Sunday, March 27, 2011

Movies: Whip Round

Tamara Drewe (2010). The latest film from director Stephen Frears slipped briefly into theaters under cover of darkness last year. A funny, sexy, literate romp, it’s well worth catching up with on DVD. Set in and around a writers’ retreat, it throws together a hugely successful and deeply fatuous crime novelist (Roger Allam), his long-suffering wife (Tamsin Greig), an academic constipated in every conceivable sense, the title character (Gemma Arterton) who has returned to the village where she grew up, two teenage girls who are desperate to leave, and a host of other characters. A textured movie that surprises throughout, it’s based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds (shrewdly adapted by Moira Buffini) that in turn updates Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. (Not that I am so versed in the work of Thomas Hardy. I had to learn that elsewhere. If it were based on the work of Frank and Joe Hardy, that I would have figured out on my own.) The marketing campaign consisted entirely of Gemma Arterton in hot pants; even though the scene in question lasts only a few moments and makes sense in terms of the story, it’s exploited repeatedly on the DVD’s special features. A splendid sight to be sure, but it sells the movie, um, short. Featuring the best ill-timed will-you-sign-your-book-for-me? moment ever, it’s essential viewing for anyone interested in the literary life.

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945). This Robert Siodmak film screened at Noir City in San Francisco but didn’t make the trip to the Seattle fest, so I was pleased to find it on Netflix Instant. George Sanders plays Uncle Harry, a New England bachelor who lives in a rambling home with his two sisters. When Harry falls for Ella Raines, Geraldine Fitzgerald decides she’s not going to share her brother with anyone. Psychosexual tension galore, deftly dealt with in the face of the censors of the time. Raines’ character is allowed to be smart, sending the film down some unexpected paths. Sanders is quite touching, and Fitzgerald is, as usual, a powerhouse. The ending, alas, is a complete cheat, but you’ll know the real climax when you see it.

Sleep, My Love (1948). Also streaming on Netflix. The second movie I watched in as many days in which doctored hot chocolate is essential to the plot. Such is the life I lead. Claudette Colbert is a New York socialite who wakes up on a train to Boston with a gun in her purse and no memory of how she got there. What follows is a variation on Gaslight, with Don Ameche as the scheming husband. But it’s served up with uncommon flair, thanks to a sophisticated screenplay co-written by Leo Rosten from his novel and skillful direction by Douglas Sirk before he entered his lush melodrama phase. The movie’s secret weapon is Robert Cummings, his delivery so sharp and fresh his scenes could have been filmed yesterday. Also with the gorgeous Hazel Brooks, hell-bent on finishing her dialogue as quickly as possible.