February 2017 movie capsules

19 movies watched in February. Counts:
– 12 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,126.
– 7 revisits, including 2 (The Silence of the Lambs and Melvin and Howard) already reviewed in full here plus Rosemary’s Baby, The Fisher King, Harvey, L’Age d’Or and Rich and Strange.
– 2 new full reviews: L’Age d’Or and Rich and Strange.
– 15 new or revised capsules below.
– Another quick post from me this time. The Oscars were Sunday and despite only very sporadically going to the movies this past year I only need to see one film to be fully caught up on all the categories in which I’ve seen every winner (La La Land); I’ll be surprised if it’s not in next month’s post. For the second year in a row, a movie I really loved won Best Picture, only the third really deserving film to net the prize this century in my view. (I do love Argo and it might sneak in as well, but there were better films nominated that year.) Also, creep though he may be, Casey Affleck delivered one of the best performances ever to receive an Oscar; I only wish Michelle Williams had made it up there as well, but Viola Davis is a fine actor as well and I’ll look forward to seeing Fences, which is now added to the slate for my Best Supporting Actress project.
– I won’t say anything about the weird snafu with the Best Picture envelope except that I have such strong objections to the way these shows are mounted in the first place — my dream Oscars is a bunch of acceptance speeches that go on as long as anyone wants, no host, and not one fucking production number — that I can’t help applauding any situation or event that shakes things up. Bless Warren Beatty for not trying to make it a David Niven moment.

Project breakdowns:
Catchup: I didn’t see it for this reason but Moonlight ended up being a premature update to the Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor projects. I’m always suspicious when such a purely visual and sensory film wins for Screenplay but the movie’s so lovely I’ll applaud it anyway. The other Screenplay winner was Manchester by the Sea, addressed last month; it’s wonderful to see Kenneth Lonergan get rewarded. Manchester also kept us caught up on Actor. All the posts dealing with those projects have been updated, with Director and Actress to follow when I see La La Land shortly.
1930s canon: 7 films (5 new). Started two new regular projects this month, with this first one expected to last for most of the year to come. Saw The Black Cat, The Invisible Man, Only Angels Have Wings, Young Mr. Lincoln, Triumph of the Will (hmm…) and the two aforementioned old favorites L’Age d’Or and Rich and Strange. It was good to get some of these off the list of shame but I have to say that the only introduction that really sang for me was Invisible Man. Taken in its full breadth the canon project will give me an opportunity to write at length about all but a couple of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, and I’m really excited about covering the remainder of the “Gaumont Six” — his peerless run of thrillers in the latter half of the ’30s — in the months ahead, with Murder! and The Lady Vanishes already in the can. Remaining features: 65 (52 new).
Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 7 films (4 new). Almost crashed and burned out of the gate on this one when Netflix abruptly decided not to send me any DVDs for the entire last week of the month, but I went to my associate Kat over at the New Hanover Library and she hooked me up with some time-fillers. The reappraisals here were Rosemary’s Baby (which I used to be lukewarm on but not anymore; full essay someday), The Fisher King and Harvey; new to me were The Great Lie, The Diary of Anne Frank, Prizzi’s Honor, and a diamond in the rough: Key Largo. Remaining: 30 films (29 new).
2010s catchup: Only two this time, What We Do in the Shadows and Moonlight.
New movies: Moonlight was the first theatrical release I saw during this calendar year.

Now for the capsules…

What We Do in the Shadows (2014, Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi) [r]
Mostly gentle, silly mockumentary about a fraternity of vampires getting into internal scraps and causing havoc in the human world has a few huge laughs, spread perhaps a bit too far apart, but it’s a must-see for production design, effects work and cinematography that makes the vast majority of actual horror movies from the last ten years look desperately inadequate. And it really earns a recommendation for the sandwich line alone, with Jackie Van Beek’s character and the closing age disparity gag just the icing.

The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer) [r]
Staggering set design in this slick, strange, well-edited Universal horror film that pairs Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi for the first time; both are terrific here, particularly Lugosi as a revenge seeker tracking down a friend whom he believes stole away his wife and daughter during his time in prison. That’s Karloff, a creepy architect with a weird house and leader of a Satanic cult. It’s all a bit overstuffed but does maintain its eerie atmosphere well, defying the Code with some truly gruesome moments.

The Invisible Man (1933, James Whale) [hr]
Whale’s lovable perversity and amoral humor turn another Universal monster movie into something improbably beautiful, here with Claude Rains generating an impressively complete performance from behind mummifying towels and blankets as the misanthropic H.G. Wells villain, laughingly mocking people as he ruins or kills them. The special effects are exceptional and the story is compelling in all its anarchic extremity; so much pleasure comes from the film’s gleeful willingness to dispense with all decorum and embrace the chaos.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski) [hr]
(Revisit; upgrade.) Polanski’s second movie about the horrors of apartment dwelling, from Ira Levin’s novel, has Mia Farrow staggeringly good as the high-spirited housewife who notices things falling apart in her life and health after she gets pregnant, prompted by a couple of nosy neighbors who seem to have ties to the occult. Goofy and kitschy at times but brilliantly acted and with a credible atmosphere of dread — with Polanski’s formal ingenuity enlivening a story in which the supernatural is really the least of the mortal threats in play.

Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins) [hr]
A more cinematic Boyhood, three episodes in the life of an introverted black kid trying to form a self and coming to terms with his sexuality. Formally astonishing, breathtaking in its lyrical minimalism and impeccably performed, it feels like a Sunrise-scale fable, emotion written in space and color and movement in the manner of Wong Kar Wai, but it also feels like you have really lived through these experiences, and the halting dialogue and knowing glances attain an incredible weight.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks) [r]
There are few first acts more promising and rich than the opening half hour of this, with Jean Arthur as an entertainer stopping in South America and getting caught up in the web of interpersonal drama within a tiny private airline managed by Cary Grant… but it loses its thread in the reels thereafter and is overlong and episodic. Individual moments are engrossing and the performances are almost uniformly excellent, but the narrative thread gets lost a lot and sometimes wanders into unsavory and soapy tangents.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939, John Ford) [r]
Fawning, cavity-inducingly sentimental depiction of Abraham Lincoln as an aw-shucks young attorney in the Illinois years. The courtroom scenes are engrossing, the stereotypical Ford ensemble stuff is fun in the usual lethargic fashion, and Henry Fonda is admittedly very inspired casting, but it isn’t exactly a revelation, nor the best use of its director’s energy, with a studio or producer’s interference unmistakable.

The Great Lie (1941, Edmund Goulding)
Amazingly schlocky Warner Bros. melodrama about Bette Davis and Mary Astor sparring over the love of an arrogant pilot (the totally innocuous George Brent) who leads them both on then disappears in the jungle. It gets wackier after that; Astor, looking fab, rises above the fray by having fun with her callous and aloof character who hates the smell of food (!?), but even she can’t maneuver past a script that wants her to deliver a tearful monologue about how much she misses eating pickles.

Triumph of the Will (1935, Leni Riefenstahl)

The Fisher King (1991, Terry Gilliam) [r]
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) To say the least, a frustrating experience. In Gilliam’s first commercial hit, a talk radio host is forced to contend with the weight of his words just before a delusional bum changes his life. Unusually straightforward for this director, and it has at least one of the greatest scenes in film history (the waltz in the bus station), but it’s by turns obnoxious and exhausting, despite an impressively original story. Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges are both thoroughly unappealing, though Amanda Plummer is a delight as the object of Williams’ (highly creepy) affection.

Drive, He Said (1971, Jack Nicholson) [r]
Another BBS production you can scarcely believe was issued by a major studio, Nicholson’s directorial debut is aesthetically promising; it follows a college basketball player (William Tepper) who’s growing increasingly rebellious and apathetic, alienated from his peers and the “jock” sensibility, while carrying on an affair with a married woman (Karen Black, in possibly her finest performance) and coping with a politically radical roommate who’s gradually losing his mind. Nicholson feels some strange need to escalate from this, which perversely kills its momentum.

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, George Stevens)
Otto Frank had a hand in making this curiosity authentic as reasonably possible for a Hollywood film, but it’s still hard to understand why it exists. Millie Perkins is too young and deadpan to play Anne — it’s cheap to try to place the heartbreaking and personal narrative of her last years in the context of a thriller about hiding out — and despite William Mellor’s stunning photography, Stevens can’t really put across the sense of confinement in the Annex.

Prizzi’s Honor (1985, John Huston) [NO]
Shockingly incompetent lite-gangster story, allegedly a comedy, about two contract killers (Kathleen Turner and Jack Nicholson) falling in love. Huston was in his final years at this point and there’s nothing here to suggest he had more than the faintest memories of how to effectively block, edit or photograph a movie, or certainly how to work with actors. Not even Anjelica Huston having a fairly decent time with a particularly nefarious part can rescue it.

Key Largo (1948, John Huston) [hr]
The stars play themselves, the storm does its thing, there are slow spots and everything is a little clumsily staged but this is nevertheless lots of fun, with Edward G. Robinson (truly menacing) and his gang of cronies holding a handful of innocents captive inside a Keys hotel during a hurricane. Huston’s great appeal as a director is that he doesn’t flinch before extremes, and this film takes several violent turns that are unnerving and gripping even seen with modern eyes. It’s not top caliber film noir but it’s compelling and ferocious.

Harvey (1950, Henry Koster) [c]
(Revisit; no change.) A sort of metaphysical Arsenic and Old Lace, this is a lot of stagebound nonsense regarding the craziness and bits of business that abound as a result of Jimmy Stewart’s long-running hallucination that he is best friends with a six foot-tall invisible rabbit. Stewart is brillant, but the sledgehammer whimsy wears out its welcome after after half an hour.

[Additional Letterboxd entries for completeness: L’Age d’Or / Rich and Strange / Melvin and Howard (just a snatch of dialogue) / The Silence of the Lambs (really just me praising the score)]

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