June 2017 movie capsules

17 movies watched in June. Counts:
– 13 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,187.
– 4 revisits, 2 of which (Bringing Up Baby and Stagecoach, rewatches for the ’30s canon) were reviewed here before, plus two ’90s Woody Allen selections, Mighty Aphrodite and Bullets Over Broadway.
– Just 1 new full review, a rewrite of one I put down long before I had this blog: Bullets Over Broadway.
– 14 new or revised capsules below.
– My intention had of course been to finish the Oscar winners project this month, and I will indeed be moving on in a few days to the Picture nominees, a project that’s going to take around three years by my current estimate. We’re starting out with 181 films to review, 143 of which I’ve never seen — and a good number of movies I can’t wait to finally review in full, particularly Deliverance and Broadcast News. I’ll also finally get to have an opinion on what damn well should have won at each of these fucking ceremonies, which is what you’ve all been waiting for.
– All that said, the reason the monthly post is going up before the page culminating the completion of the Supporting Actress project is that I ended up dragging my feet for the entirety of June on seeing two recent winners, which I just realized share a director, one Tom Hooper. Life interfered to some extent; I’ve spent much of the last week visiting my mom and stepdad in the hospital and seeing friends and the like, but the truth is that I am so reluctant to sit down and watch Les Miserables and The Danish Girl that it knocked our entire procedural structure for the month out of whack. Anyway those two films are priority one as soon as I get this post online, so while you’re all enjoying fireworks and hot dogs I’ll be drowning in the far end of prestige cinema. I’m grateful that the scope and number of the Best Picture Nominees project will give me a good while before I start coping with the films I really wouldn’t be caught dead seeing under any other circumstances… uh, unless they’re on Netflix.
– Criterion’s new release of The Lodger is excellent; the major improvement on the MGM DVD — besides the fact that this one is actually in print, and likely to remain so — is that this disc uses the new BFI restoration from 2012 with better, more accurate tinting and a slightly longer running time (with speed corrected). Best of all, it includes Hitchcock’s very next film Downhill, another collaboration with Ivor Novello, as a bonus feature; that movie’s never been officially released on disc in America before and it also appears newly restored by the BFI. Let’s hope for more releases of Hitchcock’s silent and early work from Criterion to come.
– My feelings are still mixed on how to approach short films in this space — I’m torn between leaving such commentary (when it doesn’t pertain to our regular projects) in my personal blog (where I put the stuff about DVD extras and TV shows) and eventually doing, for instance, a page here with short reviews of Disney’s cartoon shorts and the like; I’m starting to lean toward the latter, and maybe eventually even an Oscar shorts project, since this after all remains cinema — but since I’m probably a year away from another DVD review post at my other outlet, I want to quickly plug the TCM/Warner Bros. burn-on-demand boxed set of UPA cartoons, The Jolly Frolics Collection. I was familiar with some of UPA’s best material, like Rooty Toot Toot, Gerald McBoing Boing and The Telltale Heart, but I was blown away by the consistent inventiveness and good humor of the first two discs in the set, the first dedicated to the years when the great John Hubley was the supervising director at UPA (before he was blacklisted; as much as I love Walt Disney, fuck him for his part in that). The quality drops off very dramatically on the final disc, to such an extent that one wonders why they didn’t just put together a three-disc set of material just from the golden era, maybe with more Magoo cartoons to round it out. At any rate, this is an illustrious corner in the history of American animation that has never before received this sort of comprehensive treatment. It could obviously be better and more complete, but I’m thrilled to have it.

Project breakdowns:
1930s canon: I didn’t touch this in June but it will resume almost immediately; November is still the target date for the big finish.
Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 12 films (10 new). As noted above, I fucked up here, with two hanging chads lingering past the point when I wanted this in my rear view. I did buckle down, though, with some truly off the wall stuff, the runts of the Oscar litter so far: Zorba the Greek, My Cousin Vinny, California Suite, The Aviator, A Patch of Blue, The Year of Living Dangerously, Cactus Flower, The Razor’s Edge, The Accidental Tourist, Michael Clayton, and the two beloved (and aforementioned) Woody Allen titles. Remaining: 2 films (2 new), with the appraising post up (in all probability) by this Wednesday evening.
2010s catchup: Expecting the end of the above project to be a breeze, I finally sat down with The Edge of Seventeen and The Lobster and loved both, the latter more than the former.
New movies: In addition to The Edge of Seventeen, caught the even more luminous I Am Not Your Negro, the James Baldwin celebration which in addition to its righteous and fearless tackling of race in America and Hollywood is one of the best films ever made about a writer at work.

Here are the capsules almost but not quite rounding out our five-year journey through the winners of all seven above-the-line Oscars.

***

I Am Not Your Negro (2016, Raoul Peck) [hr]
This is essentially a visualization of an unfinished text of James Baldwin’s dating from the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it doubles as a survey of his sociopolitical outlook overall, and no descriptor can prepare you for how vital it feels. So many modern documentaries of this nature are glorified PowerPoints — and there are some unwelcome traces of that here and there — but this exuberant, bleak, celebratory, cautionary, unfailingly honest investigation of race in America as manifested in protest, politics, Hollywood and everyday life is for the majority of its runtime like a tornado sweeping you up and tearing you apart.

The Edge of Seventeen (2016, Kelly Fremon Craig) [hr]
Delightful awkward-adolescence story from Gracie Films is funnier than par for the genre, with Hailee Steinfeld a magnetic, immensely likable lead who weaves her way through the occasional spell of stilted dialogue in Craig’s script like a true natural, meeting her match only with Woody Harrelson as an acerbic English teacher. Nadine’s alienation from her family is exacerbated after her jock brother begins a relationship with her longtime best friend, and there are typically awkward sexual encounters, moments of well-observed friendship, and the unfortunate entrance of a Nice Guy stereotype, but despite its issues the film cogently gets across how inadequate family can sometimes be as a source of warmth and comfort, especially at this age.

Zorba the Greek (1964, Michael Cacoyannis)
There’s lots of competition — the fact that Anthony Quinn was slightly less irritating than usual, and uh, the lighting? — but my absolute favorite part of this confoundingly uneventful, dull film about a tightwad English writer randomly associating with a gregarious Quinn on a business-related seclusion in Crete was when right in the middle of it a woman was violently attacked and knifed by a group of men for no substantial reason that had any significant effect on the plot. That ruled.

My Cousin Vinny (1992, Jonathan Lynn) [r]
This courtroom-based comedy is a novel reversal of the usual “backwoods lawyer tries to make good in the big city” formula, with leather-suited, inexperienced Joe Pesci coming down from Brooklyn and making an ass of himself in rural Alabama to defend his cousin, one of two men charged with attempted murder after a bogus series of unfortunate coincidences. Well-acted, engaging and surprisingly believable, with the most cogent rebuke of eyewitness testimony since The Wrong Man, this is half an hour too long and not as funny as it ought to be, but because its humor comes fairly naturally and the farce is kept to a minimum, it’s easily a cut above most mainstream Hollywood comedies of its vintage. Marisa Tomei is brilliant and deserved the Oscar.

The Lobster (2015, Yorgos Lanthimos) [hr]
Engagingly probing black comedy about a hellscape in which anyone not in a relationship is shuttled off to a hotel where they must find a mate in 45 days or be turned into an animal; meanwhile rogue singles wander the forests, hunted for sport. Lanthimos’ deadpan humor — much of which will ring true for anyone who’s ever dealt with the dating world or with bad relationships they stayed in for too long — is by no means for all tastes but it’s an absolute riot in the same way Todd Solondz’s work is, and as with Solondz, it’s only aloof or heartless if you’re unwilling to cope with its uncomfortable honesty. Colin Farrell’s brief affair with the Heartless Woman would make a monumental short all by itself.

California Suite (1978, Herbert Ross) [NO]
A string of things Neil Simon has wished he’d said after being (deservedly) insulted in his day-to-day life in the form of four vignettes that have nothing to do with each other except that they all take place in L.A. and feature sour “wit” and dismal social commentary; the closest thing we get to actual comedy is a segment that involves Walter Matthau trying to hide a prostitute from his wife, which demonstrates that physical comedy is the only thing Simon even kind of knows how to put across credibly. The cast stuck with “serious” parts (including Maggie Smith, Alan Alda, Jane Fonda, etc.) embarrass themselves more than the likes of Matthau, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor in the lighter scenes, but the whole enterprise is a dreadful waste of time.

The Aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese) [r]
This lavish Hollywood biopic of lavish Hollywood legend Howard Hughes concentrates on the years from the shooting of Hell’s Angels through his late 1940s battle with the Senate and with Pan Am. One of director Martin Scorsese’s more conventional — but also more enjoyable — efforts, it benefits from the fact that Hughes is such a fascinating and eccentric figure, which makes the obscene overlength (170 minutes) a little easier to take. We get to fawn over stars impersonating other stars (Cate Blanchett is divine as Katharine Hepburn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner) and admire a few bravura effects sequences, most impressively the dramatization of Hughes’ fiery XF-11 crash in Beverly Hills. Glittery and superficial, but appropriately so.

A Patch of Blue (1965, Guy Green) [r]
The story of a young blind woman (Elizabeth Hartman, outstanding) venturing tentatively outside of her abusive home into a nearby park, where she’s taken under the wing of Sidney Poitier’s good Samaritan, who befriends and tries to deprogram her. This doesn’t wholly escape the trappings of so many socially conscious Hollywood films of the ’60s dealing with race, seemingly all of them starring Sidney Poitier, but it’s far more nuanced and mature than it initially seems. Writer-director Guy Green never permits the stock male fantasy of serving as naive woman’s teacher-savior to transition into the inappropriately sexual power dynamic that you’re conditioned to anticipate; Poitier’s Gordon chooses his actions carefully and compassionately, as does Green.

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, Peter Weir)
Right from the dazzling opening titles, Weir makes this action-packed journalism story about the 1965 Indonesian coup look remarkably good, even effortless in its realism. The screenplay, however (adapted from a novel by Christopher Koch), is torn between the political and the personal in a distracting, very evidently compromised fashion that foregrounds a haphazard love affair between attractive but clueless-looking actors Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver at the expense of any sense of insight into the failed Communist rebellion and its bloody aftermath. The story feels shapeless and lacks clarity, attaining momentum only when Linda Hunt’s unconventional characterization of the photographer Billy Kwan takes the reins of the narrative.

Cactus Flower (1969, Gene Saks) [r]
Mildly amusing, extremely implausible farce about a Walter Matthau who must pretend to be married to impress his mistress, a very age-inappropriate Goldie Hawn in her film debut. Several screwball scenarios play out enjoyably without ever becoming worth more than a chuckle. It should be noted that all three key players give the film a boundless level of energy, none more than Ingrid Bergman, an improbable presence both because she rarely played comedy and because she’s cast as an outwardly stuffy nurse who ends up cutting loose with the youths on the dance floor, an unexpectedly delightful moment.

The Razor’s Edge (1946, Edmund Goulding) [c]
When it comes down to it, I just don’t care about these out-of-touch, vapid rich people. I don’t care about Gene Tierney’s love for her husband-to-be being contingent upon a certain rate of income. I don’t care about returning WWI veteran Tyrone Power’s quest to “find himself,” which amounts to an expensive vacation to a prototype version of MIU, after which he gains the ability to hypnotize people into being better salesmen, or something. I don’t care about Herbert Marshall’s interpretation of W. Somerset Maugham, who inserted himself as a character in this novel but never begins to serve any kind of purpose in the film version except to glare sternly at various story developments. I care about Anne Baxter, but only during her big drunk widow scene.

The Accidental Tourist (1988, Lawrence Kasdan) [c]
What makes William Hurt’s constantly bored, detached travel writer in this film an adult whereas, say, Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love is a “man-child”? Is it that he has a readymade tragic backstory? Because from what I can tell he’s no less entitled than any other obnoxious, up-his-own-ass emotional corpse whose purpose is in life is to be “rescued” by the various chattering, nurturing women whose entire purpose in turn is to fix him. A set of decent-to-great actors can barely keep their heads above all the mumbling in this dire, drab “comedy”; Kasdan fails to indicate any greater feel for human relationships than you’d expect for someone whose big claim to fame is cowriting a Star Wars movie.

Michael Clayton (2007, Tony Gilroy) [r]
Gritty, talky George Clooney vehicle resembles nothing so much as a stylish, self-regarding TV crime drama with showy acting bookended by two artistically risky strokes: a disorienting introduction and a quiet, nonchalant finale. The chronological jump that it depends on for its explosive opening feels gimmicky and done-to-death, but the story of a law office’s financially shaky “fixer” discovering that he’s tasked with defending the actions of a murderously corrupt chemical company is intriguing and absorbing all the same… it’s immediately evident, however, that it’s written by its director, as anyone else would have cut down at least some of the interminable monologues that populate it, especially those foisted on poor Tom Wilkinson.

Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Woody Allen) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) The remarkable Mira Sorvino amps up this light Allen comedy about a man’s search for the biological mother of his adopted child. Helena Bonham-Carter is also excellent. The material — despite its debt to Greek tragedy — is less sophisticated than the director’s films from this period usually are, but there’s a certain delight in watching him handle a different kind of movie.

***

Brief, insubstantial additional Letterboxd notes on: Bringing Up Baby / Stagecoach / Bullets Over Broadway

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