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Tag Archives: 1940s

The Circus in the Attic (1947): Nothing Seems Real to Me

Robert Penn Warren, The Circus in the Attic (Dell, 1947)

[originally posted 7Mar2002]

The title, in garish colors, adorns the book cover.

“But dear, it clashes with the drapes!”
photo credit: Amazon

The back jacket of the book says, “These stories come from the pen of one of America’s half-dozen great writers.” Given the time period of the book’s release, that was really saying something. Something accurate, but something nonetheless. Penn Warren (who won the Pulitzer two year’s before for All the King’s Men) wrote the stories in this book over the course of fifteen years. Most were previously published.

The book is framed with two novellas, the title story and “Prime Leaf,” with a number of shorter works in between. As with most of Penn Warren’s work, the tales are about depression-era and WW2-era life in the American south, people going on about their day-to-day business. A number of the stories deal with the same town, and the same characters pass in and out of them, so the reader gets the feeling of getting to know different aspects of the town as he goes from story to story.

Part of the magic of Penn Warren’s work is the ability to simultaneously expose to the reader the quiet dignity of the proletariat and the basic stupidity of human nature. Not an easy thing to make the reader respect the people he’s laughing at. But that’s exactly what happens time and again in this book. The characters do dumb things for various reasons, but we always understand what those reasons are, and most of the time we can see how the character gets from the reason to the justification to the act without a problem. And while there’s always a moral to be had, Robert Penn Warren is certainly not Aesop. The moral is there, waiting to be found, but the reader who’s not interested in the morality of the tales is allowed to go off on his merry way and not contemplate the deeper meaning of what’s here. That, too, is part of Robert Penn Warren’s gift. *** ½

Capsule Reviews, October 2014, Part 2

Normally this would be the vault reviews part, but I only have two capsule-length vault reviews left. So I filled the rest with new reviews…

 

Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere (Avon, 1996)

[originally posted 7Jan2002]

A portrait of a London subway tunnel heading off into the distance decorates the book's cover.

Somewhere down there, King Rat awaits.
photo credit: Amazon

Gaiman took the script from his own miniseries and novelized it, and that’s where many of the problems with this volume lay. While the plot moves along at a fine enough pace, and the pages turn quickly, there’s not really much in the way of development going on. The characters are 2-D all the way through, and we never get to feeling that there’s more than that surface. So if you’re a person who can’t find anything worth liking in a novel with badly-drawn characters, this probably shouldn’t be the first place you turn when looking for something to read.

On the other hand, if a well-realized plot and some great place descriptions are enough to make you eschew characterization, you could do a lot worse. Gaiman is quite good at coming up with new and interesting places to send his characters, most of which obviously started with the question “why in the world was this tube station named <x>?” Gaiman creates an alternate London that’s quite a bit of fun to explore. I just can’t quite shake the feeling that the miniseries would be more absorbing than the book. ***

* * *

Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Visit (Grove, 1956)

[originally posted 24Jan2002]

The outline of the protagonist is cut out of the cover's red background, revealing newsprint.

She does not stroll. She does not stride.
photo credit: Better World Books

Another excellent piece of work from Friedrich Durrenmatt. The story of The Visit takes place in a dying town in central Europe somewhere; the country is not given (the reasons should be obvious). As the town is on the verge of bankruptcy, with almost total unemployment and a pervasive sense of despair, one of the town’s local folk made good comes back, hinting that she will give the town enough money to bail it out: get the factory working again, allow the stores to restock, that sort of thing. The night she arrives, she tells the townspeople that their expectations of the reasons for her visit are true, and that she will give them the money they need. She has one condition: she requires justice in the form of a lynch mob. She wants the townspeople to kill one of their own.

The revelation of the intended victim is the major twist here; in many ways, the play’s climax is actually this scene, at the end of Act I, and the following two acts are a painfully drawn-out dénouement as we watch the townspeople’s changing reactions to the woman and her demand. Unlike The Pledge, in which we see the gradual development of one man’s madness, in this case we’re given a woman who’s arguably mad from the get-go (certainly, she’s as obsessed as The Pledge’s protagonist
is at the end of that novel from long before the beginning of this play), and we watch the way her madness, combined with her wealth, affects the town around her over the course of a few days. Durrenmatt is a master at using small details to show how the community changes its views over a relatively short period of time, and even manages to make the rather horrific journey humorous at times (the play is defined as, and works as, a tragicomedy). We find ourselves alternately sympathizing with and horrified at the actions of the townspeople, and see no conflict in the two attitudes. A wonderful play. ****

* * *

The Reeds (Nick Cohen, 2010)

A lone figure wades through human-high reeds on the movie poster.

Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink.
photo credit: scarsmagazine.com

The Reeds is not a bad little film, certainly not one deserving of the kind of calumny it has received around the Internet (4.6 at IMDB, 10%[!!] at Rotten Tomatoes). It’s nothing spectacularly original, but if you’re looking for a somewhat understated supernatural thriller, this will do as well as most of your other options. A group of young-and-beautifuls head out of the city to spend a weekend boating in the middle of nowhere…but “middle of nowhere” turns out to be a much more accurate description than they were hoping, and the reeds are home to all sorts of the kinds of noises that make people wonder just how alone they are on the desolate moor. While the climax does get a touch ridiculous, that did not, in my estimation, detract from the basic enjoyability of the movie. It’s empty calories, but it’s an easily-swallowed ninety minutes that does not leave a nasty aftertaste. ***


Trailer.

* * *

From a Whisper to a Scream (Jeff Burr, 1987)

A headless body walks around with a machete in one hand and Vincent Price's head in the other on the movie poster.

The Headless Boresman.
photo credit: youjivinmeturkey.com

I’ve said a great deal about American attempts to make horror anthology films since Creepshow, and it feels silly to reiterate it all here. From a Whisper to a Scream is another of those American anthology films where the framing device ends up working better than any of the stories therein, but unlike many movies of that stripe, the shorts in this one range from competent to pretty durned good, and the cast they dug up for this thing is pretty spectacular, with Vincent Price as the framing device’s narrator and a solid B-movie cast with names like Clu Galager, Susan Tyrrell, Larry Kiser, and Lawrence Tierney delivering the fun. I wish Burr had pushed a little harder to try and send this one into the realms of Creepshow (though in hindsight—Burr’s later output would include Pumpkinhead II and the fourth and fifth Puppet Master movies—he simply might not have had it in him), but what we got is watchable enough if you’re looking for a handful of short, sharp shocks. ***

Trailer.

* * *

La Casa de las Sombres (The House of Shadows) (Ricardo Wullicher, 1976)

The principal cast's heads loom over the titular house on the movie poster.

Teenage giallo grind, the geriatric remix.
photo credit: filmaffinity.com

Odd Argentine/US hybrid mystery that attempted to do giallo without any of the operatic cinematography or over-the-top gore scenes, with the expected result. Take away those things that make giallo what it is and you’re left with the parts that fans routinely overlook, namely the thin characters and anemic plot, with only a bit of faux-psychedelic camera trickery to give the same away (e.g., when Audrey witnesses the murder). If you’re a really big fan of seventies mystery/thrillers, this might be worth your time, but otherwise you’re better off forgetting you even know this exists. *

Not finding a trailer for it. You’re not missing anything.

* * *

Edge of Madness (Anne Wheeler, 2002)

Caroline Dhavernas looks apprehensive on the movie poster.

Can I play with… oh, forget it.
photo credit: IMDB

Historical drama/mystery set in nineteenth-century frontier Canada about a woman (Devil‘s Caroline Dhavernas) who walks into a sheriff’s office and confesses to murdering her husband (Final Destination‘s Brendan Fehr), and the investigation that follows. Enjoyable, if somewhat slight, and most of the relationships never quite rang true for me (the exception is that between the alleged murderess and the lead investigator); how much you can overlook that likely determines how much you’ll end up liking it. Would have been better with a slightly less predictable ending, but you can’t find many of those these days. ***

Trailer.

* * *

Nancy Shaw, Sheep Blast Off (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

The beloved sheep of the series head for the stars on the book cover.

Sheeeeeeep…iiiiiiiiiin…SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE!
photo credit: booisforkidsblog.blogspot.com

Another of the Sheep books that doesn’t measure up to the original (cf. recent review of Sheep Take a Hike), but that has the interesting side effect of revealing another facet of the original that makes it work so well. Obviously, if you’ve got a flock of sheep in a jeep with one driving, you’re suspending a modicum of disbelief, but once you’ve gotten to that level, you don’t need to go farther; everything works, everything is internally consistent. With Sheep Blast Off, on the other hand, it seemed almost as if Shaw was trying to outdo herself with every passing page with the silliness. On the other hand, the language is consistent and fun—if your child is already a fan of the Sheep series, take this one out of the library and give it a look. Else, start with the original (and still best) book in the series, Sheep in a Jeep. ** ½

* * *

Sebastien Braun, Digger and Tom (Harper, 2011)

Digger and Tom (err, Skip) pose on the book cover.

You’re not short, Digger. You’re bucket-challenged.
photo credit: Amazon

Okay, I don’t get it. Why did the publisher feel the need to change this book, originally published in England, to have the title Digger and Tom instead of Digger and Skip? You can’t seriously think that was a cultural reference that would not be glossed over by the intended audience (or their parents, so you really know anyone who doesn’t watch at least one British import home show on TV? I mean, I don’t even have cable and I know that one). One way or the other, though, out of the whack of books (six) that came home from the library with mommy and the Bean on Friday, this was the winner (Tubby was the only other one that came close). Digger is a small backhoe who works on a construction site with a number of other machines. The dump truck Tom is his friend, but the rest of the machines look down on him because he’s kind of clumsy. When the team runs into a problem they can’t solve, Ton encourages Digger to take a whack at it, because digging is his specialty. Pretty standard stuff, but for a construction-equipment-obsessed two-year-old it seems to be the best thing ever. If your kid takes a shine to it, expect to be re-reading this one a lot. Doesn’t hold up to that all that well, but it’s short and easy, so not a huge problem. ***

* * *

Watty Piper, The Little Engine that Could (Platt and Munk, 1930)

The little engine steams down the mountain on the spoilerific cover of the book.

I wish I didn’t have to. I wish I didn’t have to. I wish I didn’t have to.
photo credit: NPR

When I was a kid, I was pretty open to reading just about anything, really, and there were very few books I simply did not like. One of them was The Little Engine that Could. Well, a copy of it popped into our house tonight thanks to the mother-in-law, and I read it to the Bean tonight. Forty years later, my opinion of the book has not changed one bit. Repetitive prose, unlikable characters (in the engines who refuse), trite, inspirational resolution…I wouldn’t have put things in those words when I was four, of course, at that time all I knew was that I was bored by it compared to other books in my collection of which I wore out multiple copies (Big Max, The Snowy Day, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, I could go on all day), but now, with a quarter-century of analysis and criticism behind me, I can put fingers on why the book rubbed me the wrong way so badly when I was young. And it still does. I know it is beloved of millions, but sorry, folks, I have never been able to get on this bandwagon, and at this point it’s pretty obvious I never will. * ½

* * *

Kathryn and Byron Jackson, The Big Elephant (Golden Press, 1949)

The big elephant in a natty suit and yellow cap adorns the cover of the book.

All ready for his first day of school.
photo credit: Amazon

The Big Elephant is one of those Golden books from when the company was still, I think, finding its feet and trying to come upon a winning formula for pre-lit. This one doesn’t quite get there, though it’s not as bad as some of their other experiments (have you read Polly’s Pet? [shudder]). I should note, however, that the Jacksons, a year before this, came up with one of Golden’s early winners, Busy Timmy, and note in passing that experimentation is a good thing. But this book’s one big problem is its repetition, which is so pervasive, and so noticeable, it’s the only book from this batch of six that we did not finish the first time through; it took another pass the second night to get all the way to the end of the book. Would have liked to see a rewrite of this one with some of the repetition fixed to see how much the book would have been improved, but almost sixty years later, I’m thinking that’s probably impossible, at least with the original authors. **

Vault Reviews, September 2014, Part 1

[this post should have gone up Monday, were it not for the holiday, and then Things Happened(TM) Tuesday and Wednesday to stop me from having the time to work on these… today was almost as bad, but I did it piecemeal… the movie list changes should be up later as well. Part 2, however, will have to wait for tomorrow.]

 

Pee Chang Nang (The Screen at Kamchanod) (Songsak Mongkolthong, 2007)

A large face looms over a filmgoing crowd on the movie poster.

Warning: projecting images onto a large face may cause blurriness.
photo credit: movieexclusives.com

I will allow for the idea that my reaction to this movie, which I am hypothesizing was due mostly to the time (after a 2AM dosing of dilaudid) and place (I was in the hospital with a potentially life-threatening condition) I saw it, may have actually been the reaction the filmmakers were looking for here. Because my fragmentary memories of the movie, complete with washed-out jungle shots and fuzzy figures, actually kind of mirror the movie’s plot (a ghost story about, basically, the backwoods Thai version of a drive-in theater). If so, it’s a bit unfortunate that the trippiness factor may have worked a little too well on me, because fragments were all I remembered, so I rewatched it a couple of months ago…and once again, I’m only getting fragments when I try to bring it up in my head. My experience with movies like this is that the fact that there are fragments means there is a decent possibility that after a number of rewatches over the next decade or so, I may end up coming to love this movie and sing its praises whenever possible (I hated both Suspiria and Begotten the first time I saw each for exactly this reason, and now both are among my favorite movies); we’re a year and a half into it since my first seeing it, though, and I’m not there yet. If I do get there, I’ll write a new, longer review for it and tell you it requires multiple viewings to really get…but for now, it’s an “if you don’t have anything better to do…” movie. **


Trailer. (The full film, unsubbed, is available at Youtube.)

* * *

Splintered (Simeon Halligan, 2010)

Our heroine peers through a hole in the wall on the movie poster.

Heeeeeeeeere’s EYESORE!
photo credit: indirmedennfilmizie.net

You have seen this movie at least a dozen times. Innocent, or maybe not so innocent but she’s certainly done nothing to deserve this, girl is abducted by someone or something and imprisoned. There is someone close by who may or may not be able to help her, but is useful for passing information through to the captive (and, by extension, to the viewers). There is a Big Reveal about the killer, and often whether the viewer is left with a good taste in his or her mouth about the movie turns on whether that Big Reveal works. (I’m not sure it did here, I don’t think this movie could have been saved one way or the other.) It’s a well-established framework that lazy scriptwriters insert characters into for an almost instantly-completed movie. The end result, given that you are using a well-established framework, is utterly predictable and very rarely worth your time. Such is the case with Splintered. *


Trailer.

* * *

Nude Nuns with Big Guns (Joseph Guzman, 2010)

The title's nun, not nude, stands ready for a firefight on the movie poster.

Forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin. A lot.
photo credit: walkerpercyhero.blogspot.com

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started watching a movie called Nude Nuns with Big Guns. It would be kind of hard not to; the title is about as descriptive as they come. And if you go into it expecting nothing but nude nuns with big guns, you’re in for a good time. That said, when I see a title like that, I see the weight of history behind it. Nunsploitation is a time-honored genre in a number of cultures ranging from Japan to Mexico (Italy, of course, is the godafather, if you’ll pardon the pun, of the genre—Visconti’s 1969 The Nun of Monza seems to have been the first true nunsploitation movie as we know the genre today), and I would have felt a lot better about it had I gotten the idea that co-writers Guzman and Robert James Hayes felt any sort of affection for, let alone connection with, such nunsploitation treasures as Alucarda. Instead, this feels like they found out the genre was A Thing by reading an article about it and said “hey, we can make a movie about this!” without bothering to find out, say, what’s cliché, what works and what doesn’t, whether nuns serve in monasteries (they don’t), you know, the small things. As a result, the picture is mildly amusing for a bit, but gets old quick. **

* * *

Seux (Female Tiger) (director unknown, date unknown)

photo credit: nogoodcause.blogspot.com

We can’t show it to you because the Internet fails us (maybe I’ll grab a title screen when I get home).

I apologize for not knowing a blessed thing about Female Tiger. IMDB doesn’t, either, and I can find nothing at all about it on the Internet. The copy I have, which is obviously a bootleg (though I didn’t know that at the time), is unsubbed, which would make it tough for me to tell you much about the movie without guessing. That said, this is not a movie you’re going to be watching for its plot niceties. Female Tiger is a Thai softcore film. I wasn’t aware any culture but America had a market for these silly things, but there you have it. And because of that, you’re probably far less interested in the story, which seems to have something to do with the male lead—who has more sex than your sister on prom night during the film (and probably with more partners, even)—being some sort of supernatural (or possessed) guy who can hex insanely beautiful women into sleeping with him, and far more interested in the many, many scenes that involve said male lead getting it on with a small legion of said insanely beautiful women. And for that, well, who needs subtitles? Easily findable at places that stock Thai VCDs, and if it’s the kind of thing you’re into, well, you could do a lot worse (and have with every American softcore movie I’ve seen since Black Emmanuelle). ** ½

Trailer? …yeah, no.

* * *

Dok (The Pot) (Tae-gon Kim, 2008)

The child, during the ritual, is shown  on the movie poster.

Upside down. Pot you’re turnin’ me. Inside out. And round and round.
photo credit: IMDB

I really wanted to like The Pot, one of those bottom-of-the-sorted-queue movies that Netflix’s description made sound relatively interesting. As is often the case, however, Netflix’s description missed the mark by a relatively wide margin. Instead of the promised creepy ghost story, this seems (either because of bad script, bad editing, bad subtitles, or some combination of the above, it’s not that easy to keep track of what’s going on here) to be some sort of evangelical-Christian movie about a kid gone wrong corrupting her family (until, of course, deus ex machina). I’d say more about it but, honestly, why bother? Most of what you need to know is contained in the phrase “the Netflix description is wrong.” **

* * *

Paul Bright, Grumpy Badger’s Christmas (Good Books, 2009)

Badger, grumpy, stands amonst a bunch of other woodland animals on the book's cover.

“The Gophers made it to the Sun Bowl. AGAIN.”
photo credit: wgrl.net

Everyone in the woodland valley is looking forward to Christmas except grumpy badger. Which makes sense if you’re an adult given that badgers hibernate during the winter. Problem is, people keep knocking on his door and disturbing his rest. He keeps getting grumpier and grumpier until he finally falls asleep and realizes that he’s done something horribly wrong, after which everyone kisses and makes up. I am—to put it mildly—not a fan of Christmas, but this one does hold up to the kinds or readings and re-readings it got in December, and for the Bean’s general attention level, this is a pretty long book, and he eats it up. And hey, I love badgers, and everyone loves a good party (oops, spoiler alert). *** ½

* * *

Michael Twinn, Great Pal Puppy (Child’s Play, 1996)

The bookk, shaped to look like a puppy, has a cover that only hints at the horrible illustrations inside.

Are you scared yet?
photo credit: paperbackswap.com

The dog's obviously prehensile eye stalks stare at you from the bottom of its cheeks in this terrifying picture.

WHAT. IS. WRONG. WITH. THIS. DOG’S. EYES.
photo credit: me me me

This is one of a series of oversized board books focusing on various animals. Most of them are just badly-written, at least the ones we’ve come across over the past couple of years, but Great Pal Puppy ups the ante with a terrifying, anatomically-impossible illustration on the second page that looks far less like a puppy than one of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones descending from above to devour your soul. You’ll want to take a good long look at this one before adding it to your permanent collection; the kid may be fine with it, but you might be traumatizing yourself for life looking at that monster on Page 2. *

* * *

Jamie Lee Curtis, My Mommy Hung the Moon (Joanna Cotler Books, 2010)

The narrator and his mother cuddle under a full moon on the book's cover.

…and then hung Laurie Strode from it, broken and bleeding…
photo credit: Amazon

I wasn’t terribly fond of this one, and while we had it out of the library for a three-week span, the Bean never actually asked for it the way he does with the books he really enjoys, and he is obsessed with all things moon. The rhyme is thudding, the language is simplistic (I know that seems an odd thing to complain about in a pre-lit book, but contrast it to, say, Victoria Adler’s books and you can easily see the difference). Nothing about it distinguishes it from a hundred other pre-lit books we’ve been through and sent back to the library with no intention of ever getting them out again. **

* * *

Mrs. James Ward Thorne, European Rooms in Miniature (Art Institute of Chicago, 1948)

A very busy wallpaper pattern adorns the cover of the book.

“Of course it would look lovely on the walls dear. In the basement.”
photo credit: ebay

Narcissa (Mrs. James Ward) Thorne’s first book on miniature architecture was this one, published in 1948 (I reviewed her 1962 follow-up, American Rooms in Miniature, last year). I just found out a number of these are still housed, as of this writing (29 January 2014) at the Art Institute of Chicago, and am now planning a roadtrip. The rooms themselves are, of course, exquisite, at least in the provided photographs; I imagine seeing them live would be an entirely different experience. Once again, the text is a bit on the dry side, though more enthusiasm comes through in this one than in American Rooms in Miniature; still, worth it for the pictures if you are at all interested in the subject matter. ***

* * *

Karen Katz, The Babies on the Bus (Henry Holt, 2011)

A number of Katz' signature babies crowd into the front of the bus on the cover of the book.

Shouldn’t you be able to reach the pedals before trying to drive?
photo credit: Amazon

Karen Katz lends her inimitable style to a rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus”, and the result is just as cute as you would expect. A few points off for not sticking to the original formula of the song, which never repeats any word in “the _____ on the bus”, but that’s a minor thing; this is a good’un and will find its way into storytime again and again. *** ½

Titus Groan (1946): You Love Me! I’m Ugly and I’m Disgusting and You Love Me!

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (Tusk/Overlook, 1946)

[originally posted 26Feb2002]

Birds fly up from a thicket on the book cover.

I can’t dream forever…
photo credit: Goodreads

Few fantasy epics are as revered as Mervin Peake’s Gormenghast novels, and for good reason. Gormenghast’s first novel, Titus Groan, is four hundred pages of such sterling descriptive language, such deliciously surreal diction, that it’s easy to forget that fifty pages have passed since the last event occurred. Peake gives himself away a little over halfway through with one singularly important sentence: “It was not certain what significance the ceremony held, for unfortunately the records were lost, but the formality was no less sacred for being unintelligible.” Indeed.

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Capsule reviews (new), July 2014

Better late than never…

Homicide for Three (George Blair, 1948)

Audrey Long looks horrified in an artist's rendition on the movie poster.

Mortafella?
photo credit: moviepostershop.com

Barely-feature-length mystery potboiler featuring a honeymooning couple (Warren Douglas and Audrey Long) who get caught up in a game of mistaken identity after being lent a hotel room when they arrived in New York at the wrong time. Hijinks ensue. There is nothing at all about it that would set it off from hundreds of its peers, but on the other hand, if you’re looking for a quick and easy mystery with some amusing moments and a decided lack of time investment, this will fill the bill as much as any of those others would; certainly worth a look if you happen upon it one one of the subscription streaming services, where it appears with some regularity. ** ½

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The Doctor Looks at Murder (1940): Corpselight

Edward M. Marten, The Doctor Looks at Murder (Blue Ribbon Books, 1940)

[originally posted 26Nov2001]

A microscope examines something very small on the book's cover.

“Tumble down the skyscrapers, life is, in fact, on the other end of the microscope.”
photo credit: laybooks.com

What a delicious little book this is. In 1940 it was no doubt offered in the same way books of “medical curiosities” were offered in the seventies (“absolutely no one under sixteen ears of age may order this book!”), and to his credit, Marten is more than willing to play the role, tossing off case study after case study in what would then have been considered lurid detail. It would barely rate a PG today, but that doesn’t make it any less fun when considered in the time frame of its release.

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Blithe Spirit (1945): Shriek Encounter

Blithe Spirit (David Lean, 1945)

Kay Hammond reclines on the poster with a come-hither look surrounded by stills from the film on the poster.

Blithe, lithe, it all works.
photo credit: moviepostershop.com

David Lean is one of those “all the pros are really in love with this guy” directors whose films I rarely seem to get round to watching. This confuses me somewhat, because when I do watch a Lean film, I find it immensely enjoyable; I’ve only seen two so far, but Lawrence of Arabia, as of this writing, is sitting at #121 on my all-time top 1000 list, and Blithe Spirit entered the list at #541. Both are phenomenal pictures. A stage performance of Blithe Spirit had just closed its run right across the street from where I work a couple of weeks before I sat down to watch the movie; by the time it was over, I was kicking myself for not having gone to see the play. That strikes me as the best recommendation I can give the silly, wonderful thing.

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