal film for anyone whose favorite book is by Dave Pelzer or V.C. Andrews; the actors are all right but, without illuminating or really probing at anything, this just processes familiar headlines into sentimental misery porn.

A Most Violent Year (2014, J.C. Chandor)
Odd thriller with heavy borrowings from gangster movies has Oscar Isaac — uncannily resembling Al Pacino circa Godfather II — very good as a sloppy, pensive oil man whose trucks keep getting stolen in NYC and whose money problems are coming to a head with an investigation from the DA looming. Impressively detail-oriented but a tad silly, and it all seems so familiar, to the point of coming off like a parody of Scorsese movies.

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010, Andrei Ujica)
Without more than a passing familiarity with the history of the Soviet bloc, this narration and context-free collection of footage pertaining to the former Romanian president can be dull and confusing. Apart from some riveting moments here and there, you come away just appreciating the power of film editing, a tool rarely noticeably employed here.

Biutiful (2010, Alejandro González Iñárritu) [c]
Misery porn claptrap from the king of the genre.

Memories of Murder (2003, Bong Joon-ho)
Clearly a structural influence on David Fincher’s Zodiac, this devotedly unpleasant CSI-style investigative drama about a series of unsolved serial killings unfortunately is far more lurid and tonally uneven. It plays much of the narrative for laughs, and the stuff we’re supposed to find funny is, frankly, horrifying: brutal police eliciting false confessions, the immediate jump to violence during interrogations, and the implication that all this is normal and expected.

A Most Wanted Man (2014, Anton Corbijn) [hr]
Le Carre dives into the War on Terror and the results are intricate, stormy, upsetting, completely steeping you in recent history then sending you off a cliff. A politically brave, dispiriting drop into the catacombs and I’ll take it over the likes of Zero Dark Thirty in a walk; Corbijn’s visual style is distinctive without distracting, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is huffing, messy magic in the lead.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928, Charles Reisner) [hr]
Special effect and stunt-laden comedy with Buster Keaton as the bumbling son of a cranky steamboat captain, falling in love and courting disaster. Not particularly funny, apart from a few good moments, but lots of fun and a hell of a spectacle. The story material often just seems a thin springboard for Keaton’s awesome physicality.

Side Effects (2013, Steven Soderbergh) [NO]
Perfectly dreadful thriller starts out as a deceptive screed against SSRIs; Rooney Mara stars as the troubled patient, crudely pitched Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones in full 1990s Skinemax regalia as her doctors. They all figure in an incredibly tone-deaf and smugly plotty variation on Diabolique with all the personality and modulation of a Ron Howard picture.

Mother (1926, Vsevolod Pudovkin) [hr]
Indelible as the imagery is, this propaganda film lands today because of Vera Baranovskaya’s aching, utterly believable performance as the mother of a revolutionary; her passion and concern for her son almost destroys him, then aligns her with his cause. By the finale, even any cerebral fascination with technique is secondary to the way you feel all this in the depths of your gut.

Monster’s Ball (2001, Marc Forster)
Aesthetically hideous, this collection of feel-bad histrionics, executions, racist epithets, sex and misery might be entertainingly gritty were it not so reliant on strained coincidences: a corrections officer by convolution happens to start an affair with a woman whose husband was in his charge while on death row. The actors — Billy Bob Thornton especially — deserve commendation for making this big pile of plotty ridiculousness at least somewhat earthy and sincere.

Funny Girl (1968, William Wyler) [c]
Biopic of Fanny Brice is most remembered for Barbra Streisand’s performance and several of her signature songs; as a film it’s a fairly anonymous love story, probably of interest solely to people who really love the lead actress and/or Broadway musicals. I enjoyed neither songs, acting nor staging. Wyler’s last big hit but you can hardly tell it’s even his work.

Anomalisa (2015, Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson) [hr]
Kaufman’s second film as director is stop-motion animation about a lonely middle-aged writer, a British expatriate in America, landing in Cincinnati to speak at a conference, haunted in his hotel room by his feelings of displacement and loneliness. Try not to know more about it going in; you’ll be rewarded with one of the saddest, harshest indictments (or celebrations) of long-suffered cynicism you’ll ever see, with shots of genuine tenderness. If “rewarded” is the word.

The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay) [hr]
Adam McKay’s hyperkinetic, absurdist, celebrity-filled take on the financial crisis is, for all its energetic wit, an accurate reflection of the American culture of the era depicted. The ability displayed in the script to explain thorny and confusing concepts so clearly and quickly allows it to conquer the necessary roadblock to make this a slick, nearly unassailable true crime story, as gripping and risible as any chronicle of the white-collar hoodwink in print or on screen.

Queen Kelly (1929, Erich von Stroheim) [hr]
A sex-starved queen is made a mockery when her malicious fiancee finds himself enchanted by a schoolgirl (Gloria Swanson) and her panties, and that’s just the start. Audacious and unstoppably entertaining; a cousin to G.W. Pabst’s films with Louise Brooks but scrappier, more fatalistic and morbid. Hardly alone in the director’s filmography, it’s a vision stymied, but what’s here is fascinating in its eye for weirdness and frustrated, longing sexuality, hidden yet seeping from everything.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015, Mark Burton & Richard Starzack) [hr]
Shaun is a side character from one of the wonderful claymation Wallace & Gromit shorts; his feature debut — in which he causes chaos on the farm when attempting to slack off and then must travel to the city to correct it — is remarkable in its elegance. The 84-minute film is wholly free of actual dialogue and utterly fails to see this as a hindrance to uproarious, balletic humor and pathos. The characters are alive and endearing, nearly all of the jokes land, and the Rube Goldbergian stunt sequences are on a level with Our Hospitality and The General.

Erin Brockovich (2000, Steven Soderbergh) [r]
The procedural aspects of this true life drama about legal assistant Brockovich’s fight against Pacific Gas and Electric’s water quality coverup are engrossing, even if Soderbergh doesn’t approach it with much energy. Julia Roberts and Albert Finney, as her cantankerous boss, are fun to watch together, but a lot of the excessive runtime is occupied by an insipid love story with a miscast Aaron Eckhart. As usual for later Soderbergh, this is colorless and flat but fitfully engaging.

Spies (1928, Fritz Lang) [hr]
Fritz Lang’s follow-up to Metropolis bears as much responsibility for the cloak-and-dagger adventure genre as Underworld does for the gangster picture, even though it’s overly busy with plotty machinations, episodic and at times seemingly random in its structure. Lang’s wild choices are an asset throughout the picture, but they can’t fully overcome the unneeded and played-out hooey about love-is-all that arises from a forbidden relationship in the script.

Children of a Lesser God (1986, Randa Haines)
Two movies you’ve seen — a teacher (of deaf children in this case) inspires his students; a Nice Guy brings a Flawed Woman out of her shell and he “fixes” her once and for all — mesh together imperfectly. Marlee Matlin’s robust performance gives an edge to a character who seems inadequately defined by the screenplay. Scattered good intentions are generally overwhelmed by cliché (and a parade of lengthy shots of William Hurt staring at us).

***

Additional notes on:
Before Sunset
Grand Illusion
Notorious
Diabolique

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