January 2017 movie capsules

19 movies watched in January. Counts:
– 14 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,114.
– 5 revisits: Metropolis (in its most complete existing cut for the first time, a late straggler I intended to catch during the silent canon; the film was already written up here some years ago), The Fugitive, Arthur, City Slickers and Adaptation.
– 1 new full review, of Adaptation.
– 17 new or revised capsules below.
– This will be a quick post because I’m anxious to get moving to a new slate of projects. Also, if you’re reading it, that means I wrote it at least a few days ago — I didn’t want to clog things up with another non-review entry quite so quickly. Obviously I’m pretty excited about employing that Filmstruck subscription and getting us moving on the ’30s!

Project breakdowns:
– No activity on the canons this month but I did rewatch Metropolis and I happened into a free copy of Kino’s Diary of a Lost Girl disc so I’ll probably be revisiting that because we’re never really done with silent cinema around here.
Best Supporting Actor Oscar winners: This was the only limited project running this month because I was devoting my time to finishing it. The final rundown of what happened is here; there’s a cool illustrated version of the ranked portion of the list here. As soon as I sort out availability, we’ll set out on the seventh and final Oscar winners project, Best Supporting Actress, which opens with (just like the last one, oddly) 40 films to see, 32 of them completely new to us.
2010s catchup: The usual interruptions of Netflix expirations (A Hijacking and The Guest), plus an overlap with the Oscars project (Bridge of Spies) and a new film that happened to show up in my DVD queue (Hell or High Water).
New movies: Hell or High Water, overlapping with the above. I’ll probably get out to the movies once or twice in February.


A Hijacking (2014, Tobias Lindholm) [r]
Taut drama of parallel responses to a hijacking of a commercial ship by Somalian pirates, taking place halfway aboard the chaotic vessel and halfway in the corporate boardroom. It’s a remarkable setup that seems to have a harsh message about the relationship of business to labor, clientele and the public, but the characterizations of the shipping company reps are too broad; the tense negotiation scenes make the film unique, but they also lack the depth of the less structured moments at sea.

A Thousand Clowns (1965, Fred Coe)
Jason Robards is superb as a former joke writer who’s been unemployed for months and has carved out an impoverished bohemian existence for himself and the nephew he’s raising in NYC; child welfare officials come calling and he’s forced the indignity of trying to get his career back. What seems to be a fairly conventionally staged play is given exceptionally stilted, wildly over-edited Godardian treatment, drowning out the unsettling messages about integrity and responsibility. The city looks great.

Johnny Eager (1941, Mervyn LeRoy) [hr]
Snappy MGM gangster noir with Robert Taylor as a gee-whiz cab driver who turns out to be a big-time slimeball underground, living his life as a series of interlocking puzzle pieces until his fixation on a beautiful woman (Lana Turner) unravels him. Both a crackerjack genre movie and a sober examination of the detrimental effect a career con man has on himself and others. Van Heflin is swooningly good as the title character’s drunken confidante.

Come and Get It (1936, Howard Hawks & William Wyler)
Superficial melodrama with Edward Arnold as a lumberjack turned powerhouse capitalist whose creepy, lecherous attraction to an ex-lover’s daughter takes over his arc to such an extent that it’s hard to generate much consternation about his work and its toll on the land, which was the chief purpose behind Edna Ferber’s gargantuan novel. Hawks and Wyler (the former fired and replaced by the latter) cut the Ferber’s essence at the knees, not that it would have made much of a movie if they hadn’t.

The Fugitive (1993, Andrew Davis) [c]
(Revisit; no change.) Generic revision of the culturally gigantic TV series about a man wrongly accused of his wife’s murder and searching for the real killer, led here by Harrison Ford in his Jack Ryan period. Thanks to its clear and simple premise this begins engagingly before getting bogged down in increasingly ridiculous business until an awkwardly wedged-in plot turn at the third act to make the whole thing Important. The parallel story about U.S. Marshal Tommy Lee Jones’ investigation is somehow even worse.

Ryan’s Daughter (1970, David Lean) [c]
Postcard romance set in 1916 Ireland with incomprehensible characterizations and every key role miscast anyway; Robert Mitchum is a schoolmarm who hates sex and becomes an unwitting cuckold when his age-inappropriate wife (Sarah Miles) begins seeing a handsome British soldier (Christopher Jones, who has more seizures than lines of dialogue). The story, a Nora Roberts book blown out of proportion, is too slight to justify Lean and writer Robert Bolt’s bloated epic framework for it (200+ minutes).

The Fortune Cookie (1966, Billy Wilder) [r]
Walter Matthau stars as an ambulance-chasing lawyer who ropes his brother-in-law (Jack Lemmon), a high-spirited and decent cameraman, into trumping up a minor accident he suffers for profit. As fun as it is to watch Lemmon dance around the room in an electric wheelchair, Matthau gets to have all the fun as the ice-cold ramshackle attorney. Funny in the usual jabbing, cynical way for Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond despite its overlength, and shot beautifully in black & white Cinemascope to boot.

Hell or High Water (2016, David Mackenzie)
Neo-western heist movie about a couple of brothers, one (stop me if you’ve heard this one) cool and collected and the other unhinged and hair-trigger sensitive, probably deserves a little credit for feebly trying to introduce some class commentary… but it totally fails to do anything that other movies haven’t done better and often. It’s also clumsily directed, and the script just seems lazy, filled with obvious sub-Coen sub-Breaking Bad one-liners and sledgehammer characterization.

Bridge of Spies (2015, Steven Spielberg) [r]
The fascinating story of U.S.S.R. spy Rudolf Abel — about a Cold War-era exchange of prisoners for which the CIA recruited a civilian negotiator — told almost seamlessly by one of the best purveyors of tension we’ve ever had, though it also plays to some of Spielberg’s tendencies toward pandering. Repeatedly casting Tom Hanks, playing in this case the lawyer James B. Donovan, as the world’s most morally upstanding human being has induced the laziest sort of Star System overfamiliarity at this point.

The Sunshine Boys (1975, Herbert Ross) [NO]
Two hours of old men (Walter Matthau and George Burns, the latter winning an especially unjustified Oscar) yammering badly written (by Neil Simon, naturally) jokes back and forth, some of them horribly racist. This seems to position itself as a tribute to vaudeville comedy, showing a reunion of a famous team from the era that can’t get along even with a big paycheck attached, but never indicates anything about its characters or their work that would be worth anyone’s affection.

The Paper Chase (1973, James Bridges) [c]
Watching Gordon Willis use Harvard Law (real and simulated) as a Cinemascope stage for his typically gorgeous and distinctive photography is the only thing about this sneering, toxic, crashing bore of a movie that is of even the slightest interest. That includes John Houseman phoning it in as a professor who installs fear in top caliber students by calling on them when they didn’t raise their hands. Maybe this will appeal to academics, but probably not.

The Guest (2014, Adam Wingard) [NO]
Dumb and bad thriller about a Stranger in Town wedging his way into a family’s life, quickly becoming violent. Pastiche of poorly acted z-grade trash is still poorly acted z-grade trash. There are so many better ways to have fun.

Arthur (1981, Steve Gordon) [r]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Dudley Moore is obnoxious and inescapably funny as the wealthy, drunken heir of the title, who learns a little bit about life in that classic carefully structured Me-decade fashion with the help of a cranky butler (John Gielgud) and a new love (Liza Minnelli). More likable than the majority of prestige New York comedies of the time. There’s also something oddly sad about it (Gordon died a year later, rendering some of the dialogue permanently uncomfortable), which isn’t wholly detrimental.

City Slickers (1991, Ron Underwood) [NO]
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) Billy Crystal goes to a Robert Bly workshop; very formulaic hijinks ensue, directed with sledgehammer obviousness by the guy who made Tremors. This isn’t even funny if you’re drunk while it’s on, and its script has the tiresome worked-over carefully structured format that comes from writing professors who saw The Sting once and think every other film should feel exactly like it.

The Killing Fields (1984, Roland Joffé) [r]
Sociopolitically sound, busy, complicated odyssey of Cambodia in the 1970s follows two journalists covering the Khmer Rouge massacre for the New York Times, one portrayed by Haing S. Ngor and the other by Sam Waterston. Both actors are excellent. The film is immaculately directed and harrowingly realistic, and stark and unsentimental enough to have aged quite well, though your response will vary based on how you feel about Mike Oldfield’s extremely conspicuous score.

The Subject Was Roses (1968, Ulu Grosbard) [r]
Though much too stagey, this take on the Frank Gilroy play — about a WWII veteran returning home to find that nothing’s changed in the bitter, angry, tense home of his parents — is well acted and unfussily made, amplifying the text’s sincere and perceptive view of a toxic marriage. Patricia Neal, not long after her stroke, transcends the Broadway origins to give another natural, robust, effortlessly felt and resigned performance.

Affliction (1997, Paul Schrader)
Bizarre concoction with Nick Nolte embroiled in a half-hearted murder mystery, but also a half-hearted custody battle, and also he’s a cop who’s bad at his job and makes everyone nervous, and also the Halloween party went badly, and also his dad was mean to him, and his tooth hurts, and evil land developers. Narrated in a weird detached tone by Willem Dafoe, who explains the themes to us at the end. Confusing and pat, despite good use of chilly New Hampshire locations and Sissy Spacek.


[I should also show you some brief thoughts on the rediscovered cut of Metropolis, which was great but doesn’t leave me with much to add to my old review.]

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