Then Playing — The Innocents; Marshall; Things to Come

innocents

The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961). A horror movie that favors spooky atmosphere over jolting shocks, The Innocents is adapted from the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) takes a position as a governess at remote estate, looking after the young niece (Pamela Franklin) and nephew (Martin Stephens) of a notably uncaring businessman (Michael Redgrave). What begins as the normal patience-testing behavior of rambunctious children longing for attention soon escalates to more unsettling mischief, and Miss Giddens grows certain that the house holds dark, perhaps supernatural secrets. Director Jack Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis work little wonders with hazy light and thick shadows, giving the film a constant hum of low menace. Kerr plays her role with her customary focus and steely elegance, helping to elevate the material above cinematic potboiler.

 

marshall

Marshall (Reginald Hudlin, 2017). Chadwick Boseman’s everlasting acting tour of towering figures of the twentieth century makes a stop at Thurgood Marshall. Rather than a biographical tour through the legal legend’s life, Marshall largely sticks with his work as a NAACP attorney on the case The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Snell. Settling comfortably into the familiar rhythms of a big-screen courtroom drama, Reginald Hudlin is able to slip in the valuable social commentary more discreetly, winning over the audience with clear heroes and villains that smooths the way for hard — and, sadly, enduring — truths about bigotry in policing and U.S. justice. Boseman, as usual, radiates charisma, even if he struggles a bit to get deeper into the man he’s portraying. The supporting performances are generally strong, with Josh Gad turning in impressively nuanced work as the small town lawyer Marshall ropes into serving a lead counsel on the case. It’s also entertaining and sort of endearing to see James Cromwell, one of the most devoted of the celebrity lefties, playing the surly, hard-right judge presiding over the case. Dan Stevens doesn’t fare as well in the role of the prosecuting attorney. He plays too many scenes with the mustache-twisting brio of a silent movie scoundrel itching to tie a damsel to some train tracks.

 

things to come

Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936). Based loosely on an H.G. Wells book published a mere three years earlier (the author himself reworked the material for the screen), Things to Come posits a future riven by global war. The creeping fascism of Nazi Germany was obviously on the minds of the filmmakers, but the nation’s incursions into the rest of Europe were more threat than reality at the time, lending the film an unnerving prescience. In Wells’s imaginings, war stretches on for decades, leaving civilization in rubble, susceptible to the bullying of a preening warlord (Ralph Richardson, performing with admirable gusto) until a more measured and scientifically advanced human tribe forcibly takes over, forging a lasting peace. Human nature is a prickly beast, however, and reactionary rebellion eventually starts to simmer. Fairly typical of the era in which it was made, the staging is often amusingly stiff, as director William Cameron Menzies struggles to coax believable interactions out of Wells’s didactic, occasionally academic language. When the film’s timeline stretches to a full century beyond the point when it was made, the effects and art direction are impressive, standing as a reasonable — if far less inspired — successor to Fritz Lang’s landmark Metropolis.

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