October 2016 movie capsules

16 movies seen in October. Counts:
– 13 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 2,067.
– 3 revisits, including two already addressed here: Shoot the Piano Player and Nosferatu, both of which I had the pleasure of seeing theatrically, the latter with live music, at the AFI Silver near Washington, DC. Still no full review for Nosferatu but one day I’ll manage one. The other revisit was The Passion of Joan of Arc.
– 1 new full review, for The Passion of Joan of Arc; this was one of the first non-Hitchcock silent films I ever saw, back in 2004. (A very informal count says it’s exactly the third, after The Mark of Zorro and City Lights, which may not count.) I’ve owned and loved it for most of that time but I saved it for the last few months of the silent canon project because it’s taken me a while to work up the nerve to try to say anything about it that isn’t terribly banal. No idea if I was successful.
– 13 new or revised capsules below.
– Again, my wife and I went on vacation this month and had a really spectacular time in Washington, DC, which included a pair of tremendous revival film screenings, a great experience for me as — apart from Disney features — I’ve never had the pleasure before. There’s a Regal sort of near me that does those regular TCM Presents things and I know I should go to some of them, but that particular theater was inconveniently located for me even back when I lived in Wilmington. At any rate, Shoot the Piano Player in a lovely 35mm print and Nosferatu with live music were unique experiences regardless, and will be filed away amongst my most memorable movie encounters.
– Currently unsure of the exact timeline for the next couple of months. The remainder of the silent canon project is coming down to my needing to purchase several items, which will also be necessary soon for the Oscars half of the blog, and for funding reasons I need to space them out a bit. So while normally I’d project the current projects to be finished in December and January respectively, it seems more like January and February, though I suspect there will only be a few silent stragglers into the new year, mostly non-features.

Project breakdowns:
Silent era canon: 6 films (5 new), though I’m tempted to also count Nosferatu since — as always — seeing a film projected on a large screen with an audience is a very informative experience as opposed to seeing it at home in any manner. (I was disappointed but not altogether surprised with some of the crowd’s chattering and derisive laughter, though by and large it was a good and sizable group.) Outside of that, very slightly under quota; I have to admit this might be partially because two of the films readily available to me at the moment are Russian propaganda features, which can be amazing of course but I’m a bit burned out on that stuff right now. I start buying and renting stuff this month, and also catching the last few things my nearest university library has. Took on Fritz Lang’s four-hour Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Germany), Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (USA), Chester Franklin’s early color feature The Toll of the Sea (USA; a pretty intriguing thematic comparison with the later Hollywood drama Sayonara; see below), Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March (USA), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (France) and a film I’ve been dying to see since high school, Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (USA). Remaining: 18 features (16 new), with the caveat that there are still 14 shorts and serials (8 new to me) that I’ll need to catch before the conclusion of the project. I also intend to make time for a few revisits before the clock runs out.
Best Supporting Actor Oscar winners: 7 films (7 new). Chronologcailly the winning performances were those of Walter Brennan (The Westerner), Anthony Quinn (Viva Zapata!), Edmond O’Brien (The Barefoot Contessa), Anthony Quinn again (Lust for Life), Red Buttons (Sayonara), Jim Broadbent (Iris) and George Clooney (Syriana). Heavy on the 1950s. Remaining: 26 films (18 new).
New movies: No 2010s catchup this month — with the abbreviated time available, only one recent title: Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room.
Other: The two theatrical screenings already mentioned, during a generally terrific vacation to Washington.

Here come your capsules!

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922, Fritz Lang) [hr]
Lang’s exciting, Feuillade-influenced epic feels much shorter than its four hours, though the first half is much slower than the second. Rudolf Klein-Rogge plays the master criminal, chameleon, hypnotist and psychiatrist Dr. Mabuse, center of a living nightmare of conspiracy, murder and Weimar hopelessness; as lively as it all is, the intermission is a welcome break from its absolute bleakness. Somewhat akin to Lang’s later Spies, its madness is penetrative, surprisingly prescient and astoundingly gripping, full of breathless excitement despite its overstuffed cast of characters and all the complicated card-playing scenes.

Green Room (2015, Jeremy Saulnier) [hr]
Superb thriller about a punk band getting coerced into playing a gig at a middle-of-nowhere venue occupied by an organized syndicate of Neo-Nazis, where they witness a crime that soon has them fearing for their safety. Despite the violence and gore, this is an uncomfortably believable vision of a precarious situation going horribly wrong, and it’s incredibly effective and resourceful, making full use of punk mythos and the terrifying economics of being a working musician in the 2010s, as well as the mundane practicalities of rock venues, especially the ones run on the cheap. Entire cast is visibly having the time of their lives.

The Docks of New York (1928, Josef von Sternberg) [hr]
During a 24-hour period, an ill advised marriage is formed and then compromised and abandoned, with hopeless lives from around the waterfront — completely drenched in fog and sadness — cheering on every moment in a strange way. The finale is tacked on and difficult to trust, almost a kind of violation to an until-then uncompromised story of hopelessness itself as a guard its characters use to shield themselves from unfathomable misery. In its perception of suicide, fraught emotion, men being cads because they know nothing else to be, this is as sobering and palpably real as The Crowd

Iris (2001, Richard Eyre)
Top-drawer actors faithfully reenact philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch’s decline from Alzheimer’s, with a few flashbacks to her budding marriage to John Bayley. Seeing Judi Dench chronicle the fragmentation of a once infallible mind is more resonant than most “disease pictures” since its events aren’t wholly invented and therefore have a ring of honesty to them, but the exercise might have more of a point if we spent more time with the younger versions of the characters, with Kate Winslet radiant as the young Murdoch, Hugh Bonneville the spitting image of Jim Broadbent (a treat as always), who plays the older Bayley.

Syriana (2005, Stephen Gaghan) [r]
One of the btter “hyperlink cinema” parallel-story dramas so common in the early 2000s, though like the others it lacks the time to flesh out its characters (save George Clooney as a flustered, weary CIA agent). This revolves around a heavily investigated merger between two U.S. oil companies and its consequences in the Middle East, with heavy emphasis on an assassination plot against the foreign minister of the kingdom holding the much-demanded supply. Less complicated than it seems, it has good moments of tension and a great visual sensibility, and has aged more gracefully than most political thrillers of its time.

A Girl in Every Port (1928, Howard Hawks) [r]
A few big laughs in this buddy comedy about a couple of promiscuous sailors sparring then bonding over their shared sexual history, with two terrific lead performances from Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong, the latter particularly expressive and neither resorting to farcical broadness. Meanwhile Louise Brooks has fun with the traditional “evil slut” role as an acrobat who tries to tear the pals apart, which points up what’s so tiresome about this and the modern bromances it uncannily resembles. Hawks’ agility and feel for genuine male camaraderie are already admirable despite that.

Viva Zapata! (1952, Elia Kazan)
Biopic of the Mexican revolutionary — written by John Steinbeck and with the usual blunt-force didacticism thereby implied — has some strong visual moments and vivid use of locations but is done in completely by Marlon Brando’s ridiculous lead performance, pitched identically to those in his more famous collaborations with Kazan. The politics here are sound enough — they sure beat those of On the Waterfront — but dramatically it’s pretty flabby. Downright crazy now to imagine Hollywood bankrolling such a strongly socialist-leading film; too bad it’s not a better one.

The Toll of the Sea (1922, Chester M. Franklin) [hr]
The first color Hollywood feature looks a bit better than most early two-strip productions, perhaps because this semi-adaptation of M. Butterfly is designed to feel like a painterly dreamscape, something it achieves with almost accidental completeness thanks to its necessary reliance on natural lighting. Wrapping up in a surprisingly elegant 54 minutes, it also has an admirably uncluttered spareness in its storytelling, though it also can inflict some eye-rolling at its dated dramatic sensibility. The performances are a combination of well-timed nonverbal beats and overwrought melodrama, the finale achingly beautiful.

The Barefoot Contessa (1954, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) [hr]
In some ways Mankiewicz’s gorgeously photographed (by Jack Cardiff), cynical story of a Hollywood life derailed — that of the stunning Maria Vargas, played by a rattling Ava Gardner — is a retread of All About Eve with its dim view of showbiz and the romance within it intact, but it takes a much darker, sadder turn and stands up as one of the more soulful examples of the seen-it-all satirical studio pictures of this period. It’s fascinating to watch Humphrey Bogart take on the low-key role of a film director with a paternal instinct, demonstrating a range he seldom got to show off in his later years.

Lust for Life (1956, Vincente Minnelli) [r]
Kirk Douglas is subtler than you’d expect as Vincent Van Gogh in this superficial but engaging biopic, unexpectedly low-key for a Cinemascope MGM production. He communicates the pain of the role without underlining it excessively, though he’s upstaged a bit by James Donald, sensitive as his brother Theo. Miklós Rózsa’s beautiful score is his best work, and the montages of Van Gogh’s work set starkly against his music are, while uncinematic, likely the best part of the film.

The Wedding March (1928, Erich von Stroheim) [hr]
The brief stabbing pains of a love affair between a cash-poor prince and the daughter of a local innkeeper; there are moments of spirit and optimism but finally the encroaching demands of high society ruin the possibility of sincere connection. Von Stroheim’s fixations are the same as ever, but the grim ironies in this stunted romance betray an emotional anguish harder to spot in his more gleefully wild films. Fay Wray’s performance is one of the most believably emotional in American silent film.

Sayonara (1957, Joshua Logan)
Hokum romance based on a Michener novel about U.S. soldiers in Japan “fraternizing” with locals against the wishes of authorities is mostly remembered for Marlon Brando’s embarrassing southern accent in his role as a four-star general; the message is anti-bigotry insofar as such ideology benefits white men who want to make dutiful wives of their Japanese lovers. After 157 minutes, this often excruciatingly maudlin story completely fails to distinguish itself; Red Buttons’ stunt casting works well enough but Brando chews the screen and spits it out with his tiresome showboating.

The Westerner (1940, William Wyler) [r]
Lightly comic western lets you bask in great characterizations by Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan (brilliantly funny as a very inaccurate Judge Roy Bean) as well as stunning Gregg Toland cinematography. The story is painfully silly bordering on nonsensical, the romance hackneyed, but everything involving Brennan’s celebrity obsession, his uneasy and complicated friendship and rivalry with Cooper, and the closing shootout in an empty theater is full of wit and energy, and lots of fun to watch. The great Wyler shows off how he can conquer even the most threadbare script.

[Hesitate to even link this because it’s so slim, but here’s my introductory couple of sentences on Letterboxd for The Passion of Joan of Arc.]

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