PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Gus Van Sant, 2008, Focus Features
The best mainstream movie of Gus Van Sant's sometimes arty (Mala Noche, Elephant), sometimes big-star (Good Will Hunting) filmography is this stirring, proudly humanistic bio-drama of San Francisco's storied gay political leader and assassination victim Harvey Milk.
It's an Oscar-slanted project, of course, and it doesn't fumble any of its balls or chances -- either in re-creating the period, analyzing its roots, capturing its politics, making its dramatis personae come alive, or in acing what seemed at first a very risky casting choice in Van Sant's pick for the role of assemblymen Harvey himself: fiery-tempered Sean Penn.
Penn might seem initially too dour, rebellious, short-fused and macho a personality for the role of the sweet-tempered, diplomatic Harvey -- one of the godheads of the modern gay political movement. But Penn is a dedicated actor/activist, and he eats this part up. His statuette was deserved. There's not a false or unconvincing moment in the performance, and Penn's consistent excellence -- the way he captures Milk's mannerisms and talk and takes us inside his psyche as well -- is a major key to what makes the movie work so well. This is the kind of acting part, and personal coup, for which Oscars were invented. So was Mickey Rourke's in The Wrestler, of course, and it's a shame in a way that they came out in the same year. (No pun intended.)
Van Sant and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black cover Milk's life from 40, when he leaves his closeted corporate New York life for the erotic '60s flower power adventure of San Francisco, with his boyfriend/subway pickup Scott Smith (James Franco, in a neat reversal of his Pineapple Express comic tour de force). Playing the key people he meets -- all admirably -- are Emile Hirsch (as Cleve Jones), Victor Garber (as Mayor George Moscone), Diego Luna (as Jack Lira) and, as the tormented killer Dan White, Josh Brolin.
Van Sant's decision to adopt a more conventional movie style fits his subject. That's exactly what Harvey Milk did -- and what made him so effective a political leader. Mainstream communication skills make Milk a very effective political film, one that can easily blend truth and drama and, in the process, speak out to everybody.
U.K.; Mike Leigh, 2008, Film4
Nobody makes actor's movies like Britain's Mike Leigh, and Happy-Go Lucky -- the blithe tale of a pretty, flippy 30-year old London schoolteacher named Poppy (played entrancingly by Sally Hawkins) -- features the usual extraordinary performances Leigh gets from his heavily participating casts. It also has an incandescent blowup scene between Hawkins' Poppy and Eddie Marsan, as a wired-tight driving instructor named Scott, that's one of the great acting showcases of the year. That scene is comparable in its way even to the force and surprise and compassion of the classic Brando-Steiger taxi scene in On the Waterfront.
Happy-Go-Lucky is as good in its lighter, more beguiling way as Leigh's great, grim, compassionate 2004 abortion story Vera Drake (in which Hawkins and Marsan also appeared in supporting roles). It's a miracle of shifting, deftly handled tones: a happy, bouncy, but also emotionally deep comedy-drama that catches elfin heartbreaker Poppy at a transition moment, when she's probably about to evolve from extended girlhood to womanhood and greater responsibility. (Or maybe not).
Hawkins, with her amazingly mobile face and mastery of evanescent moods, hops merrily through the film. And though some viewers may misread her as a kind of girlish Peter Pan, we also see that she's a good, empathetic teacher who's managed to preserve her openness and innocence. She's the kind of lass you could fall unreasonably in love with -- and that's exactly what happens to Marsan's brilliantly twisted Scott, a neatly bearded neurotic and semi-fascist, who has an anal-retentive obsession with driving rituals, and obviously finds Poppy a breath of much fresher air against his own darkness.
The great scene I mentioned above is the last clash between Scott and Poppy on their driving lessons. It's been building up throughout the movie, yet when it comes, it has such explosive, inevitable force that it leaves you almost breathless. Marsan tears up the screen as he rages and rants, in the equivalent of one of Jack Nicholson's classic Jack-Attack temper-tantrums; Hawkins reacts perfectly. Leigh is the king of movie spontaneity, but this film, like Vera Drake -- which was also edited by the great Jim Clark -- has a masterly sense of structure and pace. It's not only a superb movie, it's a thoroughly entertaining one.
When you wish upon a star.... A little wooden-boy puppet named Pinocchio (Dickie Jones voiced), the cherubic-looking apple of his father/toymaker Gepetto's (Christian Rub) eye, has one huge desire: He wants to be a real live boy. With the help of the seraphic Blue Fairy and his hard-working conscience, Jiminy Cricket (irresistibly voiced by Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards), he has a good shot. But the lively, curious little puppet is tragically susceptible to conmen, especially a foxy, glib fox named J. Worthington Foulfellow (Walter Catlett) and his rascally cat sidekick, Gideon. These two bad influences waylay Pinoke from the straight and narrow and send him off to a world of high life, adventure and danger: to Pleasure Island, an evil Disneyland where boys become donkeys, to a wicked showman and, finally, into the belly of Monstro the Whale.
Pinocchio, based on the Carlo Collodi classic, is one of the five great early Disney features, movies never really surpassed in the whole Walt canon; the others were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). Many critic/cartoon buffs think Pinocchio the best of them all, and -- even though nothing will ever replace Dumbo in my flying-elephant heart -- they may be right. The technique is incredible, and the film's heart really beats. This is one feature cartoon that makes you feel. Certainly this is the version you want to own. And not just for your kids.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Cracker: The Complete Collection (B+)
U.K.; various directors, 1993-2006, Acorn Media
One of the great British police/detective shows, with one of the most memorable characters: writer Jimmy McGovern's brilliant, foul-mouthed, sarcastic, irreverent, politically incorrect and relentless gambling addict and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald -- as unforgettably played by the matchless Robbie Coltrane. All 11 of Fitz's shows are here, as originally shown from 1993 to 1996, and then given a last hurrah in 2006. They're extremely well-produced, crackingly written by McGovern, and sharply directed on often real locations by the likes of Michael Winterbottom, Simon Cellan Jones, Julian Jarrold, Antonia Bird and others.
If you like British mysteries and aren't yet a Cracker fan (which seems unlikely), you have a gigantic treat in store. This is the best of the hard-boiled TV variants and the gigantic, acute and untamable (maybe) Fitz is one of the most memorable of TV sleuths -- on either side of the Atlantic.
Includes: The Mad Woman in the Attic, To Say I Love You, One Day a Lemming Will Fly, To Be a Somebody, The Big Crunch, Men Should Weep, Brotherly Love, Best Boys, True Romance, White Ghost, A New Terror. (Extra: Featurette.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELASES
Rachel Getting Married (B+)
U.S. Jonathan Demme, 2008, Sony Pictures Classics
Rachel Getting Married -- a rousing and poignant wedding ensemble drama by director Jonathan Demme and writer Jenny Lumet -- is a big critical hit that deserves much of its loving press. It's an unexpected little gem: a movie about an interracial-marriage upper middle class in which the problems of race seems less important than the problems of class and family -- or than the drug problems of maid of honor Kym Buchman (Anne Hathaway), the film's major character, and a diva of angst whose addiction is the fuel for the entire plot.
Kym, who's been let out of her rehab center to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) and who keeps igniting lacerating arguments and creating public spectacles and embarrassments, is played by the seemingly unlikely but generally triumphant Anne Hathaway. Once the Audrey Hepburn wannabe of The Princess Diaries, she looks here a bit like a sexy vampire gone grunge and she acts like a petulant family princess who has sunk too low and suffered too much to pay attention to even the liberalized social niceties of this melding of the clans.
Cast way against type, Hathaway, a specialist in ingénues, here has a grittier, more Oscar-caliber role: an ingénue in ruins, a princess dethroned. The movie's Kym was her upper-middle-class daddy's darling, something Rosemarie still resents. And Kym was also responsible, as a drug-addled teenager, for the car accident death of her little brother Ethan, an event that still ravages her sweet, vulnerable father Paul (Bill Irwin) and put the kibosh long ago on his already rocky marriage with the harder-edged Abby (Debra Winger), who's attending the wedding with her new husband and a busy schedule that won't let her stay long.
Also around for the nuptials and party is the warmly boisterous clan and white best man Kieran (Mather Zickel) of Rachel's immensely likable groom, Sidney (played by Tunde Adeline and named for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner's Prince Charming Sidney Poitier). For Kym, the wedding -- staged as a congenial, liberal, multicultural love fest -- is a nightmare of raw confrontations, humiliations and a final near-catastrophe. But it's also a reunion in which, eventually, she finds peace and a sort of satisfaction -- as does Rachel. I suspect that fragile peace will also be tentative. But we feel it, at the end, as something beautiful: a reverie to which solace clings like drops of morning dew, shining but ephemeral.
As in many of the classic wedding movies -- from George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story and Max Ophuls' Guy De Maupassant-derived The Tellier House (from Le Plaisir) to Robert Altman's mold-setting A Wedding, Krzysztof Zanussi's neglected Polish gem Contract, Mike Newell's spicy Four Weddings and a Funeral (and its many imitators) and Mira Nair's exuberant delight Monsoon Wedding -- this new movie marries buoyant comedy with witheringly serious drama. It's an ensemble film with pizzazz, dipping into eros, guilty secrets and so much music and merrymaking (from Robyn Hitchcock and others) that the audience almost gets an overdose of revelry.
It also marks Jonathan Demme's return to the kind of serio-comic, middle-budget American movie -- like Melvin and Howard, Married to the Mob and Something Wild -- that made him a critic's pet in the '80s. Rachel is a welcome sally back to the kind of quirky, highly personal fiction filmmaking that he's more recently abandoned for high-budget, dubiously rewarding Hollywood remakes. But Rachel Getting Married is more the personal story of its writer Jenny Lumet -- one of Sidney Lumet's two daughters by Gail Lumet Buckley (daughter of Lena Horne) -- than of Demme. Lumet is a vibrant writer, and I hope she scripts something as good for her dad some day.
Cadillac Records (B)
U.S.; Darnell Martin, 2008, Sony
Cadillac Records starts off with a great story (fictionalized here, of course) about some amazing seminal singers and songwriters -- the saga of Chicago's Chess Records, a hit factory and fountainhead of rhythm and blues and then rock 'n' roll in the '50s and '60s, the place that provided a home and a studio for Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Etta James and many others. Then it adds the great music they made and some fantastic actor-musicians to impersonate those legends, re-create those times and even sing most of the songs. (This is no lip-synch saga like Taylor Hackford's Ray -- a movie I love, by the way. Here, when Mos Def does Chuck Berry, he's really singing the tune and really walking the (duck) walk.
The rest of the cast is just as high-powered. Jeffrey Wright is a terrific, somber Muddy Waters. Eamonn Walker is a great, ferocious Howlin' Wolf. Columbus Short is twisted and magnetic as the flawed prince of harmonica Little Walter. Cedric the Entertainer is a little toned-down, but handily does a lot of narration as songwriter deluxe Willie Dixon. Current superstar Beyonce Knowles is an overpoweringly sexy and sometimes anguished Etta James.
Overseeing all this and providing the smooth, oily counterpart to the raw passion of his top-notch performers -- the passion he sells to get their Cadillacs -- is Adrien Brody as sly entrepreneur and record company czar Leonard Chess. Brody, the classical piano-playing victim of The Pianist, can play sleazy as well as sympathetic. And, with Chess, he's able to suggest both possible sides of the man: the devotee and blues connoisseur/explorer who brought some great music and musicians to the light -- and the white boss who got rich off them. Both sides, the movie suggests, are there, but the important thing about Chess was the fact that he provided the conduit. No small feat.
Darnell Martin is a good humanist writer-director -- she made Their Eyes Were Watching God -- and she's able to get her wonderful cast to dig out all the dimensions, make every scene come alive. There isn't a one-note performance in the movie. The fact or the legend? You can complain about Cadillac Records historically -- but I don't think that's any key to appreciating the movie's achievement. Musically, it's a goldmine: a Cadillac in the years when cars really meant something fine. And so did rock 'n' roll and the blues.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (B)
U.K.; Mark Herman, 2008, Miramax
A message movie adapted from a children's book set in the Holocaust sounds like a risky proposition -- though teenager Anne Frank's Diary remains our best-loved chronicle of that tragic, bloody period. But Mark Herman's film of John Boyne's book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, despite a highly improbable ending, is a grim, engrossing, sometimes powerful work. It suggest the enormity of the cultural bloodbath by keeping us mostly at the edges, on the perimeter, observing the horrors of an Auschwitz through the eyes of an innocent: an inquisitive but "protected" boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), 10-year-old son of the camp commander (David Thewlis) and his troubled wife (Vera Farmiga).
Bruno is an adventurous boy who doesn't realize the significance of much of what he sees -- including the tall wire fence behind which he sees another sad little boy his own age named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), and the billowing black smoke that rises behind the fences, consuming unseen other innocents, part of the community of the slaughtered six million.
Director Herman, who made the critical hit and prize-winner Brassed Off, is British, and Boyne, the original author, is from Dublin. (Boyne claims there's no intended metaphoric hint here of the British-Irish division and "troubles.") There is a problem with the ending, which is, in a way, almost too horrific, even too melodramatic, for the rest of the story. The movie might have been even more effective with something just as dark, but less extreme. With Richard Johnson, Sheila Hancock, Amber Beattie and Rupert Friend.
Role Models (C)
U.S.; David Wain, 2008, Universal
Here's a sort of smart buddy-buddy movie comedy with two gifted co-stars -- Seann William Scott as another grinning stud and Paul Rudd as another bemused onlooker and wannabe stud -- but I didn't enjoy it much. Scott and Rudd play friends and co-workers Wheeler and Danny. They're an anti-drug lecture team for Minotaur beer who get into a bad traffic accident, have to do some community service time and wind up as "big brothers" for Sturdy Wings, a youth service run by sexy ex-addict Sweeney (Jane Lynch). There the sex-crazed guys provide some supposedly adult male guidance to troubled kids Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who only really connects to his medieval games pageant group, and the foul-mouthed 10-year-old Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson), who wants to be the younger Ice Cube.
Actually I shouldn't have singled out Ronnie for four-letter spews, because pretty much everyone here -- except Danny's fed-up ex, Beth (Elizabeth Banks) -- either swears like a sailor, or makes you feel like swearing. We're in Farrelly-Apatow country here, but somehow it didn't make me laugh. Not even when the guys went wholesome at the end. (I did chuckle at Jane Lynch's wiener trick.)