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78/52: EXPLORING HITCHCOCK’S SHOWER SCENE

How many movie sequences have taken on the mythic power of the shower scene in Psycho? Few, if any, I would say. It is for that reason that Alexandre O. Philippe has been able to build an entire feature film around this legendary moment in movie (and pop culture) history. I found it mesmerizing. The title refers to 78 camera set-ups and 52 cuts, but 78/52 deals with more than just that landmark scene: it explains why Psycho was a game-changer for Hollywood and for audiences. Some of this has become movie lore but none of it seems redundant in the context of this valuable documentary. Peter Bogdanovich provides a first-hand account of seeing Psycho when it was new. (Ever the showman, Hitchcock refused to allow moviegoers to enter the theater after…

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THE SNOWMAN: NO THRILLS, NO CHILLS

It’s often a sign of trouble when there are three prominent screenwriters credited for a movie, especially one that’s based on a successful novel. The fact that The Snowman also features separate credits for two editors (one of them Thelma Schoonmaker, executive producer Martin Scorsese’s longtime colleague) doesn’t bode well, either. These warning signs accurately foretell a bad movie. Michael Fassbender stars in this muddled adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s best-selling thriller about police detective Harry Hole and the hunt for a brutal and insidious serial killer. Set in Norway, with atmospheric shots of the snowy landscape and isolation of its locations, the screenplay also tries—and fails—to interest us in Hole’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her teenage son. I couldn’t have cared less. I’m hard…

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WONDERSTRUCK: NOT WHAT I HOPED FOR

I wanted to love this movie and had every reason to think I would. Wonderstruck wowed many critics on the festival circuit, but somehow it never drew me in. Much as I wanted to be engaged, I remained aloof from the story and characters. It’s not for lack of effort on the part of director Todd Haynes or screenwriter Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret), who adapted his own novel. They have created two worlds fifty years apart and provided clues to the connection between them. We are challenged to put the pieces together as the parallel stories develop. Oakes Fegley, who was so good in Pete’s Dragon, plays a boy who desperately misses his mother (Michelle Williams), who has died in an auto accident. She frustrated…

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CLOSE-UP ON HENRY FONDA AND JAMES STEWART

HANK & JIM: THE FIFTY YEAR FRIENDSHIP OF HENRY FONDA AND JAMES STEWART by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster) You may think you’ve read all you need to about Henry Fonda and James Stewart. After all, they are two of the most celebrated actors of the 20th century. But being the great biographer he is, Scott Eyman has dug beneath the surface to paint rich, layered portraits of both men, along with the story of their extraordinary fifty-year friendship. This is the latest notch in Eyman’s formidable gun belt, having penned definitive biographies of John Wayne, Cecil B. DeMille, Ernst Lubitsch, and other Hollywood giants. Consider these paragraphs from the introductory chapter: “Fonda was a closet intellectual and perfectionist, which inevitably meant he carried a residual…

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FACES PLACES: IMPOSSIBLE TO RESIST

I’ve exhausted my thesaurus trying to find new words to describe Faces Places: “charming” and “disarming” seem too obvious and overused. Suffice it to say that this collaboration between photographer and installation artist JR (age 33) and beloved French filmmaker Agnès Varda (age 88) is inspired and irresistible. On the surface, their movie is simplicity itself: two highly creative people, celebrating their newfound friendship, set off on a series of adventures. Their goal is to visit out-of-the-way villages in France, meet interesting and colorful people, and ask them to participate in JR’s photographic exhibits: gigantic black & white photos pasted on the walls of barns, old buildings, a stack of shipping containers, a factory water tank, and the like. In recent years Varda has made a…

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PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN: STRANGER THAN FICTION

The biggest mystery surrounding this film is how its story has remained in the shadows for so many years. I’m sure comic book devotees have known about it, but the details are so juicy I’m surprised no one has dramatized it before. The bullet points are intriguing on the surface: Wonder Woman was created by a former Harvard professor who also happened to invent the lie detector. He and his wife (also a professor) took in a research assistant who turned out to be the niece of proto-feminist Margaret Sanger…and both husband and wife fell in love with her. Their three-way “marriage” and keen interest in bondage ostracized them from mainstream society but inspired Marston to invent Wonder Woman and turn his comic book into…

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MARSHALL: A MAN WORTH KNOWING

Chadwick Boseman has made a specialty of playing real-life figures: Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and now Thurgood Marshall, the first black man appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Marshall focuses on an important case in his work for the NAACP—one of the building blocks in his ascendant career—and it should come as no surprise that the actor does a first-rate job. The screenplay, by father-and-son lawyers Jacob and Michael Koskoff, takes us back to 1941. Marshall is sent to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where an innocent man (Sterling K. Brown) has been accused of raping a wealthy white woman (Kate Hudson). In order to mount a defense he must convince a local Jewish lawyer, Sam Friedman (nicely played by Josh Gad), to be his mouthpiece in the courtroom.…

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THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED): WHAT A FAMILY!

I loved this movie from the moment it started. Perhaps it’s because I used to drive in New York City and related to Adam Sandler trying to find a parking space while shouting at fellow drivers. Talk about a sense memory! Writer-director Noah Baumbach hits many resonant notes in this perceptive screenplay about a—yes—dysfunctional family. But the Meyerowitzes are not stock characters. Baumbach imbues them with the kind of contradictory traits that make them three-dimensional. Dustin Hoffman delivers a rich, layered performance as a pompous father who has always favored his oldest son (Ben Stiller) over his other children, with Emma Thompson as his wild-haired, alcoholic, flower-child wife, Elizabeth Marvel as their hapless daughter, and a stellar supporting cast. The real marvel of this film…

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GOODBYE, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

There is a tendency among some critics to dismiss anything genteel and British in a condescending manner, relegating it to the “Masterpiece Theater” demographic. I hope this fate doesn’t befall Goodbye, Christopher Robin, a handsome production that may be genteel but is far from bland. It’s the story of a successful author who survived the horrors of combat during World War I only to face writer’s block—and a desire to address the folly of war. He eventually made up a storybook world to amuse his young son. Little did he dream that it would overtake their lives and turn the unsuspecting boy into a kind of freak-show. One doesn’t associate the term “media celebrity” with the 1920s but that’s what the real-life Christopher Robin became after Alan Milne…

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PIGGING OUT ON LOONEY TUNES

A decade ago Warner Home Video released a series of handsomely packaged DVDs, and later Blu-rays, of cartoons from its vast library. Nowadays the big news comes from the company’s little-engine-that-could division, Warner Archive: a spectacular 5-disc DVD set called Porky Pig 101. This catchy title takes advantage of the fact that there are, in fact, 101 Porky cartoons from his heyday—99 in black & white, two in color! A handful of finicky folks online have complained that not every short has been restored. Please! The cartoons all look good (some better than others), and I am not inclined to complain: it’s a miracle this set exists at all. If there’s one thing a studio avoids in children’s entertainment, it’s black & white material. If there’s…

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