Capsule digest #7
Before we get to this newest collection of movie capsules, which cover the period from February 20th to May 3rd of this year, I need to ask for your attention briefly. We’re all in lockdown, presumably watching movies. I’d like to share a recent tweet from Nick Pinkerton:
I’ve bitched and whined about the theatrical experience in my hometown for years; the selection blows, the experience is often infuriating and disappointing. And I do disgaree with Pinkerton in that I don’t uniformly prefer seeing films projected to seeing them at home; two of the best movie experiences I ever had were downright blasphemous, Fantasia while lying on the floor in my old apartment with headphones on, and The Turin Horse on a tiny Dell Inspiron laptop while bedridden with a common cold. Nevertheless, his point basically stands insofar as I find myself really missing the procedure of the whole thing. And sometimes it’s wonderful, regardless of inconvenience.
Here are a few of the theatrical experiences that have stuck in my mind over the years, roughly chronologically:
1. On the occasion of Bambi‘s July 1988 rerelease (thanks to IMDB for allowing me to finally put a date to this), my parents took me and it had the expected effect, magnified and remembered terribly fondly throughout the seventeen-year gap between that experience and the second time I saw the movie, on DVD in 2005. I was four years old but can still vividly recall the reaction of the child in front of me at the film’s key moment, and the exact phrasing of the question he posed to his mom when trying to decipher what had just happened. Curiously, I don’t remember my own reaction to that same moment very clearly; in fact, I believe my mom may well have warned me before we saw the film of the decisive event, which was probably wise.
2. Our attempts to see Jurassic Park on its opening weekend in Wilmington were curbed; every single screening was sold out. Being exactly the target age and gender for Spielberg’s dinosaur opus, I was already predisposed to love the film (and had even prematurely purchased a pencil box with the logo), but tried to mute my anticipation for it because even then, something about appearing too excited about anything felt gauche. My parents — who were slightly worried I’d be excessively frightened by the film — had some sort of an argument that afternoon, I cannot remember about what, but at the last possible second during our long trek from Wilmington back to Oak Island, Dad — whose car Mom and I were following in another vehicle — abruptly put his turn signal on and headed into the small four-screener in Southport, formerly a rinky-dink second run outlet where we’d watched Batman Returns several months after its initial release. It was the latest at night I’d been to a movie, probably 9 or 10pm, and my major response was laughter. The entire thing was so thrillingly destructive, I couldn’t contain myself. It was an absolutely joyous experience that the film itself can never possibly live up to, though I will say that when it was reissued in 2013 for its twentieth anniversary, I got choked up at the sight of the “park entrance” (and the images of limping Richard Attenborough) when it showed up in a trailer while I sat next to my mom for an IMAX screening of Skyfall. It was one of the first times I was really confronted with my advancing age.
3. The first movie I saw without adult accompaniment: spring 1995, the racist Disney comedy Man of the House starring Chevy Chase and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. The film wasn’t the least bit funny even then, although the friend I was with laughed at pretty much everything until he gave up on the movie and started goofing around behind the curtains that lined the walls with a group of other kids. It felt very sophisticated to be out “on my own” until that happened, even though I was watching Chevy Chase in Native American garb. Similar firsts: the first R-rated movie I saw theatrically, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow in 1999, though I was still just young enough that a family member had to tag along; the first movie I saw by myself, Along Came a Spider, a Morgan Freeman vehicle I have completely forgotten, in 2001; and the first actually good (or at least decent) movie I saw by myself, Tim Burton’s (!) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005.
4. December 19, 1997 — Titanic‘s opening night, before its gargantuan status as a cultural phenomenon had time to take hold. I was totally enchanted, so much so that I basically promised myself I wouldn’t watch it again being fully aware it wouldn’t hold up a second time (a rule I finally broke in 2012 or 2013 for this blog; to my surprise I still liked the film a lot) though my prevailing memory of the experience is the mother in front of me covering the eyes of a young boy of about ten every time Kate Winslet’s breasts showed up.
5. In mid-2005 my girlfriend and I saw Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds with the rowdiest audience I’ve encountered before or since; people openly talked to the screen, cell phones went off, people were darting between seats and in and out of the theater, and someone probably had sex somewhere in the room. All were there to fawn at the massive visage of Tom Cruise, “father of Suri,” the biggest and most notorious celebrity in the universe at the time — the Special Guest Villain in all of our lives. Ordinarily mortified by this sort of thing, I had no choice in this case but to embrace the chaos, and I was probably a stronger person for it. Speaking of Spielberg, my favorite solo movie experience came in the first week of 2006, when I attended a midnight screening of Munich on the cusp of a bounty: a whopping two full days off from my grocery store job. The world seemed to spread out into infinity, and I was treated with exactly the kind of slavishly historical thriller I loved most at the time.
6. Woody Allen was for many years my favorite active director — again, largely a question of my being precisely his target age and demographic at the time — and I must say that seeing Match Point on a rainy night was an unforgettable experience. I was at first miffed when a group of older folks came and sat immediately next to me despite our positionining in a largely empty screening room, but it was somewhat worth it when various climactic events made them audibly gasp. And I can fondly remember Midnight in Paris a few years after this and being unable to stop smiling the entire time; again, it could never possibly have the same effect now.
7. Within the span of a few months, seeing Children of Men, Zodiac and Ratatouille in theaters made for a consecutive procession of actual American masterpieces I don’t suspect I’ll be able to match. I had been enough of a Pixar diehard thanks to their early films to request a night off on the occasion of the opening of Cars, which of course had ended up being a dud, though I was in denial about it for a while, searching for hidden reasons why it was actually covertly brilliant and subversive. But then I wandered into a showing of Ratatouille that sold out immediately after I bought my ticket, which meant I was trapped far too close to the screen… and then I remembered what it’s like to watch a beautiful film you don’t have to make excuses for. My feeling after leaving the theater that night was absolute, unexaggerated elation; I spent the rest of the summer trying to convince people to go see it with me, unsuccessfully. This still stands as my favorite theatrical screening of a first-run film I’ve attended. Two years later I met my wife who sat in rapt attention with me as we watched Up. Pixar then quickly started to suck; the relationship just got better beyond this early signifier.
8. The only movie I’ve seen in another country: The Darjeeling Limited at the Eldorado in Brisbane, Australia, a former silent movie house built in 1925. Gorgeous. As my ex and I were leaving an old man stopped us to say “s’a nice place, India.”
9. Melancholia at Thalian Hall’s Cinematique event in 2011 — on an actual 35mm film print, their projection system not yet having DCP capability at the time — and all the olds complaining about it in the lobby afterward. One instructive Cinematique event later came when we saw the innocuous To Rome with Love and a man disrupted the entire massive room to yell at his wife for forgetting to turn her ringer off, a sound absolutely no one had noticed.
10. I went to the local Carmike to watch The Master by myself and was greeted with an audibly apathetic crowd who spent the film laughing derisively. But as I was walking out, I followed a middle-aged couple, the husband clearly affected by what he’d just seen and saying “that was a remarkable movie.” His wife’s eyes were darting around and she spotted something that intrigued her. “Hey — kiss me.” “What?” “That boy who works here just kissed his girlfriend and was trying to make sure nobody was watching. Kiss me.” So they did. Relationship goals.
11. My two (so far) NYC movie nights. The monumental experience of watching Frances Ha at the IFC in New York with Amber and a rapturous crowd. To a much lesser extent, Stories We Tell at the Angelika a few days later, only because I now get all the jokes about the noisy train passing and pretend I’m really cultured and shit when someone mentions it. Three years later in Maryland at the AFI Silver, we got to see Shoot the Piano Player and Nosferatu with live music on 35mm… but I think Frances Ha is still my favorite out-of-state experience thus far, maybe just because of the buoyancy it has the heart to leave you with.
12. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in 3D IMAX at the Marbles Children’s Museum in Raleigh; probably, sadly, not the best screen to see that film on, but standing in line for it and being rallied for the happening by employees who were clearly more accustomed to interacting with eight year-olds was unforgettable. Also, a woman loudly accused a man of calling her a cunt when she tried to cut him in line, at which point she raised her hand and voice to get everyone’s attention and yelled the letters “C-U-N-T,” the ideal introductory vignette for Cuaron’s space epic.
13. There was an endearingly bizarre chain theater, a Carmike, in Greenville where Amber went to college. It was halfway to being totally dead; it got first-run movies but the screenings were always half-empty and there was a concession stand in the hallway that seemed to have been in disuse for years. I found this place much more endearing than the flashier Regal across town. The one time we saw it crowded was at Gone Girl, and the staff seemed unclear on how to handle a popular event on its scale, because an entire room’s worth of people was staggered outside the door waiting to be let in several minutes past showtime. When the previous showing finally let out and the doors popped open, everyone flooded out looking like they had PTSD; again, a wonderful prelude to an incredible film.
14. 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm had been on my wishlist for as long as I could remember; in 2018 we got to see the next-best thing, a digital print in IMAX, and it was playing right out here at the damn Regal during an improbable national rollout by Warners. It was everything I wanted it to be, and solidifed my conviction that living this ridiculous life for art’s sake is all I really want to do.
15. And finally, Parasite… knowing nothing about Parasite‘s plot except what the trailers had let on, and experiencing it in a theater. It wouldn’t have been the same anyplace else.
I typically go through cycles with this. An experience like seeing Moonlight incompetently projected a few years back or having to listen to the entirety of the latest Star Wars while ostensibly watching Manchester by the Sea at Surf Cinemas in Southport will send me screaming back to my home and our modest TV and projector for some months. But eventually I come around; and of course, currently, I cannot. The least of our problems, for sure, the greatest of our problems being the morons now crowding the waterfront era; but it is somewhat ironic that Amber and I had recently returned to our ritual of going out to the movies nearly every week just before all this happened. Our last theatrical experience before the doors closed amid COVID-19 was a wonderful and long-desired one, North by Northwest (the first Hitchcock I’ve seen theatrically, and number two on my list of most-wanted big screen experiences after 2001). I truly think we’ll be back in the awful chain sixteen-screeners that surround us soon enough, and I don’t exactly want to sentimentalize them, but on the offchance that it’s all over, North by Northwest was probably the best note to go out on.
Now back to regular business.
Full reviews this cycle:
– The Compleat Beatles (LBoxd capsule; at least fifteenth viewing, last seen around 2010); and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (LBoxd capsule; seventh or eighth viewing, last seen around 2011) for the Beatles cinema project, which in terms of full-on essays is now probably finished.
– Throne of Blood (LBoxd capsule; third viewing, last seen 2016) — previously capsuled at this blog — to fill in a gap with the ’50s project since I’ve never really properly addressed it previously, and of course someday I’d like all of Kurosawa’s films to have long reviews here, so this was a perfect time to tackle this one.
Other films seen:
– Revival screenings before social distancing measures had to be taken: The Color Purple (second viewing, last seen 2018); and North by Northwest (ninth or tenth viewing, last seen 2012).
– Revisits to show to someone: Atlantics (second viewing, last seen earlier this year).
– Revisits due to Blu-ray releases: The Golem (second viewing, last seen 2015, although this time I watched the edited U.S. version); All About Eve (ninth or tenth viewing I think, last seen 2017); Holiday (1938 version — second viewing, last seen 2017).
– For 2010s revisit project (LBoxd pages linked): American Hustle (second viewing, last seen 2014); Isle of Dogs (second viewing, last seen 2018); and Sightseers (second viewing, last seen 2015).
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– I somehow failed to mention this when cataloging Kino Lorber’s release of Last Year at Marienbad a couple of months back, but Alain Resnais’ Toute la mémoire du monde — about the National Bibliotechque of France is hauntingly beautiful, vaguely menacing, and simply sublime for anyone in my profession or anyone who loves libraries. You can watch it yourself here.
– Was reacquainted recently with one of my favorite early short films, Segundo de Chomon’s The Golden Beetle, a marvel in hand-tinting and special effects.
– The most informative video I’ve seen in some time: 1997’s How to Have Cybersex on the Internet, excerpted here.
– I don’t normally bring up this sort of thing here, but the absolute insanity of this video by A Flock of Seagulls (1985) needs to be more widely recognized.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– All About Eve (Criterion): Yet another superb Criterion package (the drawings that populate the cover and booklet are magnificent) despite some early problems with the packaging that were, by the time I picked it up, wholly fixed. Eve has been issued on Blu before and I understand the image isn’t a big upgrade (although dazzling), but Criterion just contexualizes this stuff like no one else. The set carries over the supplements from the old Fox Studio Classics DVD, which are fine, but the material I’d personally never seen before was staggering in its breadth. There’s an amazing and admirably unpolished long interview with Joseph L. Mankiewicz that moves well past feature length and is considerably above par for talking-head documentaries. This is joined up by an informative look at the film’s costume designs and, from a subsequent DVD release by Fox, a decent featurette about Mankiewicz’s personal life and a short, winningly lurid tidbit about the feud between the author of the source material and its actual inspiration. I had great fun watching the two Dick Cavett episodes included, one interviewing Bette Davis (during the course of which it “becomes” the 1970s) and one with Gary Merrill, both insightful and fun subjects. I do wish the commentaries were new or scholarly instead of the old ones from the Fox discs which aren’t very good. The slightly disappointing booklet contains a mediocre essay and the short story The Wisdom of Eve, and wow, it’s really something that Mankiewicz managed to get this script out of that piece of piffle.
– The Golem (Masters of Cinema): Features a weak scholarly commentary track that focuses too little on history and too much on editorializing of the real-world mechanics of a Golem. But the restoration is sincerely jaw-dropping and the video essays are interesting, though some extrapolate pretty far out into wilderness to find continued evidence of the Golem in Jewish horror. It’s really just wonderful to see Eureka!/MoC tackling Weimar cinema again like old times.
– The African Queen (Masters of Cinema): On the other hand, this handsome package is one of the best MoC releases to date; admittedly there isn’t a whole lot of original content, instead consolidating a lot of existing material. But the long documentary and video essays are robust and informative, there’s a bloody fascinating interview with cowriter Peter Viertel as well as an audio Q&A with John Huston who’s always a treat, and even the commentary by Jack Cardiff and brief Q&A by Lauren Bacall don’t suffer from the haziness that you often encounter with that sort of material. The booklet is great, and the whole thing just looks terrific, in terms of both the packaging and the restoration itself. An incredibly strong set, really.
– Holiday (Criterion): The best package we’ll ever likely see for this film but not Criterion’s strongest effort. The big extra here is a welcome one, the entirety of the earlier 1930 film version of the play (reviewed below); it’s fun to see even though it’s much more of an ordinary early talkie and play adaptation than Cukor’s version. I’m very glad Criterion included it as it really gives you a chance to study what makes the classic 1938 version work so well. The other supplements are thin: a somewhat interesting but ho-hum conversation between two critics (Michael Sragow and Michael Schlesinger) about the film, which is upstaged by Dana Stevens’ excellent essay in the booklet. There’s an OK audio interview with George Cukor, who talks pretty extensively about specifics on adapting the play to the screen versus the older version. It’s a good set, no real complaints here, and the main thing is the film, which I’m so glad they saw fit to release in this form and looks utterly spectacular.
– Fail Safe (Criterion): Another astonishing release, comprised mostly of inherited materials all of which are very strong: a 2000 documentary featurette from the old Sony DVD, a surprisingly in-depth Sidney Lumet commentary (there are dead spots as usual with these old director tracks, but I mind that less and less these days, and everything he says is quite interesting, especially when he ties the whole plot to some skepticism about the 2000 presidential candidates!), the new J. Hoberman interview provides some welcome and informed Cold War context, and the Bilge Ebiri essay in the foldout, while inconvenient to read in that form, is validating for someone who’s celebrated this film for a long time. Plus I learned something new: the animation we see throughout the film on the “war room” screens was provided by Faith and John Hubley, about whom Lumet gushes multiple times throughout the commentary! Everything continues to tie together…
– Soon to come: Criterion’s Roma, a whole lot of cartoons and Dodsworth from Warner Archive, Flicker Alley’s “Bolshevik Trilogy” set of Pudovkin films, and a host of early cinema, avant garde and Leone westerns plus a Clouzot from Kino Lorber. Lot of catching up to do…
Venture below to find 30 new capsules, to be added to the Movie Guide immediately, with slightly longer Letterboxd writeups linked.
Umberto D. (1952, Vittorio de Sica) [r]
[1950s canon project.] (Second viewing, no change; last seen 2008.) Irresistibly sad neorealist film about an unlucky retired man unable to make ends meet on his pension and about to be evicted by a self-obsessed landlord. His only allies are a terminally dispirited maid and an impossibly cute doggie. Lyrically examines divisions and unity among young and old, rich and poor, human and animal, man and woman. De Sica undeniably stacks the decks so high it feels downright absurd, regardless of how true to life it clearly is — the characters mostly feel so faintly sketched-in that the tale comes off as simultaneously ageless and strangely obvious, even a bit sentimental, though I do prefer it muchly to Bicycle Thieves.
Random Harvest (1942, Mervyn LeRoy) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] This good-looking MGM production banks on your attraction to big emotional crescendos with little buildup; over the decade and a half after WWI, an amnesiac mental patient (Ronald Colman) creates a modest new life for himself with a highly nurturing and patient wife (the luminous Greer Garson) only to then, hilariously, suffer yet another concussion and suddenly become his old self. Would make a hell of a backdoor pilot for a Krazy Kat-meets-The Love Boat sitcom in which Colman hits his head and enters a new marriage each week. Think of the potential guest stars!
The Salesman (2016, Asghar Farhadi) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] A married couple who are members of a theater troupe seek out a new home after the apartment they’re staying in collapses, which leads them to an unexpected moment of brutality that threatens their lives in every sense. This is a harrowing odyssey of not just the complicated matter of juggling roles as member of family and member of society and of knowing how radically the idea of protecting someone you love can change on a dime, but of how men view themselves and construct narratively and socially convenient personalities for themselves, and the stories they and their loved ones tell each other to continue the illusion.
Short Term 12 (2013, Destin Daniel Cretton) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Parts of this surprisingly warm drama about the staff and occupants of a group home for teens have the ring of painful honesty, not only in its portrayal of the inner worlds of the adolescent characters (especially Lakeith Stanfield’s Marcus and Kaitlyn Dever’s Jayden) but in that of the supervisor played with extraordinary wisdom by Brie Larson and her slightly troubled romance with a coworker (John Gallagher Jr.). Writer-director Cretton is a little too preoccupied with that last element, but it’s hard to object too much to a film that probes mental health and abuse in an honest manner yet remains ultimately winning and even optimistic.
Bergman Island (2004, Marie Nyreröd) [r]
Filmed four years before Ingmar Bergman’s death at age 89, this intimate if slightly workmanlike documentary finds the fabled director in an introspective mood, puttering around his house on the island of Fårö where he filmed Through a Glass Darkly and subsequently made his isolated home. He is queried about life, legacy and filmmaking by Nyreröd, who doesn’t shy away from posing difficult questions that go far beyond technical or thematic concerns. When the man’s eccentricities come to the forefront, all you can think is, here is a person we’re not ever going to replace.
Ingrid Goes West (2017, Matt Spicer) [c]
[2010s catchup project.] Billed as a black comedy, this is really a car-crash rubbernecking observation of a mentally ill young woman (a credible Aubrey Plaza) whose entire world is centered on her Instagram likes, her desperation for friendship and stalking of a hapless influencer. Spicer is good at ramping up thriller scenarios but this is a strange context for them, especially when the mood is so frequently disrupted by bouts of rather broad jokes and commentary about the ugly world of life lived exclusively via social network. Ingrid feels more like a outsider’s punching-bag caricature of the needy online denizen than a person who’s hurting and slowly collapsing.
Starlet (2012, Sean Baker) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] The L.A. colors are ugly, the hellscape of bingo nights and garage sales relentlessly bleak, but somehow everything in Baker’s story about weird friendships and unspoken pasts eventually seems to shout out with calm humanism. Dree Hemingway’s Jane has a sunny demeanor initially tireless enough that you wonder if it’s for real, but this coalesces into charm as her sheer pluck becomes clear. It’s a winning characterization matched well by Besedka Johnson in her first and only film as the cantankerous Sadie; their hard-won relationship is as believable as if you lived through it. The film is funny, but its great virtue is what it doesn’t laugh at.
Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] The storyline in this effortlessly modern, progressive-feeling western isn’t that far removed from the conventions of the genre, but Ray’s sublimely serious-minded yet unpretentious execution places it in its own class, as does the extraordinary cast led by Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge and Sterling Hayden, those first two embodying powerful and sophisticated female characters that aren’t easily boxed into traditional hero or villain roles. Riveting and intriguingly modern all the way through.
Madame Curie (1943, Mervyn LeRoy)
[Best Picture nominees project.] Splashy all-star MGM biopic fusses up its depiction of the pioneering physicist (Greer Garson) who discovered radium with a bunch of cutesy exposition focusing on the wacky concept of a Lady Scientist plus the utterly banal depiction of her relationship to husband Pierre, inadequately played by Walter Pidgeon. Garson’s fine performance and some adventurous photography from the great Joseph Ruttenberg are all that recommend this tiresome, formulaic picture, which suffers from the same narratively inert dead ends as something like The Story of Louis Pasteur and serves little purpose outside the middle school science classroom.
Tangerine (2015, Sean Baker) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Baker’s compassion toward his subjects isn’t really questionable; where one might philosophically differ with him is in what seems to be a morbid fascination with people in their most desperate moments. Here he folds pure comic mania and well-observed detail into the day-to-day plight of two trans sex workers and their noirish gallery of associates and clients as a woman tries to confront her cheating partner in the course of a single 24-hour period. The more ridiculous and elevated it all gets, however, the more one wonders if it’s really meant to function as a gawking comic freakshow rather than a slice of life.
Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves) [r]
Inordinately entertaining and technically impressive found-footage thriller overcomes its very goofy premise (a Godzilla-like monster terrorizes New York City) with clever, resourceful direction and amiable enough actors, although the characterizations are dull enough that one is more than a little anxious for the carnage to set in. Drew Goddard contributed the script which lays the irony on a little too thickly, often feeling like something a teenager would write; most of the value here is in Matt Reeves’ startlingly intelligent staging of utterly ridiculous events.
Judy (2019, Rupert Goold)
[Academy Awards catchup.] Pandering exploration of Judy Garland’s final months is made a lot worse by Renee Zellweger’s caricatured, tic-ridden performance (although she does sing well) and poor, inconsistent writing that fails to make any of its real-life characters convincingly robust as people rather than historical figures.
Jojo Rabbit (2019, Taika Waititi) [NO]
[Academy Awards catchup/Best Picture nominees project.] A young anti-Semitic boy suffers a crisis of conscience after he makes friends with a Jewish girl to the chagrin of his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler; if that summary makes you want to see this, I’d like a word. The numerous tonal and sociopolitical problems with this deeply wrongheaded misfire pale next to just how aggressively unfunny it is — not one joke even kind of lands. The script is built from anachronistic Avengers-like smarmy dialogue, and the story is wildly overstuffed with ideas in a way that smacks of deep insecurity; it’s the most tone-deaf film to attain its level of notoriety since Life Is Beautiful.
The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi) [r]
[1950s canon project.] Much as Women of the Night was Mizoguchi doing Neorealism, this is Mizoguchi doing Bresson — essentially an episodic parade of oppression suffered by the title character (Kinuyo Tanaka, superb) at the hands of powerful men in 17th century Japan. We meet her as the disgraced daughter of a Samurai warrior who’s been censured and castigated as the result of a love affair and watch as she suffers one indignity, tragedy and humiliation after another. While formally beautiful and arresting, the story eventually becomes so one-note that it verges on the ridiculous; only the promise of eternal nothingness can offer redemption.
Arrowsmith (1931, John Ford) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Little of Sinclair Lewis’ sophistication or bite survives the Hollywood formatting of his novel about an innovative doctor’s career; this becomes a rudimentary character sketch, though an out-of-his-element Ford does come through with some striking indoor compositions. The film’s on solid dramatic ground in the early country doctor sequences then loses its grip when it travels to the West Indies, where Clarence Brooks is memorable in a refreshingly uncaricatured role as a black doctor. Arrowsmith’s interpersonal relationships offer more entertainment, partly because Helen Hayes is clearly more comfortable in her role than Ronald Colman is in his.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, Dan Trachtenberg) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] The tenuous connection to 2008’s Cloverfield barely even registers in this genuinely tense, frightening confinement thriller that has survivalist John Goodman holding two people hostage in his bunker, warning them of terrors outside; Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are phenomenal, the latter holding us completelhy in her corner for the duration. Each of the various horrifying turns the plot takes in the last half packs a real punch, like a whole season of Breaking Bad packed into a few minutes.
Things to Come (2016, Mia Hansen-Løve)
[2010s catchup project.] Not only is Isabelle Huppert brilliant and an absolute marvel to watch in this, Hansen-Løve gives her an extraordinarily well-drawn character with enough flaws and contradictions to approximate an actual human being. But she then gives that character almost nothing to work with; the story here is a banal, aimless odyssey of a well-off philosophy teacher enduring several personal crises (including the end of her relationship with her husband, also a philosophy teacher!?) and heavy-handed metaphors about life and death. It’s a bizarre combination of dramatic subtlety and thematic sledgehammering with nothing that rings false but nothing that surprises.
Holiday (1930, Edward H. Griffith) [r]
The first adaptation of Philip Barry’s play, later the basis for one of the most charming and resonant Hollywood comedies of the ’30s, is neither cast nor scripted with anything like the wisdom and grace of George Cukor’s film. The story is still compelling, but it plays much more as theater than real life. Ann Harding and Robert Ames simply don’t put across the chemistry required for the central roles, nor does Ames have the charisma to inspire a line like “life walked into this house this morning.” You do get a fine Mary Astor performance as non-“black sheep” sister Julia, but that’s the only note on which this version is at all preferable.
Cameraperson (2016, Kirsten Johnson) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Johnson puts together a kind of highlight reel of footage she’s shot as cinemtaographer for various documentaries over the years, placing an emphasis on moments that deeply challenge the separation between filmmaker and subject, and therefore the ethics of their relationship. This is a bit like Kiarostami’s Close-Up in its buried meta-narrative and erasing of the line between truth and cinema, but its conglomeration of basically unrelated clips ping-pongs so rapidly between emotional extremes that it’s actually a bit numbing.
First Reformed (2017, Paul Schrader) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] Another Schrader chronicle of a man’s deterioration, but this one is stronger in its sense of doom and claustrophobia, more inspired and elegant in its choice of premise, and finally more personally affecting despite its clear debts to Robert Bresson. Part of its success hinges on the extent to which it’s able to force identification, through the good work of both Schrader and an unexpectedly masterful Ethan Hawke, with the pastor of a tourist-trap Dutch Reformed church in New England as he copes with his anxieties, which already seem insurmountable before the building blocks of his worldview begin to tumble.
The Cranes Are Flying (1957, Mikhail Kalatozov) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] This is many things — a Soviet response to the trauma of World War II, a persuasive depiction of youthful romance in full bloom — but above everything it’s an example of a film in which the camera is wholly responsive to the moods and emotions of its characters, such that the specifics of those characters are less important than how easily Kalatozov and Sergey Urusevsky put their inner lives across in a manner transcending all verbal language. The camera behaves in ways that don’t seem physically possible; this is avant garde technique at perhaps its apex in service of something remarkably universal that never feels vague or rudimentary.
A Few Good Men (1992, Rob Reiner) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Wildly entertaining if somewhat dated courtroom drama has hotshot military lawyer Tom Cruise teaming up with compassionate cohort Demi Moore and just-kinda-there Kevin Pollak to defend a couple of Marines accused of hazing, on the basis that the murder they (accidentally?) committed was an order from on high. “On high” translates to top brass memorably portrayed by Jack Nicholson, who gives what may be his least subtle performance — which is saying something. Despite the broadly cartoonish energy Nicholson brings and the usual sexist indulgences of writer Aaron Sorkin, this is gripping and fun.
Sorry to Bother You (2018, Boots Riley) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] An anti-capitalist comedy — the fast-moving, witty directorial debut of the Coup’s Riley — about a man (Lakeith Stanfield, note-perfect) who finds success in his telemarketing job only upon adopting a “white voice.” Wonderfully original in its flights of fancy and painfully well-observed when it hews closer to lived-in reality; a movie of the moment, and a well-timed piece of true working class soldiarity from a real artist. Terrific music throughout from the Coup (naturally) and Tune-Yards.
First Man (2018, Damien Chazelle)
[2010s catchup project.] Even if the thesis of this frustrating chronicle of Neil Armstrong’s career through 1969 is that he was outwardly unable to express himself, thus limiting his private relationships, Ryan Gosling lacks the range to portray even this emotional distance competently. Chazelle concentrates heavily on appropriating elements of Kubrick, on playing up a contemporary-ish notion of what the moon landing “meant,” and on depicting NASA history in an in-your-face manner, but his attempt to turn this into a Malickian Right Stuff demonstrates that intentionally banal dialogue doesn’t turn your work into Pure Cinema if your compositions are equally rote.
Fail Safe (1964, Sidney Lumet) [hr]
(Second viewing, last seen 2000; no change and basically same old capsule.) Stanley Kubrick kept this film out of wide release in 1964 because it shared source material with his Dr. Strangelove, and he felt that a comedy couldn’t compete with a drama that had the same subject matter. Of course Strangelove is better, and Kubrick was probably right. All the same, it’s a missed opportunity that this is not a more famous movie, because it’s a real firecracker. Lumet, as usual, avoids Hollywood trappings and creates something with stylistic ingenuity and breathless intensity. Excellent performances all around, too.
Sherpa (2015, Jennifer Peedom) [r]
As their job becomes more dangerous due to climate change, the Nepalese Sherpas who escort white western tourists to the peak of Mt. Everest are experiencing greater risk and loss of life, and the divide between them and their clients has become more pronounced. Australian documentarian Peedom expected to make a film about how a veteran Sherpa (Phurba Tashi) and his family feel about his work, but she ended up inadvertently capturing the aftermath of a tragic avalanche that killed sixteen people and the absence of compassion from the powers that be. There’s impressive mountaineering footage, but the real subject is race and class, as it must be.
Game Night (2018, John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein)
[2010s catchup project.] Part of the new subgenre that also includes The Nice Guys and Spy: half-assed action thriller plus half-assed zaniness equals whatever this is. An enthusiastic cast led by Rachel McAdams (who’s quite fun) and Jason Bateman (who’s Jason Bateman) act out a sketchy script about a Fincheresque “game” initiated by Bateman’s well-off and popular brother Kyle Chandler going awry when actual criminals get involved. There are some laughs, but the frantic plotting so outpaces the humor in a desperation to maintain the interest of an audience given no credit whatsoever that it feels like a prolonged bludgeoning.
Private Life (2018, Tamara Jenkins) [c]
[2010s catchup project.] In this slice-of-life dramedy, the two most annoying and vapid people in the world are trying to have a child in their forties; Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn’s lead performances are hard to sit with for two hours, so imagine living with them. The monotony is broken a bit by Kayli Carter (as a niece and egg donor) and John Carroll Lynch (as her dad) who are both like an oasis in the desert but can’t overcome the scattershot writing and sheer tonedeafness that surrounds them.
The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Ferocious and brutal Lang film noir about a cop at the breaking point with citywide corruption. Not as hauntingly grim perhaps as Scarlet Street, but as usual in Lang’s American films it all feels strikingly uncompromised. Glenn Ford is masterful as an outwardly controlled tempest of emotional chaos, Lee Marvin chillingly believable in all his casual violence. A real thrill all in all.
King Solomon’s Mines (1950, Andrew Marton & Compton Bennett) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] The usual flagrantly racist Trader Horn African safari nonsense, but with above-par performances by Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, and the MGM production team delivering some remarkable images of not just wild animals cavorting gorgeously in the African plains but of genuine indigenous dances and culture seldom captured on film (though far be it from me to make claim that it was ethical for MGM to be the ones to package all this for American consumption). Plus its adventure episodes are consistently exciting and look flawless thanks to cinematographer Robert Surtees. Problematic as all get-out, no question, but solidly entertaining in its fashion.