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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Nebraska


Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn't wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn’t wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

(2013) Dramedy (Paramount Vantage) Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Stacey Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Devin Ratray, Tim Driscoll, Angela McEwan, Gelndora Stitt, Elizabeth Moore, Kevin Kunkel, Dennis McCoig, Ronald Vosta, Missy Doty, John Reynolds, Jeffrey Yosten, Neal Freudenburg, Eula Freudenburg, Melinda Simonsen. Directed by Alexander Payne

As men grow older their relationships with their fathers change. Whereas young men lean on their fathers, one day we wake up and they are leaning on us. We go from being the children to being the parents in a lot of ways. Whether or not they were fathers of the year or if their parenting was something we endured and survived, deep at the core of our beings they are always our fathers and occupy that role for good or ill.

Woody Grant (Dern) is a stubborn old man. He’s got it in his craw that he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstakes and that he has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it. The trouble is that he lives in Billings, Montana. One look at the letter he received tells everyone else that the whole thing is a scam but Woody refuses to listen. It just makes him want to hit the road more and if nobody will take him, he’ll walk there.

Woody wasn’t the greatest of fathers. He had a drinking problem – one that he refuses to acknowledge even to this day. Of course, if you were married to Kate (Squibb) you might do a lot of drinking too. She’s shrill, crude and blunt to the point of cruelty. She has opinions about everybody, isn’t afraid to voice them and generally those opinions aren’t too complimentary.

Kate and Woody have two sons – Ross (Odenkirk) whose TV news career is just starting to take off, and David (Forte) who sells high end stereos and speakers. David is one of those guys that life happens to rather than life actually happening. His girlfriend of four years who he has been living with is moving out because David can’t be sure that she’s the One. And with all of his dad’s antics, he finally gets fed up. If his Dad has to go to Lincoln, best to take him there so that everyone else in the family can have peace and quiet.

Of course Kate thinks it’s a stupid idea and of course she says so but David is adamant so he sets out on the road with his father. They get waylaid when Woody stumbles during a late night drunken walk and opens a gash on his forehead, necessitating that he be kept in a hospital overnight. That means they won’t be making it to Lincoln during office hours of the sweepstakes company so David decides to visit Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up and where much of his family still lives .

There Woody begins to reconnect to figures from his past, chiefly Ed Pegram (Keach) with whom he once owned an auto repair business and whose relationship has some contentious elements. Kate decides to take the bus down there and join them for what is turning out to be a bit of a family reunion and everyone there is under the impression that Woody is a millionaire, despite David’s admonition not to tell anyone. That changes the way everyone looks at him – suddenly Woody is in the limelight, and he doesn’t mind it one bit.

Still, old girlfriends, old misdeeds and old family rivalries begin to resurface and over all of it hovers the biggest question of all – is the million dollar win legitimate or not?

Payne has become a really fine director with Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendents among others to his credit. In many ways he is the successor to the Coen Brothers; he has some similar quirks in terms of his sense of humor and a kind of Midwestern earthiness that has a lot to do with his own upbringing in Nebraska (the Coens were brought up in Minnesota). His films have a kind of prairie sensibility.

It doesn’t hurt that he has assembled a fine cast. Dern, a long-time character actor who has had flings with leading roles since the 60s delivers what may well be the finest performance of his career. Woody is a very layered character who isn’t always very nice and doesn’t always do the right thing – in fact it is a somewhat rare occurrence when he does. Still, despite the dementia, despite the drinking and despite the foolish stubbornness, he is ultimately very relatable on different levels depending on where you are in life. You can’t ask for more than that from an actor.

Squibb is also getting a good deal of Oscar buzz for her performance. It is certainly the role of a lifetime for her. Some critics have cringed at her scene in which Kate, while in a graveyard paying respects to Woody’s kin comes across the grave of an old would-be lover who never sealed the deal. With almost demonic glee she lifts up her dress to show the ghost of her paramour what he had missed. Personally I found it life-affirming and if it is a little shocking, so what? Why do seniors have to conform to a set of behavior anyway? They are quite capable of being raunchy and sexual. It’s not like they didn’t have sex when they were younger. I’m quite certain they were having plenty of it before marriage back then too.

Editorializing aside, Squibb does a marvelous job and her role is as memorable as it gets. It was extremely telling to me that in a scene late in the movie when Kate is leaving Woody’s bedside she bestows on him a surprising gentle kiss that shows that with all the caustic remarks and cruel jibes there is still deep feeling for her man. It’s one of those rare grace notes that indicate that the filmmaker gets it.

Forte has little to do besides react to his parents and their relations but he is solid here. There are plenty of supporting characters besides Keach who contribute to the occasional surreal zaniness or to the pathos of the film, like an ex-girlfriend (McEwan) of Woody’s who watches him drive by in a truck and the wistful could-have-been expression on her face is priceless.

While the movie isn’t for everyone, I think that lovers of good, independent cinema will flock to this. Payne is a legitimate talent who I think at this point has to be considered among the best filmmakers in the business. He’s a filmmaker like Scorsese, the Coen Brothers and Spielberg whose films I will go see just because of the name on the back of the directors chair.

REASONS TO GO: Dry and occasionally hysterically funny. Quirky in a good way. Amazing performances by Dern and Squibb.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much elderly as eccentric crazies syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Payne has directed to be set in his home state of Nebraska; it is also the first film he’s directed for whic87+*h he didn’t also write the screenplay.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Son of the Olive Merchant

Tangled


Tangled

Yet another magical Disney moment.

(2010) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman, M.C. Gainey, Jeffrey Tambor, Brad Garrett, Paul F. Tompkins, Richard Kiel, Anne Lockhart, Laraine Newman.  Directed by Byron Howard and Nathan Greno

Shutting your kids away from the world is a double edged sword. Sure you might be protecting your kids from the awful things that the world can be, but you also create an overwhelming curiosity that will inevitably send your kids into that world you’re so terrified of. Of course, if your motives are more selfish than for the benefit of your child, that can really come back to bite you in the tush.

Rapunzel (Moore) is locked up in a tower in the remote corner of the kingdom. She has the most amazing hair – it is incredibly long, incredibly pliable, almost alive – and when Rapunzel sings a particular song, it has the power to revive the elderly and make them young again.

Rapunzel is actually the daughter of the Kingdom’s King and Queen, stolen from them by the nasty Mother Gothel (Murphy) who wants the magic all for herself. Thus, the lonely tower, the refusal to let her out even though now she’s a curious teen who wants to see all the wonders of the bright, beautiful world outside her window, especially the bright glowing stars that move and dance in her window on her birthday. What she doesn’t know is that these are lanterns, released into the sky to help the missing princess find her way home.

Enter Flynn Rider (Levi) a somewhat dashing, not altogether unlovable criminal sort who has stolen the Princess’ tiara from the castle and who is being chased by the King’s Guards, most especially the horse Maximus who is certainly one of Disney’s most persistent characters ever. Flynn is also being chased by his compatriots, the Stabbington Brothers (Perlman) who he double-crossed.

Rapunzel sees Flynn as her ticket to see the world and manages to knock him senseless with a frying pan, his knapsack (containing the tiara) hidden as collateral for Flynn’s co-operation. Flynn takes his new role as tour guide only reluctantly but as he spends more time with Rapunzel begins to realize that he is as trapped in his own way as Rapunzel was in hers.

This is one of the most beautiful-looking Disney films in decades, going for an old-school painted look that reminds me of Disney classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella. While the movie is computer animated, it looks 2D in a lot of ways and has moments that are truly magical, such as the one where Flynn and Rapunzel are on a lake filled with floating lanterns (see photo).

There is also real chemistry between Moore and Levi; they make an appealing couple. Murphy does the Disney villainess to a “T,” making Mother Gothel malevolent but showing that delicious evil side that makes a good Disney villain so enjoyable, much like James Woods’ Hades in Hercules.

In fact, Murphy is so good, I wish the filmmakers had spent more time with her instead of the minor villains the Stabbington Brothers and the Captain of the Guard (Gainey). It tends to dilute the menace of Gothel who I’m not saying should be scaring little kids into nightmares, but should at least be a bit more formidable. I’m just saying.

The music is by long-time Disney songster Alan Mencken, who has written some of the most memorable songs in the Disney songbook. However I don’t see any of the songs here making that grade; I honestly couldn’t remember any of the tunes half an hour after the movie was over which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Some of this smacks of a studio listening more to focus groups than to artistic muses but there is enough of the latter to make the former more bearable. There is enough princess-y stuff to make the little girl in your life go gaga, while the swashbuckling Flynn will delight the little boy in your party. Tangled is actually one of the better non-Pixar Disney movies of the last decade. It certainly is one of the best-looking and for those who have to go see a kids movie with their hyperactive spawn will appreciate the pretty pictures.

WHY RENT THIS: That Disney magic. Levi and Moore make an appealing team. Gorgeous looking movie that is very reminiscent of the 2D Disney princess classics.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The musical numbers lack a truly memorable song. Too many villains; more time should be spent with Mother Gothel.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of really mild cartoon violence; otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Rapunzel is constantly barefoot in the movie, a nod to voice star Mandy Moore who loves to perform sans shoes.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Surprisingly, a little sparse considering Disney’s usual kid-friendly DVD/Blu-Ray fare. There’s only a featurette called “50th Animated Feature Countdown” which is kind of a guessing game for Disneyphiles.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $590.7M on a $260M production budget; the movie made a little bit of money in its theatrical release (but I’m sure with merchandising and home video sales made a ton).

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Tabloid