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Knight at the Movies: This Must Be the Place; recent DVDs
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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In This Must Be the Place, Sean Penn's new movie, the actor plays a once-popular goth rock star slowly withering after 20 years of self-enforced retirement.

As Cheyenne, Penn sports the sky-high hairdo, the kabuki whiteface paint and hot-red lips that New Wave fans will recognize as a backhanded homage to Robert Smith, lead provocateur of The Cure. Cheyenne speaks in the high-pitched whine of a petulant child, adopting the nearly incomprehensible speech patterns and babyish eccentricities of Ozzy Osbourne. Drinking orange juice through a straw, he shambles about his mansion in the Dublin countryside with the blank eyes of a zombie.

One of the wondrous things about watching Penn, who has pulled off this kind of thing before (especially in I Am Sam), is that all these years after his breakthrough role in 1995's Dead Man Walking, he is still willing every once in a while to go out on that ledge and try crazy stuff—to go balls to the wall. Cheyenne is the kind of surface character that's the equivalent of a parlor trick: It's something that actors adore and audiences either entirely embrace (think Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) or hold at arm's length, not quite sure if they're going to buy in (think Depp in Willy Wonka and the recent Dark Shadows). With Penn, as with Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and a few exalted others, there is a difference: He's able to reward an audience's patience and take viewers past the fun surface stuff and get at the inner turmoil underneath.

I wish that Penn's hard work had been in service to a better movie—rather, a more nuanced, less convoluted one. Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino makes his English-language feature debut with This Must Be the Place, which he wrote for Penn, and he gets him off to a great start. Cheyenne has been married to Jane (Frances McDormand) for 35 years and she's like a friendly drill sergeant, ordering him sweetly about and greeting his solemn insights with perky scorn. Bored with his self-imposed retirement (the reasons for which slowly become evident), and noting that, "There are too many things I don't do anymore," Cheyenne impulsively heads home to New York to visit his estranged, dying father. Arriving too late, he learns that his father, a Holocaust survivor, spent the balance of his life trying to track down the SS officer who persecuted him at Auschwitz. Improbably, Cheyenne heads across the United States to finish the job.

A quintessential road picture ensues and though many of Sorrentino's observances of American mores are extremely sharp and funny, they aren't particularly fresh; also, he emphasizes the eccentric, strange and the plain wacky in nearly every scene in the picture. This seems charming and adds to the comedy at first, but as Cheyenne drives from location to location in his black pick-up truck and the pageant of rather unique individuals he encounters piles up, you begin to yearn for the plain and uncomplicated without an order of crazy on the side. Yet, Penn's Cheyenne is endearing and ultimately a little bit heartbreaking, McDormand is always welcome (and one wishes that her part was larger) and the addition of a lot of expert performers in the crackpot roles (Judd Hirsch, Harry Dean Stanton and Joyce Van Patten among them) help make This Must be the Place live up to its title.

Recent DVDs of note:

—Merida—the feisty, flame-haired teenage heroine of Disney/Pixar's Brave—was one of my favorite characters this year. The Scottish fairy tale she inhabits—part Beauty & the Beast, part Little Mermaid—made for a familiar but very winning adventure story. The film, which features the voice talents of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, et al, is now available on Blu-ray and DVD (or both if you go for the deluxe edition, which has five discs). A raft of special features focuses on the exceedingly detailed effort to bring this charming story to life.

—TCM has partnered again with Universal for a release that classic-cinema fans will definitely want to add to their collections. This is a duo from director Billy Wilder, new to DVD, a two-disc set that includes his 1943 WWII spy drama Five Graves to Cairo (his second directorial effort), a quite engaging little thriller with an expert performance from Eric Von Stroheim as Hitler's field marshal, Erwin Rommel.

Even better is Wilder's 1948 post-WWII romantic comedy A Foreign Affair, which somehow finds Jean Arthur competing with Marlene Dietrich for the affections of handsome John Lund. Arthur brings the movie her typical, self-deprecating comedic expertise; Dietrich that sensational and stunning beauty; and Wilder his razor-sharp, acidic wit. Although neither film is on par with Wilder's more well-known triumphs, these are both entertaining gems.

—TCM has also joined with Sony for an even more hotly desired release—a four-disc set titled Joan Crawford in the Fifties that includes a quartet of films that showcase the actress during the period when she played some of the bitchiest characters of her career.

My favorite of the bunch is 1951's Harriet Craig, in which Crawford, in a remake of the Rosalind Russell original, plays the insanely controlling titular housewife who stops at nothing to keep order in her immaculate home. The 1955 film Queen Bee is also big fun, with Crawford as the nasty matriarch of a Southern family whom everyone within shouting distance seems to hate with a passion as outrageous as Crawford's over-the-top wardrobe.

Autumn Leaves, from 1956, casts the actress as an old-maid secretary who takes pity on hunky but seriously disturbed loner Cliff Robertson, who she marries and then helps bring back to sanity. The little-seen 1957 tearjerker The Story of Esther Costello isn't as fun but has its compensations—mainly Crawford's over-the-top performance in which she gets to enact the grand lady as a rich divorcee who devotes herself to a blind, deaf teenager.

—Barbra Streisand is in the midst of celebrating 50 years in show business with a very busy year. Following on the heels of a mini-concert tour and the recent Release Me, a revelatory collection of unreleased Streisand favorites from the vault (the first of at least three promised volumes), comes A MusiCares Tribute to Barbra Streisand. Streisand, honored in February 2011 by the MusiCares organization, is feted in concert by a host of singers who serenade her with their versions of her songs.

The line-up includes Kristen Chenoweth, Matthew Morrison, Diana Krall, Lea Michelle (singing "Don't Rain On My Parade," naturally), Seal (singing "Guilty" and doing it well!), Barry Manilow, Herbie Hancock, Faith Hill, Tony Bennett and others. At the end of the tribute concert, the Great One herself hits the stage and delivers flawless versions of "The Windmills of Your Mind" and the little-known but gorgeous "I'll Never Say Goodbye." This is a nicely paced tribute with some lovely highlights that even non-Streisand devotees will enjoy.

Check out my archived reviews at or . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.

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