Rob Harmon’s recommendations 10/22/13


Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksI MARRIED A WITCH (dir. René Clair, 1942) — World War II-era movie audiences, perhaps weary from the life-or-death struggles swirling around them, seemed to embrace fantasy with fervor: take stories of the afterlife or angelic happenings like HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, HEAVEN CAN WAIT, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, and THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT as proof of the popularity of escape. Furthermore, few comedic fantasies, then or since, can approach the sheer, delicious gauziness of French émigré director René Clair’s I Married a Witch (its title a winking play on the 1938 Rodgers and Hart musical “I Married an Angel”), released in 1942 towards beginning of the war but at about the height of the popularity of its bombshell star, Veronica Lake.

The story begins in 17th century Salem where a witch about to be burned at the stake casts a spell on her Puritan accuser (a blond-wigged Fredric March!) that he and his descendants will be forever unlucky in love. A tree is then planted over the site of the fire in order to trap the spirits of the witch, Jennifer, and her devilish father Daniel—also burned—in its roots. A quick montage follows the hapless and hen-pecked Wooleys (all played by March) through the years up to the present, when a lightning bolt cuts through a tree limb and at last releases the two witches into the world, initially in the form of vapor-like essences with dissipated voices.

Recognizing the latest in the cursed line Wallace Wooley (March, once again), a weak-willed politician about to be married to his shrewish fiancée (Susan Hayward)—the daughter of the local newspaper magnate—as a publicity stunt on the eve of the upcoming election for governor, they decide to take physical form in order to better wreak havoc: Daniel as the roly-poly, velvet-voiced Cecil Kellaway and Jennifer as Veronica Lake, she of the peekaboo blond tresses! However, an errantly-applied love potion soon throws a wrench into their plans as Jennifer accidentally forces herself to fall in love with Wallace, ensuring that the traditionally goofy complications of “meeting-cute” screwball-style are compounded: this is one witch who will not be denied!

I Married a Witch is as delicate and effervescent a romantic comedy as there is. Fredric March was as reliable a leading man as Hollywood ever produced; Kellaway is fiendishly entertaining; Robert Benchley provides reliable comedic support as Dr. Dudley White, Wallace’s best friend; and Veronica Lake is an ideal screwball heroine: strong-headed, a little dizzy, sexy, and, yes, totally bewitching. If you ever wondered what Lake was like at the height of her powers this movie will give you a good idea. Edith Head’s gowns are gorgeous and the rest of the production is solid, ably crafting a totally fantastic and studio-constructed – as only Hollywood (Paramount, in this case) could do it – storybook version of New England.

Director Clair (who has his own section at Best Video) was a famed early innovator in sound and surreal comedy in his native France, heavily influencing Chaplin among others. His deft touch is evident everywhere in these fast-paced, zippy proceedings, which successfully manage to intermingle the paranormal and politics, the battle of the sexes and American history, love and witchcraft. If you are in the mood for a Halloween film which is fun (and does not feature chainsaws, machetes, or body counts) then look no further than this delightful comedic bonbon.

New Releases 10/22/13

Top Hits
The Conjuring (horror, Vera Farmiga. Rotten Tomatoes: 87%. Metacritic: 68. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “The dread gathers and surges while the blood scarcely trickles in The Conjuring, a fantastically effective haunted-house movie. Set largely in 1971, it purports to tell a story based on ‘true case files’ about a family of seven whose pastoral dream became a nightmare soon after they moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse. One day, Mom, Dad and the girls are settling into their conveniently sprawling, creaking, squeaking two-story house — the rooms quickly become a disorienting maze — and the next, they’re playing hide and creep with a mysterious, increasingly malevolent force.” Read more…)

The Internship (comedy, Owen Wilson. Rotten Tomatoes: 35%. Metacritic: 42. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Whatever Mr. Vaughn’s motivations, with The Internship he has charted possibly new, definitely uneasy terrain by helping create a big-studio release that, from start to gaga finish, is a hosanna to a single company, its products, philosophy and implicit politics. Plenty of movies sell stuff from fashion to wars and religion; this one sells the Tao of Google.” Read more…)

Before Midnight (romance, Julie Delpy. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. Metacritic: 94. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “Where did the time go? Has it really been nine years since we last saw Celine and Jesse, in Paris, rekindling the romance that first sparked nine years before that, in Vienna? Luckily [for us and for them] they are still together, having hatched a pair of sweet blond twin girls and glided, or maybe stumbled, into their 40s. And, of course, because they are played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Celine and Jesse are still better looking than most of the rest of us, and still have quite a lot to say about themselves, each other and the world.” Read more…)

The Way Way Back (comedy, Steve Carell. Rotten Tomatoes: 85%. Metacritic: 67. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Though it takes place in what looks like the present — the familiar now of ear buds and smartphones — The Way, Way Back, a summertime coming-of-age tale written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is infused with nostalgia. The movie’s title seems to refer to the rear-facing third seat of the massive old station wagon where we first encounter its hero, a glum 14-year-old boy named Duncan [Liam James]. But it also describes a hazy, bittersweet mood of recollection that hovers around the action like July humidity.” Read more…)

New Blu-Ray
The Internship
The Conjuring
Before Midnight

New Foreign
The Wall (Germany/Austria, drama/adventure, Martina Gedeck. Rotten Tomatoes: 72%. Metacritic: 67. From Neil Genzlinger’s New York Times review: “In a few weeks CBS rolls out a mini-series called Under the Dome based on a Stephen King novel. It’s about a Maine town cut off from the world when a clear dome materializes over it. The story focuses on the power struggles among those caught inside, but there is another direction you can take the same premise: the one of The Wall. In this absorbing German-Austrian film, a transparent barrier also imposes itself, but the woman it traps is, by all appearances, alone. Martina Gedeck plays that unnamed character in what is essentially a one-woman study of physical and mental survival.” Read more…)

New Docs
The Waiting Room (health industry, hospitals. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Metacritic: 84. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “The crowded emergency room of Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., is the setting of Peter Nicks’s wrenching documentary The Waiting Room. Shot in 2010 over five months, the film, which has no narrator, titles, statistical analysis or overt editorializing, observes a composite day there during which nearly 250 patients — most of them uninsured — pour in.” Read more…)

Room 237 (film history and interpretation, Kubrick’s “The Shining”. Rotten Tomatoes: 93%. Metacritic: 80. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Mamohla Dargis’ Times review: “An ode to movie love at its most deliriously unfettered, Room 237 is a nonfiction look at some very serious film fans who take The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece, very, very seriously. They know — deep in their obsessive, sometimes demented cinephile hearts — that Kubrick did more than make a feverishly entertaining film about a family falling apart in an isolated hotel called the Overlook. He also embedded amazing messages in The Shining, cunningly weaving secrets and signs into the film’s very fabric, leaving clues about the Holocaust in elevators and messages about the Apollo 11 Moon landing in a sweater. In books, blogs and now this movie these fans carry forth the godhead’s gnostic communiqués.” Read more…)