Capsule digest #4

This post spans films seen and reviews written from February 26 to June 9, 2019. The TSPDT 100 is taking a bit longer than I’d planned; I’m kind of torn between concentrating on it and seeing as many films from the waning decade as possible in time to post a tentative list of my favorite films of the 2010s at the end of the month (with a more extensive, carefully considered one to follow next summer and a for-the-time-being “final” draft in 2021). I also interrupted everything for the last vacation of any kind I’ll be able to take for probably a year or so. (Long story.) But things are pressing along, I swear, and I still have high hopes of beginning the ’50s canon in earnest sometime in the autumn.

Full reviews this cycle: The wicked financial melodrama Arbitrage (Letterboxd capsule) and William Wyler’s diabolical The Heiress (Letterboxd capsule; slight upgrade), a classic that’s aged like fine wine, new to the Criterion Collection (it was my third viewing of both, so it would’ve been lazy not to spin them into essays!); and finally David Lynch’s confoundingly beautiful Mulholland Dr. (Letterboxd capsule); I’m not quite in the best-film-of-the-century cult but I certainly sympathize with it, and I find it by far the best of Lynch’s surreal stylistic exercises, though I do remember liking the first season of Twin Peaks and should really revisit that series.

Other films seen: Despite noble efforts I barely made a dent in revisiting all of the 2010s titles I’ve enjoyed to help smooth out the list-making task, but I do intend to continue the project without interruption after I post the first version of my list in a few weeks. Moving backwards through my tentative ranking, I’m pleased to say I was wrong about absolutely none of these, and in some cases I was gobsmacked by how much better they were than I let myself remember! In addition to Arbitrage, which finally got a complete review, and Berberian Sound Studio which I didn’t have any new comments about, you can track my progress at Lboxd as follows:
Behind the Candelabra
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I
The Descendants
Hail, Caesar!
Brooklyn
Frankenweenie
The Bling Ring
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
A Most Wanted Man
Blue Jasmine
Mistress America
Virunga

I also rewatched Strangers on a Train to continue my vaguely chronological jaunt through Hitchcock’s heavy hitters even though I’ve already written about it — my Letterboxd capsule does have some new insights thanks to my having read Patricia Highsmith’s fine novel last year. And I indulged myself — if that’s the word for an immersion in a film about child abuse, neglect and small-time crime — by picking up The 400 Blows on Blu-ray, ogling its exquisite image quality and crying profusely.

Non-feature or non-cinema screened: What the elegant Netflix series Russian Doll, featuring Natasha Lyonne, lacks in originality it makes up for in wit and stylistic ingenuity — not to mention music supervision, with years of private brooding to Ray Davies’ “I Go to Sleep” suddenly shared with millions. The obscure Jack Gold short film The Visit, issued by the BFI on their Room at the Top disc, is devastating and calls to mind some of the darker Playhouse 90 episodes I watched last year as part of Criterion’s Golden Age of Television package.

Youtube playlist highlights: I am obsessed with this clip of the closing moments of the late 1980s Jim Belushi vehicle and longtime basic cable staple The Principal. And for a terrifying glimpse into my childhood, have a look at the truly bizarre animated short Teeny Tiny and the Witch Woman.

And lastly, massive congrats to Yvie Oddly, the right choice at the right time… but Vanjie is my Miss Congeniality.

Recent Blu-ray releases recommended: Several fine films reviewed in this space, as well as some old favorites, have recently been given beautiful physical releases thanks to various boutique labels here and overseas. In the UK, Indicator brought the tough-minded, female-driven noir The Reckless Moment to its world Blu-ray premiere; the set is packed with extras delving into the careers of James Mason and director Max Ophuls plus an eerie music and effects track; BFI at last afforded the extraordinary, trend-setting British classic Room at the Top the respect it has long deserved, and among other things the release includes a fantastic commentary by film scholar Josephine Botting.

Back on these shores, Twilight Time’s overpriced line of limited-edition releases nevertheless deserves attention for bringing one of my most beloved films of the 1980s, Melvin and Howard, to hi-def, with a long-lost and affable Jonathan Demme-Toby Rafelson commentary to boot. Flicker Alley broke their trend of relegating silent classics to their burn-on-demand line via their shepherding of Universal’s restoration of the Gothic melodrama The Man Who Laughs, which I enjoyed revisiting (see here). Cohen Media began their Buster Keaton reissue program with a relatively low-priced twofer of Steamboat Bill Jr. and The General; Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator will follow in July. The image quality is unspeakably superb. As usual, the biggest news came from Criterion, whose new edition of The Heiress marks their first tackling of a William Wyler picture, even going back to the laserdisc era! It looks glorious. Props to them also for resurrecting Robert Zemeckis’ first, and nearly best, film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which I will be revisiting in full soon as part of my Beatles project at the other blog.

Capsules follow!

***

The Big Sick (2017, Michael Showalter) [hr]
A courtship comedy in which half of the central couple is in a coma. Self-mythologizing stand-up comedians tend to be a bore, but this is a delight whose indulgences are forgiven by the knowledge that it’s a harrowing true story. Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself; he wrote the film with his wife Emily Gordon) make a charming couple, and Nanjiani captures the grief and guilt of learning to stand up for oneself with accuracy and decency, but the film owes a surprising proportion of its appeal to the performances of Ray Romano, of all people, and Holly Hunter as the cranky worried potential in-laws.

American Honey (2016, Andrea Arnold) [hr]
The magazine scammers in indentured servitude who knocked on your door and posed as friendly college students looking to fund this or that are brought to aching real life by an ensemble of disparate young adults in this lengthy, meandering but wondrously vivid slice of impoverished life, a movie that’s so cinematically expressive it can’t be reduced to words. The feeling of being an outsider among a tight-knit group, the way life lived on the edge of legitimacy can turn on a dime from recklessness to hilarity, the unexpected moments of splendor within a total lack of freedom: it’s all here, and it couldn’t be more passionately presented.

Blow-Up (1966, Michelangelo Antonioni)
(Revisit; upgrade.) Influential chronicle of a fashion photographer who discovers that he has accidentally shot pictures of a murder in progress suffers (like L’Avventura) from a director disdainful of his own strengths, and from commentary on perception and apathy that seems easy, even lazy. And of course, the very thing that makes it alluring — its tempest of hyper-sexualized Swinging London decadence — consigns it wholly to its age. But it undeniably looks terrific and contains a couple of knockout scenes, including a blistering Yardbirds performance that makes most 1960s-vintage integrations of rock music into cinema seem goofy and facile.

The Leopard (1963, Luchino Visconti) [c]
As gorgeous as Lawrence of Arabia, and nearly as dull.

20th Century Women (2016, Mike Mills) [hr]
“Just be there,” it says, and it’s talking to us as much as it’s talking to Jamie, the gentle and confused teenager at the center of this deeply sensitive, beautiful film about the people swirling around him in 1979 Santa Barbara, their pasts and futures. It wants us to bear witness to everyday life much as William Wyler once did, and what we see is complicated, messed up, lovely, but never in an obvious fashion. Its peculiarities are unforced, and you well up from the secrets it unveils, the mysteries it keeps, its hauntingly vivid compassion. I would wish we could get a hundred movies like this a year if I thought my heart could take it.

The End of the Tour (2015, James Ponsoldt)
A narrative strung together from a long exchange of conversations between onetime renegade David Foster Wallace and a less famous writer, David Lipsky, in the last days of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest. If you’re not an acolyte of Wallace’s writing, this is just a long two-hander and a somewhat atmospheric road movie, skillfully directed by a filmmaker whose work continues to suggest (see The Spectacular Now) that he has smart, occasionally insightful ideas and a youthful pretension that hasn’t quite left him yet. Jason Segel is sweet and unassuming as Wallace, and Jesse Eisenberg is his usual oddly menacing self.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes) [NO]
Uncinematic, pointless catalog of misery in which a housewife loses her grip in protracted trainwreck manner, unfortunately as portrayed by the terribly inauthentic, scenery-chewing showboat Gena Rowlands, nearly all of whose scenes are either unintentionally hilarious or pure aesthetic torture. Cassavetes lives up to his reputation in the sense that his camera and editing seem extremely unmoored and don’t shy away from technical ineptitude, but this commitment to documentary realism hits a wall when it comes to the supposedly pure drama he captures, which is both badly, self-consciously performed and just generally broad and silly.

Amarcord (1973, Federico Fellini) [r]
Fellini’s episodic semi-memoir of life in fascist Italy is saccharine but irresistibly charming, maybe more so than a film about Il Duce’s regime ought to be. Its strikingly weird yet mostly grounded imagery along with the fourth-wall breaking give it levity and exuberance despite being overstuffed and often superficial; it revels in sexual juvenilia even at the same time as it mocks it, and maybe that’s healthy.

Girlhood (2014, Celine Sciamma) [r]
Karidja Touré is brilliant as a black 16 year-old in a French housing project trying to bust out of an abusive home life and hopeless future; she tries crime, bullying and innocent hookups on for size, but the best scenes in this occasionally transcendent film occur when she forges an identity with three other girls and they terrorize Paris with wondrous abandon, peaking with what looks to be a magic night dancing to Rihanna in a hotel room while swigging from a rum-spiked Coke bottle. The rest is beautifully acted and shot but the criminal-underworld scenes that come later on are less persuasive and revealing about who this character really is.

The Interrupters (2011, Steve James)
The intimacy achieved by James with his subjects is still remarkable, but this deep dive into an attempt by the University of Illinois to circumvent an epidemic of violence in Chicago in 2009-10 struggles with the enormity of its social obligations. The best moments are those that zoom squarely in on specific individuals — organizer and mediator Ameena Matthews above all — who manage to back up the film’s thesis without simplifying the breathing humans involved. Sadly the film’s already a bit dated, through no fault of its creators; organizational disarray and police violence have rendered some of its points moot and/or quaint. More Flamo, please.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018, Bryan Singer) [c]
Shockingly amateurish biopic of Queen is a generic, paint-by-numbers portrait of a classic rock career awash in clichés, a film that only gains and charms its audience because of their preexisting attachment to the music it evokes. It feels like bad sketch comedy, and the only thing more depressing than its litany of Oscar nominations is the fact that people went to see it in droves.

Green Book (2018, Peter Farrelly)
Buddy-redemption crowd pleaser is socially regressive and tone-deaf, but not altogether awful, especially when compared to obvious Oscar touchstones Driving Miss Daisy and Crash. The pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black artist touring the South at the height of Jim Crow, endures a rocky relationship with his driver, a Bronx wannabe gangster who goes by Tony Lip and is brought to us broadly and cartoonishly by Viggo Mortensen, who spends much of the film stuffing his face. No wonder Boomers like this so much; it pushes all the right feel-good buttons and, when the worst trouble arrives, brings in a fucking Kennedy to save the day.

Into the Abyss (2011, Werner Herzog) [r]
A no-frills account of a seemingly open-and-shut triple murder case and how the execution of one of the perpetrators (and capital punishment in general) impacts the others involved, rippling outward to encompass both sides of the law and every possible perspective on the death penalty. The interviews Herzog chooses to include often ache with loss and despair, perhaps most hauntingly one with a former Texas executioner, who quit because of PTSD, but frankly nearly all of them are troubling and fascinating. It just isn’t much of a movie, in some ways just a Forensic Files episode with a moral compass and the occasional jolt of Herzog weirdness.

BlacKkKlansman (2018, Spike Lee) [hr]
Given its subject matter — a real-life police infiltration into the human dregs of the KKK in the 1970s — this is surprisingly fun, with a lot of messiness and unexpected abstraction to remind you a real artist is behind the camera even as you enjoy the fusion of true crime with abrasive comedy. Lee’s aware of the irony of getting intrigue and pleasure out of such dark material, so at three points he undercuts the narrative with out-of-time reminders of where all this idle hatred from easily manipulated losers and assholes inevitably leads. That’s not only moving and relevant, it’s responsible.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman) [r]
A scathing portrait of the infinite load-bearing that is automatically inflicted upon women, this slow cinema landmark details the routine of a widow who entertains johns in her apartment while maintaining domestic tranquility, which begins to slip after a few trivial but cumulatively distressing breaks from normalcy. A brilliant movie despite a finale that’s much too cut-and-dried, but while Akerman’s goal is a bodily, involuntary reaction to all of the painstaking repetition and minutiae, the full expanse of the thing doesn’t reveal much that you wouldn’t get from a more condensed version of the narrative.

Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
This eerie and emotionally wrenching melodrama, lifted from feudal Japanese folklore, restrains nothing in depicting the miseries of a wrongly disgraced family, and accumulates so many tragedies and acts of brutality it could easily be accused of being too much if its compositions weren’t so calmly beautiful or if the performances weren’t so genuinely stirring, right up to a finale in which the lid completely comes off and we’re permitted to see what feels like pure, undiluted grief and catharsis personified. The story has the sweep and weight of grand mythology, but the humane realism makes it deeply affecting on a personal level.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018, Barry Jenkins) [r]
Give Jenkins ample credit for not resting on his laurels with his follow-up to Moonlight; this James Baldwin adaptation is risky, strange and aesthetically jaw-dropping, with a sumptuous color scheme, haunting Demme-like close-ups and wildly unpredictable camerawork. However, the text suffers a bit in the transition to screen, especially in an early dialogue-heavy scene that goes on too long and feels too theatrical, and a finale that doesn’t seem to functionally justify or earn its own sense of resignation — but these are only problems against the restless, emotionally rich, brilliantly performed cinematic grace of the rest of the picture.

Zama (2017, Lucrecia Martel)
Uniformed colonialist has a case of the Mondays. #relatable

A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson) [r]
Exquisitely single-minded, intricately detailed filmmaking accounting the unadorned and virtually context-free scheming and execution of an escape attempt by a French Resistance officer in a Nazi prison. François Leterrier is the perfect actor for this, with his face hiding mysteries but still easy to read emotionally. It’s all thoroughly engrossing, but also purely functional: the voiceover removes virtually every possibility of misinterpretation, and the character strictly moves from point to point fulfilling the title’s promise. Perhaps that’s admirably straightforward, but it also avoids the very kind of risk-taking it appears designed to celebrate.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018, Marielle Heller) [hr]
The story of a modest blitz of fraudulence on the part of disgraced New York author Lee Israel is brought to screen with tough-minded, melancholic wit. Melissa McCarthy deeply embodies Israel’s uncompromising cynicism and impatience, and the film is adept at locating not just the soul of an extremely difficult character but the dismal loneliness in the pallid tones of hard-won-and-not-worth-it urban life. The brightest spot in this dead end is the periodic appearance of Richard E. Grant’s cheerfully alcoholic layabout; that we see this when Lee cannot is as adept a way as any to define the frustrations of this kind of hopeless fringe existence.

Cold War (2018, Pawel Pawlikowski) [c]
Pawlikowski’s account of his parents’ troubled, frantically rocky relationship is cursed with a script that’s so fixated on its elliptical structure it never allows us to come to know its characters in any depth. The film looks and sounds great, but it’s crippled by the lack of believable relationships or any kind of chemistry in its central couple; by the halfway point, the impossibility of any sort of lasting peace between Zula and Wiktor is exhausting, like a long anecdote from someone who should’ve left a bad situation years ago but refuses to do so.

Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami) [r]
The cleverly approached, oddly trivial and amusing true tale of a wide-eyed con artist posing as Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf; forgoing the use of actors, Kiarostami blurs the lines between reality and performance with the same manic fervor as his subject, resulting in a film whose idea of “truth” is extremely elastic, and maybe in the end irrelevant. This is a creation deeply conscious of the limits of film itself as a medium, but for all its brevity it does run up against good old fashioned process-nerd boredom when so much of its running time is sucked up by 16mm footage of Hossain Sabzian’s trial.

Jules and Jim (1962, François Truffaut)
(Revisit; upgrade.) Bohemian morons who talk endlessly about their own misery get their lives fucked up by Jeanne “She’s So Amoral” Moreau. There are lyrical moments and some enjoyably frenetic editing; as a piece of aesthetic technique, it’s perfectly acceptable. And the disembodied voiceover tends to inject a deadpan humor these pretentious characters badly need. The problem is that said characters are neither enjoyable to spend time with nor particularly believable, and the flippant attitude toward women, while not altogether surprising or even totally lacking critical self-awareness, is egregiously adolescent pretty much from start to end. Probably Truffaut’s worst.

The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-wook) [hr]
Audacious adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Gothic novel Fingersmith transforms it into an over-the-top fusion of Foolish Wives, Diabolique and, er, Wild Things, with Ha Jung-woo’s absurd “Count” out to deceive an aged, pervy Japanese book collector by seducing his heiress with the help of a pickpocket. Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri’s work in the latter two roles is engaging and fearless. Park takes advantage of not just Korea’s natural beauty but the visual lexicon of Merchant-Ivory films, which he gleefully subverts in favor of a narrative deeply reliant on both genuine, hard-won eroticism and lurid dirty-old-man sexuality.

Love & Friendship (2016, Whit Stillman) [r]
Loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is perfectly suited to Stillman’s odd cadences and keen sense of irony; his bemused but empathetic approach to the characters, from Kate Beckinsale’s baldly manipulative Susan to the perpetually despondent wronged woman Lady Manwaring, is well matched by an extremely game cast. However, the entire film is taken a bit off balance with the appearance of the splendidly idiotic James Martin; Tom Bennett’s performance is so convincingly clueless, and so exquisitely rendered in its awkward innocence, that he completely steals the thunder of the rest of the cast, and you only wish thereafter for more of him.

The King (2017, Eugene Jarecki) [r]
A touching, unfocused by its own admission, and ultimately very fair-minded look at Elvis Presley’s long-term effects on American culture. Lots of interviews, some OK, a few exceptional (Chuck D above all), and a sweeping look at a deeply troubled nation.

R.E.M. by MTV (2014, Alex Young)
The history of Athens, Georgia’s great salt-of-the-earth alternative rock band and their brief scrape with mass arena-rock success as told through the archives of MTV News. Too much talk, not enough music — and the music, at least from the group’s first decade and a half, remains extraordinary — and it’s a bit haphazardly put together, which is probably why it played a couple of festivals then got buried on DVD, but fans will enjoy it. For a more interesting (and depressing) verité documentary about the band, check Youtube for 1998’s This Way Up. To see and hear them at their best, pick up the DVD Tourfilm.

Nocturama (2016, Bertrand Bonello) [hr]
A French Dawn of the Dead only with millennial terrorists as the heroes, mostly devoid of political content and delighting in the perversity of its audience’s all but automatic identification with a group of misguided and fearful characters, whose actions turn on a dime from benignly symbolic to unforgivably violent. Taken as a thriller, the whole thing is tantalizingly uneasy and stressful, even as its climax peaks with dread and inevitability; as procedural or ensemble character study, it’s fascinating and wrenching. And it looks absolutely terrific.

The Nice Guys (2016, Shane Black)
Diverting neo-noir comedy that puts a private detective and a civilian enforcer on the trail of murder and intrigue within an L.A. porn ring in the late ’70s. Probably plays better if you like either of the lead actors (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, neither of whom has much of a gift for this stuff); though often clever and funny, it suffers from flimsy action setpieces and is too much a retread of Black’s much better Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Although Angourie Rice steals the film as Gosling’s savvier-than-thou teen daughter Holly, there’s something severely displeasing about her constant presence around adult sexuality and physical danger.

The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci) [r]
Often billed as a political thriller, this is really more of a harsh, grim character piece in which a Italian Secret Policeman, riddled with trauma, has turned toward fascism to cover up his lack of an identity. Quick and intelligent, the film’s story isn’t honestly deep or revelatory, chiefly because the antihero Marcello’s cool detachment registers mostly as fantasy. Thanks to Berolucci and Vittorio Storaro, though, this is one of the most distinctive-looking films of its era, with arresting color and endlessly surprising imagery that calls Rene Magritte and Leni Riefenstahl to mind in its evocation of the angular majesty of fascist architecture.

Pierrot le Fou (1965, Jean-Luc Godard) [r]
The first hour of Godard’s farewell to the manic, Hollywood noir-infected first phase of his career is breathtakingly romantic and playful, putting his disaffected stand-in Belmondo on the road with erstwhile beloved Anna Karina after a lousy party — in which everyone spouts ad slogans — and an inevitable killing. The subversive and smarmy overload of ideas, colors and charming pastiche eventually comes to feel excessive, even repetitive… but in small doses it’s magnetic!

***

The next thing you’ll hear from me is probably a decade retrospective, though I imagine something left on the They Shoot Pictures top 100 will prompt a complete writeup. Until then…

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