Four Weekend Movie Ideas
"The Automat," "Operation Mincemeat, and more.
The Nut Graf: “The Automat” (in theaters, *** stars out of ****) is an affectionate history of a 20th century culinary institution. Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen star in “Operation Mincemeat” (on Netflix, *** stars out of ****), the true WWII tale of a man who never was. “The Handmaiden” (2016, on Amazon Prime, **** stars out of ****) is an elegantly depraved and immaculately degenerate stunner from Park Chan-wook. Hugh Jackman plays a sticky-fingered school superintendent in the farcical “Bad Education” (on HBO Max, *** stars out of ****).
In Theaters: “The Automat” – Every documentary should have Mel Brooks (above, in his salad and coffee days) for an angel. This slice of handmade nostalgia about the Horn & Hardart restaurant chain is being self-distributed to independent theaters and comes to the Boston area’s Coolidge Corner Cinema starting Sunday May 15; check the film’s website for showings in other cities. It’s a labor of love for filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz, who very smartly went out and got famous people to talk about their youthful memories of the Automat. It’s an eclectic group, many of whom have passed on since their interviews were filmed: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner. Those who are still with us include actor Elliott Gould; Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who took inspiration from the Horn & Hardarts of his childhood; and nonagenarian Brooks, who gets enough screen time to effectively serve as the movie’s emcee. It’s like having your alter kocker grandpa along for the ride: Brooks spins yarns, offers Hurwitz advice on directing and distribution for her “meshuggeneh documentary,” writes and performs a song for the closing credits, and practically salivates when recalling the desserts that used to sit behind those little glass doors, waiting for your nickels to be freed. “Coconut custard pie,” he rhapsodizes. “God made that!”
The first Horn & Hardart opened in Philadelphia 1902 and the last one, on 42nd and 3rd in Manhattan, closed in 1991 – the chain spanned the 20th century and in certain ways represents it. The prices were cheap, the food was good, and the experience was democratic: You got your dishes from the dispensers and poured a five-cent cup of coffee from a spigot shaped like a dolphin’s head, and then you sat at a table with strangers of all classes and colors. (Former Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode remembers the Automat as “a nice place where African Americans could go and feel dignified.”) Hurwitz tracks the confluence of social developments that helped make Horn & Hardart a success, including the waves of immigration, the rise of the office worker, and the entry of women into the workforce. Three hundred thousand stenographers had to eat lunch somewhere.
That the Automat became a treasured and very specific space in the American imagination can be seen in the documentary’s many clips from old movies; as far as I can tell, the only one missing is the scene in 1937’s screwball classic “Easy Living” where busboy Ray Milland tries to win over Jean Arthur by giving her a free lunch and accidentally pops all the little doors open, causing a food riot. (Script by Preston Sturges, direction by Mitchell Leisen, both at their peak.)
Hurwitz does include, late in the film, a shot of Edward Hopper’s “Automat,” with its woman diner, late at night, lost in loneliness and thought. Like her, the Horn & Hardart was a creature of the city, and as soon as patrons started leaving for the suburbs after World War II, the end was foretold. Short and sweet, “The Automat” is a fond remembrance of a vanished era – the past seen through a tiny glass window.
On Netflix: Premiering today, “Operation Mincemeat” is better than that queasy title suggests, a true tale of wartime deception and back-room espionage that sticks close enough to the facts to court tedium every so often. But the story is just too good to be denied: In 1943, British Intelligence needed to draw Hitler’s attention away from the Allies’ planned invasion of Sicily, so a corpse was outfitted in a Naval uniform, planted with papers indicating the assault would take place in Greece, and thrown in the ocean off the coast of Spain, whose supposedly neutral government was passing information to the Nazis.
If this sounds like the old summer-reading-list classic “The Man Who Never Was” (1953) or the 1956 movie made from it, you’re right, it is. This new version, directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) is an enjoyably dense, slightly stuffy telling of the tale, perfect for armchair historians and lovers of British doggedness but fine for general audiences, too. Look, you get not one but two Mr. Darcys in the lead: Colin Firth (“Pride and Prejudice,” 1995) as Ewen Montagu of British Naval Intelligence and Matthew Macfadyen (“Pride and Prejudice,” 2005) as Charles Cholmondeley of the RAF. The first is doughty and dutiful, the second a bit of a wonk, and both men have upper lips so stiff you could crack a board on them. That makes the emotions that are allowed to squeak out all the more interesting. Kelly Macdonald is the MI5 clerk for whom both men have properly repressed feelings, and the ubiquitous Johnny Flynn plays a clever intelligence officer named Ian Fleming – yes, that Ian Fleming, years before Bond. And there’s Simon Russell Beale, a brilliant actor but no more a believable Winston Churchill than my Aunt Gladys. I have a sweet tooth for this sort of historical re-enactment when it’s done well, though, and “Operation Mincemeat” is well done without being overdone. And it’s nice to be reminded that Macfadyen is more than the gormless Tom Wambsgans of HBO’s “Succession.”
On Amazon Prime: “The Handmaiden” (2016) – I forgot that this was an “Amazon Original,” meaning it’s been exclusive to Amazon Prime ever since its theatrical release six years ago. And is it a lulu. Park Chan-wook, the other bad boy of South Korean cinema (along with Bong Joon-ho), adapted Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel “Fingersmith,” relocating it from Victorian England to 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation. Kim Tae-ri plays the petty pickpocket who is hired as a handmaiden to a fragile young noblewoman (Kim Min-hee, above right) as part of a long con by a fake Count (Ha Jung-woo, above left) to separate the lady from her fortune. There follow multiple revelations, betrayals, narrative switchbacks, and cinematic fake outs, each one plunging a viewer further into Park’s hall of mirrors. Luxuriant, decadent, subversively funny, and very, very hot, the movie is too playful to be dangerous but too lethally sensual to dismiss.
On HBO Max: “Bad Education” (2019) Back when US theatrical distribution was an even playing field and not dominated by the sequel/remake franchise factory, this tart comedy might have made a tidy splash at the box office. Instead it went straight to HBO, where it won an Emmy but still hasn’t been seen by enough people. It’s based on the actual case of a Long Island school superintendent who siphoned funds from his budget in the largest embezzlement in public school history. Hugh Jackman (above) plays the superintendent with the glib confidence of a man who has at least one too many secret lives, and Alison Janney is mordantly funny as the assistant supervisor he throws under the bus. Geraldine Viswanathan (“Hala”) is the intractable journalist for the school newspaper who keeps pulling threads until the whole thing unravels. True story! Screenwriter Mike Makowsky went to school in Roslyn, N.Y., when it all went down! This is one of those deadpan farces where we get to chortle as awful people are hoisted high on the petard of their own greed. (Personal bonus: I get to see my old Brooklyn neighbor Welker White — known for all eternity as Lois the drug-running babysitter in “Goodfellas” — as a harried school administrator.)
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