Movies I’ve recently seen: Chloé Zhao’s first feature, James Whale’s haunted house, Hannah Arendt, & Dr. No

Another selection of movies that no one asked me to watch. I just wanted to see them (or see them again).

A- Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)

Chloé Zhao’s first feature isn’t quite as good as the two she made since, but it’s still very much watching. Like The Rider, it’s set on a Lakota reservation. A boy’s plans for life after high school are blocked by poverty, family, and his own unrealistic dreams. He’s selling alcohol, which is illegal on the “rez,” which can get him in trouble with either the law or, much worse, some very scary bootleggers. His kid sister is heading towards adolescence, his mother has her own drinking problem, and his older brother is in jail. Like Zhao’s other works, she gets amazing performances from non-actors by modeling the characters after the people playing them.

An interesting note about movie stars: Chloé Zhao has now made three excellent feature films. I completely missed Songs My Brothers Taught Me when it opened. Her second, The Rider, was in theaters for a week. Neither had well-known actors. Then she made Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, won multiple Oscars, and is now a top filmmaker.

B+ The Old Dark House (1932)

Between Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale made a delightful haunted house movie, even if the house isn’t technically haunted (no ghosts). Two groups of travelers get caught in a horrible storm and find shelter in a big, dark house. Here they find a very strange, very dysfunctional family, along with Boris Karloff as a mute butler who doesn’t always do what he’s told. The atmosphere is as thick as the stone walls. The wonderful cast includes Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Ernest Thesiger, Lilian Bond, Raymond Massey, and a very young Charles Laughton. A real delight.

B Hannah Arendt (2012)

The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt escaped the Holocaust, lived to cover the Adolf Eichmann trial, and coined the term “banality of evil.” The book she wrote about the trial angered many other Jews. This fictionalized version has considerable flaws (I do not consider the fiction to be among the flaws). It jumps over the trial far too quickly, while minor scenes seem to be stretched out. But the film still has much to say about the concept of evil. It also shows a very loving, romantic relationship with her husband. And, of course, there’s a rousing speech at the end.

B Dr. No (1962)

Here’s where big-screen James Bond began. For the first time, you get “Bond, James Bond,” beautiful and apparently available girls, M and Moneypenny, an exotic location (Jamacia), car chases, fights, gunplay, and my favorite: The evil villain who captures Bond, treats him as an honored guest, before allowing him to escape through very wide airducts. It sometimes feels like 007 in embryo, and it’s amazing that it would be followed by the best film in the series, From Russia with Love.

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