Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews
 

 

MOVIES OLD AND NEW: WHERE TO HOLE UP FOR THE HOLIDAYS

 

picture - Essential SturgesMovie Reviews

by Harvey Perr

published December 19, 2008

 

including

“Essential Sturges”

Milk

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Revolutionary Road

Gran Torino

The Wrestler

Happy-Go-Lucky

 

Tis the season for the Oscar nominees (and the residue of the Hollywood crap that has been handed out to us throughout the year); it is a boon to most serious movie goers but it also feels like surfeit. Which “important” film should we see? Can we see them all? Do we want to see them all? How many times have we felt that most of those year-end prestige films turn out to be bloated and disposable? Are they overpraised because the critics have had to sit through so much junk the rest of the year?  At this year’s end, there happen to be some really fine films, so what do those critics in La-La land - they who dwell among the folks who make the movies - do? They name Wall-E the best picture of the year and proudly tell us that The Dark Knight was the runner-up! And the fact that there have been quite a few wonderful films throughout the year, though hardly ever from Hollywood, is forgotten in this year-end madness. I shall endeavor to contribute to the madness by talking about some current releases, wait to talk about the others when the time comes to pick the year’s best, and start off by saying that New Yorkers are the luckiest moviegoers of all because, despite the fact that I won’t be here in my favorite city to join them, the good old reliable Film Forum is celebrating good old Preston Sturges from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day and calling their mini-festival “Essential Sturges,” and it’s the best damned gift I can think of giving to anyone who loves movies.

 

picture - Essential SturgesThe schedule is as follows: Christmas in July and Remember the Night (Dec. 24-25); Sullivan’s Travels and The Great McGinty (Dec. 26-27); The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero (Dec. 28-29); Easy Living and Unfaithfully Yours (Dec. 30); The Lady Eve and Palm Beach Story (Dec. 31-Jan. 1). Needless to say, I recommend them all, particularly if you’ve never seen a Sturges film, and especially if you’ve only seen them within the confines of a television set and without being surrounded by an audience roaring with laughter. You might note that two of the films (Easy Living and Remember the Night) are Mitchell Leisen films with Sturges screenplays and, though both are highlights of Leisen’s not undistinguished career, you will, in this context, understand why Sturges wanted to have directorial control over his own screenplays. The Sturges style is infinitely more anarchic. That said, I select, above all to those who are already acquainted with the body of his work, as a revisionist treat, Remember the Night. This is surely one of the great Christmas films of that period and one of the most overlooked.  The great Barbara Stanwyck is a shoplifter whose case is put off until after the holidays and the prosecuting attorney, the delightfully casual Fred MacMurray, takes pity on her and bails her out and then finds himself stuck with her. He takes her home with him for Christmas and, of course, both their lives change, but the ways in which their lives change is pure Sturges. And, en route to his home, there is a stopover at Stanwyck’s home, where an encounter with her mother becomes as strong and understated a scene of parent-child bitterness as has ever been put on the screen. And the way Sturges switches gears from a moment like this to the looniness that follows and then to the drolly unsentimental sentimentality that brings us back to Christmas is sheer bliss. The supporting performances by Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson, and Sterling Holloway are excellent, but it is Georgia Caine’s uncompromising ugliness as Stanwyck’s mother that makes the most indelible impression. The Lady Eve has only two serious competitors among the greatest of the screwball romantic comedies and one of them is Palm Beach Story (the other is Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth). And it is heartening that Unfaithfully Yours, critically dismissed at the time of its release, has, over the years, developed the beautifully deserved reputation it now has; it is the darkest of his comedies and perhaps his second most sophisticated (The Lady Eve will always win that distinction). But if I were to recommend only one of the double bills, it would be the two wartime comedies, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero (and for those who insist that Sturges was a writer first, a director second, I suggest taking a closer look at that long tracking shot in Miracle when Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken walk through town after Bracken’s Norval Jones announces his long-time love for Hutton’s Trudy Kockenlocker, or the opening sequence at the bar in Hero). The parade of extraordinary comic performances by Sturges’ regulars has never been equaled in American comedy, but, again, pay special attention to William Demarest and Diana Lynn in Miracle and Freddie Steele in Hero, and see what a different kind of mother Georgia Caine gets to play in Hero. Happy holidays!

 

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Among the new films that are around or are about to open, here, briefly, is a personal assessment:

 

picture - MilkMilk – When a worthy subject meets its perfect director. Gus Van Sant has made a vibrantly alive film, timely and relevant and beautifully executed temperamentally and visually, and as attuned to gay sensibility as any American film has ever come, and with a performance, among an ensemble of terrific performances, by Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, that will stand among those rare instances when an actor so effortlessly slips inside a character that it is hard to tell the actor from the character. Sean Penn is, as they say, “Milk.” But in its depiction of San Francisco in its “coming out” heyday and  in its political savvy and in its restrained understanding of homosexual repression masquerading as righteous heterosexual frustration, it is so much more than Penn’s performance. It never plucks willfully at the heartstrings but it still manages to be the year’s most honestly moving film.

 

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picture - Benjamin ButtonThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button – When a director does a complete about-face, as David Fincher has done here, and particularly if he goes from darkness to light, he is bound to take his lumps from his admirers (as is already proving true), but, from at least one person’s point of view, this story of a man who is born old and who, in his waning years, reaches infancy, is one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema, a singularly unique event. There quite simply has never been anything like it and it is doubtful that it will ever be duplicated in anything but style. It is both a vast romantic epic moving from the last day of World War I to the present and an intimate love story of heartbreaking poignancy. And no film has used all the new techniques of our special-effects-driven era of film-making so gorgeously and with such enveloping and sweeping refinement. I can’t imagine a shot of this film done any differently than the way it has been realized; that is surely the highest praise I can pay Fincher. Yes, there are magnificent performances – most notably, by the prodigiously talented Cate Blanchett, the transformed Brad Pitt, Taraji P. Henson, Jared Harris and Tilda Swinton – but, in this one instance, it is the film itself  that is transcendent. Talk about a film for the ages, you’re talking about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

 

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picture - Revolutionary RoadRevolutionary Road – Unrelieved grimness sometimes passes for art, which may be true in this case, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that this film is as mordant a portrait of suburban life as has ever been put on the screen and that, this time around, Sam Mendes may actually be on his way to becoming as assured a film director as he is a wizard in the theater. The relationship of the Wheelers (created by Richard Yates in his revered novel on which the film is based), as depicted in this film, and as powerfully played by a richly maturing Leonardo DiCaprio and a radiant Kate Winslet, is strong stuff, unflinching in its honesty. But all the acting is rich and, probably because, in a film as full of the ugliest truths as this film is, one longs for a voice of reason, it is Michael Shannon, as an out-patient from the local mental institution who can’t help but speak the truth, whom one remembers most strikingly. DiCaprio’s outburst, in self-protection from Shannon’s most shattering truth, is the film’s blistering highlight.

 

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picture - Gran TorinoGran Torino – Funny, but it’s easier to sing the praises of this film to those who have respect and admiration for old-fashioned movie-making, because it is clearer with each film that Clint Eastwood may very well be the last classicist left in Hollywood. This is just a dandy entertainment, every frame bursting with energy, and, at the center of it, another easy-to-be-ignored, iconoclastic performance by Eastwood. I just can’t remember him being this hilariously funny, and, given the nasty bigot he is playing here, it is sometimes a relief to know that he is playing it for laughs. It makes what ultimately takes place in this film easier to withstand.

 

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picture - The WrestlerThe Wrestler – The Passion of The Slob. When I want to go there, I’ll go back to Raging Bull and plunge into the recesses of the human condition and the possibilities of moral redemption as explored through the eyes of an artist. I admit here that I am repelled by wrestling as a heinously lethal bloodsport and by the audiences that are attracted to it. There is still so much that remains unexplored about ordinary people and the lives they lead in willful incomprehension, I am tired of the working class seen through the prism of ignorance alone. This headlong journey into the mind and soul of an unregenerately self-involved, self-indulgent, self-pitying slab of vacant machismo, despite Mickey Rourke’s willingness to dig deep inside him, almost never rings true, except when it enters the world of wrestling, and, when it enters that world, it is often far too brutal and brutalizing to keep one’s eyes on the screen, and what is cinema if what we see is impossible to watch?

 

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picture- Happy-Go-LuckyHappy-Go-Lucky – Not really one of those big year-end Hollywood Oscar hopefuls, but one doesn’t want to see a Mike Leigh film – especially one this good – disappear without at least paying it passing attention. Leigh continues to be a wonder, a serious artist at heart, but one with a compassion for working-class people unmatched in contemporary cinema, and better capable than any other director in the world of eliciting truly memorable performances from every single actor he works with. You’ll hear lots of talk about Sally Hawkins – she’s already reaping Best Actress awards – and her complex portrayal of an endlessly upbeat young teacher , but there should be equal praise for Eddie Marsan’s driving instructor, a man so full of rage that you can’t help but laugh yourself silly even as you grow increasingly terrified by him. And, in a bit that is as outrageously hilarious as any I’ve seen this year, Karina Fernandez plays a flamenco teacher with insanity in her clicking heels. On the surface, this film is a comedy, and a marvelous comedy, but there is real pain, even authentic flashes of human anguish, at its heart. Leigh is the director of our times I treasure the most.

 

Again, happy holidays!

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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