Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Twelve movies

[Oops: make that eleven movies and one series. One to four stars. Four sentences each. No spoilers. Sources: Criterion Channel, HBO Max, Netflix, OWN, TCM, YouTube.]

Daisies (dir. Vera Chytilová, 1966). It’s no. 27 on the Sight & Sound list, between Shoah and Taxi Driver — and I think again about the absurdity of lists. Two attractive, stylish young women, both named Marie (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová, neither of whom had ever acted) conclude that everything is bad, and thus they too will be bad. They smash cakes, and they smash the patriarchy, or bits and pieces of it, luring men and dropping them. A wildly transgressive movie, with strong elements of montage and silent-film comedy. ★★★★ (CC)

*

The Great Holiday Bake War (dir. Lisa France, 2022). We made this our one formulaic holiday movie this season, so bad/good that after catching the second hour by chance, we went back for the first: Brianna and Julian (LeToya Luckett and Finesse Mitchell), baking-school rivals who hooked up — just once — in their student days, now find themselves competing in a televised dessert bake-off (which has one judge and a three-week run). The principals do their best with a script so bad that I swear you can see Mitchell cringing as he speaks some of his lines. Sub-plots bring in Julian’s snoot-baker mom (Arlene Duncan), a guitar hero and absent dad (Colton Royce), and Brianna’s brainy twelve-year-old (Naomi Sogbein), who’s just been accepted to a posh school. But gosh, where will Brianna ever get the money to make her daughter’s attendance a reality? ★★ (OWN)

*

The Woman in White (dir. Peter Godfrey, 1948). From the novel by Wilkie Collins. A complex and confusing plot, with jewels, poison, and look-alike cousins: it was almost like trying to follow The Big Sleep, and like The Big Sleep, it might best be watched for the atmosphere and the acting: John Abbott as an invalid aesthete, Eleanor Parker in a dual role as the cousins, Agnes Moorehead as a nearly silent wife, Sydney Greenstreet as, well, Sydney Greenstreet, or Kasper Gutman. ★★★★ (TCM)

*

Titicut Follies (dir. Fred Wiseman, 1967). Life and death at Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. I hadn’t seen this documentary in decades, and I was surprised to find that so many images and bits of dialogue were stuck in my memory: a mad monologue, like something out of Lear or Godot; a former high-school teacher, naked, stomping the floor of his empty cell as he’s tormented by guards; the manically cheerful guard who presides over a talent show (one must wonder if he is secretly insane); the doctor who is never without a cigarette, even as he scrapes Vaseline from a nearly empty jar to lubricate a tube used for force-feeding. The nightmarish conditions take on new significance in light of the abuses of Abu Ghraib. And guess what — life at Bridgewater is still bad. ★★★★ (TCM)

*

Julia (created by Daniel Goldfard, 2022). The rise of Julia Child, from novice cook to accomplished cook to cookbook co-author to television novice to national star. The cast is terrific: Sarah Lancashire as Child, stopping well short of anything close to parody; David Hyde Pierce as occasionally resentful but always again supportive Paul Child; Bebe Neuwirth as best friend Avis DeVoto; Brittany Bradford as WGBH associate producer Alice Naman. And the ambience is right, with proper clothing, furnishings, office supplies. What I don’t like: the effort to make the story of Julia Child appear relevant not on its own terms but via invented story elements: a Black woman (Naman) fighting to be heard at WGBH; a Smith alum who realizes that she’s lesbian thanks to sharing a blanket with Julia; a confrontation with Betty Friedan at a public-television gala; a visit to a gay bar with James Beard, where Child joins a Child impersonator on stage for “It Had to Be You” (no, it didn’t). ★★★ (HBO)

*

Julia (dir. Julie Cohen and Betsy West, 2021). From the directors of RBG. Permit me to be a killjoy and suggest that this documentary, with great archival clips, is a much better way to learn about Julia Child (and Paul). It’s especially helpful in letting viewers understand the state of home cooking in mid-century America. With José Andrés, Ina Garten, Jacques Pepin, and many beautifully filmed pots and plates. ★★★★ (HBO)

*

Bathtubs Over Broadway (dir. Dava Whisenant, 2018). A wonderful story of chance and change and obsession. Steve Young, then a writer for David Letterman, was tasked with finding odd LPs for “Dave’s Record Collection” bits. And thus Young discovered the lost world of industrial musicals, which became for him not something to laugh at but something to love: “We’re assembling some version of a picture of America in the twentieth century that had never quite been seen before.” A great documentary about a form of entertainment never meant to be seen or heard by general audiences, with rare recordings and film clips and conversations and performances with composers and lyricists and performers, including Sheldon Harnick, Florence Henderson, Chita Rivera, and Martin Short, all of whom worked in industrial musicals. ★★★★ (N)

*

From the Criterion Channel’s Joan Bennett feature

Man Hunt (dir. Fritz Lang, 1941). It’s not yet WWII, and Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), on a hunting vacation in Germany, comes close to assassinating Adolph Hitler with a long-range rifle. Fast-forward, and Thorndike is back in London, pursued by Nazi agents and finding refuge with a young Cockney of at least semi-dubious character, Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett). Lots of suspense, strong overtones of The 39 Steps, and especially sinister performances by John Carradine and George Sanders. I want to make it five stars for an amazing scene that pays homage to the Odyssey. ★★★★

There’s Always Tomorrow (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1955). Fred MacMurray is Clifford Groves, a Los Angeles toy-company executive and invisible man: though he’s dedicated to his family, his wife Marion (Joan Bennett) and three children ignore him. When a former employee, Norma Vale (Barbara Stanwyck), now a prominent fashion designer, comes to LA on business and drops by to say hello, Cliff falls, hard, and his routine life begins to look intolerable. Previous MacMurray–Stanwyck efforts (Double Indemnity, Remember the Night) and MacMurray’s future role as a philandering husband in The Apartment make this movie especially interesting to watch. I’d love to show it to a class of undergrads and find out what they think Cliff should do. ★★★★

*

I Was a Shoplifter (dir. Charles Lamont, 1950). I expected an amusing educational film, a cautionary tale for teens. Instead, I got a story of a gang that seeks out newly apprehended shoplifters, training them for work in other cities. (And exactly why would you choose inept folks for your schemes?) Of some interest: Anthony Curtis (already sounding like Cary Grant) as bad guy Pepe, and Rock Hudson (briefly) as a store detective. ★ (YT)

*

Before Dawn (dir.Irving Pichel, 1933). The first three scenes look like parts of three different stories: a gangster dies in Vienna; back in the States, an old woman and her housekeeper talk in a big old house; and a young psychic and her father do business in a big city. A hidden fortune is what ties the three parts together. Warner Oland (of countless Charlie Chan movies) is probably the one recognizable actor here, playing an Austrian doctor suddenly transplanted to America. One of many glitches: the young psychic, whose ability we’re invited to take seriously, seems capable of discerning everything but the location of the loot. ★★ (YT)

*

The Great Sinner (dir. Robert Siodmak, 1949). An adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. In the 1860s, Fedja (Gregory Peck), a writer, disembarks from a train in Wiesbaden to pursue Pauline (Ava Gardner), the beautiful woman who shared his compartment. Surrounded by gamblers (among them, Pauline’s father, played by Walter Huston), Fedja immerses himself in casino culture, all in the cause of research for his writing, but he soon finds himself a compulsive gambler. Peck is a pretty stolid presence, and Gardner is not, to my mind, an especially expressive actress, but brief turns by Ethel Barrymore and Agnes Moorehead and grim scenes of cards and roulette (with an assortment of compulsive gamblers) add considerable value to the movie. ★★★ (TCM)

Related reading
All OCA “twelve movies” posts (Pinboard)

comments: 2

Fresca said...

So many contemporary movies this time! I always enjoy reading about what you watched for your holiday pick--so I don't have to. Favorite line: "many beautifully filmed pots and plates"--as a doc about food should have. [Fourth line]: And I like how you squeezed a fifth star in, in writing.

Michael Leddy said...

I liked adding the pots and pans to that sentence — it’s so difficult to make cooking look good, esp. in color. Le Creuset ftw!