September 2016 movie capsules

18 movies watched in September. Counts:
– 15 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 2,054.
– 3 revisits, all nevertheless newly reviewed in this space.
– Only 1 new full review, for Blackmail. With this, Murder! and The Lady Vanishes already tackled here, this begins a chronological exploration of the remainder of Hitchcock’s best British films that will continue throughout 2017, since all except Young and Innocent (which I love, but we’ll come to it eventually) are on the ’30s canon list I’ll be using.
– 17 new or revised capsules below.
– What a terrific month of film. Some tremendous surprises and delights to be found here, I hope you’ll check out some of those you’ve not seen! My wife Amber set up our projector — which we’d neglected since we moved last spring — in our cozy office area and I must say that watching movies, especially silent movies, on it is a profoundly intoxicating, even transportive experience despite its modesty. I wasn’t able to see all of these titles under such good circumstances, with two of the silents only easily available to me via Youtube, but their craft shone through all the same. So it’s not that you can’t go back, but I certainly will be going this route very frequently from now on.

Silent era canon: 6 films (5 new). Very slightly under quota (I was going for 7), but I ran out of time before I could make it through all four hours of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. Of these six, only one (William Wellman’s Beggars of Life) was not some sort of wonderful, and even it is quite good. Finally began to fill in my ignorance of Carl Theodor Dreyer with The Parson’s Widow and Michael, both beguiling. Victor Sjostrom’s The Phantom Carriage and Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (already long my choice for the director’s first masterpiece) are absorbing and frightening. And of course I’d heard about the Harold Lloyd comedy Safety Last! for my whole life, but was completely caught off guard by how much I loved it. Remaining: 24 (21 new), not counting shorts, speaking of which…
– We scrubbed another short film off our to-watch list (I’ll be fast-tracking a lot more of these in October and November): Rene Clair’s Paris qui dort (1925) (which I’d listed before as The Crazy Ray, one of its several English titles, but I’ll be fixing that shortly) is an imaginative, exuberant science fiction comedy of sorts about a batty scientist’s invention that causes everyone in Paris to freeze in place apart from a few unaffected people, whose interactions with the sleeping masses provide a lot of the humor along with the director’s toying with the stopping and starting of time. It’s not as charmingly liberated as the director’s Entr’Acte but it can be solidly recommended even if solely on the basis of its remarkable photography of Paris from above, with several shots on and around the Eiffel Tower anticipating the dizzy peak of The Lavender Hill Mob.
Best Supporting Actor Oscar winners: 6 films (4 new). Hit the ground running here, though I’m also one film off from my proposed quota for this project, but that’s okay; I ran into aspect ratio difficulties with one movie, The Paper Chase, cropped on Netflix, so we’re left with: Twelve O’Clock High, Kentucky, The More the Merrier, The Fighter, and the not-new-to-me Jerry Maguire and A Fish Called Wanda. Jerry Maguire makes me so uncomfortable and angry it could practically have sparked a full writeup; maybe someday, if I can ever put myself through it again. Remaining: 33 (25 new).
2010s catchup: Overachieved here, on the other hand, thanks to a few Netflix expirations and some other atypical circumstances. Saw 6 new films for this: Ex Machina, 45 Years, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Killing Them Soft and The Fighter (overlap with Supporting Actor).
New movies: I count 3, though two of them (Diary of a Teenage Girl and 45 Years) overlap with 2010s catchup, leaving us with the mysteriously acclaimed horror film The Witch.

The shipment of capsules is in:

Twelve O’Clock High (1949, Henry King) [r]
Only one real battle scene in this WWII drama with Gregory Peck, who’s actually well cast here for a change as a hard-boiled commanding officer trying to bring a “hard luck” Air Force fleet back into the fold after they lose a leader who coddled them excessively. This is also marked by a great slate of Fox character actors and a whole lot of talking, which is occasionally taut thanks to good writing and atypical realism, plus an admirably ambiguous finale. The archival air fight footage is integrated very well when it does appear.

Jerry Maguire (1996, Cameron Crowe)
Strange, overlong Billy Wilder pastiche with gross yuppie showboating aplenty about a sports agent trying to come back from a major flameout. It’s all predicated on an implication that Jerry marries a woman because of how much he likes her kid, which is pretty soul-crushing in an influential portrayal of adult romance. The miscasting of Tom Cruise in this part is one of the all-time emperor’s new clothes moments; the story and script would be so much more innocuous if he didn’t keep playing it manic. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s flamboyance is fun to watch, at least.

The Parson’s Widow (1920, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [hr]
Gently absorbing, surprisingly funny tale of a couple pulling a fast one on an old woman: because of unseen oppression from family they can’t marry until he becomes a parson (?!), and the parson in this tiny town inherits the elderly wife of his predecessor. So they pose as brother and sister, riding out the clock until her death, but she is master of this house and has no intention of stepping aside. By turns eerie, funny and in the third act, rather touching if a bit tough to swallow in its easy, cyclical structure.

Ex Machina (2015, Alex Garland) [hr]
Enjoyably perverted, convincingly arid sci-fi sends a lanky programmer to the isolated home of an alpha-bro search engine mogul (played with delightful menace and eccentricity by Oscar Isaac) where he’s been working up an AI prototype (Alicia Vikander). The testing that follows probes lightly at the ethics of artificial intelligence from a tense thriller framework, with a marvelously sterile atmosphere and haunting soundtrack. Any sci-fi movie openly weird enough to stop things in the middle for a disco breakdown is probably worth watching.

Kentucky (1938, David Butler) [r]
Entertaining but extremely predictable Technicolor horse racing movie from Fox about a long-running feud between two families dating back to the Civil War and how politics and romance in their periphery gets swept into the Kentucky Derby. Walter Brennan won the supporting actor Oscar but he’s really the star, channeling Lionel Barrymore as a crotchety old man who knows horses back to front. Loretta Young is MVP, sublime and believable throughout, managing to even get a sensual first kiss out of the impossibly bland Richard Greene.

45 Years (2015, Andrew Haigh) [hr]
A week ahead of their 45th anniversary — marked by a big, terrifying-looking party at some sort of convention center — a placid couple’s world is rocked by news that the body of husband Tom Courtenay’s former lover has been found in Switzerland. He sinks into distraction and subsequent revelations rock the world of wife Charlotte Rampling, who sees the entire fabric of their relationship questioned. Two painfully realistic performances anchor this unsettling story of a comfortable but passionless partnership threatening to shatter.

Safety Last! (1923, Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor) [hr]
Harold Lloyd is a salesman faking success for the benefit of his girlfriend, and he’s got to bend over backwards to maintain the image when she visits him. A thrill and a delight; a series of gags and stunts adding up to one of the most fluid filmed comedies, silent or otherwise. Lloyd’s understated performance is both relatably clueless and impressively physical, but the indescribable feats of timing and chutzpah that constitute the filmmaking itself — setups, blocking, movement — are the real story.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015, Marielle Heller) [hr]
Darkly funny, sobering coming of age film follows Minnie, an 15 year-old aspiring cartoonist surrounded by 1976 S.F. parties and drug use, who longs to get laid and falls into an extended affair with her bohemian mom’s layabout boyfriend Monroe, to escalating but all too believable consequences. Sourced from an autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, enhancing its constant feeling of private truth rendered universal, putting us inside its heroine’s head; Bel Powley is heartfelt magic in the lead.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012, Don Hertzfeldt)
The story of Bill, an everyman struggling with a neurological condition that threatens his life and memories, in simple stick figures fused with elaborate editing and (sometimes) backgrounds. Hertzfeldt is effortlessly funny but has a tendency to overwrite verbally what he should present more naturally through visuals, constantly underscoring the points he wants to make. It’s tolerable in little bursts but too repetitive and sophomoric in its fatalism.

Beggars of Life (1928, William A. Wellman) [r]
Unusual late silent melodrama from Paramount throws a couple of young folks on the run into a sinister network of hobos. In one of her pre-Pabst appearances, Louise Brooks plays a girl who killed her pervy adoptive guardian after he repeatedly pawed at her; she meets and falls in love with a more seasoned drifter (Richard Arlen), but their freedom is short-lived when they run across headliner Wallace Beery as “Oklahoma Red,” leader of a gang that doesn’t necessarily like the idea of a wanted woman in their midst. Excellent photography and special effects.

Michael (1924, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [hr]
Elegant, subtle story of unrequited love shows the fracturing relationship between a celebrated gay painter (Benjamin Christensen) and his most favored model (Walter Slezak). Dreyer, cowriter Thea von Harbou and Danish novelist Herman Bang paint a portrait of a man pining for the past without denying him his dignity. The matter-of-fact approach to the characters’ sexuality as well as Dreyer and Karl Freund’s ability to use space to communicate intimacy make this one of the most modern and emotional of all silent films.

The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers) [c]
Atmospheric, well acted but totally mediocre horror about an isolated Puritan family falling apart because of the nefarious influence of a witch; the eldest daughter, a budding adolescent, is strongly suspected when the disappearances and deaths begin. Nothing about this isn’t obvious after the initial fifteen minutes, and the entire ordeal feels like an extended act of trolling. Perhaps it’s different if you can buy into its supernatural conceit.

A Fish Called Wanda (1988, Charles Crichton) [hr]
Ealing Studios director Crichton emerged from retirement to take the helm of this peerless heist comedy, a superb intersection of talents: the script by John Cleese delivers suspense and a pretzel-bent plot with delightful understatement, but the movie wouldn’t deliver without the cast’s manic eccentricities. Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin and Kevin Kline bring characters who might be outrageously weird on a printed page to breathing life, and it’s their work that turns this into a masterclass of balletic timing and rich, nuanced characterization.

The Phantom Carriage (1921, Victor Sjostrom) [hr]
Enchanting at times, overly mannered at others, this Swedish folktale is a serious affair, unlike the German Expressionist horror films of the period. A solemn horse and buggy occupied by the dutiful soul of the last person to die on New Year’s Eve each year figures in what’s really a domestic religious melodrama about alcoholism and abuse ravaging a family, with disease, the Salvation Army and Death itself mixed into the unholy brew. It’s all rather dire and upsetting, but its narrative sophistication is astonishing for its time.

Killing Them Softly (2012, Andrew Dominik) [r]
A mountain of organized crime clichés (with both Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini in the cast!) set against sledgehammer sociopolitical messaging and a painfully earnest level of forced irony (you see, America is actually… a business!), all dumb to the point that it’s kind of delightful, in a premium cable 4:00am sort of way, with clumsy but occasionally inspired direction and an almost Ed Wood-like sense of budget-imposed isolation.

The More the Merrier (1943, George Stevens) [hr]
Winning romantic comedy makes the most of its time and place — Washington DC during World War II, in the midst of a housing crisis that necessitated mass bunking — and irresistibly places Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea in a sensual head-to-head in tight spaces, egged on by co-boarder Charles Coburn. As the film builds to screwball scenarios involving pending tours of duty, an erstwhile fiance, a diary and six dollars, it generates some major belly laughs but the real attraction is the arresting chemistry between the two leads.

The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)
True-life boxing melodrama about the Ward brothers from Lowell, Massachusetts benefits from a rush of energy in its photography and pacing; at times it’s as alive as Christian Bale’s hyperactive, Oscar-winning performance. Story wise there are some scattered winning moments but we’ve seen it all before, many times; sports fans might feel differently. I’m not convinced Russell thinks much of these people, and it’s disappointing how formulaic the third act becomes. Plus, quite honestly, the accents wear me out.


[Additional Letterboxd comments on Blackmail here.]

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