January 2018 movie capsules

19 movies seen in January. Counts:
– 14 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,284.
– 5 revisits, including one (Rebecca, highly appropriate since we saw Phantom Thread later in the month) already reviewed here, plus another (L’Atalante) upgraded from a capsule to a full essay. The others were ether newly capsuled (To Have and Have Not and The Magnificent Ambersons) or given a full review (The Red Shoes).
– 2 new full reviews, for a couple of magic titles: L’Atalante and The Red Shoes.
– 16 new capsules at the bottom of this post.
– Didn’t finish everything I wanted to, but still, a great month of cinema.
– Oscar season is upon us but I won’t be adding the nominees to the page for the current project just yet, though I do intend to see a few more before the awards are handed out. Speaking of the projects page, I forgot to add the 1940s canon a couple of weeks ago; it should be up by the time you read this.

***

Project breakdowns:
Sight & Sound Top Tens: 5 films (4 new). All done; you can read about it here. Finished up with both parts of Ivan the Terrible, La Terra Trema, Pather Panchali (all of the aforementioned via Filmstruck) and a long-needed revisit to The Magnificent Ambersons, which — as expected — I badly underrated back in 2005.
1940s canon: 5 films (3 new). Got a late start unfortunately. We begin this project with 58 films to watch, 42 of them new to the database, Already tearing through the Filmstruck offerings for this one. Came back to To Have and Have Not and found that I felt almost exactly the same way about it as I did originally, which is a nice change. Showed The Red Shoes to Amber, tried and failed to capture its magic and flaws in a revision of my original review, but I don’t think I’m even capable. Got a few classics from world auteurs under the belt: Day of Wrath, The Southerner and Late Spring, all nuanced and surprising. Remaining: 53 films (39 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 5 films (3 new). Finally back to work, and cheating already. The Magnificent Ambersons overlaps with both Sight & Sound and the 1940s list (though not included in the initial count for the latter), while The Red Shoes is an overlap with the latter. But aside from that: caught up with some ’30s stragglers — The Front Page, A Farewell to Arms, Lady for a Day, all interesting and in the last case, very good. Remaining: 156 films (126 new).
2010s catchup: Bolted out to see Phantom Thread, my current favorite film of 2017 (I haven’t seen many); Paul Thomas Anderson is now one of my favorite directors of all time, which is hilarious given how much I hated him through most of my young adulthood. Netflix sent me Neighboring Sounds, a big disappointment. And a streaming expiration forced me to endure We Need to Talk About Kevin, an experience I did not enjoy, but I have to admit I ended up admiring the film. (This is unusual for me; I tend to correlate enjoyment almost directly with admiration. Even with something like The Pianist, “enjoy” may not be the word, but I’m fully swept in and appreciative of its narrative, and I would watch it most anytime. I constantly wanted Kevin to end.)
New movies: Just Phantom Thread. Of the Best Picture nominees, I’ve already seen that, Get Out and Lady Bird (all exquisite!) and plan on attending an actual movie theater to actually watch Call Me by Your Name and The Post (old habits die hard, and knowing me I’ll eat it up). Dunkirk is sitting waiting for me to watch. The others I’m not in any rush to see, though the nominees project will dictate that I do so before too long, just not theatrically. (And if, heaven forbid, one of them wins Best Picture, I will almost definitely go, so don’t worry.)
Other: Of the extras in the Monterey Pop boxed set (see last month’s capsules), one counts as an actual feature: Jimi Plays Monterey. Reviewing that is an awkward line to toe for me; I am blown away by Hendrix’s talent but have never cared much for his music, at least that which he recorded in the studio. Shake! Otis at Monterey is more my speed but, alas, doesn’t count for this blog.

Here be capsules.

***

Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944, Sergei Eisenstein) [r]
Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958, Sergei Eisenstein) [hr]
The bombast and nationalistic glory of Eisenstein’s silent films are fused here with some covert rebelliousness and a bit of dry humor, with the director rapidly running through the Tsar’s coronation, marriage, illness, resurrection, abdication and popular triumph in the first half, then into decadence, scandal, camp and live-action Bosch paintings in the second. Almost every shot is inherently exciting; few black & white films capture actors’ eyes with such perverse intensity. Nikolay Cherkasov gives essentially the same performance as in Alexander Nevsky, but that’s not really a criticism since it’s clearly what both roles require.

La Terra Trema (1948, Luchino Visconti) [r]
Two and a half hours of unaugmented, nearly artless despair, revolving around poor fishermen in Sicily and what happens when one man tries to buck the capitalist system oppressing him and his family. Respect for the non-professional actors, solidarity with the plight of the working people, but there’s something patronizing, even exploitative, in how maudlin and one-dimensional this is, like a sincere version of Buñuel’s Land Without Bread. Aldo Graziati’s cinematography is a miracle; all of the gravity and sense of life here comes from his camera, and it’s incredible to imagine what a shock to the senses this must have been at the time.

Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray) [hr]
Like the Italian neorealists and some of the more humane Hollywood directors (Wyler, Borzage, Capra), Ray takes the everyday lives of people seriously, and treats them as inherently dramatic and interesting, in this genuinely beautiful, sensitive, poetic story of a poor Indian family not getting by, the young son Apu (Subir Banerjee) quietly bearing witness to tragedy and poetry, which is everywhere, but with no sense of beautification of poverty. The characters are universally deep and well-drawn; Apu is less an Antoine Doinel than an audience vessel through which the curiosities, sadnesses, fears, weird unexpected miracles of life come careening toward us.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) [hr]
(Revisit; upgrade.) Despite the inevitable handicaps — that this is only two thirds of what Welles filmed, and that it cannot shoulder the burden of being the follow-up to Citizen Kane — this is almost unique among Hollywood studio pictures, its bizarre union of three-dimensional believability and cartoonish unreality well matched by the clash of romantic nostalgia and extremely subtle Gothic terror recast as social comment in Welles’ adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel. The sprawling and sordid narrative essentially tries to form the bitter, love-starved yearning of the childhood memories in Kane into an entire feature. It nearly succeeds.

Neighboring Sounds (2012, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Lively, character-filled drama about how the occupants of a neighborhood of condominiums in Brazil react when a security team is hired for their street. It’s quite engaging, but doesn’t justify its own attention to detail and constant straying and meandering; there’s simply no excuse for a film with its ultimately simple structure to be as long as it is. It’s caught halfway between having a plot and ignoring the idea of having one, so all roads lead to nowhere — it’s like an Antonioni film, only ugly.

Jimi Plays Monterey (1986, D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus) [r]
Jimi Hendrix is limited to one song in Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, but the rest of his performance at the festival could easily have squeezed into that feature and would likely have enhanced it. It was finally edited together and released as its own film nineteen years after the legendary weekend itself. The set includes songs from the Experience’s first album but is dominated by covers, most movingly of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Pennebaker and Hegedus bring us fuller picture here of Hendrix as a musician and human: relaxed but committed, feeding off the audience and their energy.

Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [hr]
A 16th century study of the eggshells-walking that endures when living under oppression, or a subtle horror scenario about witchcraft — Dreyer gives us just enough of a compelling, haunting narrative here that it can become either story, each with the same strange sense of dread, erotic charge and often terrifying extremity. It is so gripping that you have to remind yourself to take a breath; the prologue about the execution of a “witch” portrayed by Anna Svierkier is the stuff of harrowing nightmares, yet you can also comprehend an interpretation in which this is among the most romantic films of all. It’s the cinema of empathy, of incompatible empathies.

Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson) [hr]
A chamber piece about the House of Woodcock, where a dress designer (Daniel Day-Lewis) maintains a carefully cultivated, oppressive kind of order over the two women (a sister and a lover) living there with him. Like the Hitchcock films it looks upon as inspiration, this is more complex than a morally righteous Gaslight; it’s about a duel of control between an impassioned artist with troubled-genius syndrome and a woman whose potential power over him is greater, and more enticing, than he could ever have imagined. The film looks and sounds beautifully, sumptuously old and “classic”… but it’s also kinky pornography and uproarious comedy.

The Front Page (1931, Lewis Milestone) [r]
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s wildly fast-paced newspaper comedy-drama about the 24 hours straddling an expected execution served as the source material for His Girl Friday, but first it was this unusual hybrid of proto-screwball and display of gritty pre-Code machismo. Some of the dialogue is stilted and the character relationships seem less believable than those in the larger-than-life Hawks variation, the script more tied to its time with talk about red-baiting and “the colored vote.” The most fascinating thing here is Milestone’s direction, which repeatedly employs an agility in the camera that feels like a vestige from the silent years.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay) [r]
This decades-late Problem Child sequel is almost oppressively uncomfortable and tense, following Tilda Swinton as the beleaguered mother of a boy (Ezra Miller, a terrifying blank slate) who seems to be a psychopath. It’s a miserable thing to watch, with few redemptive moments even implied — Swinton’s Eva is absolutely and fully alone, with her husband (John C. Reilly) somehow oblivious to their son’s alarming behavior — but it’s a far more persuasive portrait of violent adolescence than Gus van Sant’s Elephant.

To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) Not exactly the poor man’s Casablanca — too well-written, and with an even better director — but a conscious variant on the formula whose atmosphere could sustain you for days if the hackneyed story didn’t have to take over.. Humphrey Bogart is even more apathetic here, driven by often obscure personal motives, and his relationship with Lauren Bacall is much more blatantly sexual and hedonistic. Their chemistry is astounding, as you’d expect, and completely overtakes the film, and Bacall provides most of the moments that ignite, especially her saunter toward the camera and the smile that follows in the final moments.

A Farewell to Arms (1932, Frank Borzage) [r]
Robbed of Hemingway’s mulling of the nature of war, this is purely a tearjerker about a military couple (Gary Cooper, never better, and Helen Hayes) separated determinedly by malicious outsiders then by illness during WWI; but if you’re making that movie and you want people to genuinely believe in it, the person you bring onboard is Borzage. There are some serious lapses in emotional credibility here, but when Borzage turns his camera on what he perceives as the behavior of couples, magic happens. Most literary adaptations are creaky and dull; in this one, the cracks that form and widen are where all the intriguing stuff hides.

The Southerner (1945, Jean Renoir) [r]
Renoir’s third American film is a much more successful variant on Louisiana Story, boasting that film’s undiluted glimpses of beauty and humanity with none of its aggressive corporate lobbying. It focuses on an impoverished family attempting to get a foothold in farming on an aged-out piece of property in Texas. Renoir and the cast resist melodrama, crafting a story in which small changes accumulate and attain emotional heft; the film’s realistic portrait of family life calls ahead to The River; yet the chief attraction here is Lucien Androit’s photography, helping Renoir capture this expansive world irresistibly.

Lady for a Day (1933, Frank Capra) [hr]
Capra’s at his most enchanting as he guides us through Robert Riskin’s script about an elderly apple vendor’s act of compassionate deception, keeping up a charade that she’s well-off for her daughter’s sake, with the help of some gangsters from NYC’s seamy underbelly. Despite several moving scenes, this is a robust comedy that defies the logic that everyone in a story like this must come clean, fall in love, learn a lesson. Instead it’s just a beautiful moment with constant amusing convolutions, lovingly shot by Joseph Walker. The only drawback is that the splendidly unorthodox star May Robson as Apple Annie has less screen time in the second half.

Late Spring (1949, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
Ozu tells stories about small gestures that represent huge emotions; what actually happens in Late Spring could be laid out in a short sentence, but the depth and detail and complexity in every character, every scene, continue unraveling through the time between viewings. Cultural distance from the father and daughter (Chishū Ryū and Setsuko Hara) in postwar Japan attempting to negotiate an overdue separation neither of them truly wants is irrelevant when confronted with the nuanced realities of inner lives and familial and platonic relationships explored and felt out here. Let it take you away and let its unforced feelings chase your own.

***

[Additional Letterboxd notes on: L’Atalante / Rebecca / The Red Shoes]

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