February 2018 movie capsules

15 movies watched in February. Counts:
– 13 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,297.
– 2 revisits, one (Foreign Correspondent, slight downgrade!) previously reviewed here, another (Le Corbeau) subject of the month’s only full-length post.
– 1 new full review, a straightforward reformat of an old one: Le Corbeau.
– 13 all-new capsules below.
– Slow month for movies, stressful month in general, hoping spring will spring fully equipped with ample free time.

***

Project breakdowns:
1940s canon: 5 films (4 new). The revisit, again, was Le Corbeau. The rest: I Know Where I’m Going!; Monsieur Verdoux (finally — one of the biggest gaps for me); Christmas in July; and Quai des Orfevres. Loved them all. Remaining: 50 (35 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 4 films (4 new), I still suck but it was a short month. Saw Smilin’ Through, Our Town, In Which We Serve and Brooklyn. Unusually for this category, I at least somewhat enjoyed all of these too. Remaining: 152 films (122 new).
2010s catchup: Pretty big month here. After the Oscar nominees were announced I decided I wanted to try to go and see two more of the current BP contenders but have thus far made it to just one of them, The Post, as well as catching Dunkirk via a library DVD. Also saw Personal Shopper (yecch), mother! (hooray!) and Brooklyn (overlap with Oscar nominees).
New movies: The Post and Dunkirk also qualify here. And thirdly, I’m not as dogged in my devotion to any given director or writer anymore, but news of a new Miguel Arteta-Mike White collaboration last year had me shook, and I eventually caught up with Beatriz at Dinner… it hasn’t nearly the slow-burn impact of Chuck & Buck or The Good Girl, but it certainly has its merits, especially if you enjoy the more recent Mike White stylings of Enlightened and such.

Sorry for such a dry rundown this month. Now capsules! Capsules are fun…

***

Personal Shopper (2016, Olivier Assayas) [c]
A trashy horror-thriller disguised as arthouse fare with badly performed nonsense dialogue spewing from Kristen Stewart. There’s an endless sequence devoted to her texting someone, which might evoke title cards in silent films if the dialogue were less mundane or if anything of interest was happening onscreen during the entire half-hour. The cheapness of the ghost-hunting scenes is unworthy of everyone involved, but it seems as if Assayas, like so many others, had to get some basic-cable stupidity out of his system.

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [hr]
A charming, stupendously shot, partly comic romance completely unlike the films for which Powell & Pressburger are best known, but with the same oversized emotions and sheer awe at the possibilities of life and cinema. Wendy Hiller stars as a self-possessed, headstrong twentysomething determined to get a position for herself in the commercial world through a convenient marriage. While she’s stranded in the Scottish Hebrides due to bad weather, she finds cracks forming in her long-decided destiny. A valentine to Scotland sent by a film camera, idealized but deeply felt.

Smilin’ Through (1932, Sidney Franklin) [hr]
Surprisingly touching, intense and ironically titled pre-Code melodrama about a well-off widower who raises his niece, their relationship sunny and ideal until as an adult she falls in love with the son of his mortal enemy. It may be a little goofy and over-the-top, lacking the sleaze of Josef von Sternberg’s similarly wild tales, but the romance herein is potent thanks to the performances (in dual roles) of Norma Shearer and Fredric March, both brilliant and stunning. Shearer’s acting is so naturalistic it’s almost eerie; she elevates this potentially workmanlike studio concoction to some kind of art.

Monsieur Verdoux (1947, Charles Chaplin) [hr]
Chaplin’s infamous “black comedy” (really more of a grim, tragic horror movie) generates discomfort because his character, a former bank teller and master of disguise turned murderer, is both palpably human and a nearly complete, violent deconstruction of the Chaplin persona that had already charmed audiences for a generation. His thorough rebuking of the optimism and sweetness of his older films can be upsetting, but it also feels necessary; you only wish the dark message here was less relevant, but somehow it seems more like a movie of our time than of Chaplin’s.

The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg) [hr]
You can shoot cynical holes through this slick, middlebrow exploration of the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times and the Washington Post; it’s weird that the film is about the Post and not the Times, the casting of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks potentially puts it squarely in prestige picture hell, and it has the usual excessive hand-holding and syrup so common to Spielberg’s films. But what can you say? He’s the best there is when it comes to telling a cracking good story, and for someone who finds the subject interesting, this is as exciting as Marvel movies are to their audience.

Dunkirk (2017, Christopher Nolan) [r]
A sensory experiment of sorts, the Alfonso Cuarón version of a war film, with the less gifted Christopher Nolan tracking the titular battle from three angles but with the constant exposition of his other films nixed in favor of storytelling that’s both more visceral than you’d expect and less pure and elegant than he seems to think. Your mileage will vary on this depending on how much you feel like living through a futile moment of tragedy and destruction with this level of immediacy and neatness is a worthy cause, but there’s no doubt it’s an impressive piece of film.

Our Town (1940, Sam Wood) [r]
One of the strangest classic-era Hollywood films, which would be true by default of any faithful adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s extraordinary play. It’s eerie to watch studio stars and standards applied to the ghostly dread that overtakes in the third act, the surreal visualization of William Cameron Menzies and the awkward crescendos of Aaron Copland’s indescribable score permitting it to feel like radical art screaming out from a netherworld of commercialism. Sadly the finale negates much of the honesty and dismay of the play, underlining how much the work depends on the original sense of unresolved longing.

Christmas in July (1940, Preston Sturges) [hr]
Sturges’ second film is a hilarious, emotionally eclectic delight. A prank is played on a hard-working office joe trying to win the $25,000 slogan contest being sponsored by a rival corporation. It’s a breeze, but deep down it shows Sturges as a sort of verbose Frank Borzage — the dialogue crackles, the jokes are solid, the situations engagingly absurd, but the characters are far more believable and the sincerity far more obvious than in the average classic Hollywood comedy. As in all of his best scripts, Sturges is unable to hide the sheer joy he feels at jumping around in a world of his own making.

mother! (2017, Darren Aronofsky) [hr]
In a sort of uncredited Repulsion remake, Jennifer Lawrence is remodeling a house and laying herself bare for her Important Artist husband who fails to consider her feelings when he opens their home up to increasingly intrusive and hostile guests. Aronofsky’s films have historically been visceral and silly, but here he finds a miraculous balance here between studio slickness and the stomach-churning discomfort of Lars von Trier or Todd Solondz; some will be perturbed enough to give up this on long before it turns the corner into hysteria; others will love being toyed with by someone who can’t be trusted.

Beatriz at Dinner (2017, Miguel Arteta) [r]
Salma Hayek completely embodies (down to the awkward haircut) the title character, an alt-medicine practitioner and masseuse whose general compassion and love of animals leads to uncomfortable conversations with a Trump-like tycoon and big game hunter played by John Lithgow, a consequence of her car breaking down outside a client’s house. Misleadingly billed as a comedy itself, this in fact is vastly more serious and melancholy than the earlier Miguel Arteta-Mike White collaborations. It’s not exactly profound, and it won’t brighten your evening, but it’s got soul.

In Which We Serve (1942, Noel Coward & David Lean) [r]
Noel Coward trying to capture the camaraderie of common British soldiers feels about as awkward and stilted as you’d expect, but then again he really was a Black Book target and there’s an agreeable nonchalance to the political righteousness of this propaganda piece about a warship attacked during the 1941 Battle of Crete. There’s believable material about the war at home and at sea, delivered mostly through flashbacks; the cast is good, with Celia Johnson just as striking here as she is in Brief Encounter.

Brooklyn (2015, John Crowley) [hr]
Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel by Nick Hornby, of all people, this is a disarmingly sweet, touching dramedy in which Irish homebody Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), feeling malaise with her job and life, finds acceptance and love during a working holiday as a boarder in NYC in the early 1950s. Apart from its slightly probing exploration of what it means to form your own life away from family, this is light as a feather and might be totally innocuous if not for the sustained brilliance of Ronan’s performance, which is magnetic and takes this from polite literary prestige into the realm of tough, moving human reality.

Quai des Orfèvres (1947, Henri-Georges Clouzot) [hr]
The tense, lovingly shot, sometimes morbid but strangely symmetrical tale of a murder investigation in which the prime suspects are a singer, her jealous husband and a Midge-like compassionate onlooker, this resembles Hollywood noir more than the rest of Clouzot’s classic thrillers. The script, cowritten with Jean Ferry, is notable less for its adaptation of an overly neat story than for its impressively taut, evocative dialogue, a lot of it delivered by their splendidly cranky investigator Antoine (Louis Jouvet), who cries out for a franchise revival.

***

[Additional Letterboxd writeups: Foreign Correspondent / Le Corbeau]

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