Capsule digest #5
This post gathers up reviews of films newly viewed (or viewed for the first time in 8+ years) from June 13 to November 23, 2019. I’d been feeling a little inadequate lately on this front, because I felt like I had slowed down; it’s been a busy summer and fall with a new job and a death in the family and other matters, but I’ve been trying to put myself on less of a timetable for things and, moreover, when I look at what films I actually got around to in this period, it feels like a time I’ll remember as really formative and personally revolutionary: finally in awe of Tarkovsky and Fellini and Tati and Resnais, falling ever further in love with Dreyer. I feel like I’ve been taken so many places by film in the last few months that it seems like a much longer period of time, and why did I not see some of these movies sooner? How was I even worthy of running a venue like this without them?
Truth be told, I’ve also been feeling a little demoralized about this platform and about writing online in general. It’s not the first or the last time. I’ve been screaming into the internet void with varying sizes of audience — never more than a dozen people or so, and hardly ever that high — for seventeen years now, twenty-three if you count my very early trolling days. After a while, the apathy numbs you. It’s my own fault, and it’s also not unique to me; I don’t do well with promoting my work. A few years ago I signed up to do a reading of a piece I was especially proud of at a bookstore in front of a local writers’ club; it went over gangbusters. People came to me and said how much they loved it, which sounds made-up to me sitting here now but really did happen. I made a note to make this group a regular part of my life… but schedules, tiredness, laziness, my living an hour away, my day-to-day existence being so separate from that world all conspired against that notion, and when I looked at it deeply, it was kind of all I needed, just knowing I was still good enough to pull that off and confident enough to actually commit to it at least once. It was like the old story about Brian Wilson playing a song he’d just written in private, having it received rapturously, then never pulling it out again. Not to compare myself to Brian, although “the world’s not waiting just for me / the world don’t care what I could be” seems relevant and is still, I think, wise, so long as you realize “the world” is not in the wrong there. But I should’ve devoted myself to it all more, and I still probably should. Another part of me believes that in my new role at work I should withdraw totally from online and just pour my energy into this thing that is so newly fulfilling for me, and take my therapist’s advice and actually relax at night instead of worrying about posting quality stuff here and there and everywhere.
I’ve always leaned on the fact that this is fun for me; at times it’s even soothing… certainly I think that writing about the Beatles at length in the last year and a half has been an enormous source of comfort to me, which I don’t say lightly, and coming here and reviewing Hitchcock films, the stuff I know like the back of my hand at this point, is equally enriching and joyful. But I can’t get away from how, as my anxiety gradually improves, “I need to do this” is giving way to “I don’t have to do this.” I wonder if the day will come when I break the pattern set in 2005 and see a film without feeling a need to write about it, apart from giving it a rating for my own private records. After all, if I were doing this thirty years ago, there’d be no one to potentially see it; now it’s out there, it just doesn’t stand a chance of moving any needle anywhere in the world.
Even in cinephile circles, I don’t feel like my particular digressive style or way of thinking would win many fans or cohorts, which sounds like a very ego-driven statement when written out but isn’t really meant that way. I really don’t come at this stuff with the thought of an agenda, even when an agenda would probably be quite handy. During the recent discourse over Martin Scorsese’s comments and subsequent (very good) op-ed about the ubiquity of Marvel-style blockbusters, I was stymied a bit by the fact that I don’t have much greater an understanding of Scorsese’s work than I do of the Marvel pictures I’ve seen, as you know if you’ve suffered through my obligatory tortured visits to Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Casino. (I’ve softened on Goodfellas a little bit.) It just isn’t the kind of stuff that interests me, and the same goes for a whole of the serious canon of the Film Twitterverse: broadly speaking Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, David Cronenberg and Bong Joon-ho don’t do much for me, nor do “genre films” as a rule, and while I have some affection for David Lynch, I don’t see him as the absolute master so many suggest, not least because so many of his major works are schlocky variants on Shadow of a Doubt. (While we’re at it, it’s really interesting to me how every Scorsese film is secretly feminist or really morally concerned about the things it depicts, but every Hitchcock film is secretly a woman-hating diatribe and endorses every single thing its characters do.) I also harbor no serious affection for trash, except as something to laugh at with no stakes; I understand finding it interesting, but not making it the entire platform from which one experiences an artform. And not having any interest in thinking or talking about Star Wars for the rest of my life doesn’t exactly put me in the camp of fun conversationalists. I like a lot of the movies these people habitually make fun of; Greta Gerwig is a brilliant writer-director and actor, and though it’s been long enough that I’ve started to doubt my convictions (something else I’m great at), I thought Beasts of the Southern Wild was incredible.
I’m not saying any of this to be difficult, and I’m not making any of it up to be a contrarian. It did feel very strange that everyone was flinging themselves full-force into the Marvel debate while I was having a revelation of sorts with Ozu’s Early Summer and I couldn’t help feeling like I was the one who was doing more with my time. But taking things off the web for a moment, it also seems like the more films I see, the more opinions I form, the more this whole realm becomes completely separate from any existence I actually have as a social being. I really pour my heart out about music and movies and stuff online, but it’s like pulling teeth to get me on the subject among most friends or even, really, anywhere, because I don’t like the way I sound when I say these things out loud instead of just typing them. It’s been said that gaining deep knowledge of politics renders it impossible to engage in friendly conversation about politics with anyone, and I think the same is true for any subject. I would just sound like I was trying to be exhausting to people. Moreover, I think it’s just sort of rude to inflict your “takes” on people in the wild, so I don’t… but at the same time, the near-religious experiences I’ve lately had with the likes of Andrei Rublev and Ordet and Last Year at Marienbad make me strongly wish there were some way to bring it happily into the rest of my life rather than censuring it altogether. I think a big problem is that in America, we’re very much trained to see cultivated taste in art (not that I’m making that lofty a claim for myself, it’s just a handy way of putting it) as inherently snobbish. I’m sure a big reason for that is how much we tie monetary value to everything; box office numbers are sport, and people champion their corporate-sanctioned fandoms as personal validation. It’s their right but I don’t know how to operate in that context.
Nothing’s probably going to change. I’ll most likely keep posting in the ether until I die or the internet and/or planet dies. I’ll just be feeling slightly pessimistic about whether there’s any point to it, and trying to find peace with the idea that not everything needs a point. In other words, we come back to the old axiom: I should really just relax.
Of course I wrapped up the top 100 from They Shoot Pictures — results linked here — and started my 1950s canon project, while also resuming the Best Picture nominees which continue to take forever. I put together a rough draft of my list of favorite films of the current decade, to which I continue to make additions. One momentous housekeeping decision I made this goround was to give Alfred Hitchcock’s Mary its own capsule rather than just adding it to Murder!; my feeling was that the films have different casts and nothing in common apart from their basic story, the same director and the use of the same sets. I also finally saw the silent version of Blackmail, longtime bucket list item, and elected not to provide it with its own separate review, the logic being that it uses much of the same footage and only features one cast change. I can’t guarantee I made the right decision but I can guarantee I’ll doubt my own judgment about this extremely petty matter for the forseeable future. Anyway, as far as we’re concerned, Hitchcock now has 54 features rather than 53.
Full reviews this cycle: Quite a few this time! Combined both Gaslights into a single piece here (slight downgrade for the remake; Lboxd); waxed rhapsodically about Night of the Hunter (slight upgrade to masterpiece status and a new all-time top 100 entry; Lboxd); was unexpectedly inspired by La Dolce Vita (upgrade; Lboxd); finally dissected the delirious coupledom of The Thin Man (slight downgrade; Lboxd); sank back into the wonderful terrible world of Stanley Kubrick’s sleazy, star-making The Killing (Lboxd); realized anew just how moved I was by The Docks of New York (slight upgrade; Lboxd); met a new all-time favorite in the form of Early Summer (Lboxd); and offered some music blog crossover with Magical Mystery Tour.
Other films seen: I had an opportunity to return to one of my favorite Coen brothers films, The Hudsucker Proxy, and found it still holds up for me, though I didn’t quite have the energy to really write about it yet. I kept pressing along with my usual cycle of revisiting Hitchcock, with Dial M for Murder on the docket followed by the perfect Rear Window, which I watched on my new Blu-ray and noticed things I’d never seen in it before. This was leading up to a couple of ’50s Hitchcocks that will be newly reviewed in this space in the coming months. Meanwhile, as you may know I’m extensively exploring the Beatles’ career in my other blog and I’ve reached the point of running through their cinematic output, leading to a few new thoughts on the previously-reviewed A Hard Day’s Night and Help! as well as the aforementioned Magical Mystery Tour.
New Blu-ray releases, of which more below, brought new viewings and notes for Sherlock Jr.; The Navigator (slight downgrade); Do the Right Thing (slight upgrade to masterpiece/top 100 status); Blackmail (as noted); The Blood of a Poet; Underworld; The Last Command; Haxan (in the alternate Witchcraft Through the Ages print); Cluny Brown (slight downgrade); and, though I was very drunk at the time, The Fearless Vampire Killers.
Keeping it going with the 2010s rewatch project — again, very slowly but surely. This time out:
– I, Tonya
– Take This Waltz
– Lady Bird
– Clouds of Sils Maria
– Finding Dory
– Green Room
– Good Time
– The Turin Horse (slight upgrade)
They all remained about the same in my estimation except Take This Waltz, which really really struggles for me in the first half, and Lady Bird, which I think I deeply underrated, as well as The Turin Horse, which I kind of already knew I had severely underrated.
Non-feature or non-cinema screened: Fleabag is pretty good, although I object to the presence of the Cool Priest archetype. Talking of Lynch, been revisiting Twin Peaks and haven’t quite gotten to the point in the original series where it gets bad yet. PlutoTV has this MTV Rock Block channel and I didn’t know how much I missed the music videos of the early 1990s. (Recommendations: Prince’s “Get Off”; TLC’s “What About Your Friends?”; Mariah Carey’s “Emotions.”) Also, we saw the Mystery Science Theater 3000 live show at Wilson Center and it was very funny even though I couldn’t get into the revival series at all. The movie being riffed was something called No Retreat, No Surrender which was exactly as beautiful as it sounds.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– The presentation quality on Warner Archive’s recent HD reissues of Gaslight, The Thin Man and The Fearless Vampire Killers is above reproach. Gaslight helpfully includes the original UK version of the film, though only in standard-def.
– The second and third volumes of Cohen’s Buster Keaton series were just as gorgeous as the first, though I may stop here unless they take a stab at the shorts. But it’s unbelievable how good those films look; they lack any extras at all, but you really can’t beat the condition of the restored prints.
– The best release of the year is almost certainly Criterion’s package for Do the Right Thing, which is simply extraordinary in all respects from packaging to presentation to supplements. I’m also enormously grateful for the red carpet treatment they gave to Chaplin’s wonderful The Circus, for me his second-best feature after City Lights. Their reissue of Haxan made Halloween extra spooky this year; though they added very little new material, the film is so clear now you feel you could reach out and touch it. And as if programmed to make me happy, they reprinted one of my most longed-for out of print items, the 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg set, now on Blu with the same extras but upgraded transfers; as usual, they are almost beyond question the standard-bearers.
– Over in Region B, Studio Canal reissued The Blood of a Poet, previously in a Criterion DVD box, but it looks good and the supplemental material is solid.
– Kino Lorber has recently happened upon a host of prestige titles to which Criterion and other companies previously held the rights. Their releases of Ealing’s masterful Kind Hearts and Coronets (with a terrific Kat Ellinger commentary) and The Lavender Hill Mob were more than welcome, though it’s bittersweet that Kind Hearts lost the magnificent extras from Criterion’s old DVD. (It now becomes one of the few films of which I’m keeping multiple copies on the shelf.) I never had the pleasure of checking out Criterion’s old Last Year at Marienbad release so the current Kino Blu more than satisfies me as a new fan of that film. For me the most anticipated home video event of the year was the same company’s unleashing, for the first time, of high-quality domestic versions of Hitchcock’s early British sound pictures Blackmail and Murder!, both presented with their alternate versions. The results were uneven but still mostly excellent; some controversy over Blackmail‘s aspect ratio (in the sound version) has persisted but it does look very good to me all the same, and the silent version in the BFI restored print looks magnificent. (Indeed, it seems this has been the theme of the Blu releases I’ve purchased this year; silent pictures suddenly look cleaner and newer than talkies.) Murder! unfortunately is still in rather poor condition, though it looks as good as it probably ever can without a huge influx of restoration money; Kino compensates by including an upscale of the rare Mary plus a fine Nick Pinkerton commentary track. I’m so very thrilled that these films are readily available in good editions finally, but I do wish Kino would take a little more care so pesky issues like the Blackmail problem could be avoided.
– Mildly disappointed with Masters of Cinema’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Criterion’s Cluny Brown, both apparently due to the use of rather waxy Fox transfers. The Brooklyn disc uses a bunch of extras from an aborted DVD release of the title from many years back; Criterion’s Cluny supplements are a tad better despite dreadful artwork. I’m still glad to have both films, which have been oddly esoteric on disc.
– Unexpected travels and other problems have waylaid my plans of keeping up with this stuff as devotedly as I’d like, but I look forward to checking out Warner Archive’s Days of Wine and Roses; Kino Lorber’s Seven Days to Noon (at last!), Christmas in July and Hitchcock BIP box set; Masters of Cinema’s The Golem and The African Queen; and Criterion’s All About Eve.
Thirty new capsules follow.
Big Eyes (2014, Tim Burton)
Tim Burton’s biopic of kitsch painter Margaret Keane, whose husband Walter got rich taking credit for her work for decades, shares its screenwriting team with Ed Wood but is an utterly pedestrian treatment of potentially interesting material, made worse by its inability to settle on a consistent tone; marital and interpersonal tragedy collide with broad comedy and misjudged cultural satire. The depth and nuance in Amy Adams’ performance clash badly with Christoph Waltz’s dreadful, sitcom-like hamming, which renders the film almost impenetrably loud and unpleasant.
Carnage (2011, Roman Polanski) [c]
Dull, endlessly talky adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage is a textbook example of stage not translating at all to film — every excuse conjured up for its four characters (Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly) to remain in the same place and continue their excruciating argument about one couple’s kid beating up another couple’s kid renders the whole enterprise increasingly ridiculous and unnatural. Polanski’s treatment of the material is shockingly uninspired, and all of the performances are badly pitched and mediocre save Winslet, who has a pretty good vomiting scene.
Last Year at Marienbad (1961, Alain Resnais) [hr]
Hypnotic, menacing filmed dream slash nightmare vaguely tells through words and images the story of a couple who may or not have met before; one persuades and one doubts, and we’re never sure what to believe. But even the lack of a concrete narrative isn’t the point; rather it’s the invigorating way all of the mystery washes over you. A beguiling film that demands repeated viewing but enchants regardless of how familiar one is with it.
Gertrud (1964, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [r]
Dreyer’s last film is comprised almost entirely of sets of two people — usually the increasingly resigned Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) and one of her current or former lovers — sadly bickering while staring into space facing anything except one another, set against barren whiteness or the occasional idyllic scene of ironic beauty. While the director’s insistence on the urgency of all this yearning is admirable, it verges on pure soapiness and forces the actors into some rather stilted exchanges. It’s the sort of arthouse touchstone you can very easily mock, but also a totally convincing expression of a terminally morbid, romantically stunted mood.
Chi-Raq (2015, Spike Lee)
If anything, Lee’s Lysistrata update as hip hop anti-violence musical is more focused than BlackKklansman; its tangents do all center around the same ideas even if some of them seem strictly intended to stretch out the runtime. The problem is unevenness of quality: when the film focuses on its musical and socially conscious elements, it’s often imaginative and moving and it just works. As a sex comedy, however, it absolutely doesn’t. Lee is never anything but an exciting, lively filmmaker but watching him work with subpar material is extremely uncomfortable, as his flailing only grows more desperate the further he sinks.
Citizenfour (2014, Laura Poitras) [hr]
The real-time document of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations of incriminating NSA-related documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald, witnessed by filmmaker and writer Laura Poitras, is unexpectedly tense and claustrophobic, with a real sense of danger exacerbated by the obvious nervousness of all involved. It’s a rare opportunity to see history actually happening, and even after the bottle is uncorked and we leave the Hong Kong hotel room where most of the conversations have taken place, there is still a sense of unresolved fear that isn’t dimmed by the closing reunion.
Shoah (1985, Claude Lanzmann) [hr]
An equally emotional but less visceral approach to the Holocaust than the other key filmed document of it, Resnais’ Night and Fog. Lanzmann inundates us with details from every conceivable angle for over nine hours, presenting evidence of the collective hole still left in humanity; as oral history it’s one of the most important records of a lived experience that we have, and as cinema it’s unimpeachable. The most fascinating motif is the examination of place. You can feel the lingering despair everywhere we’re taken, when the buildings are intact, when there’s mere rubble, when there’s nothing — which somehow is most distressing of all.
Pickpocket (1959, Robert Bresson)
A brilliant formal investigation of the physical act of the title is made to clash with a Dostoevsky-like spiritual redemption that depends greatly upon the audience’s own investment of personal detail since its characters, particularly its gray-rock protagonist played by Martin LaSalle, are blank slates fulfilling an elementary narrative; it’s not so much that we’re given little information as we’re given little reason to believe there’s much to know beyond what is explicitly, philosophically, morally laid in front of us.
Playtime (1967, Jacques Tati) [hr]
Not the balletic comedy you tend to expect, much more of a surreal, colorful, purely emotive exploration of urban civilization taken in at its full breadth, and even that is selling short its massive immersiveness and spirit. It boggles the mind that Tati was able to make this; it’s a sensory, abstract experience whose appeal is almost impossible to explain. As much a pure sensory experience as the following year’s 2001.
Contempt (1963, Jean-Luc Godard) [hr]
Welcome to Godard-world: the men are arrogant violent shits, the women are beautiful and endlessly put-upon, and the only true force of good is Fritz Lang. This film’s three clearly divded acts each have their pleasures, agonies and metatextual curiosities; primarily concerned with the rapid disillusionment of a marriage and a simultaneous act of creation, the whole thing is structurally fascinating but has enough emotional weight and narrative elegance to be more immediately engaging than the typical Godard “filmic essay.” You’ll hate it, you’ll love it, etc.
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson)
A man — er, donkey — must break his back to earn his day of leisure, etc.
Mirror (1975, Andrei Tarkovsky) [hr]
A visual poem that makes sense only in the most visceral terms — as a treatise on memory and dreams and a highly personal examination of how images and events from childhood inform the way that adult life is experienced and remembered, and as a Bergman-like example of a film that unapologetically lives inside the extremity of its emotions. I’m completely disinterested in cracking the “code” or whatever of what Tarkovsky’s “plot” and message here are, because that’s all semantics that have nothing to do with why the actual experience of watching it is so moving.
Mary (1931, Alfred Hitchcock)
German-language version of Hitchcock’s Murder!, shot simultaneously with different actors, is essentially just a poorly done highlight reel of the British film, dispensing with the flavor, quirk and genuine experimentation that make it so fascinating. Plus, Alfred Abel makes no sense in the Herbert Marshall role. A one-time curio for Hitchcockian types.
Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [hr]
By turns riveting in its claustrophobic intensity and simmering menace, emotionally overwhelming in the purity of its love for its characters and the grief it shares with them, and in the end, staggering in its grace as a cinematic expression of the miraculous. A magnificent film about faith because it posits that faith will come to and rescue those who need it, and it comes about this process not through the factions and discord of organized religion but through the barer, more honorable paths of love and belief and through the yearnings of the outwardly simple. Dreyer’s hand is gentle on our shoulders.
Battling Butler (1926, Buster Keaton) [hr]
One of the best-sustained plots of any of the Keaton features thanks to a genuinely engaging scenario involving his roughing-it rich boy being mixed up with a lightweight boxing champion as part of a semi-accidental deception of his girlfriend. The side characters are atypically well developed, especially Sally O’Neill as the love interest who enters by seeing straight through Keaton’s Thoreau charade. The various threads don’t wrap very neatly but the ride is great fun, and as usual, a strong case is made for Keaton as underrated visual stylist.
Journey to Italy (1954, Roberto Rossellini) [hr]
Rossellini’s loose, on-the-run approach is well-suited to the story of an unfurling chasm between an distant couple (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders), fused with a mournful travelogue. The dialogue has no poetic distance, the camera seeks no beautification of misery, yet the characters’ hearts are always unmistakable and the picture does not shy away from their torment.
Andrei Rublev (1966, Andrei Tarkovsky) [hr]
One of those movies that instantly humbles you. To call it a biopic of a medieval Russian painter of icons, famous for his Trinity, and an “epic” is technically truthful while missing the essence completely. Its eight individual episodes each work as singularly impressive short features all on their own, whether transfixed with spare dialogue and moments between Rublev and other characters, with Tarkovsky’s endlessly hypnotic movement of the camera that seems instrinsically tied to our emotional experience of everything we see, or with the genuinely arresting portrait of both the mundane and the extraordinary. It seems somehow to contain everything.
Picnic (1955, Joshua Logan)
Oscar-nominated theater adaptations like this grew on trees in the 1950s; this one, in which shirtless William Holden comes to a small town and trips everyone up with his hobo ways and (supposedly) crude sexuality, starts out intriguing enough and certainly benefits from its relatively accomplished cast, but when the central event of the Labor Day picnic hits, everything slides downhill fast. Logan’s direction suffers from its very stilted flailing at depicting a down-home Good Time, and then lacks the schlockiness to go full-on Sirk despite its share of fistfights and horny night drives.
Nights of Cabiria (1957, Federico Fellini) [hr]
(Revisit; major upgrade.) If it lacks the technical aptitude, breadth and immersive nature of La Dolce Vita, this earlier Fellini classic achieves a more deliberate and heartfelt kind of sweep through its hyper focus on the life of the title character, so beautifully played by Giulietta Masina in what easily qualifies as one of cinema’s signature performances. The camera seems constantly aware of the larger world and the limitations of Mastroianni’s basically empty life, but here, the headstrong and world-weary but still naively hopeful Cabiria lives through a series of disappointments that become completely our own, feeling as insular for us as for her.
Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler) [r]
There’s a certain gleeful energy in seeing so much Afrofuturist-derived imagery in mainstream entertainment (Ruth Carter more than earned that Oscar); and it’s nice to see an ensemble cast comprised almost totally of black actors, but I do wish they were given better things to do than the usual exposition-spouting with occasional extremely strained “quip.” As is typical of large-scale films like this, the whole thing loses its way near the climax, when Coogler is forced to stage entire scenes through bad CGI and all possible drama stops dead. Chadwick Boseman is compelling despite poor writing, but Michael B. Jordan wipes the floor with him.
Friendly Persuasion (1956, William Wyler) [r]
Gorgeously shot chronicle of a Quaker family’s plight in Civil War-era Indiana demonstrates that for all his ample talents, Wyler wasn’t much of a comedy director. Apart from a run of slapstick gags involving an angry goose, every moment that intends to land humorously is strained and artificial, while the solemn elements for the most part achieve more gravity and emotional connection. The cast is terrific, especially Gary Cooper as the stoic but open-hearted patriarch and Anthony Perkins, phenomenal as the elder son with an urge to fight for the Union whose internal conflict makes itself deeply felt without overstatement or sentimentality.
Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Robert Bresson)
Almost every outdoor shot in this is effortlessly lyrical and stunning, but the aesthetic pleasures and emotional resonance unfortunately end there. It feels ike you’re watching the scenario — a youthful but sickly and alcoholic priest spends two hours in utter consternation about absolutely everything — played out by a robot, in this case the rather attractive but puppet-like Claude Laydu. As in all of his most famous films, Bresson seems defiantly disinterested in the very concept of an active, complex inner life.
America America (1963, Elia Kazan) [r]
Haskell Wexler’s stunning black & white photography is the most obvious virtue of this Kazan passion project — a three-hour narrative of his uncle’s journey to America from his impoverished village in Turkey — but by no means the only one. While episodic by necessity, the film is frequently absorbing enough in sections to get across a genuine sense of harrowing journey, all driven by Stathis Giallelis’ incredibly well-controlled performance as young, determined, struggling Stavros. Despite an unevenness of tone and some odd casting, it still has depressing relevance to the killing-yourself-to-live nature of poverty.
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Alain Resnais) [hr]
Opens with sensuality and tragedy fused into something as emotionally raw as art gets, then digresses into a masterfully pure cinematic (but also verbally rich) exploration of not just the brief, stabbing pangs of a short-lived romance but the generalized human relationship with loss, memory and trauma. As in Last Year at Marienbad, with which it shares a hypnotic consciousness of the way the past lingers like a fog within physical spaces, Resnais’ avant garde textures are made easily communicative by the universal truths they express. It is dreamlike and probing but never confounding.
Three Smart Girls (1936, Henry Koster) [c]
Dreadfully thin comedy about three sisters (one Universal’s “new discovery,” Deanna Durbin) living in Switzerland who go to NYC to visit their uncaring, aloof father who divorced their mom a decade ago, determined to Parent Trap him back into their young adult lives as he stands on the cusp of marrying a gold-digging opportunist. It’s a parade of high-pitched whining with periodic stabs of random opera, smug schmoozing around by the likes of Ray Milland and John King, casually toxic behavior by nearly everyone, and the weakest and most ineffectual kind of farcical “business” filling the time between awkward crises.
The Prince of Tides (1991, Barbra Streisand)
An instructive story about how a stoic, unfeeling, confused man’s life can be changed by opening up to a therapist, especially if she’s hot and has sex with him. (CW: threats made against violins.)
Support the Girls (2018, Andrew Bujalski) [r]
For the first hour, this subtly pro-worker slice of life about the comings and goings among the young female staff at a sports bar and their long-suffering, kind-hearted manager (Regina Hall in a flawlessly judged, sensitive performance) is an absolute dream of natural, believable energy and understated emotional complexity. It goes off the rails near the end but the dialogue never flags, nor does the actors’ reading of it, and it does get eloquently at the ruthless wheel-spinning, futility and exploitation at the center of life under capitalism, but somehow its departure feels too abrupt to suggest the kind of meaning that its characterizations deserve.
The Lighthouse (2019, Robert Eggers) [hr]
The funniest Odd Couple remake yet! Like The Witch, this oceanic bad-weather folktale is rather vague as a piece of storytelling, nothing more or less than a piece of atmosphere — all iconic moments and foreboding images and sketched-out ideas that Eggers thought would be really cool. And he was right! What moments, what ideas, what a pair of outrageous performances (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson); add this to black & white film stock framed at 1.20:1 plus gorgeously designed sets and the boxes are ticked off whether I want them to be or not.
A Field in England (2013, Ben Wheatley)
Credit to the lovely black & white cinematography, witty dialogue and keen sense of open-aired claustrophobia, but it’s hard to genuinely like Wheatley’s bizarre treatise on the Aguirre-like fate befalling a group of deserters from the English Civil War who fall in with a nefarious alchemist and get high on shrooms. The whole thing is so dense and never really finds a groove after its intriguing initial setup; frankly, the aesthetic ingredients might well have been better suited for a straightforward war movie.
Amazing Grace (2018, Sydney Pollack) [hr]
Pollack’s unfinished documentary about the recording of the best-selling gospel record of all time is both a musical powerhouse and a cinematic joy, shot on phantasmagoric 16mm film in 1971. Aretha Franklin’s performance feels like humanity in peak form, in terms of raw emotion and elegant artistry; this isn’t unusual for her, but it’s amplified in the context of the Church, the world that spawned her as no other could have. You get front-row seats to Detroit musical history transplanted to L.A., and to the awe-inspiring scope of American music (specifically, black music) in all of its spiritual heft. Unmissable.