Harvey (1950)


They don't make 'em like this anymore.

They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

(1950) Comedy (Universal) Jimmy Stewart, Josephine Hull, Peggy Dow, Charles Drake, Cecil Kellaway, Victoria Home, Jesse White, William Lynn, Wallace Ford, Nana Bryant, Grayce Mills, Clem Bevans, Polly Bailey, Fess Parker (voice), Aileen Carlyle, Norman Leavitt, Anne O’Neal, Pat Flaherty, Maude Prickett,  Ruthelma Stevens, Almira Sessions. Directed by Henry Koster

What constitutes normal is really up to debate. There are those who think playing an online videogame for 48 hours straight is simply typical behavior; others may find it excessive. Some feel that obsessively collecting every piece of memorabilia from Gone With the Wind is just the way it’s supposed to be; others are less sure. Others still hear voices and see people and things that aren’t there; for them that’s life. For others, that’s psychosis.

Elwood P. Dowd (Stewart) lives a quiet life in a small town. A bachelor, he lives with his sister Veta Louise Simmons (Hull) and niece Myrtle Mae (Home) in the home he grew up in, which he inherited when his mother passed away. Charming and pleasant, he is an engaging sort, apt to invite anyone he meets to his home for dinner, someone you’d be immediately drawn to…until he introduces you to his very dear friend, Harvey.

Harvey, you see, is a six foot three and a quarter inch rabbit, or a pooka as he likes to be known. Nobody else can see Harvey except Elwood, and his sister and niece live in a constant state of mortification. Myrtle Mae despairs that she will ever meet a man who won’t hightail it as fast as he can in the opposite direction once he gets to know crazy Uncle Elwood, and Veta Louise can’t invite the society friends she would love to spend time with because one word about Harvey from Elwood and they suddenly remember other appointments or develop headaches.

At last, Veta Louise is moved to action and she enlists the family lawyer, Judge Gaffney (Lynn) to have her brother committed. He is driven out to Chumley Rest, a pretty sanitarium outside of town. The highly emotional Veta Louise begins the paperwork process with Nurse Kelly (Dow) who has the orderly Wilson (White) escort Elwood upstairs. Then, Veta Louise meets with Dr. Sanderson (Drake) who mistakes the overwrought histrionics of the guilty Veta Louise for psychosis and so Veta Louise winds up being committed and Elwood strolls off the grounds contentedly, smiling gently.

It doesn’t take too long before Dr. Sanderson realizes his error. He brings it to the attention of Dr. Chumley (Kellaway) who is forced out of his ivory tower to go retrieve Elwood, but not before firing Dr. Sanderson. A mad chase ensues with Wilson going to the Dowd home to retrieve Elwood but instead discovers Myrtle Mae, who falls instantly for the guy. Veta Louise informs Dr. Chumley that she intends to sue, but discovers where Elwood is and Dr. Chumley goes to retrieve Elwood personally.

Four hours pass with no sign of either Dr. Chumley or Elwood and a worried Dr. Sanderson, Kelly and Wilson go to Charley’s bar to find Elwood. As everyone else is, they are captivated by the sweetness of Elwood and at last convince him to go to the sanitarium. In the meantime, a highly agitated Dr. Chumley returns to his sanitarium and at last confesses the awful truth – he has also seen Harvey.

At last Veta Louise with lawyer in tow, arrives at the Sanitarium. Dr. Sanderson announces he has a formula that can help rid Elwood of his delusions. Elwood is reluctant to take the shot, but when he sees how miserable his sister is, he knows he has to do the right thing. But will the cost be worth it?

Josephine Hull won an Oscar for her performance as the high-strung Veta Louise, but you won’t remember her as much as you will Jimmy Stewart. This would be one of his signature roles, and in many ways is the distillation of his work as an actor. You can’t help but like the guy, delusions and all. Most of the rest of the cast is serviceable and to modern audiences who aren’t classic film buffs unknown but most of a certain age group will remember Jesse White as the Maytag Repair Man from the ‘70s and Fess Parker, who famously played Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett for Disney, can be heard as the voice of the chauffer. Very nice images too; those pre-color cinematographers knew how to make the most of light and shadow.  There are colorized versions of the film but the black and white version is certainly preferable to my mind.

This is a sweet-natured movie with just a light touch of the fantastic. Never laugh-out-loud funny, nonetheless you will be charmed into remembering this movie long after the credits roll. This is one of those classics that stands up after repeated viewings. Although like many stage plays that made the leap to the movie screen it seems stage-y at times and doesn’t have the grand vistas that you would expect from a movie, it still captivates regardless.

This is an absolute classic. It’s a movie you can’t help watching with a quiet grin on your face, or leave without feeling all warm inside. It’s an excellent choice when you need a dose of the warm fuzzies. Harvey has become a part of popular culture, and he is often referenced in asides by the very hip. This is one of those movies they’re talking about when they say “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” But then again, they don’t really need to because it’s already been made.

WHY RENT THIS: Sweet and charming. One of Stewart’s signature roles. Beautifully shot. A true classic.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little stage-y in places.
FAMILY MATTERS: As with most movies of the era, this is perfectly fine for any family audience.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Broadway play would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1945; Hull originated the role of Veta Simmons on Broadway.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The Blu-Ray version, released in 2012 as part of Universal’s 100th anniversary celebration, includes a 1990 introduction to the film by James Stewart (shot for the VHS version) and two small featurettes on Universal studios – one on the Carl Laemmle era, the other on the Lew Wasserman era and neither having anything to do with the film. The Blu-Ray also has as an addition the 2001 DVD version in which there is a marked difference in quality between the two discs.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (stream only), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Fish
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Jupiter Ascending

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Frost/Nixon


Frost/Nixon

David Frost and Richard Nixon square off in their historic interview.

(Universal) Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfayden, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt. Directed by Ron Howard

It is said that the United States lost its innocence during the Watergate affair. That’s a bit simplistic – there has always been corruption and chicanery, even in the highest office, only not quite so public. When Nixon resigned, it was in the face of mounting evidence that he would be impeached for certain. Some of his detractors, however, howled, particularly when Ford pardoned him. It was as if we would never get any sort of admission of wrongdoing, or even acknowledgement that there had even been any. However, the closest we ever got to getting that satisfaction came from the most unlikely of sources.

David Frost (Sheen) was a British talk show host who had ambitions of greater success in America. His last show had failed and he needed something to put him back on the map. For Nixon’s (Langella) part, he was looking for nothing less than a comeback; a chance to redeem his tarnished reputation and restore his legacy. There were many clamoring for one-on-one interviews with the former president, three years after his resignation – three years spent in public silence. Every news anchor on every network was chomping at the bit to get Nixon in front of their cameras. However, Nixon – ever the crafty political fox – chose Frost, thinking he would have no problem controlling the interview and accomplishing exactly what he wanted to do.

Frost was well aware that he was in over his head and hired researchers James Reston Jr. (Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Platt), both rabid anti-Nixonites, to do as much research on Watergate and the Nixon presidency as was possible in the limited time they had to prepare. In the meantime, Frost was having difficulty securing financing and the networks were screaming bloody murder and making accusations of “checkbook journalism.”

It was a minor miracle that the interview took place at all, but on March 23, 1977 Nixon and Frost sat down in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Smith of Monarch Bay, California and began to converse. The stakes were high for both men; if Nixon couldn’t outwit Frost and control the perception of the American people, he would go to his grave a disgraced man. If Frost was unable to gain that control over the interview, he would be responsible for the resurrection of Nixon’s public image and quite possibly, lose the only chance to get Nixon to speak on Watergate for all time.

These interviews were turned into a stage play which has in turn been adapted into a motion picture by populist director Ron Howard, who on the surface would seem to be the wrong man for this job – you would think someone along the lines of Oliver Stone or Robert Redford might be more suitable. Nevertheless, Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (who adapted the work from his own play) have done a masterful work of making what is essentially a static situation (two guys sitting in chairs in a room) whose outcome is known seem suspenseful, tense and not the least bit stage-y.

The movie is well-served by its stars, who both appeared in the same roles in the stage play both in the West End and on Broadway. Langella, in particular, inhabits his role with some dignity, and justifiably received an Oscar nomination for it. He gives the disgraced president a human side, even charming at times but with hints of the ferocious game player that Nixon was, and at the same time horribly insecure about himself. Langella’s Nixon isn’t the boogie man the counterculture made him out to be; he was just ambitious to the point of self-destruction and even in his own way a good man who became a victim of his own hubris.

Sheen, who had just played Tony Blair to great acclaim in The Queen, gives another bravura performance which was in some ways more subtle than Langella, but no less spectacular. Frost is portrayed as a bit on the shallow side and quite charming in a rakish way, but also with his own insecurities; he was well-aware he was in over his head and managed to bring out the steel in his backbone only when it was really needed.

The interplay between Nixon and Frost was fascinating to watch here. They aren’t friends precisely, but both recognize a bit of the other in themselves. It allows a bit of a bond which the film’s ending seems to indicate went beyond the interviews. Although some liberties were taken with the facts (for example, the interviews took place three days a week for two hours a day for a total of 12 days of interviews over the space of a month; here, Nixon’s famous admission that his actions weren’t illegal because he was president takes place on the very last day of the interviews when in reality it took place on the fifth day.

That’s mere window dressing, however. It is the job of the filmmaker to maintain the essence of the events, not recreate them exactly note for note. Howard accomplishes that marvelously and while some have accused both him and Morgan for having been rather soft on President Nixon, it is by all accounts true that Nixon could be a charming, kindly-seeming man when the occasion called for it and was on friendly terms with David Frost until his death in 1994.

Nixon remains an enigma in modern history. We will never know why he chose to do the things he did, and what demons drove him to make those decisions. He will always be the first – and so far, only – President to resign from office and as Reston says in the voice-over, any political scandal from then to know will have the word “gate” attatched as a suffix. You may not get any insight into Nixon the man, but you will understand better the mystique that swirled around him in those difficult years.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look at the confrontation between two men, each with their insecurities and into the mind of the disgraced President. The performances of Sheen and Langella are as good as it gets.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The scenes showing the preparation for the interviews go on too long and the movie lags a bit; it’s probably about 10 or 15 minutes too long.

FAMILY VALUES: There is enough cursing that this movie got an “R” rating; quite frankly, it isn’t so blue that I would prevent the average teen from seeing this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie title derives from a song by Courtney Love’s band Hole.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature on The Real Interviews in which the principle filmmakers as well as the playwright share their own experiences with interviews, and scenes from the actual interviews are shown to give you an idea how closely the recreation matches the original. There’s also an excellent featurette on the Nixon Library, illustrating the importance of presidential libraries overall. On the Blu-Ray edition, there is also a featurette that shows which of the locations were actually used for the original interviews, and Sir David Frost himself weighs in on his opinion of the play and the movie. The Blu-Ray edition comes with the U-Control feature, which allows picture-in-picture features that correspond to the appropriate places in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Devil

Doubt


Doubt

Sister Aloysius shows you where her heart would have been if she had one.

(Miramax) Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Alice Drummond, Audrie J. Neenan, Susan Blommaert, Joseph Foster II. Directed by John Patrick Shanley

If one has faith, one must first understand doubt. Doubt is the antithesis of faith, its polar opposite. You cannot have faith if you have doubt…can you?

It is December of 1963 and America is reeling of the Kennedy assassination. Even in the insular world of the parish of St. Nicholas, in the most American of Catholic enclaves (the Bronx), the outside world has crept in. The ramrod straight-spined principal of St. Nicholas is Sister Aloysius (Streep). For her, the world is unchanging, the same as it has ever been. Children are to be watched at all time for they are surely up to no good. Progress is a word to be spoken with the pursed expression of one sucking a lemon. There is only the sureness of faith, the knowledge that what she knows is right and true and that the discipline of her faith will carry her through.

Into this world comes Father Flynn (Hoffman), a boisterous new priest who not only accepts change, he embraces it. With the reforms of the Vatican II conference sweeping through the Church, he is eager to embrace the new progressive Church which seems to be on the verge of making itself more accessible to its flock.

Where Aloysius is stern and disciplined, Flynn is easygoing and charming. The nuns eat in rigid silence, speaking only when spoken to and fearful of the vitriolic wrath of Aloysius. The priests’ meals are boisterous, raucous with laughter and a spot of the hair of the dog. It seems inevitable that Aloysius would take a dim view of Flynn and vice versa. A collision between the two is unavoidable.

When Flynn takes an interest in Donald Miller (Foster), the only African-American child in the school, at first it seems innocent. Aloysius however seizes the opportunity to declare war on her enemy. She commands her nuns to keep an eye on Flynn for untoward behavior and Sister James (Adams), Miller’s teacher and a sweet innocent young thing who is constantly upbraided by Sister Aloysius for being inexperienced and soft on her students, becomes her unexpected accomplice. She notes that Father Flynn calls Miller to the rectory alone one day, and that when the boy returned he seemed upset; further, she detected the smell of alcohol on the boy’s breath.

That is all the ammunition that Sister Aloysius needs. Although even Sister James comes to believe in Father Flynn’s innocence, Aloysius plows on like a bulldozer, sweeping every unwanted explanation from her wake. Father Flynn’s protestations fall on deaf ears. Aloysius contacts the boy’s mother (Davis) to tell her of her suspicions but receives a surprising reaction in one of the film’s best scenes. Sister James has doubt; Sister Aloysius has faith. Which is the stronger?

This is the kind of movie that invites discussion and provokes thought. Non-Catholics will relate to this in a different way than Catholics (like me) will. Faith is a different thing for the Catholics of the early ‘60s. It is, as portrayed by Streep here, an Absolute, a capital letter that brooks no argument.

Shanley wrote this as a play and it won four Tony awards for it’s year-long Broadway run. The problem with converting plays into movies is that they can seem stage-y at times but that isn’t the case here. Shanley, who wrote Moonstruck and directed Joe vs. the Volcano a couple of decades back, creates an environment that is three-dimensional (and I’m not talking about the 3D film process) that is full and real. You can feel the chill of winter and the warmth that comes from the pulpit.

A script this strong deserves a strong cast and it gets it. The four main actors would all get Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for their performances here, and quite frankly they all deserved the statuettes that they didn’t win. Streep delivers one of the most unforgettable performances of her distinguished career as the rigid, inflexible Sister Aloysius; she literally wills her way into being and one can see the iron in her soul throughout. Hoffman is also at his best, creating a priest who is flawed as a man and completely unprepared for the onslaught of Sister Aloysius. Davis, a relative unknown, has but one scene with dialogue in the movie but she holds her own against one of the greatest actors of her generation and delivers a career-making performance. Adams has the kind of role that you would think simply would be overwhelmed by the others in the film, but she delivers the kind of performance that is at the top of her game, making a mousy role stand out in a crowd of lions.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch but keep in mind that this isn’t about whether Father Flynn behaved improperly with young Donald Miller. It is, when all is said and done, about the title – doubt and its lack thereof. Doubt is a necessity; without it we cannot question. If we cannot question, we cannot grow and if we cannot grow, we die. It’s that simple. This is one of the most powerful films of 2008 and is a must-see for everyone who loves films that make you think.

WHY RENT THIS: The contest of wills between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn at the heart of the movie is brilliantly acted by Streep and Hoffman; their confrontations are worth seeing by themselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The subject matter can be very wrenching and the resolution of the movie might leave some with a bad taste in their mouths.

FAMILY VALUES: The situations are very adult and will likely go over the heads of the more innocent sorts. Proceed with caution; the movie raises questions that you may not be prepared to answer right away.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film, which is Shanley’s first directorial effort in 18 years, is dedicated to Shanley’s first grade teacher who was the inspiration for Sister James.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a roundtable discussion with the cast on the differences in performing styles and preparation between theater and film, as well as a feature on the Sisters of Charity, the order depicted here and a discussion with several nuns of that order on the changes that swept through it at about the time the movie is set.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Hollywoodland