April 2016 movie capsules

14 movies watched this month. Counts:
– 12 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 1,991.
– 2 revisits.
– 1 newly reviewed in full here, Misery (slight downgrade), though it’s a prime exampe of a film I wouldn’t bother assigning a full essay now — but I already had one in the can from 2006, so why waste it?
– 13 new or revised capsules, below.
– Rated count way down because of a number of life interferences (first vacation, then human illness, then pet illness, then vehicular problems, finally sunburn) and also due to three films below passing over “lengthy” into “comically luxurious” territory. As of now, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be able to catch up in May.
– Also late on the monthly post again, but I don’t really have a reason for that, I’ve just been lazy.
– Do you like Slices of Cake? If you enjoy this blog and wish to toss me some help on acquiring hard-to-find titles and funding my movie habit, I certainly wouldn’t object if you felt like donating something, though needless to say I don’t expect it. If you do feel like throwing me a tip, please accept my gratitude in advance and know that your hard-earned dollars will go toward further goopiness and cynicism for years to come.

Project notes:
IMDB Top 250: 2 (1 new) — The Force Awakens and Fanny and Alexander (the length of which, even in truncated form, caused it to sort of occupy a weekend). This was where I slipped most dramatically, but I do intend to double down next month, the goal still being to have this completed in a couple of months. Remaining as of the latest check: 19 (12 unseen).
Best Actress Oscar winners: 5 (4 new) — The Blind Side, Come Back, Little Sheba, Mildred Pierce, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Misery. I probably don’t have to explain why my enthusiasm waned a bit while I cleared out the recent winners (still a few left to go, none of which I’m looking forward to) but as the missing mid-period titles show up via Netflix and other sources I am finding a few curios and buried treasures, plus in the form of Mildred one key classic I’d never gotten around to. I was already off-track on this a bit, so the final tally may wait till August. Remaining: 20 (16 unseen).
Silent Era Canon: 4 (4 new) — Joyless Street, Greed, The Navigator and Foolish Wives, all good or excellent. Greed is over four hours and thus dominated a couple of days. I’ve pretty much run dry of libraries and legit digital sources with any of these films, so the journey into the nether-regions of Youtube and various other video sites has begun, with actual bootleg discs sure to follow. Remaining features: 35 (31 unseen).

As noted in the Letterboxd writeup, if you’re following along here and you decide you want to see Joyless Street, avoid the print that’s offered by Amazon Prime, which is drastically cut by over half its length. This caused ample confusion for me on a Saturday afternoon, approximately the time of the week when I’m putting in the most effort to avoid confusion. As of this writing, the entire film is conveniently accessible on Vimeo, though the legality is of course dubious.
2010s catchup: Counting The Force Awakens as an overlap, knocked out four, additionally Four Lions, The Look of Silence and Oslo, August 31st.
New Movies: Nothing that doesn’t overlap with the above.

And here we go with capsules!

The Blind Side (2009, John Lee Hancock) [c]
Annoying family takes in football guy. Lots of football stuff. Bad writing. Half assed Americana. True story. I know nothing about this sort of thing but it all seemed pretty lazy and gross to me.

Four Lions (2010, Chris Morris) [r]
Surprisingly bold Spinal Tap-like satire about a group of British Jihadists has the guts to humanize its characters more than most serious films that touch on this subject matter. It’s usually amusing and occasionally uproarious but its substance comes from the incisive undercurrent of criticism toward the so-called War on Terror. Still, this does sometimes straddle an uncomfortable line between cheerful black comedy and a reinforcement of pure irrationality (and Islamophobia).

Joyless Street (1925, Georg Wilhelm Pabst) [r]
Avoid the cut version, a cash-in on Greta Garbo’s scenes after she went global. The complete film is about the poor occupants of a street in Vienna and the ways in which their lives intersect with the few wealthy people who own businesses and journey to nightclubs there. Praiseworthy as an expertly crafted, visually powerful piece of atmosphere and sociological righteousness, but the many characters and complicated arcs become so confusing it distances us fatally.

Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) [hr]
The lives of an ordinary man working as a dentist and his pensive wife are slowly torn apart after she wins the lottery. A long, involved film but hardly a festival of florid self-indulgence; rather a subtle story of minor people experiencing gradual change. Novelistic and absorbing, it’s been butchered over the years and will likely never be seen in its ideal form, but apart from some weak peformances it’s a high-water mark in self-expression within the studio system.

The Navigator (1924, Buster Keaton & Donald Crisp) [hr]
One of Keaton’s funniest films (though as racially tasteless as ever), because its gag sequences emanate logically from an elegantly skeletal story as in his best shorts. Basically it’s The General on a boat but somehow even more fun than that implies. For once Keaton gives himself an excellent comic foil in Kathryn McGuire, whose role is just as physically demanding as his, and — in the oft-imitated deck chair gag especially — she more than rises to the occasion.

The Look of Silence (2014, Joshua Oppenheimer) [hr]
Sequel to The Act of Killing has Oppenheimer returning to Indonesia for a different approach to the same subject. The conceit of an eye doctor giving checkups to those who killed his brother is ingeniously pulpy, but the anonymous inquisitor’s steely gaze, begging to understand those he encounters, penetrates and implicates us, drawing analogies to any number of injustices from which a majority of the viewing audience regularly profits. A film you are unlikely to forget.

The Force Awakens (2015, J.J. Abrams)
[Housekeeping note: I’m not alphabetizing this under Star Wars Episode VIII: The Force Awakens for the same reason I didn’t alphabetize The Phantom Menace, etc. that way. It would be inconsistent with the way every single film guide I know of has always addressed The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It also just looks cleaner to me this way, and I highly doubt anyone comes to this blog to look up opinions on Star Wars movies any damn way.]

Unabashed nostalgia trip from the talented Abrams is meant to evoke the wonder many experienced when they first saw the original Star Wars, marked by the return of most key characters. It’s not that different from the first six — overlong action sequences, awful characterization, convoluted storytelling, magnificent art direction — but you can’t live in this culture and be fully immune to its charm, notwithstanding the dreadful miscasting of Adam Driver as the villain.

Come Back, Little Sheba (1952, Daniel Mann) [r]
A difficult film to watch, this somewhat stagebound but searingly well-acted adaptation of a William Inge play follows a troubled, middle-aged married couple whose buried, unspoken demons of repression and alcoholism are thrown into harsh light when a young boarder enters their lives. Burt Lancaster seems a bit young for his part; Shirly Booth’s performance, by contrast, is deservedly legendary, attaining catharsis and unforced heartbreak independent of the often overly busy dialogue.

Mildred Pierce (1945, Michael Curtiz) [hr]
Extraordinary performances from Joan Crawford, Eve Arden and a subtle Bruce Bennett set this noir ablaze despite its being a whitewashed take on James M. Cain’s ice-cold novel. It opens with the title character attempting to frame an annoying suitor at a crime scene, then via flashbacks turns into a surprisingly feminist-leaning studio picture; Curtiz delivers it with atmosphere and engaging flamboyance. A muddle of confused intentions here, but heartfelt and striking at its best.

Fanny and Alexander (1982, Ingmar Bergman) [r]
(Revisit; major upgrade.) Bergman’s career-summarizing, semi-autobiographical examination of childhood, fear and family is intriguing and achingly beautiful in its truncated theatrical print, but evidence is everywhere of the strain to cut it down to three hours. See it for the lovely opening hour — a Christmas gathering, all exuberance, hushed voices and barely restrained erotic energy — and Sven Nykvist’s extraordinary photography if nothing else, but probably move straight to the extended miniseries.

Oslo, August 31st (2011, Joachim Trier) [r]
A day in the life of a recovering addict; Anders Danielsen Lie (in a heartbreaking, powerhouse performance) gets to leave the treatment center for a day and tries to reconnect with friends, family, lovers. All of his encounters seem real, deeply felt and complex. His life seems almost enviously filled with hedonistic joy and people who care for him, so why the fatalism and futility? That, of course, is what makes this a believable chronicle of depression and addiction.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969, Ronald Neame)
Odd showcase for Maggie Smith, loosely adapted by Jay Presson Allen from Muriel Spark’s novel, as a prim but covertly manipulative teacher at a girls’ school in the early 1930s, exploring the intricate relationships between her, a couple of male staff members and four students who become enamored of her. Bleakly suveys how the power balance of teacher-pupil relationships can impart corruption, misery, jealousy. Smith delivers her snooty aloofness to a point that she seems inhuman.

Foolish Wives (1922, Erich von Stroheim) [hr]
An even nastier overview of slimy human behavior than Greed. Stroheim’s target this time is the idle rich and the scammers who scam them; he has a field day playing a phony nobleman “named” Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin. The director’s love of taking things too far is an asset here, with sets so elaborate it feels like a macabre capitalist critique when so many of them are destroyed or turned into fixtures of dread. An engrossing mixup of art high and low.

[Note: Click here for an extra bit on the subject of Misery, wherein I nitpicked a bit more than seemed necessary in the full review. Also: I never found a place to mention my favorite line in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “She thinks to intimidate me by the use of quarter hours.” Consider making use of this next time you have a meeting at 10:15am or whatnot.]

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