Designing Woman (Vincente Minnelli, 1957). This blithe, airy comedy about a mismatched couple is laced with some mild battle-of-the-sexes commentary. For the most part, though, it’s a procession of problematic friends and crooked boxing promoters. In other words, it’s the sort of romantic turmoil that only happens in the movies, and happened all the more frequently when the standard Hollywood product was made monumentally more colorful to compete with the hugely successful new medium of television. The film is directed with typical skill and panache by Vincent Minnelli, but the film works to the degree it does mostly from the flinty movie star pairing of Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck. Both performers brought a certain snap and impatience with fussiness to their work, which makes their scenes together take on a special fond frankness. It would have been fun watching them wrestle with material that actually challenged them instead of this relative trifle.
Your Highness (David Gordon Green, 2011). Good lord, this is abysmal. The screenplay by Danny McBride and his regular writing partner Ben Best has exactly one joke, told over and over again, and it’s not a very good joke, either. The film presents a fairly standard sword and sorcery sorcery with an evil wizard, noble knights, an imperiled maiden and a fiery warrior woman and peppers it with modern language. Anyone who finds the notion of a Tolkienesque swordsman repeatedly using the word “motherfucker” uproariously funny will be in endless bliss. All others are advised to back away slowly. David Gordon Green used to devote himself to high cinematic art, and now he apparently prefers to slap together broad, idiotic comedy in a haphazard manner. The paycheck is undoubtedly better.
Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, 2011). Cary Fukunaga falls into the very current trap of trying to inject life and spirit into a terse-lipped period drama by defaulting a little too often to jolting cuts and distracting camera angles, but he otherwise does well by Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel about a governess who’s endured a fairly miserable life. Mia Wasikowska is sharp and fine in the title role, nicely evoking a sense of a woman building up the dignity that she’s spent her life being brutally told was not something she deserved. The strongest work in the film comes from Michael Fassbender, the domineering boss who eventually comes to love her. He’s fiercely committed to the character’s ferocious, unforgiving nature and yet offers enough glimmers of consideration and even vulnerability that it makes the journey he undertakes seem understandable rather than arbitrary. Fassbender was in a slew of high profile movies last year. Was there any one of them that he wasn’t the very best part of it?
Holy Matrimony (John M. Stahl, 1943). This odd comedy was based on a 1908 novel. The story is about a deliberate, orchestrated case of mistaken identity involving a reclusive English painter who is given the unwelcome honor of being knighted. On the journey there, the painter’s longtime valet dies and the famed but unrecognized artist uses the opportunity to adopt the humbler role, letting the world believe that it is he who had died. He eventually finds love and is pushed to prove his true identity several years later. The screenplay by Nunnally Johnson is unapologetic in its restless intelligence and Monty Woolley gives a fine, blustery performance as the undercover painter.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962). John Ford’s last western with John Wayne is a stark, smart deconstruction of the way myths take hold and become their own sort of truth. Wayne plays a rough, boisterous rancher who sometimes stands in for the local town’s inept sheriff in defending his fellow citizens against a vile gunslinger named Liberty Valance, played with full ugly boil by Lee Marvin. Jimmy Stewart plays a frail lawyer who comes to set up a practice and immediately runs afoul of the villain. The film follows the back and forth between the various characters, paralleled by the political considerations taking place as the region moves towards statehood. The film is shot in splendidly shadowy black-and-white, accentuating the darkness that snakes through the story. Ford’s mastery of the mechanics of cinematic narrative had a way of making the small feel epic and the epic become delicately intimate, and he simultaneously achieves both in this film. Even though the story is largely told in flashback as most of the characters gather for the funeral of another, it doesn’t feel like it’s one of those films that become fairly typical a few years later, striking the death knell for an entire genre. Instead, it’s simply about rendering a strong story in the finest fashion possible, allowing a leveling moral ambiguity to give the film a greater, graver weight.