Catching Up

I haven’t been blogging as frequently as I’d hoped when I started this thing, and I’ve got no one to blame but myself. I’m still sorting out exactly what I want this look like, and whether I’ll be focusing on more infrequent, longer-form pieces or more frequent short posts. But clearly greater frequency of either is a goal.

Whether that happens remains to be seen, and in the meantime, since my last post, I’ve been devoting a good chunk of time to watching a bunch of really terrific movies, so I figured I’d throw together a movie-vomit recap sampling of what I’ve been viewing lately. Posts that follow will (ideally) be much more focused than this one.

Mud

Mud

The latest film from writer-director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) is a lovely bit of southern-tinged coming-of-age quality featuring another in a run of solid leading man turns from Matthew McConaughey (continuing his commitment to “real” acting with nary a Kate Hudson rom-com to be seen). He plays the title character, a starry-eyed drifter who befriends two early-teen boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) in a rural Arkansas river town. The boys take an immediate liking to him as he schools them in the ways of love and life (he’s come to their town in pursuit of his long-lost girlfriend, played by Reese Witherspoon), but soon find that he may not be all that he seems.

The beats of Mud are familiar and the film as a whole feels like it’s trying to do too much (it climaxes with a shootout that feels out of place), but none of this keeps it from being a slice-of-life charmer with a couple of wonderful performances from the two boys and a knockout turn from McConaughey in the lead role. It also features strong support from Michael Shannon (who creates a fully-dimensional character out of about eight total minutes of screen time), Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon (as one of the boys’ fathers) and, in an inspired bit of casting, Joe Don Baker. The film has become a sleeper hit, taking in more than $18 million domestically despite relatively low fanfare, and can still be found on a number of screens. It’s well worth seeking out.

The Great Gatsby

Gatsby

This one needs no introduction, as the conversation over the picture is more or less over at this point, so I’ll just say that despite some unnecessarily harsh critical reaction I was almost completely taken with it. It’s a Baz Luhrman thing through and through in both design and execution, and feels almost like a spiritual sequel to Moulin Rouge! (the two share major structural similarities), a film I love unabashedly. Like Rouge!, Gatsby begins dazzlingly and somewhat disorientingly, with Luhrman’s trademark quick cutting through a CGI recreation of Fitzgerald’s Long Island and voiceover narration from Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway (which isn’t nearly as grating as some have indicated), set to a soundtrack from the likes of Jay-Z, Fergie, Lana Del ray and Will.I.Am, among others. But like Rouge!, the fireworks soon subside and the film settles into a fairly straightforward story. In this case, it’s a thoughtful and faithful adaptation of Fitzgerald, with Leonardo Dicaprio as the mysterious, lovelorn protagonist.

Dicaprio is something really special here, as charismatic and charming a Gatsby as fans of the book could hope for and significantly more memorable than Robert Redford’s inert portrayal in Jack Clayton’s 1974 version. That said, it’s Luhrman who’s the real star of the film, so I won’t mince words – you either buy into his aesthetic or you don’t, and chances are that if you didn’t love Moulin Rouge! or any of his previous work you’re not going to care much for this. I was enthralled from beginning to tragic end, and in retrospect I wish I’d seen the film in 3D, as the design really lends itself to the added perspective. Regardless, the film plays no matter how many dimensions it’s in, and I can’t wait to savor it again.

Leave Her To Heaven

Leave Her

And speaking of delightful excess, I should also mention that Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray of John M. Stahl’s 1945 cult classic is one for the ages. For those unfamiliar, it’s inarguably one of the most unusual and distinctive pictures of the ‘40s, a cold-blooded noir filmed in garish Technicolor, with Gene Tierney (one of the studio’s most reliable ingénues) as an obsessive femme fatale whose tragic flaw is that she “just loves too much.” Cornell Wilde plays her unassuming lover-turned-husband whose devotion to his family causes her to vie for his affection with murderous results, and the rest of the cast is filled out with Fox stalwarts including Jeanne Crain, Gene Lockhart and, in an atypical straight-man turn, Vincent Price.

The whole production is a hell of a thing. What begins as a standard women’s melodrama soon turns surprisingly vicious, and the increasing morbidity of the plot is constantly offset by the gorgeous Technicolor photography (filmed on location in rural Maine). Viewing it this time I was struck by the sympathy Stahl manages to generate for Tierney’s Ellen Berent, whose demands for the attention of her husband don’t seem unreasonable so much as misdirected, especially when, y’know, they lead her to start offing members of his family. It doesn’t help that Wilde’s Richard comes across as a clueless dunce, and one wonders why he wouldn’t want to devote more time to her, especially when, c’mon, it’s Gene freaking Tierney.

All of which is to say that it’s a film with a lot going on under the surface, and also a total blast to watch. The Twilight Time disc brings out the beautify of the Technicolor photography splendidly and, like all of their product, is being produced in a run of only 3,000 copies. Its release stands as a real event for lovers of ‘40s (or any) cinema.

Stagecoach

Stagecoach

To me, summer equals Westerns, and there’s really no more definitive representative of the genre than John Ford’s 1939 landmark Stagecoach. There’s not much to say about this one that hasn’t already been written – it launched John Wayne’s film career, taught Orson Welles how to make films (he’s said to have viewed it in excess of 40 times to prepare for directing Citizen Kane) and its success continues to resonate with filmmakers today.

What I will say is that the film still plays like gangbusters, primarily due to the strong characterizations and charisma of Wayne, who gets top-tier support from veterans Claire Trevor, John Carradine and Thomas Mitchell.  Beyond these, the film’s most powerful assets are its classical story construction and beautiful, naturalistic black-and-white cinematography by Bert Glennon, which demonstrates a clear connection to the silent era (as astutely pointed out by the estimable Glenn Kenny), notably the work of F.W. Murnau and, to lesser extent, Von Sternberg. This is the film that launched the Western into artistic legitimacy, and started Ford on a run of films whose quality has rarely been equaled in the history of the medium (he would follow it over the next two years with Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath, The Long Voyage Home and a personal favorite, How Green Was My Valley). It’s a masterwork, no question, and really needs to be seen by any serious student of the medium (it’s also a whole lot of fun).

This is the tip of the iceberg – in addition to the above, I’ve recently looked at Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 neorealist masterpiece Umberto D, the delightful pre-code oddity The Mind Reader starring Warren William, a fresh theatrical viewing of Wim Wenders Wings of Desire (via the Raleigh-based Cinema Inc., a non-profit organization with which I’m hoping to become more involved as the summer goes on), and continuing my quest to bone up on my classical Japanese cinema. Most recently I’ve been surveying the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, which I’ll ideally do some writing about before the summer’s over.  It’s a full slate, and methinks at some point I’m going to need to slow down my watching and get to writing.

That’s probably easier said than done, since the next month looks to be filled with a surprising number of quality theatrical releases (for the summer season), and I’m hoping very much to get to the cinema as much as possible in the coming weeks to catch, at the very least, Star Trek: Into Darkness (I know I’m way late on this one), Frances Ha, Before Midnight  World War Z and Monsters University, while I also try to make a dent in the mountain of unwatched DVDs and Blu-rays on the shelf. Hopefully I’ll be able to report back on any or all that I manage to catch.

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