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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.

 

Hello, My Name Is Doris

30 Apr

Hello, My Name Is Doris – written and directed by Michael Showalter. Screwball Comedy. 90 minutes Color 2016.

★★★

The Story: A spinster forgotten in the accounting department of a modern firm imagines herself the mate of the handsome new executive.

~

All three stars go to Sally Field and Tyne Daly her confessor in a mating dance Field does at work which she should not do there or any place else. But comedy consists of what one ought not to do, does it not?

Field is 70 and still at the top of her game. What blooms from Sally Field is hope, doubt, and resolution. What does not bloom from her is sexual repression and self denial. She does not suffer long an inability to speak her mind.

These, however, are the background of her character, for she has just been released by her mother’s death in Staten Island, where Field had looked after her for a thousand years. Suddenly there’s this guy in the elevator.

Good.

What is odd about the character is the way she dresses. And here the problem starts.

For why has no one particularly until now noticed that Doris dresses like a rummage sale. That’s why nobody notices her.

And yet, now, all at once, she is considered hip because of her clothes. She goes to the theatre and is taken up. She goes to a disco and she is taken up. She is photographed for a fashion magazine. Maybe the guy is taking her up too.

The problem in all this that the clothes the costumer has put her in and that Field herself has culled from wardrobe look calculatedly bold, deliberately outré. They become more funny than the actress who wears them.

This character, Doris, would have dressed herself in whatever came to hand, cheaply, in hand-me-downs, and color-blind cardigans. Technicolor emblazons the costumes. They seem deliberate instead of unconscious.

Sally Field’s performance cuts through this difficulty as though it did not exist. She is one of our most welcome and wonderful actors. She has won two leading actor Oscars and has not had a leading role in a film for 20 years. You will take to her, as always, and admire her skill. She has one of the great qualities of politicians and actors: likability. Catch up to her and enjoy.

 
 

The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemum

27 Apr

The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemum – directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Backstage Drama. 142 minutes 1939.

★★★★★

The Story: A young serving woman finds her life’s work in supporting a spoiled young man to become a great Kabuki actor.

~

It is one of the great films of the world.

And lest that put you off, let me remark that the self-sacrifice one finds prevalent in certain female characters in American movies of this time (Stella Dallas, for example) collapses under the nobility of the burden of an emotion of which one tires because it was phony, because it was the goodie-goodie dole parceled out to audiences by the doers of The Depression as payoff for the chisel. We Cheated You But At Least You Met Deprivation Nobly was the American lie. This is not that.

No women’s-libber dare speak against this woman’s calling. Oh, yes, she is taken advantage of by some males about her, as well as by some females. This is not that, either.

And those who may decry her as a codependent doormat have no place at this table.

For who can convince the uniformed in human emotion? The vulgarity of social values is what is unintentionally triumphed over by her, including all those above named.

For she devotes herself to the truth of a great artist from the moment he is laughed off the stage as a lousy actor – which he is. How come he doesn’t know he’s lousy? Because he’s the son of the superstar, and everyone in the company toadies up to him with unearned praise. To see the truth within him is her God-given gift. This is what she gives herself to, as some give themselves to service or to art or to a faith.

That’s how it starts. How it continues involves a great story-telling technique, of fascinating our attention to the narration through the point of view of enormously long takes – one of them 6 minutes – a device Hitchcock failed at twice – but which encompasses a visual setting of such relentless loveliness the calmness of them is as irresistible as a volcano.

You may weep. You may not. You may want to own it in order to make a life study of it. I simply counsel you to subject yourself to it. Michelangelo’s Pieta traveled around America, and when it did we all came to see it: a teenage girl holding the body of her 33 year-old dead son. See this for the same reason. Exercise your cultural curiosity by crossing the street to where it is.

And thank me one day that I whispered these things to you.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: JAPANESE MOVIE-NOH, DIRECTED BY: Kenji Mizoguchi, MUST SEE

 

The Jungle Book

22 Apr

The Jungle Book – directed by Jon Favreau. Fantasy/Adventure. 105 minutes color 2016

★★★★★

The Story: A wild child reared by wolves in an East Indian Jungle faces comic characters and tragic perils as he faces his life head on.

~

I have never seen a movie like this!

This was my first impression and my last.

For there are now film processes which make of this Disney jungle a realistic world, not a cartoon one. The animals appear to be real animals. The water real water, the jungle real jungle.

This enables innumerable craftspeople to make this world move at their will. It moves as it would move, but at their will.

Thus granting one infinite security in a dangerous environment, I sit back and view Kipling’s Mowgli fight for his life and the lives of others with and against animals which abound.

It is the story of an eleven year old miniature Tarzan reared by the wolves, fostered by a black puma (Ben Kingsley) and adopted by a lazy nonchalant con artist bear (Bill Murray).

Mowgli is torn between two moralities, the ethics of his wolf training on the one hand and on the other his own human natural craftiness. Central to his dilemma is that he is also the favored and predestined prey of a tyrannical tiger (Idris Elba). He has other opponents equally large: Kaa (Scarlet Johansson), an endless Indian python who takes a liking to him, and King Louie, a Gigantopithecus Orangutan with a strong Queens accent (Christopher Walken).

But the chief charm of the film is the boy who plays Mowgli. He is a real boy, Neel Sethi, not a machine-made one, and he is delightful. He is so good I thought he was a machine-made one because his body fit seamlessly into the settings and fur. Besides, no one could do that racing through the trees and jungle. Yet, we learn he underwent parkour training to develop the alacrity, resourcefulness, and finesse to speed across high boughs, leap boulders, fly through the air, and outpace a leopard.

A number of movies of The Jungle Books have been made. The first one I saw I remember best, the 1942 version with the great Sabu and real animals. If you’ve never seen Sabu, see it; see anything with him. But all versions are enjoyable because of the fundamental necessity of the story to our lives. We need to be entertained by this vision of human inventiveness and resourcefulness and probity – in a child. It encourages us to be cunning and wise and persevering in what we are and do. It tells us that it is never too late because we are never too young. We could do this from the start!

So the story is a tonic and the film is a miracle. The version I saw was in 3D, and I recommend you see that too. I am a very old man and I adored it. Not a moment of it was lost on me. And if you are any younger than what will turn you into a very old man one day, you will have a wonderful and important recollection in your tummy if you go.

 
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The Big Easy

21 Apr

The Big Easy – directed by Jim McBride. Romanic Police Procedural. 108 minutes Color 1987.

★★★★

The Story: An Assistant D.A. searches for police corruption in The New Orleans Police department, and falls for one of the cops

~

It’s not very convincing as a story, but as a movie it is fetching. Rash improbabilities sabotage our credence. But we have John Goodman in New Orleans where he made an even bigger impression later in Treme. And here is Ned Beatty in his heyday.

Ellen Barkin is here in all her sexy peculiarity. It’s had to believe in her as an actress because she seems so uncertain as to her effects, but there is something appealing about her asymmetrical face. Her whole face appears to be a scar. It isn’t, of course. But it makes her an actress who inspires not admiration but compassion. In this piece she is always slightly ahead of herself, jumping a gun that is never fired.

We also have Dennis Quaid with his clothes off. Quite rightly too, as he had a terrific figure. He is in his early 30s here and looks younger.

Dennis Quaid counts a good deal on a quirky charm and his supernal grin to pull him through the plot. But he’s always worth a visit as an actor. He can always summon the needful.

I have seen him completely naked more than once in films, and it suggests a quality he had and still has as an actor of knowing exactly what to do with a woman when he is with her, exactly what moves to make in front of her, exactly what shall come from his eyes in order to turn her on. He knows how to look at a woman and behave before her as though to convey just what it would be like for her to go bed with him. Now, in some men this might be sleazy, but in Dennis Quaid is ebullient. It is full of fun and wit and a delight in his life. It is a quality rarer in big star movie actors than one might suppose. Charles Boyer possessed it, Sean Connery and Jean-Paul Belmondo possessed it, Marlon Brando possessed it but was seldom called upon to use it.

In this film, this quality makes up the necessary. For Quaid’s sexual confidence, his willingness to drop his drawers, is the exact opposite of Ellen Barkin’s want of experience and total lack of confidence. The result is a chemistry so convincing you forgive the implausabilities of the plot.

Most interesting of all is the presence of the renowned Charles Ludlam, maestro and superstar of The Ridiculous Theatre Company. I remember him playing Camille there, with Garbo’s dresses and manner and a hairy chest topping her crinolines. It was one of the most moving performances I have ever seen. Here he plays a canny Southern lawyer and if you want to see what an actor can do to capture every trick and turn of a character and a type, Ludlam in The Big Easy is a lesson in point.

We also have New Orleans on display, always an interesting diversion, in which, with Barkin, Quaid, Ludlam, Beatty, Goodman and the others, one could do worse than wile away an easy hour.

 

True Detective

12 Apr

True Detective [Season 1] – directed by Cary Joji Fukunga. Police Procedural 8 Part HBO Series. Color 2014.

The Story: Two incompatible cops are assigned to solve a strange crime.

~

The film is a remarkable collation of production, writing, design, filming, direction, editing, and acting. With one exception.

Matthew McConaughey is not that exception. For if you ever wanted to know what power in acting looks like, here it is! Power does not require scenes of vocal range, emotion, or physical display. It may include them, but the sense always is that the artist is nowhere near the limits of his technique, but that the range accessible to that technique is without limit, given the material at hand, the canvas at hand, the occasion at hand.

Seeing him one would never make the mistake of supposing that McConaughey could sing opera or play King Lear. He is an actor who never tries to dupe us into believing that he is greater or other than he is. There are more kinds of great actor than Daniel Day-Lewis.

For, watching him, nothing comes to mind but the desire to continue to do so. We are not distracted. Instead, we sense we are in the presence of a rare opportunity an actor of rare and minute focus, of tiny gesture, each one emerging from his guts in a part perfectly suited to him.

Inside the actor one senses latitude without boundary, which means: the ability to release the material as he wishes, a fastidious rendering of the role’s structure, a sense of the proper size of the role, a sense of a cunning relationship to the architecture of the story as a whole. He understands the period. He understands the rubric of film. He understands the decorum of the character. He can create the titanic with perfect silence. Large or small in his effects he is relaxed. As an actor he is operating out of freedom and in freedom. So all this appears easy.

It is not the same for Woody Harrelson. Harrelson is in a less gutsy role but a more emotional one. But Harrelson is given to a grotesque grimacing with his lower jaw. It is hard to watch and impoverishing to the performance. What is odd is that concurrent with this facial gesticulation is a good actor at work. He is not mugging, but it looks like mugging. Harrison is full of emotion, but releases it through a tic, which someone should be kind enough to ask him to stop. One turns one’s eyes from him, until McConaughey has occasion to call his character a moron, which, unfortunately is what the actor looks like!

It’s too bad, but it does not ruin a story that proves what others have said that the best film drama these days is on cable series TV.

If True Detective is typical, mini-series TV has also changed acting style. No longer speeded up by commercials or by a two-hour time limit set by cinema owners, actors now have space to slow down and open up their work. Golden Age Hollywood Crisp acting is nowhere on view in these mini-series. Nor is modern TV acting or movie acting what we see. No, rather it’s a style of acting with latitude of range, time, and silence. In its spaces we sit and contemplate the vast paradoxes that the art of acting has to reveal about human nature. No one on earth has a greater sense of this than actors.

I understand Season 2 has a different story and performers and that Season 1 is complete in itself. By all means, see True Detective Season 1.

 

Breaking Bad

07 Apr

Breaking Bad – various directors and writers. TV crime business serial. 6 Years Color 2008 – 2013.

★★★★

The Story: A high school chemistry teacher stricken with cancer manufactures methamphetamine and many unforeseen consequences.

~

One great gift of the series lies in the acting of the supporting players. To list only some of them:

Mark Margolis as the stroke victim godfather of a Mexican drug cartel, hell bent on revenging the deaths of his three nephews. His face is eloquent with power not just stymied by his stroke but by a strategy for murder which shall not be pacified. The little bell he rings is the toll of death. I hate him, I understand him, I wouldn’t want to come across him. The actor brings to bear in his ruined eyes a sense of implacability rich to behold.

Krysten Ritter as the beautiful girlfriend with the black hair and outfits whose wit and learning tell us so much about her boyfriend, the leading actor played by Aaron Paul’s character Jess Pinkman. Here is a performance of subtlety and distinction, and I miss the promise her very being held out for Jesse Pinkman.

David Constable as the substitute meth chemist for Aaron Paul. He plays the character as open as a baby. The character’s naiveté is so out of place in the great world of anything, and his presence is so endearingly funny that we miss him terribly once he is gone.

Robert Forster as the creator of new identities for criminals. Always welcome, always perfect, Forster, an actor of great reserve, introduces the same blind integrity he brought to Reflections In A Golden Eye years ago as the object of Marlon Brando’s lust.

R.J. Mitte is lovely as the adolescent son, Flynn. Sixteen when the series started and twenty-one when it ended, in its five seasons, whose time range is perhaps a year and half of story, he does not seem to grow taller or change physically. When the series starts he is already at his full height, which is a form of casting mischief. Besides, his being taller than his parents and the baby soon to be born present a useful constant paradox for the entire series. (By his eyes, it looks like the young actor got laid toward the end of that time, and it makes one glad for him.) He plays Flynn such that one can take the character seriously and to one’s heart. That the character and the young actor have cerebral palsy does not factor into the story at any point, which is a writing error but which adds to the paradox. That is, he plays a character sold short by the writers. At the wrap-up we do not see the consequence of the story upon him. It is an error of omission and a wicked one.

Another such error is committed against the character of Marie, the nosy, spill-the-beans sister-in-law who is the wife of the DEA agent. She is an infuriating person played perfectly by Betsy Brandt. She is one of the two sisters engaged in unlawful activities, but the writers make nothing of her shoplifting once her sister also becomes lawless. The character’s qualities drift away as the writing of the series goes on. Her character is eventually written as “the loyal wife of a difficult man,” but she plays it as in complete command of herself even while acceding to him – no easy task for an actor. We are not given enough at the end to imagine what her life now will be, and I wish we were, for she’s excellent. We are, however, given a wonderful close-up of her as one perpetually life-stricken by what her brother-in-law has done to her.

Bob Odenkirk’s character of the shyster lawyer Saul Goodman brings riffs of vaudeville into the swirling bowl of the story. As an actor he is a tonic, unpredictably predictable. He’s a good example of an actor’s ability to physicalize a character into life. He puts the character on the move to mobilize its mental moves. He is a perfect antidote to the heavies with which the series is well populated. His is probably the best-written part in the series.

Jonathan Banks heads the list of heavies, whose number is by no means exhausted by those praised here. In stillness his face, tells all; tiny movements of his mouth reveal worlds. His character as fixer presents us with a professional hit man most experienced and wise. He has a face for which he and we all must thank God, and a bearing that cannot be synthesized. He is best in quiet scenes and becomes one of the murderers we root for and do not want anything bad to happen to in the end. This is part the doing of the writers, but mostly something in Banks’ skill.

Giancarlo Esposito plays the tsar of all drug tsars, and he accomplishes his task of terrifying us all by never blinking his eyes during the entire time he is on camera, an old actors’ trick, but a good one. Elegant in his motions and manners is how Esposito sees Gus Fring, always calm, always intent, always watchful. It may be an easy part to play, but we only wonder – and are only given room to wonder – if he will ever die or if he is really as immortal as Esposito appears to make him.

 

 

I believe this series owes its main success to the casting skills that gave us these performers. Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas cast them and, besides them, the three supporting principals. I watch these three actors with amazement, respect, delight. I am reminded how great are American actors, and these in particular. I hang on their every scene. I hang on the outcome for their characters. These actors have had serious work behind them, although I have never heard of one of them. So their work comes fresh to fresh eyes. Again, praise and attention to the casting directors who were aware of them and brought them together Into Breaking Bad.

 

 

Anna Gunn is an actor of inherent reserve intelligence. She plays the wife of Walter White, the leading role, and in casting her the directors may have seen the balance that would be drawn between the leading character, White, whose intelligence is nil, but whose intellect is large, whose range of information larger, whose ego larger still. White is essentially stupid, as Macbeth is essentially stupid. Macbeth knows it won’t work but tries it anyhow; Lady Macbeth is stupider; she thinks it will work. The character Anna Gunn plays, Skyler White, is not Lady Macbeth; she is not stupid. Gunn plays it that the thing she is loyal to is an inner collation of her husband, her work, her children, her home, her relations, all of which give her a lifestyle that satisfies and pleases her soul. That is her stake.

Years ago, she married her chemistry teacher. Probably impressed by his mind. She must have found long before this story opens how banal and defeated he was, how isolated by his mind, but decided to be endeared by it rather than repelled. I watch Gunn’s responses to her slowly or strikingly changing situations to be a miracle of digested reality. Since it is TV, what we mainly have is her face. It is moved by the outer wind of chance. But what is moved? What is moved is the violation to her always envisaged inner lifestyle, which she took to be her being. What was permanent as a lake now becomes threatened by the crack of a dam she never imagined was there. Her vitality in the part is always complete, always subtle. This is an actor I look upon with admiration and wonder.

Dean Norris plays the Federal drug agent who is the antagonist of the leading character. the story is essentially about the covert battle of his character Harry’s relentlessness to find the kingpin and the cleverness of the kingpin to not be found. At the start he is written as cruder than he ends up being. That is to say, an error in the writing is corrected. Crudity is not his essential ingredient, although Norris does it as to the manner born. For we don’t need this character to be tougher than Norris already appears.

Dean Norris has a beautiful face, a beautiful mouth, ready eyes. As an actor he makes many moves and never a false one. I am astonished by the ability of an actor of this presence and power to allow something actually happen to him. To see in his face a realization contradict everything expected. To see in his eyes arise a determination fixed by outrage. To see something in the motion of his mouth that I had never expected to see in a man of this type, a defeat into weakness. I bow before such delivery. I am amazed by the actor. I hope he never hears that I have said this, for it might suggest to him that he has achieved all. In acting, there is no such thing as achievement. Actors’ praise should arise parallel to what they have done as a gate to the next thing they do. One great thing about this performance is that at a certain point he actor finally allows the character to be driven by swelled head, by ego, and dogged, personal totalitarianism, such that he mounts a two-man posse to take down his rival, and is ambushed by a gang set to bring down that same rival. He operates without back-up. Shot to the ground, the actor nonetheless dies standing up with the wonderful line, “These guys decided fifteen minutes ago what they were going to do,” and is shot dead.

In seeing these actors, I wince, lest here they find the roles of a lifetime, and never again, so I look upon Aaron Paul’s performance with pity and wonder. It is one of the finest acting performances I have ever seen. And one of the most unusual. Ah, but let me temper that praise. Let me simmer it to a roux.

Aaron Paul’s character Jesse Pinkman is more intelligent than the drug maker he works for but he is not nearly so smart. Pinkman’s street-smarts are small potatoes to what one must have to prevail in the world of big-time drug manufacture and sales. His boss and former high school chemistry teacher is devoid of intelligence and of love, but is smarter than anyone alive. There is no one Pinkman’s boss cannot outwit or foresee. His boss is capable of violent improvisation at a moment’s notice and then will service the public with the fob of an unanswerable riff, “I promise you: everything will be all right; you are perfectly safe.” All Pinkman can do is register vehement outrage at the display of his boss’s cunning, but he also can do nothing but abide by his harsh teaching.

What lies inside the actor Aaron Paul registers as beauty. He plays a punk such that we know the actor knows inside exactly what the resentment that drives a punk is and knows the dumbness the brick wall instills on the punk’s skull that he is always hitting with that resentment. He is an actor whose love-nature opens like a flower in his eyes towards certain people, his first and second girl friend, the second girlfriend’s son, so that you know that he alone of these characters has a natural morality in him; not a remembered one, but one open to every season.

As an actor he sibilants his Esses, which is fun to hear, and gratifying to me who likes actors to chew their consonants. He gives himself fully, bodily, vocally, emotionally, intellectually. He drapes the character within him. Unlike the main actor, his boss, when Aaron Paul enters a scene he enters with something already going on inside him. He is never making something up in a vacuum. He is always charged in some direction or other, so that the circumstances of the scene skid him or veer him. He is an actor adding to what is already there, not an actor only playing a scene for all it is worth and for its story value alone. For there is more to a story than a story; Goldilocks enters the three bears’ house already disobedient and strengthened by disobedience. Aaron Paul’s character of Jesse Pinkman is the one I mainly care about and want to see escape final harm.

Pinkman has a moral intelligence whose power he himself cannot resist, neither with drugs nor in waiting it out, and Aaron Paul finds this in himself and brings it to us. It is everything for this story. The moral force in Jess Pinkman drives him to sabotage his own take. And it drives the entire enterprise to its own destruction before our eyes. It is what is in Pinkman that does this, and what is in Aaron Paul’s talent to release to the role what makes Jesse the only triumphant and free character remaining. Inwardly, I gasp.

 

 

I cannot say the same for the actor Bryan Cranston or for the writing of the character he plays, Walter White. The disappointment of Breaking Bad as a series is due, in my experience, in part to this actor’s performance. Or rather is partly due to the lie of this performance; a lie in the writing of it; a lie in the writing as a whole.

The script of Breaking Bad is sometimes over-written. An actor enters a room, the second actor says, “Shall we have bacon for breakfast?” The first actor then says, “Sure. I guess. If you like.” It’s over-written. You only need one of those three things. One’s enough. Not two. Not three. (See?) The actor could supply anything else needed. Breaking Bad is television writing at its worst.

It’s also television writing at its best. Mostly at its very best. For there are wonderful turns to the story. The fun it has with solutions dependent upon chemistry is delicious. The reaches it goes to to explore the growth and cunning of White’s ruthlessness are startling and delightful because so imaginative and just. It does a good deal of marking time and drawing out of episodes, but its treatment of characters is terrific.

Directorially it is superb. But directorially, the actor is often allowed to milk responses, and this is true of Cranston’s work throughout. He never stops hemming and hawing. He never stops going through four fits before asking for the ketchup. It’s Olivier’s old trick and it’s older than Olivier of course, but I find Cranston wearisome to watch going through these hesitancies and gyrations. These facial gesticulations. These massive, monumental moues. Television acting at its worst.

However, what wearies me most about the performance is his playing every scene as isolated from every other scene. He enters with nothing, and makes something up to fit the scene, and, of course, Cranston can act like a jackrabbit. But essentially I find him to be a workhorse.

This is especially true for me in that both the character and the actor appear to be lying from beginning to end. In Cranston’s readings of, “I do it only for my family” and “only for you” I hear an empty actor. Right from the start, I never feel White loves his family. I never believe his physical touching of either child. It’s always done when it shouldn’t be done, wouldn’t be done, or done to indicate an affection whose display we are supposed to take as earnest. This maudlin attitude to children and family and relations is not only his, but present in other actors. Always overdone, always false, it is a directorial and acting error, misled by the script.

I feel that Cranston never believes the words he is saying, because there is never a real character created in him. I believe that Cranston has figured things out about Walter White, but I never believe in the truth of his playing of these strategies as internal lines of a real character. The costumes and makeup support his strategies efficiently, but they do not make them breathe. He plays the part as one plays a Hammond organ expertly, a machine. Perhaps this is the sort of actor one needs for a part of this weight and length. Perhaps you don’t need truth; perhaps you need stamina. But I feel cheated.

As to the lie “I do it for my family” – I wait to see if the writers will cop to this. Will they wake up to this bunk? Will they allow White to admit the truth about why he really does what he does?

In the final episode, he confesses to his wife. The reason he went into drugs was not for his family but because he liked it and was good at it.

But this is flimsy, not selfish enough, not big enough, not human enough, inadequate to tragedy, and not true.

Better to let this man dying of cancer say, “I wanted the money, I wanted to leave it after me. Because I didn’t want to die.” It was the same as what fuelled Frick and Carnegie and Mellon to do the same. With an endowment names last forever. “Remember My Name” the last season is called. But the writers have not seen that that was Walter White’s only understandable and adequate motive.

So in watching Cranston do this part, I am impatient with the lie of Cranston’s performance itself, with the lack of a pre-existing character in the actor, which is one lie, and impatient with a character who does nothing but lie from the first season to the last. And then, with an even larger lie.

The big lie of Breaking Bad is that we never see the devastation by crystal meth done to anyone not already well along the primrose path. We see people at the end of their addiction, none at the start. We see established addicts all. But we never see any young person, any person fresh to it, start out with blue meth. We never see a teen-age girl or male college sophomore being inducted. We never track the road they run, then stagger on, then die on. That is, we watch Breaking Bad as we watch The Perils Of Pauline as a series of cliff-hangers for this situation or character or that. And we hang on those cliffs with Walter White and the story, when in fact we are rooting for merchants of moral and physical murder. We want the blue meth to be pure, because blue’s the team we have been persuaded to fan. How nice! What fun! How entertaining!

What we never see is what meth does. Where does it go? Into whose body? And how? And how is it passed on, when it is well known that meth becomes an addition almost immediately incurable, fatal?

I know someone who died of it young. I saw that good soul go before my eyes. But Breaking Bad does not really break bad. It does not give us the lowdown. The script sprays this pink deodorant of omission over the matter. Except for comic relief, the addicts are kept out of sight.

The obvious character for this dissolution would be Walter White’s son, the upstanding, handsome, and tender Flynn, aka Walter Junior.

Flynn needs to become a meth addict for Breaking Bad to bring to us the most entertaining thing of all: the truth. Mr. White’s son’s addiction, not White’s death, would be White’s come-uppance. And we, if we were given that truth, would watch with fascination the same show, with this difference, that we are not duped into feeling that the drug business is ever, in and of itself and no matter how vivacious, merely entertainment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Uncategorized

 

Damn Yankees

30 Mar

Damn Yankees – directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen. Sports Musical. 1 hour 51 minutes, Color 1959

★★★★

The Story: A baseball nut sells his soul to the Devil so the lame Washington team can win the pennant against The Yankees but then the Devil must set a grande horizontale to sabotage the magical home-run hitter he created to achieve it.

~

In the theater, it was originally conceived by its choreographer as a dance vehicle for his wife Gwen Verdon, and it remains that in the film.

Verdon had phenomenal ability as a show dancer, and she also had the rarer ability of being able to sing while she danced.

In her big successes, Sweet Charity, Chicago, Redhead, and here and after, however, you see her playing women who are not quite real. That is to say, the delivery of their lines suggest that her acting ability is less than her ability to dance, and that its naïve emotional range is not personal, or rather, not normal.

As a dancer of comic and specialty numbers, Verdon is without parallel, however. She was never to be a movie star, because emotionally she is a stage star. Broadway is her true milieu, her nation, the land of her birth. Her acting style is too broad and too backstage for film. If you set her next to Betty Grable, who was herself a deft comic dancer, and who danced with Verdon in movies, you can see that Grable’s acting dimension is perfectly suited to film. In movies, you don’t have to have a large Broadway style, like Verdon’s, because the screen is already large. Screen size is its actor’s projection. On Broadway you excused such acting as Verdon’s as a musical comedy convention and because her dance feats were actually taking place before your very eyes at that moment.

The show of dance as an art is not subtle; its subtlety is always telegraphed; you cannot mistake it. So Verdon’s big projection as a dancer does not stand in our way. Unlike her acting, its excesses are natural to dance, and Verdon achieves the comic feat of the dances with a suppleness, naturalness, and ease that is amazing.

The dances of course, are garish. They are all by Bob Fosse, who choreographed Verdon’s Broadway shows, of which this was one. Tight, tense choreography is his earmark; whatever he has borrowed from Cole and Kidd has been given its dose of Novocain. And here he even appears dancing with Verdon in Who Feels The Pain When They Do The Mambo? – a famous duet from the Broadway show, brilliantly executed here. However, she is the one you will watch, because she is so alive. He is too, but she more so.

Many of the actors from the Broadway Show are here, too, and the film welcomes their experience and talent. The reason it does is that there are five important singing parts for performers over fifty, from Jean Stapleton to Ray Walston who plays the devil. Their abilities with these parts being already in place make them essential to the integrity of the film, and we are fortunate to have them brought over. They lend a coherence that the direction of the piece lacks.

George Abbott, its Broadway author and director, is also brought over, and one wonders what he thinks he is doing here. He directs certain numbers exactly as they were directed on stage; you can tell this because there is no other reason why a great song like Ya Gotta Have Heart should fall flat. Stanley Donen, director of Singing In The Rain fortunately is co-director, and one suspects he directed the only parts of the film that work. In addition, the directorial storytelling style is triply uneven because the movie is so much a dance musical and Fosse predominates. Three different styles. Nothing holds the film together.

But there is an element that carries the film – and that is the presence of Tab Hunter as the athlete of the devil’s doing. He is perfectly cast. First because he was a superb athlete in his real life. Second because his great physical beauty works as a devil’s creation. But most of all because his natural modesty about himself is so beguiling that you can easily get behind him as the focal point of the story.

Tab Hunter’s ability as an actor grew with time in the craft. He is one of the great learners. He learned voice-placement, projection, truth. By the time of Damn Yankees you have no trouble accepting him as a good actor. He, quite rightly, was the biggest star on the Warner lot at this time.

The film is the best record we have of the uncanny ability of Gwen Verdon as a dancer, and anyone interested in great dancing will have a lot of fun seeing her strut her stuff. Talk about facility! Talk about dance energy! Talk about technique. She was a national treasure and a wonder of nature. She was litheness incarnate.

 

I Wake Up Screaming

18 Mar

I Wake Up Screaming – directed by H. Bruce Humberstone. Who-Dun-It. 82 minutes Black And White 1941.

★★★★

The Story: A young waitress is fostered by a promoter, and she rises into café society until she is murdered, leaving her sister to find out who did it.

~

Gary Giddens of The New York Sun called I Wake Up Screaming one of the most beautiful black-and-white films ever made. The photographer is Edward Cronjager, perhaps the most prominent member of a family of Hollywood cinemaphotographers (Seven academy Award Nominations). At this stage of his long career he is at Fox, and this is one of the first film noirs ever made, and, if you are to judge by its photography, it would be a film noir, with its strong use of dark lighting, angles for dramatic effect, rich shadows, and so on.

But I do not define film noir solely by the way a picture is filmed. My definition of film noir includes that but also must include certain subjects and two sorts of character must be in them. Either a leading male character, who is so troubled and angry he must move outside or beneath the law to realize his destiny. Or a leading female character who is disempowered and must also move outside or beneath the law. And it must be in black and white.

These films emerge from 1941 through just after The War until 1951 or so. In the case of the male character, think of them as written for returning soldiers who have seen in the war a life that lay outside all law. It has made them cynical, hard, pessimistic, bitter, cold, and almost ruthless. The same is true for the female character. She has been on the home front in power to run businesses, work in factories, or mastermind all aspects the home. At The War’s end, all this is stripped from her. She moves into something for which the word crime is a euphemism.

Very few films fill these strictures for content, characters, and filmed treatment. One of them is Murder, My Sweet starring Dick Powell one of the two seminal film noir actors, the other being Alan Ladd in, say, This Gun For Hire, The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia. These men engage in relationships (sexually highly charged because of their coldness) with un-marriageable blonds, such as Lizabeth Scott, Veronica Lake, and the great Claire Trevor.

Few people will agree with this careful view of the matter. Actually I am the only person who has to agree with it and I do. And it has nothing to do with I Wake Up Screaming which is noir only in its remarkable photography.

Betty Grable’s career started two films before this, both  musicals, both in color. But this year, 1941, she was to make one color musical, and two black and white films – one a comedy, A Yank In The RAF with Tyrone Power, and Wake Up Screaming, a drama.

I mention all this not just because she was to become the biggest grossing female star of her era and one justly loved by audiences all her life, but because, having made these two black and white films, Zanuck, the head of Fox, said, because of her Technicolor coloring, he would never put her in a black and white film again, and he never did,. But he wanted to. He wanted her to appear as the tart in The Razor’s Edge, a part Anne Baxter won an Oscar for. Grable refused on the grounds that she didn’t have the acting chops for drama and that the public would only accept her in sequins with her legs showing.

It’s a great example of actor-folly in believing that what the fans wanted should rule. Carole Lombard had the same failing. She never made another serious film after George Stevens’ Vigil In The Night, in which she is very good. Grable also fouled up on getting to play Miss Adelaide in the film of Guys And Dolls, a part she was subsequently to do a number of times on the stage. Grable is perfectly fine in I Wake Up Screaming. She’s responsive, game – a good dramatic actress. And she’s Betty Grable, which means she is sympathetic and you immediately care about her.

Grable is top-billed but the story is really that of the Victor Mature character, and the focus falls rightly on him. People dismissed him for years as a hunky lower-class Italian, which he may have been, but boy is he vivid when he shows up, and he has no trouble carrying the film. He is actually an excellent actor, particularly playing lightweight scalawags. He’s alive, susceptible, and full of fun. Look at his eyes. Delightful performance.

To help him we have no less than Allan Mobray, Allyn Joslyn, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Carole Landis. But supporting them all is the remarkable Laird Cregar as a sicko detective. He is an actor worth seeking out wherever you can find him – Hangover Square, Blood And Sand, Heaven Can Wait, This Gun For Hire, and Charley’s Aunt. Very few parts but remarkable. Dead at 26.

So this is a particularly rich collection of talent, and the story because of them is worth digesting. These are the days before Elmore Leonard. But this is the sort of thing he would do, particularly as regard the Laird Cregar character. Dwight Taylor (Laurette Taylor’s son) adapted the novel for the screen. I say see it. It’s beautiful in its way, and, when you do see it, tell me, why does it have that title?

 

 

 

Brooklyn

28 Feb

Brooklyn – directed by John Crowley. Drama. 112 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: A simple Irish girl is given the chance to move to America and makes the most of it.

~

Although she resembles John Cusack, Saoirse Ronan, the young actress reminds me, in her strength and female sparkle, of the teenage Elizabeth Taylor. I see the same beauty in them both.

She plays a young Irish girl who longs for a life better and other than the one arrayed before her in her native village. With the help of a Catholic priest in Brooklyn she transports to the new world. There she finds herself homesick, but presently acclimates herself to Brooklyn and the lives of those about her. She finds them attractive and alive, and she begins to better herself with night classes.

Circumstances, however, draw her back to Ireland, and this is the important part of the story for us, the viewers – the need one day to go back to ones roots for whatever reason – to settle matters, to get love right, to take measure – and this one must do in person.

I’m not going to tell you anything more about the story but that. For as she does this, we do it with her on our own account. So the movie has the force of myth, entering the house of death with all its lures and coming back out of it alive.

Ronan is just right for the role; she gives just enough that we may give our share too. She is up for the Oscar for the best performance, and her victory would grace the honor.

Two ringers appear in the film with her, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters, both of whom are actors who wear their comic apparel as though they had lived in it for ages. Broadbent plays the kindly priest who sponsored her, and Walters plays the harpy landlady of the women’s boarding house where she lodges. And a lovely young actor plays her beau in Brooklyn, Emory Cohen; his every move endears you to him. You understand his courtship as necessary to his intentions. You understand his attraction to Irish girls, his valentine to her as a physical dance.

The period would be in the early ‘50s, and the costumer and production designer and director have caught it all just right.

All this is in addition to Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Eilis Lacey whom you dote on and travel with and become.

 

The Missing

24 Feb

The Missing – Directed by Ron Howard. Western. 137 minutes Color 2003.

★★★★★

The Story: An Apache brujo, or male witch, and his gang steal young women to be sold in Mexico, but the mother and grandfather and tiny sister of one of them track them through the New Mexico winter wilderness to recover her.

~

Of course, it’s a marvelous story beautifully set in that strange land. Cate Blanchette, who seems to fit into every part she is given, here leads the way as the mother. She is accompanied by her father, a fake Indian Chirhucawa, played by Tommy Lee Jones.

But the performance to behold is that of Eric Schweig as the witch – master of snakes and spells. With a strand of Cate’s hair, he can summon spirits to travel miles to kill our Cate, and he almost succeeds. His face, his bearing, his eyes – you will never forget them. At least I won’t. It’s a beautiful piece of work by a fine artist.

The chase takes place on horseback. The three year old, Dot, Cate her mother, and grandfather Jones spend most of their time on horseback riding through the land of enchantment. What a strange world!

The underlying problem in this pursuit is that Cate detests Jones, who has much to atone for that seems unatonable. So that matter clatters in every hoof beat.

The final standoff is not properly staged. The use of fire-arrows does not work. The whole session is not scary enough. Still we regard with respect the narrowing of Blanchett’s remarkable, wide-spaced eyes as she fires her rifle into the brains of the marauders.

The Missing is a big Western, like Shane and High Noon and Stagecoach. It encloses a lot of territory in its allegory. The sets and costumes are first class. Elizabeth Moss, Evan Rachel Wood, Aaron Eckhart, and Val Kilmer fill out the cast. If you like the genre you will be happy to watch it unfold, and besides there’s Eric Schweig forever to haunt your dreams.

 

Hail, Caesar!

18 Feb

Hail, Caesar! – written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Comedy. 106 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Scandals that flare up must be doused by the studio fixer.

~

What do I make, one asks at first glimpse, of this Jollywood piece?

It opens in a confessional with Josh Brolin disgorging petty sins with wracked soul. When the priest asks him how long since has been to confession he says something like 27 hours, and is fobbed off with the penance of a few hail maries. We know at once by the solemnity of Brolin that we are in Jollywood land, that is to say we are in the selfsame satire-land as Singing In The Rain, dealing with the same object, and at just about the time Singing In The Rain was shot; that is, we are in the dread early ‘50s and we shall, therefore, now gorge on a full blown and deftly played Jollywood satire.

Jollywood? A comedy actually making fun of Hollywood.

And what pleasures there are, to be sure!

We have Tilda Swinton as vicious identical twin sisters, as antipathetic to one another as de Havilland and Fontaine. Swinton does the spitting cobra better than anyone around. Then we also have Scarlett Johansson in a major impersonation of Esther Williams in full fishtail and from the Bronx.

With this sort of acting, the actors do not have to do anything but – as Jack Nicholson has told us – “act accordingly,” which means that all Johansson has to do is inquire about the strength it must take for a legal clerk to stamp a page, and all Jonah Hill has to do it raise his big clerk’s to say “It’s my job” and let them fall on the first woman who has ever flirted with him in his life – and you know, no further word said, that something hysterically unlikely is to happen.

How do actors do that?

The words are not nothing, but the fleeting attitude of the actor seals it.

And here every actor is in sync with a subtlety of style which the Coen Brothers command from every side. It’s called making fun of something without using a pig bladder.

Brolin, a marvelous actor, once again carries the film. He plays the role of the fixer, Eddie Mannix from MGM days (although Capitol Films is what the present firm is named), and he goes about putting out fires that might incinerate reputations.

The main of these is the kidnapping of superstar George Clooney, almost through filming a film of the bloated Quo Vadis ilk, but snatched off by a covey of commies who claim blackmail from Brolin. Clooney is the most deft of light comedians, but his funniest scene in the film is his most serious: I shall not tell you; you’ll know it when it comes.

As side dishes we have Frances McDormand as an overdressed obsessive film editor, Ralph Fiennes as an Edmund Goulding type director, and Channing Tatum superbly dancing a big Gene Kelly sailor-on-leave production number. Each one hits the comic nail delicately on the thumb.

But the performance that seals the film and steals it too is by the darling Alden Ehrenreich – at least he plays a darling – as a young singing cowboy thrust into a drawing room comedy. He’s great at rope tricks and fancy bronc riding, but he can’t seem to get his lips around a word beyond “Tarnation!” He’s a wonderful actor and fresh as a daisy. You must delight yourself with this performance. Don’t miss him.

The film is pure entertainment.

Pure?

Sheer entertainment. That is, it is transparent. You think maybe that the values of the ‘50s Hollywood are dead and gone? Think it at your peril. The ‘50s are gone, but the values are in full force in 2016. How could it be otherwise?

The Coen Brother are, after all, masters of the hollow.

 

 

 

 

 

The Devil And Miss Jones

15 Feb

The Devil And Miss Jones – directed by Sam Wood. Proletarian Comedy. 92 minutes Black And White 1941.

★★★★★

The Story: A group of department store employees, protesting for a union, unwittingly take into their fold the owner of the store.

~

Gee whiz, what are you waiting for! Get on your pony and order up this proletarian comedy with Charles Coburn as the millionaire who spies on his employees, and Jean Arthur, the store clerk who unwittingly befriends him.

This kind of story was a staple of the age of The Golden Age: My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, most Frank Capra Comedies of the era, and any story where some penniless person gets to be the spouse of the boss’s favorite child: You Can’t Take It With You, The Bride Came C.O.D., It Happened One Night, Vivacious Lady, and a spate of screwball comedies from the era.

It was a great age for comedy, and, boy, do they still satisfy. They hold true now more than comedies made now, because the difference between the rich and the poor, the plutocrat and the working stiff are, once again, as marked now as then.

Charles Coburn can really play anything. He never shortchanges a role. He is never without resources. His person exudes a comic potential with every breath. He doesn’t need a situation; he is a situation. Watch him, as the children’s shoe clerk, fumble right and left, the look on him of dignity lost in the face of the preposterous. He is one of the great film character stars of the era; he can carry a film, as he does here; he can steal a film, as he does here.

But check Jean Arthur out as she creates three different ways, to clobber him over the head with the heel of a work boot. Everything she does is open, intentional, and sparse. She is incapable of a false move. Or an unappealing one.

Robert Cummings’s forte was light comedy, and he is at his best moment in his acting life as the rabble-rousing love interest of Jean Arthur. Watch his scenes on the beach and in the courtroom. Everything he says uses the forward energy which was his milk.

All these actors are at the top of their game. They don’t mug; they don’t gesticulate or exaggerate; they don’t reach for laughs or wring them to death. This kind of acting is called comedy of character and is played with the bodies of the performers as personalities, not clown bodies or situation comedy bodies. It’s not entertainment of gag or guffaw. It requires the great fluidity of perfect willingness. Master acting is required. Coburn was nominated for an Oscar and was to win one not long after for The More The Merrier.

The picture moves forward on roller skates. The camera is held by the great Harry Stradling Sr. And the writing is brilliant, surprising, and real: Norman Krasna. Treat yourself. Indulge yourself. Let yourself go. Place The Devil And Miss Jones before you.

 

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey

07 Feb

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey – directed by Mary McGuckian. Drama. 120 minutes Color 2004.

★★★★

The Story: In a trial for his life, a 17th Century friar presents his findings on the coincidence of seven people plunging to their deaths when a suspension bridge collapses.

~

The presence of Robert De Niro as the archbishop of Peru disqualifies the story. He does not have the acting instrument to perform the role, which requires Shavian mentation of inquiry and debate. Nowhere in this piece does he seem feasible.

The others do just fine, and their good work validates our presence before them. Geraldine Chaplin is excellent as the kind Mother Superior who connects all of them. Gabriel Byrne touches one as the soft-spoken friar on trial for possible heresy.

Kathy Bates, an actress difficult to cast correctly, finds herself well placed as the richest widow in Peru, but clearly a parvenu from the shopkeeping class. She moves through the vast structures of cathedral and palace like an elephant in full regalia. Dressed like a pavilion, she performs one rich scene of unexpected eccentricity after another, and the script gives her the only fully realized character in the piece.

As her relative, uncle Pio, our beloved Harvey Keitel is perfectly cast as a theatrical entrepreneur, a man who owns nothing, and loves fixedly.

F. Murray Abraham has, as the vice-ridden Viceroy Of Peru, a part he can finally sink his sharp teeth into. This is the sort of play that actors like better than audiences. There is grand argumentation. Elocution is required. Wit is a priority. Intelligence of style is appreciated. Abraham is an actor of classical gifts, and what a treat it is to see him perform with them.

Dominique Pinon is excruciatingly exact as the Viceroy’s fop. He brings a surge of comic vitality to the film whenever he appears, shrewd, quick, and big hearted.

Pilar López de Ayalaila speaks perfect English, and is a very good actress, but lacks the high temperament, unique sexual personality, and special feminine voice of the actress La Perichola. It is the key role. She unites them all, drives them all, kills them all. But she is not able to convince us of what others see in her. The not-to-be-topped Anna Magnani played a version of her in The Golden Coach of Jean Renoir in 1952. Nazimova, Joan Loring, Blanch Yurka, Akim Tamiroff, and Louis Calhern played it in the 1944 film. There is a 1929 version, part-talking, with Lily Damita.

The original is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Thornton Wilder, which may be still readable today, who knows? I have read it and liked it, but it wasn’t yesterday that I did so.

 

45 Years

02 Feb

45 Years – directed by Andrew Haigh. Marital Drama. 95 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: On the brink of their 45th wedding celebration, the past catches up with them.

~

The eyes of Charlotte Rampling are two sphinxes, but not the same sphinx. Hers is a mouth of serious sensuality, not given comfortably to smiling. Indeed, smiles on her face seem out of place. An actress of narrow range, her talent and type would seem to be on the same order of – say Lauren Bacall.

All this is true, so you might wonder how come she could be cast as a woman long married for love to a middle-class, middle-range executive in a provincial manufacturing plant. She walks her dog. She makes their meals. She is friends, with her husband, to local couples. You would take Rampling for a woman who could go out on a tear from all this, but the character does not.

You would also have to take Rampling as having absolute confidence in herself sexually, as a woman, and as a human.

That is why to cast her as a character who slowly falls apart in all these departments makes her story so telling. You keep saying to yourself, “This can’t be happening to her.” But it does happen.

It’s an example of the advantages of casting against type. For the sort of talent Rampling has is exactly the right size to reveal in quiet, inward, minute collapses the catastrophe of her character’s self-doubt as it takes hold in her.

The character does it to herself. But that is what makes the story so universally human. She takes information and she uses it against herself. Her husband should never have revealed to her the contents of that letter, but, of course, he could scarcely help it, for the letter is unwittingly opened at the breakfast table.

There are things people should never, never be told, as Rampling in her personal life well knew. The truth imprisons as often as it sets free. But keep watching Rampling’s watchful eyes. It’s a wonderful performance by an actress of small talent and considerable fascination and honesty.

Tom Courtanay plays the husband, married for 45 years to Rampling. As an actor I always feel Courtanay is “acting” natural, which makes his acting unnatural. He plays the addled hubby. To me the performance never looks grounded. He playacts the character rather than simply leave it alone and let it take care of itself. To “make” the character addled is to invest it with the contempt of the actor for the character. The actor who thinks there must be something “done” to the character is like the pianist who thinks something should be “done” to the nocturnes of Chopin to make them melancholy.

It is beautifully filmed, just what we like in terms of pace and registration, which is to say that it is played in exactly the right key at exactly the right speeds. Geraldine James is superb as the best friend. The film is well worth seeing, mainly because the inside story Rampling is called upon to play is never seen in film. The failure of film is that it generally prefers the dramatic over the true. Rampling brings to her part the essential characteristic of being ingrown, and, with that, we witness life lived as we really do live it outside the picture palace every day.

 

 
 

The Burning Plain

18 Jan

The Burning Plain – written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga. Drama. 107 minutes Color 2008.

★★

The Story: A young woman sets fire to the trailer her mother and her boyfriend are making love in and burns them to death.

~

It’s a failure on the grounds that the screenwriter who, usually works in a dovetailing mode, takes on a story which needs a classic three act construction. It is also a story whose contents he does not understand. The story he thinks he has written overlooks the story in front of his nose. Again a writer directs: again an error.

The real story is of a girl who deliberately murders her mother. In the movie this is denied by the girl, but since she is played by Jennifer Lawrence, an actress devoid of innocence, who is to believe her? No, no, instead it is an Electra story. What we need to see is her direct intention to murder her mother and her life’s response to that deed. And Jennifer Lawrence is the ideal Electra.

What obscures the mistake, but does not eliminate it, is the presence in it of two film stars, Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron. For when such women present themselves before us, we are faced with an enormous displacement of truth. For such ladies occupy a vast amount of film room. Castles topple around them. Redwoods bow down. Their mere arrival does this. This is always the case with certain film stars. With the greater truth of their very selves, they kidnap us, steal our fascination, credulity, shyness, and reason They are whales in teacups. They can’t help it. We want something good to happen to Theron. It is our nature to. And it is her nature that we should. We feel for Kim Basinger. It is our nature to. It is her nature that we should. The distraction is nobody’s fault. But their presence alone is enough to disguise that they are both performing in the wrong tale.

Basinger certainly is touching as the housewife/mother of four children, stuck nowhere, and losing her looks, maybe (which she has not) and losing her appeal, maybe (which she has not), and taking a rash bite of the apple before all apples are taken away. Her vulnerability steals our hearts.

Theron rides high as the grown-up version of Lawrence. We admire Theron’s mastery as a restaurateur. We go along with her flutters and affairs and how astonishing she looks in clothes. We wish the script afforded her an opportunity to meet the story head-on, but the real story is not there for her engagement with it.

Interesting to see Lawrence as a teenager playing one. Soon she too will grow large on the silver screen. She almost does it here. Won’t be all her doing either, but also ours.

Anyhow, it’s good for us to see how big big stars are, the space they displace, and that we just naturally accord to them. It’s just what they do. It’s just what we do.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: HOLLYWOOD CRISP, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lawrence, Kim Basinger

 

Daddy’s Home

15 Jan

Daddy’s Home – directed by Sean Anders. Low Comedy. 85 minutes Color 2015.

★★★

The Story: The real father of two children returns to the household and undermines the effort of their stepfather to get them to like him.

~

Something is wrong here. It lies in the playing of Will Ferrell who plays a fatuous oaf as though he were a fatuous oaf and not a human being trying in the wrong way to win the affection of his stepchildren. I suppose this is done so as not to frighten the audience.

It seems to work for them. They laughed at everything, as though they had gone through basic training to learn how. I have never seen Will Ferrell before, but they have their laugh cards installed by now and know how to behave. I laughed at nothing.

There is in the writing scarcely a single scene that is humanly credible. The script is overwritten – in the way modern screen comedy is overwritten, which is that it does not content itself with one stunning situation; instead it seeks to pile one on top of another. These modern screen comedies are too much cotton candy. They sicken before Coney Island is halfway over.

I went to see it because Mark Wahlberg was in it, and he is an actor I enjoy. And I did enjoy him. He never exaggerates. Never pushes. Never fakes. He plays the intruding real father.

I suppose the story is a take on Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, which produced My Favorite Wife with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, a film which had its own problems, their chief one being that all the characters were non-committal but that the film also was.

In Daddy’s Home, you know perfectly well what will determine the outcome, what will be said, and who will say it. That’s all right. There’s a certain satisfaction in things turning out according to plan. But this satisfaction is scorched at birth by hyperbole; it does not need a motorcycle to be driven up the stairs of a suburban home and fly out the window and land on a station wagon. It would work if in a Buster Kean movie, because you would see Buster Keaton doing the whole stunt. With Keaton it would the delicatest of ballets; here it is gross.

But don’t listen to me: the theatre was packed and they’re still sitting there laughing.

 

 

 
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