Capsule digest #8
Still on lockdown, more or less. Who knows how many more of these we’ll get through before things are remotely back to normal again! I’m on kind of a roll with watching and reviewing stuff and I don’t want to slow down, so I’m going to race right into this here… it covers films viewed between May 3rd and July 7th of this year.
Full reviews this cycle: Few things give me more pleasure than writing about Hitchcock, but most (not all) of the masterpieces are now covered, so we move into the second tier with the still very fine if somewhat unnecessary remake of one of his early greats, the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (Lboxd — revisit, no change, last seen 2008), which I returned to for the 1950s canon project — and I must say, Universal’s Blu-ray release is a vast improvement on the old DVD. Few things are more difficult than writing about a film I love as much or consider as great as Deliverance (Lboxd — revisit, no change, last seen 2010) but I did that recently too, for the Best Picture nominees project.
Other films seen (with Lboxd links):
– For the continuing 2010s rewatch project, I revisited: Christine; Coco; Weekend; Certain Women; Manchester by the Sea; Get Out. All lived up to my original impressions and then some.
– I showed Amber Roma; Rolling Thunder Revue; and Playtime and the same goes for those as well.
– Corresponding with new Blu-rays, of which more below, I returned to Dodsworth and The End of St. Petersburg.
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– Quite a lot recently, but most of it’s covered in the Blu-ray section below. That said: while I rediscovered the old “scary stories” VHS favorite Teeny Tiny and the Witch Woman a few years back, I’d nearly forgotten about Ruth Brown’s exquisite readalong A Dark, Dark Tale until I ran across it a bit ago. Stick it out for the shocker ending!
– We’ve slowly continued Twin Peaks and have now reached the mediocre episodes I’d never seen, after the point when I gave up on it back in 2002 or so. We’ve stalled but we’ll finish it. I think.
– In the ’80s there was a PBS series called Alive from the Off-Center, a showcase for avant garde shorts and the like. My sister used to record it and many years later I ran across those tapes; one of the numerous faintly-remembered gems from those days was the early computer-assisted music video Concrete People, which the artiste himself has now posted online. Someday when I get around to transferring my old VHS tapes, dubbed from the air and from my sister’s collection, I will post more wonderful and bizarre stuff like this provided it doesn’t run up against any copyright claims.
– For Ringo Starr’s recent 80th, please feast your eyes on this wonderful interview with him and George Harrison from Ringo’s flamboyant “soused celeb” period of the 1980s.
– Talking of Beatles content, it is somehow new information to me that there was a video game based on the legedarily terrible Paul McCartney film Give My Regards to Broad Street, which regular readers will know is one of the ten worst films I’ve ever seen. Here is a mindbending, hypnotic walkthrough of said game.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– Roma (The Criterion Collection): Criterion’s first venture into rescuing a streaming-only venture for the physical media marketplace does this remarkable film proud, though I think my favorite feature of all may be the package itself, its thick booklet full of photos and essays, and truly gorgeous design. But the included documentaries are plenty immersive and give a great deal of insight on how much the finished film reflects Alfonso Cuarón’s own life and the world of his childhood in painstaking, compassionate detail.
– Tex Avery: Screwball Classics Vol. 1 (Warner Archive): At last, new classic animation on Blu-ray from the most storied archive of such material there is; this gathering of many of Avery’s biggest shorts from his MGM period (after he left the Schlesinger studio in the early 1940s) omits my all-time favorite of his non-Warner cartoons, King Size Canary, but has the iconic, wonderful Red Hot Riding Hood, wildly funny and inventive entries like Who Killed Who, and childhood favorites like Symphony in Slang that, to be perfectly honest, haven’t aged as immaculately as I’d hoped. Avery was a great and distinctive director, though I maintain he did his best work in the weeds at Termite Terrace; but the completely manic and unrestrained nature of his MGM work is like Harvey Kurtzman leaving Mad to go work for the slick Hefner pub Trump, except actually successful. (Avery is probably better known as an MGM director nowadays than as one for Warners.) The cartoons look incredible, full of character and vibrant life; not all are spectacular but all are creative, at times astonishingly so. The genius-level peaks here and there compensate for the lack of Warner-like charm or the artistic singularity of a Clampett or Jones.
That holds for the stand-alone films included; things decline a bit with the entrance of Avery’s recurring characters. The three Droopy shorts included here are too repetitive to be collectively impressive; the single joke of the premise never really goes anywhere, and Droopy actually becomes less nuanced and well-drawn over the course of the series. I’ve never been a great fan of Screwball Squirrel — creating a character whose entire gimmick is his lack of any moral or aesthetic limit feels like a game of netless tennis to me — but the staggering darkness of something like The Hick Chick is vastly more fun and interesting than anything you could do with a character as one-dimensional as Droopy. And this illustrates an overall problem with MGM’s output (see below): it’s mostly just Warner Bros. with a higher budget covering up a surfeit of enthusiasm. There’s a bit of an adolescent vibe to Avery’s work that frequently makes it refreshingly uninhibited but just as often exposes the limitations of a very specific and very narrow kind of juvenile humor; you’re left with little doubt that a version of Avery born in a subsequent generation would be as likely to engage in the emptiness of Kricfalusi-like shock value as in the relative sophistication of the best Warner cartoons (but even if a modern animator wanted to do the latter, where and how would they pull it off?).
Don’t let any of those minor complaints deter you from this set, which is an absolute must-have for all sorts of reasons, and should be purchased to encourage further releases of its kind. If the Avery disc proves successful, it seems entirely possible we could see similar director-based collections with other cartoons in similarly immaculate condition. Plus, if the exuberant, naughty, absolutely irresistible Red Hot Riding Hood isn’t in your film collection, there’s no real point in having one.
– Tom and Jerry Golden Collection, Vol. 1 (Warner Archive): I have some memories of enjoying Tom and Jerry cartoons as a young kid on VHS as well as a little later in cable reruns, but these recollections are completely nonspecific except that I have always vividly remembered The Cat Concerto strictly because of the nearly identical Bugs Bunny cartoon (Rhapsody Rabbit, directed by Friz Freleng). Since I became intensely (re-)interested in classic animation when I was around 21, the majority of the childhood chestnuts I’ve revisited have lived up to my elevated affections. The Disney and Warner Bros. films are obviously on the highest artistic plane, and even the DePatie-Freleng Pink Panther cartoons, while obviously no great shakes artistically, continue to make me laugh thanks to their wonderful poses, comic timing and vaguely “modern art” leanings. Somehow I never got around to revisiting any of the Tom and Jerrys in the DVD era but I was sure that my disdain for Hanna and Barbera’s TV work wouldn’t carry over to their fully realized theatrical series that’s remained so iconic, I assumed deservedly so. When Warner Archive rereleased this set on Blu-ray early this year I jumped at the chance to dip back in and assumed I’d have a blast.
But with the important caveat that these clearly are not made to be viewed in lengthy chunks like this, rather to be seen individually and quite far apart, I have found that I do not like these films really at all. It’s not even that I think them lackluster compared to the best of Disney, Warners, UPA, the Fleischers, Tex Avery at MGM, etc., it’s that I think they are basically just bad. And to answer that caveat, watching multiple Chuck Jones-directed Road Runner cartoons in a row has never made them this monotonous to me; one of the problems with Tom and Jerry is that they are akin to what would happen if each of Wile E. Coyote’s failures was followed by a blunt-force sequence of the Road Runner attempting to kill or maim him. The “gags,” such as they are, land with a thud and more often than not are astonishingly sadistic — I lost count of how many times Tom emitted bloodcurdling screams, had his teeth broken out, or was threatened with a very un-cartoonish object like an axe. The satire of these cartoons on The Simpsons, “Itchy & Scratchy,” turns out barely to have been an exaggeration. To add to the mindnumbing violence, the characters are not consistently designed, their relationship doesn’t make any real sense (Tom usually shows no interest in actually consuming Jerry; theirs is more of a sibling-ish rivalry), and the cartoons feel extremely long due to bad pacing. The repetition from one short to the next is irksome, sure, but what’s worse is the repetition within the cartoons, and the sense that across each of them nothing interesting actually happens.
I don’t know if I’d quite go as far as saying that I regret buying this; these are an important part of American animation history — they took home armloads of Oscars, which says a lot more about the Oscars and MGM’s power over them than about the films — and they are smoothly and impressively well-animated. In fact, I must admit that the animation is often technically tremendous; neither the character designs nor the extremely banal backgrounds can keep up with the wildly expressive poses that occasionally show up on a character like Tom, who registers much more believably as an actual cat than, say, Sylvester (whose design is nonetheless inherently hilarious to me — he’s the only one of the Looney Tunes cast that I find hysterically funny just by looking at his model sheet). While Jerry’s elasticity and lack of discernible identity works against the whole, there are a good number of remarkable chase scenes scattered through this set that give the student of classic full animation a lot to study, which is even more ironic when you consider the kind of stilted TV trash Hanna-Barbera would become known for. Sadly these works fail to differ with television series like The Flintstones and Huckleberry Hound in the sense that they usually aren’t the least bit funny; I rarely cracked so much as a smile and found Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse to be the only consistently amusing short out of the nearly forty contained here. Kitty Foiled starts out well before running out of steam, and The Night Before Christmas is rather cute… but that’s honestly it, except for moments here and there. In the end I found it all quite a slog, especially going through it just after the breathlessly exciting Tex Avery set and while simultaneously plowing through the sixth volume of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection boxes — I’ve kept watching those in a trickle for years now because I don’t want to be finished with them, whereas I couldn’t wait to get this stupid cat and mouse out of my hair. I’m guessing I will probably not pick up future volumes in the series unless I’m persuaded that a purchase of it will be looked upon as a vote for more Looney Tunes.
– Dodworth (Warner Archive): The eye-popping restoration of this masterpiece, one of the great American films, was made with the assistance of the George Lucas Family Foundation. So looking upon this beautiful transfer of a film I never imagined could look so good marks the first time since I was about six years old that I’m actually glad Star Wars exists.
– The Bolshevik Trilogy: Three Films by Vsevolod Pudovkin (Flicker Alley): This was a disappointment, though I don’t think it’s really Flicker Alley’s fault. Here they bring three essential Soviet propaganda films of Pudovkin’s to hi-def for the first time, a task that amounts to a public service. Mother is one of the most emotionally effective Russian films of its era; I was less high on The End of St. Petersburg but was still happy to see it again; and Storm Over Asia was new to me and I fucking loved it (capsule below), and not only because it was so lovely to return to the seemingly bottomless well of silent cinema again. The supplements here are quite good as well; Peter Bagrov’s commentary on Mother is informative but a little dry, while Jan-Christopher Horak’s on Storm Over Asia is extremely strong. Best of all, the set includes Pudovkin’s hilarious and incredibly engaging short Chess Fever, which essentially predicts “geek culture” some sixty years in advance, or perhaps indicates it was there all along. And the transfers are perfectly OK, but the awful condition of the print of Mother is truly dispiriting — it’s deteriorated and clearly unrestored, though likely the best it’s ever looked on home video (and maybe the best it can look, short of an influx of funds that’s not likely forthcoming for a ninety year-old Soviet silent film). The End of St. Petersburg looks all right but according to Kristin Thompson has cropping issues, being based on the same print that’s circulated for decades. Storm Over Asia has actually been restored by Lobster Films, though even it has some flickering. I’ll still take it, but looking at all this right after Dodsworth is more than a little depressing. Still a valiant effort though, and I’m certainly glad these films are finally on the shelf and have been afforded even this much respect.
– Alice Guy-Blaché, Volumes 1 & 2 (Kino): Part of Kino’s Pioneer Women Filmmakers series, this is a deep (but by no means complete) dive into one of the first female directors and producers in cinema. Born in 1873, Guy-Blaché (frequently credited and probably more correctly known as Alice Guy) was also the head of two studios, Gaumont from 1896 to 1906 and Solax, which she cofounded, from 1910 to near the end of that decade. But her bona fides go deeper than that; an attendee of the first public exhibition of the Lumières’ Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (the first-ever theatrical showing of a moving film) in 1895, she’s long been credited in cinephilia circles and silent-film scholarship for the first “narrative” (non-actuality) film made one year later, Fairy of the Cabbages. Kino’s two separately sold discs are a highlight reel of Guy’s career from 1896 to 1914, restored as much as possible (some from fraying nitrate or weak paper prints) and presented in the highest quality in which you’re likely to ever see them, a massive step up from Youtube streams of these public domain films.
If you’re interested in the formative early decades of cinema and especially in the 1905-15 transitional era when the feature and modern forms of exhibition gradually came to prominence, these sets are invaluable whether you come away with a great deal of regard for Guy herself or not; the collections include most of her better-known films but they also incorporate films she produced rather than directed, not a bad idea as she was a pioneer in both capacities, but the lack of documentation or guidance on the discs themselves can be confusing when you’re watching something as fascinating as the Feuillade-lite crime short The Sewer and end up discovering later from the notes that it wasn’t a Guy-directed project. The two volumes are unevenly divided between Guy’s work for Gaumont and Solax; the former is short, has a lot of filler, and is mostly interesting as a clinical exploration of early cinema, sort of like Kino’s The Movies Begin with less iconic material, some of which really should be better known. Highlights among these shorts — in terms of historical importance as well as engagement — beyond the very odd Cabbages (which lifts a “babies as cabbages” concept that was then ubiquitous) include the amusing Madame Has Her Cravings, about a woman who steals food to satisfy pregnancy-related urges, the simple but effective sight gag A Sticky Woman, and the enjoyably elaborate juvenile-delinquent comedy The Glue. Best of all is the semi-legendary The Consequences of Feminism, in which men become fey layabouts as soon as women are in charge, which shows off Guy’s prescient sense of irony and comic timing; hers are among the funniest comedies of this vintage. Among the bonus films there is also a splendid piece of chase-scene slapstick called Race for the Sausage, which Guy may not have directed herself (precise credits in this era of studio filmmaking are sometimes unclear). There are also a number of Gaumont “actualities” included, some of which are experiments with synchronized sound that are of historical interest only — they are short clips of singers performing — but I got the biggest rush out of Alice Guy-Blaché Films a Photoscene, which — staged or not — is just about the only opportunity we’ll ever have to watch a 113 year-old film being made and certainly one of the only opportunities you can expect to actually watch a woman directing a film in the first few decades of the twentieth century. It’s a thunderous experience and a privilege to look at.
(One of Guy’s best-known credits is The Birth, Life and Death of Christ; for some unknown reason, perhaps a lack of clarity over her role in the production, it is in the bonus films. It’s a fairly perfunctory piece but it’s almost universally listed as a Guy project and is certainly fascinating to watch, though its relative overlength is a bit jarring when compared to the rest of this material.)
The Solax set is much more engrossing, and runs a great deal longer, with many films that warrant an unreserved recommendation: the genuinely very funny A Comedy of Errors which boasts a great performance by Guy stock player Blanche Cornwall; the surprisingly progressive cross-dressing farce Cousins of Sherlocko; a trio of exquisite-looking early westerns, especially the Griffith-like melodrama Frozen on Love’s Trail; plus the fine satires Making an American Citizen and Mr. Bruce Wins at Cards (with more perverse set design that’s half Les Vampires and half Get Smart, the very un-Eisenstein The Strike, and the solid domestic drama The Girl in the Arm-Chair. Talking of Griffith, as unwoke as it sounds to compare the Most Cancelled Director of All to a woman who’s finally having her moment thanks to the slight reduction of sexism in film scholarship, how you feel about his often delightful Biograph shorts is a good indicator of how much you’ll enjoy Guy’s films; their sensibilities, and the distinctive voices they deliver, are quite similar, though Guy’s focus on family and children is undoubtedly more sincere.
Of course most of these films make no attempt to transcend hardline social mores of their time and will prove totally foreign to a lot of viewers as a result; they’re not strong enough in a storytelling sense to put across the kind of connection you might find in Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration or William Hart’s Hell’s Hinges just a couple of years down the line… and to boot, even for seasoned viewers of films from this period, the odd placement of title cards in much of Guy’s work is jarring and doesn’t seem to find its grammatical groove for some time. (Caveat: who knows whether this is inherent to the films or just the surviving prints of them that were available to Kino.) However, technically the two sets track remarkable advancements and capture the early history and evolution of an artform with striking intimacy and focus. Plus the imperfections are often arresting in their way; there’s something about the gigantic block letters in these prints of the Solax pictures that I find very humorous, and the flawed, incomplete restorations we’re forced to contend with are sometimes in the process of disintegrating in rather beautifully ugly ways. I don’t miss frayed public domain prints of silent pictures flooding the marketplace, but I will admit that in the age of pristine Masters of Cinema copies of various European silent masterpieces there’s something alluring about seeing the decay of nitrate film preserved in high definition, although it doesn’t sully the heartbreak of Pudovkin’s Mother looking as bad as it does.
Mainly I would say it’s worth buying these two collections just to support further work in this regard from Kino; they’re by no means the perfect company, but apart from the underfunded Flicker Alley they’re the only American outlet that really puts time and effort into this kind of thing and it’s a boon to cinephiles that they’re doing this often thankless work. I wish I could praise the sets more unreservedly, then, but as so often I really wish Kino would put things through more stringent q.c. — there is a massively annoying problem with the first set whereby the “bonus films” (a gaggle of Gaumont shorts and featurettes dating from Guy’s tenure with the studio but in which, in many cases, her exact involvement is difficult to discern) that occupy the bulk of the disc’s running time have no Play All feature and will return you to the main menu after each title completes, forcing you to navigate a series of sub-menus to get back to where you were, which makes the whole thing a bit of a chore. It’s also somewhat irritating that every single film of any length has a full collection of restoration logos and credits; I want those companies to get all the credit in the world for what they’ve done too — though Lobster Films is really pushing it by periodically adding a bug in the corner of the frame of the shorts they worked on — but I wonder why it wasn’t possible to present something like the NFPF did in their Treasures series, constructing a whole separate section giving full credit to the restoration outlets and some attention to the work they do. All the same, it’s wonderful that a collection like this can even exist in 2020, and I do recommend checking them both out if you can.
Wow, that went on, didn’t it? Anyway, thirty capsule reviews of new-to-me films follow.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, Céline Sciamma) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] I’ll level with you: this movie knocked me out to the point that whatever words I come up with seem grossly inefficient; it’s only not an A+ because I don’t trust myself to be able to write coherently about it yet, and there’s always the possibility I’m just a simp. It may be the greatest expression of love in cinema. It may be the greatest film ever made. I’m not sure. But transcendent experiences like this are not something you should pass by.
Shoplifters (2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] Kore-da’s fusion of naturalism and acerbic Billy Wilder comedy looks great, packing the frame with information but never cluttering it, and never allowing its constant seeking of minor beauty to feel stilted or practiced; but what’s most remarkable about it is what a master class in pure, classic cinematic storytelling it is. If all you know is that it’s a film about a poor family unit supplementing their meager income with stolen goods from local shops, then perfect — just sit and watch where it takes you. The falling into place of the narrative afterward is both joyous and harrowing to witness: incendiary but never didactic, and wholly endearing.
The Burial of Kojo (2018, Blitz Bazawule) [c]
Maybe not without its merits as a magical-realist story (birds, upside down people, mystics, and yes, a live “burial”) with the feel of folklore, but so formally obnoxious it doesn’t matter. No disrespect intended but this plainly trusts neither its script nor its audience, unnecessarily underlining every moment with excess camera and editing trickery that just looks amateurish and not in the charming manner of actual outsider cinema but more along the lines of a first-year film student who’s excited about the medium but hasn’t yet determined the need in narrative films for some sort of basis to this kind of visual hyperactivity.
Babylon (1980, Franco Rosso) [hr]
Electrifying slice of chaos set in working class Brixton, where we meet a late-twenties reggae DJ and car mechanic known as Blue (Brinsley Forde) and his group of young, male and mostly black friends; the film follows the numerous obstacles that he and they encounter over the course of a week, from garnering up the right tunes and equipment for a soundsystem party to coping with irritating bosses, dictatorial parents and racist aggressors. Unreleased in the U.S. until 2019, this is one vibrant film whose lived-in and detailed world is refreshingly blunt in its realism. The score by the great Dennis Bovell pulsates, simmers and explodes.
Under the Silver Lake (2018, David Robert Mitchell)
[2010s catchup project.] Undeniably original, out-on-a-limb but unbearably smug fake noir in which Andrew Garfield slowly goes off his rocker hunting for a neighbor who disappeared; along the way we get a whole lot of edgelordy digressions in which the director of the anti-premarital sex PSA It Follows pretends to scold us but finally just demonstrates his own utter emptiness.
Booksmart (2019, Olivia Wilde) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] A John Hughes variant with improved social politics: it’s the last night before graduation and a couple of nerds (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, both superb) want to party finally, but in typical Hollywood structure-nerd fashion, that’s not enough; there has to be a whole bunch of labored “reasoning” behind their decision to do so, as well as a lot of unnecessarily protracted conflict. The film would be vastly better if it stuck to the smaller, more convincing situations that are the source of its actual laughs. Ideal for viewers who desperately wanted to spend more time with Tracy Flick.
The Steel Helmet (1951, Samuel Fuller) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Korean War story is one of the few American films to uphold the uncompromising vision of violence and despair seen two decades earlier in All Quiet on the Western Front; not surprisingly, it was independently produced. Involving all across its minimalist 85 minutes, it tracking the movements of a Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans), lone survivor of his outfit, joining up with a young South Korean boy and a black medic (James Edwards), followed by an entire company setting up a post in a temple. The performances bring these vibrantly drawn characters to life, with complicated emotions, relationships and societal implications captured thoroughly and economically.
Pain and Glory (2019, Pedro Almodóvar) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Almodóvar’s reputation precedes his 8½ and/or Cinema Paradiso riff insofar as one continually expects it to become much more outlandish than it actually is; in fact its restraint, sincerity and sublimely executed sensuality are refreshing, although as with the aforementioned influences, individual scenes feel more charming and significant than the whole. Antonio Banderas is admirably low-key here as the director’s stand-in growing old and ruminating.
Toni Erdmann (2016, Maren Ade) [c]
[2010s catchup project.] Excruciatingly overlong glorified afterschool special about an annoying eccentric trying to teach his grown daughter how to enjoy life. One of the most celebrated indie comedies of recent years, this is nails-on-chalkboard insufferable if you don’t immediately subscribe to its sensibility, or find middle-aged goofballs pulling faces to be inherently funny, and there’s no logical reason for it to be this long, ponderous and astoundingly banal.
Good Morning (1959, Yasujiro Ozu) [r]
[1950s canon project.] Charming enough, if atypically superficial, Ozu comedy (with a stunning color palette) about the petty bickering among occupants of a suburban neighborhood and how they’re affected by two young boys’ vow of silence to try and get their parents to buy a TV set. Supposedly a remake of the director’s superior silent I Was Born, But…, which it only slightly resembles in practice. It’s fun to see Ozu play with relatively cheerful themes, but there are only a few big laughs and the scattered moments of quiet emotional truth are stunted a bit by how lightweight it all is.
An Unmarried Woman (1978, Paul Mazursky) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Pleasingly naturalist drama about a woman whose world is rattled by the sudden departure of her husband and the subsequent immersion in female friendships, new lovers and a total reframing of day to day life. Jill Clayburgh’s astonishing performance more than makes up for the minor shortcomings of Mazursky’s script, and the New York found here is rich and lived-in, conveying how much every story like this takes its place in a much broader sweep of time, place, memory. Despite the larger feminist point about a woman molding her own life, it’s telling that the film does not strain to impose structure upon a confused, uncertain moment of real life.
Jackie (2016, Pablo Larraín) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Chronologically jumbled-up narrative of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination exemplifies a brand of biopic that tends to be tiresome and workmanlike, overly reliant on cultural memory. But it’s rendered in this case with impressive intimacy, and savvy about how various kinds of media form a cult of personality. Even though Natalie Portman’s performance has the artificially tic-ridden quality of so many actors attempting to ape well-documented people, it’s also sensitive; after a while, her plight is gripping enough to hypnotize you whether or not you care about the comings and goings of the American royal family.
Jauja (2014, Lisandro Alonso) [c]
[2010s catchup project.] Viggo Mortensen and Adrián Fondari put on pants; there are also landscapes. Absolutely nothing resonates. Garden-variety emotionally distant arthouse dud.
Storm Over Asia (1928, Vsevolod Pudovkin) [hr]
Always the master of rendering the political as personal and vice versa, Pudovkin was every bit the director Eisenstein was, and perhaps even more well-controlled as a storyteller. In this picture he proves himself far ahead of his time, finding an intersection of class and racial commentary and issuing a surprisingly acerbic attack on Orientalism in the story of a Mongolian trapper who gets recruited as a puppet-regime patsy by a maliciously rendered British garrison. Compelling and beautifully acted throughout, it offers one of the most cathartic climaxes of any of the canonical Soviet propaganda titles.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978, Michael Schultz) [NO]
[Beatles film canon project for music blog.] (Revisit, no change; last seen approximately 1993. I kept my old capsule but added a few new thoughts at the link. I’d just like to mention that my taste was already well enough formed at age ten that I could tell this was a fucking shitshow.) A strange and enormous put-on indeed, this bizarre Bee Gees movie attempts to form the songs of Beatles’ fake concept album into a “plot”; result is offensive, monstrous anti-rock & roll propaganda attempting to leech off the image of a great band in the name of the glory of corporate rock. A sickening time is guaranteed for all.
O.J.: Made in America (2016, Ezra Edelman) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] Engrossing, exhaustive documentary about the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the impenetrably complicated racial and cultural context surrounding it. Seven and a half hours, not a moment of which feels wasted. There’s a lot to juggle here, as crime reportage and as sociological investigation, and it’s done with mastery and grace. Edelman repeatedly reminds us of the grisly nature of the murder itself, something that frequently got away from us when it was constantly the butt of late-night jokes and cheap novelty books and such. One of the definitive L.A. movies of all time.
Knight of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick) [NO]
[2010s catchup project.] This insulting display of Hallmark card platitudes overlaying hazy cinematography of nothing much seems to intimate that there’s no bottom to how cheap and insipid a once-great filmmaker’s work can come to be if he approaches it with sufficient laziness.
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, Mike Newell)
[Best Picture Nominees project.] Inoffensive romantic comedy that structures itself on the social events of the title, but hinges on a pairing (Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell) that doesn’t make much sense — Grant plays a serial monogamist with a string of resentful exes and a suspiciously large number of ride-or-die pals who get engaged every few minutes, but somehow the American MacDowell who has less personality than anyone else in the ensemble is the person he suddenly feels he can spend the rest of his life with, albeit not before further wrecking the lives of several other insecure women he knows. It’s all pretty cynical, but it’s presented so breezily it’s hard to dislike.
Nocturnal Animals (2016, Tom Ford) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] An intellectual exercise in revenge fantasy: Amy Adams is an unhappily married artist who seems unsatisfied by her work and seemingly everything else; she receives a novel in the post written by her ex-husband, about whom her feelings have remained warm through the years despite an acrimonious breakup. We then see much of that novel visualized, occasioning a number of adept and terrifying suspense sequences despite the hackneyed noir plot: a family gets run off the road and terrorized, the survivor (Jake Gyllenhaal) spending the rest of the story trying to avenge his wife and daughter. Absorbing as hell, but builds to a terribly facile conclusion.
The Immigrant (2013, James Gray)
[2010s catchup project.] Formally correct, pure Hollywood stuff in an indie getup with Marion Cotillard as a Polish woman turning the other cheek at length when faced with all sorts of sepia-toned 1921 torture at the hands of a range of institutions and people, most notably Joaquin Phoenix doing what seems to be a Michael Scott impression. Gray traffics here in standard awards-season fare, all very dour; Cotillard is fine but the narrative is just so straightforward and obvious, there’s nothing here to look at or feel apart from the sumptuous period flavor.
In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] An unerringly played melodrama of the first order; Ray’s camera seems completely powered by emotions, including deeply troubling ones, in a manner intense enough to make you swoon. Humphrey Bogart is a decrepit mug of a washed-up screenwriter who’s burned lots of bridges with his assholery. On the night he’s speciously connected to the murder of a local girl, he happens also to fall hard for an independent-minded neighbor (Gloria Grahame) whose will he proceeds almost inadvertently to break down as they fall further and further into the hole of his buried misery and violence. As potent an examination of what we now call “toxic masculinity” as exists.
Quo Vadis (1951, Mervyn LeRoy) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Surprisingly entertaining trash on the traditional Hollywood epic scale via MGM, audacious and playful despite being approximately on the dramatic level of an ambitious school play. Parallel stories of hubris track the hated Roman emperor Nero — courtesy of a dynamically decadent, funny and flamboyantly wardrobed Peter Ustinov having an absolute field day — and a lusty Christ-skeptical general played with brazen, you-can’t-look-away incompetence by Robert Taylor. Add to this the breathtaking production values and some of the most eye-popping crowd scenes in history and, despite the usual overlength, how can you really object?
The Lego Movie (2014, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)
[2010s catchup project.] Commercials with “clever” jokes are still commercials.
Son of Saul (2015, László Nemes) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] Raw, visceral Holocaust drama begins and ends brilliantly; in between, there is a not-always-assured attempt at spinning the accuracy and tragedy of the setting into something more personalized: Géza Röhrig’s Saul sees a dying boy and, believing he may be his illegitimate son, spends the rest of the film attempting to locate a Rabbi so that he can properly bury him. This smartly lays bare the impossibility of any sort of normal activity within the death camps, but it also has the effect of making the story feel uncomfortably like a series of video game quests (not least because the semi-POV gimmick sticks for so much of the film).
Bonjour Tristesse (1958, Otto Preminger)
[1950s canon project.] Despite Preminger’s vibrant visual rendering of it, this weird, vaguely scummy Jean Seberg vehicle that has her reading every line like “New York Herald Tribune” amounts to little more than a tragic version of The Parent Trap. Seberg’s dad is David Niven (in the film’s only good performance) who’s running around with a much younger woman who talks a lot about her cracking, oozing sunburns — until fun-hating Deborah Kerr returns to his life and insists that his daughter commit herself exclusively to homework. Gorgeously shot, color and black & white both, and riddled with body-horror perversity.
Atlantic City (1980, Louis Malle) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Low-key lite noir has a decent degree of atmosphere and solidly smoky character development, though its main conceit is that it’s populated with totally modern boring screwups rather than the titanic heroes and villains of Dashiel Hammett; Susan Sarandon, whose fucked up family leeches off her, and her neighbor Burt Lancaster (truly splendid as a grayed out faux-gangster who never got the opportunity to do much with his life) get caught up in narcotics dealings in the titular gambling capital, though this is much less a city symphony than you’d expect, with the languid feeling of a Donald Westlake or Elmore Leonard novel.
Winter Sleep (2014, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
[2010s catchup project.] Photographs of an asshole talking.
Animal Kingdom (2010, David Michôd)
[2010s catchup project.] Compellingly executed and acted but amateurishly scripted Mob movie about a purportedly close-knit family in the Melbourne underground that mostly deals in armed robberies but are on the cusp of branching out into drug trafficking when a Troubled Youth, an estranged grandson of the matriarch, shows up because he doesn’t know where else to go. His tendency not to know where to go or what to do drives the entirety of the remaining narrative. While the film uses real events as its inspiration, much of it makes very little sense; it doesn’t feel like a great deal of thought went into much besides its high body count.
Dick Whittington and His Cat (1913, Alice Guy-Blaché) [r]
A retelling of a bit of folklore revolving around the onetime Lord Mayor of London who came into the city as an impoverished dreamer and supposedly made a fortune by rather cruelly letting go of a rat-hunting feline, this early feature is reasonably entertaining despite the usual dramatic contrivances and technical limitations associated with this transitional era of narrative cinema. There are gorgeous compositions, a few splendidly weird moments — especially a comic setpiece revolving around a doorbell — and some astonishing footage of a ship set ablaze.
All This and World War II (1976, Susan Winslow) [NO]
[Beatles film canon project for music blog.] Stock newsreel footage of World War II and clips of Hollywood movies set in the war edited to the rhythm of a collection of dreadful Beatles covers. Maybe not inherently worthless as a free-associative montage, but terribly misguided as a gimmick and lacking any discernible point of view, unless you think following stock footage of Hiroshima being bombed with a droning chorus of “Give Peace a Chance” constitutes insight. Neither the seismic societal reframing of the War nor the enormity and passion of the Beatles’ work deserves to be flatlined into kitsch; it’s all so morbidly disrespectful.