May 2016 movie capsules

22 movies watched in May. Counts:
– 16 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,008.
– 6 revisits.
– 3 newly reviewed here, one (Sin City) a revision of an old piece, the other two (The One I Love an Seven Chances) totally new. I’m a bit late on adding links to those essays on the various relevant pages but that should be done by tomorrow.
– 19 new or revised capsules, all found below.
– This was the last “regular” month until August, when the Silent Canon project will resume. Till then we’ll be concentrating on finishing up the IMDB Top 250 in the coming four weeks, then the Best Actress Oscar winners in July.
– With that in mind, the June 1st grab of the 250 — probably added to the Projects page by the time you read this — will be the last time I check it until next year on the same date. Then it’ll be a fairy simple matter to add anything new that’s come up. I’ll reserve the rest of my grouchy remarks about this clusterfuck of a project that I was kind of a dolt for taking on when I post the full dedicated page for it at the end of the month.

Project notes:
Makeup: The profoundly icky The Revenant was issued on home media in May, thus allowing me to return to my claim of 100% on the Best Director and Best Actor Oscar winners, excluding the one film in each category (The Patriot and The Way of All Flesh) with no surviving prints.
IMDB Top 250: Watched seven films: the aforementioned Sin City and The Revenant plus Throne of Blood, Infernal Affairs, La Haine, and the new-to-me titles The Help and Guardians of the Galaxy. Ordinarily I try to go out on these things on a month when I have about 15 films remaining to see, because barring any serious issues I can easily cover that much ground in thirty days. Had I met my usual quota in April and May we’d be well under the limit but I ran into a few difficulties; namely, a couple of movies on the 2010s Catchup list were being wiped from Netflix so I had to fast-track them. So my goal then became to just file the total down to 15 by the 31st, but here’s the fun part about trying to catch up with such a dynamic list: by the time I went back and transcribed it on Wednesday the number of necessary titles was up to 18. However, two of these will have to be caught up later: Zootopia isn’t on DVD yet and Captain America: Civil War is still in theaters and I won’t be going to see it, leaving us at a fairly manageable 16. When those two become available to me I’ll queue them right away; I’ll decide at that point whether the first two Captain America movies are necessary to comprehend the third one. One nice thing is that the latest revision will warrant a revisit of an all-time favorite, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and the long-needed Tokyo Story, likely the most culturally important film I’ve yet to see. I’m also planning to revisit Jaws and The Wizard of Oz as consolation prizes for all this. At any rate, remaining: 18 (10 new).
– Fun fact: IMDB users no longer consider Notorious one of the 250 greatest films ever made. Casino, on the other hand…
Best Actress Oscar winners: Dropped to only 5 titles here. However, one of my few non-Top 250 items to attend to in June will be Born Yesterday, which arrived via Netflix but I didn’t get time to watch it. Anyway, saw The Heiress and La Vie en Rose, rewatched Walk the Line and rented Kitty Foyle and The Rose Tattoo from Amazon. Remaining: 15 (12 new), meaning that this is on schedule to be knocked out in July; in August we will kick off Best Supporting Actor, which by my calculations will be finished well ahead of the end of the year.
Silent Era canon: As seems always to be the case, the most consistently surprising thing we have going here; we’ll be able to speed it up considerably in August when it resumes and becomes our primary non-Oscars focus. Caught six films here in May. Rewatched and reviewed Seven Chances, and saw The End of St. Petersburg, The Man Who Laughs and Cabiria, starting in on the more difficult-to-find stuff with two gems: Regeneration and A Page of Madness. Remaining features: 29 (25 new). Won’t be addressing any of these in the next couple of months, as noted.
– Also saw Buster Keaton’s classic short Cops roughly concurrently with Seven Chances and thought it was interesting that Chances picked up a few of its setpieces and gags on a larger scale. Unfortunately, I found it a bit scattered and unfocused, as has been the case with many of Keaton’s films for me. Still funny and worthwhile, of course.
2010s catchup: The Revenant qualifies for pretty much everything this month. And then there were Norte, the End of History and The One I Love, both seen due to pending Netflix expirations; and Guardians of the Galaxy, which I reckon counts.
New movies: In addition to The Revenant there was Irrational Man; new Woody Allen movies are starting to beg the same question as new Paul McCartney albums: why do I do this to myself?
Other: One of the Erich von Stroheim DVDs I received from Netflix included a documentary about the man directed by Patrick Montgomery; the latter being the creator of the best concise Beatles history in any medium, The Compleat Beatles, I checked out his take on the silent-era megalomaniac and enjoyed it.

And with that, the curtain lifts for… capsules:

***

The Man You Loved to Hate (1979, Patrick Montgomery) [r]
Solid, basic rundown of Erich von Stroheim’s career won’t provide new information to most viewers who’d bother to seek it out, but is interesting for capturing interviews with a number of associates, professional and private, before the silent cinema generation had wholly left us.

Regeneration (1915, Raoul Walsh) [hr]
A staggering film, making miraculously vivid use of Bowery locations — a morality play of a troubled boy who becomes a gangster then seeks to redeem himself, deftly underplayed by a fine cast and elaborately, artfully shot with ageless aplomb. Even if you know D.W. Griffith’s features from this era quite well, you can scarcely believe this is a hundred years old.

Throne of Blood (1957, Akira Kurosawa) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) Even Harold Bloom likes this one! This is Kurosawa’s take on Macbeth — it feels like he could have made a film like this in his sleep in the ’50s, but it’s still enjoyably morbid, especially the first half. It unfortunately loses some of its goodwill as time presses on and the staging becomes less imaginative, but the death scene is particularly magnificent.

The Heiress (1949, William Wyler) [hr]
In this loose Henry James adaptation Olivia de Havilland is a sheltered, naive misfit whose cruel father considers her unworthy of marriage; Monty Clift is a hunky but broke philanderer who slides into her life with lots of empty promises contingent, unbeknownst to her, on her sizable inheritance. In the course of the film de Havilland has an opportunity for a sudden transformation from waifish and vulnerable to hard and cold, leading to one of the most delightfully malicious and icy endings to a non-noir Hollywood film.

Irrational Man (2015, Woody Allen) [c]
A catalog of recycled clichés from the director’s other work, with Joaquin Phoenix managing some sort of Woody Allen triple word score by being (a) a tortured fatalistic man-child, (b) an older man having an affair with a much younger woman, (c) someone convinced he can get away with murder. One of Allen’s most embarrassing films, made even worse by its egregious misuse of upbeat jazz cues.

The End of St. Petersburg (1927, Vsevold Pudovkin) [r]
As iconic and affecting in some places as the tremendously moving Mother, this — like Eisenstein’s October — is an example of Soviet propaganda tied so much to the context of its time and politics that it’s hard to get much out of it from any sort of distance. It’s a must for students and scholars, and the editing is heroically brilliant, dizzying even, but it fails to connect emotionally the way Pudovkin’s better work does.

The Help (2011, Tate Taylor)
Entertaining, vastly overlong white-people-solve-racism fantasy about an anonymously recorded book of revelations from black maids in Jackson. There’s too much empty feel-goodery in its facile, overly earmarked characterizations. What makes the film (just barely) worth seeing is the ensemble cast, uniformly superb.

Cabiria (1914, Giovanni Pastrone) [r]
One of the earliest truly epic films to survive, this legendary Italian historical melodrama unmistakably sparked the cross-cutting and spectacular sets of Intolerance, but its less pretentious story — a long-term rescue mission with a strong touch of Douglas Fairbanks-like heroics — gives it a levity all but absent in Griffith’s work from the period. The main thing to know is that it’s eye-popping; the camera is incredibly agile for the time, which makes the elaborate sets and locations look even more impressive.

Kitty Foyle (1940, Sam Wood) [r]
Dalton Trumbo-scripted portrait of an independent “white collar girl,” from Christopher Morley’s unusually frank novel, comes down mostly to watching Ginger Rogers wisecrack winningly while choosing between a couple of absolute cads, one of whom may respect her slightly more than the other. There’s the occasional wisp of heartbreak and depth, but all of the minor female characters — Kitty’s roommates and the woman whose home she eventually considers wrecking — are more engaging than the love interests.

The Revenant (2015, Alejandro González Iñárritu) [c]
A miserable macho slog, redeemed only by Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking photography, retells the story of Hugh Glass, a trapper left for dead on a fur-trading expedition. Ostensibly a revisionist western, but really just an endurance test that consists mostly of lingering scenes capturing Leonardo DiCaprio’s Glass crawling tortuously back home, though there are of course bonus rape victims and overwrought antagonists to consider along the way.

The Man Who Laughs (1928, Paul Leni) [hr]
Gothic melodrama starts out so imaginatively and wickedly — full of audacious camera tricks and an unembarrassed attraction toward the lurid — you can’t help being disappointed when it falters into a relatively ordinary Lon Chaney-style narrative, about a nobleman’s heir (Conrad Veidt) with a grotesque smile permanently surgically affixed to his face and his difficulties with romance and, uh, the monarchy. But those early scenes are as wild as Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a few years later.

A Page of Madness (1926, Teinosuke Kinugasa) [hr]
Supremely perverse psychological terror out of Japan, ostensibly about a custodian trying to break his wife out of a mental ward, comprises a surrealist series of wildly edited filmed dreams that fall on the viewer — with missing footage and absent narration both complicating and underscoring the experience — as teasingly oppressive sensory overload that ebbs and flows in intensity. Comes about as close as anyone has to capturing the feeling of an actual dream on film.

The Rose Tattoo (1955, Daniel Mann)
Overly chatty, stagy Tennessee Williams tomfoolery about an Italian-American widow (Anna Magnani, who won an Oscar) thrown into a tizzy by another of Williams’ alpha hunks, here an intolerably bombastic truckdriver played by an oddly cheery Burt Lancaster. There’s a lot of business about tattoos, adultery and a teenager who wants to kiss her sailor boyfriend, but everything just collapses into impenetrable word salad. The performances are hindered by the cartoonish way everyone is constantly screaming.

Norte, the End of History (2013, Lav Diaz)
Impeccably acted and directed, this Filipino slow-cinema take on Crime and Punishment is to an extent rich, novelistic and absorbing… yet in the end it fails to justify our investment of time and empathy in its aimlessly fatalistic story and hero.

Infernal Affairs (2002, Andrew Lau & Alan Mak)
(Revisit; no change.) The only two things that distinguish this cable TV-quality crime drama from Hong Kong are its streak of inexplicable sentimentality and the way its ludicrous, confusing but uniquely intriguing criss-cross premise lends itself to a series of bravura suspense setpieces. Nearly all of those were co-opted for Martin Scorsese’s remake The Departed and his version isn’t nearly as corny, at least not in the same ways.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, James Gunn) [r]
First half of this pricey, clever Marvel Comics thingo is breezy and funny whenever the main cast is onscreen, with a few laugh-out-loud moments and even a good action scene or two; you just have to withstand the dull expository and cartoonish “villain” scenes. Unfortunately, no prizes for guessing which elements completely overtake the film during its second hour. Andy Dwyer, Rocky Raccoon, Chewbacca and the wrestler guy make a fun team, though Zoe Saldana sadly doesn’t get a chance to really do anything.

Walk the Line (2005, James Mangold) [hr]
(Revisit; upgrade.) Biopic of Johnny Cash doesn’t stray far from the formula for such things, but it’s a winner because Cash’s story is so entertainingly dramatic. Joaquin Phoenix is strong and subtle as one of American music’s most complex and iconic figures. But as June Carter, Reese Witherspoon is even more remarkable: driven, honest, grounded, utterly believable. They both sing beautifully but the focus is on their gradually blooming romance, quite rightfully. It’s just crazy and moving enough to be impossible to make up.

La Vie en Rose (2007, Olivier Dahan)
Impeccable production values and period authenticity in this gorgeous-looking Edith Piaf biopic, plus a memorable performance by Marion Cotillard, but that doesn’t make it more than a mildly interesting movie. The constant chronological jumps render the narrative all but incoherent.

La Haine (1995, Mathieu Kassovitz) [hr]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Gritty, lively, compassionate chronicle of a trio of impoverished friends in Paris turns ’90s “slacker cinema” pointedly on its head. That it manages to perfectly define its characters in very little time — with the help of terrific actors — allows one to forgive some of the contrivances in the script. The big attraction here is the frenetic shooting style, translating Godard to a new time and purpose — its sense of exhilaration, freedom and doom elicit a nearly physical reaction.

***

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