Friday, September 9, 2016

“They Call Me MISTER Turner”

There are times, especially in late summer, when I feel the need for a movie orgy. In my case, this means a trip to the  Santa Monica Public Library, where I scan the shelves holding DVDs, in search of a good assortment of films I haven’t yet seen. Last week, I randomly chose the letter M, and found myself going home with everything from David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars to Mad Max: Fury Road.  And also two “mister” movies: 2014’s Mr. Turner and an oldie, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

Mr. Blandings is a classic black-&-white studio flick, featuring the comedic talents of Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, and Melvyn Douglas. Filmed in 1948, based on a popular novel of the day, it epitomizes the upbeat domesticity of the post-World War II period. The film starts with a witty paean to life in New York City: while narrator Douglas describes the Big Apple’s superb transportation system, charming cafes, and bracing weather, we watch city-dwellers squeeze themselves into overcrowded subway cars, gobble down lunch at a gritty hash-house, and try not to slip on snowbound street corners. Cut to the cramped apartment in which Grant, Loy, and their two daughters dodge each other in a cramped bathroom and try to extricate their belongings from overstuffed closets.

As an up-and-coming ad executive, Grant feels entitled to live someplace better. He and Loy, both incurable optimists, spring for a decrepit Revolutionary War-era estate in rural Connecticut. When it proves unsalvageable, they decide to build a dream house, one with lots of closets and bathrooms and nooks and hideaways. Anyone who’s ever tried remodeling will know what comes next. As a team of blunt-spoken Yankee craftsmen sets to work, hilarity really does ensue. Let me end by mentioning the film’s single black character, Gussie the live-in housekeeper. She’s played by Louise Beavers, whose long filmography includes the original 1934 Imitation of Life. Her role is small, but it is she who holds the key to the essential advertising slogan that will save Mr. Blandings’ career. And give this film its inevitable happy ending.

 Mr. Turner is a horse of a different color. This biopic of England’s greatest landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner, is suitably beautiful to look at. Its gorgeous seascapes and sunsets are a fitting homage to an artist revered for his handling of light. And British filmmaker Mike Leigh, who had earlier made the charming Topsy-Turvy about the complex musical partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan, pays appropriate homage to a genius who was also a very flawed man. The film Mr. Turner surveys the years leading up to Turner’s death in 1851. The problem with many biopics (especially those of the cradle-to-grave variety) is that they feel obliged to include every event in a great man or woman’s life, so that we’re left with a long string of fairly unrelated episodes. Though Mr. Turner covers 25 years in a fairly leisurely fashion, it holds together as an exploration of Turner’s fascinatingly self-contradictory character. He can be gruff and crude (even in a sexual sense) to those around him, but then reveals an unexpected depth of feeling when encountering a fine vista or a beautiful piece of music. He can be unspeakably cruel to a former lover and her children, but also charmingly gracious to the widow whose heart he wins late in life. As played by Timothy Spall, whose performance was honored at the Cannes Film Festival, Mr. Turner is rotund and ungainly, with tics and harrumphs that are not easy to love. Still, the film adores him, and I did too. 

Publicity still for "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House." As part of the film's promotion, new homes were erected in locales all over the country.

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