PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (B+)
U.S.; David Fincher, 2008, Criterion
David Fincher, working at full intensity, gives us the epic adaptation of an obscure (and much-changed) F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who lives his life backwards. Born as an old, wizened man, he progresses through maturity then back to boyhood and infancy -- leaving his lifelong sweetheart Daisy (Cate Blanchett) trapped in real time.
Meanwhile, as elderly, sick Daisy tells the story in a New Orleans hospital, Hurricane Katrina rages, reminding us what an unholy mess George W. and sidekick Dickie C. made of nearly everything.
I liked Benjamin Button. It has a humanistic/historical sweep reminiscent of Forrest Gump (Eric Roth wrote both movies), and it has near-instant likeability, thanks to Pitt and Blanchett (the two big commercial elements here). The HD cinematography (by Claudio Miranda) has a ghostly sensitivity; the production design by Donald Graham Burt effortlessly sweeps us back and forth. And the cast, especially Tilda Swinton and Taraji P. Henson, successfully push any buttons they want.
There is a narrative flaw. In all Benjamin's many decades of life, starting on Armistice Day, 1918, and progressing to nearly now, nobody seems to want to capitalize on this oddity by peddling the tale to the news media. Say what? Does that really make sense? (Why not add a character who wants to spill the beans, but decides not to or is stopped?) In any case, though, this is the kind of wistful metaphor-laden fantasy that relies on our good will and our willingness not to ask too many questions. A good-hearted, well-crafted, daring picture is always welcome. (Extras: Commentary by Fincher, documentary.)
Wendy and Lucy (B+)
U.S.; Kelly Reichardt, 2008, Oscilloscope
American movies these days mostly ignore life at the lower levels of society, except to portray it as a joke or a menace, or in semi-condescending social worker casebook style. Here, writer-director Kelly Reichardt and star Michelle Williams, with deep but understated sympathy, and without obvious commentary or attitude, take us right into the small, precarious, heartbreaking world of a young woman, Wendy (Williams), living out of her car with her beloved pet dog Lucy. While traveling west for a job and running out of funds in a small town on the way, Wendy shoplifts some dog food for Lucy. She is then separated from her beloved pet when the clerk insists on filing charges, and she has to leave the dog, leash tied in front of the store.
Wendy's subsequent desperate search for Lucy makes up the bulk of the film, and we see everything that happens -- experience the kindness, indifference or cruelty of the people around her -- through Wendy's eyes. Few films since Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves or Umberto D. -- the latter also about an impoverished owner and a dog -- have seen so clearly and sympathetically into the world of want and poverty. Few have better portrayed the kind of conditions that drive people on the fringes to misery, or that spur reformers to the kind of social changes that the meaner, greedier breeds of political conservatives these days tend to mock, revile, or dismiss as "European socialism." But compassion is a noble emotion. See and feel it here.
Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve (3 discs) (A)
France; Jean Painleve, 1925-1982, Criterion
Jean Painleve (1902-1989) was a French scientist and film enthusiast who became a pioneer in the field of scientific or nature films, making over 200 of them, many with his collaborator/life-partner Genevieve ("Ginette") Hamon, from 1925 to (at least) 1982. This superb Criterion collection assembles 22 of them (along with Bluebeard, one delightful foray into musical/animated puppetry), together with an excellent eight-part TV documentary-interview of Painleve by Denis Darrien, made in 1988, the year before Painleve's death.
The movies, which focus mostly on ocean life, were shot either in Painleve's studio aquariums, or underwater off the coast -- and they're marvelous: science fashioned into poetry. Painleve usually made three versions of his movies: one for scientists, one for students and one for the general public. The latter is mostly what we see here -- edited more poetically, fancifully and whimsically, and fitted with scores by composers from Chopin to Duke Ellington, or with original music by Maurice Jaubert, Pierre Jansen and others (including a modern rock rescoring by Yo La Tengo). There are, though, examples of Painleve's scientific "documents," including his first film, the 1925 The Stickleback's Egg.
The films, whatever their age, have retained all their original freshness, surprise and lyricism, from 1927's The Octopus (a favorite subject of Painleve's, to which he returns in 1967's The Love Life of an Octopus) to 1982's Pigeons in the Square.
The Sea Horse (1933), one of his few big audience hits, shows us these wondrous fairyland creatures in lovingly intimate detail. The Vampire (1945), shot during the Nazi occupation of France, reflects Painleve's lifelong radical politics by using footage of vampire bats and clips from Nosferatu to create an anti-fascist allegory, with the bats stiff, snappy wing-stretches becoming perfect parodies of the Nazi "Seig Heil!" salute. ACERA, or the Witch's Dance (1972) is a piquant mating dance of the sea. Liquid Crystals (1978) gives us more compelling abstract images than many an abstract poseur/painter's work. How Some Jellyfish are Born (1960) is an astonishing celebration of renewal.
Critics tend to ignore nature documentaries, and this set shows how wrong we are, as does also the current Disney feature Earth. These films are truly works of art. The best way to experience this treasure trove may be to watch the documentary first and then the films. (Most of Derrien's clips are from films also in the set.) But any way you encounter Jean Painleve, it's a fine, wonderful, enlightening rendezvous. In French or silent, with English subtitles. (Extras: Booklet with Scott MacDonald essay.)
Poil de Carotte (B+)
France; Julien Duvivier, 1925, Arte/Facets
Gorgeously restored new print of Duvivier's famous but now little seen silent picture (he later remade it as an even more famous early talkie) about a mistreated young boy in a French bourgeois provincial family, a warm-hearted lad whose mother and sibling persecute or ridicule him. While his father ignores the abuse, the boy slides steadily toward despair and, perhaps, suicide. This sad and sometimes overly melodramatic story is told in an almost incongruously sunny and high-spirited style by Duvivier, amid gorgeous mountain backgrounds and with a very lively performance by young Andre Heuze as the abused boy, nicknamed "Poil de Carotte" or "Carrot Top" for his flaming red hair. But it gets to you all the same. Henry Krauss is the father, the part played by Harry Baur in Duvivier's 1932 remake. (French silent, with English subtitles and original Gabriel Thibaudeau score. Extras: Introduction by Serge Bromberg, clip from Jacques Feyder's similarly themed silent, Visages d'Enfants.
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Oscar Winners (A)
U. S.; various directors, 1942-58, TCM/Warner
Includes: Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942, B+); Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943, A); An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951, A); and, Gigi (Vincente Minnelli, 1958, A).
TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Musicals (A)
U.S.; various directors, 1944-53, TCM/Warner
Includes: Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944, A); Easter Parade (Charles Walters, 1948, B+). Singin' in the Rain (Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen, 1952, A); and, The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953, A).
TCM Greatest Classics Films Collection: John Wayne Westerns (A)
U.S.; various directors, 1948-1972, TCM/Warner
Includes: Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948, B+); The Searchers (John Ford, 1956, A); Rio Bravo (John Ford, 1959, A); and, The Cowboys (Mark Rydell, 1972, B+).
These new TCM/Warners anthology reissues of well-loved, renowned or sometimes underrated American movie classics offer familiar but mostly essential titles in bright new packages. For those who haven't purchased them before, either individually or in other packages, they're highly recommended.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Last Chance Harvey (B)
U.S.; Joel Hopkins, 2008, Anchor Bay
London-born writer-director Joel Hopkins shows us, with wit and feeling, romance igniting between a beleaguered American (Dustin Hoffman) foundering at his daughter's snobby London marriage ceremony, and the sharp London lady who rescues him (Emma Thompson). In this well-written, directed and acted film, we get to watch an expertly handled late-life love story, as interpreted by the masterly Hoffman and the marvelous and somewhat taller (at least in heels) Emma Thompson, both at the top of their games. It's not a great movie, or completely original, but a good one, a nice one -- and it boasts what I would call a great movie kiss. (Thank you, Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Thompson. I hope it was as much fun as it looked.)
Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, a divorced, morose L.A. TV jingle writer whose life and career seem to be falling apart, even as he takes off to attend his daughter's wedding in London. Thompson is Kate Walker, a good-natured single airport survey worker, with a terrific smile, who lives with her very nervous mother (Eileen Atkins) -- who believes she's in Rear Window.
The first part of the movie shows the excruciating wedding prelims, Harvey and Kate's first unpromising meeting and their repeated near-miss almost-encounters later on. The rest of Harvey consists of a Before Sunrise-style walk around the city that works wonderfully -- because Hoffman and Thompson are so good together -- and finally the scene we really want to see, Harvey's triumphant return to the wedding party with Emma. The movie teases us throughout. But it never lets us down. And if it has a major flaw, I'd say it's that we don't know enough about Kate, whose revelatory speech near the end should be longer.
Hopkins' movie, probably intentionally, has several links to The Graduate, where Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock disrupted another wedding. Harvey might well be a Benjamin in winter, and that's one reason he connects with us. This is the Hoffman we like to see, and the Emma Thompson we like to see as well: witty, humane, smart charmers, who may be out of step, but are still a step or two ahead of the rest.