March 2018 movie capsules
16 movies watched in March. Counts:
– 11 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,308.
– 5 revisits, including one (Suspicion) previously reviewed here (though it’s moved up a good deal in my estimation since then, to my surprise), plus a few for the 1940s project: two Preston Sturges classics (The Lady Eve and Unfaithfully Yours) and a Cocteau film school staple (Beauty and the Beast), then a long-ago Best Picture nominee (Apollo 13).
– Only 1 new full review again, and again not an actual new piece of writing I’m afraid, for The Lady Eve. I promise I still care.
– 14 new or revised capsules, all below.
– I was sidelined a few times this month by my music blog, with beginning-of-year overload kind of taking a lot of energy and my not wanting to get stuck in another lag over there. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by how close I came to keeping quota on movies, though again I’ve been writing a lot less here for some reason; a lot of the Letterboxd reviews, especially those for this year’s Oscar nominees, are quite extensive, just not as formal as the stuff I’d be willing to present here. Also later putting up the monthly post than ever before, sorry about that.
– Oscar catchup: Restored balance in the world by seeing the winners in the categories I’ve worked through already, so no one can remove my pointless boast of having seen every major Oscar recipient. In that spirit: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (actress and supporting actor), I, Tonya (supporting actress), The Shape of Water (picture and director), Call Me by Your Name (screenplay) and Darkest Hour (actor).
– 1940s canon: 6 films (3 new). The new titles to me were To Be or Not to Be, Cat People and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; I was disappointed in the last one but loved the others. The reruns were Unfaithfully Yours (still not a big fan), Beauty and the Beast (still enchanted, if at a slight distance) and The Lady Eve (still one of the all-time greats). Remaining: 42 films (32 new).
– Best Picture Oscar nominees: 6 films (5 new). By and large these were overlaps with Oscar catchup, but I also saw the outstanding silent ethnograph Chang and the unexpectedly brilliant In the Bedroom (that any other film nominated netted the big prize that year baffles me), and rewatched Apollo 13 finally. Remaining: 153 films (124 new).
– 2010s catchup: Overlaps with other things above with the exception of the Safdies’ Good Time.
– New movies: ibid.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, Martin McDonagh) [NO]
McDonagh’s smug, condescending portrait of middle America inspires unpleasant memories of Crash, daring you to endure some of the most abysmal dialogue ever heard in a motion picture. Using a past assault and murder as a prop to justify an endless parade of aimlessly bad behavior, the film tracks a lot of fuss about the titular artifacts, three roadside adverts by the victim’s mother (Frances McDormand) shaming the town sheriff (Woody Harrelson) for his failure to make any arrests. A glorified school play so incomprehensible in its plotting, characterization and tone that it doesn’t even seem to know what it’s trying to accomplish.
To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
The political, the personal and the farcical mingling with unforced grace, with Carole Lombard luminous and Jack Benny an amusingly lopsided ham as a Polish theatrical couple, half of whom likes to step around, which gets them tangled up with the Gestapo after Hitler invades. The plotting is masterful, withholding just enough information to continually delight in its unexpected turnarounds and one-ups, never permitting an easy shortcut out of its uncomfortable, hilarious situations; at the same time the film is to be commended for making the Nazis look extremely foolish and advocating a violent, fiery resistance against fascism.
Apollo 13 (1995, Ron Howard)
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Because of its mostly accurate technical rundown of the titular near-disaster, Howard’s adaptation of Jim Lovell’s dry but superior book Lost Moon has its merit for space buffs. It’s all rather generic, despite competent direction and reasonably good performances by everyone in the cast, shooting for excitement but mostly telling you things are intense, with heavy use of media clips to sell the urgency, rather than finding any inventive way to make you feel it. And once it’s over, despite its lofty statements about longing for the U.S. to return to the Moon, you don’t really feel affected by any of it.
Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges) [r]
(Revisit; no change.) Sturges’ lyrical, extremely dark comedy about a well-to-do musical conductor (Rex Harrison) who discovers that his wife may be cheating and, during a concert, indulges in fantasies about humiliating and killing her is surprisingly sadistic; given how out of character it is for Sturges, it seems like a case of actor mismatched to material. Harrison has little feel for comedy, lumbering through a tone-deaf performance as a complete asshole, so the primary effect of the violent scenarios he concocts — ingeniously scored to classical music, implying that deep down Sturges really wanted to make a thriller — is just shifty discomfort.
Chang (1927, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack) [hr]
Disregarding its legitimacy as a documentary, the fact that this footage of Thailand farmers fighting for their home even exists is miraculous, and that its directors are able to fashion these endlessly galvanizing shots of treachery, wildlife, action, destruction into a coherent, compelling story is the kind of audacity that you can’t help admiring for all their questionable ethics. The aesthetic pleasures and wildlife “performances” found here are unmatched even now, because for anyone else to be as bold as this duo is not merely unlikely but deeply inadvisable. One of the most exciting of all silent films.
Good Time (2017, Ben & Josh Safdie) [hr]
What makes this frantic, unstoppably propulsive account of two brothers botching a bank robbery and the domino effect that results such an effective classicist thriller is that it adheres to the idea of traditional structure while constantly upending it. There’s no indication in its first ten minutes of what sort of movie it’s going to turn into, and you’re never relaxed enough to predict the next crazed move it makes — it’s a curving road with an endless series of detours. Even as its bastard of a hero (Robert Pattinson) grows ever more frustrated and stymied, your own satisfaction mounts because the tension is so exhilarating.
Beauty and the Beast (1946, Jean Cocteau) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) A movie that grows more enrapturing in the mind than it could ever be on screen — looking back on it, you wonder how many of its scenes (the introductions of the castle, the flying, the particularly drunken wanderings of the characters) could really exist as tangible pieces of film; at times it’s among the most intoxicating of all narrative films, but it plays its fanciful cards sparingly. The indelible final shot is the most elegant possible rebuke to every advancement in visual effects technology made in the last seventy-odd years.
In the Bedroom (2001, Todd Field) [hr]
A story as unstructured and unpredictable as life itself, starting with a teenager whose affair with an older woman is met with mild consternation by his parents and much worse by the girlfriend’s former husband. What we’re treated with is a powerhouse showcase for actors (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, both so inspired it makes many more amply rewarded screen marriages look extremely goofy) not because it affords them any opportunity to chew scenery or to assert themselves loudly but because the script’s constantly flowing stream of real, yet unfathomably tragic, life is so rich, well-judged, built to be imparted beautifully by their subtle understatement.
I, Tonya (2017, Craig Gillespie) [hr]
Hyperkinetic approach to the 1994 spat between figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding that took the nation and the sexist media by storm captures the frenetic nature of media in those and these times. Gillespie walks a tightrope in fashioning the lives of real people, victims and abusers alike, into something genuinely gripping even as you wonder if it should be. Allison Janney’s depiction of an embittered parent is frightening in its vividness; and the camera’s agility during the skating scenes, performed by Margot Robbie herself in the title role, underscores how Harding’s chosen sport is the only opportunity she has to escape into herself.
Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur) [hr]
An outrageously silly story somehow molded into compelling, unnerving cinema, as though someone handed Tourneur the wackiest concept they could think of (newlyweds suffer emotional distance and a freeze in physical contact because the bride thinks she’s a cat) and dared him to turn it into a serious picture. The unexplained tension and foreboding mount breathlessly all through the story, prodded along by fine performances and cinematography; the rationale behind it all hits you afterward and you’re alarmed and thrilled at the wool pulled over your eyes, and for the opportunity given to explore a doomed young marriage in unusually blunt terms.
The Shape of Water (2017, Guillermo del Toro) [c]
Fish sex is the least of the problems with this handsome but insipid Oscar winner, a Cold War story with the fine Sally Hawkins as a lonely mute woman whose attachment to a large amphibian being kept top-secret on a military base becomes a big exercise in phony, cornball compassion, overly reliant on lousy, one-dimensional writing and the hokey use of a lazily evil villain played by Michael Shannon. It’s meant to be a “fairy tale” but fails to probe at such conventions in any meaningful way, and its stroke of sentimentalism is deadly. (There’s even a shot of the monster in a the movie theater, in case you wanted it to be Cinema Paradiso!)
Call Me by Your Name (2017, Luca Guadagnino) [r]
Coming-of-age story about a passionate, lustful summer between a teenage boy and an older male student boasts strong performances by Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, compensating for somewhat underwritten roles. It’s all rather bougie, and leans too much on dialogue to explain its characters’ emotions rather than really delving into the evolution of their mutual attraction. But it does get something right about the dreamlike enormity and heaviness of a short-lived whirlwind romance, particularly in terms of the way such a sweeping event leaves a person reeling, and how the rest of the world gets cast for however long (maybe forever) in its shadow.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [r]
Decades-spanning chronicle of a gregarious but egotistical British officer (Roger Livesey), his professional experiences and romances and gradual decline, its epic sweep harnessed apparently to boost morale at home. The colors pop, and Deborah Kerr is good in all three of her roles and great in the one that casts her as a brassy army driver, but after nearly three hours, the episodic story feels insubstantial, and our “hero” may be the least interesting and most farcical character in the film, especially in comparison to Anton Walbrook as his lifelong friend, a German he injures in a duel early on whose allegiances are intriguingly mixed.
Darkest Hour (2017, Joe Wright)
Another of Wright’s bland prestige pictures for the PBS set, this Gary Oldman vehicle, caking him with makeup to play Winston Churchill in his first month as Prime Minister, isn’t terribly boring but does pretty much exactly what you expect with the material, and it feels like we’ve watched this movie hundreds of times by now, even if it looks slightly nicer than usual in Wright’s hands. And I suppose the film fancies itself a nuanced view of Churchill as icon and folk hero and “troubled” leader but his actual flaws went a hell of a long way beyond yelling at typists.