Matt Damon and Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret

I saw three terrific movies this weekend.

First up was the gay romance Weekend. It’s a very simple story about roughly 48 hours in the relationship between two men who meet each other at a bar. It throws the usual Hollywood fairytales about romance right out the window in favor of a much more intimate, real and compelling portrait of two people with a mutual attraction. It also de-glamorizes sex without de-eroticizing it. While it’s definitely directed at a gay audience, Weekend has a universal appeal that should engage people of any orientation.

Next up was Kenneth Lonergan’s long-in-coming Margaret. It’s almost impossible to talk about it without talking about its 6-year journey to theaters, but getting distracted by that is a disservice to what turns out to be a surprisingly excellent if maybe a bit overly ambitious film. Anna Paquin is wonderful as a high schooler who may be complicit in a tragedy but lacks the emotional maturity to deal with it. I think Lonergan’s intention is that she’s also supposed to be a stand-in for post-9/11 America, which is fine, but the movie’s real strength lies in the more personal, intimate aspects of the story. Because it’s told through the hyper-real, emotionally heightened perspective of a young woman of limited world experience, Margaret has a stylization that at times feels a little too precious, but it works if you give it a chance. It’s certainly much better than the aggregated critical response it’s gotten.

Finally I watched Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter starring Michael Shannon. As a big fan of Nichols and Shannon’s Shotgun Stories, I’d been looking forward to this one since it debuted at Sundance to strong reviews in January. It did not disappoint. Like Shotgun, it’s a long, slow burn that probes ideas about masculinity in unexpected ways. It tells the story of a small-town, blue collar Ohio man obsessed with the notion of protecting his family and plagued by ominous nightmares that a storm is coming to threaten them all. Debilitated by fear, forced to face the fact this fear might be the signs of encroaching mental illness, and unable to articulate his feelings to the people who love him and count on him, he’s trapped in a downward spiral of inadequacy that threatens to destroy his whole world. Sound powerful enough for you?

On DVD, I’ve been going over some old Sam Peckinpah, inspired by the recent remake of Straw Dogs. Ride the High Country is pretty goddamn great. A nice, old fashioned Western with a strong dose of realism and grit courtesy of Mr. Peckinpah. Nice performances by aging Western stars Randolph Scott (his last film) and Joel McCrae. Sylvester Stallone only wishes his old-timer’s team up The Expendables was half this cool.

Next up was the rather surprising Major Dundee with Charlton Heston and Richard Harris. This was the 2005 “restored” version that more closely approximated Peckinpah’s original vision that had been compromised by studio interference. Though the film’s reputation has been burnished by this new version, I’m surprised it’s not even better still. This is a terrific picture, epic in scope but also emotionally grounded in its key characters.

That’s all from my end this weekend. Now it’s your turn. Anyone see anything worth talking about in the last week?

11 Responses to “Three Winners”

  1. Note: I will be seeing TAKE SHELTER in about two and a half hours from now at the Angelika, but it’s great to hear Craig’s glowing report. I will return tomorrow with a follow up comment, but have listed the film below in my itinerary. I applaud Craig’s favorable report on WEEKEND, which I think is one of the year’s best films.

    A busy weekend redeemed a week that was spent writing essays for the musical countdown. Lucille and I saw three films in theatres (one a great American classic) and an off-Broadway play. It was a strong week quality-wise, especially.

    The hero of Chad Beckim’s touching new play, After, performing at the Wild Project, is Monty (Alfredo Narciso) who isn’t a kid, but a quiet man in his mid-30s. He didn’t have a chance to learn the tricks of adulthood: Falsely accused of rape when he was a teenager, he spent 17 years in jail before being cleared by DNA evidence and released. As the cutain rises, Monty is back at home, living with his younger sister, Liz (Maria-Christina Oliveras), and he’s got a lot to catch up on. This often uproarious but still moving work is superlby directed by Stephen Brackett, who gives this explosive material a lighter touch and who emplys some creative and economical ideas for the staging. It’s the best ‘small venue’ work I’ve seen in Manhattan since Unnatural Acts many months back.

    In movie theatres we saw:

    50/50 **** 1/2 (Sunday afternoon) Edgewater multiplex

    Take Shelter (Sunday night) Angelika Film Center

    The Last Picture Show 1971 ***** (Friday night) Film Forum

    1971’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW is an American masterpiece and one of my personal favorite films of all-time. It’s my No. 1 film of the 1970’s. I have promoted this film for 40 years, seeing it for the first time as a teenager, and being overwhelmed by it’s powerful emotional drama, stunning black and white atmospherics, it’s brilliant performances by Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms and Ben Johnson are master class, and Peter Bogdonovich’s direction is transcendent. A beautiful print again showcased a work that leaves you drained and breathless. I’d really love to do a full review at some point.

    50/50 turns out to be a major surprise. Yes it has received largely spectacular reviews. But that won’t stop me from saying that it’s one of the best American films of the year. It handles the tenuous task of incorporating belly-laugh humor into the fabric of a serious health crisis, and of balancing the two elements as deftly as I’ve yet seen in a film. Pitch-perfect performances, observant writing, and the remarkable avoidance of saccharine resolutions this is that rarest of films that has you guffawing while moving you to tears. The use of medicinal marajuana in the story was a hoot too, and a scene involving a painting was classic. Terrific film, and a likely Top Ten finisher I would have to think.

  2. I saw How the West Was Won in actual Cinerama. While I could see the splits in projections, it was rarely distracting because the stories are good and the dialog is…well…cheesy so all in all, it was very entertaining. The gunfight on the train cars with George Peppard and Eli Wallach was especially fun to watch. Craig tells me that the theater I saw it at (Cinerama in Seattle) is one of only three in the US that is equipped to show films in Cinerama.

  3. I listened to your podcast about “Moneyball”, then I saw it today and liked it very much. I thought it was inspirational without being sappy, and Pitt and Hill were great together. Just a solid, adult drama about the mentality behind business and sport, and I say that as a guy who doesn’t follow baseball much at all. I watch the World Series sometimes, but that’s about it. My sports are tennis and basketball. To be honest I didn’t know the story at all, but I thought it was well directed, especially in recreating some of the ball games during the streak. Brad Pitt is great. Again he demonstrates why he’s probably the most talented movie star in the world today.

  4. Yay for seeing not one but three terrific movies in one weekend.

    I had to work this weekend so it was TCM for me. This weekend’s line-up included After the Thin Man, Ninotchka, The Time Machine, Strangers on a Train and The General.

  5. Alison – I watched After the Thin Man. I love those movies. Rarely a scene without a drink in Nick and or Nora’s hand.

  6. I feel like I’m a total buzzkill on Moneyball and I don’t want to be that guy. It’s probably deserved, but I don’t want to leave the impression for people who haven’t seen it that it’s a bad movie. As a bit of history, I think it’s highly dubious, but as a Hollywood entertainment it’s very well done. As I said in the podcast, I think it would’ve been more successful if it had told a purely fictional story, but that’s just me.

  7. Alison, you should start a TCM blog. You make me (almost) wish I had cable! There’s nothing more comforting to me than a good old movie. Also, you should come out for the TCM Film Festival next year. I’ll buy you dinner!

    Jeanine, to tell the truth I’ve never seen How The West Was Won, though I understand the Cinerama in Seattle (where I too my dearly departed mom to see Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm) and the Cinerama Dome in LA are 2 of only 3 places left that can show cinerama 3-projector films as they were originally intended. HTWWW has been shown here a couple of times, but I suck and didn’t go.

    Sam, you make me curious to see 50/50. Despite the positive word and the strong cast, the subject just didn’t grab me. I’ll try to catch it this week.

  8. Also…I know this is a movie blog so I don’t talk about TV, but tonight’s episode of Breaking Bad was another classic. I don’t watch enough TV to declare it the best on TV, but if there is better, I’d be stunned. And I say that as someone who has loved Deadwood and The Wire (never really loved Sopranos or Mad Men)

  9. I saw Moneyball and like it a bit better than Craig did. It’s difficult to find areas of disagreement in your review of the film, Craig. Maybe it’s simply a matter of the glass being half empty vs half full. I’m glad there are some new films out there that you liked. It’s particularly good to hear your positive appraisal of Weekend.

    Alison — do you have a favorite guest host on TCM while Robert Osborne is on break? (I thought Jane Powell was good.) They seem to be screening more and more silents these days.

  10. Here’s the thing Pierre, I think I liked it better than my review expresses.

  11. It would definitely be worth the trip if I can do it. And thanks for the dinner offer, Craig. :)

    @Pierre: Jane Powell was good and for the most part I have no problem with the guest hosts but I really am partial to Robert Osborne, who is so terrific.

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