Rob Harmon’s recommendations 10/22/13

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 10/08/13

Top Hits
The Hangover Part III (comedy, Bradley Cooper. Rotten Tomatoes: 19%. Metacritic: 30. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “The Wolfpack rides again. Or rather, it limps exhaustedly over the tundra in what is billed as the final edition of the Hangover trilogy. Defanged, with glazed eyes and creaking joints, these superannuated party animals try vainly to stir up some enthusiasm during a return visit to Las Vegas, the site of the first Hangover movie. But their heart isn’t in it.” Read more…)

After Earth (sci-fi, Will Smith. Rotten Tomatoes: 11%. Metacritic: 33. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “A father-son encounter session tricked out with science-fiction clichés and steeped in motivational uplift, After Earth opens with a teenager, Kitai Raige [Jaden Smith], washing out from some kind of ranger academy. It’s a bummer because all he wants to do is please his father [Will Smith, Jaden’s father], a heroic if unfortunately named general, Cypher. Daddy Dearest has risen having honed tremendous self-control and a useful protective technique, ‘ghosting,’ which renders him invisible to the monsters plaguing human civilization: the nonbearlike Ursa.” Read more…)

The Purge (horror, Ethan Hawke. Rotten Tomatoes: 38%. Metacritic: 41. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Human sacrifice is a reliable crowd pleaser, from the myth of the Minotaur to Shirley Jackson’s short-story shocker ‘The Lottery,’ the Japanese film Battle Royale, the book [and now movie series] The Hunger Games and the television reality show ‘The Voice.’ This week’s big-screen oblation, The Purge, revisits that old sacral feeling, updates it with agitated camerawork and seasons it with the vaguest suggestion of politics — and then lets it rip with machine guns, machetes and Manson Family-style gigglers in fright masks. Ain’t we got fun?” Read more…)

The Kings of Summer (coming-of-age comedy, Nick Robinson. Rotten Tomatoes: 76%. Metacritic: 61. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “The best way to enjoy The Kings of Summer is to view it as a likable comic fantasy dreamed up by filmmakers [Chris Galletta wrote the screenplay] who are close enough to adolescence to infuse their ramshackle story with a youthful, carefree whimsy. So what if much of it doesn’t add up? It’s still kind of fun and is embellished with clever cinematic flourishes.” Read more…)

Much Ado About Nothing (contemporary Shakespeare adaptation, Amy Acker. Rotten Tomatoes: 84%. Metacritic: 78. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing — perhaps the liveliest and most purely delightful movie I have seen so far this year — draws out the essential screwball nature of Shakespeare’s comedy. It may be the martini-toned black-and-white cinematography, the soigné Southern California setting, or the combative courtship of Amy Acker’s angular, sharp-tongued Beatrice and Alexis Denisof’s grouchy, hangdog Benedick, but from its very first scenes, Mr. Whedon’s film crackles with a busy, slightly wayward energy that recalls the classic romantic sparring of the studio era.” Read more…)

American Horror Story: Asylum (horror, Season 2)

New Blu-Ray
The Purge
The Hangover Part III
After Earth
Much Ado About Nothing

New Foreign
Aliyah (France, drama, Cedric Kahn. Rotten Tomatoes: 83%. Metacritic: 72. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “The anxiety that infuses the elliptical family drama Aliyah is underscored by Schoenberg’s feverish, brooding ‘Verklärte Nacht.’ That piece accompanies the ramblings around Paris of the film’s 27-year-old protagonist, Alex [Pio Marmaï], a low-level drug dealer who lives in a working-class neighborhood and longs to give up his perilous occupation. But he is drawn back to easy money by his freeloading older brother, Isaac [the French director Cédric Kahn], whose debts to loan sharks Alex feels obliged to pay. The feature directorial debut of Elie Wajeman from a screenplay he wrote with Gaëlle Macé, Aliyah only hints at the troubled history of the brothers’ relationship.” Read more…)

New Classic DVDs (pre-1960)
I Married A Witch (1942, screwball comedy, Veronica Lake. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. From Bosley Crowther’s 1942 New York Times review [requires log-in]: “The strange and beautiful illusion that Veronica Lake is completely unreal is being quite charmingly nourished in Rene Clair’s new film, I Married A Witch. You recall that Miss Lake was first manifest on the screen as an ambulating hank of hair, from behind which emerged dulcet noises and a calorific glow. Well, in this one, which breezed into the Capitol on a figurative broomstick yesterday, the little lady first appears as a smoke cloud and then as a sly sorceress who tosses around an astral body and necromances with Fredric March. The illusion is thoroughly disarming, and so is this whimsical film.” Read more…)

The Big Parade (1925, King Vidor-directed silent war drama, John Gilbert. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. From Mordaunt Hall’s 1925 New York Times review [requires log-in]: “An eloquent pictorial epic of the World War was presented last night at the Astor Theatre before a sophisticated gathering that was intermittently stirred to laughter and tears. This powerful photodrama is entitled The Big Parade, having been converted to the screen from a story by Laurence Stallings, co-author of What Price Glory, and directed by King Vidor. It is a subject so compelling and realistic that one feels impelled to approach a review of it with all the respect it deserves, for as a motion picture it is something beyond the fondest dreams of most people.” read more…)

New TV
American Horror Story: Asylum (horror, Season 2, in Top Hits)