Happy new year, everyone. May all of us have a better 2012 than John Cusack did.
Here is my fifth annual look at the films of 50 years ago, highlighting those that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Longer reviews are available on my blog, Go-Go-Rama.
1961 was the year John F. Kennedy implored us to “ask what we could do for our country,” Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, and, most importantly, a blogger calling himself by the absurd name of Jackrabbit Slim was born.
At the movies, family films were king: One Hundred and One Dalmatians was the highest grossing film, and the top ten was full of other innocuous fare like The Parent Trap, Blue Hawaii, and Lover Come Back. But, somewhat unbelievably, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was sixth that year.
The nominees for Best Picture were:
Fanny directed by Joshua Logan, is one those pictures that nobody makes any more, and for good reason. It was based on a Broadway musical, but had all the songs removed. Leslie Caron plays the title role, a girl who gets knocked up by a young man who heads off to sea not knowing her condition, so she marries a rich old goat (Maurice Chevalier), who accepts the child as his own. I was bored cross-eyed by this, and can only conclude that the Francophilia that somehow launched Gigi to the Best Picture Oscar three years older was still at work in the Academy.
The Guns of Navarone is a classic example of the “mission” picture–story fuel for boys everywhere to use in playing with their G.I. Joes and army men. Directed by J. Lee Thompson, Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn headed a team of saboteurs set on taking out huge guns on an island in the Aegean that blocked Allied naval traffic. It’s big and epic and a lot of fun, though the special effects, which won an Oscar, look cheesy by today’s standards. If this movie were made today it would probably be a Michael Bay extravaganza that wouldn’t have nearly the heart of the movie that was made 50 years ago.
The Hustler, directed by Robert Rossen, is the one film of the quintet that, like the Sesame Street song, “doesn’t belong.” A seedy look into the demimonde of poolrooms, it starred Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, a pool hustler who is at odds with his own soul. Much of the film is an unqualified downer, as Newsman enters a relationship with an alcoholic, Piper Laurie, and the man who becomes his manager, George C. Scott, is one of the more venally evil characters that have been on film. Jackie Gleason is memorable as Minnesota Fats, Newman’s arch rival.
Judgment at Nuremberg is the annual Stanley Kramer socially-conscious picture that were regularities of the time period. This one concerns one of the many trials of Nazis held in Nuremberg in the post-war period, but instead of focusing on the big one, which featured Nazi leaders like Goering, writer Abby Mann centered on a trial of four judges that oversaw sending innocent people to concentration camps or undergoing involuntary sterilization. Mann deservedly won an Oscar for his script, which is heavy on talk but brilliantly so, with big speeches by most of the cast, which included big stars like Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Montgomery Clift, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland. An unknown actor, Maximilian Schell, won Best Actor in his role as the defense attorney. A long (three hours) movie, it’s none the less gripping.
The winner in 1961 of Best Picture, and overall of 10 Oscars out of 11 nominations, was West Side Story, based on the musical which in turn was based on Romeo and Juliet. The film, viewed with 50 years of hindsight, is great for unusual reasons–it still remains one of the greatest examples of dance ever filmed. Sure, some of it is dated–the gang members wouldn’t scare anyone, and language like “daddy-o” makes it all seem quaint–but the musical numbers are still staggering in their beauty. Leonard Bernstein’s score is the greatest ever to be written for the American stage, and Jerome Robbins’ choreography is still thrilling to behold. When I was a kid my parents had the soundtrack album, and I listened to over and over again, and if I had that record today I could listen to it now. George Chakiris and Rita Moreno won the Best Supporting Actor and Actress awards for their performances in the film.
If I were a voter back then, I would have been tempted to vote for The Hustler, but ultimately would have probably gone along with the crowd and voted for West Side Story, if only for its innovation and sheer emotional power.
Happy New Year, folks.
As far as I can tell, there’s nothing actually opening in Chicago this week, which is more or less par for the course for the last weekend of the year. I did notice that The Darkest Hour (trailer) is playing here now, but I’m pretty sure that opened last weekend and I just missed it then. Other than that, nothing to report – even Facets is holding over the same movie for another week, and they almost never do that.
Anyway, still lots of movies for me to catch up on, including most of what opened last week. Have a good weekend, everyone.
Fair enough. I interpret Scott’s plea as a call to check my cynicism at the door, and try as I might, I couldn’t do it. To be sure, the film, which can only have been the work of Steven Spielberg, is an impressive production, but I just felt too manipulated to soak in what others may enjoy. This film may be the litmus test of the year. I don’t begrudge others who may find themselves weeping at the end, but my tear ducts remained dry.
As one of its stars, Emily Watson, termed it, the film is “Black Beauty goes to war.” For those who somehow made it through childhood without reading Black Beauty, that’s the story that is told from the point of view of a horse, who moves from owner to owner, good and bad. War Horse adds the element of World War I, as our horse in question, Joey, moves from English to French to German owners, emotionally touching everyone he comes in contact with. Horse lovers will respond to this more than others, I suspect, but it’s a tricky move, because the central character–the horse–isn’t really a character, he’s a creature that others respond to. It’s hard to feel like one is in the shoes of a horse, not only because they are nailed on. We get used to one of his owners, then we move on, and the film becomes a series of herks and jerks that is inevitably leading to a reunion with his original owner.
That original owner is Albie Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). His father (Peter Mullan), in a fit of exaggerated pride, spends much too much on the horse while at an auction looking for a plough horse. Joey, as Irvine names him, is a thoroughbred, not made for farm work. Watson, as Irvine’s mother, is outraged, as Mullan has spent the rent in a foolish gesture. Irvine must train the horse to plough the field to get the necessary crops for the rent, so the first half hour of the film is all about whether a horse can plough.
Things pick up when war is declared, and Mullan sells Joey to the army. Irvine is aghast, but his new owner (Tom Hiddleston), a captain, assures him he will take care of him. But in an ill-thought cavalry charge, Joey ends up in German hands. He is tended to by a soulful young German soldier (David Kross), and then ends up at a French farm, beloved by a little girl and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). I last saw Arestrup as a vicious criminal in A Prophet, so to see him as kindly grandfather was jarring.
And so it goes for Joey, until he ends up tangled in barbed wire in the no-man’s land between British and German lines. In the best scene of the film, a British and German soldier call off the hostilities long enough to free him, Spielberg’s admittedly unsubtle way of telling us that war is bad and we’re all horse-loving brothers under the skin. While the message is trite, the filmmaking is superb.
And there are times when the genius of Spielberg, despite his over-reliance on sentimentality, shines through. I’m thinking specifically of an execution that is shot through the slowly revolving blades of a windmill, or a pulse-pounding tracking shot that follows Joey racing through the war trenches. And the final shot, photographed by Janusz Kaminski against a setting sun that recalls the end of the first act of Gone With the Wind, is over the top in emotional manipulation, but is beautiful to behold.
At this stage of his career Spielberg may be in an impossible situation with jaded viewers like me. He’s proved everything he could ever possibly prove, so to expect him to continually re-invent himself is probably futile. This is the stuff he does best, and as far as that goes War Horse is quintessential Spielberg. It doesn’t have the wonder of E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the depiction of war is not as uncompromising as Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. But, as he has been quoted, he wanted to make a movie that could have been made 50 years ago, and he and Kaminski studied the films of John Ford to try to achieve that. But, as Orson Welles said of Ford, whom he considered the great master of film, “Sentimentality was his vice.” The same can certainly be said of Spielberg. But for those lean toward the sentimental, War Horse will prove to be a richly rewarding experience.
My grade for War Horse: B-.
Predict the #1 film for the weekend of December 30, 2011-January 1, 2012. The one who predicts closest to the total Friday to Sunday gross for the #1 film wins 4 points. Runner-up gains 2 points. Predicting within half a million earns 2 extra points. Bonus questions are worth half a point each.
1. Of the films that finished in the top 5 (Mi4, Holmes, Dragon Tattoo, Chipmunks, Tintin), which one will have the biggest percentage drop?
2. Of the films that finished in the top 5, which will have the smallest percentage drop (or greatest percentage increase)?
The deadline is on THURSDAY at midnight, EST.
Jackrabbit Slim: 5.5
The script, written by Christopher Hampton and based on his play The Talking Cure, focuses on the true story of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a Swiss acolyte of Freud’s, treating a Russian girl (Knightley), who has hysterical fits. What’s interesting about this early sequence is how well she is treated–this is no Snake Pit. Jung uses Freud’s new-fangled psychoanalysis, talking out what makes her go into seizure-like fits, and traces it back to her relationship with her father, who beat her, but also made her excited.
Eventually Jung meets Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and the two form a collegial relationship, despite Freud considering Jung a bit of a kook with references to mysticism and shamanism. This sort of comes out of nowhere in the script, as except for one scene in which Jung proclaims he anticipated the sound of a heater crackling, we don’t get a sense of him as anything but a straight-laced gentleman. That is, until he succumbs to Knightley’s charms and indulges her fantasies of being beaten.
But this makes the film kinkier than it sounds. At several points I wondered if this was a movie at all–instead it just seems like random scenes cut together without any regard for pacing or story. Cronenberg indulges in some transitions I find to be violations of unwritten rules–he has two characters talking in a scene, then cuts to the same two characters, discussing something else, in a different place, without us having any sense of how much time has passed, or the resolution of the previous scene. There’s also a lot of talk about Freud’s fixation on sex, with a few droll lines by Jung about how everything with Freud comes back to sex (I was reminded of the line in the TV show M*A*S*H, when Dr. Sidney Freeman says, “Sex is why we eat, sex is why we go to the bathroom, sex is why we have children.”)
Of the acting trio, there are mixed results. Fassbender has been in a million films this year, and though I haven’t seen Shame yet, I’m betting that his performance as Jung is the dullest of the year. He shows little indication of why he’s doing what he’s doing–he violates a sacrosanct rule by sleeping with a patient, but aside from a slightly wrinkled brow, doesn’t seem to suffer much for it. Knightley has an impossible task–her early scenes she has to go full crazy, thrusting her jaw out like she’s turning into a werewolf. I give her marks for giving it the old college try, and certainly some insane do act like that, but I couldn’t help but see the acting. She’s much better when she’s recovered and studying to be a psychiatrist on her own, debating with Freud over the sexual drive destroying the ego.
Mortensen stealthily steals the show, although I had trouble buying him as Freud, given the little I know about him. There’s a nicely done scene of he and Jung exchanging letters, ending their friendship. Even more vivid in this otherwise dry film is Vincent Cassel as a psychiatrist who has been institutionalized for not believing in repressing anything. When he escapes by jumping over a wall, I wanted to go with him.
I couldn’t help but find A Dangerous Method dull and talky, and was sneaking peeks at my watch often. My grade: C-.
We’ve been reading how unlikely it must have seemed that a French, black and white, silent film would score with audiences. Well, since it’s silent, it’s Frenchness doesn’t matter at all, and it isn’t truly a silent film at all, in that there is synchronized sound and special use of voices and sound effects where needed. Surely it will mean more to those who recognize the tips of the hat to the films A Star Is Born, Singin’ in the Rain, and even Citizen Kane (look for a dinner table scene that is almost a perfect match from that film).
The story is wafer-thin: Jean Dujardin is George Valentin (only one letter away from the great silent film star, Valentino) a huge silent film star. At his latest premiere, he meets cute Berenice Bejo, who is an extra. They have a spark of kismet, but Dujardin is married to the sour Penelope Ann Miller. She hates him–why we don’t know, since he is never less than charming–to the point where she defaces every image of him she can find. Maybe he’s more devoted to his Jack Russell terrier, who performs with him. An R-rated version of this film might have been interesting.
Anyway, Bejo gets a job as an extra on Dujardin’s latest film, and during a dancing scene they fall in love, although it is unrequited. She slips into his dressing room and caresses his overcoat, a bit lifted from Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, but still lovingly done. The tide is about to turn, though, as studio boss John Goodman shows Dujardin the new-fangled “talkie” technology. Dujardin is adamant that people don’t want to see him speak, and so as silent films fade, so does his stardom, while Bejo becomes a big star.
Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is clever and looks great. The very first title card is “I won’t talk!,” and the closing bit of dialogue, well, I won’t spoil that. The aspect ratio is the old-fashioned 1:33, and the camera speed, while not the common 16 fps of silent days, is 22 fps, off a bit from the modern 24 fps. I read an article where Hazanavicius points out that if nothing else, those two frames per second cuts eight percent of the running time. The photography, by Guillaume Schiffman, is magnificent, as is the music score by Ludovic Bource, and the costumes, by Mark Bridges (who was a college classmate of mine).
The performances by Dujardin and Bejo are also a joy. Dujardin, as a man of the past, favors the mugging style of silent films, while Bejo has the additional level of playing a woman who acts in talkies while being in a silent film, but she’s terrific. But Uggie, as the Jack Russell, steals the show, especially in a great scene worthy of Rin Tin Tin when he retrieves a bewildered policeman.
For those who thinks an old movie is early Spielberg, the charms of The Artist may well be lost, but those who remember watching the black and white classics on the midnight movie should feel a glow of nostalgia. The production design captures the glamor of the era, down to the gaudy Hollywood mansions to the movie magazines. I liked The Artist a great deal, but it just isn’t deep or substantial enough to warrant “best of the year” accolades. It’s a novelty, albeit an expertly done one.
My grade for The Artist: B+
Sorry I’m so late with this, if anyone’s wondering. As I explained in the other thread, I forgot what day it was, and well, therefore forgot to write Openings. So that’s my bad.
Anyway, lots of big holiday releases, most of which I’m not exactly beating a path to the theater doors to see. What I’m really excited about is that the Music Box is showing a bunch of Hitchcock movies next week. I’ve seen Rear Window recently, so I’ll skip that, but it’s been ages since I’ve seen Rope, Vertigo, Rebecca, and Strangers on a Train, and I’ve never seen To Catch a Thief. So take that, new movies!
The Adventures of Tintin (trailer)
Director: Steven Spielberg (The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)
Personal Interest Factor: 7
This looks like one of Zemeckis’s stop-motion things, more like the semi-tolerable Beowulf than the mostly painful other two. But I’m feeling charitable about it, so even though I probably won’t like it, I’m looking forward to seeing it. I figure that there’s no reason for Spielberg to make it unless he really wanted to, unlike, say, the last Indy movie. Might have a problem catching it in 2-D, though.
The Artist (trailer)
Director: Michel Hazanavicius (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, OSS 117: Lost in Rio)
Personal Interest Factor: 7
I’m frankly curious to see what my reaction to this film could be. I feel like it could legitimately go either way, either appealing to my sense of cinema history (like Hugo) or pushing me away with its overt sentimentality (like, well, lots of awards contenders). I have no idea how it will go. Maybe both will happen at the same time.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (trailer)
Director: David Fincher (Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network)
Personal Interest Factor: 5
The latest from the suddenly prolific Fincher, who for my money is in strong contention for the title of most overrated director around. My god, has he got an underwhelming body of work for a guy with such a flawless reputation. Now he’s made a movie that is a remake of a movie I didn’t much like in the first place – and is apparently not terribly different. Yes, it’s fair to say I’m not expecting much. Jackrabbit Slim already reviewed the film, giving it a solid B.
War Horse (trailer)
Director: Steven Spielberg (War of the Worlds, Munich, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin)
Personal Interest Factor: 6
Man, this doesn’t look very good either. Turns out that guy in the trailer that I thought was Anthony Hopkins is not actually Anthony Hopkins; I guess it’s Niels Arestrup. I’ve seen that trailer probably a dozen times and still have no idea what the movie’s about, except for a horse doing … something. It’s one of the worst-cut trailers for a major studio film in years.
We Bought a Zoo (trailer)
Director: Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown)
Personal Interest Factor: 5
I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of Jerry Maguire, and still haven’t seen Crowe’s earlier films, but Almost Famous was one of the most anticipated movies ever for me. I don’t really know why, except that it just looked like something I’d really enjoy. And it was! I just watched it again a few weeks ago, and loved it more than ever. We Bought a Zoo is pretty much the opposite, from a filmmaker that I would now say I am a fan of (I even really liked Vanilla Sky and didn’t hate Elizabethtown like everyone else), but the movie just looks awful.
Also this week:
Miss Minoes (trailer) – Dutch kids movie starring Carice van Houten that is ten years old
Three Stars – doc about chefs
So over at The Guardian’s film blog they’ve been running a series of each staff writer’s favorite movie. I thought that was a great idea, so I thought I would try to start that here with mine: The Last of the Mohicans.
Mohicans just barely edges out Die Hard as my favorite, and while I tried to come up with a lengthy paragraph to explain how I could relegate to number two the John McTiernan masterpiece that is the greatest film ever made, I could finally only think of one word: history.
Where does one begin on the sweeping vistas of Dante Spinotti’s cinematography or the sweeping vistas of the language of a script written by Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe, itself an adaptation of an adaptation of a novel, where, simply, to begin with this True American Epic? Where to begin with how much this movie meant and still means to my life? Sure, there are some naysayers, but to them I politely ask (as I ask of those naysayers of the tv series Rome) to keep your love of truly accurate history at the door and revel in a world of detail that few directors but Mann could recreate so completely and immersively.
It was my first year of college. Mansfield University in Mansfield, PA. The only movie theater was about an hour away in Tonawanda, I believe it was called. My then-girlfriend was Nicole Keller. (Side note: Nicole was killed in a rollover accident a couple years later. Pretty sad.) We had decided we wanted to see a movie, and so we drove the distance to the theater and saw The Last of the Mohicans.
It seems that with some movies their greatness is not fully understood the first viewing. A couple of movies have been like that for me, namely any early movie of Takeshi Kitano or Edward Burns (I swear his movies grow in stature with repeated viewings).
However, with Last of the Mohicans, I walked out of that theater holding Nicole’s hand knowing full-well that I had just had the greatest movie-going eperience of my life. I was caught-up in all the sumptuous detail, and I couldn’t extract my mind from the experience, even after it was over. And that belief stands to this day, through any and every movie I’ve ever seen.
Madeleine Stowe is perfectly cast, her strong voice quavering at just the right moments and commanding the attention of colonels the next: “Duncan, you are a man of a few admirable qualities, but taken as a whole, I was wrong to have thought so highly of you.”
There is redemption through sacrifice. Misplaced ideological beliefs that one’s goal to destroy another is right and proper due to two wrongs making a right. There is ultimate sacrifice for love. There is revenge through love. And there is some of the best classical music ever put to film.
In short, there is no more perfectly encapsulated blockbuster-as-art than Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, and I am very proud to call it my favorite movie of all time.
To quickly sum up, a journalist who has been convicted of libel (Daniel Craig), is summoned to a privately-owned island in the north of Sweden. A patriarch of a very rich family, Christopher Plummer, asks him to look into the disappearance of his niece some 40 years earlier. Plummer’s family is a gaggle of Nazis and other reprobates, and the whole thing has a kind of “locked door” quality to it, as there is only one way off the island and it was blocked by a traffic accident when the girl vanished.
Meanwhile, we meet Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), by now one of the most celebrated characters in contemporary pop literature. A computer genius with a troubled background, she has a face full of hardware, a body covered in ink, is sexually ambiguous, and isn’t trained in the social niceties. She investigates Craig’s background for Plummer’s lawyer, and then goes about dealing with her new legal guardian, who rapes her viciously. Her revenge is appropriately vicious in turn.
Eventually, of course, Craig and Mara team up, and I think they had better chemistry in this film. For one thing, the characterization of Mikael Blomkvist, as played by Craig, makes him much less of a lady’s man than he is in Larsson’s books. Salander is also less of a super-woman. There’s no inkling in this film that she has martial arts training–when her backpack is stolen in the subway, she retrieves it not like some sort of Jet Li in a Mohawk, but more like a very pissed off teenager. But, Zaillian sticks with the mistake of having the two become intimate. There’s just no reason for this, and it threw both films off their axis. The relationship would have been far more poignant if the attraction between them would have been more avuncular and unacted upon.
The film is over two and a half hours long but seems to go too fast in spots, as the mystery is pieced together rather quickly, to the effect of it being almost beside the point. My memory is fuzzy, but I don’t recall in the other film Blomkvist having a teenage daughter, who here clues him on the solution of a particular puzzle that rapidly unlocks everything else. Instead, Fincher is more concerned with mood, and the scenes that take place on the island reminded me of Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, which had similar characters that were part monster. The opening credits, like something out of a Bond film, had scenes of a dripping oily substance on body parts, set to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” cuing us in for a macabre evening.
I enjoyed this film, and often it found it pulse-pounding, but it has some problems that are unfixable. The denouement, involving Mara helping Craig get revenge on the man who set him up, seems to go on forever. As stated, some of this is Larsson’s uninspired writing–does every villain really explain everything to the investigator before he tries to kill him? But the acting is good–Mara, while not outshining Noomi Repace, does strike me as a more vulnerable figure, and is difficult to take your eyes off of. It is a bit hypocritical, though, for a movie about cruelty to women to have Mara frequently undressed.
My grade for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: B.
Just two weeks left!
Predict the #1 film for the weekend of December 23-25, 2011. The one who predicts closest to the total Friday to Sunday gross for the #1 film wins 4 points. Runner-up gains 2 points. Predicting within half a million earns 2 extra points. Bonus questions are worth half a point each.
1. Which film will have a greater percentage drop: Sherlock Holmes or Chipwrecked?
2. Will The Darkest Hour earn more than $5 million?
The deadline is on MONDAY at midnight, EST due to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo opening on Tuesday.
Jackrabbit Slim: 4.5
Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a writer of young adult novels, which Cody has an abiding passion for (she was signed to write a movie on the Sweet Valley High series). As the film opens, we see that she is a sad and lonely person, as she lives in a messy but chic apartment, has meaningless sex, and her only companion is a lapdog. When she gets an email that her ex-boyfriend has just had a baby, she gets the absurd notion that if she goes back to her podunk hometown she can win him back, and thus will solve all her problems.
This seemed a lot like the Julia Roberts film My Best Friend’s Wedding, and that, believe it or not, was a much better picture, with Roberts at least informing her role with a zany questful nature. Theron, in this film, is a tissue of psychoses, and at no point in this film will anyone be rooting for her. I will give Cody credit for the audacity of allowing her character to have a breakthrough, but then having another character, in a big speech, reinforce her insanity and send her off in a haze of delirium. I wonder what Cody’s intention was for us to think about as we put on our coats–that people who live in small towns really are fat and dumb, and that living in a big city is better, even if we are mentally ill?
Theron’s ex-beau is played dully by Patrick Wilson, who is oblivious to her intentions. Her confidante is Patton Oswalt, who might have been the subject of a better movie. He was viciously beaten in high school by jocks who thought he was gay. He now hobbles around on a crutch, makes his own bourbon, and paints comic book hero miniatures. Roberts sidekick in My Best Friend’s Wedding was the gay Rupert Everett, and while Oswalt’s character is not gay, he might as well be. Cody makes a big mistake by allowing these characters to sleep together.
I really don’t think there’s anything I liked about this film. Reitman’s films are known for their over-reliance on qurkly direction, (he really goes wild in Thank You For Not Smoking and Juno) that I have enjoyed, but here his heart doesn’t seem in it, and he lets the script just play out. That is a mistake, for this script isn’t particularly witty (I think I laughed once, but I forget at what) or emotionally resonant. The attempt to have Theron’s work in progress, about a high school girl who is so popular (she has the yearbook dedicated to her, even though there was another student who died) is band-aided on and laughably amateurish.
Theron gives a technically fine performance, and manages to look beautiful and off-putting at the same time, but I don’t think any actress could have made this work.
My grade for Young Adult: D+
Will be away from the computer for most of the weekend, so here’s an early edition of Openings for the holiday masses! Featuring some of the biggest-profile releases left this year, to boot:
A Dangerous Method (trailer)
Director: David Cronenberg (eXistenZ, Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises)
Personal Interest Factor: 7
Don’t get me wrong, I’m looking forward to this and I don’t want to prejudge it too harshly, but it’s clear that Keira Knightley is going to be a problem for me in this movie. She’s a very limited actress, and any time she has to dial up the intensity (e.g., the “IT EXCITED ME!” line in the trailer), she looks utterly ridiculous. On the other hand, I genuinely look forward to watching Viggo Mortensen ham it up as Sigmund Freud. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender defied all odds by getting through the year without being in a movie with Jessica Chastain. How’d that happen?
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (trailer)
Director: Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille)
Personal Interest Factor: 7
Main appeal here is Bird directing and a half-decent title, even though I’ve never been that excited about the M:I franchise. Paramount, curiously, is rolling this out nice and slowly, hitting only 425 screens before expanding wide for Christmas. Apparently, they’re planning the same thing with Tintin and War Horse. The strikes me as a more notable development than Universal’s pointless flirtation with VOD, because unlike Uni’s aborted VOD plan, it’s an experiment that directly challenges the “milk the first weekend for all it’s worth” conventional wisdom that took over Hollywood for good sometime around the release of Batman Forever. Plus, by necessity it actually incorporates word-of-mouth as a marketing strategy, and when’s the last time that happened with a big-studio franchise movie? Never, that’s when. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out for them.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (trailer)
Director: Guy Ritchie (Swept Away, Revolver, RocknRolla, Sherlock Holmes)
Personal Interest Factor: 5
WB taking the opposite tack from Paramount here, offering up a sequel with a director I don’t care about and an awkward title. This strikes me as an unnecessary sequel anyway, since the first movie was passable at best and AFAIK there aren’t a whole lot of people out there who were a whole lot more taken with it than I was. Is there real excitement out there about this one? I have my doubts.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (trailer)
Director: Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In)
Personal Interest Factor: 8
Sounds like a movie about a legendary turn-of-the-century infield combo and it has a somewhat uninspiring trailer, but a John Le Carre adaptation starring Gary Oldman sure sounds like a winner to me. I’m really glad to see the reviews to strong, because I was a little worried about that trailer when it first came out.
Written and directed by Preston Sturges, who revolutionized the American movie comedy, it tells the story of a film director (Joel McCrea), who though rich and famous from making light comedies (like Ants in Your Pants 1939), longs to make movies of gravitas and social commentary. His studio handlers don’t want to hear that–his most recent film, a serious drama, died in Pittsburgh.
Sullivan: What do they know in Pittsburgh?
LeBrand: They know what they like!
Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh!
Sullivan wants to make a movie about poverty in America, called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (yes, that’s where the Coens got that title). The studio bosses convince him that he, who grew up privileged, kind of like Mitt Romney, hasn’t suffered enough to make such a picture. That backfires, though, when Sullivan announces he’s going to incognito as a tramp, with only ten cents in his pocket, to find out what suffering is about.
The genius of Sturges’ script is that it succeeds on two levels: first, it is a tribute to comedy, as Sullivan eventually learns that people living in hard times sometimes need to laugh to forget about their troubles. Comedy has always played second fiddle to drama in many people’s minds, even among those who make it. Woody Allen has always said that he wished he were a tragedian, and that those who make drama are sitting at the grown-up’s table. Secondly, though, it also reinforces the division between the haves and have-nots in America; while ninnies in Hollywood lounge around pools, others are barely making it in shantytowns.
The tone shifts from comedy to melodrama often, and at times not easily, but I think that’s the point. The first half hour is flat-out screwball, as Sullivan sets out in old clothes, but the studio has arranged for an entourage to follow him in a bus. When he tries to make a break for it, we get some well done slapstick with the bus racing after him, the inhabitants tossed about (with some wince-inducing laughs earned from a Stepin Fetchit-style black cook).
Late the film shifts to a sweet romance, as Sullivan meets a struggling actress (Veronica Lake), who teams up with him on his trip. Lake, who is one of my favorite of the old movie stars, was just a teenager when she made this film, her first starring role. She was unusually beautiful, but apparently difficult. McCrea passed on making another movie with her, citing “Life is too short to make another movie with Veronica Lake.” Read up on her to hear a typically sad story of failed romance, alcoholism, and madness that ended much too soon at age 51.
The film’s final third dispenses with comedy altogether. Through a series of unfortunate events, Sullivan ends up arrested and imprisoned to a chain gang. He can’t prove who he is, and everyone back in Hollywood thinks he is dead. It is when, as a member of the chain gang, that he attends a movie at the local black church (this expansive view of African-Americans almost makes up for the cook). When he sees how the Mickey Mouse cartoon brings a little life into the grim lives of the prisoners, he changes his tune. The closing line is “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
Now, the film doesn’t always work. For one thing, the cartoon isn’t that funny. It would have been nice if Sturges had gotten the rights to a Chaplin, Keaton, or Laurel and Hardy movie. I’ve never, even when I was a kid, laughed my assed off at a Disney cartoon. And though the film is incredibly audacious for 1941, it still seems to hold back, and can lean toward the corny and sentimental (at one point McCrea says, as if in defense, “What’s wrong with Capra?”).
But these are minor quibbles. The film is so rich, and Sturges such a good writer, that it continues to dazzle. The performances are good down to the minor, with several familiar faces, such as Franklin Pangborn, William Demarest (as a press agent, who’s given to say things like, “It will put Shakespeare back with the shipping news”), and two drolly brilliant turns by Robert Greig and Eric Blore as Sullivan’s British butler and valet. Greig gives a memorable speech about how those who are poor know all about being poor, and only the morbidly rich would find it a glamorous topic.
The movie also is chock full of marvelous whimsy, such as the lines: “What about gin rummy?” “I never touch the stuff.” Or this exchange, early in the film:
Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
The DVD from Criterion includes a documentary on Sturges. He was the first screenwriter to make the leap from writer to director, and at one time in the mid-40s he was the highest paid producer/director/writer in Hollywood. His success ended quickly, though. He also made some other outstanding comedies. The ones I’ve seen are The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story. His great rival as a maker of comedies in those days was Ernst Lubitsch, and Sturges gets an inside joke in when Lake, not knowing Sullivan is a director, and thinking he’s a hobo, jokingly asks him for a letter of introduction to Lubitsch.