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Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday

19 Feb

Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday – directed by Matthew Seig. TV Bio-Documentary. 59 minutes 1990.

★★★★★

The Story: A orphaned, illegitimate girl rises from being a teen-age prostitute to become the most respected jazz musician of her time.

~

The renowned jazz singer is seen from the angles of those who knew her and worked with her. And we see a good deal of her singing, and some of her voice in interviews.

What was her charm?

From the start as a teenager her gift was recognized, and she also might be slotted as one of those artists who started at the top and never developed because there being nothing higher than the top than the top. We think of certain writers who begin at the top of their form – Colette, Tolstoi, Wilde – and others who develop over time – Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce. There’s no value judgement here; it’s simply observable.

When I was a college boy of eighteen, a few of us went down to a local Italian restaurant to see this lady sing. I had no idea who she was. I was game, I just tagged along.

No one much was in the place. Checkerboard tablecloths. A trio set up, and she came out wearing a gardenia. Not impressive. She looked puffy. The voice was thin, high, scratchy. Then she sang I Cover The Waterfront and I fell out of my chair!

In various TV appearances, we see jackass MCs introducing her, and she is not musically comfortable with TV studio bands. But at the end we have along recorded session of her singing with a big group of musicians who understood her necessities, and she theirs. Oh, what a good time she has!

Oh, what a good time you will have hearing her groove.

Musically, she had a bone-deep sense of rhythm and approach. Misery is inherent to her voice, which is that of a child – so she does not sing “ZippedeeDoDa!” She is never upbeat. Her range is lodged more in the low collines of tragedy: it is not a grand matter; not Aeschylus; not the blues, which she seldom sang; but a torch song in which the flame knows it is just about out.

“Strange Fruit” and “God Bless The Child That Has Its Own,” are here, and you owe yourself the gold mine of hearing her do them. She is a jewel in the crown of our American heritage. Avail yourself of her and all your wise children.

 
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Posted in BIODOC

 

I Am Not Your Negro

18 Feb

I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck. BioDoc. 93 minutes B & W & Color 2107.

★★★★

The Story:  A record of the teachings of a black writer of mid-20th Century.

~

I Am Not Your Negro is to be hit by a stone wall.

Not to hit a stone wall — but to be hit by one.

The title tells it all. Rude, offensively defensive, blaming, dismissive, off-putting, denunciatory. Thus James Baldwin.

A personality ingratiating nothing.

Odd for a preacher. For, from age 14 to 17 James Baldwin was a boy preacher in his father’s church in Harlem. Preachers are usually outgoing, giving, capacious in their embrace. I can’t imagine how James Baldwin could have succeeded if this is the way he spoke.

Unlike William Buckley Junior whom, in his mental and verbal dexterity he so resembles, he speaks so fast that he runs his words together that your ears must be swift as deer’s to catch them.

“I don’t give a shit about you or what you think,” is his stance, his affect, and his message, as with Buckley. And it lodges in the title of this well organized and presented documentary of him.

“I don’t give a shit about you” tells you that things have come to such a pass between black and white populations – or rather, in modern American society, its values, practices, finances, and laws – that all America is worth is The Finger. He will deign to give utterance upon these matters, if pressed.

I lived near Harlem during the years Baldwin returned to America to research and write of the Black movement. But I was drawn to not one single leader of it. I didn’t like Martin Luther King Junior’s face, style, churchy rhetoric. I was largely ignorant of the program of The Black Panthers – partly because of the name, which was threatening to me. And Malcolm X’s name frightened me, too; so did the way he dressed and the demonic mask of him in photographs.

My strong prejudice in favor of Black folks was established in childhood, and my work on behalf of Black folks did not take the form of political or group protest. So it would be disingenuous of me to claim I needed a banner to follow. Malcom X, time proved, was the most attractive to me of these idealist-activists, but I only learned that after his assassination by reading about him. While he lived I feared him. As to James Baldwin, I read his novel Giovanni’s Room which I felt was so badly written, I didn’t feel like reading any more. I still don’t.

I do not like James Baldwin and I do not take American society at his measure. But what this documentary offers to me is the brilliant slap in the face of Baldwin’s highly sensitized emotional instrument. The terrible truth of what he says may apply to him only. Even so, it counts. I sat in an audience of Berkeley liberals; they applauded afterwards. Baldwin would have smirked in their faces at this. Applause settles nothing, dismisses everything.

What this documentary offers me is an ongoing screed. One which settles nothing, dismisses nothing. One which is curse and blessing in one. One which keeps afloat the shipwreck of injustice. One which rails at us and will not shut up because it is so indifferent to what our response is that it presents the negative situation as a permanent heroic statue in the public park of our lives. Liberal good will and applause do not make James Baldwin go away.

Death did not make James Baldwin go away. Here’s evidence. Here’s the situation.

 
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Posted in Biodoc, POLITICAL

 

A Passage To India

08 Feb

A Passage To India – written and directed and edited by David Lean. Colonial Drama. 244 minutes Color 1985.

★★★★

The Story: A young woman and her Aunt travel to India to visit, and India takes hold of them with a mortal attraction.

~

David Lean’s last film, now a DVD whose extras are as interesting as the film itself. For you would never imagine how it was made in India back in the day. So take a look at the second DVD.

A couple of problems with the picture sully the experience, and some have to do with Lean’s mishandling of the material, for the ending is badly edited and does not fadge with the bones of the story. I can’t remember how E.M. Forster actually ends the book, but it can’t be like this.

Other difficulties have to do with his handling of what happened in the cave. E.M. Forster never told what happened there. And the reason he didn’t is because he did not know. In any case, it is clear that Miss Quested has a brain wave of some kind, becomes unhinged, and proclaims that Doctor Aziz has molested her.

In fact we are shown Miss Quested with lust in her eyes wanting Dr. Aziz in the cave. He does not see her and looks into other caves for her. He never goes into her cave at all. But Lean does not have the psychological imagination to cinematically envision what goes on inside Miss Quested that produces the catastrophic result. Lust for Dr. Aziz? Shame when he doesn’t come in? Remorse? Flight? Embarrassment? Revenge? We get none of this. All we get is some cactus scratches on her from running away downhill. So what is supposed to hang over the story as a mystery, becomes a mere opacity.

Part of the trouble is that the preparation for the cave scene is inadequate. For the excursion Miss Quested makes beforehand, coming upon pornographic statues on a bike ride, does not show the male side of sex, and because we hardly see anything risqué, we are not shocked, so how can she be shocked, and how can we gauge the statues’ effect on her? Lean has no sense of such things.

Another trouble is that we have in Judy Davis an actor who may be miscast. For Judy Davis is a young female none of this would shock. She is not the swooning sort. She is not a foolish virgin. She is Australian-earthy, not a female given to fantasies, derangements, traumatic shames, or unhingings. Of course, it would be interesting were all this to happen to as strong a personality as Judy Davis’s – but Lean’s treatment as scenarist and director go nowhere near this. He doesn’t seem to know what he has in her. It is as though the film – which is a female story – does not understand the language when entering female territory.

In a way, Lean’s film, and all his films, are about the male characters. The character of Mrs Moore, for instance, is never fully realized. Peggy Ashcroft, in a yeowoman effort, drags Mrs Moore not into clarity but into light. Clarity is not to be had. She and Lean argued badly as to how to perform her. Ashcroft was right. Ashcroft won because she had the part and went ahead and did what was right, else nothing at all would have been there, and Ashcroft won the Oscar. Judy Davis also locked horns with Lean, and lost. Lean did not have a clue about women. He would not have been married six times if he had.

The picture is ravishing in its scape. We see an India whose immensity of effect is always present, always beguiling, always seething We see wild crowds, marshalled armies in parade array, markets, mountains, rivers, structures, distraught railway trains, and placid colonial dwellings. It almost gives us a balanced canvas of Indian and English characters and points of view.

And all the male characters are superbly realized and performed, save, of course for Alec Guinness. He’s as ridiculous here as he was in Lawrence Of Arabia. Why he hypnotized David Lean to cast him to pad around as a Hindu sage only a real Hindu sage would know. Crazy. It’s counter-productive to the balance the film strives to achieve.

The three other male actors do fine work. First, Nigel Havers as the potential fiancé of Judy Davis. He plays a young magistrate in the British Colonial judicial system, and he is the perfect young man, is he not? Havers gives a lovely, easy performance as Ronny, making us thankful for the thankless role. Ronny knows not what he does as a character, but Havers as an actor does.

James Fox as the local schoolmaster, friend to both sides of the ship, rules half the film largely because his acting of Fielding is so thorough that it engages our interest and bias from start to finish. Grand work.

The co-star of the picture is Victor Banerjee, making his character full of life and optimism and love and curiosity and good will. Again, terrible reports have come down about Lean’s treatment of him. Banerjee’s performance grounds the film in the fluidity of a wonderful madness when he takes Mrs Moore and Miss Quested on the trip to the Marabar caves.

The temperament of the movie is spectacle-as-narration. It contains no scene which is not visually telling, rewarding, or essential. Every detail frees the camera to our eye. Its direction retains great respect for our ability to tell a story through what we see, through the placement of character, and particularly to the painted elephant called India in whose howdah all visitors cannot help but be shaken back and forth. One of Lean’s wives was Indian, and he had lived there a good while. He had a strong sense of its place, style, and potential as a vivid film subject.

Hidden within this vast national impression is actually a closet drama, involving only five characters, Mrs Moore, Miss Quested, Doctor Aziz, Fielding, and Ronny. The opera Aida comes to mind, a closet drama surrounded by a huge military display and a vast dynasty. Many curious and unusual relationships venture into its spectacle. But the material of  A Passage To India is one thing and the direction is quite another. Even unrealized, the material is more interesting than the director’s execution of it. To witness them, A Passage To India is still worth seeing, or, in my case and maybe in yours, worth seeing again.

 

 

 

 

Lawrence Of Arabia

03 Feb

Lawrence Of Arabia – directed by David Lean. BioPic. 217 minutes Color 1962.

★★★★

The Story: An English cartographer, archeologist, and linguist sets out on a mission to free Arabia by inducing it to fight for the British their WWI Turkish enemy.

~

The impression of spectacle is awe. The desert of the Middle East in color delivers that impression, but it does not deliver anything more internal than awe, such as danger. The smooth systems of color deny the desert its peril. Color comes at you. It blinds, it beguiles, it pleases. All those are real in their way. But color also excises certain levels of engagement which black and white grants. The desert is pretty, even in its mazy peril. But as a wild animal it is never real. Only as a spectacle.

Thinking of color and spectacle, then, as possible narrative tools, we find that in Lawrence Of Arabia spectacle is never reserved for battle, but rather for the charges before battle, the marches to battle, the preparation for battle. David Lean was, at this time, not a maker of great films, but he was a great editor of long films. So the genocide of retreating troops is actually designed to illustrate to the audience the degradation of Lawrence rather than the awesome nature of manslaughter.

The story is so odd. Because T.E. Lawrence was odd. His and its oddity hold us to the story. Peter O’Toole as Lawrence does not stand in the way of the character, but he does not hold us.Peter O’Toole is so obvious. His acting is conventional theatrical, arch, unfelt. He doesn’t seem to have any body, muscle, blood under his djellaba. He seems barely able to walk or to hold up his arms. But we put up with all this and let it pass, because the story of Lawrence, as the film gives it us, is that of an extraordinary feat by a man extraordinary in another realm – as a radical idealist. You don’t see this sort of thing much in movies.

Peter O’Toole’s acting aesthetic was ham. Was then and, if we watched his work as he aged, to see if he got over that, we find evidence that he did. But here he is at the inattentive ignorance of a director who has no sense of the craft of acting at all. With actresses he was even worse. So, spectacle was Lean’s outlet for his addiction to directing films. He had to move away from his defects and into his attributes. Good for him.

Is anyone any good in this movie? Anthony Quinn plays the same dumb brute he played since La Strada and Viva Zapata and Streetcar. He has all the tropes for it in place and releases them all to our unsurprised eyes.

The great Claude Rains plays the British liaison with his usual attentive sophistication, and one waits for a great scene or moment, and it never comes because he is never given it.

José Ferrer brings his stunning enunciation and insect aspect to the role of the sadistic homosexual Turkish commander who violates, beats, and debases Lawrence. A small part for an overwhelming talent.

Alec Guinness plays Prince Faisal, a wily Arabian desert shark and is just silly. It’s a character manufactured out of studied convention, and you don’t believe in it for a moment.

Arthur Kennedy writes his own ticket playing the only American in the story, a photo-journalist based on Lowell Thomas. He’s really good, because his Americanness is out of place, his acting technique among the English is out of place, and his character itself, in The Middle East, is out of place. I love how he takes advantage of all this, and uses it to free himself to act.

Poor Anthony Quayle plays the military liaison officer with a regimented mind; I say poor, because his role need not have been so thankless as the author, Robert Bolt, wrote it. See him in The Tales Of Hoffman to see him at his best.

Jack Hawkins, as General Allenby the head of the British Army in The Middle East has the best part of all, that of a man who is always convincingly fair, and always spoken of as ruthlessly unfair. He brings riches of voice and masculinity to us, and a sense of vitality and power in reserve. What a pleasure to be with him!

Omar Sharif is quite bad. His readings and the script and the music by Maurice Jarre sound bastardized on a Maria Montez movie sired by Rimsky-Korsakov. It is a great part which he fails to stifle with his overacting. Because you can’t help but like Omar Sharif, he became a big star in Lean’s subsequent film, Doctor Zivago. But here he is at first. His moonlight madness eyes gleam. Ah, we had waited a long time for a Muslim to arrive as a matinée idol. A Muslim? Well, whatever he was, he certainly wasn’t a Presbyterian.

Lawrence was a man men intrigued themselves by. He was actually not intriguing, but enigmatic. George Bernard Shaw and his wife later adopted him, and he took Shaw’s name, and Shaw wrote a play about him, Too True To Be Good, which I saw on Broadway with Eileen Heckart, Lillian Gish, Robert Preston, Glynis Johns, Cedrick Hardwick, Cyril Richard, and David Wayne as Lawrence. That’s a lot of attention.

When he enlisted as a private in His Majesty’s service, thrice, Lawrence did so under pseudonym. He loved to play recordings of Delius. He wrote a beautifully written and printed book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom about his Arabian adventure and its failure. Then he hid out. Everyone in the world knew him, except himself.

 

 

Sing & Moana

29 Jan

 

Sing – directed by Garth Jennings. Animated feature. 110 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

Moanadirected by Ron Clements and John Musker. Animated Feature. 110 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

Stories: Both stories deal with ambitions thwarted and then triumphed.

~

Both films are perfectly suited to adults. And where I sat, the children were as quietly attentive as the adults that accompanied them. Why is that?

A maximum of surprises, movement, angles, colors.

An amplitude of wit.

And they supply – worse than any live action film can – horrendous catastrophe. In Sing it’s a catastrophic flood. In Moana it’s deified lava.

But the young hero and heroine surmount all difficulties. Not without unlikely escapes and rescues and a sentimentality that would crush a nun dressed as a dragon. (Neither of these feature such a creature.)

In Sing, to save his theatre, the young Koala Bear owner must put on a talent show. In Moana, a young woman must bring back a talisman to save her island people.

I enjoyed myself no end. I simply wandering in to sample them while waiting for the feature I’d paid for to start. Remained riveted to my seat.

In the watching, these films dwell on nothing. Remarkable individual beauties and Voltaire-like coups of imagination flit by in sumptuous plentitude. I wish they’d wait for me – I was reared on Pinocchio.

 My favorite character of all was played, in Sing, by the director Garth Jennings as Mrs Crawly, a superannuated loyal iguana secretary with a wandering glass eye. Every time the old woman meandered on in her well-meaning way, I rejoiced.

Such films are rightly called “animated.” For they animate the variety and particularity of the truth and comedy of human gesture in a way that no straight film actor can achieve – because animators are more daring than actors. Because more shameless.

In animation, we expect over-acting. Which means more acting than is necessary. Animation cannot achieve depth of performance, which is what human screen acting can, but it can achieve breadth of performance, which is what human screen acting avoids like Swiss cheese.

In Sing the characters are animals; in Moana, humans. I notice the animals in Sing are more human than the humans in Moana. But I quibble not.

I loved them, and you won’t waste your time, nor is time wasted on you, should you drag your inner or outer child to either or both.

 

20th Century Women

24 Jan

20th Century Womendirected by Mike Mills. Dramedy 119 minutes Color 2017

★★★★★

The Story: The mother of a teenage son enlists the help of her friends to rear him.

~

When we are teenagers we become secretive to our parents. If we are not secretive already, still we pull away into the unknown experiment called independence.

Annette Bening does not understand this about her son because she does not remember that she did the selfsame thing in adolescence. She does not remember and she is not aware that she does not remember.

This makes her character a gem to watch. Because it means we who watch it can fit into her ordinariness and her error. We can fit into it by means of seeing how disordered her hair often is and how unaware she is of that disorder. And how she, most of the time, is unconscious of any notion of being aware of it to begin with.

How we live our actual lives seldom gets to the screen. Movies are often about tying things up. From the very first reel they aim in that direction. And it is a fine direction to aim for, because wrap-up is one good way to end a story.

I liked the way the story unfolds. I liked the this-and-that of it. The foolishness of the endeavor. I liked what Bening found in this woman. I liked what the writer put in the woman to begin with. Such a woman allows us to forgive everyone we ever met, including our difficult mothers. Forgive them, and forgive ourselves, for they, like us, lived their hours and days in untidy life. Not silly. Not without purport. Not without accomplishment. But not camera-ready.

I tend to adore Annette Bening.

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE, Annette Bening: ACTING GODDESS, Billy Crudup, DRAMEDY, Elle Fanning, FAMILY DRAMA

 

Silence

20 Jan

Silence – directed and written by Martin Scorsese. Drama. 2 hours 41 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★

The Story: Two Jesuit priests strike out for 17th Century Japan to find a long-lost mentor.

~

They become considerably waylaid on their search, for by 1610 Japan has killed all Catholic priests and suppressed Japanese Christianity as a cultural pollution. So the Japanese the two priests find are rude fisherfolk with scarcely a sardine to their name. But they welcome these priests as a godsend and they dote on Confession. The priests must go into hiding as they move from place to place.

And so the story goes, until doubt arises in the viewer’s mind as the validity of the doctrine the priests recite. It’s memorized too well. Haven’t we heard this palaver before?

Yes, we have, in every Hollywood movie that crossed paths with religion.

First of all, the actors talk in measured tones, each word stepping out their mouths at funereal pace.

Added to this, all the actors emotionalize religion utterance as though that would give brainwashing guts, authenticity, and urgency. It doesn’t. It just sounds forced.

Finally, the writer has cribbed the dialogue from old Cecil B. DeMille movies. The characters talk in sentences no one in their right mind ever uttered.

The fault for all this lies at the door of the director Martin Scorsese, who has seen too many Hollywood priest movies and become hypnotized by their voicing.

These dialogue difficulties fall cruelly upon the actor playing the leading priest, Andrew Garfield. He is not an interesting actor perhaps, and he is playing a character with no sense of humor. Indeed, he is playing a religious fanatic. This means he has no mind of his own, no window for change, and no law but the authoritarian. All the actor can do is give a technical performance: suffer on cue, suffer on cue, suffer on cue.

All this makes it impossible for us to get behind the character, particularly in scenes with characters who entertain.

These are Adam Driver as his buddy/priest. Garfield is conventionally good looking, while Driver has a face you cannot forget, and his character has a lot going on inside himself.

The Grand Inquisitor, with full and fascinating over-bite, is played by Issei Ogataa a performer of great imagination and surprise. We long for his return when he is gone. And when he does return, we watch nothing else.

Then we have the reprobate played by Yôsuke Kubozuka, the in-house-Judas, a character of Shakespearean interest, always betraying, always pleading for forgiveness, certainly the only true Christian in the film.

And fourthly Liam Neeson, who is simply great as the priest sought for. Neeson brings balance and conviction to his well-written argument at the end. Neeson actually has decent lines, and if you want to see how to deliver such lines, watch him play against them, moment by moment, with a sorrow at the truths he must utter.

Probably the Part Andrew Garfield plays would have been better played by an actor of Scorsese’s own age, Martin Sheen, perhaps, someone whose mettle had already been tested, someone rich in wisdom, and, most important, someone with an authentic God-shine to him. Garfield has beautifully photogenic hair, a subject for Caravaggio perhaps, but not enough halo for film. Nor for that matter for Caravaggio.

You watch the film with admiration for Scorsese’s skill. The impeccable production, the fancy camera angles, the costumes, the editing. Wow! But one’s admiration is bridled by want of content and lack of a character to get behind. Garfield is at his best when he loses everything he values and falls still, doctrine silenced.

But, if the film were designed to display Catholicism in the end as claptrap, the stillness does not go on long enough to drown the preluding clichés.

 

 

Neruda

20 Jan

Neruda – directed by Pablo Lorain. Biopic. 107 minutes Color 2017

★★★★★

The Story: A poet/politician balks authority and, because his poems are so loved and recited by the people, a bounty is put on his head and he must evade capture by the stupid detective set to accomplish it.

~

It is a chase film, 90% of which takes place indoors.

The riches of this arise from our expectations of a chase film being defied by what satisfies them even more.

A bouquet of relationships is slowly unveiled by the film, as each character reveals himself to be the immortal creation of the other. The detective, for instance, whom the poet Neruda has brought into necessary life, has already given himself a name and an ancestry. So each individual is also a creation of himself.

This is not some South American mental toy, but a dramatic force, and the structural principal of this film which consists in repeatedly surprising us.

Surprise is several things but it is seldom satisfying. But here surprise is. Who is the hero? The celebrity poet or the measly detective?

Both actors, Luis Gnecco and Gael Garcia Bernal give slants and lights to a script of charm and originality. They are supported by two great female performances in that of the wife, Mercedes Morán, who understands Neruda thoroughly and blames him for nothing. And by the radiant work of a transvestite entertainer in a bordello, whose defense of Neruda to the police makes everything about the popularity of his work simple, stirring, and plain.

If the film is near you and you happen to know any grown-ups, be swift to buy a ticket, for where I go, Friday and Saturday were sold out.

This is a good one not to miss. You already know to see Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea. Listing this next to them makes it authentic.

 

Nightingale

11 Jan

Nightingale – directed by Elliott Lester. Tragedy [HBO]. 83 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A young man videotapes his life because he has no one else to speak to.

~

When you saw the movie Moonlight you were struck by the fact that the story could have been about any race, religion, nationality. It was African-American, yes, but simply a human problem. This led to a close intimacy between audience and movie. The same holds true of Nightingale.

The film and the actor David Oyelowo, were nominated for many awards. Oyelowo won The Black Reel Award For the Best Actor in a TV series and The Critics’ Choice Television Award for The Best Actor in A Movie.

It is no wonder.

For Oyelowo as an actor can present a character of such self-awareness, passion, and intelligence that he becomes quite mysterious to one. This person is disturbed. But just how deep is this disturbance, and what is its etiology? And, well, maybe he isn’t disturbed at all. Maybe he’s right in the head. Maybe the things he seems to have done he didn’t really do. Or maybe he was right to do them.

Oyelowo is the sole actor in the piece. And I watch him as I must watch any actor perfectly suited to his craft. We have before us, that is to say, a body which tells us a lot; it can itself be watched for story. We have a face which is so flexible in its registration that I understand not only what is relevant to the moment, but to the thousand years of human life his ancestors brought into being in this one actor, simultaneously what is relevant and not, vital to and incidental to, God and decoration. And I hear a voice, varied, full, placed – just what an actor needs to get the job done. All this in place, an actor is free to make something with his imagination and his instinct that is worth our attending to. I am in the right place seeing someone in the right place.

Like Room and Sartre’s No Exit and Hitchcock’s Rope, Nightingale takes place in a single interior, here a suburban ranch-house. We never leave the inside of that and we never leave the inside of his mind. No media, not even the stage, lends itself to motion pictures so well as cloistered space, as inner sanctum. For sometimes what we want and what film alone can give is a closing-up, bestowed by unrelieved close-up. Sometimes, the single soul.

See Nightingale.  

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, David Oyelowo, TRAGEDY

 

Nightingale

09 Jan

Nightingale – directed by Elliott Lester. Tragedy [HBO]. 83 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A young man videotapes his life because he has no one else to speak to.

~

When you saw the movie Moonlight you were struck by the fact that the story could have been about any race, religion, nationality. That it was black and in American English did not mean it had to do with the Negro Problem In America. It was simply a human problem. This led to a close intimacy between audience and movie. The same holds true of Nightingale.

The film and the actor David Oyelowo, were nominated for many awards. Oyelowo won The Black Reel Award For the Best Actor in a TV series and The Critics’ Choice Television Award for The Best Actor in A Movie.

It is no wonder.

For Oyelowo as an actor can present a character of such self-awareness, passion, and intelligence that he becomes quite mysterious to one. This person is disturbed. But just how deep is this disturbance, and what is its etiology? And, well, maybe he isn’t disturbed at all. Maybe he’s right in the head. Maybe the things he seems to have done he didn’t really do. Or maybe he was right to do them.

Oyelowo is the sole actor in the piece. And I watch him as I must watch any actor perfectly suited to his craft. We have before us, that is to say, a body which tells us a lot. It can itself be watched for story. We have a face which is so flexible in its registration that I understand not only what is relevant to the moment, but to the thousand years of human life his ancestors brought into being in this one actor, simultaneously what is relevant and irrelevant, vital to and incidental to, God and decoration. And I hear a voice, varied, full, placed – just what an actor needs to get the job done. All this in place, an actor is free to make something with his imagination and his instinct that is worth our watching and attending to. I am in the right place seeing someone in the right place.

Like Room and Sartre’s No Exit and Hitchcock’s Rope it takes place in a single interior, here a suburban ranch-house. We never leave the inside of the house and we never leave the inside of his mind. No media, not even the stage, lends itself to cinema movement so well as cloistered space, as inner sanctum. For sometimes what we want and what film alone can give is a closing-up, bestowed by unrelieved close-up. Sometimes, the single soul.

See Nightingale.  

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, David Oyelowo, TRAGEDY

 

Arrival

04 Jan

Arrival – directed by Denis Villeneuve. Sci-Fi. 119 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★

The Story A linguistics professor and a scientist are drafted to translate the language of alien invaders.

~

The music adds a lot to the telling. So does the editing. So does the filming, which is suave, muted, controlled. Like all sci-fi, it is a director’s gala day.

The story is so simple as to be rudimentary. Has anyone thought of it before? Alien spaceships land, but they speak an incomprehensible language. What are they trying to say? Neither in sounds nor in writing can it be understood.

Linguistics, you learn when you study it, has a substructure in mathematics – at least that is what the professors tell you. It is their livelihood to tell you something, so this is what they have contrived. Which is why a mathematician is brought in as the sidecar to the linguist – not that a linguist would need one, since a linguist would already know how to do the math, if any needed doing. He’s actually a poorly-written foil to give the linguist someone to talk to. You see what one is up against.

One other trouble I had was that the adventure of what the aliens were trying to convey stalls, then dissipates. For, into a language of black raindrops, we have no way of following leads and clues. The translation is un-filmable. As an audience, we must take on faith the power of the linguist to interpret it. We have faith in the actor to play the part, but we cannot know the part she is playing.

Another trouble lies in the character of the mathematician. Either the script or the director or the actor himself or all three have allowed him to be played as more volatile than need be. In short, Jeremy Renner overacts.

This might be a strategy to counteract Amy Adams’ playing of the linguist. For she plays her as if she knows what she is and what she does. She a steady-as-you-go linguist. She is undeterred and un-bestirred by the pressure of the situation. And this choice by the actress is right, smart, and actable. It’s isn’t showy, but it works for the story. It carries the film.

Renner’s behavior fails to throw Adam’s reserved linguist into error or even question, which is to say it has no dramatic function. He should have played it not as a counteraction but as a counterpart, as a fellow professional, just like she did. It would have worked just fine. Instead, his character looks like an amateur, like some Joe who stumbled into a sci-fi movie.

The particular information the aliens have to impart is blocked by The Great Powers, represented by their thick-headed minion on site. This obstacle is a ritual of melodrama and one which we cannot take seriously, so the conflict looks routine.

Forrest Whitaker, at his most magisterial, plays the colonel in charge of operations, but his part goes for naught. Its function seems to have been cut, but his grim bearing adds portent to the suspense.

That the suspense is considerable is due to the power-spectacle of the ships, the aliens, and their unaccountable bearing. The simplest and most effective element of this suspense comes from the aliens’ coloring. They are black. But is their message black? We must wait and see.

That the linguist was born with and therefore is already in possession of the aliens’ information is the surprise and quirk of the plot, about which no more shall be said here. The plot has other features of suspense besides spectacle, and they are held there by music, cutting, direction, and particularly by Amy Adams’ restraint.

I seldom go to sci-fi film. I find sci-fi sophomoric and humorless. I find it intellectual, chilly, and small. But theatres are packing them in. So, if sci-fi is your bent, never mind what I say here. You will find that your arrival at Arrival has been lavishly and unsparingly prepared for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nocturnal Animals

03 Jan

Nocturnal Animals – written and directed by Tom Ford. Melodrama. 116 minutes Color 2106.

★★★★

The Story:  The jaded owner of a chichi art gallery on the rocks, as is her marriage, reads a novel by her first husband which proves he loved her.

~

It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. It is a kind of revenge story that makes Venetians lick their chops.

Amy Adams plays the remarried wife reading her first husband’s novel, and we see the novel enacted by the author of it. Three hoods attack its main character and his wife and teen-aged daughter on a lonely road. He is helpless to help them. They rape and murder the women, and would kill him if he had not escaped into the desert. Then he meets a local policeman ardent to do the attackers in.

What’s important in noir is to keep all the scenes tight-lipped, and this the writer, who is also the director, fails to do. The big scenes over-last their stay. The result is that they cascade from the cliff of drama into the puddle of melodrama.

But the film does provide Amy Adams with another selfish woman to play, and as usual she does this well. She doesn’t grip me as a leading woman, however. As a character lead, yes, but she lacks the general gusto great leading ladies possess.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the fictional husband and the real husband. He fudges his big scene in which the three hoods take over his family and his car partly because it goes on too long, as does the finale where he gives the slayer his due. Opposite him is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the killer, played in full snicker Richard Widmark manner. Both scenes end up in coyness as their thread is unreeled too long to sustain. But he also has great big dolloping scenes, just the kind an actor in his thirties loves to play. It is a performance bound to justify the large size of his following.

The performance that holds one, however, is Michael Shannon as the detective. He plays it so close to the vest, you think he’s going to burst out laughing at any moment. It’s a wonderful construction, filling the screen with our attention every time he appears.

If the director were as ruthless as the characters I would have liked it more. I like to like things more. But I can also like to like things not so much, as here. Don’t be put off on my account, though. Check it out. See for yourself.

 

Lion or Far Away From Home

02 Jan

Lion or A Long Way Home –  directed by Garth Davis. Picaresque Drama. 119 minutes Color 2016.

★★★

The Story: A five-year-old Indian urchin, lost in Calcutta, is adopted by a middle-class family in Australia, and, aged 25, seeks to find his original family in India.

~

The first dumb thing is its title, Lion, for the main character is no such thing. The secondary title is more to the point and requirements of our understanding.

We enter the boy’s life with his mother, and with his older brother scavenging the streets of Delhi to supplement their mother’s income as a laborer moving rocks. They are impoverished but close and loving.

Due to a mischance, the little boy is separated from his brother and soon finds himself a thousand miles away, homeless, starving, and not speaking the language.

So far, all is well with the film. We are thrilled and held. We have a Dickensian tale of dire orphanage, a situation which appeals to the orphan in each of us.

But as soon as the movie lands in Australia it becomes dumb. It fast-forwards twenty years and kersplatts into an unnecessary side trip into a romance with a young American girl. And it kersplatts into an unnecessary detour into his relation with his older, also adopted, Indian brother. And it kersplatts into pantomimic melodrama, wrist to temple, as he wrestles the matter of tracking down his family of origin.

The worst dumb thing it does is make us watch him find his house of origin – by satellite – which means that the search is undergone not by him but by a robot.

By this point the film has lost its focus, story, and passion. And two sensational actors are left at sea on a foundering script. Nicole Kidman as the boy’s adoptive Australian mother must dig deep to bring the proper soundings to the part of the mother in the screen time allotted her. This she manages to do, but the script fumbling around her does not support her work.

And it undercuts our understanding of the main character played by the wonderful and wonderful again Dev Patel. You just sit there and welcome him on the screen. What a delight! What an actor! See it, as I saw it, for him. Don’t miss him.

Never miss him.

 
 

Fences

27 Dec

Fences – directed by Denzel Washington. Drama. 2 hours 18 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story:  The lives of a family swirl around the big personality of the pater familias who rules the roost with his ebullience and pigheadedness.

~

The movie is written by the now deceased playwright August Wilson. He is one of the great American playwrights, and I contrive to see any professional production of his plays that I can. His scheme was to write one play involving black lives for each decade of the 20th Century. Fences is set in the ‘50s.

August Wilson never went to plays or read them. So you can see, what he could not, the big flaw in this one, which is its failure, early enough, to dramatize the life-long frustration of the wife, which Viola Davis plays. It could have been remedied by the offstage children. And the frustration of the father needed to be established sooner also. He never seems frustrated. Instead what we get from him is a round and stunning display of vim and vitality.

But you take these in stride, and your stride must be long. For Wilson is the opposite of Harold Pinter. When you sit down to a play by August Wilson you sit down from soup to nuts. You get up from the feast stuffed. The danger with such a method for a playwright is that he may fall into the banal. He must always surprise you, and this the playwright does speech by speech and scene by scene.

James Earl Jones played it originally on Broadway, and he, of course, is, an actor of greater amplitude than Denzel Washington, but Washington gives the performance of his lifetime. He holds us still in his character’s terrible self-regarding silences and certainly holds us in the great arias Wilson has required of him. You watch him and you listen to him as mesmerized as his family is surrounding him.

His character, like at least one character in each of Wilson’s plays, has a big rhetoric. He talks a lot but he’s fun, he’s entertaining, he’s outrageous. He’s also full of himself.

This means his inability to see someone else’s point of view is his tragic flaw. His action in the play creates a fissure in him, and you can see it form. It creates a fissure in all the characters around him. Washington does that rare thing in movie actor performance: he lets you into his eyes. He  gives a performance which is sterling in its formation, for he performed it on Broadway, and has brought members of the Broadway cast into the picture Viola Davis plays the wife. The impeccable Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the chum Bono: every time he’s on the set you want the camera to be on him.

The play won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards for best play, Best Actor and Best Actress Tony Awards for Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Also a Tony for Best revival.

This sort of acting is very seldom to be seen in movies, where character-story ends to reside in subtext and the oblique. Here the performance is a full-blown stage performance. And, in fact, nothing less will do.

I love movies with a lot of speeches. Where characters say it. As Coco Pekelis once said, Taciturnity is not more profound than self-expression. I like the glory and daring of our language. And when you see Fences, you will face it at once. It will take a moment to accustom yourself. After that you will lean forward in your seat, not wanting to miss a word.

 

 

 

 

 

La La Land

17 Dec

La La Land – directed and written by Damien Chazelle. Musical Dramedy 128 minutes Color 2016

★★★★★

The Story: A to-be actress and a to-be jazz pianist strive for their callings and their love for one another, both in the big-time.

~

How joyful it is to have a good old fashioned Hollywood musical to top off the Holidays, not the cherry on the sundae, but the sundae itself!

It may be observed that Ryan Gosling is more of a dancer than Emma Stone is and that Emma Stone is more of a singer than Ryan Gosling is, but put them both together and they spell why bother. They’re easy, they’re difficult, we want them to work it out. And will they?

As they go about their business in Los Angeles, where she is a barista on the Warner’s lot, and he is tinkling out dread pop tunes under the baleful gaze of J.T. Simmons, the piano bar restaurant owner, we are treated to massed production numbers played out around swimming pools and on the tops of stalled rush hour cars.

But there are two greater treats in the picture – three if you count Ryan Gosling ‘s miraculous spectator shoes – which he never takes off as the years roll by – and the first of these is a hill-top dance duet which is a masterpiece of simple choreography in concert with two performers caused to be willing to be in such concert that you leave knowing the story has told us, if they don’t quite know it themselves, that they are in love.

The second of these greater treats is a monologue Emma Stone does as an acting audition for a film. I say not one word more about any of this or these.

The film resembles New York, New York, with Emma Stone in the Lisa Minnelli part and Ryan Gosling in the Robert De Niro part, except that Gosling is more convincing as a musician, and, of course, De Niro is never convincing as A New York Jew, either there or in The Last Tycoon. He was and has remained a New York Lower East Side, Little Italy Italian. So, on the level of acting La La Land is the more satisfying picture.

Ryan Gosling is a cold actor. And I like him for it. It suits the cool, hip flat affect of a jazz person, because they’re a lot of them like that. But I like that quality in him anyhow. It reveals a certain ruthlessness of temperament which does not seek approval. Not too many actors get far as cold actors, but some do, and there are some I like a good deal. Barbara Stanwyck was one. Gosling’s face is a mask that reveals everything. Everything that belongs to his part, and nothing besides. I honor him for it every time.

So, do go to see La La Land. Waiting for the show to start, I nipped in to catch the end of Jackie. Six people were in the multiplex. All I can say of what I saw is that Natalie Portman has misconstrued the role and is not talented enough to play it even had she not misconstrued it, that the authors have misconstrued the picture, and that Billy Crudup is a top-flight talent no matter what. La La Land was mostly full and ended up, having gone through some interesting, and difficult passages, with an audience satisfied.

 

 

 

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp

14 Dec

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp – written, directed, produced by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Comedy. 2 hours 43 minutes. Color 1943.

★★★★

The Story: Sixty Years of advancing pig-headedness in the life of a British military professional and his loyalty to love of every kind.

~

How privileged I am to watch another super-duper movie in a row. This Pressburg/Powell offering was controversial in its day because it envisioned a friendship with a German military officer while WW II was being waged at the same time as it showed an old-fashioned British military professional who had a hard time adapting to modern warfare who was friends with him.

The Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger Siamese Twins wrote, produced and directed collectively The Red Shoes, The 49th Parallel, Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus, I Know Where I’m Going, and a number of other remarkably watchable pictures. This was Emeric Pressburger’s favorite and is among their best. It has on some lists been called the best English film ever made.

Martin Scorsese, whose style was influenced and informed by Michael Powell’s style, introduces the film and appears in the documentary on Powell. Powell’s wife became and remains his editor. Every director in the world has learned from P/P.

Scorsese says Roger Livesey is his favorite actor and Anton Walbrook is his next favorite. My favorite is Anton Walbrook and my next favorite is Roger Livesey. And every actor in the world has learned from these two.

Livesey plays a young, virile, rash officer whose adventurous spirit takes him to Germany, where he meets the love of his life, played by Deborah Kerr, aged 22.

He also meets his future best friend, a German Officer played by Anton Walbrook.

If you want to know anything at all about acting and how it is done, watch Walbrook here deliver a long monologue in one shot, no interruptions, no outside dialogue. Simple, internal, and both slow and quick simultaneously. He does not milk it. He exists inside the shell of a hopeless situation, which nothing he can do or say can change. Pressburger wrote it just like that. And just like that Walbrook delivers it. I watch it nearly falling off my chair for fear Walbrook will not be able to negotiate it. And in that complete him and become him.

Roger Livesey is lovely as the Colonel Blimp character, an old duffer in his nonage, a romantic husband in his middle age, and a bashful fool in his youth.

The cameraman on the picture was the great Jack Cardiff, the Michelangelo of Technicolor, so you are ravished by eye. The script remains consistently witty and endearing. And, despite the title, Colonel Blimp never dies. Thank goodness!

I don’t tell plots or stories of film because it spoils the surprise. Be prepared for this one to go on a bit after you thought it would end, and then go on some more. But its length turns out always to be agreeable, sufficient, and necessary. Don’t miss it, my dears.

The extras that go with it are tops.

 

A Passage To India

10 Dec

A Passage To India – written and directed and edited by David Lean. Colonial Drama. 244 minutes Color 1985.

★★★★

The Story: A young woman and her Aunt travel to India to visit, and India takes hold of them with a mortal attraction.

~

David Lean’s last film, now a DVD whose extras are as interesting as the film itself. For you would never imagine how it was made in India back in the day. So take a look at the second DVD.

A couple of problems with the picture sully the experience, and some have to do with Lean’s mishandling of the material, for the ending does not match with the bones of the story. I can’t remember how E.M. Forster actually ends the book, but it can’t be like this.

Other difficulties have to do with his handling of what happened in the cave. E.M. Forster never told what happened there. And the reason he didn’t is because he did not know. In any case, in the film at least, it is clear that Miss Quested has a brain wave of some kind, becomes unhinged, and proclaims that Doctor Aziz has molested her.

In the film, we are shown Miss Quested with lust in her eyes wanting Dr. Aziz in the cave. He, looking for her, of course, looks into her cave, does not see her, and looks into other caves for her. But Lean does not have the psychological imagination to cinematically envision what goes on inside her that produces the catastrophic result. What would the ingredients be? Lust? Shame when he doesn’t come in? Remorse? Flight? Embarrassment? Revenge? We get none of this. All we get is some cactus scratches. So what is supposed to hang over the story as a mystery, becomes a mere opacity.

Part of the trouble is that the preparation for the cave scene is inadequate. For the excursion Miss Quested makes beforehand, accidentally coming upon pornographic statues in the wild, does not expose enough of the male side of sex to count with the audience. Because we hardly see anything risqué, we are not shocked; so how can we gauge the statues’ shock on her? Lean has no sense of such things.

Another trouble is that we have in Judy Davis a young female none of this would shock. She is not the swooning sort. She is Australian-earthy, not a female given to fantasies, derangements, traumatic shames, or unhingings. She is not a foolish virgin. She is a powerful and fascinating actress. Either she is simply miscast. Or it would be interesting were all this to happen to a strong personality, such as Judy Davis’s –  but Lean’s treatment as scenarist and director go nowhere near this. It is as though the film’s story – which is a female story – is speaking a foreign language when entering female territory.

In a way, Lean’s film, and all his films, are about the male characters. The female character of Mrs Moore, for instance, is never fully realized. Peggy Ashcroft, in a yeowoman effort, drags Mrs Moore not into clarity but into light. Clarity is not to be had. She and Lean argued badly as to how to do her. Ashcroft won, else nothing at all would have been there, and Ashcroft won the Oscar. And Judy Davis also locked horns with him. Lean did not have a clue about women. He would not have been married six times if he had.

The picture is ravishing in its scape. We see an India whose immensity of effect is always present, always beguiling, always seething We see wild crowds, marshalled armies in parade array, markets, mountains, rivers, structures, distraught railway trains, and placid colonial dwellings. It almost gives us a balanced canvas of Indian and English characters and points of view.

And all the male characters are superbly realized and performed, save, of course for Alec Guinness who pads about playing an Indian Fakir. Why he hypnotized himself to cast himself as a Hindu sage only a real Hindu sage would know. Crazy. It’s counter-productive to the balance the film strives to achieve.

The three other male actors do fine work. First, Nigel Havers as the potential fiancé of Judy Davis. He plays a young magistrate in the British Colonial judicial system, and he is the perfect young man, is he not? Havers gives a lovely, easy performance as Ronny, making us thankful for the thankless role. He knows not what he does as a character, but as an actor he does.

James Fox as the local schoolmaster, friend to both sides of the ship, rules half the film largely because his acting of Fielding is so thorough it engages our interest and bias. Grand work.

The co-star of the picture is Victor Banerjee, making his character full of life and optimism and love and curiosity and good will. His performance grounds the film in the open fluidity of a wonderful madness when he takes Mrs Moore and Miss Quested on a side trip to the Marabar caves.

The temperament of the movie is spectacle-as-narration. It contains no scene which is not visually telling and rewarding, or essential. Every detail frees the camera to our eye. Its direction retains great respect for our ability to tell a story through what we see, through the placement of character, and particularly to the painted elephant called India in whose howdah all visitors cannot help but be shaken back and forth. One of Lean’s wives was Indian, and he had lived there a good while. He had a strong sense of its place, style, and potential as a vivid film subject.

Within this vast national impression, the drama is actually a closet drama, involving only five characters, Mrs Moore, Miss Quested, Doctor Aziz, Fielding, and Ronny. The opera Aida comes to mind, a closet drama surrounded by a vast dynasty and huge military display. Many curious and unusual relationships venture into being before us. To witness them A Passage To India is worth seeing, or, in my case and maybe in yours, worth seeing again.

 

 

Manchester By The Sea

28 Nov

Manchester By The Sea – directed by Kenneth Lonergan. 137 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Trapped, can this man get out of the trap, is there any thing, condition, person, breakthrough that can liberate him?

~

Well, a Hollywood movie this good, to my knowledge, never before came before my eyes. It is a Hollywood movie minus Hollywood. Unique. A top-notch cast leads it and balances it, and, for once, the person, who superbly wrote it, superbly directs it.

Its first distinguishing feature is that its characters are undistinguished. They are ordinary, their lives are ordinary, the circumstances that beset them and their responses to them are ordinary. This is what is extraordinary about them, and why I feel privileged to be with them. For I wouldn’t be allowed to ordinarily.

Casey Affleck plays a live-in handyman of Boston apartment houses, and one wonders how come. Not that he is special in any way, but that his current life and his testy personality seem a hermitage from something. The story is his, and our focus is on the mystery his difficulty with life seems bent to retain. He has a former wife, three young children, a brother and nephew, and a town, where he once lived, Manchester By the Sea, where he was reared and where everyone still knows him. His story outwardly concerns the death of this brother and the benefactions bestowed.

Casey Affleck is an actor I have in the past avoided like a left hand turn into moving traffic. When I first saw him ten years ago as Robert Ford in the Jesse James movie, the placement of his voice, a high, pleading whine, grated so I could not imagine he would ever have an acting career. He was thirty-one then; because of his voice, I took his character to not have gone through adolescence. Why didn’t this actor go to a speech therapist? Spare me his presence again.

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker said what I have never known him to say of a film, that he loved it, and a good friend suggested it, and I went. There I discovered that Affleck, now forty-one, has matured as a male, such that his voice, still oddly placed, has a weight no longer adolescent. His is a great performance because it is a great role, and a great role, because it is a greatly written role.

No nonsense. You will be taken through the wringer and grateful every moment that finally here is a film good enough to inspire that capacity in you. The film plays with the spaciousness and weight and variety of developed characters of a very good novel.

It is set in a Massachusetts town among lower working-class folks, every one of whom voted for Trump. So you’ll see how it is they did so. For these folks live only on a certain kind of emotional level, and emotion is their fight, their gauge and their ruin.

Of the major performances, Michele Williams, as Affleck’s wife, makes a lower-class woman completely alive and particular. The great scene with her nursing a cold in their bedroom is one of the best-written and directed scenes I have ever seen. It is exactly how things are, nothing forced, nothing manufactured, nothing left out. And the second scene, when she encounters him on the street, is excruciating in the attempt she makes to reach him and the just imperative in him that forbids it.

The second great piece of supporting work is Lucas Hodges as his nephew, the character whose resilience  drives the  story. Again brilliantly written from the credits on, when he is shown as a quick-witted nine-year old, as a sixteen-year old his character still does not miss a trick. There is nothing you can put over on him. And this skill in the character and the actor playing him provide the wall against which all the other characters are forced to play.

The film is a triumph of editing, costuming, filming. Its structure keeps one engaged in suspense from start to finish. You keep expecting something cheap to happen, and it doesn’t. Which means that, since you have read this review this far, you owe yourself the riches you deserve and will go to Manchester By The Sea.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

The Hundred Foot Journey

18 Nov

The Hundred-Foot Journey – directed by Lasse Halleström. Gastronomical Romance. 122 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: The melding of classic French and classic East Indian cultures and cuisines unites four lovers of food and one another.

~

Do not waste the 35 seconds it takes to read the following.

The personalities of a French country restaurant serving classic cuisine do battle with the spices and innovation that waft over from across the street.

Helen Mirren has created one of her not infrequent masterpieces of human character in Madam Mallory, the restauranteuse. She can’t stand that her Michelin star is 100 feet across the road where an Indian family has moved to a village in France to open their Indian restaurant there. The young master-chef is played by handsome dish Manish Dayal. The luminous light of India shines from beneath his rich, honest brows. Om Puri is the paterfamilias of the six young Indians who build the restaurant from scratch. He is an actor of triple subtexts, delicious to watch and enjoy. And the sou-chef from Mirren’s kitchen who helps and falls in love with Manish Dayal is played by the angel-food actress Charlotte Le Bon.

Do not read farther. You have been forbidden. Your job is mouth watering. Your job is appreciation of your own good taste. Your job is to draw up your chair and feast on this movie.

If Helen Mirren at her best were not enough, the heart-warming story would be. And if that were not enough, the Steven Spielberg production would be.

And if you know how it will end from the very beginning, so what? The virtue of a ritual lies not in the novelty of its form but in the freshness of the truth it contains.

What are you sitting there for? Get to your Netflix, nip down to your library and take out the DVD. It’s less than a 100-foot journey to your own delight.

 

 

 

 

The Man Who Understood Infinity

18 Nov

The Man Who Understood Infinity – directed by Matthew Brown. BioPic. 1 hour 48 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: A mathematical genius from India is almost beaten to death by the math department of Cambridge University.

~

In the old MGM days biopics spelled out their story with great big letters, A B C. Their plots required neither understanding, thought, or interpretation. Only acceptance. We were supposed to swallow them whole. We were supposed to digest them by rote, since that was they way they were written and since no other option was available, save, in the end, skepticism that whoever made this film maybe didn’t get their facts straight.

The writing of such biopics prohibits those scenes of conflict known as drama. What they offer instead is tableaux. That is their narrative method. In these tableaux actors must paralyze their power to act in order to mime as best they can what is constant brass. For the emotion of these stories does not depend upon actions, actors, or even characters. In tableaux there is no emotion. Or whatever emotion the music can eke out of us. There is only the rigid formality of responsible biographical information. They are about big names and require great stars to stand there and just do them.

Such biopics constitute an actual form. Many biopics follow it. The pauper-genius makes his way into the chambers of power and is met with scorn, ridicule, banishment, deadening doubt, and so forth. But someone allies himself with him, and, against all obstacles, he wins out in the end. It is a victory scathed by bitterness because of the price required to achieve it, which sometimes almost includes his mate.

This form is called the story of the underdog. And two actors of great grace and fluidity, Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, constrain their imaginations to fit into the corset of the form in this one.

Deadening doubt is what Irons is allowed to play against Patel’s Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young impoverished nonentity who arrives from Madras at Cambridge where Irons’ Harold Hardy is a don in higher mathematics. Hardy has invited him there from India. Ramanujan is a completely untrained, unschooled conceptual genius. His mathematical formulas envision the answers to problems no one has ever solved.

Hardy demands proofs of Ramanujan’s routes to the formulas. Ramanujan resists. Toby Jones stands by. Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell gives droll advice. And Ramanujan’s luscious wife has to stay in India thinking herself forgotten because her mother-in-law never delivers Ramanujan’s letters to her.

Audiences are biddable. They paid their ticket; they don’t stalk out.

Because there are other benefits here besides dramatic or narrative ones.

One of these is the setting of Cambridge in the midlands and the quad and rooms of Trinity College.

Another is the presence of these two actors who are vivid by nature.

Irons is not here in his virtuoso mode. He is a character hoping to save himself from the peril of disgrace by forcing his doubt on a perfect flower. That, to Hardy, mathematics itself is a poppy makes doubt grate on his wonder.

Dev Patel – he of the Slumdog Millionaire, he of the Marigold Hotels – grips one, as he always does, by the honest vitality of his being. Nothing about this actor is forced, which is a wonderful thing to see in a human. So we sit in our seats and allow the ceremony of the plot to take place before us as it has so often done before.

Dev Patel’s existence as an international star makes this story possible. Ramanujan was a great man. But who would have heard of him had not Patel been alive just now?

It’s wonderful to hear about Ramanujan. To see his name for the first time.

To see Patel fortuitously frame and make this name a name again. To type it out here, over and over, as someone who is now never lost.

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, BIOPIC, Dev Patel, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Jeremy Irons: acting god

 

Creed

17 Nov

Creed – directed by Ryan Coogler. Sportsdrama. 133 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: a young man whose father was a famous boxer, but killed in the ring, takes up the calling with the help of one of his father’s opponents in the ring.

~

I like boxing movies. From 134 B.C. on, I’ve seen them all. This one, of course does not rank with The Fighter with Mark Wahlberg, for that one had inside its drama something real, whereas this one has its drama something typical. It’s a type of movie: a boxing movie. It is all geared to a wrap-up, and you know by its structure what that wrap-up is to be. A ritual. And worthwhile as some rituals truly are.

Ritual or not, that doesn’t matter here because the writing is so clean and the direction so energetic and young. Just what’s needed.

It also has the big assistance of the performance of Phylicia Rashad who opens the film with a performance standard that ensures the acting that will follow will be of a noble order.

And it is met. Certainly by the beauteous Tessa Thompson who plays the young singer our hero, Creed, falls in with. And by every one around Creed, who is played by Michael B. Jordan, who played the young troublemaker in the same director’s Fruitvale Station.

What are actors made of? If you are fortunate as Jordan is, actors are made of wonderful eyes. And if ever a person was meant to be on the silver screen it is he.

He is in great shape, and his training is so horrendous, you wonder that he doesn’t give up the ring and take up acting. He’s a lovely performer, completely convincing in the madness which the climactic fight takes him through.

Opposite him is Sylvester Stallone. I’ve always found him to be an actor difficult to behold. The droopy lids. The droopy mouth.

But the one thing about him which has always dominated his acting is his love of it. And also that, no matter what he looks like, he’s meant to be there doing that.

Even as an actor always meeting his calling, I’ve stayed away from the sort of stories he’s involved with. The first Rocky was the last one I saw. He was great in it. But he is greater by far here. As the old reluctant trainer, Rocky Balboa, he gives true value in every scene; he’s fascinating to watch; you don’t quite know what he’s going to do next; or say next.

Don’t miss him. He is that rare thing, an artist in a part, at an age, in a story, where his whole life has exactly meant him to be.

 

Extasis

15 Nov

Éxtasis – directed by Mariano Barroso. Comedy. 93 minutes Color 1996.

★★★★★

Four seedy small time crooks topple into the big time when a famous director adopts one of them as his son.

~

He is full of the juice of life, good to look at, and talented as all get out. Javier Barden at 26.

It’s remarkable to see him as an actor even early on his career making up a full-blown character, here one taken right off the streets of Madrid. Take a look at the walk he has given this bloke. Take a look at the quirky personality he has ascribed to him. He seems to have started out as one of the most serious yet entertaining actors on the screen and twenty years later still is.

Playing the leader of the gang at full throttle, the story takes him into the lair of a multimillionaire director where he presents himself as his son. The real son is one of Barden’s gang, but the father has never seen that son. Complications arise when the director decides to make the Barden a stage super-star. Complications exponential themselves when Barden decides to really be that son and also to be that star.

Moreover, the play he is to appear in is the Calderon masterwork, Life Is A Dream, which deals – in a Pirandellian dance – with just such switches.

It’s a delightful comedy, whose twists I decline to discomplicate for you here, for they are all up to you to enjoy when you see it.

And Barden, if you like him, and which of us does not, is a treat to behold in his early manhood. Gifted beyond measure, handsome beyond measure, big-hearted beyond measure.

Go look.

 

Moonlight

14 Nov

Moonlight – written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Drama. 114 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: In three stages of his life, boyhood, youth, adulthood, an African-American male digests and responds to the forces besetting him and remains pure in his sexual loyalty to his friend.

~

What movies do best this movie does. It allows us to eavesdrop on scenes we would never attend. It grants to those scenes the intimacy of their full length and depth. And it does this by capturing the performances of the actors and never giving up on the truth acting alone can reach.

If that were not so passionate an utterance it would be dull. But I leave this film transformed by it after and transfixed by it while it unfolds. I have great respect for the narration, which is the director’s job, what he shows, what he withholds, what he allows the audience to do on the story’s behalf.

I have never seen any of the actors before. I cannot believe I will ever see them in material which will allow them to be better than they are here.

The story will put you in mind of David Lean’s Brief Encounter or Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. But this film is far more detailed and rich.

I offer you a full bow before Moonlight. Watch me. Full credit. Which means all the credit that cannot be uttered because it leaves one speechless.

The acclaim this film has received is astounding. It is the least that criticism can do.

It is the movie of the year.

 

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

M. Butterfly

12 Nov

M. Butterfly – directed by David Cronenberg. Romantic Drama. 101 minutes Color 1993.

★★★★★

The Story: A French bureaucrat in China falls in love with the star of the Chinese opera and she becomes the love of his life, until he turns on her, and turns again.

~

The central fact of M. Butterfly is the love-of-one’s-life love beyond which, for those who have experienced it, exists nothing of importance.

One who has experienced this wakes to the core of the film for its surpassing value in exploring, portraying, honoring the matter.

And you believe it. You believe that love is the love you once knew too.

What is questionable about the film is does the character who falls in love with the opera star believe that she is a woman, when we in the audience all know that it is being played with steadily ruthless seduction by John Lone? We know he’s a male. But the bureaucrat does not know it. For he never sees his butterfly naked.

Inside the story and carrying it and exfoliating it are the great arias of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly with their heartbreaking rapture. It was the greatest love that Cio-Cio-San ever knew and ever hoped to know. And the same holds true of the French bureaucrat. For in the film, the roles are reversed.

The finale of the film consists of a big bravura piece by Jeremy Irons who plays the finally imprisoned bureaucrat. In it, everything that has repelled him when he finds his lover’s true gender turns into an acclamation of the love itself, The great feat: love. For it was never a question of seeing his lover naked. That was not the issue, startling though it may be and was. Not lover naked – but naked love. Naked love. That’s what we see and know.

Here it is in all its force and necessity.

 

 

 

The Mayor Of Hell

03 Nov

The Mayor Of Hell – directed by Archie Mayo. Prisonflick. 90 minutes Black And White 1933

★★★★★

The Story: A tough ward boss, as a reward for delivering votes, is given supervision of a boys’ reformatory, and it gets to him.

~

The trashy title should not put you off from one of the best movies of its era and one of James Cagney’s most brilliant films. Of course, being Cagney, it’s a gutter drama, but what a drama! What a story!

Cagney himself is in top display as an actor – fluid, immediate, and interesting. Of all the great stars, he was the most tragic artistically because his acting depended upon a manner, and the manner was so fixed that he could never play a part opposite to it, try as he might. Highly volatile, perched always on the balls of his feet (because of lifts?), his oddly made-up, glancing Lawrence Olivier eyes, he presents a constant perturbation. Off camera he was a honey, a gent, and a man of some cultivation. But he wanted to but could not play gentler parts because his technique had become fixed – probably by his many years on Broadway before he even got to Hollywood – as a live wire. He could only act one way.

Allen Jenkins, his old roommate from their chorus boy days, plays the dumb Damon Runyon sidekick. And he is but one in a cast that is top-heavy in every role no matter how small.

The beautiful Madge Evans plays the nurse at the reformatory. Watch her. She had been acting in movies all her young life, and everything she does is alive, fresh, apt, and necessary. She was brought over from MGM to soften the atmosphere. She’s so lovely. She’d such a fine actor.

Broadway star, Dudley Digges plays the mean reformatory head, and he will make you want to kill him. It is a thoroughgoing performance of a man ruled by terror and terrorizing everyone around him.

The leader of the reformatory boys is Frankie Darro, a tiny toughie. He plays in concert with 200 boys, each one particular, each one creative and vivid in the many scenes in which they appear, both regimented and in mobs.

Archie Mayo knows how to make the whole thing work and move and capture the truth and the comedy and the sentiment of Edward Chodorov’s fine screenplay. The Special Features commentary is tip-top. If your parents ever threatened to send you to the reformatory, you were right to be scared, because this is what they had in mind.

 

Departures

02 Nov

Departures – directed by Tojiro Takita. Dramedy. 130 minutes Color 2006.

★★★★★

The Story: A young married man answers an employment ad and finds himself involved in a career of which no one in his family or nation approves.

~

I start this review by telling you that this film won the 2006 Oscar for The Best Foreign Film to captivate you into leaping into ordering it from your library or Netflix or Amazon or Santa Claus.

I have this terrible habit of criticizing films. Of course, one does this because one is addicted to the word “Halleluiah!” One wants to tell the glad tidings and bear the good news. It’s a foolish habit. But such a film as this makes it imperative to my soul, and I forgive myself for it – and for everything else besides.

This film was originally designed by the actor who plays the leading role, and he certainly is a great star. He has all the eccentricity and immediacy of a great star. And the looks. No film company wanted to make it. He held out. When it was made, everyone on Earth went to it.

Masahiro Matoki plays opposite the most charming actress in the world, Ryoko Hirosue, she who adores him, fosters him, and puts her foot down hard on his when she finds out what he does for a living.

Kimiko Yo plays the Gal Friday of the firm, and she has been around several blocks, you can tell. The formidable Tsutomu Yamazaki is the boss of both of them, never predicable, always rigorous. A great actor at work.

The film is shot in a plain manner that makes things surprising when they appear before one.

The direction devotes itself to a simplicity which encourages the comedy into our eyes without blistering them.

I don’t want to talk much about this film, except to say it is engrossing, expressive, different, and dear. I don’t describe it because to do so would be to betray its surprises and preempt its beauty and its fun. Let’s just say it’s just what film is for! I know you will enjoy it as much as I did. That’s my rash hope. But then hope is always rash, is it not?

I say no more. Except watch it. Watch it. Watch it.

 

 

Body And Soul

01 Nov

Body and Soul – directed by Robert Rossen. Sports Drama. 104 minutes Black and White 1947.

★★★★★

The Story: A poor young man, to be a boxing champion, risks his soul and almost his body in the attempt.

~

The earliest great boxing film, it is a good picture raised to a masterwork by the genius of James Wong Howe: he took a hand-held camera into the ring and followed the grand-finale fight on roller skates. The film has a gritty, realistic, newsreel-in-the-streets quality, which creates a world, the Bronx, from which the fighter fled by means of one seedier, the ring.

At first one wonders what the German actress Lili Palmer is doing in it as the good woman, except soon it is plain that she really is a good woman and a voluptuous one too. On the opposite side of the fighter stands his mother, Anne Revere, with her stoic, modest probity. And Art Smith as his kindly dad.

All around the fighter hover a swarm of trainers and promoters and pals, men and women of mixed motives. Williams Conrad plays his guilt-ridden trainer, Joseph Pevney plays his chum, and Canada Lee the boxer he defeats and then befriends. Lee, himself a boxer, executes his final scene in a flare of intensity.

Behind these ignorant, greedy, devoted souls stands the chill person of the American powerbroker, played with ruthless élan by Lloyd Gough.

The film was a huge hit in its day, but its day was the same day as the HUAC. When you look at the film today, you can see that it presents a perfect model of capitalism at its most ruthless, thoughtless, and cruel. The boxer is thrice a commodity. He is worker, product, and buyer. All are a commodity – never human – each a thing to be manipulated into great profit. The boxer himself does this. He is the worker who transforms himself into a moneymaking machine and he buys into himself as popular merchandise. It is a powerful dramatic construction, and one never surpassed in film to my knowledge.

Whether or not this was understood by the Un-American Activities Committee, it dragged in John Garfield, who plays the boxer and produced the film, as a Communist. He was not one, but he was forever blacklisted from work. So were Anne Revere, Lloyd Gough and his wife, Art Smith, Robert Rossen, and scenarist Abraham Polonsky. Their careers were destroyed; they were impoverished and publicly shamed. Canada Lee, the greatest of all Negro Rights Activists, was hounded to his death by it at the age of 45. He was not a communist either.

Nor is the film Communist. Just because it is not Capitalist, does not mean that it is Communist. It is not a polemic either, so advise yourself to see it. As you would see any beautiful work of art. As you would see any picture filmed by James Wong Howe.

 

Band Of Outsiders

31 Oct

Band Of Outsiders – directed by Jean Luc Goddard. Drama. 95 minutes Black And White 1964.

★★★

The Story: Two young men induce a pretty schoolgirl to help them rob her home.

~

These three are so young they seem fraudulent. A handsome man with nothing more in his mind than the ragged top of his tiny convertible. Another man not even young looking, brutally confident. A pretty schoolgirl brainless with excitement to be hanging around with these types. And sexual attraction indulged in as twere an allergy.

These are three souls whose minds are penniless, whose characters absent. They think they are in an American movie and all go to an English class in which they pay attention to nothing save one another.

This is Goddard, and this is French cinema at its greatest pitch of artificiality – l’ homage. In it, we are asked to pay attention to three people so bored with life they will rob any rich old man who passes by, as though Godard imagined this were an entertainment. And as though the monosyllables of Humphrey Bogart constituted a style worth of mimicry as a philosophical foundation for life.

The glassy stare of French cinema epitomizes itself with this noughts and crosses of vapid emotional gesticulation. Odile’s breasts moved under her sweater we are told. What else should they be doing?

Both these men toss a coin to see who gets the girl. The girl wants the tough guy with the droopy eyelids. But no one wants anything very much. To further alienate us the entire film is accompanied by a voice over of the screenwriter talking as though their doings were a long-over and significant nostalgia.

Is there to be a sweet memory here? Not so far. The only reason in seducing the girl is to get their hands on a great deal of cash stashed in a cupboard in the young lady’s household.

While their flirtation takes place, their English teacher recites Romeo And Juliet for them to translate, but their own energy is mercilessly banal and passionless.

The mean one meets up with a meaningless fistfight with his male relatives, a family of petty thieves living off hope for the takings. The romantic one pines.

What these two males have to do with one another is as mystifying as the mystery the mean one claims to see in the schoolgirl’s face. By what is she hypnotized in them? Certainly not in the trite plan they have to rob her landlord.

She remains a pretty, young schoolgirl. They remain two cheap crooks who probably would not get way with shoplifting a candy-bar. Franz, the romantic one, quotes Jack London, as tough London were a significant American artist. Bad B movies are their beau ideal. A la Funnyface they manage a footrace through the Louvre zipping by masterpieces, observing none. They improvise a perfectly rehearsed dance in a café as though they were Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, and Phil Silvers. In short, they fool around cinematically. So what? The tough guy screws her. So what? She takes off her stockings. They see her white thighs. So what? They enter the house masked in her stockings. They wander about. They gag the girl. The robbery is so without suspense its reality is preposterous. The landlord’s door is locked. They trundle out a ladder in broad daylight to fumble up an entrance.

The manner of the acting is naturalistic. The execution of the story is realistic. The two modes don’t fadge, so the effect of the film is like hitting a pillow. The men beat one another up and give the girl significant looks which intend nothing. The robbery is told as a lethargy trying to happen. When they get to the cabinet the money is gone. They gag the lady of the house and stuff her in a wardrobe where she dies, of what? Of So What?

The mean one and his uncle shoot it out long-windedly, as in a Western; the mean one dies extravagantly, just as he has been miming from Westerns two reels earlier. Worn out with sorrow and fatigue, the romantic one and the girl take off for South America – with what money, pray tell?

The director thinks he has directed a piece of pulp. Pulp is fiction exhausted once read and soon to be trash. It is not that which is exhausted and trash before reading.

For all his love of Hitchcock, doesn’t Goddard know that sexual energy between people is a fabrication of editing? Does he realize that existentialism and American movies are at cross-purposes? American pulp is energized by the vitality of a promised land. For all it excellence, France is not a promised land, nor is its language the lingua franca of it, and therefore its attempt at pulp is flaccid.

French film ends always with a sleepy philosophical coda about life sadly unmet. For existentialism is a pose, a pose rigid with inanition. False as a tableau. It’s first words are, “So what?” So are its last.

 

The Lady In The Van

28 Oct

The Lady In The Van – directed by Nicholas Hytner. Biopic. 114 minutes Color 2105

★★★★

The Story: A cracked old woman parks her van for fifteen years in the driveway of a British playwright.

~

What is this a duet of?

It is a duet of people whose duet with one another is meant to petrify them.

That’s not a bad premise for a story, because fear of change is a universal and determining human dread.

And yet, we do watch them for 114 minutes not change. Although each is beset by the other and by the chances of life, the more things get crazy, difficult, unlikely, the more each of them becomes entrenched in their own marking time.

She remains impervious to him as a human being. She does what she pleases, says what she pleases, and shits in his driveway when she pleases. He in turn remains displeased. That is what he does, what he is meant to do, what he is a frozen expert at being. Displeasure neither changes him nor rouses him nor wakes him up.

I am not sure Alan Bennett should not have ceded this material to Jean Genet. For it does seem Bennett does not realize the full potential of it. It is a story of unintended masochism on the part of the man and unintended sadism on the part of the lady. Each in his own way is impervious to the other. Each has a hide of leather. Neither becomes intimate with the other, no matter what they may learn of the other. Neither wants to. What you watch is not paint drying. What you watch is dry paint.

But what you also get is two ripe performances. Both actors played it on the London stage to great acclaim and success. Now both performances are filmed by their West End director.

It’s really wonderful to see acclaimed, finished stage performances – such as Julie Harris and Ethel Waters and Brandon De Wilde in The Member Of The Wedding – brought to the screen as treasures, herein by Alex Jennings and Maggie Smith.

In doing this, the greater interest is seeing inside of the doings and workings of a bag lady’s life. We would never be privileged to witness this, were it not for Maggie Smith’s unwashed rags and opinions and the filthy interior of her van, which Alan Bennett actually hosted all those years.

The basic difference between the two humans is that the lady is actually crazy and the man is actually sane. Which makes the relation between them superficial and makes our satisfaction with the movie superficial also. The only story possible, therefore, is that of Alex Jennings as the Bennett character. But Bennett does not know what that story is. As in the film as in his life, for all that happened nothing happened to him.

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC, BIOPIC, Maggie Smith

 

Washington Square & Acting & Maggie Smith

27 Oct

Washington Square & Acting & Maggie Smith– directed by Agnieszka Holland. Costume Drama. 116 minutes Color 1997.

★★★

The Story: Is the swain of the homely heiress a fortune hunter, as her father thinks, or is he something else?

~

I’m exploring the acting of Maggie Smith with you today and for a little while to come.

Yesterday, friends crabbed about The Lady In The Van. They made long faces, said they didn’t like Maggie Smith at all. Sounded like they would never go see her again if they didn’t have to. Stuck out their tongues.

Perhaps they make a mistake.

I haven’t seen the film, but the mistake they perhaps make is to confuse Maggie Smith with the character she is playing. Perhaps the character she is playing is unlikable, selfish, and cruel.

But, if the character is supposed to be these awful things and Maggie Smith convinces you she is those things, then Maggie Smith is a brilliant actor, to be admired, commended, enjoyed, and advanced in our affection. If she creates the character without eliciting your sympathy for the character, well that may be her job.

 

It used to be said that John Wayne was a bad actor. But people said that because he played cowboys, and the snob in folks thought Westerns were lowbrow so you could not find good acting in them. Entertainment, yes, good acting, no.

John Wayne was a good actor. Of course, he could not play King Lear. But to scold an actor because he cannot play a role his particular instrument is not suited to is plodding. And not being Lear does not mean the actor is not a good actor in his way. Who was ever better at What John Wayne Did than John Wayne?

 

Wayne’s instrument was not of a classical nature. But like the instrument of many classical actors, Wayne’s instrument was only truly at home in costume drama – costume-legend, which is what Westerns are. Even in non-Westerns he had to be in costume, the uniform of a trade – which in modern dress would be military uniform, sea captains’ togs, naval brass, Marine fatigues, Green Berets. Even when he started in perhaps his greatest Western, The Big Trail, as a very young man, he is already in fringed white buckskin. Put Wayne in a suit and tie and you have a problem. Why? Because –– think about it – his manner is never contemporary; it is always legendary. He is never paying anyone you would ever actually know.

There’s nothing wrong with that, nothing less in being able to act and do that. Wayne came from, belonged to, and remained in the heroic period and mode of film acting, which started when it started and has practically expired in film, although Tom Hanks, in his modest way, sustains the tradition in certain roles. Hanks originally played comedy. No more. Why is that? In asking this question we ask what sort of actor has he become, and what sort of actor is any actor.

Wayne is or became a performer of ceremonial plots. He delivered his dialogue with the ritual intonation of a doxology. He was successful at it. As King Lear he would not have been successful. Paul Scofield would have failed as Ringo in Stagecoach.

 

Maggie Smith’s instrument is also of a classical nature.

What does that mean – classical nature?

From the professional standpoint, it means the actor plays best in roles of high rhetoric: Shakespeare, Wilde, Shaw, Restoration Comedy, Old Comedy, Operatic Melodrama and Romance, Greek Tragedy, Schiller, Corneille, Moliere, plays in rhymed or unrhymed verse.

From the technical standpoint, the standpoint of craft, an art is classical which steals from the art of the past. Sargent is a classical painter because he stole from Velasquez. And it is one of the quirks of such an instrument that the noise the classical actor makes, whatever else it may be able to do, is generally not endearing, John Gielgud being an exception to this rule.

On the other hand, it also seems true that actors who are not classical actors are often quiet endearing. Lady Macbeth was not within Marilyn Monroe’s reach, but she was very endearing.

So it’s a good idea to try to see the whatness of an actor’s instrument before responding to their performance. Try to see what they are and what they are not before making up your mind.

 

As I say, I have not seen The Lady In The Van, but considering that Maggie Smith is essentially an actor seldom cast in heavy drama but more in comedy, we might consider what experienced theater folk say of her: that comedy is where the essence of her talent lies. That that’s the sort of actor she best and truly is.

In which case, from that lady in the van we might expect her to be nasty, sour, and unlikeable, and all those things we mentioned – plus funny.

If you look at her work in Downton Abby, you must observe that, except for Daisy and Mrs Patmore belowstairs, Smith is the only source of comedy, and the only upstairs version. Why does she make you laugh? (Those who know her say that as a person Maggie Smith is inherently funny!) The Dowager Countess is funny because she is wickedly funny.

And how does that work? How does she do it?

Why isn’t it just malicious? It almost is.

She’s funny because she makes her Dowager funny to herself.

She is not saying these things because they are mean. She says what she says not to hurt someone. She simply says it to them anyhow! And because it is delicious to her.

How does the Dowager get away with it?

She gets away because she directs her cracks towards those we already dislike. Which is also the way her part is written.

This is quite different from her performance as Lady Trenton in Gosford Park. The Dowager is not malicious. Lady Trenton is. She is inhumanly thoughtless to servants, whereas The Dowager is tolerant of her servants, and indeed pretends to let them believe that they rule her life. When Lady Trenton says, “Me? I haven’t a snobbish bone in my body!” you laugh at her behind her back as ridiculously unaware of herself. But, when an obnoxious suitor to the granddaughter of The Dowager says, “I’ll never come to Downton Abby again!” and The Dowager sweetly says. “Do you promise?” you laugh, for she is never ridiculous and always well aware of herself indeed. The Dowager has said what you yourself would wish to say to characters; Lady Trenton says what should never be said by anyone to anyone.

Partly what’s funny is that Smith makes The Dowager so completely selfish in this that you have to laugh. That is to say, she is happy. And the screenplay grants her license to be so. Still, how does she get away with it?

She gets away with it because The Dowager always tells the truth and it is always out of place. So it’s doubly funny – meaning its humor is complex and we find the very complexity funny. She gets away with it? Because no one can put her in her place; because, being a countess, she has the highest title; because she is the principal and ultimate forebear; because she is unassailably old; because she is rich; because she holds grand-maternal power; because she is beautifully spoken – all of which are givens with the role and therefore do not have to be acted at all and which Smith does not act. The Dowager is drenched in permission – all of which allow her to tell the truth out of place. Her job, as an actress, is to find the place. The Dowager is privileged as a child who cannot be spanked. What the rest of us have in mind but dare not say, she blurts.

And, of course, she is given lines which make her do so.

Such characters as The Dowager and Lady Trenton in Gosford Park have riches, power, position. They have everything, and so they are characters free to speak their minds. The one is funny to us in one way; the other is funny to us in another way.

Another character who could freely speak her mind would be one who had nothing. Such as a child.

Or a baglady in a van.

 

Other actresses admired Maggie Smith when she first started. And  actresses are quite chary and near and keen in perceiving excellence in a rival, and to all actresses all actresses are rivals. It was not because she played likeable characters, attractive characters, entertaining characters that she was admired by actresses. It was because she acted what was there. She played godsbody to Orson Welles in The V.I.P.s and a paid companion to Bette Davis in Murder On The Nile. Not glamorous roles. And not doing so, she has won 57 competitive acting awards in 158 nominations, and it would be wise to observe that these were not for roles whose conventions made her universally popular such as Bette Grable or John Wayne had. For, as anyone can tell, if she is a movie star at all, she is not a star of that sort.

She is not a star of the universally admired forces: The Heroine (such as Katharine Hepburn); The Endearing Lady (such as Elizabeth Bergner); The Trophy Wife (such as Elizabeth Taylor); The Sex Kitten (such as Brigitte Bardot); The Tough Dame (such as Barbara Stanwyck) or The Striver (such as Joan Crawford). Those women gave fine performances, but Maggie Smith is not an actor of such a universally and recognizably popular sort. She is not an actress of The Great Forces That Drive Us. That is not her whateness.

You might want to put Maggie Smith in Geraldine Page’s  class, but Page’s power puts her in a class by herself, and Maggie Smith does not possess Page’s power.

So you don’t go to Maggie Smith for a character to be nice or popular or kind or beautiful or vulnerable. Those are very big things, lovely things, some of them. You might find that a certain characters she plays might include those things. But you’d best not count on it. If you want bittersweet chocolate, Carole Lombard will grant it without fail. Carole Lombard was the most loved actress in Hollywood. She was also of the order of actress who could give the audience bittersweet chocolate reliably every time. Sweetness with a bite. It’s a fine order of actor. Maggie Smith is not of that order of universal consistency. Or rather, A Consistent Universality.

So you’d best not say you don’t like Maggie Smith when what you may really not like is the character she is playing. Miss Jean Brodie is not likeable .

So do not expect her to be always decent, as you do Henry Fonda, or emotionally pretty, as you do Marilyn Monroe. Or expectably anything. Or, rather, the only thing you might expect of Maggie Smith is that, within the realm of the character, she might be funny.

But her Desdemona in Olivier’s Othello, could be, but is never funny. So there! Best not expect anything.

 

Maggie Smith is now over 80. Leading roles for actors of this age are few. And, if they are written, do audiences come to see someone old?

Actresses take what is on offer at the time, as they have always done, and if character leads are also fewer, even an actor of renown may find herself pinched into the corset of a supporting role.

That seems to be Maggie Smith’s case with Washington Square, a TV adaptation of Henry James novel. It had previously been done in a Broadway play The Heiress, then in a notable film.

In all versions, Washington Square is about an upper class girl who is wooed by a good-looking worldly young man with no money. Her father acts as though the young man must want to marry her for her money and tries to put the kibosh on the wedding.

 

The hard thing is find the right cast.

In New York, the heiress was played by Wendy Hiller and the father by Basil Rathbone. Outwardly a good combination. In London it was played by Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson, another good combination. Cherry Jones won an Emmy in it 1995.

This version, which is a different take on The Heiress, returns us to something nearer his novel Washington Square. As a version it is more interesting, as a performance questionable.

The question arises as to how to play Catherine Sloper.

Her father sees her as unmarriageable – awkward, charmless, dull – and calls her so, forces that view upon her, that his daughter should really be man’s best friend, a lapdog.

But how does an actress do that?

For real.

Because the play, which has been successful many times, is about a person thinking they are not lovable. That is the drama. The drama is: is this true? Or in what way true? Can the suitor prove it to be true – or not true? Lovability. A Great Theme. Because each of us may harbor that gleaming doubt. Nobody Will Ever Really Love Me is the mantra in all of us that makes us want to prove this story out and stick with it.

But by what standard of unloveability is it judged, one must ask?

By the standards of her time, her father, her family history?

The actress must decide this. She must find what she can do. She must find what the rubric of acting allows her to do.

For unloveability itself cannot be acted.

Shyness might be acted, but it doesn’t get one far.

Modesty and humility, which is what Olivia De Havilland played in the film, don’t go far enough.

Physical awkwardness might do something – but it’s external. Here, the actress tries it in a dance scene, and it doesn’t ring true, because it’s exaggerated; she looks at her feet and counts beats. It’s too obvious, too externalized, too shown. Besides, behaving that way would make Catharine Sloper an idiot, and if she were retarded, she probably could not be pursued for a wife legally by anyone.

Does Catherine Sloper have sufficiently bad taste in dress to make her a poor trophy wife? Is that why she’s unlovable?

Here, she wears one hideous dress, true, but is one ugly dress enough to make one unmarriageable?

The character lacks self-confidence? Is that the basis of her unlovability?

It seems to me, that’s the heart of it, but in and of itself that is also unactable. That is, technically an actor cannot act such a thing as lack of confidence. What an actor can act is a seesawing between two choices resulting in confusion, which can be read as lack-of-self-confidence.

Lack of self-confidence can also be worked as someone who tries to be someone else or someone better or other than she is, which would make her a hypocrite and a phony. Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams does this, inadvertently.

But then such a Catharine Sloper would have to be a very tiny hypocrite for a suitor to get past it.

Or does Catharine Sloper think of herself as unlovable to please her father who calls her unlovable?

Does the key to the part lie in her father’s behavior towards her?

Does her confusion arise from believing her father loves her yet dubs her unlovable.

Her father resents her because her birth killed his wife, and so in his mind Catherine’s very existence deprived him of love and sex. So he in turn denies her both; it just comes out of him that way.

The father is an interesting character because his firm stand must be to declare he loves his daughter and declare she is unlovable, and in the same voice declare that the reason he says she is unlovable is because he loves her.

We can see this working itself out before us. When she is little he treats her as his devoted spaniel. And no more than that. We learn later what in his eyes her life should be: a permanent household companion to him. Obedient. Faithful. Fawning. He never wants her to leave the house. He never wants her to marry. He always wants her on a leash. He wants her faithful to him. He wants her to be a dog.

Yet we must believe that she believes that he loves her.

Or we must see that the extravagance of her love for him is designed to mask from her that he does not love her at all – a condition even more intolerable than the hypocrisy she fabricates to hide it.

So, we see her tearing down the stairs and jumping up on him like a clumsy puppy. Is that the key: she has decided she can be loved only as a Fido, not as a human woman. Is that where we have the foundation for Catherine’s character?

How would it feel to be treated like a pet dog, and agreeing to it, because it pleases the head of the house? And how would it feel buying into that fully – for her father and for everyone in their circle – and their buying into it too.

 

But now someone arrives on the scene who wants to treat her as a human being! A woman to be loved, desired, and married.

What does the actress do? Dog into human, human into dog.

Now there is something actable.

Perhaps Catharine’s failure of confidence is her awkwardness as she approaches life and others like a puppy.

Or, perhaps, she refuses to be petted, is standoffish, until she finds someone who can love her without scratching her behind her ear.

“Do people think I’m a dog? That I’m a mammal but not human? I don’t want them to. But so what! If that’s what they think, then I’ll be an Afghan Hound!” Is that how to start the part? On shaky ground?

 

I’ve seen this part done by Julie Harris, Olivia De Havilland and now Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Jennifer Jason Leigh has always been a problem-actress. She usually plays creeps, or at least that’s how everything comes out – the Lois Smith syndrome, except Smith got over it. We see something unstable in Jason Leigh as she does this. The actress, here as elsewhere, deliberately makes herself technically unmoored. Her characters go gaga. This turns her into a loose canon, such as she so brilliantly was in The Ugly Eight. And this is what Jason Leigh uses to show why Catharine Sloper is taken to be unlovable. Meaning unattractive. Meaning so odd no one can get a fix on her long enough to court her. She is unlovable because she’s too dangerous.

It doesn’t work. Catherine Sloper is not dangerous. Not insane. Were she insane or in danger of being so, there would be no drama, because the suitor would be automatically disqualified by it.

But still, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a professional actress playing a part for which she is suited. She has to go through with it.

And she fails because in the end we know we do not want the suitor to love Catharine any more than her father does. Because no one wants a handsome suitor to marry a bag lady. No wants a Catherine Sloper with such screaming eyes to marry anyone ever. And the reason we don’t is that Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Catherine Sloper is a creep. Whether the father loves her or the suitor loves her is of secondary importance.  We, the audience, must love her —  must know we love her — and love her for her — and we don’t.

 

Maggie Smith plays Catherine Sloper’s in-house chaperone, Aunt Lavinia. It’s a marvelous role, successfully played by Miriam Hopkins in the William Wyler movie in which Olivia De Havilland won an Oscar.

De Havilland is a pretty a woman if ever there was one, so that her Catharine is supposedly plain doesn’t work. Instead, her Catherine is supposed to be ordinary, which flattens the performance, so that’s is not quite enough either. But Ralph Richardson turns his opaque eye upon her to good effect. Montgomery Clift as the penniless suitor is beautiful enough to make up for all the qualities which the suitor Maurice Townsend is meant to possess: brilliance, charm, and a well-travelled sophistication, in all of which Clift is completely void. Montgomery Clift came from an upper class family; as an actor he is a City College undergraduate headed toward accounting.

None of these allures does Ben Chaplin possess either. He has lightless eyes and not great beauty. So we have to simply take on credit that he is her dreamboat.

The argument that the suitor could make a good husband as well as being a fortune-hunter does not enter into the Wyler film, but it does so here, and it is cogent, but not developed. It would make of this piece a considerable tragedy if it were and were there any appeal for us in the two actors themselves.

Another American actor, Judith Ivey, is excellent. The costumes of the ugliest period of women’s clothes in the history of the world are superb and are urban crinolines topped by sausage curls. Hideous. But accurate.

The interior settings are the most brilliant I have ever seen for this period. The movie is well worth watching just for them.

 

What Maggie Smith does is have a grand old time – strictly within the bounds of the size of the part.

Aunt Lavinia, poor woman, is as much in a passion over Maurice Townsend as Catherine Sloper is. Smith’s sexual dabbing on him, her brazen and fake-bashful rendezvous with him in a bordello, her interloping and go-betweening actually capsize the affair. Having so little business of her own, Lavinia noses into others’ business like mad.

Smith has a sound American accent in the sense that she rounds her Rs, a letter which, except at the beginning of words, the British never pronounce. Her mistake is that she has no specific American accent. Everyone in American came from somewhere in 1850; they would have sounded as though they did. Albert Finny as Dr. Sloper is also supposed to be American. Ben Chaplin the same, and is also English. So we have three English actors having vacated their native tongue and one American actress who has vacated her technique. The result is a dead axle.

Moreover, Maggie Smith, even with her American accent partly in place, does not convince in the role.

Watch what she does. Everything she does is on-the-money-American. But…

But her speech patterns are British. They are of British upper-class Modern Comedy, in which she excelled. Restoration comedy, in which she excelled. Shaw, in which she excelled. Oscar Wilde, in which she excelled. Comedies of Shakespeare, in which she excelled. It’s in her body.

The energy behind them is not of an American from Boston, a widowed Aunt living on the charity of relatives. The energy is British. The sort of person she gives us is someone who never crossed the sea.

 

To do my friends justice, their response to The Lady In The Van was that the character Smith played was so obnoxious that it made them gag, and, if they made of that a condemnation of the way she played her, their condemnation may be right. I haven’t seen it.

But if you look for the whatness of an actor at work you may find elements with which you can weigh and distinguish what you are seeing. This whatness is a quality almost so physical it will have a physical manifestation. Look for it. That way, you are more able to avoid saying that you hate an actor, that such an one is a bad actor or that so and so gave a bad performance. When, in fact, they have given a good performance of a character you don’t happen to care for.

 

It’s hard to distinguish one thing from another in human beings. Or in oneself.

Still, it’s more fun to look a little deeper.

It helps makes one more forgiving.

Before which, of course, one must become more ruthless.

 

~ ~ ~

 

 
 

The 100-Foot Journey

24 Oct

The Hundred-Foot Journey – directed by Lasse Halleström. Gastronomical Romance. 122 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: The melding of classic French and classic East Indian cultures and cuisines unites four lovers of food and one another.

~

Do not waste the 35 seconds it takes to read the following.

The personalities of a French country restaurant serving classic cuisine do battle with the spices and innovation that waft over from across the street.

Helen Mirren has created one of her not infrequent masterpieces of human character in Madam Mallory, the restauranteuse. Her Michelin star is 100 feet across the road from the Indian family who move to a village in France to open their restaurant there. The young master-chef is played by handsome dish Manish Dayal. The luminous light of India shines from beneath his rich, honest brows. Om Puri is the paterfamilias of the six young Indians who build the restaurant from scratch. He is an actor of triple subtexts, delicious to watch and enjoy. And the sou-chef from Mirren’s kitchen who helps and falls in love with Manish Dayal is played by the angel-food actress Charlotte Le Bon.

Do not read farther. You have been forbidden. Your job is mouth watering. Your job is appreciation of your own good taste. Your job is to draw up your chair and feast on this movie.

If Helen Mirren at her best were not enough, the heart-warming story would be. And if that were not enough, the Steven Spielberg production would be.

And if you know how it will end from the very beginning, so what? The virtue of a ritual lies in the truth it contains.

What are you sitting there for? Get to your Netflix, nip down to your library and take out the DVD. It’s less than a 100-foot journey to your own delight.

 

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, Helen Mirren: acting goddess

 

Denial

17 Oct

Denial – directed by Mick Jackson. Courtroom Drama. 110 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★

The Story: A historian/academic has defamed a holocaust-denier, and he takes her to court in England for slander.

~

Oscar-time means biopics. True stories from headlines or history books crowd our attention, as civics lessons and catch-up info, and they are always welcome for the impersonations actors bestow in them.

Here we have Timothy Spall – face once seen never forgotten – as the headline-grabber no-holocaust side. We see him charming the convinced – skinheads, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites – that Hitler had nothing to do with the extermination camps and that the cyanide was merely to delouse the inmates. His rich rhetoric, so confident, so humorous, makes us delight in how convincing wickedness can be when skillfully said.

He is the first of four fine performances. The second is by Andrew Scott as the strategy attorney who has to hold himself in check in order to hold his client in check, a female threatening to run wild.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt the American historian baffled by British Court procedure and eager to run her own. show. Watching her, I wished they had cast an American Jewish actor. For Weisz, a good actor, gets lodged behind her Queens accent, such that I can’t bear to hear her utter another word after she utters the first. This stalls the performer behind her technique. I never get beneath my own irritation with her character’ coarseness to care about her as a human. The accent is flawless; that’s the trouble with it. But she does a good job of playing her scenes, which consist of gritting her teeth after she has gnashed them in outrage about how her case is being handled.

That all her ideas are wrong is set right by the performance of Tom Wilkinson as her defense attorney. He is an actor of mystery. If he were wholly mysterious, he would not be mysterious at all. But he is-half mysterious, except you never know which half. I delight to watch him. I am amazed by his discretion and power.

He has wonderful lines by David Hare to speak in the three crucial scenes in a trial that lasted thirty days and cost millions.

The film is sound, informative, honest, suspenseful, and well-told. The story is enclosed in its own drama, but you will not waste your time. Go.

 

 

The Dressmaker

01 Oct

The Dressmaker – directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Dramedy. 1 hour 59 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★

The Story: A woman returns to her hometown to wreak revenge, and finds revenge in more ways than hers.

~

Shakespeare wrote several comedies which are called problem comedies or romances or failures, depending on who’s trying how to legitimize them. But they are interesting because they’re not legit; defy expectations; renounce definition.

In one the prince is small-minded dolt, but the heroine achieves him. In another jealousy is paid back by a termagant’s plot which improbably restores virtue to its reward with the marriage bed of a vicious ruler. We are met in Shakespeare, as seldom elsewhere in drama, with sudden events which no audience is prepared for or desires. In fact, like life, they dissatisfy. They do not regroup the order of nature and the world at the final curtain. They leave their audiences with the stark tang of reality. They’re Shakespeare’s mean streak. In them, the wickedest characters defiantly proclaim – and we never forget them them for it – “What I am shall make me live!”

This kind of piece is The Dressmaker. It reminds you of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit, in which The Lunts had one of their late successes and in which in the film Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn did not. A woman comes back to the town which disgraced her, but now, she has enormous power to unleash.

If you cast Kate Winslet as the woman you are home free, for two reasons, aside from her delicious physical appearance. First, she can act the role, which is to say that it is, unlike The Reader, within the range of her instrument and she has the ability. Second, behind that which lurks in the corners of her mouth as an action determined to take place, she has also a natural sympathy for us to participate in. Kate Winslet? Who cannot like her?

Which means that, whatever she does on screen, something in us roots for her. So on the one hand we believe her vengeance is inevitable, and on the other, where we might want forgiveness to reign, virtuous or not, we actually want her to succeed even at the worst she can do. We never want Winslet to fail.

She’s not like Katharine Hepburn or the heroic actresses of that era. Her characters’ success is not mapped out beforehand. No. You don’t know what will happen. She might be stupid or shot or detoured. Will this revenge take place and what form will it take? Especially when it begins with what appears to be also an act of kindness and even forgiveness. But no more of that. It is for you to watch, wonder, and admire.

Opposite her and lodged heels-in against her is her derelict mother played by Judy Davis. Davis, as we all know, is one of the great humorists of modern art. It’s her mouth. Anyhow she is bewitching in the role, and you want to visit the film again and again to see what she does with this woman.

Flying into their midst is Liam Hemsworth, a young man of such resplendent beauty you can hardly imagine he is as good an actor as he actually is. Twenty-six when he makes this film, he is just entering the peak of his masculinity. It’s always satisfying to see a male like this about to burst into ripeness. They come along from time to time, Hugh Jackman, Tyrone Power, and Hemsworth’s appearance brings a stunning reversal of energy to the film, which shifts its story, and shifts it again. Can there be an alternative to revenge? Mmm.

Films like this are hard to end, and a director really has to wrap things up faster than The Dressmaker manages to. But I didn’t mind. I’ll see it again. I know the good of it. The good of it is better than the good of most.

 

Snowden

22 Sep

Snowden – written and directed by Oliver Stone. Biopic. 142 minutes. Color 2016.

★★★★

The story: A brilliant young computer whiz mounts a high level career in US government agencies, learns the terrible truth, and breaks it to the press.

~

Any gross invasion of privacy would seem to be, for Edward Snowden, all the 7 deadly sins rolled into one. He is closed off, closed down, closed up. He doesn’t want to be pried-into. And one keeps thinking, thank God Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfectly cast as him. Why? Because this actor has the face of a man you know is keeping all his secrets. A gross invasion of privacy is what he is shown hating most. No wonder Snowden spilled the beans in the biggest invasion of privacy of all, the invasion of privacy of the US government’s secret invasion of the privacy of its citizens.

Never was such gorgeous use of the big screen. Never was a biopic told with such reliance on the intelligence of the audience to watch and weigh.

And all of that is interesting and consistently vivid, informative and narratively alive.

What is not alive is Stone’s rendering of Snowden’s romance with his girlfriend, which moves through its hackneyed tropes to arrive nowhere. For Stone is not interested in romance or sex or human relations. Stone is a civics teacher, and a darn good one. Besides, it is impossible to take sides with this woman, since Snowden is such a cold fish. His love life is not primarily important to him. Which is why he is such a cold fish.

Narratively, it’s a phony conflict. Snowden’s loyalty would not be between his girlfriend and his job, but rather the tug between his mastery as a computer virtuoso, systems inventor and innovator, smart as paint – and – what would jeopardize this true calling – the disclosure which would result in the loss of this job and this calling. Which is, in fact what happened. Stalled in Russia. In Russia all Russia is a Russian airport.

But Stone never sees this. Instead we get Stone’s canned approbation of Snowden – as though we couldn’t judge that for ourselves.

Still, the film, by Anthony Mantle, is beautiful to behold. We have wonderful actors at their best – Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage. And we have superb production values, Mantle’s stunning and convincing pictures, great editing by Alex Marquez and Lee Percy.

And best of all we have not the drama but the biography and background of Snowden well and clearly told, and it is worth the telling and the seeing.

 

Sully

16 Sep

Sully – directed by Clint Eastwood. Biopic. 96 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Forced gather to disprove the skill and heroism of the Captain of a passenger plane he landed in The Hudson River

~

Tom Hanks does not make a bad movie. Neither does Matt Damon. And for the same reason. They bring forward their middle class American foundation as foundation to their acting, and this is what I very much want to see. They are both lovely actors.

Tom Hanks has recently played a series of biopics, a sea captain whose grace under pressure saves the day; a lawyer brokering a spy exchange whose grace under pressure saves the day, and now a passenger airline pilot whose grace under pressure saves the day. All these parts require the authentic gravitas of life experience. He is the right age. He has the right look. He is ideally cast. He is always the same. Why should he endanger the part by forsaking his basic craft, type, and execution? It would be wrong. He is not playing characters; he is playing emblems. Offering emblems is one of the most important things films can do.

In Sully he plays the pilot of the airplane obliged to make a forced landing in the Hudson because both engines have failed. 155 persons aboard, all survived. The exploit was simple if you have 42 years of flight experience under your belt and a specialty in air safety as your sideline profession.

Laura Linney plays his wife – another expert actor – but in her case her exchanges are written conventionally, and there is nothing an actor can do with such lines except play them through. Besides, we do not care about the relations with the pilot and his wife, whether he will loose his job, whether their real estate will be foreclosed, whether he will be banished without a pension.

What we care about is whether justice will be done. For, the story unfolds as a trial staged by the aeronautics regulators to prove he could have made Teeterboro or La Guardia. So the film wrings us with suspense and anxiety and tension – which is just what we want such a film to do.

The staging of the landing on water, the conduct of the passengers as it happens, their rescue from the wings as the airplane settles in to sink is exciting and shown beautifully – twice! We root and worry for their lives on that deadly cold water. The whole outcome hangs in suspense, for eight years later everyone has forgotten the outcome of the investigation. Just because Tom Hanks is playing the captain and in our minds cannot be disgraced does not mean we do not sit on the edge of our seats until he is exonerated.

Aaron Eckhart, another lovely actor, plays his co-pilot and side-kick. Eckert sizes the part perfectly. Eastwood has directed it well and told its story in the right order.

Tom Hanks does not make a bad movie, which is not to say that he ever makes a great movie. Which is not to say Sully is routine or not worth seeing. It‘s real good. Hanks began with a splash. He’s still at it.

 

Cafe Society

07 Sep

Café Society written and directed by Woody Allen. Romantic Dramedy. 96 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: In 1934, a young man leaves his NYC family to work for a big-time Hollywood agent and to fall in love with the great man’s secretary.

~

Steve Carell continues to be new to me. He is faster than the script of Woody Allen, and whenever he comes on, the screen saturates with something happening.

Take a gander at the look in Carell’s eye when after two years he sees his former rival for the young woman Carell has married. “See! See! See what I’ve got! What you don’t have!” the glint in his eye says. “I won. You didn’t.” it says. So we are in the pleasure of witnessing an actor of imagination. And we are also in the pleasure of the only actor who is sharp enough to take his character to a depth beneath the facetious on which all the other players are stranded. Carell’s playing cuts through to an actual human being under the quips, jests, comic verbal and plot situations, and beneath the satire in which it is almost impossible for the other actors not to be captured and stalled.

For Allen’s script does not pass beyond the ceaseless twitches of his jokes. His jokes never stop. And the terrible thing about his jokes is that they are laugh lines intended to generate no laughs, because they are actually lines of comedy of character not comedy of gags. But here Allen makes characters only for satire. He is in a frenzy of satire. This frenzy makes for monotonous company after a time, just as, after fifty years, Woody Allen’s wishful nebbish is monotonous.

Alas, because here we have a great love story – but with no depth, and a lyricism talked about but never heard, except on the impeccable sound track, where Larry Hart’s mordant lyrics supply the deficiency. Here we have a version of Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet marries Paris and Romeo marries Rosaline. What then happens to poor Romeo or poor Juliet, when they still love one another all the time?

Because of the consistent jocular style, no growth is possible with the dialogue. Nothing can happen but the next jest, nothing can get beneath it the next comic stammer. The drama drowns in a monotony of wit.

The promise of this material goes unexplored also because of the casting of the two young people. Because of his terrible carriage, I have a hard time looking at Jesse Eisenberg. I suppose he can’t help it, but neither can I. He also falls into the film actor’s trap to indicate response by doing something with his mouth. Actually, he can act. I just don’t want to see him do it.

The leading lady Kristen Stewart on the other hand orders her technique lukewarm from TV. Minutely hammy, her response range is canned. Starvation follows our every swallow. Hers is the role two men from the same family fall madly in love with, and one wonders how come. She’s so doughy, so uncooked. What do they see in her? What does she see in herself?

Having said every unhappy thing I can say about the film, I certainly have nothing left to say but see it. Woody Allen wrote it, and he is still a national treasure. Santo Loquasto’s art direction is beyond great: the places he takes us: the bars, the palaces, the dives, the nightclubs of the ‘30s! The costumes of Suzy Benzinger are smart and vicious and fun. The supporting actors are tops, among them Parker Posey as a practical materialist fashionista, and Blake Lively as the witty Rosaline character.

It’s a romantic Dramedy, but don’t expect it will move you. It’s a marvelous story, even though Woody Allen stifles the drama with a joke every time an actor opens his mouth. Proceed to the movie house. But proceed with caution.

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DRAMEDY, Steve Carell

 

Our Little Sister

16 Aug

Our Little Sister ­ directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. Family Drama. 128 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Three young bachelor sisters live alone in the big house of their grandmother, and, when they invite their teenage younger half-sister in, all their lives change.

~

Cartoons, action adventure films, films of violence, fantasy, science fiction, horror, chick flicks, drug films, Nicolas Cage films do not find me populating their crowded audiences.

Because they have no content.

So, it is with glowing relief I watch this story unfold. The three sisters do not carry side arms. They do not engage in midnight abortions. Their sexual arrangements are clear, understood, and peripheral.

What they present is a modern and unusual drama of family life whose content is their home, their city, Kamakura, their past, their prospects. Two of them bicker. One drinks a little and engages with worthless boyfriends. Another is a head hospital nurse moving into care of the aged, and taken for granted by her married boyfriend. The youngster proves to be a super soccer player and hops on bike ride with teammate through a paradise of cherry blossoms. The sisters make wine from a family plum tree. They laugh. They learn. What has become of their mother?

Why these ingredients have content is simple. The content of those listed above is theatrical and virtuosoistic and therefore vacuous. The content of Our Little Sister is human, realistic, and clumsy, therefore dramatic. You can actually be present with it as a fellow human being. Their conflicts are perfectly understandable and sympathetic as Japanese and perfectly understandable and sympathetic as our own.

The film was awarded the Best Japanese Film Of The Year, Best Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Sets, Best Leading Actress, Best Supporting Actresses, Best Newcomer, Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Lighting, Best Cinemaphotography, Best Musical Score.

The cast is incontestable.

The movie is true.

It sticks to your ribs.

Go.

 

Florence Foster Jenkins

15 Aug

Florence Foster Jenkins – directed by Stephen Frears. Biopic. 110 minutes Color 2016

★★★

The Story: A New York Socialite devoted to classical music brings her collapsed singing to Carnegie Hall.

~

New York never looked like that then. I was alive in the 1940s and lived there. So the first falsity is in the costumes of the extras, the cars, the buildings, all of which are CGI and show it. Carnegie Hall and the other public interiors ring no truer than Lady Florence’s soprano. Is this treatment in conflict with or is it in support of the false basis of her talent in the ears of Francis Foster Jenkins herself? For the real question is, how come didn’t she know?

We never go deeply into it. And with Meryl Streep before us in the role, we could. The honest things about the piece are that Meryl Streep does her own singing and Simon Helberg does his own piano playing as her accompanist Cosmé McMoony. Otherwise all we get is the story of a flimsy delusion.

We do get that Francis Foster Jenkins was devoted to musical performance her whole life, and sacrificed a great fortune to pursue it when, as an 18 year old, her father refused to send her to conservatory and disinherited her when she left home and taught piano to continue.

The important element missing is that Francis Foster Jenkins actually made a recording of her voice – and she must have listened to it – and she must have known she was off pitch. So there is a disparity between her appreciation of Lily Pons in the ‘40s and Jenkins being knocked out by Pons’ singing. If we know Jenkins heard Pons, how come she couldn’t she hear herself?

Her vocal irregularities may have been a derangement brought on by tertiary syphilis. In which case we might sympathize with her as a human more deeply than we do, despite Streep’s success in making her a generous, charming and appealing individual, which in real life she may have been.

So one doesn’t know what to think of this film. It is certainly not the depiction of an egomaniac. Nor is it the depiction of someone whose God-given calling was to be a musical performer, although that was her God-given calling.

Hugh Grant plays her “husband” – actually her manager – one of several who fed her with flattery in exchange for the contents of her purse. He plays it well and is well cast, but it is a thankless role as written, because we never get a chance to explore him, except as a hardworking gigolo.

All this means that Streep is left with a narrow range in which to operate and operize. Still worth seeing, of course, more for Streep than Jenkins. And we humans should not deny ourselves. For, if Jenkins had done so, wherever would we be?

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, BioDrama, Hugh Grant, Meryl Streep: ACTING GODDESS

 

Winter Meeting

29 Jun

Winter Meeting – directed by Bretaigne Windust. Melodrama. A WW II hero courts a well-to-do spinster and breaks down her barriers to love. 104 minutes Black and White 1948.
★★★★
In its day, the picture was not successful, in the sense that other Bette Davis vehicles had been, which does not mean it lost money. It was concurrent with Davis’s huge salary boost to over $10,000 a week, and she is worth every penny of it if quality of performance is any standard. She is wonderful from beginning to end. It is not one of her bitch ladies, such as she crowded out her career and her talent with by playing for the last 40 years of her acting life. It is a quiet performance of a subdued intelligent woman; her transitions from mood to mood, from reception to speech, are an acting lesson to behold. She is always present and she is always free.

She talked about this film as the turning point of her career. One wonders what she meant. Did she mean she no longer looked young enough to hold the screen to a romantic possibility? She certainly looks great, though: she has lost the weight from her pregnancy. Davis had her first child when she was pushing forty. She was a tiny woman and extra weight showed on screen. Here she is svelt and limber. She walks with elegance and ease. Her training with Martha Graham shows in every move she makes, both physically and emotionally.

The top-of-the-line Warner’s staff backs her: Max Steiner does the score; she is beautifully dressed, and Ernest Haller once again masterfully lights her. Janis Paige and John Hoyt and Florence Bates support her.

But Davis said later that she should have gone to Hal Wallis and told him to shelve the production because it wasn’t working. What she meant by that may have related to James Davis as her leading man. They couldn’t get the actors they wanted, so they used an unknown. But, seeing it now, James Davis works OK. He’s not a conventional Hollywood handsome guy. He’s massive; his eyes are dark, recessed, and unreadable. He looks like he’s going to off the deep end, and that works fine, for indeed he is playing a troubled soldier hiding more than one bad secret.

In the course of their association, they have long talks, and these are intelligent explorations of their lives both now and before. Her tiny figure next to his mass is arresting. She is a much better actor than he could ever have become, or rather his style is that of a cowboy, so that you know that they would never really mate well, even had it all worked out between them, which I hope I do not betray your expectations by whispering to you that it does not.

But here she is at the peak of her powers, which in her case was very close to the end of them, and she is grand to watch, an honorable practioner of her craft.

 

The Free State Of Jones

28 Jun

The Free State Of Jones – directed by Gary Ross. Historical Drama 139 minutes Color 2016

★★★

The Story: A Confederate Civil War deserter joins with local Negros and farmers to establish an independent county in Mississippi.

~

Newton Knight must have been a man of strong body and mind to have led so many into justifiable action in a difficult time. And Matthew McConaughey is an actor fortunate in his roles these days.

Unfortunately, the director wrote the piece. So, after the rescue in the swamp, the story demotes into a Hit-The-Highpoints Classic Comic, which enfeebles it.

For most directors should not direct their own scripts. They usually lack point of view about the story – how good it is, how long it is, and even as to whether it is a movie story at all. Unless the directors (Preston Sturges, Woody Allen, Billy Wilder) are inborn writers, chances are they’ll sink their own ship.

The problem is that this director/writer does not see that he has a dramatic story but does not have a dramatic character. What he has rather is a record of an unusual individual in an historical conflict, but that individual himself is not conflicted. Instead the movie’s only narrative option is to jam into the corset of itself the entire record so as not to leave anything out. It becomes a documentary.

As a history lesson of an unusual and worthwhile person and passage of American history, the movie has merit. And McConaughey is marvelous as the character, particularly in the early scenes as you first get to know him, and I’m glad he made it. But, as written, no interior drama exists in the character for him to play off of. Newton Knight is up against a lot in the war and its aftermath. He is never up against anything in himself.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Matthew McConaughey

 

The Neon Demon

26 Jun

The Neon Demon ­– directed by Nicholas Winding Refn. Drama. 117 minutes Color 2106.

★★★★

The Story: A naïve adolescent girl on her way to be the world’s top fashion model.

~

The difference between the A Star Is Born with Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland is that the Garland version shows the talent involved, the Gaynor does not. Gaynor just stands there.

Likewise, the talent involved in the Neon Demon is that the young woman on her way to superstardom just stands there, because all she is is particularly pretty. So she stands there as a medium with which others’ talents paint. They paint her to film her. They dress her to film her. They pose her up as an artist picks up a paintbrush and, with the ruthlessness proper to paintbrush selection, makes something with her.

Elle Fanning’s character, Jesse, is the perfect instrument for the artistry of others. She is entirely without artistic expression of her own as a model – except irony in her slight smile as to how others use themselves using her. And in the power she holds just standing there.

The predominant color of the director’s pallet, the red of dried blood, along with a ruthless camera style, well-suited to the ruthless business of modeling, entertain and hold us almost as a story in itself.

But the story itself decays before our eyes as it enters the realm of allegory.

Allegory is a delicate mode. It is a narrative of internal drama wholly. Its external characters and action are the machinery inside the human: psychological contraptions such as temptation, loyalty, veracity.

When Una in Spencer’s The Fairy Queen enters on a white mule, veiled, and led by a dwarf, we are actually in the presence of human essence pure inside any human. When Duessa appears looking exactly like Una, we are actually in the presence of an imposture of human essence pure, which we lead ourselves to believe is the real McCoy. Looks tasty. Is poison. Lies that lie like truth.

When this sixteen year old, wearing a dress of fantastic beauty, is chosen to climax a major fashion show, she is turned from a cherubim into a demon before our eyes. Wonderful.

But ever afterwards her hair formerly something painted by Botticelli becomes ordinary cover-girl hair. And the story is lost.

The story is the demonstration that fashion modeling is not done to adorn and present the female body to men – for romance or marriage or love or trophy. No, it is clear and it is also true that high fashion is created only to crush other women with it.

So this story is badly undermined by the entry into it of a lesbian character.

In fact, the desire of women to crush other women with the battle-axe of high fashion is one with no sexual content of any kind. In humans, admiration is followed by love is followed by a desire to be the desired one, is followed by hatred, and it all peters out in the exhaustion which the obsession to hatred leaves one with. No sex is involved.

Particularly as in this case, evil lesbianism. Lesbianism which kills what it can’t have or be or conquer. And if lesbianism, why evil? A wrong allegory move anhow. Human envy does the job. The other models are sufficient. Sex is miscast.

So the story collapses with its own false version of itself. Until then and even after it is watchable. Arresting. And special.

Keanu Reeves plays a seedy motel owner well. And the magnificent Christina Hendricks grants us her executive confidence as The Great Model Agent Of The World.

How beautiful Christina Hendricks is. How interesting. What a subtle and distinguished actress. How noble in bearing. And what is the story to be filmed to encompass all this more valuable than anything in this film?

So many gifted actresses among us! So many actresses of rich character and talent! Did we really need this story of modeling? What is high fashion, after all, but gold lamé trash?

No elegant woman ever got her elegance out of a fashion magazine.

 

 

Éxtasis

24 Jun

Éxtasis – directed by Mariano Barroso. Comedy. 93 minutes Color 1996.

★★★★★

Four seedy small time crooks topple into the big time when a famous director adopts one of them as his son.

~

He is full of the juice of life, good to look at, and talented as all get out. Javier Barden at 26.

It’s remarkable to see him as an actor even early on his career making up a character taken right off the streets of Madrid. Take a look at the walk he has given this bloke. Take a look at the quirky personality he has ascribed to him. He seems to have started out as one of the most serious yet entertaining actors on the screen and twenty years later still is.

Playing the leader of the gang at full throttle, the story takes him into the lair of a multimillionaire director where he presents himself as his son. The real son is one of Barden’s gang, but the father has never seen that son. Complications arise when the director decides to make the Barden a stage super-star . Complications exponential themselves when Barden decides to really be that son and also to be that star.

Moreover, the play he is to appear in is the famous Calderon masterwork, Life Is A Dream, which deals — in a Pirandellian dance — with such switches.

It’s a delightful comedy, whose twists I decline to discomplicate for you here, for they are all up to you to enjoy when you see it.

And Barden, if you like him, and which of us does not, is a treat to behold in his early manhood. Gifted beyond measure, handsome beyond measure, big-hearted beyond measure.

Go look.

 

The Barkleys Of Broadway

23 Jun

The Barkleys Of Broadway – directed by Charles Walters. Musical. 109 minutes Color 1949.

★★★★★

The Story: A renowned Broadway dance couple bicker beautifully until she decides to act in a legitimate play.

~

Charles Walters was one of our best director of musicals. One would say he has no personal style, but his presence is effective in releasing performances in female stars. Judy Garland in Summer Stock, Girl Crazy, Ziegfeld Follies, and Easter Parade. June Allyson in Good News. Leslie Caron in Lili and The Glass Slipper.

What you have here is Ginger Rogers’ return to screen musicals, and this is her last. She’s 38. She’s been playing a lot of tennis. She’s no longer the girl of 22 when she started dancing with Astaire. She’d entered movie stardom as a teenager and she had made many movies; he only a few. She’d been an experienced vaudevillian and had a smash in Girl Crazy on Broadway. She did a great Charleston, but she had no tap, jazz, or comic dancing experience. But she learned so fast she got to make it look easy.

And she sure does so here. But what’s amazing about her is not just her beautiful and flexible back, and her finished porte de bras, or the fact that she had that perfect female movie star figure of broad shoulders and no hips.

What is remarkable about her here is how funny she is.

Keep in mind that musical comedy means that most of the dances and songs of a musical are going to be comic. We think of Rogers and Astaire as dancing those lyric masterpieces of ballroom romantic movement in which they were unsurpassed. But actually, most of the dance in musical is comic dance.

Such as we have here in Astaire’s playing a cobbler whose shoes come alive, in the manner of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and dance him almost to death. And we also have Rogers dancing with him two light comic numbers. First is taken in rehearsal clothes, and the second is the famous “My One And Only Highland Fling.”

Yes, watch her dance. But also take in her lightening responses to Astaire and to the situation. And watch this while she isn’t dancing.

Behind her skill as an actor is its basis, unusual in a top female star, which is that she is willing to look absurd, to make a fool of herself, to make herself odd. She enjoys herself doing this, and it’s infectious. As much as anything, her gaiety and fluidity of emotion carry the film – a film which is an MGM gem from The Freed unit, its book written by Comden and Green who gave us On The Town, The Bandwagon and Singin’ In The Rain; its music by Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin; and also by Khachaturian and Tchaikovsky – for Oscar Levant is found here for some reason playing The Sabre Dance and The First Piano Concerto.

It’s a wonderful part for Ginger Rogers, because she is playing a married woman, Astaire’s dancing partner and wife. This gives her comic latitude. She doesn’t have to play sardonic hard-to-get, which was the case with their first movies together. Here she is already gotten and so she is open to the wide range of comic response of a woman who knows her man as well as Rogers in their 10 movies together managed to get to know what she could dare with Astaire.

It’s a must-see musical, the only they ever did together in color. A delight.

 

Beau Geste

13 Jun

Beau Geste – directed by William Wellman. Action adventure. 112 minutes Black And White 1939.

★★★★

The Story: Three orphan boys grow up together, join the French Foreign Legion together, and act nobly together.

~

In a neck-and-neck race with George Steven’s Gunga Din at RKO, Beau Geste is a scene by scene adaptation of the 1926 silent film starring Ronald Colman. As such it is slow going. Until it isn’t.

For nothing happens until the last scenes, in which Brian Donlevy, the nasty sergeant in charge of the garrison, literally mans the battlements by stuffing its crenellations with the corpses the marauding Arabs have made of his men – which scares the Arabs off.

This is a super-duper and justly famous battle scene, worth waiting for. It inspires the star of the picture, Gary Cooper, who hates the sergeant, to admit Donlevy is a great soldier. Donlevy, however, is perhaps ill-cast, for he does not have a mean streak, which is needed, but a wicked sense of humor, which is not. He plays the part well, nonetheless.

It’s all well directed by William Wellman, who made sure not to leave out his favorite, a rain-scene, even though everyone is indoors. Those indoors enclose the three adopted boys of the lady bountiful of the house, who possesses the famous infamous “blue water” sapphire which figures into a plot that frames the action of the boys once they join the French Foreign Legion. Is that clear?

I hope not, because to distract us from this plot, we have various young to-be stars trickling through the desert sands, Broderick Crawford, for one. Alfred Dekker, J. Carrol Naish for two more. And for another, Susan Hayward, the most strictured of all actresses, who is the fond focus of Ray Milland.

Milland is the only one of the three English boys to have an English accent. Gary Cooper, who was schooled in England, does not assume one. Wonder why. Nor does Robert Preston as the third of the boys. Preston with his Dennis Quaid grin and zest is the most welcome of energies always, and who could be more convincing than he to save the day at last?

The story is a long-winded set-up for the final scene. You keep wondering when something is going to happen as we lumber through the boyhoods of these boys.

Gary Cooper as a child is played by Donald O’Connor, of all people: O’Connor the most spritely, Cooper the least spritely of actors? Is this because Cooper looked older than he was and O’Connor’s youth was supposed to correct it? Here Cooper is 38, too old for the part of a runaway youth in 1939, the miracle year of American Film. Robert Preston is 21, which is more like it.

Cooper had written into his contracts that he never play a character who dies. Perhaps because as an actor he is already dead, so if he did die how could you tell? He used his inertia to act. He is never one to pick up cues before sucking attention towards himself. Sloth and sluggishness stole whole scenes.

His stardom has always annoyed me. In real life he was shy, elegant of dress, and had an enormous penis – an infallible combination for female appeal – but on the screen, I don’t get it. I suppose people felt that a taciturn male must be more profound than a talkative one and more attractive and more masculine, which, with Robert Preston on the screen is proved pure baloney. I knew that when I was six years old and saw this movie when it first came out.

If you can wait for the finale when it comes it’s an entertaining show. And you won’t have wasted your quarter. Or your 17 cents, which is what a matinee cost me in 1939.

 

The Man Who Understood Infinity

15 May

The Man Who Understood Infinity – directed by Matthew Brown. BioPic. 1 hour 48 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: A mathematical genius from India is almost beaten to death by the math department of Cambridge University.

~

In the old MGM days biopics spelled out their story with great big letters, A B C. Their plots required neither understanding, thought, or interpretation. Only acceptance. We were supposed to swallow their regimen whole. We were supposed to digest their formula by rote, since that is how they were written and since no other option was available, save, in the end, skepticism that whoever made this film maybe didn’t get their facts straight.

The writing of such biopics prohibits those scenes of conflict known as drama. What they offer instead is tableaux. That is their narrative method. In these tableaux actors must paralyze their power to act in order to mime as best they can what is constant brass. For the emotion of these stories does not depend upon actions, actors, or even characters. In tableaux there is no emotion. Or whatever emotion the music can eke out of us. There is only the rigid formality of responsible biographical information. They are about big names and require great stars to stand there and just do them.

Such biopics constitute an actual form. Many biopics follow it. The pauper-genius makes his way into the chambers of power and is met with scorn, ridicule, banishment, deadening doubt, and so forth. But someone allies himself with him, and, against all obstacles, he wins out in the end. It is a victory scathed by bitterness because of the price required to achieve it, which sometimes almost includes his mate.

This form is called the story of the underdog. And two actors of great grace and fluidity, Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, constrain their imaginations to fit into the corset of the form in this one.

Deadening doubt is what Irons is allowed to play against Patel’s Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young impoverished nonentity who arrives from Madras at Cambridge where Irons’ Harold Hardy is a don in higher mathematics. Hardy has invited him there from India. Ramanujan is a completely untrained, unschooled conceptual genius. His mathematical formulas envision the answers to problems no one has ever solved.

Ramanujan is thrown to the snobs.  Hardy demands proofs of Ramanujan’s routes to the formulas. Ramanujan resists. Toby Jones stands by. Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell gives droll advice. And Ramanujan’s luscious wife has to stay in India thinking herself forgotten because her mother-in-law never delivers Ramanujan’s letters to her.

Audiences are biddable. They paid their ticket; they don’t stalk out.

Because there are other benefits here besides dramatic or narrative ones.

One of these is the setting of Cambridge in the midlands and the quad and rooms of Trinity College.

Another is the presence of these two actors who are so vivid by nature.

Irons is not here in his virtuoso mode. He plays a character hoping to save himself from the peril of disgrace by forcing his doubt on a perfect flower. That, to Hardy, mathematics itself is a poppy makes doubt grate on his wonder.

Dev Patel – he of the Slumdog Millionaire, he of the Marigold Hotels – grips one, as he always does, by the honest vitality of his being. Nothing about this actor is forced, which is a wonderful thing to see in a human. So we sit in our seats and allow the ceremony of the plot to take place before us as it has so often done before.

Dev Patel’s existence as an international star makes this story possible. Ramanujan was a great man. But who would have heard of him had not Patel been alive just now?

It’s wonderful to hear about Ramanujan. To see his name for the first time.

To see Patel fortuitously frame and make his name a name. To type it out here, over and over as someone who is now never lost.

 

 

 

 

Washington Square

13 May

Washington Square – directed by Agnieszka Holland. Costume Drama. 116 minutes Color 1997.

★★★

The Story: Is the swain of the homely heiress a fortune hunter, as her father thinks, or is he something else?

~

I’m exploring the acting of Maggie Smith with you today and for a little while to come.

Yesterday, friends crabbed about The Lady In The Van. They made long faces, said they didn’t like Maggie Smith at all. Sounded like they would never go see her again if they didn’t have to. Stuck out their tongues.

 

Perhaps they make a mistake.

I haven’t seen the film, but the mistake they perhaps make is to confuse Maggie Smith with the character she is playing. Perhaps the character she is playing is unlikable, selfish, and cruel.

But, if the character is supposed to be these awful things and Maggie Smith convinces you she is those things, then Maggie Smith is a brilliant actor, to be admired, commended, enjoyed, and advanced in our affection. If she creates it without eliciting your sympathy, well that may be her job.

 

It used to be said that John Wayne was a bad actor. But that was because he played cowboys, and the snob in folks thought Westerns were lowbrow so you could not find good acting in them. Entertainment, yes, good acting, no.

John Wayne was a good actor. Of course, he could not play King Lear. But to scold an actor because he cannot play a role his particular instrument is not suited to is plodding. And not being Lear does not mean the actor is not a good actor in his way.

Wayne’s instrument was not of a classical nature. Wayne’s instrument could play in costume legend, which is what Westerns are. For Wayne’s particular instrument to be effective it had to be in costume, which in Western  would be jeans and which in modern dress would be military uniform, captains’, admirals’, marines’ and such. This was true from the moment he started, in The Big Trail, where he is in fringed white buckskin. Put him in a suit and tie and you have a problem. He is or became a performer of ceremonial plots with dialogue spoken with the ritual intonation of a doxology. He was successful at it. As King Lear he would not have been successful, and Paul Scofield would have failed as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach.

 

Maggie Smith’s instrument is of a classical nature. And it is one of the quirks of such an instrument that the noise it makes, whatever else it may be able to do, is generally not endearing, John Gielgud being an exception to this rule.

On the other hand, it also seems true that actors who are not classical actors are often quiet endearing. Lady Macbeth was not within Marilyn Monroe’s reach, but she was very endearing.

 

So it’s a good idea to try to see the whatness of an actor’s instrument before responding to their performance. Try to see what they are and what they are not before making up your mind.

John Wayne?

Really, who could have been better?

 

As I say, I have not seen The Lady In The Van, but considering that Maggie Smith is essentially an actor seldom cast in heavy drama but more often cast in comedy, we might consider what experienced theater folk say of her: that comedy is where the essence of her talent lies.

In which case, from that lady in the van we might expect her to be nasty, sour, and unlikeable, and all those things we mentioned – plus funny.

If you look at her work in Downton Abby, you must observe that, except for Daisy and Mrs Patmore belowstairs, Smith is the only source of comedy, and the only upstairs version. Why does she make you laugh?

(Those who know her say that as a person Maggie Smith is inherently funny!)

The Dowager Countess is funny because she is wickedly funny.

And how does that work? How does she do it?

Why isn’t it just malicious?

It almost is.

She’s funny because she makes her Dowager funny to herself.

She is not saying these things because they are mean. She says what she says not to hurt someone. She simply says it to them anyhow! And because it is delicious to her.

How does the Dowager get away with it?

She gets away because she directs her cracks towards those we already dislike. Which is also the way it is written.

This is quite different from her performance as Lady Trenton in Gosford Park. The Dowager is not malicious. Lady Trenton is. She is inhumanly thoughtless to servants, whereas The Dowager is tolerant of her servants, and indeed pretends to let them believe that they rule her life. When Lady Trenton says, “Me? I haven’t a snobbish bone in my body!” you laugh at her behind her back, for she is so ridiculously unaware of herself. But, when an obnoxious suitor to the granddaughter of The Dowager says, “I’ll never come to Downton Abby again!” and The Dowager says. “Do you promise?” you laugh not at her but with her, for she is never ridiculous and always well aware of herself indeed.

Partly what’s funny is that Smith makes The Dowager so completely selfish in this that you have to laugh.

And the screenplay grants her license to be so. Still, how does she get away with it?

She gets away with it because The Dowager tells the truth and it is always out of place, except that no one can put her in her place because being a countess she has the highest title, because she is the principal forebear, because she is old, because she is rich, because she holds maternal power, because she is beautifully spoken – all of which are givens with the role which do not have to be acted and which Smith does not need to act – but all of which allow her to tell the truth out of place. She is privileged as a child who cannot be spanked. What the rest of us have in mind but dare not say, she blurts.

And, of course, she is given lines which ask her to do so.

Such characters as The Dowager and Lady Trenton in Gosford Park have riches, power, position,. They have everything. And so they are characters free to speak their minds.

Another character who could freely speak her mind would be one who had nothing. Such as a child.

Or a baglady in a van.

 

Other actresses admired Maggie Smith when she first started. And other actresses are very chary and very near and very keen in perceiving excellence in a rival, and to all actresses all actresses are rivals. It was not because she played likeable characters, attractive characters, entertaining characters that she was admired by actresses. It was because she acted what was there. She played godsbody to Orson Welles in The V.I.P.s and a paid companion to Bette Davis in Murder On The Nile. She didn’t play glamorous roles. And not doing so, she has won 57 competitive acting awards in 158 nominations, and it would be wise to observe that these were not from roles that made her universally popular like Bette Grable or John Wayne. For as anyone can tell, if she is a movie star at all she is not a star of that sort.

She is not a star of the universally admired forces: The Heroic (such as Katharine Hepburn); The Endearing (such as Elizabeth Bergner); The Trophy (such as Elizabeth Taylor); The Sex Kitten (such as Brigitte Bardot); The Tough Dame (such as Barbara Stanwyck) or The Striver (such as Joan Crawford).

Those women gave fine performances, but Maggie Smith is not an actor of such universal sort. She is not an actress of the great forces that drive us. That is not her whatness,

If Geraldine Page were not in a class by herself, you might want to put Maggie Smith in her class. But Maggie Smith does not possess Page’s power, which is why Page is in a class by herself.

So you don’t go to Maggie Smith for a character to be nice or popular or kind or beautiful or vulnerable. Those are very big things. You might find that a certain character she plays might include those things. But you’d best not count on it. If you want bittersweet chocolate, Carole Lombard will grant it without fail. Carole Lombard was the most loved actress in Hollywood. She was also of the order of actress who could give the audience bittersweet chocolate reliably every time. Sweetness with a bite. It’s a fine order of actor. Maggie Smith is not of that order. She does not possess universal consistency. Or rather, A Consistent Universality.

 

So you’d best not say you don’t like Maggie Smith when what you may really not like is the character she is playing. You’d best not confuse the actor with the character she is acting.

The actor will use herself to do the acting. She can play a beast and a bitch because those things are in her and because they are in everyone. She may be amusing or not.

But do not expect her to be always decent, as you do Henry Fonda, or emotionally pretty, as you do Marilyn Monroe.

As I say, the only thing you might expect of Maggie Smith is that, within the realm of the character itself, she might be funny.

But her Desdemona in Olivier’s Othello, could be, but is never funny. So there! Best not expect anything.

 

Maggie Smith is now just over 80. Leading roles for actors of this age are few. And, if they are written, do audiences come to see someone old?

So actresses always take what is on offer at the time as they have always done, and if character leads are also fewer, even an actor of renown may find herself pinched into the corset of a supporting role.

That seems to be the case with Washington Square, a TV adaptation of Henry James’ novel of that title. It had previously been done from a Broadway Play in a film called The Heiress.

It’s about an upper class girl with no confidence who is wooed by a good looking worldly young man with no money. Her father acts as though the young man must want to marry her for her money and tries to put the kibosh on the wedding.

The hard thing is find the right cast.

In New York, the heiress was played by Wendy Hiller and the father by Basil Rathbone. Outwardly a good combination. In London it was played by Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson, another good combination. Cherry Jones won an Emmy in it 1995.

This version, which is a different take on Henry James’ story from The Heiress, returns us to something nearer to his novel Washington Square. As a version it is more interesting, as a performance questionable.

The question arises as to how to play Catherine Sloper.

Her father sees her as unmarriageable – awkward, charmless, dull —  and calls her so.

But how does an actress do that?

For real.

Because the play, which has been successful many times, is about one thinking one is not lovable.

I think that’s what it’s about. “Nobody will ever love me,” is the mantra behind all of us that makes us want to prove this story out and stick with it

But unloveability cannot be acted.

Shyness might be acted, but it doesn’t get one far.

Physical awkwardness might do something, but it’s external. And it doesn’t work here, because it’s exaggerated in a dance scene where she looks at her feet and counts beats. Doesn’t ring true.

Besides, doing that would make Catharine Sloper an idiot, and if she were retarded, she probably could not be pursued for a wife legally by anyone.

She has bad taste in dress?

She wears one which is hideous, true, but that’s not enough to make one unmarriageable in the eyes of all the world.

The character lacks self-confidence.

It seems to me, that’s the heart of it, but in and of itself that is also unactable. That is, technically an actor cannot act such a thing as lack of confidence.

Lack of self confidence can be worked as someone who tries to be someone else or someone better or other than she is, which would make her a hypocrite and a phony. Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams does this.

But she’d have to be a very small hypocrite for a suitor to get past it.

 

The key to the part lies in her father’s behavior towards her. Her birth killed his wife, and so in his mind Catherine’s very existence deprived him of love and sex. So he in turn denies her both. It just comes out of him that way. When she is little, he treats her as his devoted spaniel. And no more than that. We later learn what in his eyes her life should be: a spinster and permanent household companion. Obedient. Faithful. Fawning. He never wants her to leave the house. He never wants her to marry. He always wants her kept on a leash. He wants her faithful to him. He wants her to be a dog.

So, we see her as a child tearing down the stairs and jumping up on him like a clumsy puppy, and there we have the foundation for Catherine’s character.

How would it feel to be treated like a pet dog but wanting to be treated like a human?

Dog into human, human into dog. Now there is something actable.

Perhaps Catharine’s failing is that she approaches life and others like a puppy.

Or, perhaps, she refuses to be petted is stand-offish, until she finds someone who can love her without scratching behind her ear.

“Do people think I’m a dog? That I’m a mammal but not human? I don’t want them to. But so what! If that’s what they think, then I’ll be an Afghan Hound!”

 

I’ve seen this part done by Julie Harris, Olivia De Havilland and now by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Jennifer Jason Leigh has always been a problematic actress. She usually plays creeps.

We see something unstable in her as she does this. This not so much in evidence here, but the actress, here as elsewhere, deliberately makes herself technically unmoored. Her characters are all gaga. This makes her into a loose canon, such as she so brilliantly was in The Ugly Eight. And this is what she uses to show why Catharine Sloper is taken to be unlovable. Meaning unattractive. Meaning so odd no one can get a fix on her long enough to court her. It doesn’t work.

Jennifer Jason Leigh does not get to the heart of anything here, but still she is a professional actress playing a part for which she is suited.

And she fails because in the end we know we do not want her suitor to love Catharine any more than her father does.

 

Maggie Smith plays her in-house chaperone, Aunt Lavinia. It’s a marvelous role, successfully played by Miriam Hopkins in the William Wyler movie in which Olivia De Havilland won an Oscar.

De Havilland is a pretty a woman if ever there was one, so that Catharine is supposedly plain doesn’t work. Instead, her Catherine is supposed to be ordinary, which is not quite enough either. But Ralph Richardson turns his opaque eye upon her to good effect. Montgomery Clift as the penniless suitor is beautiful enough to make up for all the other qualities which the suitor Maurice Townsend is meant to possess: brilliance, charm, and a well-travelled sophistication, in all of which Clift is completely void.

None of these does Ben Chaplin possess either. He has lightless eyes and not even great beauty. So we have to simply take on credit that he is her dreamboat.

The argument that the suitor could make a good husband as well as being a fortune-hunter does not enter into the Wyler film, but it does so here, and it is cogent. It would make of this piece a considerable tragedy were there any appeal for us in the two actors themselves.

 

Another American actor, Judith Ivey, is excellent.

The costumes are superb and are of the ugliest period of women’s clothes in the history of the world. Urban crinolines topped by sausage curls. Hideous. But accurate.

The interior settings are the most brilliant I have ever seen for this period. The movie is well worth watching just for them.

 

What Maggie Smith does is have a grand old time – strictly within the bounds of the size of the part. Aunt Lavinia, poor woman, is as much in a passion over Maurice Townsend as Catherine Sloper is. Smith’s sexual dabbing on him, her brazen and fake-bashful rendezvous with him in a bordello, her interloping and go-betweening actually capsize the affair. Having so little business of her own, she noses into others’ business like mad.

Smith has a sound American accent in the sense that she rounds her Rs, a letter which, except at the beginning of words, the British never pronounce. Her mistake is that she has no specific American accent. Everyone in American came from somewhere; in 1850 they would have sounded as though they did. Albert Finny as Dr. Sloper is also supposed to be American. Ben Chaplin also is, and is also English. So we have three English actors having vacated their native tongue and one American actress who has vacated her technique. The result is a dead axle.

 

Moreover, Maggie Smith, even with her American accent partly in place, still does not convince in the role.

Watch what she does. Everything she does is on the money. But…

But her speech patterns are English. They are of English Modern Comedy, in which she excelled. Restoration comedy, in which she excelled. Shaw, in which she excelled. Oscar Wilde, in which she excelled. Comedies of Shakespeare, in which she excelled.

The energy behind them is not of an American from Boston, a widowed Aunt living on the charity of relatives. The energy is British. The sort of person she gives us is someone who never crossed the sea.

 

To do my friends justice, their response to The Lady In The Van was that the character Smith played was so obnoxious that it made them gag, and, if they made of that a condemnation of the way she played her, their condemnation may be right. I haven’t seen it.

But if you look for the whatness of an actor at work you may find in you elements for judgment with which you can weigh and distinguish what you’ve seen or are seeing. That way, you are more able to avoid saying that you hate an actor, that such an one is a bad actor or that so and so gave a bad performance.

It’s hard to distinguish one thing from another in human beings. Or in oneself.

Still, it’s more fun to look a little deeper. Not much deeper, just a little.

It may help make one more forgiving.

 

 

Papa Hemingway In Cuba

08 May

Papa Hemingway in Cuba – directed by Bob Yari. Biopic. 1 hour 50 minutes 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Ernest Hemingway gets a fan letter and invites the young man into his home with its torrents of rage, depression, despair, love, teaching, and wisdom.

~

At the end of his life, the press savaged Hemingway for indulging in:

Bullfighting

Drinking

Beautiful women

Masculinity

Big Game Hunting

Braggadocio

Benders

Bad Writing

Cowardice

All of it was justified, but it was also mean – and ungrateful to what he had meant to every writer who said those things.

It was clear he had big character flaws. But it was also clear that, if all that was true, you could see or imagine that he was also suffering the torments of the damned. He was not well. He had terrible plane accidents in Africa. And perhaps the days of his big books was over. The press incinerated him.

If they had seen what this film shows his condition to have been they might have had the decency to be still.

This is a wonderful film and about a remarkable man approaching the end of his rope. And if we wondered what his daily life might have been at that time, here it is, in all is rawness. He is pitilessly going mad.

His tortured mutually tortuous relations with Mary Hemingway – and what she was like when he wasn’t around. His relations to his Cuban pals. His relation to his male friends. His relations to living. His relations to fishing and to what he relished in the good life. And his imprint on the young man who came to see him, was adopted by him, and whom he turned on.

At first glimpse of Adrian Sparks as Papa, I thought oh-oh he’s too old. Hemingway was only 59 when he died, a worn 59, but not an old man. This impression is immediately dispelled as Sparks plays out the scenes with all the necessary requirements as an actor and as a character. He’s terrific.

Giovanni Ribisi plays the journalist. In real life this journalist experienced and wrote the screenplay which contributed to the film we are watching, and because of that we get a view of Hemingway’s last days that is a revelation.

The film was shot in Hemingway’s home in Cuba. And a sense of authenticity rare in biopics prevails everywhere. We get a real sense of how he was. At times horrendous, at times marvelous. Who would expect otherwise?

Hemingway is honored by the film, as are his wife and his friends. We would not be watching them at all if he had not written those revolutionary early short stories.

Read them. Read them again. They have not dated one minute.

At the time he wrote them, he was married to his first wife, Hadley, whom he betrayed. His betrayal of her crushes him. Wanting to write of her prevents him from writing at all. Unforgivable is what he calls himself.

We do not forgive those we do not blame.

Quietly Hadley Hemingway lived in Douglaston, the town next to mine on Long Island. Everyone knew she was there. No one bothered her. She was spared. And was spared, alas, the book he at last could not write about her.

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, BIOPIC

 

Beau Geste

03 May

Beau Geste – directed by William Wellman. Action adventure. 112 minutes Black And White 1939.

★★★★

The Story: Three orphan boys grow up together, join the French Foreign Legion together, and act nobly together.

~

In a neck-and-neck race with George Steven’s Gunga Din at RKO, Beau Geste is a-scene-by-scene adaptation of the 1926 silent film starring Ronald Colman. As such it is slow going. Until it isn’t.

For nothing happens in the film until the last scenes, in which Brian Donlevy, the nasty sergeant in charge of the garrison, literally mans the battlements by stuffing its crenellations with the corpses the marauding Arabs have made of his men, which scares the Arabs off.

This is a super-duper and justly famous battle scene, worth waiting for. It inspires the star of the picture, Gary Cooper, who hates the sergeant, to admit Donlevy is a great soldier. Donlevy is perhaps ill-cast, for he does not have a mean streak, which is needed, but a wicked sense of humor, which is not. He plays the part well, nonetheless.

It’s all, of course, well directed by William Wellman, who made sure not to leave out his favorite, a rain-scene, even though everyone is indoors. Those indoors enclose the three adopted boys of the lady bountiful of the house, who possesses the famous infamous “blue water” sapphire which figures into a plot that frames the action of the boys once they join the French Foreign Legion. Is that clear?

I hope not, because to distract us we have various young to-be stars trickling through the desert sands, Broderick Crawford, for one. Alfred Dekker, J. Carrol Naish for two. And for yet another, Susan Hayward, the most strictured of all actresses, who is the fond focus of Ray Milland.

Milland is the only one of the three English boys to have an English accent. Gary Cooper, who of course was schooled in England, does not assume one. Wonder why. Nor does Robert Preston as the third of the boys. Preston with his Dennis Quaid grin and zest is the most welcome of energies always, and who could be more convincing than he to save the day at last?

The story is a long-winded set-up for this final scene. You keep wondering when something is going to happen as we lumber through the boyhoods of these boys.

Gary Cooper when little is played by Donald O’Connor, if you can figure: O’Connor the most spritely, Cooper the least spritely of actors. Is this because Cooper was an actor who looked older than he was and O’Connor’s youth was supposed to correct it? Here Cooper is 38, too old for the part of a runaway youth in 1939, the miracle year of American Film. Robert Preston is 21, which is more like it.

Cooper had written into his contracts that he never play a character who dies. Perhaps because as an actor he is already rather dead. If he did die how could you tell? Cooper is an actor who used his inertia to act. He is never one to pick up cues before sucking attention towards him. Cooper’s sluggishness stole scenes.

His stardom has always annoyed me. In real life he was shy and had an enormous penis – an infallible combination for female appeal – but on the screen, I don’t get it. I suppose people felt that a taciturn male must be more profound than a talkative one and more attractive.

I knew, when I was six years old and saw this movie when it first came out, it wasn’t necessarily so.

Still, it’s an entertaining show. And you won’t have wasted your 17 cents, which is what a 1939 matinee cost me.

 

The Constant Nymph

02 May

The Constant Nymph – directed by Edmund Goulding. Romance. 112 minutes Black And White 1943

★★★★

The Story: An adolescent girl has a crush on a classical composer who is a friend of the family.

~

She was a licensed pilot, and, after a flight from their grape ranch in Indio, she and her husband Brian Aherne were tired and decided to eat out before going home. They stopped at Romanoff’s.

In a nearby booth was Edmund Goulding, who had directed Grand Hotel, Dark Victory, The Great Lie, and knew Brian Aherne who was also English. Since Aherne had played the lead in The Constant Nymph in 1934, Goulding thought that Aherne might help with the casting of the female lead in the remake. Joan Leslie and others had been considered. He wandered over to their table.

“Sit down and join us, old boy,” said Aherne. “And, er, this is my wife.”

“Jack Warner wants a star, but she has to be consumptive, flat-chested, anemic, and fourteen,” said Goulding. “It’s impossible.”

“How about me?” said Aherne’s wife.

“Who are you?” asked Goulding.

“Joan Fontaine.”

“Oh my god, absolutely right!” Goulding ran to the nearest phone to call Jack Warner, and Fontaine was confirmed the next morning.

Fontaine had played Rebecca and Suspicion (the only Oscar winning performance in any Hitchcock film), and she would be nominated for The Constant Nymph.

Goulding was generally considered to be a genius director, and that is never more apparent than in his direction of this film. He rewrote a lot of the script to its advantage. His sense of the mis-en-scene, especially in the first half, is remarkable. The frocks on Joan Fontaine are by Sears-Roebuck, which is right, and the gowns on Alexis Smith are by Orry-Kelly and are  royal – indeed, one of them looks made from a bolt-end of Bette Davis’s metallic dress in Elizabeth And Essex. The lighting and camerawork Tony Gaudio did for him, the production by Henry Blanke and Hal Wallis which guaranteed Warner’s top talent, the sets, all make for a first class entertainment. As supporting actors, we have Peter Lorre, Alexis Smith, Dame May Whitty  and Charles Coburn — whose mere appearance in any picture is a comic situation in and of  itself.

But his handling of Joan Fontaine is what is most remarkable. For she is here as she had never been before and would never be again. She had generally played and would go on to play wan heroines and milksops, a series of vapid Rowenas. But in this film she is a lively teenager, tearing around the house with her sister, with her hair anywhichway. I could not believe this tedious and strained actress could act this charming, vivacious, spontaneous jeune fille. The picture is a wonder because of her. She always said it was her favorite film. It is the best thing she ever did.

With complete authority, Charles Boyer carries the part of the composer which he is probably too short, fat, and old to play. But he is entirely seductive, as usual, with his wonderful eyes and sensual mouth and deep and resplendent voice. Boyer is a great actor and enormously popular in his day – which, in this case, means an actor backed up by great internal vitality – such as, for instance, Tom Cruise.

Boyer’s score is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, but the music side of the story does not work because it is gauche. But this is overridden by Goulding’s direction. His sense of setting and decor. And his handling of actors.

Aside from Fontaine, notice his handling of Alexis Smith, a cold actor, whom Goulding makes sure we see a different side of here. The same is true of Lorre and Coburn. Both are at first obnoxious and both we eventually root for. Indeed, we come to side with all these characters – he has written and directed them in the round — a great feat for a director.

Yes, everyone in Hollywood thought of Goulding as great director. But his Bette Davis movies, for instance, are not great as movies.  So where are his great movies?

Here’s one.

Perhaps one’s enough.

 

 

Eye In The Sky

01 May

Eye In The Sky – directed by Gavin Hood. Thriller. 102 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: A little girl selling bread near an important drone target is the focus of the tension between the commander of the drone operation and the young man trained to pull the trigger on the target.

~

The story approaches absurdity as one higher-up after another is called upon to okay the pulling of the trigger. It skips over The Queen and would have landed on the crowded desk of God if things had gone on any further.

Why the heck are the Brits in command of a target upon which an American soldier must open fire? This curious distortion of the film holds one subconsciously in check as one watches. Its unposed question seals us in suspense as the surface difficulties regarding the little girl weave the protagonists in a cats cradle of difficulties.

Around the conference table pace and halt Alan Rickman, Jeremy Northam, and ranks of cellphones pulled tight as red-tape strangles everyone.

What makes the film work is the charm of the child on the one hand, which we get in following her day, her family, her tasks. And set against these, two people who never get to know her as we get to know her.

These two are Helen Mirren who, in a parallel line to her Detective-inspector Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect, runs the operation from a War Room and urges the immolation of the child at every turn – every turn turned-down.

The effectiveness of the entire film, however, depends upon the casting of the actor whose job it is to aim the drone and fire it. The film would not work at all without the presence of the particular actor the producers have hired.

Aaron Paul eyes possess the rare capacity to register an internal moral certainty being deeply questioned by the authority of external information coming at him. This was the quality that sustained Breaking Bad throughout its six seasons.

Paul’s ability to do this as an actor places the entire story in our shoes. His presence, the presence of those eyes, is a narrative necessity. And his strength, which the story requires, to sustain this balance, this question, this quandary, and to act upon it is the real story that supplants all the rest.

 
 
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