August Capsule Reviews

I decided to get these out there while working on the other reviews. The Turin Horse could still surface in full-length, but no promises. If The Red Shoes, Solaris, and Andrei Rublev don’t get full-lengths, I’ll do a second edition of capsules. Anyway, here are the films I saw in August that I did not review, minus a couple for one reason or another.

Seven Chances (Buster Keaton, 1925)

This is one of Keaton’s most technically impressive, but also one of his most drawn out. There’s nothing quite like watching Keaton running around looking for a bride so he can make some money, but the chase scene at the end has not aged particularly well (compare it to the great one in Sherlock Jr, which remains thrilling) and takes up far too much of the movie.

Grade: B-

Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009)

Be warned: Valhalla Rising will be the longest hour and a half of your entire life. The lesser known Nicolas Winding Refn film between the brutal Bronson (2008) and the stylish Drive (2011), Valhalla Rising is an overly violent cross between Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick if they kept their ambition but threw away their talent. Structured in six overbearingly titled chapters (Wrath, Silent Warrior, Men of God, The Holy Land, Hell, and Sacrifice), the wannabe-epic follows a warrior, One-Eye, who breaks free from captivity and embarks on a journey to Jerusalem with the boy who had taken care of him and a group of Christian crusaders to absolve himself of sin. It may sound like that makes a plot, but it’s stretched very thin, the characters are even thinner, and anything that Refn wants to say about violence, masculinity, religion, or martyrdom is the thinnest. Some stunning landscapes keep you awake, all of them pretty but none of them powerful.

Grade: D-

The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003)

This strongly acted film starts off as a family drama about a father who returns to his teenage children after 12 years of absence and takes them on a camping trip, but it gradually turns into a strange coming-of-age story. The father is a domineering, tough presence who inflicts tough love, if it is indeed love. The younger child is a rebellious skeptic, the older is more optimistic. Well-captured landscapes give a dreamy, abstract quality to it, but the father remains too archetypal despite the specificity of the relationship between the brothers. Too much of his story is brought up and quickly forgotten. The end is emotional, the journey is symbolic, but there’s a distracting amount of ambiguity.

Grade: B

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

Funny, romantic, and at time quite ferocious, The Lady Eve forsakes characterization to go straight from your heart. The card-playing, girl shy Henry Fonda finds himself biting off what may be more than he can chew with the beautiful cardshark played by Barbara Stanwyck. Her Ponzi scheme goes a bit awry when she finds herself returning her love, but the audience gets hearty laughs and tugs of the heart from their loss. There are some good visual cues, particularly an early segment where Stanwyck watches Fonda through her mirror and narrates the thoughts and actions of the room, but there are also some overly repetitive gags at the end (how many times does he need to fall for us to understand the meaning? Less than he actually does) and the ending is too contrived. That aside, the storytelling and acting are so good that we hardly notice that our protagonist seems to be a completely different person in each act.

Grade: B

White Material (Claire Denis, 2009):

Low on plot and lower on background, this drama about an unnamed African country on the verge of civil war is carried by strong performances. Isabelle Hupert in the lead as a coffee plantation owner unwilling to leave the state despite danger is especially strong.  Asking “why?” too often will almost definitely end poorly for those focused primarily on the characters, but if you let the power of the images and the individual scenes take you for a ride, you will be rewarded with a mystifying portrait of determination and an honest look at postcolonial Africa.

Grade: B

Our Hospitality (John G. Blystone & Buster Keaton, 1923):

Our Hospitality plays like a typical Buster Keaton comedy. Lots of trains, some intelligent gags, very predictable, a long chase scene, and a pretty good film overall. In this case, the chase scene is low on style but high on suspense; it’s only the first third of the film, before Keaton gets himself into trouble, which holds the whole thing back. There’s very little going on in terms of plot or laughs for this section, but when Keaton finds himself in the house of a family that wants him dead, some of his more clever antics emerge. The end feels like too much of a copout, but it’s a good cherry on top of a standard but entertaining Keaton flick.

Grade: B-

The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, 2011):

Running just over 2.5 hours, I don’t think there are more than 30 shots in The Turin Horse, and the number of scenes without dialogue probably outnumbers the number with dialogue. As such, it goes without saying that The Turin Horse is a beautiful film from a cinematographic standpoint. It’s a dark, understated drama about the repetitive life of a father and daughter trying to survive a storm after a beating of the horse. I can’t say for sure, but familiarity with Nietzsche would probably enhance the thematic concepts present, particularly the reading from a sort of anti-Bible that brings to mind Nietzsche’s “God is dead” theory. Still, as a portrait of a static, unfair world, The Turin Horse is as monotonous and repetitive as it is enchanting. Six days of getting water from the well, eating potatoes without any utensils, and trying to feed a horse is hard to engage with, and the characters are no bigger draws. Still, if you are up for the challenge, there are rewards.

Grade: B+

Anyway, mostly B’s here, and I find that I just cannot get into Keaton the way that I would like to.


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