Capsule digest #1

I came to the conclusion recently that my regular monthly counts and project breakdowns weren’t serving much real prolonged purpose here, since you can check the full rundown of what I’m working on above on the PROJECTS tab if you’re interested, and the posts I make upon completing each initiative are enough information to release to the public. It isn’t really relevant anyway to the larger purpose of the blog since the point is just to see and write up movies, and the “projects” themselves are nothing more than enjoyable ways of organizing that for me. The practical purpose these regular updates do have is to let anyone who likes and uses the Movie Guide to see the new capsules that have been added in the latest update without rooting through to track them down. For the moment, I’ve decided I will wait until I have thirty new caps to add and will present them here as before, with Letterboxd links where applicable. This also removes the time-stamped pressure for me and keeps me from boring you with a slim post if I have a slow month.

Other films seen: I will continue to track these just to monitor inconsistencies between here and Letterboxd. This will mostly consist of films I’ve already reviewed here, usually in full. Ex Machina (capsuled last year) was seen again but I had nothing new to say about it (yet). Inspired by our vacation to California, which included a stop in Bodega Bay, I rewatched but chose not to review The Birds, which will receive a full review here in the future — I didn’t want to disturb the loose Hitchcock narrative we have going by throwing in such a late title. Speaking of said narrative, I also revisited Shadow of a Doubt –already reviewed in full here — and added a few thoughts on Letterboxd. I did the same upon fulfilling a lifelong dream of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in large format, on the local IMAX screen; I reflected a little more on that experience at my other blog. Lastly, I screened an alternate version of Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (described here) but chose not to count it as a separate film.

Full reviews this cycle: I’m not reproducing capsules for these in this post since as I see it there’s not much point, but those for Lifeboat (short Letterboxd entry here), Laura (Letterboxd entry) and Spellbound (Letterboxd entry) will be updated when I add the new ones later tonight; and Paisan (Letterboxd entry) will be newly added to the Guide.

Thirty-one new capsules follow; their text is usually but not always compressed from the linked Letterboxd review. The only differences between the versions in these posts and those I add to the guide are that the LB links are removed and I also delete any opening note about grade changes for films I’ve seen before.

***

Les Misérables (1935, Richard Boleslawski) [r]
The two reasons to see this narratively breezy, heavily simplified version of the Hugo novel are the casting — with Charles Laughton a brilliantly understated Jalvert, Fredric March uneven but engaging as Valjean — and the often lovely cinematography from none other than Gregg Toland. As in so many adaptations of this text, the coherence and excitement fades with the move into the chaotic third act, and Boleslawski doesn’t do anything especially interesting with the source.

Isle of Dogs (2018, Wes Anderson) [hr]
Anderson’s affectionate valentine to both the domesticated dog and to Japanese cinema is exuberant and fun, silly without being frivolous, and as visually sumptuous as any animated film ever made — even if the character work shows the usual limitations of stop motion. By some distance, a stronger post-apocalyptic kiddie fable than WALL-E.

The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker) [r]
The title alludes to the original code name for Walt Disney World, and crudely, to the makeshift co-opting of motels along the Kissimmee highway as a cruel haven for impoverished families. Baker’s film tries to illuminate one such single mother and child and their haphazard circle, and often succeeds at rendering their world in three dimensions, but he’s more comfortable with the perspective and inner life of children than adults, save a long-suffering motel super modeled beautifully by a low-key Willem Dafoe. And as the tension amps up following an accidental act of arson, the film becomes more a source of stress and panic than of any deep insight.

Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carné) [r]
Handsomely photographed, sprawling treatise on the love lives of a few members and acquaintances of a thrifty pantomime troupe in early nineteenth century Paris is much more frivolous and soapy than implied by its reputation. The intricate story pans outward from a sad-eyed courtesan (Arletty) and her ragtag collection of suitors, highlighted by Jean-Louis Barrault’s electrifying performance as the mime Baptiste. Carné’s treatment of haphazard matters of the heart as important enough to warrant three hours of detailed absorption and yet simultaneously as pointless nonsense worthy of derisive laughter is oddly cynical.

The Robe (1953, Henry Koster) [c]
Atrociously acted dress rehearsal for Ben-Hur is slick enough and serves mostly as a showcase as the first narrative film in the new Cinemascope process; its main claim to fame therefore is initiating the move toward widescreen formats in Hollywood, though the splashes of Renaissance-like Technicolor manage at times to distract from the insipid, dull story, performances and direction (which really does nothing inspired with the extra horizontal space).

A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [hr]
This may be Powell & Pressburger’s loftiest, most romantic film of all, yet its colorful, lyrical enormity is fully justified by the genuine emotional content of the story about an RAF pilot (David Niven) who seemingly survives a great fall without a parachute, during which he falls in love with a radio operator (Kim Hunter) and begins to have visions of the afterlife attempting to recruit him. Made ostensibly to assist the relationship between allies in the war effort, but really a purely invigorating film about love’s elemental power over the universe; you needn’t interpret the story as a religious one to find it inexpressibly moving.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954, Stanley Donen)
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Oh for a simpler time when we could just tie up, blindfold, and kidnap the women we wanted, all with the dandiest of choreography.

Germany Year Zero (1948, Roberto Rossellini) [hr]
Shot on location in bombed-out Berlin without a completed script, this brief nightmare tells the harrowing story of a put-upon young boy attempting to help his ailing family muddle through the aftermath of the war. There’s no purity to encounter in this world, not even the hollow and sentimental kind seen in a number of other Neorealist classics, with all familiar totems of day to day life turned into variations of threat, death and loneliness. It’s extremely heavy, but its toughness as a portrait of the long-term violence of war feels like a necessary angle seldom explored in WWII films, particularly not from within any of the involved nations.

The Ten Commandments (1956, Cecil B. DeMille)
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Campy, sexualized Biblical epic is overblown in the usual DeMille fashion, and chances are that you’ve already seen its signature moment (the parting of the Red Sea), so unless you have a great fetish for fine actors lowering themselves to big dumb spectacle and you’ve run out of Marvel movies to watch…

A Ghost Story (2017, David Lowery) [c]
Vapid nonsense from the director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in which Casey Affleck dies then wanders enigmatically around his house covered by a sheet, watching his former wife Rooney Mara eat pie at great length, making mischief for future families, and eventually suffering the indignity of listening to Will Oldham rant about humanity. I can’t imagine what it must be like to get something out of this but I’m happy for you if you do.

Christine (2016, Antonio Campas) [hr]
Dramatization of the final months of Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota local news reporter who shot herself on the air in 1974, doesn’t reduce a real-life tragedy to mere gawking entertainment — instead it humanizes it, expands upon it, allows us to reclassify it as an aspect of the world as we all experience it. In the hands of director Campos and actress Rebecca Hall, Chubbuck becomes a three-dimensional embodiment of stymied hopes and flawed social impulses that will be familiar, second-hand if nothing else, to nearly everyone watching. A fascinating look at both a woman and a time on the precipice of agonizing defeat.

The Alamo (1960, John Wayne) [c]
(Revisit; no change.) An overbearing behemoth, but watchable.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935, William Dieterle & Max Reinhardt) [r]
Often sumptuous visualization of Shakespeare, as staged originally by Max Reinhardt at the Hollywood Bowl in 1934; at its best — during the forest ballet scenes — it’s a truly dreamlike, enchanting experience, even if it isn’t wholly successful at telling the actual story. Unfortunately the portions that do rely on dialogue are cut at the knees by casting; the only thing more embarrassing than Dick Powell stumbling through Lysander is the completely inexplicable performance of Mickey Rooney as Puck, one of the most annoying bouts of “acting” ever put on film. The noises he makes to “enhance” the performance are sheer screeching torture.

Women of the Night (1948, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
Mizoguchi’s bleak nod to Italian neorealism is miraculously fluid and riveting. Kinuyo Tanaka and Sanae Takasugi are excellent as sisters coping with post-WWII poverty in the seedy areas of Osaka; after death and disease plague them, they are forced to turn to illicit means, and later the streets, for survival. With the usual breathtaking long takes as well as painstakingly realistic but engrossing uses of focus, space and sparingly agile camera movements, it’s a feast for the senses despite its intense despair and squalor… and Mizoguchi’s empathy seems more genuine than De Sica’s or even Rossellini’s.

The Guns of Navarone (1961, J. Lee Thompson) [r]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) Allied commandos attempt to infiltrate a rock-solid German fortress during the height of the war. Despite some stiffness and overlength, a solid action movie with a pretty well-defined cast of characters (their uneasy camaraderie is put across well by the actors, especially David Niven), some exceptionally well-mounted setpieces, and a somewhat shockingly blasé attitude toward the bloodshed of war. This last element is a welcome change from the status quo in WWII movies even now: we see Germans being executed in quite lurid and unpleasant ways, robbing us of the usual visceral thrill of bloodless patriotic movie-killing.

Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
Simple, funny, touching chronicle of a neighborhood of surly adults’ response to a war orphan’s appearance in their neighborhood, focusing mostly on Chōko Iida as a widow and tinkerer whose open disdain after being stuck taking care of the boy is the uneasy prelude to a reluctant respect and affection. The material could easily become goopy and sentimental; but Ozu’s calm, slow approach allows it to come across as real life, subtly encouraging an embrace of the children whose lives were left broken by the war without judging any of its characters for the one-day-at-a-time routines in which they mire themselves.

The Music Man (1962, Morton DaCosta) [NO]
(Revisit; no change.) Intolerably trite, fake “Americana” about a con artist who invades a small town, or rather, the Hollywood/Broadway vision of what small towns are like. At least Leave It to Beaver didn’t have a bunch of shitty songs.

A Quiet Place (2018, John Krasinski) [r]
Well-directed and economical horror silliness from the beloved sitcom star about a family terrorized by monsters who attack if they hear a single solitary sound. This is an opportunity for something that at least shoots for classic Pure Cinema ideals, since it depends on something besides dialogue; and as goofy as the story itself is, it does lead into some fun setpieces closer to thriller than horror that offset some of the dramatic clichés about the Importance of Family.

Baby Driver (2017, Edgar Wright) [r]
Ahem, plot hole: driving with earbuds is against the law.

Cleopatra (1963, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) One of the all-time Weird Hollywood monuments, this entirely ridiculous four-hour “epic” flop was big trouble for 20th Century Fox and the industry in general, fast becoming a great American joke. Elizabeth Taylor is… Elizabeth Taylor in the title role, most everyone else is there just to read goofy lines and pretend this is all very serious, and director Mankiewicz has no clue what he wants to say, nor does he care. It’s amazing that this wasn’t the result of somebody’s cocaine binge. Decadent, expensive, half-assed and insanely long.

Jour de Fête (1949, Jacques Tati) [hr]
Simultaneously fanciful and totally natural, Tati’s first film is a wonderfully earthy comedy about a small-town celebration in a French village intertwining with the mishaps of a barely-competent, eccentric bicycle-riding mailman and his many inept, drunken stunts, which intensify after he’s exposed to a hilariously overblown industrial film promoting the agility and physical prowess of American postal workers. It’s silly fun, but also quietly lyrical, subtly betraying a sensitivity to which it won’t fully confess.

The Sundowners (1960, Fred Zinnemann) [c]
Tiresome, one-dimensional, well-photographed “epic” drama of a nomadic sheep-shearing family in Australia and their inept attempts at settling down, dramatized through a whole procession of wildly bad decisions. The various animals depicted along the way provide more entertainment and charm than the bloated human narrative; a steely Deborah Kerr tries to rein in Robert Mitchum’s wheezing excess but fails. Though it’s not a comedy, it’s the kind of film in which a mass fistfight is viewed as both automatically funny and as an ideal form of communication. The climax dealing with a horse and some bad financial planning is really kind of infuriating.

The Little Foxes (1941, William Wyler) [hr]
Sparks fly in Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of her own play, a not-so-covert attack on capitalist cronies and their dependence of cheap labor in the form of a heated-up family drama wherein three money-grubbing siblings take their spouses and children for a ride that leaves moral destruction in its wake. The script doesn’t shy away from still-incisive class commentary even if it’s unable to give its more underprivileged characters much of a voice; for all the ample wit and insight here, most of the fun comes out of the squabbling, which gets at a real sense of how toxic families operate.

Five Star Final (1931, Mervyn LeRoy) [hr]
An incendiary screed against yellow journalism, though it does stack the decks a bit ridiculously, this seems set to be a fun His Girl Friday-style look at the bed-hopping and corporate intrigue across several floors of a tabloid paper whose bigwigs want higher circulation numbers, but the humor cuts out after half an hour. Edward G. Robinson snarls thrillingly as a morally conflicted editor getting pushed in multiple directions as he uses dirty tricks to wreck the lives of a family whose matriarch long ago murdered her rapist and has lived in relative anonymity up to now. If you admire the deep-rooted cynicism of Ace in the Hole, see this next.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929, Charles Reisner)
Stilted, creaky early MGM talkie is a story-free collection of vignettes; most of their stable of stars come out to perform in little skits that are mostly stiff, with boring flat set design not helped by the pair of two-strip Technicolor scenes.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017, Yorgos Lanthimos) [r]
Lanthimos’ skewed look at modern dating in The Lobster is now joined by his take on parenthood, with Colin Farrell leading a deliberately frozen, awkward cast as a doctor whose attempts to make amends for a botched surgery have put a curse upon his family. Funny and uncomfortable, though a lot of its story threads feel like dead ends. Barry Keoghan is perfect as the world’s most unsettlingly mundane supervillain.

Paradise: Love (2012, Ulrich Seidl) [c]
The exploitation travels freely in both directions when a middle-aged white woman from Austria makes her way to Kenya for a sex-tourism vacation and gets incessantly hoodwinked while staying at a hideously gaudy Euro resort, where the shenanigans eventually harden her. Well-directed and acted but repetitive, smug and pointless.

Utamaro and His Five Women (1946, Kenji Mizoguchi) [r]
Made early in the American occupation of Japan, this is a reverent but largely fictional exploration of 18th century Japanese artist and woodblock printmaker Kitagawa Utamaro, whose titular “five women” aren’t actually “his” but are just various models and acquaintances swirling around him, and the story is so dominated by the community of hangers-on in Utamaro’s orbit that there are only a few scenes dedicated to his work and methodology, yet plenty of time for bickering over tangentially related sex lives. It’s a more lustful narrative than usual for Mizoguchi, which isn’t a problem, but the overwhelming number of characters and subplots is.

The Sand Pebbles (1966, Robert Wise)
Psychologically heavy war film set on a Navy ship anchored in China in the 1920s begins and ends well; its initial premise of an outsider (Steve McQueen) rubbing uneasily with an established, informal order is gripping, and the bleak, chaotic conclusion is a welcome note against the usual cheerleading hysteria. But the whole enterprise pointlessly runs three hours and does little of value with its time, meandering through several dull subplots. It’s never particularly terrible, but it does demonstrate what a dead end the ’60s Hollywood obsession with gargantuan epic-sized running times was, even when paired with a small “human” story like this.

Odd Man Out (1947, Carol Reed) [hr]
Remarkably mature and gripping British thriller follows an IRA leader (James Mason) who becomes a silently suffering Christlike figure after a robbery attempt ends in outright disaster. The tone is uneven but all of the characters are vividly eccentric (and mostly believable) hard-boiled noir creations, and the emotions are palpable well past the allegorical content. Everyone is firing on all cylinders: Mason is a low-key wonder, R.C. Sherriff’s script is deeply intelligent, the score by William Alwyn expands the scope to the level of an epic drama, and Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker’s staging and photography are chillingly beautiful and enveloping.

Doctor Dolittle (1967, Richard Fleischer) [NO]
(Revisit; no change.) Bad book becomes worse musical.

***

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