December 2016 movie capsules

20 movies watched in December. Counts:
– 17 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,100.
– 3 revisits: Glory, The Crowd and Five Easy Pieces.
– 1 new full review, for King Vidor’s masterpiece The Crowd.
– 19 new or revised capsules below.
– Recent activity here dominated of course by wrapping up and writing — somewhat more extensively than I expected — about the silent canon project. Full rundown is here; I’ll update the project page with the new list of 1930s films soon after I post this, though I’ll be mostly working this month to finish the Supporting Actor Oscar winners.
– 2017 will be a banner year on this corner of the web if nowhere else. I’ve got a Filmstruck subscription, I’ve got Treasures from American Film Archives and the three-DVD set of UPA cartoons, and we’ll be living in the ’30s with sporadic visits to later years via the Oscars.

Project breakdowns:
Silent era canon: 10 features (9 new). The home stretch consisted of A Woman of Paris, He Who Gets Slapped, Way Down East, The Marriage Circle, It, Napoleon, Eternal Love, Ingeborg Holm, The Old and the New, and of course The Crowd. I also finished all of the remaining non-feature material, a lot of which was just revisiting the Lumiere actualities and the like. The project is now finished, and after a one-month hiatus to get caught up on something else, we’ll kick off the 1930s canon 1.0 — which I might be even more excited about. At the outset, we have 72 movies to review in that project (57 new to us), so I suspect it will keep us busy all the way through November.

Ordinarily I give a rundown of the short films I watched for a given project in this space but I wrote about every one of them in the essay accompanying the silent era canon project page and don’t feel much need to bring that over here. But here are some letter grades for you — Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory: A+, for historical importance alone. The Sprinkler Sprinkled: A. Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat: A-. A Trip the Moon: A+. The Great Train Robbery: A+. Chess Fever (new to me): B+; it’s quite funny but the integration of documentary material seemed awkward to me. L’Etoile de Mer (new to me): B, obviously essential and I like some of Man Ray’s work but this is kind of an incoherent grab bag of surrealism rather than something that sustains a mood. Easy Street (new to me): A+. The Immigrant (new to me): A-. A Dog’s Life (new to me): A. A Corner in Wheat: A-. Les Vampires (new to me): A+.
Best Supporting Actor Oscar winners: 4 films (3 new). Tricks of timing necessitated dealing with a few movies I’d borrowed before I could move on to concentrate on silents this month. The good news is that got rid of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (my favorite discovery in a while; who’d have thought, I’m now a Kazan admirer), Sweet Bird of Youth, Topkapi and Glory. I’ve got no lingering responsibilities for January so this should be done by the 31st, pending a couple of things I have to buy from WAC. Remaining: 14 films (11 new).
2010s catchup: As usual, Netflix expirations prevented me from setting this aside entirely. Restrepo and Beyond the Lights were finally taken off the watchlist.
New movies: We got Finding Dory in at work and I couldn’t resist, nor could I — since Margaret is one of the greatest recent American films to my mind — stay away from Manchester by the Sea.
Other: There’s been so much going on that I’ve still barely cracked open the Criterion BBS box I got last spring, but I finally revisited one of the top films I discovered via cable TV as a teenager, Five Easy Pieces, and it completely lived up to my memory; and also dove into the Lady Vanishes DVD I actually purchased years ago and watched the bonus film included therein, Crook’s Tour, with less blissful results. (Not sure I even understand why Criterion included it.)

Now for the capsues…

***

Sweet Bird of Youth (1962, Richard Brooks) [r]
One of the better filmed versions of a Tennessee Williams faux-sophisticated soap opera. Paul Newman is an eager cabana boy waiting on drunken actress Geraldine Page, whom he carts back to his hometown to catch up with an ex-lover, daughter of an all-powerful political boss (Ed Begley). The story is gripping in its portrayal of American corruption even though it constantly stops in its tracks to allow for the usual overwrought, stagey monologue scenes.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945, Elia Kazan) [hr]
Kazan’s first film, from Betty Smith’s celebrated novel, is a sensitive portrait of a tumultuous year in the life of an pre-adolescent girl (Peggy Ann Garner) in Brooklyn during the 1910s. Her strong bond with her habitually drunk father (James Dunn) and uneasy relationship with her put-upon mom (Dorothy McGuire) are given warmly realistic treatment that captures what feels like a real family, with numerous moments that fall with well-earned weight. If you’re like me, you’ll cry.

Topkapi (1964, Jules Dassin) [r]
Rififi 2.0, lighter and more lovable thanks to its very 1964 swinging vibe of jet-set frothy aloofness and abandon that is so much fun to revel in; as usual in jewel-thief stories it’s hard to be too involved when the stakes are outwardly so low, but Peter Ustinov’s absolutely perfect comic performance as a bumbling cad takes this beyond escapism and, if only fleetingly, into the realm of art.

Restrepo (2010, Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington) [r]
Sebastian Junger is a great writer and journalist but I could have probably gone my whole life without being “on the ground” with American soldiers in Afghanistan, a truly nightmarish and anxiety-inducing experience that anchors this documentary. There is revealing, valuable footage here, gathered heroically, laying out several reasons why war is such a blight on our planet and our character as a species — but said reasons are drawn only from the American side, thus only half of the relevant angles.

Crook’s Tour (1941, John Baxter) [c]
Tepid, poorly directed caper comedy lifts the cricket-obsessed comic relief characters Charters & Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) from The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich into their own ridiculous story of intrigue in the Middle East involving a secret message planted on a record. This dreadfully unfunny exercise is so short on story content it has to rely on three or four interminable song and dance numbers from Greta Gynt to reach even a modest 80-minute runtime.

Glory (1989, Edward Zwick) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) Nearly a bust due to the inexcusable miscasting of a slight, hesitating Matthew Broderick, this is otherwise a fine Civil War drama about the 54th Mass. Infantry Regiment, the Union’s first company of black soldiers, and is at least a hundred times more entertaining than the detached, sickeningly routine Gettysburg. The devastating conclusion is perfect, and refreshingly in a film of this sort, the running time is just barely two hours.

A Woman of Paris (1923, Charles Chaplin) [r]
Chaplin’s most uncharacteristic silent feature — a dour drama about an independent woman (Edna Purviance) confronted anew with a past lover who forces her to question whether she prefers luxury or true love — is a soapy melodrama that resolves itself too obviously, but individual scenes are stunning, like the initial reunion of the two lovers and the sublime finale. Purviance towers among the cast, all delivering exquisite performances with considerable understatement and subtlety.

Finding Dory (2016, Andrew Stanton) [hr]
Hilarious, well-paced sequel to Pixar’s infallible Finding Nemo shifts the focus to forgetful blue tang Dory on a quest to reunite with her parents, who apparently are living in a marine life rescue. Not a revolutionary or terribly ambitious film, nor one of Pixar’s trademark acts of putting their audience through an emotional wringer, but genuinely engaging, funny, unforced. So it’s more Freleng-DePatie than Dumbo; for me, at least, both have their place.

He Who Gets Slapped (1924, Victor Sjöström) [r]
Slightly disappointing Lon Chaney classic for MGM benefits somewhat from director Sjöström’s many odd abstractions. The story is bizarre but not bad — taken from a Russian play, it follows a scientist driven insane by his wife’s infidelity with a baron and intellectual rival, leading him to become a masochistic clown who relishes being slapped in front of people — and extrapolates wildly into offbeat, unexpected and violent tangents while unfortunately retaining its basically formulaic structure.

Way Down East (1920, D.W. Griffith) [hr]
Far off from the opulent sets of Intolerance, this is a bombastic and ludicrous but incredibly entertaining domestic drama of a bereaved, shunned, betrayed woman (Lillian Gish, magnificent as always) that somehow leads to a chase scene over some ice floes, but its focus on a morality play of interpersonal relationships lets the director’s populism shine. Griffith his vast improvement as a visual stylist and an extractor of deeply felt performances in the years since Birth of a Nation.

The Marriage Circle (1924, Ernst Lubitsch) [r]
A bit of proto-screwball from Warner Bros. and Lubitsch, set in Vienna, jumbles up two marriages, one intensely passionate and one waning and fractious, and has a lot of innocent-mistake intermingling, private detection and outright ruthless adultery among the four involved parties plus an extra. It’s entertaining but it’s basically a movie about people maliciously brewing discontent in a secure relationship, more callous than funny.

Beyond the Lights (2014, Gina Prince-Bythewood) [r]
It doesn’t get much more old-fashioned than this Star Is Born-style, rapturously earnest saga of a suicidal R&B singer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a brilliant, galvanizing performance) ripped in half by her domineering stage mom and sensitive boyfriend, who appears to her at just the right time; it’s a drama steeped in modern pop but whose base elements could be anywhere anytime. The obvious big scenes and moments play out in the sequence you’d expect, but they’re given gusto thanks to the performances.

It (1927, Clarence G. Badger)
Clara Bow is irresistible and all but wholly surrounded by vapid hamming in this insipid trend-mongering comedy and blatant vehicle for her sexuality, described by Cosmopolitan columnist Elinor Glyn as “it,” hence “it”-girl. “It” is a thin premise for a movie, so the rest rides on a half-assed series of misunderstandings as a shopgirl (Bow) tries to court her own boss. its time, the film’s marketplace-minded crassness generally inspires exhaustion.

Napoleon (1927, Abel Gance) [r]
Four curiously reverent hours covering the first sixth (!) of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life, as often dull and politically risible as impressive. Everything admirable about the film is technical, but if you approach it as avant garde it’s one of the most ambitious creations of its day. Gance wrote, directed, produced, acted in and edited the film, and his wild fast cutting, fluid location shots, use of handheld camera and spirit of experimentation mark him as a peer to Griffith and Eisenstein.

Eternal Love (1929, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
One of two dramas Lubitsch made in Hollywood, this perfectly agonizing romance of a Swiss couple doomed by scandal, religion and jealousy is among the most unfiltered, drunken expressions of romance and sex of the era. John Barrymore is the salt-of-the-earth rebel, Camilla Horn his beloved whose uncle, a clergyman, doesn’t approve of the partnership. As gorgeous as any of the more celebrated Hollywood silents of the late period, with Alberta convincingly standing in for the Swiss Alps.

Manchester by the Sea (2016, Kenneth Lonergan) [hr]
Examination of inconsolable grief has Casey Affleck as an apathetic, alcoholic janitor making his way to his hometown after his brother dies, there confronting harsh memories of a horrendous tragedy in his past. Like Margaret, Lonergan’s follow-up has numerous tangents that add up to something rich and believable, but it lacks that film’s catharsis — which is probably the point. Affleck and Michelle Williams give indescribably raw performances that make an often very funny film intensely troubling.

Ingeborg Holm (1913, Victor Sjöström) [r]
Very early feature-length film showcases all the limitations of so much cinema through 1915: the static camera, the very lengthy takes, the self-conscious acting, the blazing uniform lighting. But even if it’s all very theatrical, the story — a tearjerker of a woman driven mad by despondency after her husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her with insurmountable debts — is compelling, and shows a gifted director adapting to feature length. Not a film to convert anyone but an intriguing artifact.

The Old and the New (1929, Sergei M. Eisenstein & Grigori Aleksandrv) [r]
Eisenstein’s equivalent to Pudovkin’s Mother concentrates on a single character as a microcosm for its celebration of agriculture, with condensed milk and tractors as measures on the march to socialism. As usual, this is an avant garde experiment in montage technique that happens to have a government-sanctioned political message; the performances are good, the editing and photography mind-boggling, and Eisenstein’s love of abstract grotesquerie makes you wonder what he really wanted to talk about.

Five Easy Pieces (1970, Bob Rafelson) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) Masterful character study brings a former rebel into stunted adulthood, anchored by one of Jack Nicholson’s finest performances. Thanks to Carole Eastman’s winding, complex screenplay, there may be no film about an asshole that so well clarifies his sense of being trapped and confusion at being a screwup from an elite family, of having a part of himself reborn then buried again. Meanwhile, cinematographer László Kovács’ unromantic evocation of America rivals Paris, Texas for poetic anguish.

[Additional Letterboxd comments on The Crowd here.]

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