March 2017 movie capsules

20 movies watched in March. Counts:
– 15 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,141.
– 5 revisits, including 2 (All About Eve and Modern Times) previously reviewed here, plus Girl, Interrupted, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Rules of the Game.
– 3 new full reviews, the most in a while, not to brag: Wiener Dog and Trouble in Paradise were rare long takes on first-time watches, while The Rules of the Game was a revised review from my old blog.
– 15 new or revised capsules below.
– Under quota on both projects this month because I had to double down on music, but I managed to get more ancillary titles in than usual so I’m counting it as a victory, and I’ll try to compensate with extra films from the canon and Oscars projects in April. There will also be at least two more long reviews in the next few weeks!
– Probably won’t get to La La Land until May. Sorry to all the Ryan Gosling hangers-on reading this.

Project breakdowns:
1930s canon: 6 films (4 new). Under quota by one film, just because I ran out of time, though I did also rewatch the delightful Modern Times which counts in some alternate universe. Revisited The Adventures of Robin Hood (still don’t like it at all) and The Rules of the Game (like it more than I used to). Saw and loved L’Atalante, Scarface; saw Earth and was… intrigued; saw Trouble in Paradise and fell head over heels. Remaining: 59 features (37 new).
Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 5 films (4 new), and one of those isn’t a net gain because it (Fences) wasn’t on the master list yet when I started. Fell pretty far short of my goals here, at least in part because I’m having trouble getting two titles from Netflix and I never found enough time to carve out for the 164-minute A Passage to India, which I must try to take on this weekend. I revisited Girl, Interrupted and saw for the first time East of Eden, Pollock, Fences and Written on the Wind, none of which are bad and none of which really did anything for me. Remaining: 29 films (26 new).
2010s catchup: Four, due to expirations and other stuff. Life of Riley (ugggh), Magic Mike XXL (hello), The Day He Arrives and the truly and completely wonderful Wiener-Dog; every time Todd Solondz makes a new movie I suspect it’s the one that will finally sour me on him but every single time he delivers.
New movies: The Fits and About Elly are both films that topped Metacritic in the last nine months, though Elly was actually released in Iran in 2009 so it’s not really “new.”
Other: Every month I think I’m going to finally finish my BBS box but A Safe Place was not a good reward for leaping to the finish line. Yikes.

Now for the capsules…

L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo) [hr]
Lyrical romance set aboard a dodgy shipping vessel about the strikes made by circumstance, jealousy and lust against a new love, illustrated in the language of nearly uncontrollable physical need. It is pure, drunken cinema, with more stunningly beautiful shots and eerily believable moments of undiluted life than can be reasonably counted out — the death of director Jean Vigo in the months past its completion only underlines its mysterious, inscrutable sensuality, because it’s a final statement never to be elucidated.

The Fits (2015, Anna Rose Holmer) [r]
Splendidly lean and vague, visually sumptuous exploration of a young girl’s initiation into a dance troupe does get slightly bogged down in heavy-handed metaphor, but it’s difficult to moan about that too loudly when it’s formally so remarkable and absorbing, with a welcome injection of the enigmatic (and even a nod to horror) with the introduction of a plague of spasms afflicting the team. Royalty Hightower anchors it all brilliantly, a beguiling lead performance for an equally beguiling film.

East of Eden (1955, Elia Kazan) [r]
Soapy, bludgeon-force Steinbeck adaptation underlines its central conceit of Cain and Abel allusion so many times in the third act it becomes like a drinking game. In pre-WWI California, James Dean portrays an angsty twin trying to win the love of his father, a perpetually ruined and devout farmer, with more than one secret up his sleeve. Kazan’s CinemaScope presentation of all this turmoil is a stirringly beautiful sight, and while Dean sometimes falls down melodramatic Method actorly rabbit holes, he does figure in a few magnificently riveting scenes, especially those with Jo Ann Fleet as his mother.

Life of Riley (2014, Alain Resnais) [c]
I’m not trying to be mean to One of the Greats but between the braindead goofball music, the plastic sets and weird surreal drawings and flat backgrounds, and the ponderous procession of characters wandering into the center of the frame, waving their arms around and having extremely inane interactions, this is pretty much Teletubbies for adults.

About Elly (2009, Asghar Farhadi) [r]
The relationships among several people spending a weekend at a ramshackle seaside cottage fracture when an idyllic beach day abruptly turns frantic. Farhadi’s way with a camera is spellbinding, and he’s one of the most absorbing cinematic storytellers currently alive, addressing social problems in Iran within the subtle framework of a story that ends up resembling a mystery or thriller more than the domestic romantic comedy-drama we’re set up to expect in the first act. The characterizations are incredibly complex and intricate, overrun with telling and well-observed details, even if the film finally lacks the emotional kick of A Separation.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Michael Curtiz & William Keighley) [c]
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) Signature Warner Bros. adventure film just doesn’t work if you’re not already inclined to appreciate its indulgences. Flynn is a completely unappealing leader of a fine cast stuck in insipid parts behind layers of bad wardrobe, hair and makeup, and the entire thing just looks so garish and ugly, which makes it seem like it’s geared toward toddlers.

Scarface (1932, Howard Hawks) [hr]
Ferocious, mind-bogglingly wild entertainment, with Hawks (despite censorship problems) semi-celebrating a violent underworld without reducing us to bystanders of empty machimso. The shooting and killing is so endless it becomes almost comical, which in a film that takes pains to make its protagonist (Paul Muni) inordinately oafish is certainly intentional. None of the filmmakers who’d later try their hand at this sort of lurid escapism ever had the love of extremes that Hawks shows off in his many bloody confrontations and tense setpieces, which seem to emanate from an almost cartoonishly dangerous world.

Magic Mike XXL (2015, Gregory Jacobs) [r]
A big improvement on the great-looking but surprisingly conservative Magic Mike that works well as a hyperactive and nearly structure-less hybrid of road movie and musical, its thin story essentially an excuse for dance sequences and male eye candy.

A Safe Place (1971, Henry Jaglom) [NO]
Bland, empty abstraction is a struggle to watch; ostensibly it’s just dated avant garde but in fact it’s talk talk talk to the exclusion of almost everything else. The actors, including Tuesday Weld, Jack Nicholson and Orson Welles (kind enough to distract us periodically with magic tricks), give it a lot more gusto than it deserves but this feels like the sort of thing we wrote in creative writing class when we were 17 thinking it was deep and insightful.

Earth (1930, Aleksandr Dovzhenko) [r]
Another silent abstraction from Dovzhenko; Arsenal was confusing to me, and this seems rather facile, but it certainly is more complicated in its storyline — about resistance and violence in response to farm collectivization — than pure propaganda would be. But everything dazzling and impressive about the film is in its visuals and editing, particularly in the last twenty minutes when it for all intents and purposes becomes a stunningly poetic avant garde film. Those closing montages are extraordinary and will live in the mind for far longer than the relatively thin story itself.

Girl, Interrupted (1999, James Mangold)
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) Hackneyed dramatization of Susanna Kaysen’s unconventional memoir of her time in a mental ward shoves it into very ordinary Hollywood screenplay format and stuffs it with celebrity cameos by the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Vanessa Redgrave. Winona Ryder portrays Kaysen, Angelia Jolie her sociopathic friend Lisa, with Clea Duvall and Brittany Murphy among others elsewhere in the institution, and the actors do well enough but Ryder in particular is stuck delivering idiotic voiceover (“maybe it was the sixties; maybe I was just a girl… interrupted”).

The Day He Arrives (2011, Hong Sang-soo)
I always wanted Groundhog Day to be black & white, Korean, sluggishly paced and dour. Alternately: I always wanted 8½ to have a Certified Copy-style gimmick. Either way: you already know from reading those two sentences whether you will appreciate this or not.

Pollock (2000, Ed Harris)
Decidedly ordinary if technically proficient biopic of major abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, with good performances by Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner (Pollock’s wife and longtime supporter) and by director Ed Harris as Pollock himself. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this but like most biopics it shows little real depth and doesn’t do much to justify its existence except as a showpiece.

Fences (2016, Denzel Washington) [r]
Washington directs himself in this adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson, playing a mildly tyrannical father and husband whose embittered attitude is sometimes well justified by the race and class-motivated injustice he can’t bring himself to take in stride, sometimes just results in him being a scumbag, especially when his midlife crisis starts to break down his marriage. It’s admirably complex and nuanced despite an unfathomably hokey finale, with a number of showpiece moments for both Washington and Viola Davis (playing his long-suffering spouse) as well as a fine supporting cast.

Written on the Wind (1955, Douglas Sirk) [r]
Entertainingly schlocky melodrama in which three big stars plus Oscar winner Dorothy Malone act out a clichéd plot (subversively tinged with the mild suggestion of incest) about an oil magnate’s children and their all-out war over the objects of their sexual desires. You can probably read a world of things into this, especially given the loving way Sirk and Russell Metty shoot and compose it, but it’s really too campy to enjoy in earnest, a primetime soap before its time.


Additional Letterboxd notes on: All About Eve; Wiener-Dog; Rules of the Game; Trouble in Paradise.

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