December 2017 movie capsules

20 movies seen in December. Counts:
– 15 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,270 (count was off by one last month, no clue why).
– 5 revisits, including two (45 Years and The Lady Vanishes) already capsuled or reviewed here. 45 Years, which moved upward even more in my estimation when seen with Amber on our projector, deserves a full review but I decided to wait until next time, and I think I will be able to do a better job now that I’ve seen Weekend and once I’ve gone through the supplements on the Criterion edition of the film.
– 2 new full reviews, one I sort of planned as a nice break after the huge ’30s essay (Bugs Bunny Superstar; someday I will write a lot more about Looney Tunes, and animation in general, as it really is a thrill) and one that I didn’t plan to write at all but a friend sort of talked me into it (The Beguiled). Unusually, I have another full review finished and ready to post but since we watched the movie after midnight last night, it seems only proper to get the monthly post going first!
– 16 new capsules at the bottom of this post. I hoped for more but I was excited about the prospect of finishing my year-end music blog stuff on time for a change and concentrated on that for the past week.
– That knocked out my plans to have a short mini-project all finished in time for the end of the year, but that will be coming up very soon nevertheless, and I’ve already got everything prepared for the 1940s canon to begin within the next week to ten days. A quick plead with anyone reading this: if you have access to good copies of Cluny Brown (Lubitsch), Prison (Bergman), or The Reckless Moment (Ophuls), please point me in their direction, please and thank you.

***

Project breakdowns:
Sight & Sound Top Tens: 4 films (3 new). Holiday stuff and music blog duties kept me from wrapping this up and it’s such a relatively small undertaking that I didn’t think y’all would care. Louisiana Story and L’Avventura both had moments but didn’t quite sing out to me; Ugetsu did, though so far I prefer Mizoguchi’s earlier work. Lastly I tried Brief Encounter again and, while I’m puzzled as to how harsh my opinion was when I first saw it, it still does less for me than for seemingly almost anyone else who writes about this era of movies. Remaining: 5 films (4 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 1 film (1 new). Still on hold till January, but Stage Door was incidentally crossed off due to its placement as the last movie I watched for the ’30s project. Excited to resume this shortly, as Prime has a number of titles I’ve wanted to catch for years. Remaining: 161 films (129 new).
1930s canon: 4 films (4 new). Finished this month, as described in this post! The final stragglers, in order from best to worst, were Blonde Venus, Morocco, Stage Door and the tremendously shitty Mad Love. I also had to last-minute a couple of shorts for this, those being the classic Looney Tune Porky in Wackyland by Bob Clampett (A+ all the way) and the fascinatingly bizarre Buñuel sort-of-documentary Land Without Bread (B+), a strange mixture of tragedy and weirdly deadpan humor in the context of a Flaherty-style ethnofiction. It really should be seen at least once.
2010s catchup: Andrew Haigh’s Weekend expired from Netflix and I should have watched it years ago. Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz expired from Netflix before I could catch it so I got it through their mail service and ditto. Lore just happened to show up in the mail and it is what it is.
New movies: Relented on my no-local-cinema-screenings stance born of the shitty time we had at Moonlight earlier in 2017; at Regal we saw Lady Bird but I’m not a fan of the assigned seating at all. The recliners are nice, but because they take up more space you always end up next to someone and can’t squeeze your way to somewhere else in the room like you can at a civilized theater. Our Carmike is now an AMC, where we saw Coco, oddly because they are very hands-off (they let us sit down before the previous screening was done, like an old movie house), which might have held ominous suggestions for the projection quality but in this case everything was fine.
Other: This was really a month for putting off projects and catching up on fun stuff and the many, many DVDs I still need to make time for. Finally watched Robert Wiene’s Genuine from my Caligari DVD, a nice brief foray back into silent cinema; then, at long last, D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop feature (that set, by the way, is a great chance to feel really steeped in another time, which can be helpful right now to keep you functioning the rest of the time, though books are really as good or better); Bugs Bunny Superstar, a childhood favorite, is included on the enormous Looney Tunes set I got in October and I was thrilled to revisit it; and as a Christmas gift I got the big Magical Mystery Tour set, which for all the film’s problems was really a lot of fun.

On to capsules, now.

Mad Love (1935, Karl Freund) [c]
Given the pedigree — conservative MGM when Irving Thalberg was still breathing, master cinematographer and Mummy director Karl Freund behind the camera, and the inimitable Peter Lorre in his Hollywood debut — it’s startling how spectacularly dumb this film is, a frankly incoherent horror story about Lorre’s master surgeon and his sexual obsession with a stage actress, whose husband’s hands get crushed in a train accident and replaced by the hands of a murderer and knife-thrower. The script adapts and pointlessly complicates The Hands of Orlac, constantly introduces further baffling complications and never succeeds in making any sense.

Blonde Venus (1932, Josef von Sternberg) [hr]
In this festival of shadows and dread and sexual torment, Dietrich is a cabaret singer who marries and has a child with an American suitor of hers in Germany, who then falls ill, forcing her to find a way to scrounge up some extra cash. In time Dietrich and her husband (Herbert Marshall) will be at odds, with a surprisingly sympathetic politician played by Cary Grant coming between them, and that’s only the beginning; the story wanders down so many unexpected pathways you can either see it as schlocky or just unnervingly dark and realistic.

Morocco (1930, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
Sternberg’s third sound film is crucial for two moments alone: Marlene Dietrich’s astonishing androgynous cabaret sequence early on; and the chillingly gorgeous finale, a slow, masterfully shot solo trudge into the unknown. The story itself, based on a Benno Vigny novel, is hackneyed and over-familiar — love triangulations between Dietrich, a member of the French Foreign Legion played by a lazily gum-chewing Gary Cooper, and a millionaire played by Adolphe Menjou — but Sternberg knows just how to film it to make it burst with longing and off-kilter beauty.

Lady Bird (2017, Greta Gerwig) [hr]
Writer-director Gerwig is masterful at generating empathy for a disparate array of characters in a setting that feels truly complete and lived-in, a Catholic school in Sacramento, which allows a coming-of-age tale that could seem overly familiar to become robust and moving. Her feel for the offbeat, unbalanced rhythms of reality makes her work miraculously vivid; and it’s refreshing to see a film about a family whose economic stability isn’t at all assured from one week to the next, and to illuminate some of the class envy and embarrassment that results. Saiorse Ronan is phenomenal, feeling the title character inside out and enhancing it perfectly.

Stage Door (1937, Gregory La Cava) [r]
Despite layers and layers of verbal barbs, this is a believable and insightful slice-of-life about a group of actresses in a boarding house — neither comedy nor drama, just funny and straightforward — lit up by a refreshing number of realistic interactions between women who are treated as fully realized people. The only disruption comes from an interjection of plot, about a disputed role and a depressed actress who’s desperate for it. Despite some barriers of attitude and convention, the same film could essentially be made now, only presumably without the likes of Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball and Constance Collier.

Genuine (1920, Robert Wiene) [hr]
The copy in circulation is incomplete, but this excursion into a Wiene expressionist dream world is just as breathtaking as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and with a better, more clever framing device and the clear influence of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires to boot. It spins a bizarre tale of a temptress sold to an eccentric doctor as a slave, who then incites murder and mayhem. Bears down on the inexplicable with impressive force; the sets and costumes are among the most eye-popping of the Ufa period, which is saying a lot.

Lore (2012, Cate Shortland)
A journey across the tatters of Germany during the dying throes of World War II with a similar structure to films like Come and See and Grave of the Fireflies, only these wanderers are the children of a Nazi officer, eventually joined by an erstwhile Jewish kid who starts a strangely paternal but also volatile relationship with them. A short film full of so much dread and horror that it seems to stretch out into infinity, with the unpredictable rhythms and expanses of real life; it’s a difficult watch, and it will be tough for some audiences to see past the expectation that we empathize at least partially with these specific characters.

Louisiana Story (1948, Robert J. Flaherty) [r]
Despite lyrical shots of the bayous in southern Louisiana, this (like all of Flaherty’s docufictions) can’t live up to its visuals or the real places and lives it tries to capture; its story is truly ludicrous, about a Cajun boy’s love affair with the Standard Oil Company, who are seeking black gold on his family’s property and are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful corporation they’ve ever met in their entire lives. It’s a Centron industrial film with accidental artistry injected; as narrative it feels both goofy and — in its drab implications about the future of both the environment and American arts and entertainment — deeply ominous.

Monterey Pop (1968, D.A. Pennebaker) [r]
Pennebaker’s gang of cameras capture the Monterey Pop Festival, one of the key moments of the Summer of Love, in the process documenting an entire culture, and some of the most astounding performance footage of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar and particularly Otis Redding in existence; the other performers (the Mamas and the Papas, Country Joe & the Fish, Simon & Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Eric Burdon, the Who and Hugh Maskela) vary wildly from sublime to despicable, but the film is a vital, indispensable piece of rock & roll history regardless, especially when joined by the outtakes and supplements on Criterion’s DVD set.

Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh) [hr]
A whirlwind fling between two complex people, nothing more or less, with much that is almost imperceptibly soft or unstated altogether — and a level of knowing detail about love and sex in general, and specifically the lives of young gay men in a place like northern England, that renders it one of the best modern romance films without attempting to transform its distinctive characters into blank slates or to represent some broad generational or demographic experience. It all adds up to a work of stunning intimacy, and it’s like focusing on a specific part of a starry sky as your eyes adjust: the closer you look, the more there is to see.

Take This Waltz (2011, Sarah Polley) [hr]
Michelle Williams is a married writer in a rut, coping with a mutual awkwardness in her affable, slightly chilly relationship with her incessantly cooking husband while nursing a growing erotic attraction to a neighbor; it’s not a new story, but it is a well-observed one despite some occasional tone-deaf dialogue. The script continually trips you up with scenes so that are horrendously cringey in the most admirable way, and Polley’s directorial choices throughout her documentation of the sickeningly inevitable fissure that ensues are audacious and abrasive, full of risks, without being gimmicky or overly artificial.

Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean) [r]
(Revisit; major upgrade.) More emotionally bracing than any of Lean’s later films and just as pretty, this documents a housewife’s unexpected tryst with a doctor she happens to meet with keen observational power, helped tremendously by Celia Johnston’s stunning performance. But the characterization of her paramour (Trevor Howard) is wafer-thin, and Noel Coward’s script suffers from his usual priggishness about class, seemingly casting the storm in his heroine’s heart as some sort of morally reprehensible thing, love as “violence” and all that, and heavily implying that the cozy boredom of her day-to-day life is the right and proper thing.

L’Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [r]
A group of well-off friends take a small cruise along the Mediterranean and anchor by one of the Aeolian Islands, where a mild argument between lovers escalates with potentially tragic results. For a time we’re gripped and engrossed in the aftermath, but as the film transforms into an extremely bougie and banal love story between two rather dull people, the engagement falters even if the gobsmacking beauty, all impeccable compositions and dead-perfect horizons and locations, doesn’t. “Structure” cops suck, but it’s still hard to engage with a film that goes off on such a tangent as to become an unedited ramble free of any real story at its center.

Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
Ravishing, dreamlike monument from Mizoguchi about a man’s greedy abandonment of his wife and son during a time of war and his subsequent cavorting in the spirit world, sourced from fable-like stories by Ueda Akinari, has the deeply rooted, elemental feel of folklore being passed down directly to us. The film is pulled in many directions simultaneously, ironically given its schematic structure. Every part of it is sensorially arresting, however, and the feeling of redemption and grace at the finale, as bleak as the actual events depicted really are, is so persuasive in its maturity about love and death that it could save your life.

Magical Mystery Tour (1967, The Beatles)
(Revisit; no change. I kept my old capsule but wrote a whole bunch of new stuff at the link; resisted stretching to a full-length review but maybe I should.) Scary, funny sixty-minute thingamajig was a big flop (the Beatles’ first) when it premiered on British TV, eventually gained a huge following as a midnight movie in the United States. Like so many surreal hat tricks, this displays novel imagination for the first twenty minutes or so then grows stale aside from some knockout music video-style performances by the band (who wrote and directed this curio themselves). For Beatles fans and druggies, this is essential; others needn’t bother, as its ’60s kitsch is imbued with too much dread to appeal to campaholics.

Coco (2017, Lee Unkrich) [hr]
Exuberant tale of a guitar-lugging boy’s journey into the Land of the Dead is the best original Pixar film since Up easily: despite a few formulaic moments and some story threads that strain credibility, a wonderfully emotional and eye-popping experience, which makes so much of its environment and — in a major break with the studio’s earliest efforts — musicality. Despite the grab-bag liberties being taken at times with the Mexican culture depicted, it’s refreshing that a mainstream American movie is so casually willing to be this purely, unapologetically strange.

***

Additional Letterboxd notes on: 45 Years / The Lady Vanishes / Bugs Bunny Superstar / The Beguiled

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