Capsules: November 2018

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the time or revisited after many years.

The Tree of Life: The Extended Cut (Terrence Malick, 2011/2018)

No one who didn’t like The Tree of Life wishes it were 45 minutes longer, but moviegoers pay heed. This official alternate edit is not better, per se—it sacrifices focus in a movie that already toyed a lot with scatter. But it improves the ratio of cosmic dabbling to dramatic incidents, adds scope and details, and even alters the meaning to become a more deeply optimistic film. It gives a sense of what the idea must have looked like on paper, and how the theatrical cut was bare essentials even if it didn’t feel like it. You might say these two cuts illuminate each other—and that the idea is too big to ever be perfected. It makes me want to see what else could be conjured in the editing room for all the flawed, frustratingly beautiful collages Malick has done since.

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*****

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927)

It wouldn’t do to see the “Lubitsch touch” as purely a matter of comedy. His films are keenly aware of sadness and happiness—who gets to have fun, and on what terms—which the visual maestro establishes with both immediacy and delicacy. This non-fairy tale is a move towards melancholia, not without some melodramatic dopiness and difficulty in filling 106 minutes. But its imagined beauty should resonate with anyone who’s starting to feel time. Hail and farewell to FilmStruck, where it was the last film I watched.

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*****

Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992)

Spike Lee is more dialectical than he gets credit for. His public persona may be an obstinate provocateur, ready to take or dangle any bait, but his best political work also has an open quality: it asks you to understand why people respond the way they do in the face of problems without easy answers. Hence why I, a white man who doesn’t consider himself a devil, can feel edified by passages of “white devil” rhetoric. And why the chief constant trait of the film’s subject is his forthright passion—his view of the world keeps evolving, and one gets the sense that if he hadn’t been cut down, it never would have stopped.

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*****

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)

Much more of a wonky kiddie matinee than I remembered. But then, a good kiddie matinee (wonky or no) should make kids feel like adults, and any kid who watches this and responds to its ideas, imagery, and paranoia is a moviegoer destined for adventure. It still works: fast, lean, iconic, better FX than modern cynicism would expect, and the groundwork of a concept that every generation must make their own. You’re next, indeed.

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*****

The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, 2017)

How a thriller can have so many familiar plot beats and still be incomprehensible is a mystery of filmmaking voodoo. With Michael Fassbender more lifeless than his character’s valium use can explain, and little narrative tissue between A and B, this attempt to import another mystery from Scandinavia is a painful slog enjoyable only to rifftrackers prurient enough to laugh at the misguidedly-Anglicized name “Harry Hole.” And the murky editing is signed by (say it ain’t so!) Thelma Schoonmaker.

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*****

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

My heresy, for the month of Welles back in the spotlight: no matter how many times I revisit Touch of Evil, I don’t place it near the top of the man’s work. The opening and closing set-pieces are perfect, but the middle is a narrative hazard that neither the studio nor Welles reconstructionists could quite solve. (I’d prefer The Lady From Shanghai, if only because it’s able to abandon all but the faintest pretense of tidiness). Still, one can’t deny the cinematic virtues on display. Sequences seem to be directed by god, and the atmosphere is positively toxic. To see it in a theater is to feel like you’re suffocating.

Capsules: October 2018 (Halloween Edition)

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the time or revisited after many years. This month is superseded by a playlist of horror classics, hits, misses, and cult objects in honor of Halloween.

*****

The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)

Netflix’s adaptation, with “Hill House” restored to the title, is getting enough play that I hear chatter about it in the office kitchen. But the 1963 version by Hollywood polymath Robert Wise is still the one to beat—not only an old-dark-house classic, but one of those films where Old Hollywood itself seems to be dying and getting reborn in real time. The scientist and the playboy are stock characters from ages past, but the warped, wide-angle terrors look to the future. There are moments here of creepy atmosphere, frames composed for both beauty and shocks, and some impressive FX. But what remains most fresh is the psychology of repression, including a lesbian subtext that’s barely sub.

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*****

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

With The Fog popping back up in rep theaters in a new restoration, its worth revisiting this follow-up to Halloween (itself enjoying a zeitgeist bump) to appraise what John Carpenter’s cult classic does well and why. The 11th hour inspiration—to add a literal “campfire story” opening scene to set the mood—turns out to make a world of difference, turning the appealing slightness of this ghost story into a feature, not a bug. Other pros: the lively interconnected cast, the pacing, the eerie atmosphere, and a tough lead heroine who proves just how much Carpenter understood Howard Hawks. Drag your friends.

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*****

Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)

By the end of the 90s, a lot of what felt punk about Carpenter films started to feel trashy, a trend not helped here by a charmless James Woods and the other, other, other Baldwin brother you forgot existed. Yet there’s still some interesting things in Vampires: the acid western/giallo genre hybrid that informs the style, plus the leather-clad fuck-you spirit of Escape From New York redirected from the government to the church. And for those happy to glean what they may, it’s always nice when Cheryl Lee (Laura Palmer herself) has license to go freaky.

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*****

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Young people in a remote place just looking for a good time—enjoy the relative boredom while it lasts, because it gets intense. I generally loathe horror movies that use extreme grisliness to get a rise out of you. But I can’t help but admire how Hooper and company can freak you the hell out with grainy film stock, off-kilter compositions, and psychedelic lens flares alone. This is truly inventive sensory cinema, all but empty on any other level. American independent cinema begat torture porn; try not to hold that against it.

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*****

The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999)

I was 12 when this came out, and all my friends told me it either creeped them out, bored them, or made them throw up. Neither was appealing, so I skipped it. But seeing it for the first time now, with the simple setup and payoff, Blair Witch seems mostly a triumph of creating a fake document, its pleasures as close to a self-reflexive po-mo exercise like Medium Cool as they are to the run-like-hell dread of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And I dig the conceit that, in 1999, the most doomed hubris you could show in the face of the terrifying unknown was deciding to make a student film.

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*****

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

Presenting, for your neo-camp horror comedy delectation, a version of the 1980s so disaffected and materialist that no one can remember anyone else’s name and the closest they come to real human empathy is when they listen to Phil Collins. It’s a fiendishly witty joke, which is good, because for much of its runtime, it’s practically all American Psycho has got—apart, of course, from a killing spree. Maybe it’s impossible to do a deep satire of a shallow worldview. But Mary Harron comes damn close, and the red-white-and-black color scheme and eye for male insecurity register when they most need to. Shout-out to Chloe Sevigny for giving the movie the extra bit of soul it needs.

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*****

It: Chapter One (Andres Muschietti, 2017)

In a way, it makes sense that last year’s It is now the highest grossing horror film of all time in the United States, and not just because inflation isn’t on The Exorcist‘s side. It: Chapter One is by design more silly/fun/friendly than scary—a crossover hit for slumber parties instead of audacious deviants. When it’s vague with its mythos and mostly shallow in tying the horror to psychologically resonant ideas, that’s a problem. When some of the 13-year-olds are annoying, that may just be verisimilitude. Curious to see if lightning strikes again for chapter two, when they’ll no longer have 13-year-olds or 80s nostalgia to lean on.

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*****

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

Now this is for deviants, or at least in the deviant starter pack. There isn’t exactly a lot of attention to plot or character, and I’m always skeptical when a horror film relies on shock-gore. But then there’s the total craft: the acid colors; the demented sets; the prog-rock score played as either warning or tease; the editing that synthesizes all the above; and Jessica Harper as the perfect wide-eyed lamb. It can indeed be said that Suspiria is About Something—namely vicious competition between women and the uselessness of men in their world, though even typing that sentence is meeting the film halfway. The remake that’s opening this weekend needn’t be something to fear; there are ways to embellish Suspiria‘s gaps.

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*****

Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)

This was the time when people were talking about “the new freedom of the screen”, which poses a question for Hitchcock: when someone was so adept at sneaking around or challenging the restraints of the screen, what do they do in the age of X-ratings? The result is his most viscerally shocking movie, containing moments so clammy and morbid that don’t seem to have been filmed so much as heaved onto celluloid by a remarkably frank subconscious. With all that, it’s a smart look at British repression—and a tight, twisty plot that only falters near the end. The last Hitchcock film worth making a fuss about, with all due respect to 1976’s Family Plot.

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*****

Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson, 1945)

What would a cinephile Halloween be without mastermind B-movie producer Val Lewton? Isle of the Dead is one of the gems he cranked out in the 1940s, nowhere near his team’s best or most famous, but indicative of their poetic ambition. The island setting, the battle between reason and faith, the angsty and cruel main character—hell, this is essentially Bergman territory, just shot on the cheap on an RKO backlot and laced with some spooky faux-mythology. Boris Karloff does terrific work with a complicated character, but the second half strays too far from logic or causality. Martin Scorsese picked this to represent Lewton on his list of scariest films ever made, which says less about the film, I think, than that the young Marty was the right kind of sensitive viewer.

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*****

Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini, 1968)

From the golden age of anthology films comes a triptych that adapts Edgar Allan Poe for the modish 60s and has the rare good taste to tell its stories in order of ascending director talent. Roger Vadim’s Jane Fonda psychodrama is mild Euro-kink (naturellement). Louis Malle delivers solid work with a mesmerizing doppelganger tale. And Fellini’s 40 minutes are one of his best kept secrets, a fantasia of half-past-dead celebrity that’s enough to make you wish he ever made a real horror flick. This one goes out to FilmStruck, whose own departure from our mortal plane was suddenly announced today. After being unable to track down a copy of the film, I was pleased to see it pop up in their library, where they even offer Fellini’s short separately for the convenience of cinephiles in a rush. Watch it while you can. RIP.

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*****

The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

2018 gave me the occasion to revisit this for the first time since my teens, when it looked to budding millennial movie buffs like a model of serious cinema for grown-ups. Looking back, I had two realizations. First, it’s not at all as serious-minded as I remember—in fact, in the shameless goosing, the cartoon villains, and the sexual subtext of every advance Jodie Foster deflects, its heart is the sort of smart B-movie prized by Roger Corman (who gets a cameo). Second, all of that makes me like it just as much—if craft can convince the Academy that a cheeky thriller is prestigious, god bless.

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*****

Capsules: September 2018

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the time or revisited after many years.

A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

Such an expansive, disorienting, mesmerizing blend of elements that I had to sleep on its ending before concluding that yes, this is indeed some kind of masterpiece. The martial arts plot at the center is familiar intrigue and superheroics. But framing it from the point of view of a definitive non-superhero and finishing it on acid turn this action film into a haunting spiritual journey. Tidy? God no. But its elemental, mysterious nature is forever.

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*****

The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1942)

Clouzot’s debut is a charming whodunnit with a morbid sense of humor and only the frivolity of its genre to quell a nagging dissatisfaction at how the plot wraps up. But already you can see signs of a pungent cynicism, a distrust of people both as individuals and as groups, coloring the caper and pointing the way to his future hits Diabolique and The Wages of Fear and his masterpiece Le Corbeau. So much fun that when he stopped being charming, it was clearly a choice.

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*****

Symphony For a Massacre (Jacques Deray, 1963)

Cheers to Pathé for restoring this gem and to the Aero for showing it! You know the racket: a plan, a gang of thieves, and the mistakes and chaotic X factors that can foul up any “perfect crime”. But this one does everything right, giving the double-crosses and misunderstandings the ironic wit they deserve. Essential for people who’ve exhausted Melville, so hopefully it will get more play. Don’t discount the women, and remember to use the hidden exit.

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State and Main (David Mamet, 2000)

Mamet-the-writer is more distinctive than Mamet-the-director, but he manages a fine comic juggling act whose appeal isn’t so much an attack on Hollywood but a failed breakup with it. Pointing out that the Hollywood system produces immoral out-of-touch assholes is old hat and easy—more intriguing are the twists, nuances, ambiguities, and self-reflexive contrivances that allow the film’s Mamet surrogate to enter the Hollywood system, get everything he wants, and somehow stay clean.

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*****

Bull Durham (Ron Shelton, 1988)

I was once asked by a European to explain the appeal of baseball. I failed, naturally, because baseball is as much a part of the quintessentially American mythos as George Washington and the cherry tree, only a lot more fun. The further down the rungs you get from the majors, the closer you are to the heart of it. Which is why this perspective from the minor leagues is so meaningful, and executed with such bittersweet, humorous regard for what it means to be a success.

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2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)

The immortally suppressed desire of In the Mood For Love erupts into a dangerously seductive erotic fantasia—and though this B-side to that 21st century arthouse staple takes a different, even opposing approach, it lets you realize that the two stories can’t exist without the other. As a fable about failed attempts to replace impossibly idealized love, it couldn’t be simpler. But it luxuriates in details, characters, and meta games, as if Wong’s ambitions ballooned to where reality alone couldn’t contain them.

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