April 2017 movie capsules

24 movies watched in April. Counts:
– 17 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,158.
– 7 revisits, including 4 (The Last Picture Show, Boyhood, The Heiress, Murder!) already reviewed here, as well as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Thin Man.
– 2 entirely new full reviews, for the original The Man Who Knew Too Much and for Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
– 18 new or revised capsules below.
– Still didn’t quite make up lost ground on Supporting Actress but I’m only one film behind, and I’ll compensate for that this month easily since I seem to be managing my time better lately. (Watched two dozen films despite driving to Washington and back for a show!)

Project breakdowns:
Best Director Oscar winners/Best Actress Oscar winners catchup: Finally got my hands on La La Land and updated both completed project pages accordingly.
1930s canon: 8 films (6 new), catching up on the slight deficit in March. Titles screened were Zero for Conduct and Alexander Nevsky via Filmstruck (so much love), The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vampyr, Love Me Tonight, The Thin Man, Top Hat and The Blue Angel on DVD. Remaining: 51 (41 new).
Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 8 films (7 new), which still puts me behind by one, which I will fix in May. Saw The V.I.P.s, A Passage to India, Airport, Cold Mountain, National Velvet, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, For Whom the Bell Tolls and Anthony Adverse all on DVD, the last via Warner Archive. Remaining: 21 (18 new).
2010s catchup: Pretty much giving up on keeping on top of all of the Netflix expirations that affect things I want to see. I’ll just rent the motherfuckers, though I’ll still try to watch them when I can. It’s just annoying to have to plan my life around their schedule. Yeah, I know I plan my entire film-watching habit around self-imposed projects, but that’s me, and it’s fun. Anyway, I saw Calvary, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and La La Land (see above). All three were good, the first two making the third look a bit dumb, but still.
Other: Still slogging through the BBS box, finally watched and was disappointed by Picture This, George Hickenlooper’s documentary about The Last Picture Show.

Capsules forthwith:

The V.I.P.s (1963, Anthony Asquith) [c]
Insipid ensemble soaper with MGM going thirty years too late for Grand Hotel in an airport, with various wealthy and noble people stuck in London because of fog, complicating their tiresome intermingling. Features an all-star cast slumming it, none more or less than the inexplicably Oscar-winning Margaret Rutherford as a ditzy old woman who pops a lot of pills. It’s all a backdrop to the lush, frustratingly vapid love triangle of Liz Taylor, Richard Burton and Louis Jourdan; you’d never guess Terence Rattigan wrote any of this. Even for someone who’s a sucker for vapid ’60s jet-set stuff this is tough going.

Picture This (1991, George Hickenlooper)
Disappointing twenty years after-the-fact documentary about the production of The Last Picture Show, during which Peter Bogdanovich allowed his personal life to be subsumed and destroyed by the movie he was making in the hometown of author Larry McMurtry, who clearly based the major characters in his novel on real people he knew then, several of whom Hickenlooper interviews and most of whom are forthcoming with their resentments. The result is shoddy, rushed and disorganized, with mere quick excerpts from what appear to be fascinating interviews, especially those with Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman.

Zero for Conduct (1933, Jean Vigo) [hr]
Enchanting, surreal tale of prep school boys organizing a classroom coup has only a ghostly hint of an actual story, serving instead as a dream of just the sort we have when we fall asleep fantasizing about the past. The impossibility of its universally appealing prank only makes it seem more immediate and real. Painfully short, with delightful hints of masterpieces to come from The 400 Blows to A Hard Day’s Night.

A Passage to India (1984, David Lean)
This Forster adaptation (all about colonialism, racism and class) is one of Lean’s better films, in part because of the subtleties of the novel guiding him along, and perhaps more so because it’s the only film he made after 1960 in which he really gives actors any room to perform, limiting the attractive landscapes that usually suffocate his films mostly to establishing shots, time lapses and mildly surreal interludes. Basically, we’re left with a highly competent if wonkily edited (by Lean himself) BBC film with a few very elaborate shots and Alec Guinness’ most humiliating performance (yes, including Star Wars).

Airport (1970, George Seaton) [c]
Absolute swill following Burt Lancaster in crisis-control mode became a mass cultural phenomenon and franchise throughout the ’70s. Largely because it features so many good actors humiliating themselves but perhaps even more because Seaton has one powerhouse of a tense thriller sequence up his sleeve, it gave rise, of course, to the brain-atrophying likes of The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and the TV shows Hotel and The Love Boat, but taken on its own its broad, soapy, sub-telefilm melodrama almost begs to be mocked (which it would be, the creation of another phenomenon).

Calvary (2014, John Michael McDonagh) [hr]
A fascinating mystery whose layers of meaning will require multiple viewings to fully unravel, though it’s in essence a remake of High Noon with I Confess baked into it. Brendan Gleeson (magnificent) is an Irish priest given a seven-day warning during a confession that he is to be murdered, not for being a bad man but for being a good one. During the week to follow we meet the scattered denizens of his small town, whose opinion of him runs a broad gamut, and it serves as both a rollout of the man’s loved ones and of the suspects. The story ruminates without being dour, slow or humorless.

Cold Mountain (2003, Anthony Minghella)
Nicole Kidman is a glamorous supermodel inexplicably thrown into the middle of a Civil War variant on The Odyssey — from Charles Frazier’s novel — that uses Romania as an all too obvious stand-in for Appalachia. Its fable-like premise is intriguing during the first act but takes a sharp turn toward the overly literal with the inevitable Sirens sequence then falls completely apart at the halfway point, redeemed strictly by some attractive cinematography, but all it really amounts to is a parade of good-looking people play-acting; very much the dispiriting stereotype of early ’00s Miramax Oscar bait.

Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [r]
One of Dreyer’s weakest films, a terminally ordinary horror tale lifted up only slightly by the director and Rudolph Maté’s impressively agile camerawork. Apart from a haunting scene of dancing shadows and some of the stunning point-of-view shots, it doesn’t really contain any imagery that wasn’t already explored more enthusiastically by Murnau, Browning, Wiene, even Griffith (see A Corner in Wheat) — and let’s be honest, this precise story was already overly familiar in Nosferatu, from which we unfortunately inherit the endless scenes of characters reading a book about vampires.

Alexander Nevsky (1938, Sergei Eisenstein & Dmitriy Vasilev) [hr]
At first it’s strange to witness Eisenstein taking on such a conventional, linear story (the 13th century defeat of the Holy Roman Empire’s attempted Russian invasion) — and he was certainly reined in a bit by forces beyond his control — but he’s great at it, rendering an obvious piece of wartime propaganda compelling despite its skeletal simplicity; as usual, nearly every shot and edit is striking and almost nightmarish in its angular cleanliness. Then comes the battle scene, which occupies the majority of the film’s second half, and oh yeah, there he is; like his best silent work, it transcends ideology through sheer cinematic excitement.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014, Ana Lily Amirpour) [r]
The novelty of an Iranian vampire movie with a streak of feminist justice doesn’t quite see this all the way through to being as compelling as something like George A. Romero’s unforgettable Martin, but the scenes that capture the urban grime of a desolate city in its loneliness and emotionally strung-out beauty are like the best parts of It Follows finally finding a home, and the controversial molasses-slow love scene, set to a White Lies song, is brilliant.

Love Me Tonight (1932, Rouben Mamoulian) [hr]
What a splendid time. The persona embodied here by Maurice Chevalier isn’t particularly appealing, and the romantic story in which he participates is so threadbare it almost comes off as a bunch of empty gesturing, but the airy, blissful spirit and Mamoulian’s head-spinning number of inventive moments with offbeat gags and monumentally witty sound design and ambitious staging make its plot as irrelevant as you always hope it will be in a musical… only here it’s not even the music that rescues us, just the exuberance, sensuality and jaunty, winning humor of it all. Hidden MVP here is Charles Butterworth, who gets all the sharpest lines.

National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown) [r]
California stars as England in this pleasant, sentimental MGM sports drama about a young butcher’s daughter improbably named Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor) and her horse The Pie (!?) who triumph with the help of wandering Mickey Rooney, who seems resentful and noncommittal except when the scene calls for him not to be. It’s exactly like a dozen other movies but you can’t really fault it, especially with strong performances from Taylor and the wonderful, Oscar-winning Anne Revere and the splendidly lean script by Helen Deutsch that reminds us why people go on and on about “screenplay structure” and such: sometimes it really is mighty rousing.

The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke) [hr]
(Revisit; upgrade.) Myrna Loy and William Powell are delightful as newlyweds who get mixed up in a Dashiell Hammett murder case; though the whodunit elements of the film build almost incidentally to a total anticlimax, the laughter and sensuality along the way carry a gripping premise through to complete satisfaction and remind you, with the help of its Pre-Code vintage that allows for a good number of naughty jokes, how irrelevant the practical stuff is when the company’s this good. Hollywood probably never depicted a good marriage more sympathetically or accurately.

Top Hat (1935, Mark Sandrich) [hr]
Fred Astaire’s character is a cad, but unusually for such an impeccably stylish Hollywood musical, this has a terrific screwball-inspired premise and an astonishing number of jokes that really land, thanks to Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ mind-boggling eclecticism (their musical and physical prowess combined with flawless timing and undeniable chemistry) as well as a clever, unstoppably witty script and the note-perfect supporting cast, especially Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick. The numbers get more bombastic as the film goes on, but they never improve on the magical “Isn’t This a Lovely Day,” imitated by probably every film musical made since.

The Blue Angel (1930, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
The oppressively bleak odyssey of a deeply insecure, lonely college professor (Emil Jannings, all but directly revising his role from The Last Laugh) who falls in love with a stripper and sees humiliation as his entire life is subsumed in the hell that results. As ever, Sternberg has an intoxicating feel for locations, and he makes the Blue Angel club feel like the seediest spot on earth just by lighting it correctly. Lurid and slow-moving, the film is superb as an introduction to Marlene Dietrich’s magnetism (she sings her signature, “Falling in Love Again”) but also dismaying in its weird moral conservatism.

La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle) [r]
Melancholy, unabashedly nostalgic and slightly overlong musical about a couple of career-oriented artists (a passable Emma Stone and an entirely charisma-free Ryan Gosling) crossing romantic paths in L.A. over the course of one year. A stylistic pastiche of Jacques Demy and MGM and a possibly ever so slightly sardonic valentine to Hollywood itself, this is fun and boasts a few solid numbers with good choreography by Mandy Moore, suffused with a feeling of just-missed true love that might have been intoxicating in that self-conscious Cinemascope frame if the story and characterizations weren’t so frustratingly thin.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Sam Wood) [r]
An awful lot of movie. Hemingway’s story of teamwork, discord and derring-do during the Spanish Civil War is given an exhausting 170-minute treatment through Paramount’s Technicolor resources, William Cameron Menzies’ designs and a pair of disheveled stars, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, both good but handily upstaged by Oscar winner Katina Paxinou as unforgettable guerilla lifer Pilar. Despite the sprawl, this can’t escape the feeling — familiar from so many other literary adaptations — that it’s a summary of a much more emotionally sophisticated work, so airy and detached it seems to go away as soon as you’re finished watching it.

Anthony Adverse (1936, Mervyn LeRoy) [r]
Hervy Allen’s novel doesn’t linger much in the cultural memory, and for good reason judging by the silliness of this Warner Bros. adaptation. “Adverse” is the name given to Fredric March’s wandering orphan by his guardian because of, well, all the adversity he’s had in his life, which includes losing his mother at birth as well as her being married to Claude Rains, who abandons him and spends the rest of the film trying to kill him. This is incalculably episodic and disjointed and manages to be both schlocky and incredibly morose, like Forrest Gump crossed with Interview with the Vampire, but it’s also kind of a riot.


Quick extra notes on:
The Man Who Knew Too Much
The Heiress
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

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