May 2017 movie capsules

19 movies watched in May. Counts:
– 16 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,174.
– 3 revisits, including 1 (A Night at the Opera) already reviewed here, plus Dracula and Paper Moon.
– 2 completely new full reviews for the above mentioned Dracula and Paper Moon. I wrote good-sized reviews of both way back in the prehistoric (2006-07) days at a different blog but neither was usable.
– 16 new capsules below. (No revisits here, which I think is a first?)
– Next month I will be finishing up the first phase of the Oscars project, begun when this blog was in its infancy in 2012; what this means is that we will have reviewed every winner of the seven “above the line” categories. The second phase will kick off in July and will encompass an equally long process of seeing all of the Best Picture nominees; the good news is that this will cover most of the nominees in other categories as well, though I expect Screenplay will be a bit of a task. Thanks for staying on the journey with me.
– I’m writing this on June 1, 2017, one year after my last capture of the IMDB Top 250. Perhaps this will be seen as a betrayal to my own cause but on perusing today’s list, I see no new additions I have any interest in watching or reviewing — to be frank, everything new to the list looks like actual garbage to me, which sadly also describes a lot of what was already on it — and so I won’t waste time that could be better spent on watching films I care about. As I mentioned in my post-mortem of the original project, I quite regret taking it on in the first place and consider it to have been my biggest mistake since starting SOC. And if the list is offering me nothing that I consider exciting pursue or to have any potential at all, there seems to me no compelling reason to put in the work of relisting the films and pursing the missing titles. But I’ll duly check again next year just to say I did so.
My Man Godfrey, reviewed below, is a new nominee for Best Classic Hollywood (pre-Saul Bass) Title Sequence.

Project breakdowns:
1930s canon: 7 films (6 new). In addition to the aforementioned Dracula (the only revisit) we had on the docket the following: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Design for Living, Gold Diggers of 1933, My Man Godfrey, A Day in the Country and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. I’m still enjoying this part of the gig an incredible amount, so I’m slightly disappointed to say that we’ll be temporarily leaving the ’30s behind until picking back up in July, in order to finish up my other current project. Remaining: 44 features (36 new).
Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 7 films (6 new). Failed to make up for last month’s quota deficiency, but since I’ll be working exclusively on this next month it’ll be a breeze to overcome that. Main issue is going to be getting the last few discs I need from Netflix, supplemented with a few trips to the college and one to Warner Archive, amazingly the only way I’m able to see a certain film from the 1980s, which is a pretty dire sign of things to come. This month we revisited the wonderful Paper Moon but otherwise experienced mostly mediocrity, in the form of Dreamgirls, Butterflies Are Free, Murder on the Orient Express, Shampoo (boy, this was a disappointment), In Old Chicago and None But the Lonely Heart. I actually liked a couple of these, the last one especially, but the contrast between this and the canon projects is still pretty strong, yet somehow I’ve never lost my motivation to continue with the Oscar stuff like I did with the IMDB list, maybe just for the feeling of mild achievement I get from it. At any rate, this leaves 14 films (12 new), two of which I am absolutely fucking dreading, so you have that to look forward to.
2010s catchup: The movies that I wanted to see that expired from Netflix this month were all 3+ hours and I just couldn’t schedule them. So this was my most slack month on this front in a long time, with only the very average and amply annoying Arrival making its way to my screen. Again, it’s not even that bad a film, but it’s braindead popcorn goofiness and the fact that it’s considered the height of modern cinematic craft is so very troubling to me. Nothing new, I guess.
New movies: The aforementioned, plus Moana (also not bad, and also an absolute shitshow compared with its inexplicably glowing reputation), and my obligatory fannish encounter with Ron Howard’s Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week (obviously not made for the hardcores who are the only people who’ll remember it existed in a few years).
Other: Finished the BBS box finally! The King of Marvin Gardens, which I was really looking forward to, was not very good at all! I swear I’m not especially cranky this month, these movies just let me down!

Now, read some short capulse reviews from this miserable asshole!

Dreamgirls (2006, Bill Condon)
A waste of an enthusiastic cast (with Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson both genuinely dazzling), this offensively superficial musical follows the career of a girl group clearly based on the Supremes and their run-ins with a corrupt, manipulative manager clearly based on Berry Gordy, but its Broadway slickness renders it gutless; the last two thirds are just a collection of showbiz clichés built as an excuse for the increasingly desperate tunes that couldn’t be a less accurate representation of either the period or of the Motown sound.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933, Fritz Lang) [hr]
A series of stunning thriller setpieces rife with mystery and menace, pretty much exactly the same movie as Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler not to mention Spies, but a little more cunning and oppressive in its fetishizing of grisly doom and actual terror. One phenomenally nail-biting chase, trap or eye-popping special effect follows another, and Lang establishes an anything-goes environment of cutthroat organized crime so well it’s kind of disappointing when he lets so many of his innocents and semi-innocents escape unharmed. Less than the sum of its parts but still one of the most fun, flamboyant movies of the ’30s.

Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve)
More pretend insight from Villeneuve, a schlock merchant who won’t admit that’s what he is, in a genre built for just his sort of posturing. Space aliens land in America and want to communicate, so linguist Amy Adams sets aside some issues in her personal life to help the government. It’s hard to hate a film that clearly intends to strike a chord — better to copy Interstellar than The Martain even if both kind of suck — but the exposition is painful, the dialogue consistently embarrassing, the story a less compelling variant on various better films, Jeremy Renner’s in it, and oh yes, there’s A Twist.

Moana (2016, John Musker & Ron Clements)
A mishmash of market-tested impulses from the over-employed architects of Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and other toy and ride-centered properties that incidentally involved motion pictures at some point. At first there’s dignity in the story of a girl with the fate of the world resting on her shoulders as she’s swept up in a Polynesian mythology story, but with the invasion of the demigod Maui, voiced with a charmless thud by the Rock, there’s the usual refusal for humor or pathos to come organically. Impressive effects animation can’t redeem dull character designs or the dreadful songs. Your kids deserve better movies than this.

Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
Naughty and naive, this splendidly bubbly comedy substitutes Noel Coward’s sophistication with Ben Hecht’s incisive, direct earthiness. He and Lubitsch manage to sell a tangential story whose silly twists and turns depend on the believable likability of its three delightful characters — dirt-poor but somehow freewheeling artist layabouts in Paris pretending they’re not engaging in a prolonged menage a trois; you barely notice the last thirty minutes have little to do with anything else because you’ve become so involved in the surprisingly organic way that maturity has let this perverse romance blossom, two men agreeing to one another’s presence.

Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years (2016, Ron Howard) [r]
We already had ten hours of The Beatles Anthology, one and a half hours of the vastly superior The Compleat Beatles, and of course Mark Lewisohn’s prodigious in-progress biography, so what can a Ron Howard movie possibly tell us about the years when the Beatles were live performers? Not a whole hell of a lot, but if you love them you’ll still have a great time watching this, even if it’s annoying that Howard constantly cuts away from songs in progress and hardly lets a single one of them play out. He does capture the universal appeal of rock’s most deserved titans without a trace of pretension or overstatement, which is welcome.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972, Bob Rafelson)
Disappointing rehash of Five Easy Pieces with the same director and lead actor, unfortunately cluttered here by the presence of Bruce Dern as radio personality Jack Nicholson’s screwed up scam-artist brother. What should be an absorbing dynamic leads to a series of disconnected scenes that are stilted and curiously muted. It’s beautifully photographed by Laszlo Kovacs and Nicholson’s performance is admirably restrained but the film takes low-key to such a Robert Altman-like extreme that it quickly grows dull and ineffective. Not even Ellen Burstyn, going for Karen Black but hitting her broad Requiem for a Dream note, can rescue it.

Butterflies Are Free (1972, Milton Katselas)
A thin, dated dramedy about a young blind man (doe-eyed Edward Albert) hooking up with his free-spirited neighbor to his overprotective mom’s chagrin, this adaptation of a single-set play is redeemed slightly by Goldie Hawn’s easy naturalism as an actress, stuck playing one of the most blatant wish-fulfillment proto-MPDG characters in film history and spending much of the runtime in her underwear, but still perfectly credible in the part. Academy Award winner Eileen Heckart is freakishly believable as a meddling parent, but her hard work is let down by the crude, facile screenplay.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, Mervyn LeRoy & Busby Berkeley) [r]
This rather ordinary, sporadically funny story of bed-hopping, mistaken identity and philandering between rich and poor would be much more tolerable if broken up more frequently by the Busby Berkeley numbers that prompt the film’s high reputation, but there are only four of them. “We’re in the Money” and “The Shadow Waltz” are both treats that feel too short; “Pettin’ in the Park” and “Forgotten Man” are somewhat inexplicable thematically despite some strong choreography and camerawork. None are among Berkeley’s best, though perhaps that would be excusable with a more compelling plot, better jokes, something.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet) [r]
Lumet’s glee at Agatha Christie’s dim view of humanity — underlined in a painstakingly detailed, violent flashback at the climax — offsets the hamminess of several members of his once-in-a-lifetime cast, Albert Finney’s Hercule Poirot the silliest of all. Numerous others appear in what are really just walk-ons; the standouts are Rachel Roberts and Anthony Perkins, not Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman. If the thought of a murder mystery set aboard a train with a bunch of your favorite stars excites you there’s no reason you won’t find this engaging, and as a bonus its amoral perspective ensures that it doesn’t result in your brain falling out.

Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby)
Warren Beatty and Robert Towne’s ostensibly satirical comedy, of class-conscious promiscuity set hamhandedly against election night 1968, is an empty-headed scold of “celebrity hairdresser” Jay Sebring and, uh, society; Beatty stars as a workaholic philanderer trying to start his own hair salon while crassly juggling four to seven women. His performance lacks depth despite strong work from his costars, and director Ashby’s usual sense of affinity toward outsiders is out of place here regardless of whether there’s any sincerity to what the screenwriters are trying to say (if anything).

My Man Godfrey (1936, Gregory La Cava) [hr]
Supposedly a screwball comedy, this intriguing study of an odd family dynamic is never uproariously funny, with William Powell a cool-headed homeless man trying to build his life back up while resisting the pull of the band of blood-tied and fractured kooks who hire him as a butler. All the while that he’s pushed and pulled by warring factions in said family, Carole Lombard is the film’s sole stroke of real wildness, lusting after him relentlessly, and she deserves credit for how surreal a performance it is. Her presence enlivens the innocuous family scenes and the explorations of Godfrey’s character; she and Powell are mesmerizing.

A Day in the Country (1936, Jean Renoir) [r]
Sumptuous, intoxicating Renoir paean — from a Guy de Maupassant story about a spontaneous affair on a single afternoon — to the idyllic glories of the French countryside will make anyone with a pulse want to join the picnic it documents, but was left incomplete with forty minutes shot. Even apart from that it’s a bit toxic, hinging on an unlikable philanderer (Jacques Brunius) and his tagalong (Georges D’Arnoux) discussing the seduction of their female visitors as if it’s some kind of game being played with plastic toys. Worse yet, its cavalier treatment of subtle brutality at the climactic encounter traps it in its time.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
Sensitively presented, tragic tale of a Kabuki actor spurned by his family after he falls for his brother’s wet nurse, and a painfully accurate if partly accidental treatise on the way society punishes women. Mizoguchi’s use of long takes, master shots as opposed to close-ups, and complex dollys give the feel of life happening before our eyes despite the melodramatic intensity of the story being told; every scene is absorbing and richly detailed, made all the more touching by the fine, understated performances of Shôtarô Hanayagi and Kôkichi Takada in the two leading roles.

In Old Chicago (1937, Henry King) [r]
Brassy, slick Fox variation on the MGM classic San Francisco spins a whopper of a yarn about the Great Chicago Fire that has a mythologized Mrs. O’Leary (Alice Brady) mothering three sons, one of whom is a nefarious gangster (true) and another the Mayor of Chicago (lolz), plus of course a mischievous cow. You know how this works: an hour and a half of petty infighting and buildup, here revolving around both the law vs. order conflict between the brothers and on Tyrone Power’s rather creepy romantic attachment to dancer and businesswoman Alice Faye, followed by a climax filled with eye-popping, remarkable and fully convincing special effects.

None But the Lonely Heart (1944, Clifford Odets) [r]
Cary Grant and Ethel Barrymore are remarkable in this solemn, righteously angry exploration (based on a Richard Llewellyn novel) of a Cockney drifter’s entrance into a life of crime after his mother becomes too ill with cancer to run the family store. It’s long-winded and sags in the midsection after a terrific first act and after the relationship between mother and son loses some of its initial complexity, but the dialogue — well adapted by writer-director Clifford Odets — is consistently sharp and realistic, the whole experience subtle, unsentimental and impressively complete in its capturing of a decrepit slum life without romance or condescension.

***

Brief, insubstantial additional Letterboxd notes on: A Night at the Opera / Dracula / Paper Moon.

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