It's the end of year – ye Gods! – and time to do end of year lists. Here are some of the movies I've been seeing lately. For awards or just your enjoyment.
THE LADY IN THE VAN (Screenplay by Alan Bennett, from his memoir; directed by Nicholas Hytner) –I enjoyed the first two Bennett-Hytner collaborations (THE HISTORY BOYS and THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III), but I wasn't quite prepared for how much I liked this one. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. Alan Bennett's incredible but true story about his relationship with the homeless woman who lived in his driveway for 15 years was a success in prose and as a radio play. And it was a big success on the West End when he adapted it into a stage play in 1999, starring Maggie Smith. So the material has proven to be compelling in different forms, with different audiences.
And so this movie is a delight. It's funny and poignant without being too sentimental. Maggie Smith is, of course, a superb actress, but she really outdoes herself in this film. Because she did the part on radio and onstage, she knows every nook and cranny of every line and how to get the most out of the part. Her portrayal is tough and believable, without an actress-y moment. She gets her laughs and tears honestly. As one of her co-workers on "Downtown Abbey" said, "she leaves nothing on the plate."
Check out the two-part mini-doc below for some early Maggie, including her Portia:
THE LADY IN THE VAN – trailer #1
MAGGIE SMITH – a portrait – Part 1
Maggie Smith – "Queen of the Double Take"
LOVE AND MERCY (Screenplay by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman; directed by Bill Pohlad) -- You don't have to be a Brian Wilson fan to like this movie, but I'm sure it helps. As it happens, I am a huge Brian Wilson, but even I did not expect to like this movie as much as I did. The role of Brian is split between young Brian (Paul Dano) and old Brian (John Cusack). I've liked Dano before in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, etc., but I've never been a big Cusack fan. He's lucked into a few good movies (BEING JOHN MALCOVICH), but nothing special for me.
And in this one, while it's the Paul Dano material that's more interesting, the old Brian half of the movie is quite involving too. Cusack is good and not too pitiable. The portrayals by Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy, Brian's notorious quack shrink, and Elizabeth Banks as the woman who falls in love with Brian, help make this movie much interesting than the average musical biopic. Even though Brian and his wife cooperated in the making of the movie, it's definitely a warts-and-all piece.
A big, entertaining section of the movie is devoted to the recording of PET SOUNDS, Brian's 1965 masterpiece. I spent much of yesterday listening to "bonus tracks" from the 40th anniversary re-issue of PET SOUNDS. On track after track, you can hear Brian changing and tinkering with the music, directing the best studio musicians in Los Angeles in the most detailed, obsessive way imaginable. It's strictly "Genius At Work," which is the feeling perfectly captured by the movie.
There's no doubt that the movie makes a major case for Brian's Genius. It verges on hagiography. But a few weeks ago, the TG and I were watching a documentary THE WRECKING CREW, which is about the nonpareil group of session musicians (Hal Blaine on drums, Tommy Tedesco on guitar, Carol Kaye on bass, etc.), who played on PET SOUNDS and a zillion other hits in the 60s and 70s, and it affirms that Brian Wilson was considered to be the greatest genius they played for, and they played for everybody.
PET SOUNDS recreated by Brian Wilson and his touring band – live in London – Part 1
a PET SOUNDS documentary – "Art That Shook the World"
Paul Dano – on portraying Brian Wilson
The Beach Boys – The Lost Concert (1964)
THE END OF THE TOUR (Screenplay by Donald Margulies; directed by James Ponsoldt) – I got about 150 pages into INFINITE JEST before I realized that it was too good, too smart, and that I'd be tempted to steal – more than just the usual stealing – from it. But I intend to return to it when I'm finished with my in-progress novel – and I see the end of my first draft, right there, just over the horizon.
In any case, I love David Foster Wallace's writing and his mind, and this movie was a way to get a good, concentrated, two-hour injection of DFW. The movie is based on Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky's memoir about his relationship with Wallace, and stars Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky and Jason Segel as Wallace. Segel is just outstanding as Wallace. You almost feel as if you're watching the real person.
Wallace's personal story is sad. He's one of the smartest minds I've ever encountered, and yet he couldn't use all that intelligence to make himself happy. I've always tried to use my intelligence as a gateway to happiness. What a pity that he couldn't.
See the movie or read Wallace. Or, if you haven't, listen to his famous address 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Speech -- "THIS IS WATER" – right now. This is great stuff. You won't spend a better 22 minutes today.
THE END OF THE TOUR -- trailer
David Foster Wallace -- on Charlie Rose – from 1997
Jason Segel – on preparing to play David Foster Wallace
Funny: these are three movies about real people and real events, given the detail and shading of good fiction.
Three definitely worth seeing.