August 2016 movie capsules

16 movies watched in August. Counts:
– 9 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,039.
– 7 revisits, incl. 4 previously reviewed here, including one previous capsule that received a new essay (Street Angel).
– 2 new full reviews, including formerly capsuled Street Angel plus a new review of Mary Poppins.
– 11 new or revised capsles below.
– Another slow month for some reason; I guess I just turn into a slacker during the summer. One part of this was the stack of movies I wanted to re-investigate for the big ranked Best Actress list, which dilutes our numbers a little. I finally finished the Unseen Cinema box so that’s one distraction out of the way, and of course wrapping up the Best Actress work consumed some time. Starting now we’re back on a full schedule with two separate projects running plus sporadic new movies.

Project notes:
– The silent canon project was totally dormant this month while I concentrated on finishing Best Actress; it will now become our primary focus again.
– With 10 titles (7 new) plus a handful (Fargo, A Streetcar Named Desire, Street Angel, Darling) of recreational rewatches, Best Actress Oscar winners wrapped up this month. Read all about it. The sun went down on The Farmer’s Daughter, Anastasia, Boys Don’t Cry, Women in Love, Dead Man Walking, Klute, The Trip to Bountiful, Two Women, Blue Sky and Mary Poppins. As I mentioned in the dedicated post for this project, I still want to carve out some time in September or perhaps even October to rewatch a few other winners in that category for which I ran out of time. Unlikely to affect anything here though.
– With that, we begin the sixth Oscars project, for Best Supporting Actor. The Projects page has already been updated to reflect this. This will take us to 39 newly written-up films, including 28 I haven’t previously seen. This particular project (as well as the next one) is going to also be unusually heavy on rewatching previously reviewed films because when going down the list I notice that there are a number of performances honored that I don’t specifically remember in films I thought I knew pretty well. I haven’t decided yet if the Supporting winners will get the same ranked writeup at the end of not. Stay tuned! Estimated completion for this is January 2017, very much subject to change.
2010s catchup: Jealousy and Stray Dogs came up because of Netflix expiration. In the future, I’m going to try to catch somewhere around 4-5 of these each month in addition to 7-8 for the two main projects. I won’t be terribly strict about sticking to this, though. When I’m finally ready to get back into the Recommendations list I’ll preferably be around 2-3.

Capsules:

The Farmer’s Daughter (1947, H.C. Potter) [hr]
Witty, insightful film about a prospective nursing student (Loretta Young) from a Swedish immigrant family working temporarily as a maid for a U.S. Senator (Joseph Cotten) after being hoodwinked out of her cash; while intending to do housework long enough to get back on her feet, she ends up falling into politics after she can’t suppress her opinions on various social issues at opportune moments. Far more perceptive and relevant in both its sexual politics and its politics, period, than you’d expect of a film from the 1940s; Young’s outspoken, progressive Katie Holstrom is that sadly rare thing in classic Hollywood: an inspiring female role model.

Anastasia (1956, Anatole Litvak) [r]
Though slick and entertaining, this stagy Cinemascope exploration of so-called “Anastasia impostor” Anna Anderson is oddly frivolous given its epic-scale framework. It has post-exile Ingrid Bergman as a suicidal drifter drawn into a Pygmalion-esque plot to imitate the probably long-dead duchess for financial motives. Eventually, this improbably evolves into a romance with Yul Brynner (in an exciting, well-controlled performance). If you can look past the strained blocking and overstuffed art direction, this is passable, engagingly glamorous and even quite funny at certain moments… though it’s hard to imagine its anticlimactic finale playing well with audiences who came for spectacle in 1956.

Boys Don’t Cry (1999, Kimberly Peirce) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) This tragedy of Brandon Teena, a trans man from Lincoln, NE who suffered a violent death after drifting into what seemed an accepting group of friends, has the radical distinction of being a filmed version of a true story that humanizes all of its characters, thanks in part to incredible performances by Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny and in part to Peirce, for whom Brandon’s story is the catalyst for an undiluted glimpse at the promise of youth, the urgency of young love and the compulsive need to belong.

Stray Dogs (2013, Tsai Ming-liang) [c]
“Slow cinema” + misery porn = not for me.

Women in Love (1969, Ken Russell)
Highly literary, complex film of D.H. Lawrence’s novel is unmistakably a condensation of themes that have more room to sprawl out on the printed page, but it benefits from good performances (Eleanor Bron’s pretension is especially fun) and Russell’s hyperactive style; his camera loves the nude wrestling of the two male leads far more than any of the sex scenes, which focus on the shortcomings of men who don’t really know how to fuck and are not shy about proving it. As the story descends into bickering and rather verbose delvings into an extremely off-kilter vision of sexual politics that would take hours of energy to unpack, it ends up feeling just overwhelming.

Dead Man Walking (1995, Tim Robbins)
Susan Sarandon, solid as always, is the only redeeming facet of this utterly bland social problem screed dominated by a painfully showboating Sean Penn as a death row inmate, a composite version of two executed men counseled by Sister Helen Prejean as recounted in her book of the same name. The film is balanced enough, not shying away from the horrible crimes for which Penn’s Matt is being executed or from the righteous indignation of the victims’ families, but that balance keeps it from saying much of anything until a dreadfully on-the-nose finale.

Klute (1971, Alan J. Pakula)
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Gorgeously photographed (by Gordon Willis) neo-noir attempts a portrait of urban discontent: working girl Jane Fonda is being spied on by a private detective (Donald Sutherland, in an inexcusably zombielike performance) who’s on the trail of a disappeared friend, once apparently a customer of hers. The story is too poorly set up (and wound down) to do anything with the potential of this basic idea thanks to an idiotic script and bad performances.

The Trip to Bountiful (1985, Peter Masterson) [r]
Wistful ode to aging and regret by Horton Foote about an elderly woman yearning to escape confinement in an apartment building with her son and horrible daughter-in-law in order to visit her former hometown one last time. This cops to sentimentality a little too often but is occasionally incisive, thanks largely to Geraldine Page, who forms Foote’s slightly caricatured dotty heroine into a palpably real human being and renders his monologues not just credible but moving.

Two Women (1960, Vittorio De Sica) [r]
Wrenching tale of a mother and daughter trying to stay ahead of the Allied victory in Italy and enduring constant, ultimately shattering hostility from men (soldiers and otherwise) is gripping and the performances are extraordinary; Sophia Loren’s Academy Award was well deserved. But like many Neorealist films this feels like an exercise in futility, without much to do beyond documenting misery that goes from bad to worse. As a character study it’s hard to fault but neither its fatalism nor its seemingly begrudging acceptance of rape and violence as a fact of male character make it an easy sell.

Blue Sky (1994, Tony Richardson) [r]
Melodrama about an Army nuclear engineer (Tommy Lee Jones, stoic and brilliant) struggling with the very public promiscuity and mental illness of his bombshell wife (Jessica Lange, slightly over the top) is riveting for a time but goes completely off the rails when it suddenly loses its subtle thread of complicated, compromised domesticity and becomes concerned with the health consequences of nuclear testing and, uh, military cover ups. The film feels very tampered with and badly edited in the third act; maybe this has something to do with director Richardson dying just after he filmed it, or maybe with the studio going bankrupt and leaving it shelved for three years.

Jealousy (2013, Philippe Garrel)
Slice of life from latter-day New Waver Garrel is admirably bare, following the messy love life of an only sporadically responsible actor (Louis Garrel) who looks like Nick Cave and Neil Gaiman somehow managed to breed. The characters are too bare and undefined for us to care much about how the shattered, codependent relationship at the center plays out; it feels like Cassavetes in the way it resembles a series of sketches meant to provoke inspiration in an improv class. Still, not bad, just unmemorable, despite a great guitar score by Jean-Louis Aubert and a delightful, mature performance from child actor Olga Milshtein.

***

[Extra commentary on: A Streetcar Named Desire / Mary Poppins / Darling]

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