August 2017 movie capsules

13 movies watched in August. Counts:
– 10 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 2,210.
– 3 revisits, including one (Downhill) previously reviewed in another venue, one (The Conversation) newly reviewed in full here, and one (The Insider) newly re-capsuled here.
– 2 new full reviews, for The Conversation, as noted above, and The Scarlet Empress.
– 10 new or revised capsules, all below.
– Bad month.

Project breakdowns:
1930s canon: 4 films (4 new) — The Crime of Monsieur Lange, A Story of Floating Weeds, Osaka Elegy and The Scarlet Empress — leaving 34 films (27 unseen).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 5 films (4 new) — Heaven Can Wait (’78), The Love Parade, The Long Voyage Home, and the aforementioned The Insider and The Conversation — leaving 181 films (144 unseen).
2010s catchup: The Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan contributed to my ever-mounting disillusionment with modern arthouse fare, though the former had a lot of good points.
Other: From the NFPS’s Treasures from American Film Archives box, Hell’s Hinges reminded me that my heart belongs in the silent era.

Capsules onward.

Two Days, One Night (2014, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) [r]
This is a feature film version of that horrific Fiverr ad about a woman who foregoes eating in favor of “follow-throughs” because she is a “doer,” only the Dardennes aren’t celebrating such a lifestyle… though in their usual straightforward, unwavering fashion they don’t exactly seem to be strongly condemning it either. Marion Cotillard is outstanding as a clinically depressed factory worker cruelly forced to campaign to her coworkers over a weekend in order to keep her job, at the expense of their annual bonus; the responses she receives serve up a cross-section of humanity with almost mathematical precision. It’s like Norma Rae rendered as an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode.

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936, Jean Renoir) [hr]
One of Renoir’s most successful and accessible hybrids of social commentary and black comedy, about a hapless, amiable clerk at a publishing house trying to get his tyrannical, abusive boss to take his western stories starring one “Arizona Jim” seriously. An unexpected turn of events causes everyone in the tight-knit community around the publisher — a lovingly captured crowd of fully realized characters you almost feel yourself assimilating into — to discover how glorious their lives would be without the tightwad moneyed interests of the big honcho driving their lives. Not only does this work as a rant against the rich, it’s even more intriguing as a serious, deep examination of how our morals work.

Heaven Can Wait (1978, Warren Beatty & Buck Henry) [c]
Pedestrian remake of the slightly uncomfortable 1943 comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan serves as a vanity project for star, producer, cowriter and codirector Beatty, who takes the Robert Montgomery role of a sax-playing jock who dies in an accident then is permitted by angelic forces to insert himself in other bodies and lives. The story has comic possibilities that it never fully investigates, not least because it doesn’t permit any other actor the challenge of “becoming” Beatty, who isn’t much of a comic actor in the first place. Much of the latter half relies on the absurdity of a tycoon trying to secure a position on a pro football team, which means there are a lot of football scenes, which means it’s intolerably boring.

Leviathan (2014, Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Kind of a Russian House of Sand and Fog but grim, bloated and dull.

A Story of Floating Weeds (1934, Yasujiro Ozu) [r]
An elegant and beautiful silent tale of domestic mores from Ozu, shot gorgeously with aching minimalism on the part of its actors, especially Takeshi Sakamoto as Kihachi, a well-loved actor who largely abandoned his son to continue working. Admirable but more emotionally distant than Ozu’s best work, though still absorbing and visually arresting.

The Insider (1999, Michael Mann) [hr]
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) Weaving the high and low culture of television (and the turn-of-the-century downfall of 60 Minutes, long ago a symbol of American enlightenment) into a narrative that conveniently indicts Big Tobacco, Mann produces a new touchstone of the liberal cinema that for once holds up outside of its immediate timeliness. Artful, detailed and understated, this taut drama bites off everything it can think of — it’s an Issues film, it’s a crime film, it’s a journalism picture, it’s an anti-tobacco story, it’s a personal whistleblower odyssey, it’s a modest character study — and chews it all with elegance and ease, presenting entertainment that is absorbing and fascinating for nearly three hours.

Hell’s Hinges (1916, Charles Swickard) [hr]
This classic William S. Hart feature is more an anti-western (and a filmed nightmare) than an ordinary, earnest entry in the genre, transmitting from a period when the American film market was oversaturated with convention. It starts out off-kilter and stays that way, with savagely ironic jabs at a Man of God whose eyes are roving toward promiscuity and a futile attempt to send him out west for impulse control. The crime-ridden town he finds is a rebuttal to any vision of an idyllic west, further corrupting him and sending his sweet sister into the arms of town outlaw Hart. It culminates in a fire that seems to nip at the edges of the celluloid and threaten us; the Old Testament melodrama refuses to lend space for forgiveness to its audience or characters.

The Love Parade (1929, Ernst Lubitsch) [r]
Lubitsch’s first surviving sound film and one of the earliest Hollywood musicals displays little of the expected creakiness; its clarity and opulence are staggeringly modern. Maurice Chevalier lays down the persona he’d revise repeatedly as a womanizing miltary attaché who marries into royalty via Jeanette MacDonald, who wants only for him to sit out his days as a placid figurehead and toy. Unfortunately this bends into a somewhat dull-spirited and aimless story, its actual unforced laughs rare. Despite Chevalier and MacDonald’s chemistry, their musical numbers pale in comparison to the moments shared by supporting players Lupito Lane and Lillian Roth, who bring the house down with “Let’s Be Common” and “The Queen Is Always Right.”

Osaka Elegy (1936, Kenji Mizoguchi) [r]
Bleak, humorless drama follows a young switchboard operator (Isuzu Yamada) suffering so much at the hands of her family and a chauvinistic boss — who seeks her sexual companionship in exchange for financial help, running afoul of his vengeful wife — that she comes to be seen by everyone in her life as a duplicitous monster and ends up driven to despair in the course of a stark 70-minute narrative. The fluid direction and calm realism of individual scenes are so vivid that the film lingers in memory as though it were something the audience witnessed firsthand or maybe even lived, but without the cathartic righteousness of Sisters of the Gion or the bitter ironies of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums.

The Long Voyage Home (1940, John Ford) [r]
This chronicle of male camaraderie and enmity aboard a British merchant vessel feels more like Hawks than Ford, apart from the lovely opening act that mostly consists of the cast waiting to set sail, as though suspended in midair; though the narrative finds them suddenly tasked with hauling munitions for the war effort, it remains episodic. Ford humiliates John Wayne by trying to pass him off as a Swede of few words, but the rest of the cast is fine — particularly Mildred Natwick in the only major female part — and Gregg Toland’s photography is of course magnificent. There’s believable grit in the reproduction of drunken European sailors and the haphazard, unpredictable lives they were then leading.

***

Additional Letterboxd notes for: Downhill / The Scarlet Empress

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