30 May 2023

Films I've Watched Lately Some of Which I've Liked Greatly, Plus a Look at Three TV Series Finales

Brian Donlevy in The Great McGinty

The Great McGinty (1940) Sturges. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly on this blog, Preston Sturges directed six films between 1940 and 1944 that ranged from excellent to classic McGinty, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero— there was also one pretty good film, Christmas in July. As a director he’d done nothing before and had five lesser efforts after. McGinty was the first of this incredible run. Brian Donlevy plays a hobo who votes three dozen times for the political machine one election night (and gets paid handsomely for his efforts) then is hired to work as muscle. He moves up the ladder eventually becoming mayor and then governor. Then it all comes tumbling down. McGinty is brilliant satire on politics and like all of Sturges’ best fare, a joy to watch. The film’s only flaw is that flies by much too fast clocking in at 82 minutes.

Days of Heaven (1978) Malick. Terrance Malick is the one director for whom the term self-indulgent surely applies. Much of what he has made in the last few decades is a long, slow slog through cinematic mire. I’ve enjoyed a few but for the most part Malik’s films are sure cures for the insomniac. However he had two gems early in this career, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven. The latter is a gorgeous film — all hail cinema photographer Néstor Almendros! Also gorgeous are co-stars Brooke Adams and Richard Gere. I also find Linda Manz as the narrator and younger sister of Gere’s character to be strangely beguiling. Days of Heaven is an example of what Malick could have been making all these years if he gave a tinker’s damn about his audience.

Love Crazy (1941) Conway. One of the lesser of the William Powell/Myrna Loy collaborations (they made fourteen films together). At that it’s still a bit of fun for those of who could watch Powell and Loy sitting around reading the phone book. But as the missus said after we watched Love Crazy, “the script was beneath them.” Due to a preposterous misunderstanding (film and TV “misunderstandings” are notorious for stretching credulity) Loy wants to divorce Powell. He hits on the idea of acting insane so that she must care for him. Hilarity should ensue especially given who are leads are but alas the writers weren’t up to the task. To be sure there are moments but they are few and far between.

Down By Law (1986) Jarmusch. I love this movie so much that it has a place in my top 100 but I'm hard pressed to tell you exactly why. It’s…quirky? Eccentric? Decidedly off-beat? All of the above and more? Definitely more. Three disparate characters find themselves cellmates in a New Orleans (a disc jockey, a pimp and a recent Italian emigre) the first two have been framed the third can argue self-defense. They form a most unlikely friendship in the midst of their despair. Of course they escape and one stumbles into a happy new life tailor made for him. The others seek greener pastures. John Lurie, Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni star as does the soundtrack and the script and direction by James Jarmusch.

The Philadelphia Story (1940) Cukor. How many times have I seen this film? Certainly more than a dozen, maybe twenty times. Like all great films it gets better with each viewing. It stars Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart so that pretty much guarantees a good picture. Roland Young as Uncle Willie and Virginia Weidler as little sister Dinah are scene stealers. The combined efforts of writers Phillip Barry, Donald Ogden Stewart and Waldo Salt are to be lauded as is George Cukor’s direction. Philadelphia Story is most certainly a comedy but the dashes of drama here and there blend nicely and raise the overall story to a higher level. Call it a sophisticated screwball comedy.

The Cranes are Flying
The Cranes are Flying (1957) Kalatozov. A fairly recent discovery of mine this Russian film is subtly anti-war (subtle enough to have gotten by strict Soviet censorship). It’s a beautiful love story too. Two lovers are — as so many were — broken up by war. In this case the Nazi invasion of the USSR. It is an inevitably heart-wrenching and heart-breaking story. There is love, there is hate, there is tragedy and there is -- as ever in life -- hope. Beautifully filmed and acted.

Now a few words on three recent TV series finales.

Succession. The story of the family we loved to hate and by god did we hate the Roys. It was odd to watch such contemptuous people and find yourself at various points rooting for one or the other. They lived in a world of riches that regular folk like myself can only imagine. They bickered constantly, sniped at one another, shifted allegiances at the drop of a hat, held no core beliefs and only wanted more. More power, more wealth. There were no ends to their means other than more. You’d be hard-pressed to get an honest word out of one of them. So, yes, it was compelling. One of the great TV shows of all time. The acting and writing couldn’t have been better. The finale was satisfying and appropriate.

Barry. Speaking of appropriate endings, this show reached perfection in its denouement. Bill Hader has risen, for me, from a favorite entertainer, to genius. He not only starred but wrote and directed this brilliant show that went from comedy to dark morality tale like a slap in the face. It was odd to stay with the title character through all his dramatic changes as his true nature (natures?) became clearer. Hader surrounded himself with an exemplary supporting cast who had rich, clearly drawn characters to embody. I don’t know that there’s even been a show quite like Barry. It’s difficult to classify and impossible not to immerse oneself in.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I was about ready to give up on this program during it’s penultimate season. It had lost it’s early glimmer and verve. But what a comeback! This final season has been great stuff. The centerpiece was Rachel Brosnahan as the titular character (and she was plenty good enough to carry the show) but the depth and talent of the rest of the cast (how does one call them supporting when they offered so much?) raised the show to another higher level. Maisel the show was pure unadulterated fun while shining a rather bright light on sexism and other issues. I miss it already.

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