September 2017 movie capsules

16 movies watched in September. Counts:
– 10 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 2,220.
– 6 revisits, including two (Safety Last!, seen via the Criterion DVD with Amber, and The Toll of the Sea, on the Treasures from American Film Archives disc) already capsuled here, and I elected not to expand those into full reviews for now though I intend to do so someday — the same goes for San Francisco, newly capsuled in this space. However, I did write up two old favorites and reposted an old review from my former setup.
– 3 new-to-this-blog full reviews, two of them new altogether. The semi-rerun is Great Expectations, the David Lean version; I was surprised my 2008 essay required no doctoring or revision. Freaks and Secret Agent are all-new reviews, and in fact my inaugural attempt at writing a full piece on the latter, one of the few Hitchcock features I had only seen one time previously. (Been holding out hope for a better DVD edition all these years; it’s the only one of the Gaumont Six without a decent edition on the market.)
– 11 new or revised capsules, all below!
– The latest distractions from my regular duties are the new Warner Archive Porky Pig 101 five-disc set, the first chronological compilation of Looney Tunes pretty much ever, which I segued into right after completing a journey through the UPA Jolly Frolics and Hubley discs I picked up last year; and a renewed obsession with MST3K, nearly all episodes of which are now available on disc. The Porky set, though, will coincide nicely with the ’30s canon since Porky in Wackyland makes an appearance there.

Project breakdowns:
1930s canon: 6 films (4 new). I’m still discombobulated from August and utterly failed to catch up. I’m tentatively trying to still make November the end date for this project, but there’s probably a 50/50 chance I’ll have to delay till the following month. This won’t be the end of the world; I’m following this with a very short one-month interlude project before moving on to the ’40s. At any rate, we did knock out two biggies in the form of the aforementioned Freaks and Secret Agent, plus Medvedkin’s Happiness, Renoir’s La Bete Humaine, Clair’s Le Million and Ozu’s The Only Son; Filmstruck has been such a boon to this project. Remaining, in addition to three shorts that need addressing: 28 films (23 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 5 films (3 new). Dropped the ball badly on this one, but I’m less broken up about it since it’s so long-term. Revisited Great Expectations and San Francisco (which I got to show to my mom, who’d never seen it), then tackled The Longest Day, The Talk of the Town and my favorite (and most long overdue) new discovery of the month, Bergman’s magnificent Cries and Whispers. Remaining: 176 films (141 new).
2010s catchup: Finally a productive month for this, on the other hand, largely because Netflix pulled two movies I’d been trying to make time to watch for a couple of years, which forced my hand. Those were The Double and The Duke of Burgundy, both good and mildly disappointing, and also The Tale of the Princess Kaguya came in the mail; I liked it as much as I ever like the Ghibli stuff.
– I have vacation time in October, and while I’ll be spending some of it seeing family and traveling and trying to get my music blog scheduling problem under control, there should be a lot of downtime as well, and I look forward to maybe doubling down on the ’30s stuff.

On to the capsules… (I know the San Francisco capsule is kinda bullshit, but it does sum it up! And I always liked it, though it used to be one word shorter.)

Happiness (1935, Aleksandr Medvedkin) [r]
Visually majestic sort-of-comedy about a peasant’s search for contentment shot in the lubok style is very different from most of the Soviet propaganda that survives in the cultural memory; its wit and eye-popping moments of freeform avant garde expression will make it irresistible to anyone enamored of silent and early sound film techniques. With a character named Loser, a “horse-wife” and a walking house, this demonstrates an off-kilter Russian humor that’s not exactly Buster Keaton but isn’t a great distance from Buñuel either.

La Bête Humaine (1938, Jean Renoir) [hr]
Troubling, extremely absorbing proto-noir, based on an Émile Zola novel, about the lives of a vengeful, jealous station manager and a mentally ill and lovesick train conductor colliding with sickening inevitability. As usual, Renoir’s feel for people and location is infallible — you feel the soot and the energy of the trains running all throughout, and deeply understand how their mechanical reliability runs against the wildcard of human emotions — and it’s intriguing to see those inclinations applied to a rather nasty and nihilistic thriller with no real heroes, and many breaches of trust with one another and with the audience.

San Francisco (1936, W.S. Van Dyke) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) Holy shit!

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013, Isao Takahata) [r]
Lovingly presented folktale, overcoming Studio Ghibli’s usual arbitrary plotting with a sense of ancient lore and a touchingly compassionate center, with a wonderfully distinctive, minimalist watercolor design. It explores the life of a girl with supernatural origins who is discovered in the forest by a bamboo cutter, who then seeks out a title for her; easy, unforced humor and class commentary arises from his, his wife’s and eventually an entire world’s difficulty with comprehending that material desire isn’t the essence of her dreams. A much more humane and multifaceted film than Grave of the Fireflies, though there’s still some emotional distance.

The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin/Andrew Marton/Bernhard Wicki) [r]
Star-studded, meticulously detailed account of the D-Day invasion from nearly all possible angles deserves credit for not being a bravura cheerleading of wartime violence, and for building to an anticlimax. Despite several harrowing setpieces, there’s a lot of arrhythmic editing and a decent amount of the dialogue is poorly written and read, a weird clash of old-Hollywood sensibilities with the film’s gritty ambitions. These problems fade somewhat as the excitement of the impending action mounts, and the battles themselves demonstrate outstanding camerawork and gargantuan-scale blocking whose logitisics are difficult to even fathom.

Le Million (1931, René Clair) [hr]
Clair’s delightful musical comedy is more charming than funny, but almost Lubitschian in its sheer buoyancy. René Lefèvre stars as a philanderer who robs from Peter to pay Paul and has a Paris full of creditors and a handful of women coming home to roost all at once, when the news comes that he and his friend have won the lottery. A madly convoluted chase follows as he seeks to recover the missing coat that houses his ticket, and there’s no point trying to explain the rest. The song sequences are lovely, the whole film ceaselessly inventive and alive; Clair communicates the sheer joy of unburdened youth like few other directors.

The Double (2013, Richard Ayoade) [r]
Gorgeous-looking, witty and well-acted nightmare from writer-director Ayoade is reminiscent of Welles’ The Trial in its tirelessly inventive inscrutability, taking a Dostoyevsky novella for inspiration. Jesse Eisenberg gets thrown into a cornucopia of hopelessly thankless, hellish work and Manic Pixie Dream Girls, his bleak existence upended all the more when his uber-Alpha doppelgänger shows up. The level of visual detail here, and the fun Ayoade has dooming his protagonist, forgives some of the half-baked avenues the story takes. Wallace Shawn is hilarious as the boss in the boy’s unfathomably depressing office.

Cries and Whispers (1972, Ingmar Bergman) [hr]
Stunning psychodrama, one of the best of Bergman’s color films, functions as a meditation on death and grief as much as an oppressive fever dream. Sven Nykvist’s camera and Marik Vos-Lundh’s eye-popping set design brilliantly, almost garishly reflect the intensity of feeling among three sisters and a maid (Kari Sylwan) holed up in a mansion as one of them (Harriet Andersson) wastes away from illness, watched over with obligatory compassion while relationships fray. Bergman delves into these disparate personalities and shows himself and his cast unafraid of the rawest and most unfiltered kind of emotion.

The Only Son (1936, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
The outwardly straightforward story of a boy whose mother makes sacrifices to ensure his education, but who grows up in fear of disappointing her, balloons out to become a challenge to the personal philosophies and convictions of anyone watching. The film is free of easy answers, and as ever, Ozu’s beautifully still moments are steeped in their place and time — here contemporary as of the film’s release — but seem to sing out with both universal emotion and the specific tics of their characters and performances. The entire cast proves adept at exploring the unsaid, even as their polite smiles and bows only subside a handful of times.

The Duke of Burgundy (2014, Peter Strickland) [r]
Formally astounding drama set in a mysterious, insular world populated solely by entomologists and sex-bed manufacturers revolves around a lesbian couple in a master-slave relationship and (hilariously) the master’s frustration with the extremely specific, ultimately exhausting requirements of her partner. Strickland allows an emotional center to shine through all the wicked cleverness — with flights of dreamlike fancy and a well-placed Brakhage homage — but while the film’s nonchalant attitude toward both kink and its all-female cast is praiseworthy, it slips out of our lives without a sense of real resolution or satisfaction.

The Talk of the Town (1942, George Stevens)
Wildly uneven, plotty “comedy” about a wrongly jailed anarchist hiding in the attic of an ex who happens to have a potential Supreme Court justice staying as a tenant. Stevens is uncomfortable with his characters’ interactions, filling the frame with off-putting closeups and unintentionally funny emotional flourishes while fumbling his attempts at slapstick. The script’s busy wordiness indicates its authors thought they were really on a roll, and you truly feel sorry for them. Cary Grant and Jean Arthur are wonderful but they’re drowned out entirely by Ronald Colman, hamming it up as the highbrow lawyer whose beard is treated like the Monolith from 2001.

***

Additional Letterboxd notes on: Great Expectations / The Toll of the Sea / Freaks / Secret Agent

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