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🎬 The Lighthouse, Spirited Away, Casablanca, and more

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ESJ's Movie Project

November 1 · Issue #37 · View online
I'm reviewing every movie I watch, and watching every movie I own. Settle in, this is going to take a while.

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So … I didn’t wind up having/making time to watch any of the films mentioned my last email that were expiring from Netflix and Amazon, but thank you to everyone who replied with their suggestions! It seems like Seven and As Good as It Gets should be high on my list the next time I have the opportunity to see them.
Two stray thoughts: One, I would like to take this time to inform you all that the official Twitter account for the 2019 movie Cats has assigned me the “jellicle” moniker of The Great Rumpus Cat.
Two, I was deeply concerned by a recent report in Vulture that Disney is preventing independent movie theaters from screening movies owned by 20th Century Fox, which is now owned by Disney. That includes a lot of classic movies that won’t be on Disney+, including Raising Arizona, Aliens, and the Princess Bride, which are being locked away in the vault for cynical business reasons. As a film fan, this is a distressing test of my patience with Disney (one of many to come, I’m sure), and I’d encourage everyone to sign this petition asking The Mouse to change course. Like all online petitions, it probably won’t do anything, but you’ve got nothing to lose by trying.
OK, the Great Rumpus Cat has decreed that we may now proceed with the reviews …
☠️ Arsenic and Old Lace
Pictured: Killer wine aunts are much funnier than wine moms.
These first two reviews are reruns for those of you who followed me in the Instagram days, but I rewatched both films this week and stand by what I wrote!
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is a screwball comedy with a wicked streak; in other words, it’s perfect for me. Its surprises are best left to the viewer to discover, but the short snyopsis… Cary Grant plays a newlywed drama critic who discovers, just before he is to begin his honeymoon, that his aunts have been hiding a dark secret from him: They’ve been poisoning men to death and burying them in the cellar. Things get even more complicated when Grant’s estranged brother shows up with a corpse and a plastic surgeon. Oh, and his other brother thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. The performances in this play-turned-movie are consistently hilarious across the board, but some special recognition is owed to Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, who play Grant’s aunts with a disarming sweetness that just gets funnier as the plot gets more insane. Director Frank Capra captures all the madness without drawing attention to his craft, but he slyly ensures that some of the funniest little details that may have been overlooked onstage get their due.
🇫🇷 Casablanca
Pictured: Guess who's coming to gin joint?
CASABLANCA is a classic for a reason. A parable about broken hearts and a warning about the stakes of cynical isolationism, it tells a tale that is both deeply personal and historically significant. It’s also a great Hollywood story: According to film legend, at least, the actors all thought they were working on a dud — a perception that encouraged Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman to commiserate together, forging a chemistry that carried over to their on-screen relationship. It’s harder to see today why they had cause for pessimism; several scenes here have been so culturally significant as to endure for decades, including the airport finale, the Paris montage and — my favorite — the “play La Marseillaise” scene, which always makes me emotional. Maybe you have to be a “rank sentimentalist” to see Casablanca as often as I have, but the story still feels fresh to me as time goes by.
🤠 For a Few Dollars More
Pictured: I think that look is the Old West version of Blue Steel.
Although I liked A Fistful of Dollars, I really liked — maybe loved — FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, a cleverer and more confident spaghetti western that sees Clint Eastwood making frenemies with fellow bounty killer Lee Van Cleef. I especially liked the Big Bad here, Indio, and am surprised his portrayal by Gian Maria Volanté (who played a completely different character in the first movie) hasn’t crossed my radar before. The best genre films often rely on a great villain and For a Few Dollars More is no exception, even though Indio also belongs in the “overconfident bad guy who probably should have just shot the heroes and been done with it” hall of fame. I also can’t end this review without acknowledging Ennio Morricone’s incredible score, which propels the film forward and smartly uses different instruments to represent different characters, meaning there’s a literal translation of the plot that can be gleaned from a close listen.
🐦 The Lighthouse
Pictured: I dunno, that house looks pretty heavy to me.
Like Robert Eggers’ last film, The Witch, I found THE LIGHTHOUSE to be a visually arresting, thoroughly eerie, and briefly terrifying experience. However, also like that movie, I could never fully surrender myself to the film’s style of narrative. Here, it veers from Shakespearean to Kubrickian to Farrelly Brothers-ian, and seems content to mostly repeat the same ideas and conflicts rather than surprising the audience with new ones. The Lighthouse’s shortcomings are not the result of a lack of talent or ability — both are in steady supply, especially when Willem Dafoe gets to sink his teeth into one of his theatrical monologues — but that mercuriality left a voice in the back of my head going, “Hey, that’s Willem Dafoe and he’s really Acting right now.” Although I can’t fully recommend this movie to everyone, I can promise that it is one of the most original things you can see at the theater this year, and in the age of algorithmic entertainment, that is worth something!
👻 Spirited Away
Pictured: Public transit would be so much easier if most of the other riders could phase through you.
SPIRITED AWAY is a wild ride. Going in, I knew some of the now-iconic images I’d be seeing and the fact that it’s widely beloved, but had no clue what to expect of the story. And honestly, if you had tried to spoil this movie, I would have thought you were making it up. It’s stuffed to the gills with creative ideas and creatures that range from adorable to horrifying to otherworldly, and everything is animated wonderfully, with a good score to match. It’s to the movie’s credit that, despite how much happens, you’re never confused by the action, but I did find myself pining for the simpler, more focused story of My Neighbor Totoro. Spirited Away didn’t hit me with that same childish joy, but I still had a great time getting lost in its world.
🏆 Every New Movie I've Seen in 2019 (So Far), Ranked
(new additions in bold)

  1. Parasite
  2. Booksmart
  3. The Farewell
  4. If Beale Street Could Talk
  5. Us
  6. Free Solo
  7. Avengers: Endgame
  8. The Favourite
  9. Amazing Grace
  10. Long Shot
  11. The Wife
  12. The Art of Self-Defense
  13. Toy Story 4
  14. Shoplifters
  15. Hustlers
  16. The Last Black Man In San Francisco
  17. Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood
  18. Apollo 11
  19. Zombieland: Double Tap
  20. Spider-Man: Far From Home
  21. Aladdin
  22. The Peanut Butter Falcon
  23. Slut in a Good Way
  24. Green Book
  25. Cold War
  26. Official Secrets
  27. Ready or Not
  28. Always Be My Maybe
  29. Rocketman
  30. The Lighthouse
  31. Roma
  32. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  33. Ad Astra
  34. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
  35. On the Basis of Sex
  36. Shazam!
  37. Judy
  38. The Lion King
  39. Downton Abbey
  40. Fighting With My Family
  41. They Shall Not Grow Old
  42. Yesterday
  43. Mary Poppins Returns
  44. Captain Marvel
  45. Minding the Gap
  46. Motherless Brooklyn
  47. Tolkien
  48. The Biggest Little Farm
  49. Alita: Battle Angel
  50. The Dead Don’t Die
  51. The Great Hack
  52. Stan & Ollie
  53. Vice
  54. Bohemian Rhapsody
  55. Aquaman

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