New This Week
Lady Bird is a charming coming-of-age film set in Sacramento, California in 2002. Liberally based on writer-director Greta Gerwig’s own life experiences, the film won numerous 2017 year-end awards including Best Picture from the New York Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics, the latter also awarding Gerwig its Best Director and Best Screenplay prizes.
Saoirse Ronan gives another beautifully realized performance, earning her third Oscar nomination, having been previously nominated for Atonement and Brooklyn. Veteran actress Laurie Metcalf also excels as Ronan’s exasperated mother, earning her first Oscar nomination after sweeping the early critics’ awards. The interplay between the two actresses is the heart of the film, but there are also fine performances from Tracy Letts as Ronan’s gentle father, Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet as her first boyfriends, Beanie Feldstein as her best friend, and Lois Smith as a good-humored nun.
Good-humored would hardly be a word I’d use to describe Melissa Leo’s mean, antagonistic mother superior in Novitiate, a film set in 1964 after the Catholic Church’s Vatican II reforms were issued but not yet implemented.
Costarring Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, and Dianna Agron, the film plays out like the first portion of the Audrey Hepburn classic The Nun’s Story. Leo’s character, however, is closer to Meryl Streep’s uptight nun in Doubt than Mildred Dunnock’s mistress of postulants in the earlier film. It’s a good performance, but it’s more than a bit one-sided. A more nuanced screenplay would have found something in the woman to make her marginally sympathetic so that when the archbishop (Denis O’Hare) lays down the law and tells her to implement the changes demanded by Vatican II or else, you feel a modicum of sympathy for her. Instead, you want to hiss at her when she makes he big speech advocating for the changes through tears at the end.
Movies made from Charles Dickens’ works are almost always something special. Films about the author himself have not been nearly as endearing. 2013’s The Invisible Woman with Ralph Fiennes as a middle-aged Dickens and Felicity Jones as his young mistress was a disappointment, as is The Man Who Invented Christmas about his writing of A Christmas Carol.
At 31, Dickens was already an internationally celebrated author in desperate need of a success after a couple of flops. With just three months to produce a Christmas novel, he comes up A Christmas Carol when he is visited by Scrooge, Marley’s Ghost, and the ghosts of Christmases past, present and to come. The inspiration for Tiny Tim is his brother’s son. While the story and its execution are flat, there is some joy to be found in the performances, particularly those of the three leads – Dan Stevens as Dickens, Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, and Jonathan Pryce as Dickens’ ne’er-do-well father. It’s a shame the material given them wasn’t stronger.
The Oscar-nominated animated film The Breadwinner is a Canada-Ireland-Luxembourg co-production in English about life in Afghanistan under the Taliban in 2001. It’s a universally potent story of a young girl who disguises herself as a boy in-order-to make a living in a hostile world in-order-to support her mother, older sister, and baby brother after her father in incarcerated on a drummed-up charge. To make life more bearable under the most brutal of conditions, she makes up stories about her late brother which she shares with a young friend who also disguises herself as a boy to support herself. The transition between the horrors of her real-life situation and the often-joyful exploits depicted in her stories make for an interesting counter-balance.
The above-reviewed films are all available on Blu-ray and standard DVD. Also, finally available in both formats, David O. Selznick’s 1933 version of Pagnol’s Topaze is a delightful comedy that should be better known.
John Barrymore had one of his most memorable roles as a simple schoolteacher who is fired for failing the class brat whose father is a wealthy baron. Myrna Loy had one of her earliest successes as the baron’s mistress who Barrymore falls in love with. The film was denied a re-issue by the censors in 1936 because Loy’s mistress does not suffer the consequences of such a life as was the case with screen mistresses in all other films released under the production code. Various French versions of the play have been made including a competing 1933 version starring Louis Jouvet and a 1951 version directed by Pagnol (The Marseille Trilogy) himself starring Fernandel.
Among previously released films getting new Blu-ray upgrades are Dario Argento’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails and four Hammer horror films from the 1960s.
The Cat o’ Nine Tails, like Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage which preceded it, has had numerous DVD and Blu-ray releases, but has never looked better than in the new 4K transfer from Arrow Video. James Franciscus is the reporter and Karl Malden is his blind friend, beating the cops to discover the murderer in this classic giallo thriller.
Hammer has been slowly upgrading its horror classics to Blu-ray. Economically released as twofers are Maniac and Die! Die! My Darling in one set and Never Take Candy from a Stranger and Scream of Fear in the other.
Although classified as horror films, they are more suspense than actual horror. All four of them feature less horror than you can find in your typical TV show these days.
Kerwin Matthews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) stars in 1963’s Maniac as an American tourist stranded in a French Riviera town with a woman whose husband is in an institution for the criminally insane and her step-daughter. There are plenty of twists and turns in this one, some of which you’ll see coming, some of which you won’t. Nadia Gray and Liliane Brousse co-star.
Tallulah Bankhead, hamming it up as a religious fanatic intent on murdering her late son’s fiancée so that she can join him in eternity is the main reason to see 1965’s Die! Die! My Darling. Stefanie Powers is the other reason.
1960’s Never Take Candy from a Stranger is a cautionary tale about an old pedophile played by Felix Aylmer who terrorizes two little girls, one of whose family brings him to court and loses. Gwen Watford and Patrick Allen co-star as the girl’s parents.
1961’s Scream of Fear provided meaty roles for Susan Strasberg (Picnic) and Ann Todd (The Paradine Case) in a fun game of cat and mouse. Ronald Lewis is the man between them.
This week’s new releases include The Shape of Water and Call Me by Your Name.