PICKS OF THE WEEK
Make Way for Tomorrow (A)
U.S.; Leo McCarey, 1937, Criterion
In 1937, director Leo McCarey, who had spent almost all of his career as an expert maker of comedy movies -- working with great comedians like Laurel and Hardy in many of their silent shorts, Burns and Allen and W.C. Fields in Six of a Kind, Harold Lloyd in The Milky Way, and the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup -- decided to direct something entirely different. He wanted to make a classic movie tear-jerker, based on The Years Are So Long, Josephine Lawrence's novel about elderly parents and their neglectful children. The result was Make Way for Tomorrow.
McCarey threw himself into the project, casting superb veteran character actors in the leads -- Beulah Bondi as the old mother Lucy Cooper, comedian Victor Moore as father Barkley or "Bark" and Thomas Mitchell and Fay Bainter as son George and daughter-in-law Anita. He scripted the film with Vina Delmar, directed it with great care and love. Yet, despite McCarey's painstaking devotion to the material, it was a financial flop. And it got him fired from Paramount, ironically by the elderly 64-year-old studio head Adolph Zukor, who had demanded, but failed to get, a happy ending.
McCarey rebounded that same year, directing the romantic comedy masterpiece The Awful Truth, with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, and winning the 1937 "best director" Oscar for it. But, when he accepted his Oscar, he told the Academy audience that they had recognized him for the wrong film.
McCarey was right. It has taken me most of my own life to finally see this great movie -- which has a huge reputation among French and American "auteur" film critics, but has been rarely revived or shown in America, until Criterion's new DVD release.
The movie is about an elderly small town couple who, like many another Depression family, have just lost their home to the bank. Trying to spare their children, they've kept their problems a secret from them. Bark reveals the crisis at a last-minute gathering of the clan. The elder Coopers will stay with their children, though finances demand they first be separated. Bark sent to his daughter Cora (Elizabeth Risdon) and her husband Bill (Ralph Remley), and Lucy to New York City with George and Anita, and their teenage daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read). Later, daughter Nellie (Minna Gombell) and husband Harvey (Porter Hall) will make room for them both.
Lucy and Bark are grateful, eager to fit in. But the new arrangement proves a disaster, as most of their children demonstrate a selfishness and shallowness that breaks your heart as you watch it.
Cora is mean to the cold-prone Bark. Nellie and her nasty husband Harvey (Porter Hall at his summit of Porter-Hallian smugness) renege on their promise and plan to run off on a vacation. Another daughter in California will only take one of the parents. And George and Anita, seemingly the most sensible and humane of the kids, allow themselves to be bossed by their outrageously self-centered high school playgirl daughter Rhoda, who won't bring her friends home because she's ashamed of her grandmother.
Finally, when Bark becomes ill, and must go to California (it seems), George and Anita contrive to separate their parents (maybe forever) by sending their mother to the local old folks home -- and Lucy, helping her children to the end, accepts the inevitable by making the decision for them.
The film's last sequence is one of the greatest and most moving in any American film, full of a sadness, humor and humanity few movies ever attain. (Extras: video interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and Gary Giddins; booklet with excellent essays by Tag Gallagher, Robin Wood and Bertrand Tavernier.)
The Informant! (B)
U.S.; Steven Soderbergh, 2009, Warner
Matt Damon plays a real-life whistle blower in Steven Soderbergh's semi-fictionalized The Informant! But it's a character who's really fictionalized himself: Mark Whitacre, a biochemical division executive at agricultural mega-corporation Archer Daniels Midland, who starts working with the FBI in the '90s, after he reveals to his bosses that a corporate mole for a Japanese rival has infiltrated the company. That's only the beginning of Mark's odd exposures. After ADM brings in the FBI to investigate, Mark tells them that ADM itself is deeply involved in price-fixing and corruption, and then wears a wire for the feds to record hundreds of sometimes incriminating conversations with his fellow execs. But, as we keep learning, there's more to Mark than experimenting with corn or blowing whistles.
I liked Soderbergh's gutsily uncommercial Che, if not his pretentiously pseudo-erotic The Girlfriend Experience, and I'm not unreceptive to the Oceans series. But, as advertised, this is Soderbergh's best movie in a while. It connects with the audience in all sorts of weird and entertaining ways: as thriller, comedy, satire, and expose. And the fact that Damon plays Mark so lightly and humorously -- like a dorkier riff on his psychopathic deceiver Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley -- and that he's backed by a cast full of standup comics (including the Smothers Brothers as a CEO and a judge), ensure that we'll look at everything here with a mix of amusement and skepticism.
The movie, written by Scott Z. Burns (of An Inconvenient Truth) is narrated by Damon's Mark, and his free-associating babble reveals a mind so lost in its own private deceits and fantasies, it can't, or won't, come up for air.
Damon plays the part beautifully -- overweight, bespectacled, toupeed and full of instant affability and "Gee whiz" pseudo-sincerity. The movie is a star vehicle for him, but it's also arty and wry and subversive. Soderbergh keeps irony intact and tongue well in cheek throughout.
Flame and Citron (B)
Denmark/France/Germany; Ole Christian Madsen, 2008, Ais
Ole Christian Madsen wrote and directed this gripping, brainy Danish World War II neo-noir anti-Nazi resistance drama -- based on fact, but fictionalized -- about a crack assassin named Bent, aka Flame (Thurl Lindhardt) and his ace driver Citron, aka Jorgen (Mads Mikkelsen). Also in the mix are a waiting wife named Bodil (Mille Hofmeyer Lehfeldt) and sex bomb spy Ketty (Stine Stengade), and a horde of shady-looking characters and arrogant Nazis, all crossing and double-crossing each other.
Flame and Citron is dark and cynical, and Jorgen Johansson's cinematography is ultra-bleak, as if the lens is about to frost. The ending, jaw-droppingly, moves into Where Eagles Dare territory, which makes you wonder about the truth under the fiction, the citron under the flame. But it doesn't matter. This movie should get under your skin anyway. (In Danish, with English subtitles.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
George Bernard Shaw On Film (A-)
U.K.; various directors, 1941-1952 , Criterion/Eclipse
Late in life, George Bernard Shaw, then in his 70s, entrusted the film rights to all his plays to an inexperienced thirty-something producer named Gabriel Pascal, born in Transylvania, an entrepreneur without money whose only credit up until then had been, appropriately enough, a movie called The Living Dead. The Nobel Prize-winning Shaw, who had resisted most other attempts to adapt his plays, made the major demand that Pascal not change or cut his unusually verbose texts, but respect the playwright's letter and law.
Pascal mostly did, making instant classics out of 1938's Pygmalion (not included in this set) and 1941's Major Barbara, starring Wendy Hiller, with Rex Harrison, Robert Morley, Robert Newton, Sybil Thorndike and Deborah Kerr.
Then came a legendary financial flop, the huge prodigal spectacle Pascal, as sole credited director, tried to wrest from Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra and Claude Rains (Shaw's personal choice) as Caesar. That made Pascal something of a joke, and brought about the end of most of his British plans, except for one more lower-budgeted film, Androcles and the Lion (with Alan Young, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Jim Backus and Newton) and Pascal's longtime plans for a musical version of Pygmalion, realized two years after his death. That, of course became My Fair Lady.
The films today look as good as they did on their release, and in Caesar's case, much better. Which shows that Shaw was right about sticking to his words. (Extras: Liner notes by Bruce Eder.)
Included: Major Barbara (A), U.K.; Gabriel Pascal/Harold French/David Lean, 1941; "Caesar and Cleopatra" (B), U.K.; Pascal, 1945; Androcles and the Lion (B), U.S.; Chester Erskine, 1952.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (C+)
U.S.; Paul Weitz, 2009, Universal
Two teenage buddies -- popular high school guy Daren Shan (Chris Massoglia) and his black sheep chum Steve (Josh Hutcherson) -- make the mistake of attending a "Cirque du Freak" show, in an abandoned David Lynchian theater. They wind up communing with the undead as combatants in a war between the Cirque performers, headed by amiable vampire Crepsley (John C. Reilly, doing a fabulous job in a Vincent Price-ish role) and the evil minions of the creepy Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris, trying to channel both Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet).
Listen, I didn't want to see any more teen vampire movies, even if they have as good a cast as this one (Salma Hayek, Patrick Fugit, Frankie Faison, Jessica Carlson and Orlando Jones are among the freaks, and Fugit is terrific as The Snake Boy). But it nips and zips along fairly well, until the climactic magic duel, which has been done better numerous times, including the rip-roarer in The Raven between Price and Boris Karloff.
What irritates me about "The Vampire's Assistant," though, is that the Vampire (Reilly) is so much more interesting than the Assistant (Massoglia), even though the producers, director (Paul Weitz), and writers keep pushing Darren as the star and the Darren-Steve clash as if that were their ticket to heaven. Should our screens be that teen-obsessed? Isn't there life after high school?
U. S.; Katherine Deickmann, 2009, National Entertainment Media
Motherhood has Uma Thurman as Eliza Welsh, the beleaguered mother of two on a day when everything goes wrong. It's yet another somewhat whiney, self-indulgent domestic comedy-drama about the trials of living a privileged middle-class life in comfortable surroundings -- in this case, the West Village of New York City, which is about as stimulating a neighborhood as you could find anywhere.
Thurman, trying to get into a Meryl Streep mode (sometimes successfully), plays Eliza as if she were crossing the ice. She's trying desperately to write a prize-winning blog entry, on a day when her loving, supportive hubby (Anthony Andrews) is selling his old books, a sexy delivery guy is on the threshold ready to boogie, fellow Mom Jodie Foster is being stalked by paparazzi at the local playground, best friend Sheila (Minnie Driver) feels betrayed and has only so many wisecracks, and the block and its parking spaces have been commandeered by a movie company for a shoot, probably of another movie like "Motherhood."
Meanwhile, Eliza is trying to juggle all the balls for her young daughter's birthday party. Eliza's answer to all these problems -- problems? -- is, at one point, to chuck it all and drive off to New Jersey. That didn't strike me as very mature, but then again, maybe it's never mature to drive off to New Jersey.
Austria; Gotz Spielmann, 2008, Criterion, 2 discs
Austria. The dark side of urban and rural life. As in most neo-noirs, sex lures and death awaits. In the city, cathouse bouncer Alex (Johannes Krisch) and his Ukrainian hooker girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko) plan a bank robbery, but a nervous cop, Robert (Andreas Lust), fouls it up. In the country, Alex's disapproving, accordion-playing grandfather (Hannes Thanheiser) awaits, with refuge for his fugitive boy. But also there, previously unknown to Alex, are Robert and his sexually adventurous wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss).
It's a tricky little noir, and it takes us in unexpected directions. But Spielmann shoots it like an understated art film, even a bit like the youthful Spielmann short heimat film, Foreign Land (1984), which is also included in this package. If you like art films, and heimatfilms, and botched heists, and accordion playing grandfathers, and sexually adventurous Austrians, you should enjoy Revanche. (In German, with English subtitles.)(Extras: Spielmann short Foreign Land; video interview with Spielmann; a "making of" documentary; booklet with excellent Armond White essay.)
U.K.; Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008, Magnolia
Nicholas Winding Refn, writer-director of the deep noir Danish "Pusher" trilogy, here gives us the hypnotically unpleasant fact-based drama of Britain's most violent prisoner, a head-banging, bone-crunching, foul-mouthed psychopath nicknamed "Charles Bronson" (Tom Hardy). Hardy throws so much of himself into this part -- as he attacks guards, psychiatrists, fellow prisoners and everyone within reach of a clenched fist -- that you begin to worry that he'll suffer permanent injury. It's a bit like a version of Birdman of Alcatraz in which Robert Stroud has been replaced with a mix of Hannibal Lecter and Popeye's Bluto. Death wish, anyone?
I didn't enjoy myself much at this movie, and it's faded fairly quickly from memory, but Refn has talent, and should be watched. So, apparently, should Britain's penal system.