Capsule digest #3

This addition to the Guide takes us through everything I reviewed from December 5th, 2018 to February 23, 2019. During this time I put the first pass at the 1940s canon to bed, continued with the Best Picture nominees, got a 2010s retrospective underway and initiated a runthrough of the top 100 films at They Shoot Pictures, which as of this weekend has become “fast-tracked” and will be, along with movies from the current decade, my exclusive preoccupation for the next month or two. I will get to the ’50s as soon as I can, though.

I’m writing this on the very early morning of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony; chances are I will end up needing to catch a few films to keep all of my prior projects up to date. I already saw two of the three major nominees that actually excited me and reviewed them below (Roma and The Favourite); I also wanted to see BlackKklansman but haven’t made it happen yet. I harbor no ill will toward A Star Is Born but didn’t feel like making an appointment for it, especially without ever having seen George Cukor’s version, and was looking forward to Vice until reviews and trailers rolled in and now can take or leave it. Meanwhile, as you’d probably imagine, I have no interest whatsoever in Black Panther, Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody so unless they win something — and at least one of them almost certainly will — they’ll be near the bottom of my to-watch pile for the BP project. But anything that wins in any of the eight major categories I will make sure to add to the database forthwith.

Other films seen: New full reviews this time out for The Lady from Shanghai (additional Letterboxd commentary) and Breathless (ibid), both seen over a decade ago, my impressions from that time newly revised. 2010s rewatches pressed onward, chronicled at Letterboxd rather than here: a special Christmas screening of Carol, then: House of Pleasures, Monsters University, While We’re Young, The Post, The Spectacular Now, The Edge of Seventeen and Shaun the Sheep Movie. I was right about all of them the first time. Actually I think I underrated both While We’re Young and Shaun the Sheep on previous goround.

Non-feature or non-cinema screened: Maya Deren’s masterpiece Meshes of the Afternoon plus some shorts by Tex Avery and John Huston for the 1940s project; read about them in my long essay wrapping up that initiative. In other news, the end of support for streaming video on the Wii meant that I have finally upgraded to an HDTV and a Blu-ray player, and as I already knew, my eyes have a lot of trouble telling much difference unless I stand right next to the set, which is not in the cards. Having said that, I am enjoying the larger screen and I do like the visible grain on some older titles as well as the sharpness on newer ones, but the kind of films I really like watching aren’t reading to me as gaining a whole lot from the extra lines of resolution, with most of my DVDs still looking terrific to me when upscaled. (I can project a DVD onto our old classroom screen at monstrous size without seeing much detriment.) The point is I’m never going to be a videophile, just like I’m never going to be an audiophile. I am, however, repurchasing a few things just to save shelf space: all of the Universal Hitchcock DVDs (some of which weren’t even anamorphic), for instance, can be superseded now while taking up a fraction of the room, and while the upgrade may be only slightly apparent to me, the additional room to get more movies is a huge selling point. Note that Samsung has just this week announced that they’re getting out of the Blu market; I have to laugh as I have a clear knack for this. I usually get into the cool band approximately two weeks before everyone else is over them. You’d have to be pretty thick-skinned not to take it personally sometimes…

The other huge advantage of my new setup is that I’m now all-region capable again, besides just on my laptop (which of course is DVD only). In the long run this will be a huge benefit to me; a great number of films will actually be available for me to study without resorting to low-quality streams or dubious gray-market releases. I suspect this will become more and more important as we press through the decades on the canon projects.

*** (click the links for longer Letterboxd versions of the capsules, if you so wish)

Red River (1948, Howard Hawks) [hr]
Messy, busy, and one of the most lyrical westerns of all: the story of a cattle drive, a power struggle, and of people and their many riveting misdirections and screwups, all riveting. John Wayne’s performance is as profound and sublime as his work in The Searchers — a stubborn, corruptible cad, but there are moments when the depth of his pain registers and somehow your heart moves, probably cause you’re soft just like Matthew Garth (this may also be Montgomery Clift’s best performance). You need’t break classic Hollywood down via postmodernism to subvert its iconography; in the hands of someone like Hawks, it’s already there with you.

Force of Evil (1948, Abraham Polonsky) [r]
Initially intriguing characterizations and convincing sleaze in this noir from MGM, which lacks mystery even in its best moments, give way to rote organized-crime programmer nonsense. John Garfield stars as a corrupt lawyer lending phony legitimacy to a numbers racket and participating in a scam that’s bound to put his paranoid, unhealthy brother (Thomas Gomez, quite good) out of business. It’s bleak and violent all right, but its protagonist — in the script as well as in Garfield’s performance — lacks depth or discernible motivation. The romantic subplot feels even more tacked-on than usual for noir.

White Heat (1949, Raoul Walsh) [hr]
The greatest virtue in James Cagney’s comeback to the gangster picture fold is its lack of predictability; Cody Jarrett is approximately the nastiest protagonist one can imagine, to the degree that he isn’t exactly fun to watch so much as addictive in a lurid, train-wreck sense. This outstanding performance is well supported by a revolving-door cast that changes considerably from the first act to the second, at which point the film shifts from a series of heists and chases to a less conventional, more suspenseful prison feature. It’s a horrific tale rife with betrayals, killings and soulless nightmares, but its intensity feels very much real.

I Was a Male War Bride (1949, Howard Hawks) [r]
Coasting amicably on the charm of its two stars, Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan, this Fox comedy is disjointed and doesn’t feel that much like a Hawks picture apart from a couple of bawdy punchlines. Its first half (two bickering comrades stuck with each other) barely seems to relate to its second and slightly more inspired (a man who’s married a female soldier gets stuck in red tape), so the characterizations suffer, though Grant’s has little discernible personality from the first, discarding his absurd existence as a supposed Frenchman. Sheridan, however, is a delight, and a rare 1940s portrait of an independent woman dedicated above all else to her work.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Max Ophüls) [hr]
Without giving in to any more than a suggestion of the raw sexuality that drives it, this doomed romance puts the viewer’s heart completely in sync with that of Joan Fontaine’s Lisa, who’s longed since adolescence for the promiscuous musician next door, a star-crossed passion that alters the course of her life. Surging with pain and desire, Ophüls’ camera captures the simultaneous haze and detail of extreme lust as it lives in memory. Fontaine is exquisite as always, Louis Jourdan not quite as credible but physically believable as the source of this kind of longing; and Ophüls makes a laughingstock of the Code by taking its patriarchal rules over the top.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944, Preston Sturges)
(Revisit; no change.) The movie that defied the Code by talking its way around it, about a woman who has an anonymous encounter with a soldier and is left knocked up. Like all of Sturges’ films, it possesses sharp, erudite dialogue with irresistibly eccentric rhythms; and like most of them, it has a persuasive and almost manic joy driving it. But the slapstick (which he never had any gift for) and shrillness that sometimes derail his other Paramount movies momentarily is much harder to overcome here, in part because he has centered two actors (Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken) to whom his only direction was apparently “be as annoying as possible.”

Ossessione (1943, Luchino Visconti) [r]
Cited as the first Italian neorealist film, Visconti’s gritty yet gorgeous debut feature uses James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice — with its brooding tale of a drifter taking a temporary job at a diner and falling for the cook and waitress who’s desperate to get rid of her husband — to organize its depiction of squalor and dread into a compelling narrative, even if said narrative is less important to Visconti than its impact on the characters. The subject matter is a bit too stylized and heightened to justify treating it with this kind of ruthless, lived-in detail, but it’s still a radical, inspired choice.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl) [r]
Film noir in color, pushing along the unfathomably soapy tale of Gene Tierney as a manipulative woman whose frustration at her inept new husband’s inability and unwillingness to secure alone time with her sends her into sociopathic murderess mode, explained away by the script as “loving too much.” At its best this is lurid and shocking, but it never escapes a certain camp trashiness that keeps genuine menace from taking hold.

The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophüls) [hr]
James Mason plays a terrifying blackmailer who unexpectedly softens in this unusual noir, with Joan Bennett’s shaky but tough matriarch going to the moon and back to protect her impressionable art-student daughter who fell into a toxic relationship with an older sleazebag, newly deceased. Now the whole family is trapped in a world of racketeering, bloodshed and the usual intimidating Mr. Big behind the scenes. This is a tremendously entertaining thriller, gaining a lot from its positioning of an outsider from the criminal underworld as its protagonist, and playing on the classical upper-middle class fear of nefarious influence infiltrating the nuclear family.

Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch) [r]
Naive, all-American Kyle MacLachlan courts a policeman’s daughter (Laura Dern) while wrapping himself up in a bunch of local intrigue involving nightclub singers and sadistic mobsters in his hometown. Alternately bleak and colorful photography that absorbs plus a real sense of danger and lots of fun, weird ideas and moments fail to mask the fact that this is a series of Lynch’s fantasies and demons projected onscreen with nothing stringing them together except an exceptionally hackneyed parody of film noir and some relatively benign psychosexual-awakening stuff. The serious-minded cast is saintly and game in their submission to their director’s whims.

Imitation of Life (1934, John M. Stahl)
Universal offers up a confused mess of tiresome social-problem narrative and fantasy wish fulfillment for Depression-era audiences in this chronicle of a female entrepreneur named Bea (Claudette Colbert) who teams up with her live-in maid Delilah (Louise Beavers) to sell millions of boxes of pancake mix; their lives change, Bea meets a man but her daughter falls for him, and Delilah’s daughter doesn’t want to be black. As dated as this obviously is, it’s an interesting enough snapshot of the period, though because it’s never sure which of its many threads it wants to concentrate on, all of them end up feeling dreadfully underdeveloped.

Faces Places (2017, Agnès Varda & JR) [hr]
In under ninety minutes, this lovely, inexhaustibly charming documentary about beloved Nouvelle Vague director Agnès Varda and photographic artist JR riding across France to meet people, learn about their lives and paste large photos of them on buildings and other artifacts manages to encompass so much: a portrait of unlikely friendship, a treatise on aging and loss, a persuasive valentine to the miracles of everyday humanity, a hit piece on Jean-Luc Godard, a direct rebuke to any notion that working classes are blind to or ignorant of the pleasures of art, and more than anything, a sense of nearly boundless fun and curiosity.

Taxi (2015, Jafar Panahi) [hr]
Still technically forbidden from making films in Iran, Panahi stars as himself, posing as a cab driver using mounted dashcams spun around to capture conversations with various nonprofessional actors he seems to have planted around Tehran, setting up an escalating series of absurd situations — which feel spontaneous, ridiculous and funny even when they’d be downright terrifying in almost any other context — until he picks up his cantankerous niece and she engagingly lectures us all on Iranian film censorship. Like This Is Not a Film but considerably funnier and more cunning, this is another minimalist but spirited tribute to the creative impulse.

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog) [r]
(Revisit; slight upgrade.) For Herzog, the tale of insane-to-the-core explorer Lope de Aguirre (the off-putting Klaus Kinski), who split off in South America on a crazed search for mythical El Dorado, must have seemed a godsend; its built-in symbolism is staggeringly rich. There are shades of expressionism, much of which would color Francis Coppola’s and arguably Terrence Malick’s work later, and a lightly surreal, exposed visual style that is undeniably hypnotic (courtesy of cameraman Thomas Mauch), but it all feels a bit flat and cheap, like a competent documentary following a group of reenactors, and neither the screenplay nor Herzog’s self-satisfied distance are helpful.

The Gay Divorcee (1934, Mark Sandrich) [hr]
The Astaire-Rogers love story here is weakly conceived despite their chemistry and inspired dancing; and though the frivolous segments involving Edward Everett Horton (possibly his greatest performance) and Erik Rhodes are more fun, the story contrivances throughout this odyssey of crushes, mistaken identities and geologists are all too obvious. But every one of the musical numbers is brilliantly performed and hypnotically stylish, even the Fred and Ginger-less “Let’s Knock Knees.” Splendid entertainment, obviously.

The Favourite (2018, Yorgos Lanthimos) [hr]
Delectably vulgar and perverse historical comedy-drama that revels in its own adolescence, as Emma Stone’s once wealthy, now traumatized Abigail Hill connives her way into the secret lives of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her adviser-paramour Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Three outstanding, dynamic performances, Lanthimos’ sheer glee at the graphic indulgence of it all, and the total shunning of slavish accuracy in favor of decadence, fun and ribald satire of the ruling classes make this a richly amusing night out, but it’s also cinematically audacious and robust with complex, well-drawn characterizations.

You Were Never Really Here (2017, Lynne Ramsay) [NO]
Lurid, pretentious, stupid sub-Cinemax trash heap. Poster has a pull quote comparing it to Taxi Driver, but honestly? It might be even worse.

The Big Chill (1983, Lawrence Kasdan)
A group of mostly well-off college friends, children of the “idealistic ’60s,” reconvene for a funeral after one of their own commits suicide; everyone gets laid except Jeff Goldblum. Baby Boomer indulgence that now seems very quaint (and toothless, compared with The Ice Storm), and another excuse for them to remind us that they are the gatekeepers of Great Music. Kasdan does see irony here — the gang gathered around eating salad and doing coke while the body is still warm, etc. — but is too married to the film’s value as a fusion of nostalgia and malaise, both expressed as vaguely as possible, for it to seem real or particularly well-observed.

Roma (2018, Alfonso Cuarón) [hr]
The beach is now as ubiquitous in Cuarón’s films as rain is in Kurosawa’s. The story in this beautifully respectful exploration of his own childhood, like Gravity, is so elemental it could be described in a sentence fragment, yet so very individual and telling thanks to the performances and Cuarón’s breathtakingly inspired presentation of it, which uses technology as a vehicle to the enlivening of memory. The images are harrowing in their simple forcefulness: the car storming into its narrow garage space, the theater filled with people looking away from the real story, the human body as vehicle of lust and instrument of destruction.

Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland) [r]
Kind of a fusion of Aliens or The Thing with Stalker, with a crew of scientists investigating a destructive force called the Shimmer that has occupied a section of land after several military teams entered the realm and never returned. A splendid ensemble cast led by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh and some brilliantly freaked-out production design help this effectively creepy, dread-laden horror/sci-fi piece distinguish itself above the norm for both genres, though it fails to conquer mediocre special effects and some tedium and mindless chaos in the story, taken from a popular novel by Jeff VanderMeer.

La Strada (1954, Federico Fellini) [r]
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) A washed-up strongman parades the country with a dated bag of tricks, toting along a long-suffering young woman he abuses relentlessly. This has a certain simple, expressive sadness, but it leans too much on maudlin sentiment; all three of the central characters are empty ciphers only serving the barest, most obvious purpose. Even Giulietta Masina’s performance as the drumming clown Gelsomina, singular and charming in its fashion, turns on a dime from innocence to trauma to resentment, and never organically. And no matter how reverently Fellini shoots all this, it’s still built upon a pandering, one-dimensional screenplay, schematic rather than primal.

Julius Caesar (1953, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) [r]
Mankiewicz’s Shakespeare ateempt takes cues from Laurence Olivier’s starkly photographed Hamlet, amping up its feeling of artificiality and rarely tipping its hand as a high-budget production. John Gielgud and James Mason are terrific as Cassius as Brutus, enhancing and enlivening the text; Marlon Brando’s Antony may be his least characteristic early performance, so it’s one of his best. The weak point is Louis Calhern’s dull Caesar. Narratively, the violent assassination itself rivets and so does much of what’s before and around it, but Mankiewicz never conquers the feeling of contrivance that takes over even most of the better Shakespeare films.

Eighth Grade (2018, Bo Burnham) [r]
Exactly what the title promises with all mortifying cringes thus implied, and despite the explosion of Insta and Snapchat it looks to me like not much has really changed over the last couple of decades. The film’s a little schematic in some ways, but its depiction of anxiety is touching, and the performances — particularly Elsie Fisher’s phenomenally believable, almost artless rendering of the central character — are sublime.

Leave No Trace (2018, Debra Granik) [r]
Sensitive, vividly natural drama, awash in the colors and textures of the Pacific Northwest, describes a traditional evolution and increasing distance in a parent-child, but under singular and traumatic circumstances: Tom is a 13 year-old girl who hides out illegally on public parkland where her damaged Iraq vet father keeps them sequestered. When they’re spotted by park officials and forced to assimilate, a wedge is driven between them. The larger point being made about letting go of those who were once supposed to take care of us, whether they did or not, would resonate more without the excessive sentimentality in the final act.

Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks) [hr]
Hawks’ westerns are more immediately engrossing than John Ford’s, but linger less for me in the long run as anything except cracking good times; but that’s more than enough to make this totally delightful. Despite its relaxed pacing, this drama of a town besieged by a gang of violent hooligans and the sheriff who takes them on is gripping from its earliest frames and uses its tremendous cast well, with Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson turning in surprisingly grand performances backing up John Wayne, who is as John Wayne as ever. The overt brassiness fully sells Hawks’ vision of the western as populist entertainment even at its most cinematic.

The Godfather Part III (1990, Francis Ford Coppola)
Goodness, these movies are so silly — just wild, over the top nonsense, often unintentionally humorous (especially the finale). It’s pretty much Days of Our Lives for bros; that said, across three hours, this is never boring for even a second. Clearly made purely for commercial reasons, it still demonstrates Coppola as a fine crafstman even when he doesn’t really care about the material. His daughter Sofia, a last-minute substitute for Winona Ryder and/or the murdered Rebecca Schaeffer, needed more takes; like her mere presence, that’s on her dad. Years after she redeemed herself, I still felt terrible for her watching this.

Incredibles 2 (2018, Brad Bird) [r]
The first film was so fresh and exciting and it’s fun to see its characters again, but a decade into full superhero saturation, this is practically a clone — dreadfully predictable, almost beat for beat — rather than a sequel; the clever idea of setting it immediately after The Incredibles ends up cutting it at the knees in terms of deep character development, and the sense of danger (and infinite graphic possibility) is lacking. Bird remains one of the best living architects of a great setpiece, but he’s better off here when he sticks to comedy and avoids his tendency toward positioning characters as his philosophical mouthpieces.

Paterson (2016, Jim Jarmusch)
A week in the life of a bus-driving poet (Adam “Bus” Driver) who absorbs the compelling lives around him by osmosis. The generosity of spirit here is admirable but much of the acting is stilted, and the situations volley rudely between total mundane believability and screenwriterly convenience. The basic contentment with day-to-day life — and the fusion of working class existence with artistry — Jarmusch celebrates should be more visible in cinema, but despite lovely moments and a lot of visual lyricism, your appreciation will depend on your attachment to the eccentric work being promoted and your tolerance for Driver’s sullen pleasantness.

Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker)
Marker’s hodgepodge of travelogue footage and experimental editing techniques is usually listed as a documentary but is more of an essay film, centered on letters from a fictitious cameraman read by an unseeen female narrator. There are some strong moments — visual and verbal — but the unfocused, intricate theories and thoughts being delivered feel too much like a particularly impassioned college lecture, or like a very protracted conversation with an intellectual barfly.

Viridiana (1961, Luis Buñuel) [r]
Teasing jumble of satire and melodrama opens with a nun-to-be (Silvia Pinal) who’s ordered to visit the isolated farm of her benefactor, an uncle she’s barely met. It so happens that she uncannily resembles the man’s long-dead wife, and after a few days in his presence, the perversions begin to come out, later joined by a whole mob of grotesquerie after circumstances force her to stay. Buñuel’s audacity in this attack on social conventions and the Church may be justified, but in this particular case his scab-picking efforts come across as cruel, though there are some sublime, transcendent sequences, especially the astonishing beggars’ banquet at the climax.

***

Of the remaining TSPDT titles I’ll be going through in the next few weeks, I can only really guarantee one of them will be getting a full review, but I hope for more. There are three that I previously wrote about at length at my old blog, but all were pans of which I’m now skeptical; we’ll soon see. Certainly this project more than any other has thus far laid out my lack of affinity with a lot of arthouse-canon logic, for better or worse. See you soon.

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