Scorecard: September 2011

[At the end of every month I post a rundown of the movies I saw that month, tallying them according to how much I did or didn’t like them. You can always see my recent watches here and my ongoing list of bests for the whole year here.]

What. I actually got a monthly recap type post in on time? Even early (which is okay, I’m not planning to watch a movie tonight)! This has never happened, to my remembrance, in the history of my blog. Don’t get used to it, though I’m going to try to stay on task. A decent variety this month. Incidentally, in other postings about the two silent films, people have asked me where they can see them. I wish I had a better answer, but as of right now, both these films can only be seen if a repertory cinema in your area screens them. They’re not on DVD, and both of them are rare enough, I think, that they can’t be found online. I’ll see if I can find out more next time I see the archivists who run The Silent Treatment shows; a web archive of some of these harder-to-find movies would be fantastic, but either the archives that own the prints aren’t interested in doing that or they simply don’t have the funding.

What I Loved

Changing Husbands

I always love the Silent Treatment nights at Cinefamily, where a couple of UCLA and Academy archivists bring in rare silents, but I have to admit (as do they) that a lot of the films are more historically/academically interesting than actually good. But this one is genuinely charming and entertaining, and I pretty much loved every second of it. Leatrice Joy plays two roles – one a bored wife of a rich man who only wants to be a stage actress despite her husband’s wishes to live a quiet life, the other a struggling actress who just wants to be out of the spotlight. Yep, you guessed it, these women meet, realize their resemblance, and switch places – supposedly just for a few days, but the rich husband turns up and takes the actress home for the holidays, never suspecting the switcheroo. Joy does great in both roles, and the two men who confuse the women are charmingly hapless. There’s quite a bit of wonderful innuendo, giving pre-Code fans a lot to enjoy in the film.
1924 USA. Directors: Paul Iribe and Frank Urson (supervised by Cecil B. DeMille). Starring: Leatrice Joy, Victor Varconi, Raymond Griffith.
Seen September 7 at Cinefamily.

Night Train to Munich

A recent addition to the Criterion library, but I recorded it from TCM a few months ago and just now got around to watching it. Well, that’s not QUITE true. I started watching it a while back, but my mood wasn’t right and I wasn’t paying close enough attention and I was missing stuff…so I held off until I could concentrate on it. And I’m really glad I did, because though it’s not a particularly complicated film, it does have a number of plot turns, as befits a WWII spy thriller. Margaret Lockwood’s dad is a Czech scientist who needs to escape before Prague is taken over by the Nazis; he does, but she gets intercepted by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp, where she meets Paul Henreid, a freedom fighter who manages to help her escape. But is he what he seems, and what of the dashing British agent played by a very young Rex Harrison? Double-crosses abound, and it all leads to a tense cross-continent train trip where precarious identities may be uncovered at any second, and a final action scene that prefigures whichever Bond film had the gondola setpiece. It starts off a little slow, but man does it pay off by the end, and they know just when to stop it, too. No awkward overlong coda, just DONE. Love it.
1940 UK. Director: Carol Reed. Starring: Rex Harrison, Margaret Lockwood, Paul Henreid.
Seen September 19, on TCM (via DVR)

What I Liked

Contagion

I wasn’t too interested in the plot of this film when I first heard about it, but with Soderbergh directing and a cast like THIS? I mean, look at it. Yeah. In an all-too-possible scenario, a deadly virus quickly spreads across the whole world, involving the CDC, the WHO, bloggers and media, ordinary citizens, scientists, government officials, etc. as they try to stop the spread of both the virus and the growing panic of the population. There’s a LOT going on here, and the pace is brisk, but steady. The balance between micro and macro is held quite well throughout, though the connections of the Marion Cotillard story and to some extent the Jude Law story were a bit tenuous. Overall, though, it’s a tremendous achievement of pure craft, and the use of major stars allow quick identification with characters that otherwise have little time to develop. Full review here.
2011 USA. Director: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle.
Seen September 10 at an AMC multiplex.

My Winnipeg

There aren’t any other filmmakers quite like Guy Maddin. Not that I’ve seen anyway. A Canadian filmmaker working somewhere on the fringe of experimental, Maddin uses styles and techniques from early cinema that have all but faded from use by pretty much everybody else. It’s as if in some alternate universe, German Expressionism and Soviet montage live side by side, accompanied by classic Hollywood tinting and iris fades, with voiceovers, dialogue, and title cards all working together for maximum effect. This is one of the more accessible Maddin films I’ve seen, a sort of documentary, sort of memoir, sort of fantasy about his home town of Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s mesmerizing and fascinating.
2007 Canada. Director: Guy Maddin. Starring: Darcy Fehr, Ann Savage.
Seen September 22 and 23 on Netflix Instant.

Hard Boiled

I’ve been meaning to see this for quite some time, but my desire got stronger after seeing the film name-checked in Matthias Stork’s video on chaos cinema, as a stellar example of action setpieces. He was talking about the final shoot-out, which unfolds in a few very long traveling shots that manage to never lose spatial orientation no matter how hectic the action gets. And that sequence is for sure incredible, the standout in the film. The rest of it is good, too, but I have to admit to zoning out a bit here and there during some of the “plot” parts due to tiredness – thankfully it didn’t seem to matter too much, but I would like to go back sometime and fill in the gaps. It gets a little ridiculous what with the baby and all (pretty sure this was a major influence on the goofy Shoot ‘Em Up), but Chow Yun-Fat is earnest enough in his role to make it work.
1992 Hong Kong. Director: John Woo. Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung Chiu Wai.
Seen September 2 on DVD.

Falling Down

My boyfriend Jonathan and I have been taking turns showing each other films that mean a lot to us, and this was one of his for me. I’d never ever heard of it before he started talking about it, but since then I’ve come across a lot of other people who think pretty highly of it, too – a good sign that Schumacher can’t be simply written off based on his involvement in Batman & Robin. When he does smaller things or more indie things, he’s got quite a good eye and sensibility. This film has Michael Douglas basically in “I can’t take this anymore” mode as he leaves his car in a huge traffic jam and heads across Los Angeles on foot to see his daughter on her birthday – sounds like a great idea, except his ex-wife has taken out a restraining order against him, our first sign that maybe not all is quite right with Mr. Douglas. It’s kind of fascinating though, how the script and Douglas’s performance paint this character – he’s psychotic to some degree, but at the same time, you kind of totally understand where he’s coming from, and a good bit of the financial angst it is certainly still relevant. And it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t even realize how his actions come across to others – when he invades a pool party with a machine gun he’s picked up along the way, it doesn’t occur to him why the people are scared of him. I didn’t love it as much as Jonathan does, but it’s certainly solid, and I’d rewatch it at some point.
1993 USA. Director: Joel Schumacher. Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall.
Seen September 17 on DVD.

The White Shadow

In a way, it’s tough to review this one, since only three reels of it exist. But on the other hand, it’s not like I’ll ever get to see the rest of it. Unless by some miracle the rest of it pops up somewhere. This film was discovered among the New Zealand Film Archive silents by an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archivist working to catalog the American films being held there. You may recall the big “discovery” of these films a couple of years ago – a lot was made of finding John Ford’s Upstream and some others. More are being identified all the time, and this one turns out to be one of the earliest films Alfred Hitchcock worked on, as assistant director to Graham Cutts. The story involves a pair of sisters played by Betty Compson, one sweet and demure, the other wild and “soulless”. The rather convoluted plot involves mistaken identity, the wild daughter running away, the repentent father trying to find her, and the sweet girl marrying a man who was attracted to the wild daughter and never realized she had a double. Yeah. It’s pretty crazy, and the ending (read to us at the screening by Eva Marie Saint based on the copyright documents, since the last two reels of the film are still lost) sounds even crazier. But the opportunity to see films like this is such a treat – it’s both a saddening reminder of the state of silent film preservation (some 50-80% of all silent films are lost) and a hopeful indication that perhaps some films long thought lost actually do exist somewhere, in some form.
1924 UK. Director: Graham Cutts. Assistant Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Starring: Betty Compson.
Seen September 22 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

A Foreign Affair

I’m a big fan of Billy Wilder and have seen most of his films, but I put this one off for quite a while because I’d heard mixed things about it, and that’s pretty close to right. Jean Arthur as a stuffed-up congresswoman investigating the unseemly conduct of American servicemen in post-WWII Berlin doesn’t quite fly, and her transformation into someone with actual emotions thanks to the attentions of a not-quite-on-the-level John Lund is a bit unbelievable. I frankly found her character so irritating in the beginning I didn’t care much about the turn, which says a lot, because I LOVE Jean Arthur. That said, all the parts with Marlene Dietrich are ace, especially the two nightclub numbers she does in her inimitable way. Arthur has some good isolated scenes, like when she breaks down telling about a past failed love affair, but they’re not enough. There’s also a Nazi spy subplot that’s intriguing but doesn’t quite go anywhere. When the ending came, it felt pretty opposite what I wanted to happen. Some really good parts, fairly unsatisfying whole.
1948 USA. Director: Billy Wilder. Starring: Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, John Lund, Millard Mitchell.
Seen September 26 on TCM (via DVR)

What I Didn’t Like

Stone

I mostly watched this so I could have another film to add to my Milla Jovovich post on Row Three, but I did think I’d like it more than I did. Edward Norton is a guy in jail about to come up for parole, Robert De Niro is the case officer who will decide whether he’s fit to leave or not, and Milla Jovovich is Norton’s wife who tries to get De Niro to look favorably on her husband. Which she does by seducing him. It looks like a cat-and-mouse thriller, but it’s a lot more about De Niro’s own demons and how the situation with Norton and Jovovich affects him. Meanwhile, Norton has a whole religious experience that didn’t work for me at all, and while Jovovich gives a really good performance, I couldn’t ever really grasp her character’s motivations. Plus the whole thing has this dour, broody feel going on – and not in a good way.
2010 USA. Director: John Curran. Starring: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich.
Seen September 5 on Netflix Instant Watch.

Rewatches – Love

Drive

I saw this back at the LA Film Festival (my review) and promptly declared my love for it. I was curious whether a second viewing would diminish my love, as festival screenings carry their own high with them that sometimes fades under normal moviewatching conditions, but no. If anything, I liked it BETTER the second time, because I could just sit back and enjoy the leisurely pacing, the gorgeous cinematography, the bursts of violence, and the whole dreamy/brutal tone of it all without worrying about what I thought about it or what to write about it. It will almost certainly be near the top of my Best of 2011 list.
2011 USA. Director: Nicholas Winding Refn. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks.
Second viewing September 17 at an AMC multiplex. First seen June 2011 at the LA Film Festival.

Bringing Up Baby

It’s been a long, long time since I saw this movie, and I was really glad Jonathan picked it out of my collection to watch. It’s still among the zaniest movies ever made, and I can’t help but get caught up in its breakneck pacing. I don’t care if Hepburn’s character is a manipulative, conniving piece of work, or that Grant’s 180 degree turn towards loving her is totally unbelievable. She’s a force of nature in this film, and it somehow seems natural that everything else gets caught up in her wake. And as utter farce, it’s jaw-achingly funny.
1938 USA. Director: Howard Hawks. Starring: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Dame May Whitty, Charlie Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald.
Umpteenth viewing September 25 on DVD. First seen many, many years ago, probably on VHS.

Marie Antoinette

Can I just say how much I love that Jonathan chose this himself as one to watch, because he wanted to get more familiar with Sofia Coppola’s films? I figured he would like it, because its pop-art take on history is a flavor that both of us like, and he did. I did, too…I actually haven’t seen it since it first came out on DVD, so I was glad of the rewatch on it to confirm that it really is as surprisingly good as I thought it was.
2006 USA. Director: Sofia Coppola. Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn.
Second viewing September 18 on DVD. First seen soon after DVD release on DVD.

Totals:

Films seen for the first time in September: 9
Rewatches in September: 3
Films seen in theatres in September: 4
List of Shame films seen in September: 0
2011 films seen in September: 2 (1 rewatch)
2000s films seen in September: 5 (2 rewatches)
1990s films seen in September: 2
1940s films seen in September: 2
1930s films seen in September: 1 (1 rewatch)
1920s films seen in September: 2
American films seen in September: 8 (3 rewatches)
British films seen in September: 2
Canadian films seen in September: 1
Hong Kong films seen in September: 1