July 2017 movie capsules

17 movies seen in July, somewhat incredibly given that I spent a chunk of almost every day in one hospital or another. Counts:
– 13 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,200.
– 4 revisits, including 2 previously reviewed here (The Lodger in its splendid new Criterion edition, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, one of the few unfailing respites in a difficult time; how deeply I love that film), and two of my all-time favorite films I felt privileged to attempt to wax rhapsodic about: Broadcast News and The 39 Steps.
– After last month’s drought, 3 new full reviews, for (as expected) Broadcast News and The 39 Steps, and (unexpectedly) for a movie I’d never seen before, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion, the second discovery for the 1930s canon project that has entered my list of 100 all-time favorites.
– 12 new or revised capsules, all below.
– Doubled back and finished up Best Supporting Actress, and mostly stayed on quota, though I did not manage to make any bites into new or recent cinema, something I do want to start to double down on a bit as we head into the end of the decade, on top of the unwatched Treasures from American Film Archives DVDs and other material I want to get around to exploring — my proverbial kevyip on both counts is a mile high. Normally I’d scold myself for mediocre time management, for taking on too many projects I genuinely want to do, and for having too much of a life these days (imagine it! and alas, other people — believe it or not — do win out over movies for me), but in this case I actually had multiple family emergencies during most of July and now early August, and this was constantly pushed to the back of my mind or out of it altogether. I’m kind of proud actually for sticking to it as much as I did. Send best wishes to my stepdad, who’s really more of an actual dad than my dad was, as he works really hard to recover from his medical issues, and whose passion for Japanese film makes me hope I get to show him Sisters of the Gion when he’s feeling better.
– I’m more energized and excited about this blog than I’ve been almost since its beginnings, when I was so ambitious about basically reporting at length on every damn thing in the canon. The Best Picture nominees are a long-haul project, and will be dominated in the beginning by films I’m quite interested in before we start to settle back into the prestige morass. And the canon projects are proving astonishingly fruitful, with the treasures easily outweighing the disappointments. I’ve written at length about Broadcast News and The 39 Steps before, but I was terribly young and the work was mawkish and unworthy of being widely shared, even though I did so anyway; maybe it still is, but my favorite thing I do here is studying and promoting the films I love, and I’m psyched up for more.

***

Project breakdown:
Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 2 films (2 new). Ending the Oscar winners project, which ran from 2012 to 2017 here, with a whimper and two films that had not yet been released when I started this thing, Les Miserables and The Danish Girl, easily accessible but put off to the end because I dreaded watching them, and that’s before I realized they shared a director. Anyway, this ugliness is now behind us.
1930s canon: 6 films (5 new). Slightly under quota, not so much because I ran out of time as because two films I needed for the other project were suddenly set to expire from Netflix. One known masterpiece (The 39 Steps.. which, on this watch, somehow managed to move up in my estimation, which shocked even me), one previously unknown masterpiece (Sisters of the Gion; as with the handful of other films I’ve declared great since I moved over to this venue, my enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be widely shared, but I’m correct as usual), three new discoveries I loved — in ascending order of brilliance: Ozu’s I Was Born, But…, Lang’s remarkably uncompromising thriller Fury (my first encounter, somehow, with Fritz Lang’s Hollywood work), and Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (overlap with BP nominees), very nearly an A+ film and possibly set to become one when I rewatch (Lubitsch is easily the filmmaker I most regret mischaracterizing prior to this project; I’d just managed coincidentally to see three films of his that didn’t fully connect with me), and one disappointment, Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, but that’s okay. Note that I also wasn’t completely keen on Renoir’s A Day in the Country and that I “got” both Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game when I rewatched them in the last few years. Remaining: 38 films (31 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 8 films (7 new). First of all, in my initial count for this I missed two entire years of nominees somehow. D’oh. The correct initial count is 194 films, including 154 unseen. I kicked off with The Smiling Lieutenant, an overlap with the 1930s canon, then started properly with a celebratory round of Broadcast News, and then began to knock off the titles from Filmstruck and Netflix: Olivier’s Henry V, Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (one of the biggest surprises for me in the entire run of this blog), the Olivia de Havilland vehicle the snake pit, last year’s vastly overrated Lion (overlap with 2010s catchup), and the basically OK Babe and The Verdict. Remaining: 186 films (147 new).
2010s catchup/new movies: Nothing except Lion, mentioned above.

Now for capsules!!

The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper) [NO]
Another homophobic, transphobic, deplorably ahistorical and homogenized piece of empty Oscar bait that harnesses and violates a real person’s life for award-mongering Hollywood prestige, hitting all the pre-cise-ly sanc-ti-oned biopic grace notes. This time the victim (and that’s very much the way the film processes and understands this person, and LGBT people as a group) is Lili Elbe, Danish transgender artist, portrayed by Eddie Redmayne with astonishing incompetence that must be seen to be believed. One of the worst films of the decade.

Les Misérables (2012, Tom Hooper) [c]
Hooper’s screen adaptation of the celebrated French stage musical is not really any more or less than exactly what you’d expect, your opinion of it undoubtedly tied to how you feel about having the characters in Victor Hugo’s passionate, philosophical novel of poverty and exile in post-Revolution France belt out big production numbers and sing nearly every line between them. Like Oliver! it’s an inherently poor idea, but the public demanded it so here it is. The actors are decent, the production values (rife with CGI grime) clearly high-level, the direction by Hooper abysmal. Not even a shadow of a surprise visible.

Fury (1936, Fritz Lang) [hr]
Lang’s first American film is a taut, pointed thriller about a man who gets falsely accused of a crime while on the way to see his fiancée. Even if you know where this chilling look at mob mentality and misguided vengeance is headed, you’ll still marvel at the righteousness of its messages and the clarity of its targets. Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney are both phenomenal, and they define their characters so well that the chronicle of their long-distance relationship in the first scenes is sufficiently compelling to have been a film of its own. Lang proves adept at using a big studio’s resources to craft a personal, impassioned work of art.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
Monumentally funny, delightfully risque pre-code musical about a promiscuous French army man finding love after breakfast then getting caught up in a royal scandal. Lubitsch’s musical numbers are a bit static at times, and many modern audiences will find themselves immune to the charms of Maurice Chevalier, but there’s no escaping the pull of the adorable Claudette Colbert as a liberated violinist and the alluring Miriam Hopkins, whose performance is breathtaking as a feat of comic precision and timing, to say nothing of an airtight script full of huge, ecstatic laughs, harnessed to complete potential by this stellar cast.

Henry V (1944, Laurence Olivier) [r]
Olivier’s central conceit, of staging this like a Globe Theatre performance that slowly moves outward with the audience’s imaginations into the full visual manifestation of the Hundred Years War at its height, is truly ingenious, giving the entire affair a dreamlike, absorbing quality that leads beautifully to the expansive, climactic, immaculately designed battle — one of the best action scenes in cinema. These virtues cannot mask Olivier’s shortcomings as an actor in the title role, too slight for his own valor; also, not to question Shakespeare, but the text can’t really sustain the excitement achieved during the Agincourt scenes.

The Nun’s Story (1959, Fred Zinnemann) [hr]
Unexpectedly dark, honest, unsentimental chronicle — from Kathryn Hulme’s novel — of a wealthy Belgian woman sacrificing identity and forsaking temptation to join a convent. The film is long, slow, careful and detailed and completely immerses the viewer in the emotional plight of Sister Luke, brought to us in body and spirit by Audrey Hepburn in what might be her greatest performance. Zinnemann and cinematographer Franz Planer successfully contradict the aesthetic beauty of Sister Luke’s surroundings with the increasingly dire, lonely circumstances of her day to day life, leading to an effective, subtly stirring finale.

I Was Born, But… (1932, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
Spirited, elegant silent comedy about a pair of boys who find themselves outcasts after their dad moves them to a new town because of work opportunities. At first this is a familiar exploration of kids coping with various childhood rites of passage, with all the integrity of Frank Borzage’s impressionistic glimpses of then-modern life, but when the subject becomes the kids’ relationship with their dad it develops seamlessly into something deeper: about family, money, and the regular humiliation of living for the status quo. Of course, it’s absolutely gorgeous: so still and natural, but so expansive as if the whole world lives within it.

the snake pit (1948, Anatole Litvak) [r]
Alternately harrowing and mildly silly chronicle of the disorienting, often diabolical treatment endured by a woman (Olivia de Havilland) after she’s committed for reasons she finds obscure. Using Mary Jane Ward’s semi-memoir as an inspiration, Litvak’s stroke of genius here is to drop us in the deep end with de Havilland without explanation; we piece the past together slowly along with her, so our identification is powerful. His surreal, almost horror-like interpretations of medical treatment and attendant fantasies and nightmares makes The Exorcist look dumber yet, and the institutional scenes, while dated, feel honestly unflinching in their chaos.

Lion (2016, Garth Davis)
A story this inherently interesting — about Saroo Brierley’s separation from his family in India at age five, leading to a long quest to reconnect with them as an adult long after being adopted and transported to Australia — requires considerable chutzpah to really screw up, but leave it to the Weinstein machine to process it conveniently into the most arid, tasteless brand of prestige picture cheese that amounts to Google Maps: The Movie, endless buildup to a rushed climax. This is what “deep” moviemaking for grownups is nowadays? This formulaic shit, with all the dramatic revelations and confessionals in ex-act-ly the cor-rect pos-i-ti-ons?

Babe (1995, Chris Noonan) [r]
Potentially adorable, beautifully shot fable about a farm pig discovering his hidden talents; though mostly a comedy, it comes equipped with some surprisingly dark messaging about social orders and ethical consumption… which is actually not the reason its maudlin, uneven tone nearly does it in. The delightful scenes involving Babe’s assimilation into his home, surrounded by strange new creatures brought to astounding life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and a busload of animal wranglers, are vastly more entertaining than those that either try to advance the rather trite, formulaic plot or fall back on easy sentimentality. The humans drag it down.

The Verdict (1982, Sidney Lumet) [r]
Riveting and hugely implausible courtroom drama about a malpractice suit that brings a dishonored attorney (Paul Newman, embarrassing, more so because he’s surrounded by brilliant actors) from the brink of permanent despair and alcohol posioning is a triumph in its blocking and claustrophobic visual sensibility, capturing the coldest of Boston winters while placing a matching sensation of eerie detachment squarely in the heads of his characters. The rhythm of David Mamet’s script is impeccable, though his contempt for his lone female character (Charlotte Rampling) is creepily palpable. The finale is striking but seems cheap.

Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932, Jean Renoir)
Another of Renoir’s mischievous attacks on class structure, with Michel Simon forecasting his free-spirit role in L’Atalante as a bum who gets taken in by a well-to-do bourgeois family who discover the limits of their own charity; the title character is often cited as the first cinematic treatment of a hippie, although my understanding is that committing rapes and spitting in books aren’t necessarily defining characteristics of peace-loving types. Despite its visual loveliness this is everything The Rules of the Game isn’t — didactic, unfunny and dull, belaboring its amusing but thin premise well past the point of tolerance.

***

Additional brief Letterboxd remarks on:
The Lodger
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Broadcast News
Sisters of the Gion
The 39 Steps

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