Sorry that I’ve been away folks. I haven’t been watching as much recently due to focusing a little more on reading and also with a heavy focus on learning German at a snail’s pace. Also, in efforts to save money I’ve been cutting back on theater excursions and canceled subscriptions to Hulu Plus and DVDs from Netflix. But I signed up w/ Warner Archive again so I’ll be watching a handful of their offerings soon.
#138. Strangers May Kiss (1931, Fitzmaurice)
This is basically a carbon copy of The Divorcee, but not quite as quintessential or iconic. But still entertaining because Norma Shearer literally sleeps with all of Europe!!! And she gets a couple of big speeches about gender hypocrisy and what not. Of course she ends up with the total tool at the end and it is absolutely frustrating as a modern viewer to see her double back on her philosophies. However, we have to keep in mind that the depiction of any of this, that a woman would want to sleep around, does sleep around, a woman who is not playing a prostitute, who we sympathize with, who isn’t ‘fallen’, etc. All of this is highly scandalous. Highly highly scandalous. And even though the ever-fabulous Robert Montgomery plays a drinking goof, that playboy element is missing making him less fun than he is in The Divorcee. Still an important Pre-Code nonetheless.
#139. The Heat (2013, Feig)
If I were a member of the Academy, chances are I’d submit Melissa McCarthy in The Heat for Best Actress. If there’s been better comedic work by a female in the last few years I haven’t seen it. She dusts off one-liners like they are nothing at all (they come flying at us at breakneck speed) and creates a full and layered character within a comedic framework. Her and Bullock create the best onscreen duo since Hill/Tatum in 21 Jump Street. Not coincidentally, both are buddy cop films. And unlike 21 Jump Street, which falters in its last third, The Heat manages to stay consistent with its weaknesses trinkled throughout (including a mean-spirited streak) without hindering it too much at any given time. I had such a blast watching this and Feig’s direction really comes through in getting the most laughs out of chaotic situations. Two examples being the scene at the club and the drinking montage. I’ve realized over the years that I like Sandra Bullock a lot, but she is one of those actresses who I never get to appreciate because of the projects she attaches herself to. The Heat really gave me a chance to appreciate her comedic timing. Also, I wasn’t aware until the opening credits that it was also written by a woman so; extra points.
#140. Lore (2013, Shortland)
Short review post:
#141. The Conjuring (2013, Wan)
It may be a one-function film without much longevity impact to it, but damn if James Wan isn’t honing his skills for some seriously effective mileage. Something I really admired about The Conjuring is just how aligned we are to the Perron family. Though the first shot of them is seen from the perspective of the house, which creates an immediate long-lasting sense of unease, we are mainly experiencing events with them instead of the more common sadistic slant. We feel upset and unnerved by the family’s experiences; genuinely spooked along with them. There is a naturalism to them which makes their experiences feel somehow more realistic. It’s nice to feel that level of empathy for the characters involved instead of them just being figurative punching bags. It also helps that the cast is full of class-act actors who sell the material with straight-faces, elevating everything to an even more respectable level. Wan knows how to spend an entire film building up to something chaotic. His sense of control both within individual scenes and how it fits into his overall trajectory of manipulation for the audience is mighty impressive. He also knows when to use flashy techniques or references and have them be effective, not distracting. The Conjuring had me at giant yellow-retro scrolling title card and long tracking shot set to “Time of the Season”. A solid and effective film like this stands out in a sea of disappointments for me so far this year.
#142. Blue Jasmine (2013, Allen)
My favorite Woody Allen film since Husbands and Wives released just over 20 years ago. I’ll say outright that the film is somewhat riddled with potential drawbacks; the men mostly represent things, Allen’s continually simplistic look at class which can veer into caricature, and some clunky expository dialogue. But this is a genuine gut-punch from Allen, possibly his bleakest film but also his most refreshing turn in some time. It has a flashback-heavy structure that bleeds past and present as we sit in Jasmine’s mindset. Watching it recalls the back-and-forth information letting of a stage production. The sense that this could be a play, along with Jasmine’s heavy Blanche DuBois vibe, is part of what makes Blue Jasmine so memorable.
I don’t really know what to say about Cate Blanchett. She’s one of my top five living actresses and this is her best performance, indeed one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. She alternates between barely contained put-upon niceties, acidic selfishness, spaced-out madness, twitchy high-strung drunkeness and everything between. This is not a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is a woman who has already had a nervous breakdown and is not in a state of mind to be out in society.
Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale and especially Sally Hawkins are other stand-outs. I really hope what with all the deserved recognition Blanchett is sure to get, that Hawkins is not lost in the mix.
When it is over you don’t really know what to do with yourself. Allen seems to almost hate his protagonist, and indeed she’s a pitiable monster who has made her own bed. But Allen and Blanchett do such a mesmerizing job of getting into her state of mind that Blue Jasmine is a rewarding experience and a tough one to shake off.
#144. The Wolverine (2013, Mangold)
This seems to be the summer that really has people divided and riled up over the state of the blockbuster. I admit I ended up seeing very few of them. The main one I did see disappointed me greatly. Despite being from a director I love, and having some really refreshing philosophical ideas and themes at its root, Pacific Rim greatly disappointed me in its execution. Based on others reactions, I honestly felt like I watched a different film. I love and agree with what people have to say about it in theory; but for me it largely fell flat. I’m not saying The Wolverine gets it right; but among other blockbusters and superhero films of late, it’s comparatively scaled-down and I respect that. It is surprisingly rooted in Logan as a character. It’s not a gripping character study by any means, but the effort is there. We need more of that. Especially since it takes a great deal for me to care about any kind of superhero film at this point, or really at any point. This is coming from someone who was never really on this train to begin with. Unless we are talking about Batman Returns or Batman: The Animated Series.
I really enjoyed Rila Fukushima as Yukio, whose dynamic with Logan is purely based entirely on equal footing and eventual friendship. Even Mariko, the love interest, is given far more agency than normal. This is one of the things that worked for me in Pacific Rim by the way; relative equality in gender dynamics.
The third act is where the film completely falls apart. Until then, it is solid summer popcorn. My huge problem with Wolverine as a character has always been his immorality and lack of invulnerability make him inherently uninteresting to me as far as stakes are concerned. Hugh Jackman has long-standing synergy in this part but when his big dilemma really comes down to him being slightly tired after a fight and temporarily mortal like the rest of us (still with claws and strength), I can only care so much.
#144. Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, McCarey)
A beautifully wry, moving and patriotic cross-cultural comedy that wears its gentle earnestness on its sleeve even as it pokes fun at the very thing it promotes. What surprised me about Ruggles of Red Gap is the way in which the changes within Ruggles sneaks up on both him and us. It’s so subtle and so genuinely affecting almost 80 years later. The realization of opportunity and its potential. It all shines through a remarkable performance by Charles Laughton in his first onscreen comedic role. An actor known for playing in extremes, this is a deceptively subtle performance; indeed, extreme in its subtlety. It’s a consistently surprising bit of acting too; the mileage you can get out of interpreting and dissecting what he does here is considerable. And this is a genuinely funny film to boot. It’s got everything, including a divine stop’s-everyone-in-their-tracks reading of the Gettysburg Address and an uplifting ending that demands the use of a hankie. A new favorite and though it’s relatively well-known amongst film buffs, this really should be a part of the public consciousness of iconic 1930’s films.
145. Thirteen Women (1932, Archainbaud)
A preposterous and thus impossible-to-resist early slasher-like Pre-Code. I’ve always been fascinated by the systematic yellowface casting of Myrna Loy in Eastern dragon-lady parts throughout the early 30’s. Here, her character blurts out her sufferings in the final minutes, stuck between desperate attempts at assimilation and not being seen as human to those around her, which the film itself further perpetuates at every turn. She is mystical, a villainous Other, with a left-of-field revenge plot that might be the most absurd revenge scheme ever in a film. This is all intriguing stuff and Loy is easily the most interesting part of Thirteen Women with her piercing eyes, unmovable stance and fabulous costumes. The rest of the women are just sort of there, barely developed and then offed; the film clocks in at just under an hour. Along the way there are bombs planted in rubber balls, suicides, murders, happily single and proudly independent mothers, hints at past promiscuity and heaps of gullible women who succumb to the power of suggestion. It’s a bizarre oddity, which makes it a lot of fun to watch.
Anytime I encounter yellowface I always try to promote the PBS documentary Hollywood Chinese, which looks at the history of yellowface within Hollywood films.