October 2017 movie capsules

22 movies seen in October. Counts:
– 19 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 2,239.
– 3 revisits, one of them (Double Indemnity) already reviewed here in the past.
– 2 new full reviews, for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and the fabulous Dodsworth. I’d written about both many years ago at other venues but chose to keep very little of my previous work for these revisions.
– 16 (really 17, as one is for a two-part film) new capsules, provided a few spaces down.
– The Harvey Weinstein story broke this month, preceded by some comparatively obscure scandals in the film writing world and followed by an opening of the floodgates, with Kevin Spacey the tip of a very large iceberg. Movies are a solace and a comfort for me, not just watching them but also reading and writing about and studying them. I doubt I need to explain that mindset to you if you’re reading this. I maintain this blog for fun, and there is no other motivation for it apart from the relief it provides me from the news, from evils and concerns that, while hardly new, seem increasingly inescapable to me as I age. For that reason I don’t really long to come here and talk about the state of the world, and misogyny, and rape, and sexual assault, and workplace abuse, and the toxic hatefulness and abusiveness of seemingly the vast majority of powerful men, or perhaps men as a whole. (I don’t qualify that with “perhaps” out of defensiveness but out of concern at the pass it gives to shitty people — the notion that their biology dictates their behavior, that they “can’t help it.” And I have absolutely no doubt that economic exploitation of workers, including artists, plays a major role in the size and scope of this specific phenomenon.) But I feel a responsibility, even if only to myself and my own conscience, to acknowledge somewhere — and it may as well be here — that I know I can’t talk about Hollywood or even world cinema, contemporary and otherwise, in a vacuum. Movies themselves are not made in a vacuum, or at least good ones aren’t. Still I’m going to be honest: it’s a pain in the ass that the conversation is now irrevocably in this place where I cannot discuss film with others and also feasibly ignore the ugliness at the core of the system that crafts so much art that means the world to me, however commodified it is. And I just want to say that my frustration with this is not frustration with the victims of these men or the victims of sexual assault in general. My frustration is with the men and the creators themselves; it is their fault that so many movies, books, recordings, etc. are cursed with a permanent asterisk. It is not the fault of those who have spoken out, who are brave and admirable beyond measure.
– I don’t entirely believe in “separating the art from the artist.” I don’t believe it’s possible, and I don’t fully understand why it’s something you’d want to do; for anyone who’s serious about studying past work, an important figure’s biography can be a vital tool, a prism through which we can examine and evaluate the work whether we choose to interpret it as fundamentally an extension of who they are or not. That includes if they were awful people, by either our standards or the standards of their time. I certainly realize it’s more difficult to do that when you’re living in the same time as the artist in question, when there are questions of actual consumer support potentially coming into play. I do believe that celebrating someone’s work is not the same as celebrating them as a human, in much the same way I don’t believe a film is praiseworthy because it was made by a nice or good person; however, in times like now when wounds are newly exposed and emotions are running high with good reason, I can understand being troubled by such an assertion. My advocacy, at any rate, is of the scavenging of art from the artist; it may provide a fascinating window into a troubled soul — though honestly this is less true of even the most auteurist-friendly filmmaker, since cinema is inherently so much more collaborative than any other art form — but its final utility and place in the world is what it can come to mean for those of us who experience it. One reason I subscribe to this is that I think it’s dangerous to imply that only the “Bad Men” — only the untalented or immoral ones, only the ones who blatantly skeeve us out — are capable of sexual crimes; frankly, it should not surprise us that a criminal who hurt people did good things, or was able to convince others he was a good person. Statistically, it can’t possibly only be Bad Men doing this; to me, disowning the art of everyone we know to have committed these and other transgressions — apart from requiring us to dispense with so much that is culturally vital, which I personally just can’t get behind — further sets up the opportunity for men to hide behind a culturally beloved status, for outsiders to continue to console themselves that none of the Good, Decent Men inflict pain on others. Basically I don’t feel comfortable tying my own likes and interests to a vetting of the people involved; if they’ve performed serious misdeeds, I don’t believe they should work again. If they continue to work because the system is fucked and make another movie I like, I’m going to be honest about that, because reviewing movies is what I do here. Perhaps that’s a form of compartmentalization that’s unhealthy, but it’s the way I would prefer to run things here.
– That said, I have nothing but sympathy for anyone who — now, or later, or ever — cannot “see past” an artist’s personal life, behavior, and cruelty or criminal actions against others. I just want to be upfront about the fact that this blog may deal with it in a way you find disagreeable.
– My procedure has always been, and will continue to be, to speak to the personalities of filmmakers and performers strictly when I feel it’s relevant to a film’s content; Roman Polanski’s crimes, for instance, won’t necessarily come up in a review of Chinatown, but they will in a review of Tess; Elia Kazan’s status as a dirty rat is impossible to avoid in an analysis of On the Waterfront — it’s less pressing when you’re dealing with Splendor in the Grass. You may feel that continuing to review films that involve, or are largely the work of, accused or convicted predators or even just known assholes is an act of complicity. I don’t really have an answer for that, the same way I don’t have an answer for anyone who wants to know why I think John Lennon frequently behaved in a way that was vile to both men and women in his life and still find him an endlessly fascinating, complex subject, some of whose words and actions I find quite sympathetic. The same with James Brown and Spencer Tracy and Michael Jackson and Walt Disney (political, not personal issues there) and on and on and on, and I agree that it’s hypocritical and, again, I don’t have an answer except that it’s a fact of how I am — probably a testament to how much these kinds of art matter to me — and I suppose embracing hypocrisy is some part of growing up. Frankly I just don’t want to live in a world without a whole lot — I mean, a whole lot — of art that is in some way problematic in its origin, not because it is problematic, I wish it wasn’t, but because it is so much more.
– The list of what Glenn Kenny has called “bad actors” in Hollywood is endless, and it’s endless in other industries, and I think it’s a testament to capitalism, power, misogyny, culture at large more than a testament to the quality of the art that may happen to grow out of it; let’s not forget that any given television series of film also involves the hard work of any number of people who are not predators, who are in fact hard-working artists and technicians whose contributions are seldom destined to receive the kind of acknowledgement and reward they deserve.
– Lastly, I have to admit that in my teens and early to mid-twenties, when I was gradually turning into the sort of person who would ultimately run this ridiculous fucking blog, I acted shamefully about this specific subject in regard to favorite artists, especially directors, who had accusations made against them. I was aggressively defensive of the character of these men, exclusively because I loved their work; I had no deep reason beyond that — I found sexual violence itself no less reprehensible — except that because they had created things that were beloved to me, I didn’t think they could possibly be capable of anything evil. I made excuses for them and argued with people about it. I was an asshole and I am deeply sorry about it, and this is specifically the fallacy I refer to above that worries me: that which dictates that our faves are the good ones, allowing storied careers to blind us via the illusion that one’s work dictates who they are. It doesn’t, and I hope I’ve made clear that one’s likes and dislikes don’t either; you will continue to read praise of the work of many bad people, or people who’ve done bad things, here… and if this disclaimer is unsatisfactory, I completely understand and I apologize.

***

Project breakdowns:
1930s canon: 8 films (7 new). I wanted to get a lot more done with this, but I’m still going to try to finish up in November; it’ll be interesting to see if I manage it. Knocked out Under the Roofs of Paris, Man of Aran, La Chienne, Lost Horizon, both parts of Riefenstahl’s Olympia, You Only Live Once and the aforementioned revisit Dodsworth. Remaining: 21 films (17 new); my fate is riding with all the holidays I get this month and the fact that most of these are short.
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 9 films (7 new), including two overlap with the ’30s canon (Dodsworth and Lost Horizon). I cleaned out the rest of what was on Netflix and Filmstruck, plus some DVDs that showed up in the mailbox. We saw The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, Secrets and Lies, Babel, Atonement, Captain Blood, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and the revisited I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. This project will be suspended in November and will resume in December. Remaining: 168 films (135 new).
2010s catchup: Managed to find time for the Nick Cave movie One More Time with Feeling, while a Netflix expiration sent me barreling to my favorite recent movie in a long time, the truly delightful We Are the Best!.
New movies: The Lost City of Z and (overlapped) One More Time with Feeling, and speaking of delightful, caught Get Out, and if that bit of horror wasn’t enough…
Other: …we decided to watch The Others on Halloween night. Also in this category was the Treasures from American Film Archives feature The Chechahcos. I am determined to finish that set in the next week.

Capsules follow!

***

Under the Roofs of Paris (1930, René Clair) [r]
Engaging but underwhelming silent-sound hybrid has René Clair experimenting with narrative, slipping periodically into pantomime, but the occasionally lyrical comedy about missing keys, suspicious bags and love triangles suffers from too many characters and too much plot at the expense of the ebullient, slightly melancholy feeling he conjures up in the opening and closing shots. As early talkies go it’s technically impressive and certainly vibrant, but I miss the sheer elegance of Clair’s later work as well as the surrealism of his silent shorts.

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966, Norman Jewison) [NO]
Painfully unfunny farce has fewer jokes that land than Powell & Pressburger’s similarly plotted 49th Parallel, which wasn’t a comedy. A Russian submarine lands in an idyllic oceanside community, causing very stereotyped and hacky small-town humor and much weak loudness and chaos under the Stanley Kramer-Blake Edwards theory that filling the frame with celebrities and weakly drawn characters and artificial zaniness somehow equates to high comedy. Jewison has no clue how to stage this, and it goes on forever.

Man of Aran (1934, Robert J. Flaherty) [r]
This landmark ethnofiction about hunter-gatherer inhabitants of the titular islands off the Irish coast is uncomfortable to watch knowing that so much of it is staged; Flaherty seems to quickly lose interest in a study of his subjects’ lifestyle and instead decides, somewhat incomprehensibly, that the whole movie is now about sharks and shark hunting. That said, it is visually sumptuous — nearly every shot has an almost painterly quality — and its lack of direct “acting,” as well as the unorthodox editing technique, allows it to become entertainingly abstract.

Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele) [hr]
Disarmingly witty horror film stars Daniel Kaluuya as a dude meeting the girlfriend’s parents for the first time, his nervousness compounded because they don’t yet know he’s black. Breezy and fun and tense enough that it wouldn’t necessarily need to be an interrogation of race relations, but the uneasy feeling you get from the outset is unmistakably realistic. The unnervingly minimal, Kubrickian production design renders human fears in full color, but all the while it’s the outwardly nice people too tone-deaf to realize they’re doing anything wrong who are the real threat, which in 2017 was very timely.

Secrets & Lies (1996, Mike Leigh) [r]
In this largely improvised, intimate and emotionally intense drama, a woman in London seeks out her birth family and becomes embroiled in the life of her frenetic, hypersensitive birth mother, whose family’s entire existence is ridden with uncomfortable secrets and old resentments. As usual Leigh’s actors get across some incredible depth in their characters, building to small moments and a low-key finale that are indescribably moving, but there are still limitations to Leigh’s methodology; you can’t always escape the feeling that you are watching a community theater rehearsal.

La Chienne (1931, Jean Renoir) [hr]
Renoir’s second sound film advertises its absence of a moral or point at the outset and proceeds to toss us headfirst into a bleak story of deception and vile behavior within a working-class love triangle in Paris involving an amateur painter (Michel Simon, stunting his usual persona) and a prostitute and pimp who mistake him for rich and see him as their way out. Might be the most honest narrative film ever made; it has the air of real tragedy, real life, happening to real people and demonstrates little life, poetry or irony in the cruel world we occupy. It’ll ruin your day, but it’s terribly engrossing.

Babel (2006, Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Another overlong González Iñárritu festival of everything-is-(tenuously)-connected bleakness, this time with bonus chronological cheating. Vaguely, it’s an indictment of American exceptionalism: a random, stupid act of violence against a tourist inflicts far-reaching and grim consequences as far away as Japan, sort of. Relies heavily on ludicrous worst-case scenarios and much senseless behavior on the part of its thin characters. Three of the four stories are compelling if wholly unfinished, but all of the smash cuts and cross cutting in the world can’t give them the rhythm, purpose or completeness they seek.

The Chechahcos (1924, Lewis H. Moomaw) [r]
A facile melodrama with some of the most spectacular location photography seen up to this point in a feature film, still staggering to look at even now, this is one of the first independent films of its scale to be produced during the studio era, largely created and performed by nonprofessionals in Alaska. All things considered, it’s something of a miracle, as is its survival, and it compensates for its humdrum mother-and-child separation plotline with the sights and sounds and extremity of northwestern North America, the magnificence of which would be impossible to approach on any soundstage.

Lost Horizon (1937, Frank Capra) [hr]
One of the most dreamlike Hollywood films, and among the most incisively political despite its fantastic elements. The plot is lifted from James Hilton’s novel that created the concept of Shangri-La, which in the descriptions passed through Robert Riskin’s screenplay sounds like a supernatural socialist paradise. The film’s strangeness and oddly ecstatic fervor are immediately engaging, largely thanks to the normally staid Ronald Colman’s unmistakable sincerity. Despite the flaws and mangled status, this is a deservedly legendary curiosity that gives a number of clues about the way Capra looked at people.

Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations (1938, Leni Riefenstahl) [hr]
Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty (1938, Leni Riefenstahl) [hr]
Riefenstahl’s eclectic document of the 1936 Olympics is so exciting you can’t help wishing that she (or maybe a director with similar talents and less, uh… concerning political associations) was there to film every sporting event you’ve ever had to sit through. Its shimmering cinematography, remarkably fluid and kinetic editing, and almost drunkenly beautiful awe at the wonders of the human body can’t be diluted by the years; and even though these events are now 81 years in the past, you’re at the edge of your seat through most of both films. Triumph of the Will shouldn’t be in the same sentence.

One More Time with Feeling (2016, Andrew Dominik) [r]
Emotionally fraught documentary about the creation of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ sobering 2016 album Skeleton Tree, the songs on which Cave had mostly written before his 15 year-old son’s tragic, sudden death. Dominik’s film shows how Cave carefully returned to work after this loss; without becoming exploitative or intrusive, it gives insight into how one (specifically an artist) copes with this level of grief. It also provides an intimate look at the making of a fine record, deepening one’s appreciation of the songs and how they changed after what Cave, understandably cryptic, calls “the event.”

Atonement (2007, Joe Wright)
Formally interesting, dramatically inert adaptation of a celebrated Ian McEwan novel that clumsily drums up silly English Patient-style romantic melodrama from a false rape accusation made by a child. It’s all very stuffy and kind of troubling, and the structure, which clearly means to impress in its audacity, has the ring of desperation, and it’s finally just another gooey vehicle for Keira Knightley and James McAvoy to give the exact same performances they always give.

We Are the Best! (2013, Lukas Moodysson) [hr]
Hilarious, palpably autobiographical (on the part of source material author Coco Moodysson) slice-of-life odyssey of two punk rock-addicted adolescent girls recruiting a third, a more conventional “good kid” from a religious household, for an amateur punk band and sing about how much they hate sports, during the early winter of 1982 in Stockholm. If Frank Borzage had lived to capture the experience of being a sullen, alienated teenager finding solace in headphones, it might have felt like this, so vivid and distinctive are its characters and their relationship. It’s the rare film that you wish could go on longer.

The Lost City of Z (2016, James Grey)
The distinctly James Franco-like Charlie Hunnam headlines this bleak adventure story based on the life of explorer Perry Fawcett; Robert Pattinson, looking strangely like John Lennon, is excellent as long-suffering fellow traveler Henry Costin. There are stretches when this is arresting, especially during the second trip to the Amazon that culminates in a battle of wills between Fawcett and James Murray, but the usual slick biopic trappings take over instead. There’s nothing really wrong with this film, but there isn’t much that’s memorable about it either.

Captain Blood (1935, Michael Curtiz) [r]
Well-directed, action-packed Warner Bros. vehicle for Errol Flynn wherein his charm and confidence cover up a bit for his thin capabilities as an actor. He portrays a wronged physician who turns to a life of piracy after being sold into slavery due to a misunderstanding — yeah, it’s that kind of movie, and it doesn’t attain additional credibility from its absurd love story involving pretty rich girl Olivia de Havilland, but it’s all a lot of fun, especially lively compared to the far stiffer adventure movies MGM was making around this time.

You Only Live Once (1937, Fritz Lang) [hr]
Lang’s second American film shares a cynical tone with its predecessor Fury, but finds time as well for a hard-earned romanticism that’s genuinely surprising given the source. Henry Fonda, monumental, stars as a hardened inmate finally set loose whose sole source of optimism is his relationship to his doggedly faithful wife (Sylvia Sidney). As in Fury, the story and its troubled hero back themselves into a seemingly inescapable moral corner, but what sticks most of all is how this gets across like few other films the pure recklessness of love at its headiest, most ill-advised, and most important.

The Others (2001, Alejandro Amenábar)
Politest, prettiest horror movie I have seen.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011, Stephen Daldry)
Easy to harp on the complete absence of flavor or style in this pedestrian awards-bait; equally easy to scoff at the cutesy hyper-sincerity and contrivance of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel. And there’s something faintly exploitative about the heavy use of 9/11 imagery to tell the story of a boy searching NYC for the lock to match a key he finds in his late father’s closet… but Tom Hanks is effortlessly charming as the boy’s dad, Thomas Horn credible enough as the protagonist Oskar, and the whole thing is entertaining even if maudlin and artless, and not nearly as bad as was reported at the time of its release.

***

[Additional thoughts on: Double Indemnity / I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang / Dodsworth]

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