MIDWINTER MOVIES - TAKE TWO
The grim, cold nights of late winter are perfect for tucking in by the fire with a good book and your purring lobster, but they're also not bad for catching up with some of the oddments from cinema history that you may have heard of but missed. So, for the second year, here's the Flickwitch's midwinter list of films that may beguile the longueurs of your long nights. Some are recent, some are vintage, most are available on Netflix, and many may be waiting at your local video store.
A Shot in the Dark – Not technically a Pink Panther movie, it's Blake Edwards' second time directing Peter Sellers as the impossibly maladroit Inspector Clouseau. Contains the funniest eleven seconds ever put on film, and no, I'm not going to give you a clue.
Be Kind, Rewind – A charming, low-key fantasy set in Passaic (Passaic?) New Jersey. When a freak accident erases all the tapes in a video store, the clerk's crazy pal talks him into re-making every film in the store with a cheap videocam. With Mos Def as the lovably gentle clerk, and Jack Black reining it in to be just loony enough.
Sunset Boulevard – You know it's a fantasy when it opens with a corpse narrating its own murder. In this, one of his many masterpieces, Billy Wilder creates has-been film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson overplaying for all she's worth), a monster more terrifying than any ever imagined by James Whale or Tod Browning, or Mel Brooks. Don't see this one alone.
La Belle et la bęte – Disney's animated version of “Beauty and the Beast” was good, but Jean Cocteau's 1946 live-action version is breathtaking, and may be the greatest fairy tale on film. You may well be as disappointed as Colette was, when at the end the beast transforms into the prince: “Give me back my beautiful beast!” she sighed.
Andrei Rublev – Something rich and strange, and, like escargots, not for everyone. The life of Russia's most famous 15th century icon painter clocks in at 3 ˝ hours of Russian serfs being miserable and Russian monks arguing about the Will of God and the Creative Impulse. But if you're in a suitably existential mood, you may be sucked in by the stately rhythms and austere visuals. Originally released in highly edited versions, probably because of its realistic depictions of violence and naked pagans. See? Got your attention..
Topkapi – If you're fond of recent heist movies, such as the Ocean's series (and they are great fun), you owe it to yourself to see this earlier (1964) example. Melina Mercouri covets an emerald-encrusted dagger in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace Museum, and she convenes a star-studded gang to help her get it, including Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley, and Peter Ustinov as a none-too bright double agent. But it's Mercouri's presence that causes the whole enterprise to glow like amber in torchlight.
The Lion in Winter – I thought this was a classic, but some of my college-age friends had never heard of it – horrors! Peter O'Toole as Henry II, the first Plantagenet, and Katherine Hepburn as his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, shred each other to bits at a Christmas party in 1183 with no weapons but their own savage wits. Of no help at all are their kids, Richard the Lion-Hearted (not yet king) and the repulsive Prince John. More fun than you can imagine.
The Sea Hawk – Released in 1940, two years after Errol Flynn's “Adventures of Robin Hood” (still one of the best movies ever), this swashbuckler is no slouch in the realm of derring-do, and a direct ancestor of Captain Jack Sparrow. The climax is the essential sword fight between Flynn and the slimy traitor. As she knights the victor, Good Queen Bess makes pointed comments about foreign invaders and the Liberty of England, just as the Luftwaffe was turning London into a rubbish tip.
Alexander Nevsky – Unlike the somber “Andrei Rublev,” Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 Russian folk tale crackles with humor, excitement, and defiance, as befits a piece of pre-war anti-Nazi propaganda. A minor 13th century nobleman, Nevsky (the charismatic Nikolai Cherkasov) defends his homeland against the Teutonic Crusaders. The climactic battle on the ice of Lake Chudskoe inspired Olivier's Agincourt (see below) six years later. Prokofiev's score, with thrilling choruses about Mother Rus, turned many of us, if not into Communists, at least into big fans of the Moiseyev Dancers.
Henry V – Kenneth Branagh's version is excellent, but Olivier's 1944 film changed the way we think about Shakespeare in the movies. His pulling back from age to age, from the Globe Theater to the battlefield at Agincourt two centuries earlier, is a staggering leap of imagination and still as thrilling as it was intended to be, as an encouragement for the English in the last days of World War II. Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!
So put the kettle on, pet the lobster, burrow under the down throw, and happy watching.