November 2016 movie capsules

22 movies seen in October. Counts:
– 15 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 2,083. Numbers discrepancy due to my failing to log and number Secretary when I saw it way back in 2012 (pre-Letterboxd), thus bumping up the previous count by one. This is sure to happen again, as something else probably hasn’t occurred to me, or something needs to be counted as a feature that wasn’t previously, etc.
– 7 revisits, including including two rewatches of previously reviewed films for the silent canon project: Sunrise (overlap with Best Actress; still catching up on a few revisits for that) and The General; one alternate cut of a previous essay subject, The Act of Killing (the director’s cut is probably the ideal version if you’ve already seen the film, but newcomers should stick to the more economical theatrical print; Drafthouse’s excellent DVD set has both); two films I saw previously in childhood and adolescence now newly reviewed here, Cocoon (last seen circa 1989!) and The Untouchables (last seen in 1997); and…
– 2 new full reviews, for The Wind — which occasioned my first purchase of a VHS copy of a film since around 2001; this silent masterpiece is otherwise virtually impossible to see — and Ed Wood. (Coming full circle, the latter was the first videotape I ever bought online.) I had reviewed The Wind at some length at my old venue after first seeing it in 2005, but on perusing that old writeup I found nothing worth keeping.
– 17 new or revised capsules below.
– Despite my misgivings last month, the silent canon project will proceed to completion in December; I’ll be concentrating exclusively on it in about a week, after I run through the Best Supporting Actor titles I’ve acquired in the meantime. We’ll finish that Oscar lineup in January, so for the first time ever we will begin February with two totally new lists to conquer.
– Housekeeping note regarding the completed IMDB Top 250 project. The plan is still to check in and close any gaps in June 2017, but I’ve decided not to bother with the sole missing film from the 6/1/16 version of the list as I’d previously promised, because Captain America: Civil War has already dropped off the list so it would be a meaningless exercise, especially since it’s the third film in a series and would technically require me to see the other two, and I don’t wanna.
– Maybe this isn’t the place for an electoral postmortem, but I said this at my music blog and it seems worthwhile to repeat it here since I don’t really know how much their tiny readerships overlap: “Give money (Planned Parenthood, ACLU, SPLC, local immigrant assistance associations, independent journalists, local causes you believe in), give time, march if you can, pay attention on a local level, help the people you know, help strangers, fight this fucking thing, and keep doing the things that keep you sane. What else can you do? If you know, tell me.”

Project breakdowns:
Silent era canon: 8 films (7 new). In addition to The Wind (USA), we tackled The Big Parade, The Cheat, Flesh and the Devil (all USA), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, The Love of Jeanne Ney (both Germany), Bed and Sofa and Arsenal (both USSR). That last one was a compromise; I could only reach it via Youtube with English subtitles absent. Also had to spend actual money to rent two titles on Amazon but at least they’re conventionally accessible, unlike The Wind. Remaining: 10 features (9 new).
– Also tackled two further shorts on the list (and rewatched Ballet Mechanique, which I underrated the first time; it’s incredible and I don’t know what I was thinking; a revised short writeup will appear on the project page when I post it in a few weeks). I happened to see the magnificent French impressionist film La Souriante Madame Beudet (SHORT 1922, Germaine Dulac) just days before the feature Bed and Sofa and the two strongly, even radically feminist pieces complemented each other perfectly. In Dulac’s film, a strongly individual woman is happy to retreat in her own world of art and music appreciation and imagination but is continually stymied by her oafish bore of a husband, whose favored party joke is a mock suicide with an empty gun in his desk drawer. In a decidedly Alfred Hitchcock Presents-like turnaround, the title character (Germaine Dermoz) becomes so sick of his antics she puts bullets in the gun while he’s out of the room. The finale stands with the closing of Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March as one of the most bleak and acidic commentaries on marriage in classic cinema. Dulac should be an icon, one of the earliest filmmakers whose work could be called surreal, and as a woman, even more of a pioneer and a hero than that would imply. I can’t wait to see more of her work. This short is on Youtube with English subs — it’s also on disc outside the U.S. — and I urge you to search it out; it will only take thirty minutes of your time.
– I was on more familiar ground with Steamboat Willie (1928, Walt Disney & Ub Iwerks); classic animation became one of my most fervent obsessions in the years just after high school, and I’ve always held up Disney as the finest studio of all. The early black and white Mickey Mouse shorts, of which this isn’t the first but is the first to become a massive hit and catapult its star into the collective consciousness, settled into a pleasant but slightly tiresome sameness after a time. His series was briefly rejuvenated as artistically gigantic when color came in — starting with the peerless classic The Band Concert in 1935 — but Mickey would eventually be upstaged as a personality by his costars Donald and Goofy, both of whom offered far more plentiful comic opportunities. Early on, however, there was no obligation to make Mickey a charming, lovable scamp out of some deference to his status as an icon (and, later, a corporate symbol). So in early cartoons like this one and Plane Crazy, you get a glimpse of undiluted Mickey — cranky, crude, cruel to animals, basically a holy terror. Unclassy Disney is really the best Disney: though this like so many other Mickey shorts becomes for a time an incoherent musical number for no reason, there’s plenty of time to yank on cats’ tails, play teeth like a xylophone and ducks and cows’ udders like… instruments, get in deep shit with the boss, rescue Minnie from peril, and grudgingly peel potatoes while confronting a bird that’s mocking him. More than mischievous, Mickey’s downright mean and subversive, and it’s easy to see why the manic, barnyard humor-filled cartoon resonated so strongly and became a national phenomenon. (Derivative as it is, I think my favorite pre-1930 Mickey is The Haunted House, though the best from the whole black & white group is perhaps The Gorilla Mystery, or The Dognapper… Every few years it occurs to me that I need very much to create a guide to all of the Disney shorts, since I have all but a handful of them on DVD and haven’t ever written about them comprehensively. Not sure whether such a guide would be published here or elsewhere but I will definitely write it at some point.)
Best Supporting Actor Oscar winners: 7 films (4 new). Chronologically (that’s right, I learned to spell) the winning performances were those of Jack Lemmon (Mister Roberts), Burl Ives (The Big Country), Gig Young (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), Louis Gossett Jr. (An Officer and a Gentleman), Don Ameche (Cocoon), Sean Connery (The Untouchables) and Martin Landau (Ed Wood). I have some DVDs from Netflix and libraries to run through, then this project will be frozen till January. Remaining: 19 films (14 new).
2010s catchup: Netflix expirations sent me abruptly to The American (which I’d been trying to find time to watch for ages, so that was nice) and Exhibition), while Mommy showed up under other circumstances.
Other: Finally cracked open Criterion’s America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, which I bought in February, to feast my eyes at long last on the Monkees’ Head.

Capsules: (Since it’s been a while since I introduced this format, a quick reminder: linked titles take you to slightly longer sketches/capsules over at Letterboxd, where I feel less obligated to be somewhat formal and well-organized than here. Letterboxd is like a diary, and these finalized capsules are the time capsule versions of the same basic thoughts.)

***

Exhibition (2013, Joanna Hogg) [c]
Self-conscious arthouse of the most bourgeois kind, a listless 109-minute film about a married couple, seemingly upper crust and both able to support themselves as artists, deciding to sell a house, a decision that one of them feels somewhat ambivalent about. Thin, barely sketched characters and barren writing coalesce into a series of disconnected minor events that don’t illuminate nearly as much as they intend to.

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982, Taylor Hackford) [r]
Entertaining nonsense about a flyboy in training (Richard Gere) having a fling with a factory worker (Debra Winger) that develops into something deeper as their lives intertwine with another Naval trainee (David Keith), and a brutal drill sergeant (Louis Gossett Jr., unforgettable). With Gere and Winger nailing the slick romantic portions, this is enjoyable if formulaic Hollywood schmaltz, with a memorable score by Jack Nitzsche that comes particularly in handy for the famous, triumphantly ludicrous final scene.

The Big Parade (1925, King Vidor) [r]
MGM’s sentimental epic WWI melodrama — a flowery treatise on romance and camaraderie famous for its still-astounding battle scenes — suffers from a slow first act and brims with insincerity unworthy of Vidor. However, it boasts one of the greatest scenes in Hollywood silent cinema: through a flood of Americans moving into battle, the two lovers desperately try to find one another; when they do the way they hang on as long as they can communicates a pain in their separation so palpable it renders the film’s hoary conventions irrelevant.

Mommy (2014, Xavier Dolan)
Canadian social problem picture about a violent, unstable teenager with ADHD shepherded back into attempted normalcy by his stressed-out mother and a traumatized neighbor. Exquisite, believable performances from the three leads (Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon and Suzanne Clement) fail to conquer the empty, obvious platitudes that litter the script, the hollow “after-school special with swearing” story and director Dolan’s groan-inducing pretensions, most annoyingly an aspect ratio gimmick that has no good reason to exist.

Cocoon (1985, Ron Howard) [NO]
(Revisit; no change.) Insulting Spielbergian tripe with a gaggle of old-time Hollywood character actors plus marginal sometime leading man Don Ameche finding the Fountain of Youth in a nearby private yuppie pool with mysterious giant eggs in the bottom of it; the discovery essentially provides them with Viagra ten years early. It somehow gets dumber from there, with outer space and Steve Guttenberg involved. A waste of fine performers.

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927, Walter Ruttmann) [hr]
One of the best 1920s city symphonies and certainly the most exciting, particularly an opening train montage leading us into Berlin, which offers us a feeling of genuine propulsion. We get a long look at architecture, people, business, manufacturing, nightlife, and a more than mild sense of economic instability… but more than in most documentaries of this nature there’s a feeling of liberation and joy, that you are being shown every magical thing there is to experience within this city. The editing is immaculate, surreal and yes, symphonic.

The American (2010, Anton Corbijn) [r]
Like the subsequent A Most Wanted Man, Corbijn’s first foray into the “anti-Bond” genre is a slowly-paced thriller suffused with dread that transcends its stylishness. George Clooney stars as an out-of-sorts arms maker with a weakness for young flesh that entraps him during an ominous retreat in a remote Italian town. The rhythm is odd in a manner that’s alternately exciting and ineffectual, but the minimalism and bleakness are much appreciated, as is the exploration of a terrified macho hero who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927, G.W. Pabst) [r]
The extraordinary first act of this odd romantic thriller is a melodrama of mixed loyalties, decadence and violence in post-revolution Russia, regarding a diplomat’s daughter (Edith Jehanne) in love with a Bolshevik agent (Uno Henning) who then murders her father because of a perceived betrayal. Pabst’s camera is startlingly agile and Mabuse-like until the film moves out of Russia and into Paris, starting to resemble conventional Hollywood formalism in the process; while the convoluted story threads do find resolution, this seems like two separate films, one only tangentially related to the other. A contrived happy ending particularly hurts.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969, Sydney Pollack) [hr]
At a Depression-era dance marathon we spend harrowing hours of physical distress with an ensemble composed of Hollywood hopefuls and several people at the end of the line. The fight’s fixed, and it’s not just the happenings in the oceanside dance hall that are a lurid, unjust scam. The obvious conclusion has rarely been made with such convincing hopelessness in a Hollywood film. Don’t come in expecting The Towering Inferno; as gripping as this is, as dramatically subtle and believable as it is, it means to ruin your evening and it will.

The Untouchables (1987, Brian De Palma) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) Kevin Costner is an unfortunate choice to lead this crafty take on the popular TV series about FBI agent Eliot Ness attempting to take on Chicago during the ’20s. Slick entertainment highlighted by several enthusiastically delivered setpieces, an irresistible performance by Sean Connery as Ness’ partner, and a lovely Ennio Morricone score.

The Cheat (1915, Cecil B. DeMille) [r]
Greed overtakes a charity treasurer, leading her into an ugly situation after her husband strikes it big on an investment and she reneges on a promise of sexual favors to a wealthy hanger-on of hers. This is impressively outrageous when it gets violent and visually sumptuous to boot, with inventive lighting and brilliant use of physical space (particularly in a bloody scene involving shadows on Shoji screens). A pity it winds itself up into a conventional melodrama with a ludicrous finale, and that anti-Japanese racism makes it harder to see its virtues today.

Mister Roberts (1955, John Ford & Mervyn LeRoy) [r]
Mostly notable for a once-in-a-lifetime cast living up completely to their respective brands (Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, Jack Lemmon) and a tortured genesis involving three directors, this is a mildly memorable story about camaraderie enduring on a stagnant Naval ship during WWII despite the tyrannical leadership of its intolerably petty captain. Most of what happens is more than a bit obvious and juvenile, but there’s some great dialogue, some solid jokes and relatively honest characterizations.

Flesh and the Devil (1926, Clarence Brown) [r]
Flimsy melodrama catapulted Greta Garbo into the pantheon of Hollywood legends; she has a good time with the stereotype she’s expected to embody, essentially of a power-hungry whore whose evil sexuality rips a couple of “blood brothers” apart. This being MGM, the film is handsomely shot — especially an early duel scene played in silhouette and a climax that makes skillful use of artificial sets — but everybody comes here to see Garbo and John Gilbert making out, and theirs are the most electric kisses to make it to camera since probably Edison’s.

The Big Country (1958, William Wyler) [r]
Epic, gorgeous-looking Cinemascope western has a whole lot of strange, ineffective casting: Gregory Peck is an outsider from the high seas too arrogant to let his girlfriend Carroll Baker know he can fight and ride horses; he buys land from schoolteacher Jean Simmons and finds himself caught in the middle of a hootin’ hollerin’ civil war between the two local patriarchs, Burl Ives and Charles Bickford; also Charlton Heston is around, for some unclear reason. Despite some salient class commentary, it’s very hard to stay involved in a film that ultimately pits two immensely unlikable men against one another and expects us to care who comes out on top.

Bed and Sofa (1927, Abram Room) [hr]
Remarkable Soviet comedy-drama about a working class couple in a cramped, dingy Moscow apartment who take in a friend and uneasily attempt maintaining a polyamorous household that’s thrown into disarray by an unwanted pregnancy. Subtlety and humor drawn from the three central performances is well matched to the sensitive, progressive screenplay, suggesting untapped depth in a film industry that would soon be repurposed strictly for propaganda. The three characters and their connection seem genuine, including the complicated affection between the two men, while the film delves sharply into the way women so often get roped into being mothers even to supposedly enlightened men.

Arsenal (1929, Aleksandr Dovzhenko) [r]
Experimental, somehow still cutting-edge Revolution propaganda — with more ambivalence baked in than usual — works as an endlessly striking avant garde film, less didactic than similar features by the likes of Pudovkin and Eisenstein. Moments that linger in dreams include the protracted death of a soldier early on, several sequences of people frozen in harrowing situations, and a train crash. The densely layered narrative, cross-cutting multiple ideas across time, space and dimension, requires undivided attention and multiple viewings.

Head (1968, Bob Rafelson) [r]
Bizarre survey of the cultural cornucopia of the late ’60s by the Monkees (constantly maligned pop group manufactured for a TV sitcom that recorded some magical singles) is El Topo with teen idols (which might make it more subversive than Jodorowsky), or Help! with no story. Uproariously funny at times, far too long, far better than the group’s TV series, and a cult item that absolutely cannot be accused of failing to live up to its reputation as unforgettably, genuinely strange. Best moment: a staggeringly choreographed and edited dance scene between Davy Jones and Toni Basil, bolder and more exhilarating than anything in Magical Mystery Tour.

***

Additional remarks at Letterboxd about:
Sunrise
The General
The Act of Killing
The Wind
Ed Wood

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