Thursday, January 30, 2020

This Week in Tickets: 20 January 2020 - 26 January 2020

I think that this is the first time my employers have given us Martin Luther King Jr. Day off in the fifteen years I've been there. Did I make much use of the extra time? No!

This Week in Tickets

Still, I had a pleasant day catching up on sleep and otherwise lazing around before heading to the Harvard Film Archive for Eve's Bayou, which probably was playing at the Webster Square 2-plex in Worcester or barely showed up in Portland, depending where I was when it was released, so I missed it. The 35mm print was gorgeous and I wish I'd been able to recommend this film for much longer. It's interesting that it does a lot of things well that I didn't particularly like in Lemmons's Harriet.

It was a busy work-week after that (plus, Thursday was set aside for Star Trek: Picard), so I didn't hit the theaters again until Friday, when I made my first trip to the Brattle for their early science fiction series, which kicked off with Mieles's "A Trip to the Moon" playing before H.G. Wells's Things to Come. A fairly appropriate way to start the series, in both cases, although the feature suggests that this whole sci-fi thing took practice.

On Saturday, I did a bit of Oscar catch-up by finally seeing Jojo Rabbit, which wasn't as bad as I feared, but which isn't really good, either. After that it was back up the Red Line for the HFA's Silent Hitchcock show, The Farmer's Wife", which is okay but makes one think that maybe straight comedy just wasn't Hitchcock's thing, because a director with that much talent should have been able to make that work with almost zero effort. After that, it was home, and Hugo, because when you see "A Trip to the Moon" on Friday, it's hard to resist the urge to rewatch this before the weekend is out.

Sunday was something of a repeat, just shifted up a few hours: Catching French Oscar nominee Les Misérables while it's still playing a couple of shows per day on the Coolidge's GoldScreen, the 66 bus back to Harvard Square for more silent Hitchcock - in this case, The Pleasure Garden - and then over to the Kendall for Color Out of Space, which was surprisingly busy for something kind of getting a token release. Folks around here apparently do like Nicolas Cage, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Stanley, or some combination of the three!

After that, more early sci-fi, which has dutifully been logged on my Letterboxd page, but that's next week's post.

Eve's Bayou

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2020 in the Harvard Film Archive (special presentation, 35mm)

Before getting to anything else, let me say that Kasi Lemmons impresses fast here. This is a flat-out gorgeous film, with lush detail that maybe you can get out of a digital camera now but certainly couldn't until recently, and even now you kind of have to use filters to put that character in. From the very start, it uses its setting and history to create the perfect atmosphere, one of heat and danger but also one where the young protagonist's belief in family mythology is both innocent and dangerous. It takes just moments to settle into a comfortable African-American community in 1960s Louisiana, no matter how far removed that may be from one's own background. It's also not long before one can see how Eve's innocence and petulance can be a dangerous brew.

(Coincidentally, I saw Little Women the night before and I suspect that they combine for a pretty good double feature on middle-child issues, and it's kind of amazng how naturally and easily the sibling relationships sort of line up)

Aside from just making a beautiful film, writer/director Lemmons builds something that's both impressively intricate but also with plenty of room for mystery. Between the weaknesses of human memory and the second sight that is allegedly passed down through Eve's family, there's a lot in this movie that could be on somewhat shaky ground, in terms of narrative, but Lemmons shows a real skill at making this something baked into the story without pushing it too far in the direction of fantasy. Things click into place throughout the second half of the movie, but without the push that supernatural gives feeling unfair. It's a Cassandra situation which basically means you can see disaster coming but can't prevent it, and that just makes the plot devices into local color.

It's sometimes a lot to lay on the shoulders of a child actress, but Jurnee Smollett proves to be up to everything Lemmons throws at her. Does it mean anything that she and on-screen sister Meagan Good both managed to carve out adult careers over the ensuing decades while other impressive child performers don't? Maybe not, as there's randomness to the process of growing up, but it at least means someone spotted talent. The film's also got one of Samuel L. Jackson's best roles, one that taps into his charisma without making a show of it the way many of his later movies would, letting him unite Louis's charm and weakness so as to make him tragic but not dour. Debi Morgan gets the sort of fun, showy role that would eventually be Jackson's specialty, and makes it a kick to watch without necessarily making it look like being this person is always fun.

I'd really love to see Lemmons and Jackson work together again; they seem to bring out the best in each other.

"Une Voyage dans la Lune" ("A Trip to the Moon")

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2020 in the Brattle Theatre (Things to Come: The Birth of Sci-Fi Cinema, DCP)

Is there more to say about this than what I said before? Probably not; it's a pure fantasy and trying to read too much into its explorers defying the stuffy scientific establishment who present themselves as wizards or the way they just run roughshod over the native life they find at the moon likely says more about how shallow my knowledge of turn-of-the-twentieth century Europe than anything really clever.

Still, just look at this thing. Consider that it was made at the dawn of cinema, and feels both freewheeling and dense, a few minutes of fast-paced mayhem that had to be planned precisely. It's partly happenstance that the man in the moon with a rocket in his eye became the image that defines early cinema to people, but also wholly reasonable, as this is something that burrows directly into the imagination.

What I thought of a Méliès "Ciné-Concert" a few years back

Things to Come

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2020 in the Brattle Theatre (Things to Come: The Birth of Sci-Fi Cinema, digital)

Time has been kinder to Things to Come than it might have been; a modern viewer can see an unfortunate believability in its villains and an arrogance to its utopian visions that were perhaps not intended at the time. The future we live in is strange and not what most envisioned, the types of progress that H.G. Wells and the filmmakers extolled has been revealed as a mixed blessing, and the film is lucky to be well-enough made that some of that emerges from the details.

Some things have come back around, though. The filmmakers' fears of an all-consuming conflict are likely darker than most in 1936 would allow themselves to imagine, and its idealized future feels real enough in terms of lived-in details, with one of he nicer bits of "grandfather explains old world to grandchild" bits. The anti-progress orator comes across as a strawman, but, well, look at 2020. The effects work shows some seams, but the design is nice and most of the execution is excellent.

It's dull, though, more so because there is often such bombast around the boring characters that the film cycles through, sometimes with the same actors playing descendants who don't differentiate themselves. There wasn't much like it at the time, so filmmakers likely had to go slower, but there's seldom the feel of a story being told, history being related, or a point being made, just a movie that lands slickly but uncomfortably between all the things it could do.

Jojo Rabbit

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2020 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

This movie isn't as completely ill-conceived as it seems from the first few minutes, but Taika Waititi is awfully timid underneath the flamboyant surface. There's room in the world for comedy about how Nazis are ridiculous and laughable as well as evil, as well as stories about how kids can wind up under the sway of monsters (but hopefully find their way out), but this movie and its makers never seems to have the guts to acknowledge that there's cruelty as well as absurdity for more than a moment or two. It has a scene or two of bullying early that's supposed to last us the film, but otherwise doesn't wrestle with how there are actual human beings making decisions there. Stuff just happens and the most effort they put into finding reasons for that is to set up a situation where Jojo can't actually do anything.

The production is slick as heck, with screwy whimsy and snappy pacing. Director/co-star Waititi does what he does extremely well, even if it always feels misguided to do so. I suspect that the movie's best work is done by Sam Rockwell, and that watching the film a second time will reveal a more obviously deliberate history of screwups disguised as incompetent evil on Captain K's part. And while Thomasin Mackenzie doesn't have the material to work with here that she had in Leave No Trace, the film would probably completely fall apart without her. She makes Ella scared and angry but a survivor while at least hinting at who she was before all of this.

The Farmer's Wife

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2020 in the Harvard Film Archive (Silent Hitchcock, 35mm accompanied by Robert Humphreville)

You can sort of see the shape of The Farmer's Wife from the start - the handsome widower determines to remarry, but none of the eligible women he woos measure up to his devoted housekeeper - and as such it's kind of a surprise when it's basically him screwing it up by being an entitled jackass. It's the sort of situation you expect to see capsize due to being in over one's head rather than through arrogance.

Oh, this farmer got reason to think he'll have an easy time of it, sure - star James Thomas was handsome as heck (and maybe a bit young to be playing a widower whose daughter just married, although generations happened fast a century ago), and seems generally decent, so you can see why he would begin this process so confident. It's just that the means by which he screws it up makes one wonder why he doesn't also wind up pushing housekeeper 'Minta away. It's a weirdly classist way of building the picture - a landed gentleman can be humbled, but not so much that the lower classes lose their respect.

The film is generally likable, though, with Thomas and Lillian Hall-Davis playing well off each other, and a supporting cast that gets to be weirdly eccentric without becoming objects of ridicule. Director Alfred Hitchcock doesn't leave a huge impression on this silent movie, but you can see him in the way that the final act becomes a smoothly-running machine, where what's going to happen next is obvious as heck but he and his cast still put it together into something the audience can nevertheless find genuine.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2020 in Jay's Living Room (watching discs, 3D Blu-Ray)

If you had to total up the movie I saw most often in theaters during the 2010s, I suspect Hugo would wind up on top. It wasn't just that I loved it, but that the 3D was amazing and I was pretty sure that I'd never get a chance to see it like that again, since I'd only purchased an HDTV a couple years ago and wasn't figuring to upgrade anytime soon. Flash forward the better part of a decade, I got the last model of 3D/4K sets made for the U.S., double-dipped to get this on a 3D disc, and then when seeing "A Trip to the Moon" again created the desire to re-watch his, popped it in.

It is still a pretty fantastic movie from the word go - I love how Scorsese is willing to just jump right into Hugo being kind of abrasive and damaged rather than having it emerge, how there's room for a lot of interesting characters, and how even the self-indulgent moments don't veer too far. The 3D cinematography is still amazing, too, although it's only one factor in how this film wows me even beyond being built out of things I love.

Original review from 2011

The Pleasure Garden

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 January 2020 in the Harvard Film Archive (Silent Hitchcock, 35mm accompanied by Martin Marks)

I am awfully glad that the accompanist told us the trick to telling the two leading ladies apart (though they look very similar, their hairstyles are mirror images), because otherwise it would be pretty confusing in the early going. It's odd that Hitchcock doesn't play with that more explicitly, even considering that this is his first silent feature and he was working as a director for hire. Sure, it's easy enough to see the parallels anyway, but imagine if Hitchcock had so obviously been Hitchcock from the start!

With that in mind, it's easy to see The Pleasure Garden as more than it is, right down to an ending that's some classic Hitchcock "screw it, there's nothing left to say, let's just wrap it up". It's a script filled with stock characters that don't necessarily fit together that well, and even considering it was released in 1925, it seems like it should be a lot sexier than it winds up being. There are some bits I really like, showing what the director could do, most notably a pan across a row in the audience that shows a different sort of lasciviousness on each person's face, but unfortunately cuts away from the woman who looks bored. Like a lot of his earliest films, it's pedestrian material that at least reveals him as knowing how to use his tools like a good craftsman, if not yet an auteur.

The print projected was a restored 35mm print that included tints and twenty minutes previously thought lost, and looked nice indeed. I do wonder if there's more missing, or if the filmmakers were just impressively ruthless about ditching threads when they were no longer useful, as a lot seems to be built up as important but set aside once it's no longer important to Patsy's story.

Eve's Bayou
A Trip to the Moon & Things to Come
Jojo Rabbit
The Farmer's Wife
Les Misérables
The Pleasure Garden
Color Out of Space

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