Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Twelve more movies

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2017). A third-tier sculptor, two of his three wives, and his three adult children. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, perhaps, but here it’s a way very much influenced by Anton Chekhov, Woody Allen, and Wes Anderson. My favorite line: “You guys will never know what it’s like to be me in this family.” The all-star cast includes Candice Bergen, Judd Hirsch, Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Emma Thompson. But there’s less here than meets the eye.

*

A Stranger in Town (dir. Roy Rowland, 1943). A Supreme Court justice (Frank Morgan) travels incognito for a brief vacation and, still incognito, sets things right in a small town. The claustrophobia and corruption of small-town life are played for laughs, and justice wins in the end, just as in real life. At the one-stop shop for obscurities, YouTube.

*

Alimony (dir. Alfred Zeisler, 1949). Martha Vickers is the starring attraction in a sketchy lawyer’s scheme: have her marry a rich guy, frame him for infidelity, sue for divorce, and collect, yes, alimony, with the lawyer taking a cut. I especially liked the scenes of boarding house life and Leonid Kinskey’s comic turn as a theatrical producer. The movie moves toward Detour-like sordidness before steering (crazily) to a disappointingly wholesome ending. Another YouTube find.

*

Stranger Things, second season (dir. Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Shawn Levy, Andrew Stanton, Rebecca Thomas, 2017). I described the first season of Stranger Things as Ghostwriter meets E.T. The second season might be described as Ghostwriter meets E.T. meets Theseus-and-the-Minotaur meets The Exorcist. Darker, scarier than the first season, and excellent fun. Caution: contains nougat.

*

My Cousin Vinny (dir. Jonathan Lynn, 1992). Someone recommended this wonderful comedy to Elaine. Somehow we had never seen it. Someday you should see it if you haven’t. A neophyte Brooklyn lawyer, or “lawyer” (Joe Pesci), travels to Alabama to defend his cousin and his cousin’s friend, two college fellows wrongly accused of murder. It’s a good thing that Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) comes along. I’m not surprised to learn that lawyers love this film. But I’m surprised to learn that the film is used in teaching law.

*

One of Us (dir. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2017). The documentarians of Detropia and Jesus Camp look at the struggles of three ex-Hasidim: Etty, a mother of seven who’s fled an abusive husband; Luzer, a struggling actor; and Ari, a young man who was raped as a child and is now bedeviled by drugs. Each has grown up without skills of work and social life; each now tries to establish an identity apart from an insular culture of surveillance and intimidation that demands absolute conformity to its rules. (Talk about fundamentalism: Etty shows the filmmakers a son’s reading primer in which every girl’s face has been blacked out.) As the film makes clear, the cost of leaving the community can be very high.

*

The Exception (dir. David Leveaux, 2016). Love and espionage in wartime. Christopher Plummer plays Kaiser Wilhelm in exile in the Netherlands. In his grand house, an affair begins between a German officer (Jai Courtney) and a maid (Lily James). The narrative is somewhat predictable, but with moments of genuine suspense. Best scene: dinner with Himmler, as the Kaiser meets the new order.

*

Maudie (dir. Aisling Walsh, 2016). The life of Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins), self-taught Canadian artist. Lewis suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and lived in rural isolation and poverty, married to a man who here seems at times emotionally inert, at other times downright abusive. Is Ethan Hawke’s brutish Everett Lewis a just representation of Maud’s husband? Is Maud’s inarticulateness (which seems to suggest intellectual disability) a just representation of her character? I don’t know. Worth watching, but the film leaves so many matters unaddressed, including the first thirty-odd years of Lewis’s life.

*

20th Century Women (dir. Mike Mills, 2016). It is 1979 in Santa Barbara. Annette Bening plays Dorothea Fields, a divorced mother, a Salem smoker, the first female drafting technician at the Continental Can Company, and the owner of a rambling old house with boarders. To raise her fourteen-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), Dorothea enlists the help of her boarder Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and the girl next door, Julie (Elle Fanning). Dorothea’s male boarder William (Billy Crudup), all mustache and chambray, is put to other purposes. The film moves from character to character, as if from room to room (with title cards giving each character’s name and year of birth), and is much more about character than “action.” Most of the events in the film, I realize, arrive in the form of conversations. Exceedingly well written and acted.

*

Notorious (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1946). Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman, daughter of a Nazi spy, recruited by American intelligence to infiltrate a group of post-war Nazis in Brazil. Cary Grant is Devlin, the American agent who loves her. Claude Rains is Alex Sebastian, a Nazi in Brazil, also in love with Alicia. (Ick.) The Bergman–Grant scenes make Notorious the most erotic Hitchcock film I’ve seen. But it’s Leopoldine Konstantin, as Alex’s mother, who steals the show.

*

Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954). I remember the excitement when this film, Vertigo, and three others returned to theaters in the 1980s. Why not watch yet again? Or better — why not watch the people across the courtyard, and watch Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly watch the people across the courtyard? Something I don’t think I’d noticed before: the bamboo shades (think theater curtain) go down during the closing credits. And Thelma Ritter’s lines: “In the old days, they used to put your eyes out with a red-hot poker. Any of those bikini bombshells you’re always watching worth a red-hot poker?” How’d they get that past the censors?

*

The Promise (dir. Terry George, 2016). A love triangle — a journalist, a governess, a medical student — in the time of the Armenian genocide. Early on, the film’s lavish attention to beautiful costumes and sets threatens to displace attention from the characters. Later, events themselves make the characters seem less and less important. Some descriptions of the film speak of a love triangle “set against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide.” But what does it mean to think of genocide as a backdrop? To my mind, the most moving scene in the film is the final one, one that has nothing to do with the triangle. As the movies teach us, the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)

comments: 2

Fresca said...

I always enjoy your movie reviews---thanks.
I haven't felt like watching films or TV in months--I haven't even watched Stranger Things--but I still like to read about them.
Exception: I sometimes watch one 23-min. episode of Seinfeld, but that's about it.

I first saw Notorious when I was a teenager and it's still one of my favorite films.

Michael Leddy said...

I’m happy to share, esp. as I find out about most of the new movies I see by word of mouth. (I tend not to read reviews.) I know I’m watching fewer movies: it’s been two months since the the last group of twelve.