Movies: Two documentaries, two films about marital scheming

An unexpectedly disorganized weekend, due to extra cooking and family visits, or I’d have gotten this done yesterday.

ABSINTHE (2010) was a Netflix streaming documentary I wouldn’t have watchined if it wasn’t getting yanked from the service. As it turns out, this is quite good, chronicling how a woman herbalist’s stimulant potion became a popular drink of artistes, then soldiers (“They put it in canteens in the belief it prevented infection.”) who then brought it home to the cafes of Paris (“Five o’clock was known as the ‘green hour.”). The movie tracks the outlawing of absinthe, which it sees as a forerunner of the Reefer Madness view of pot (wine vendors tying absinthe to sensational murder cases), through its return and the legal wrangles of getting it approved in the US as well. Minor, but interesting. “It took people several years to realize absinthe was once again legal in Europe.”
In THE FLAT (2011), a German family sorting through their late grandma’s possessions discover she and grandpa had a history of friendship with an SS officer that starts when Grandpa went with him to Palestine (“The Nazis wanted the Jews to leave Germany. So did the Zionists.”) and astonishingly keeps going post-war despite one of grandma’s daughters going to a concentration camp. This reminds me a lot of the American documentary Secret Daughter and the German drama The Nasty Girl as it explores the stream of denial flowing through the WW II and post-war generations (“Why is it third-generation Germans are the only ones to ask questions?”) and what to do about them (“Do you tell a friend that her father was a murderer?”). Good. “This is an individual Jew, he will have to go someday, but until then we can have interesting conversations.”
What a tangled web we weave, when first we marry to deceive—
INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) is the Coen Brothers film that reminds me the most of the great Preston Sturges, with George Clooney as super-divorce lawyer Miles Massey (“The Massey prenup gets its own semester at Harvard Law.”) who successfully thwarts Catherine Zeta Jones’ scheme to marry and rip off millionaire Edward Herrmann. When Massey tries to hit on her afterwards, he’s annoyed to find her falling for oil tycoon Billy Bob Thornton instead, then annoyed to realize how annoyed he is, but he’s no idea what’s reall going on. Great fun that would double-bill well with Clooney’s other look at an emotionally detached man in Up in the Air. Julia Duffy plays an LA divorcee. “Your honor, this is harassment—and to be frank, it’s still a little arty-farty.”
Preston Sturges THE LADY EVE (1941) stars Barbara Stanwyck as a card sharp who’s plan to seduce and fleece uber-serious millionaire snake expert Henry Fonda goes somewhat askew when she falls for her mark, then discovers he can’t forgive her shady past. Her response is to re-invent herself as the eponymous aristocrat in order to get her revenge (“I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”) much to the disapproval of valet William Demarest, father Charles Coburn and phony nobleman Eric Blore. Not my favorite Sturges (I prefer Palm Beach Story or Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) but the stars put it over (I’ve always had a crush on Stanwyck, and she’s delightful here). “Do you want to bring the walls tumbling about our ears? Silence to the grave—and beyond!”
A dying man lives long enough to wonder WHY DIDN’T THEY ASK EVANS? (1980), thereby kicking off a mystery as the man who heard the cryptic message teams up with duchess Francesca Annis to find out what the heck that means. I enjoyed the Agatha Christie novel this is based on and loved Francesca Annis in the Christie-based Partners in Crime (it is very weird to see her do Christie without co-star Ben Cross) but this adaptation didn’t work for me at all. John Gielgud plays the hero’s father. “She’s not the girl in the photograph.”

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