High Rising, by Angela Thirkell. This is a British novel that was first published in 1933. Apparently Thirkell published a whole series of novels set in a fictional farming area called Barsetshire, and this is the first of them. It is mostly about a youngish widow named Laura Morland, who is a successful author, and her colorful friends and her rambunctious youngest son, Tony. It sort of reminded me of Jane Austen, since it’s largely about country folk and whether the eligible men and women in the area will pair off correctly. And it sort of reminded me of Jan Karon, whose Mitford books are very fluffy and completely devoid of sex, profanity, and violence. It was a pleasant-enough read, and at only 233 pages, not a huge investment of time.
Downton Abbey‘s upstairs (Cousin Rose—Lily James in the title role) and downstairs (Daisy the kitchen maid—Sophie McShera as step-sister Drisella) meet in Kenneth Branagh’s live-action and somewhat diverse Cinderella. This visually stunning, mostly traditional telling of the classic fairy tale is a crowd pleaser for young and young at heart. Development of Ella’s back story adds substance to this Disney princess and explains her super power—kindness. Cate Blanchett is the only choice for the wicked step-mother and she delivers beautifully. The King (Derek Jacobi) gives Prince “Kit” Charming (Richard Madden—Game of Thrones) the go-ahead on his deathbed to follow his heart rather than marry for advantage. Helena Bonham Carter is the quintessential Fairy Godmother—if only she had a little more screen time. The Oscar for costume design is in the bag for Sandy Powell. The computer animated transformation of pumpkin and mice to horse-drawn carriage is captivating. The lizards turned footmen are particularly clever. The highly anticipated Frozen short before the movie will delight the Anna–Elsa fans.
What We Do in the Shadows (C-). It’s not every day that you get a chance to see a mockumentary about a quartet of vampires sharing a flat in modern-day Wellington, New Zealand. The most outgoing vampire, a foppish dandy named Viago, is our guide to the the blood-suckers’ trials and tribulations. For example, flatmate Deacon hasn’t done the blood-stained dishes in several years, and they are really starting to pile up. The most venerable vampire, Petyr, is an 8000-year-old freak who apparently seldom leaves his massive crypt in the basement. (So Viago kindly brings him a chicken from time to time.) And when the dark, moody Vladislav isn’t brooding over a centuries-old defeat by a creature called The Beast, he’s wondering why they don’t just get some slaves to do the housework, like in the old days. It’s mildly amusing, but I really thought it would be funnier than it was. It probably didn’t help that there were only about 4 of us in the theater, so the laughs didn’t have much synergy to work with. On the plus side, it’s only 86 minutes long.
I Married a Witch (B). This is a 1942 comedy starring Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives) and Veronica Lake (Sullivan’s Travels). I had never heard of it before, but I saw that it was in “The Criterion Collection,” a fancy-shmancy series of DVDs “dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions of the highest technical quality.” Plus, it was on sale, and I was curious to see what Veronica Lake actually looked like. (You’ll recall that Kim Basinger played a supposed Veronica Lake look-alike in L.A. Confidential.) Anyhoo, I Married a Witch is an enjoyable, if offbeat, little movie. The opening scene establishes that back in Puritan times, a witch and her warlock father were burned for, well, witchcraft. The witch (Lake) puts a curse on the Puritan fellow who accused her such that he (March) and his descendants will always marry unhappily until the curse is lifted. Fast forward to 1942, and the father-and-daughter team are on the loose. The Puritan’s descendant Wallace Wooley (also March) is running for political office and about to marry an obvious shrew played by Susan Hayward (Garden of Evil). The witch decides to torment Wallace a little bit, and the movie goes on from there. It’s a quirky little movie; the DVD booklet says that director Rene Clair was one of the early innovators of the cinema. The TV show “Bewitched” seems to owe a little something to this film, and it also bears a certain resemblance to the much-worse movie Kitten With a Whip. Worth seeing if the opportunity presents itself.
Strangers on a Train (B+). I caught this 1951 Hitchcock film at The Magnolia, and I quite enjoyed it. Two strangers meet on a train somewhere on the east coast. One is Guy Haines (Farley Granger, They Live by Night), a professional tennis player who wants a divorce from his unpleasant and uncooperative wife so he can be with his true love, a senator’s daughter. The other is Bruno Antony (Robert Walker, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo), a creepy socialite who seems to know an awful lot about Guy and his problems. When Bruno casually proposes that he could murder Guy’s wife if Guy would murder Bruno’s father, Guy brushes him off. He quickly learns that he shouldn’t have done that. In short, Strangers is a well-plotted little suspense movie. Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia (Psycho) has a small but important role as the senator’s other daughter. Check it out if you get the chance.
If you’ve been mourning the end of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan’s spin off is pretty good. Saul (Bob Odenkirk, Nebraska) has a new identity as the manager of a Cinnabon kiosk in a mall. The series opens in black and white as Saul tends store. At the end of a long day in his dumpy apartment, Saul reminisces about the good old days–puts in a videotape of his old TV commercials. The flashback starts–and black and white fades to color as we learn how small town struggling lawyer James McGill became Saul the lawyer to drug dealers. This series is the same black comedy and has the same pacing as Breaking Bad. You’ll recognize some familiar faces. Definitely worth watching if you liked BB.