Film Reviews: Even More Movies to Watch While Sheltering in Place — Stir-Crazy 3

By Gerald Peary

Five more feature films of great interest and their links, carefully chosen to get you through the travails of the coronavirus. Two are free, three are rentals.

The not-so-quiet American in The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) — Who would expect levity from Lev Kuleshov, Russian film theoretician? Yet here’s a Kuleshov silent comedy about a Babbitt-like American who comes to Moscow in an outfit more fit for a Notre Dame football game. He’s duped and taken prisoner by anti-Communist scalawags led by a seedy crook portrayed by Soviet filmmaker V.I. Pudovkin. Mr. West’s sidekick for the trip abroad is a rowdy, gun-toting cowpoke, who sends the Soviet police on a Keystone Kops-like chase. Under a barrage of Soviet propaganda at the end of the film, Mr. West finally sees the light and writes his wife back home, “Madge, hang a portrait of Lenin in my office.” A decent film for which master editor Kuleshov should have made a 10-minute trimming.

It Happened Here (1966) — Long before Philip Roth’s Plot Against America there was this dystopic fictionalized rewrite of World War II, a film collaboration of military expert Andrew Mollo and film historian Kevin Brownlow. Here the Germans successfully invade England, set up a Vichy-like provisional government, declare London a demilitarized zone, and battle partisans—labeled as Jews and Communists—living on the fringe. Mollo and Brownlow tell part of their story as a faux newsreel, with simulated documentary footage of London under Nazi occupation. Shot in black-and-white, It Happened Here is done with such precision of detail that it does feel “real” when helmeted Nazis take photos along the Thames. $4.99 rental.

To Sir, with Love (1967) — Sidney Poitier’s dignified, caring black teacher from the Caribbean is assigned to teach in a pre-yuppie-invaded East London. This is class-stratified England, so there is no chance that these students from the wrong side of town will ever go to Eton or work at the BBC. Nevertheless, Poitier gets them to care in their studies, and their class trip is a thing of beauty and discovery, buoyed by Lulu’s super-great theme song. As for the slow dance at the end between Poitier and mini-skirted teenager Judy Geeson, there’s no hiding by the filmmakers of the erotic feelings that can arise between teacher and student (how non-PC!), a pull acknowledged wordlessly but tenderly by both characters.  $3.99 rental.

Elaine May and Water Matthau in A New Leaf.

A New Leaf (1970) — Fifty years ago, Elaine May (still going strong today on Broadway) starred in this very funny movie, which she also directed. She’s an extremely nerdy, impossibly klutzy botanist with money suddenly courted by a dapper man of dashing manners (a fabulously acerbic Walter Matthau). He wants to marry her immediately, and she’s so gullible she agrees. What’s the catch? This grumpy misanthrope has run out of dough. He wants to wed her, kill her, collect. But can she somehow win his cool heart before he throws her down a cliff? There’s a wonderful turn by May’s old comedy partner, Mike Nichols, as a slow-burning, befuddled tax consultant.

Henry Fool (1998) — I’m not a lover of Hal Hartley movies, turned off by the wispy narratives and the endless self-conscious talk. But he had a strong story this time, winner of Best Screenplay at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. It illuminates the odd friendship of Mephistophelean ex-jailbird, Henry (terrifically acted by Thomas Jay Ryan) and a hangdog garbage collector (James Urbaniak), whom Henry encourages to be a poet. There’s a bang-up performance by Parker Posey as the poet’s nympho sister and, completely afar for genteel Hartley, some dumber-than-dumb scatological hilarity. Fart jokes. Poop jokes. “Were those scenes Brechtian?” a French critic at Cannes asked Hartley, when Henry Fool was shown there. “I was thinking more of The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy,” Hartley replied. $3.99 rental.

Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.

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