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Diane

17 Apr

Diane—written and directed by Kent Jones Comedy/Drama 95 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: Diane is the story of how People take care of one another, take care with one another, care about one another, just as this single, unheroic woman does.
~
Invisible people? What are they about? The people we dismiss—what are their ordinary lives about?

Movies about black people make them into heroes, stars, entertainers, victims or fools. But of ordinary black people we know nothing, save what August Wilson and a few others have vouchsafed us.

Oh, there’s nothing wrong with stories of black heroes, entertainers, victims, or fools. It’s just that white people have been telling such stories about themselves for ever, so we never get out of the jail of such stories.

But here’s an unveiling of a mystery—what are the old up to?

The answer is that behind the mask of our indifference to them, they are living full lives. Lives with a character that we never see and with a smartness we might never guess.

“How old would you be if didn’t know how old you wus?” said Satchel Paige.

Oh, they’d don’t live lives dancing on tables, but that doesn’t mean, behind our disdain of them, that they are not still alive and on the move, dealing and working and exercising the nifty wit of experience.

This movie is not about a co-dependent woman who goes about breaking her back for a love that never comes. Not at all. Yes, she does a lot of public service, but that is a narrative device to get her into a variety of settings to deal with a variety of folks her own age and degree.

The story brings them all together in various kitchens and parlors and hospital rooms. Once there, we do not wish to look away—for the mysterious ordinary life of the old is wonderful, funny, smart, loving, fully engaged.

A movie may be covered in rubies. How wonderful! But a movie might be a piece of costume jewelry also worth looking at. The kitchens, parlors, super-markets, hallways, bars, snowy roads, back alleys, and lower-middle-class houses that bring us along in Diane may validate our lives with an attention better than rubies—better, because we ourselves know them better than we know rubies. They are right there on the street that we live.

The lives the old live are not about saving the world. The lives of the old are about the old. Saving the world might be just one such activity now as they save one another.

For when illness comes in the front parlor, it means you you set your ambition aside for it and entertain differently there. Death comes like the silence after a thunderclap. What do the old do then? Cock their ear for the next thunderclap?

Mary Kay Place is an actor I have never noticed before, but her face alone can carry a film. As Diane, she is a rapture to behold, and so is Estelle Parsons and all the other fine senior actors—none of whom are made out to be cute or spry, or particularly fragile. All of whom stand out—as the young in movies never stand out as individuals. The old are finally what they are—unlike the young, who always wish to be anything but what they are.

Diane is a unique experience in American movies—by which I mean both that it is a remarkable experience and the first such experience I know of in American film. It’s not there to teach you anything. It has no politics. It has no preachment.

Its superseding truth is that life has no plot. And that a story may have no line. It may simply splash down. The splash of life, which the old come to know, we come to witness here. Martin Scorsese produced it. How old is Martin Scorsese? 72.

At such an age, what better place could he bring us to then than Diane?

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Mary Kay Place

 

Ash The Purest White

04 Apr

Ash The Purest White—written and directed by Zhanke Jia. Relationship Drama. In Chinese with English subtitles. 135 Minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The story: An underworld kingpin and his moll are linked, but will the links change over time?
~
Lots of cityscapes. Lots of landscapes. Lots of facescapes. In Ash, I never cease to be surprised by what I see of China, which I never expect to be this way at all.

Nor did I tire of the story of the relationship of these two. Was it going to end happily? Was it going to end unhappily? Was it going to end? Was it not going to end?

Oh, in the end, it adhered to the truth of such relationships. They are with one one’s whole life long, no matter what one says or does.

The playing out of this truth makes the film.

What gives it suspense is that you never know where the story is going, where it will take the characters, or where they will go from there.

And what makes the story gripping is that one must see it through to the end. One is never lost, because one is always journeying—to where?

Laid before us as the gangster is Fan Leo, àla George Raft, and very good he is, too.

The story’s principal focus is on the young moll played by Tao Liao. She is an actress of tremendous command. And she belongs in the part, because there is a strength in her character which we wonder: will it be her salvation or her ruin?

That she is a natural arbiter of justice is clear from the beginning. For she is also the arbiter of condemnation. And we know this because every man around her accepts punishment and mercy from her as within her natural right to bestow. It’s an extraordinary entrance for an actress—for itself and because it leads one to expect a lot from her character, right from the top. Will her underlying ethos be destroyed or fed by the difficulties of her adventure? We’re with her all the way.

The director is fortunate to have this actress, able to deliver the age-range of the character, the right look, and an ability to inspire us to follow doggedly just behind her as she makes her way through the ash of the prison of her dream.

She and the film have won many awards, as has Eric Gautier who filmed it. See Ash for yourself. Don’t expected the expected when you do.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC

 

Hotel Mumbai

31 Mar

Hotel Mumbai—directed by Anthony Maras. Disaster-pic. 125 minutes Color 2019.

★★★★★
The Story: The Taj, a vast luxury hotel floats in confident calm, until 2008 when terrorists enter the hotel, and the clientele and staff must save their lives or burn to death as the terrorists murder them and set fire to it.
~
This is a disaster film such as Towering Inferno, or the many disaster films of the ‘60s which followed it. Of course, Hollywood had produced many good disaster films—King Kong is one of them—and they put you through the wringer. Hotel Mumbai is another such, with this difference: it really happened! Which makes Hotel Mumbai all the more thrilling.

Opening in 1903, and the first hotel in India to be electrified, it contained 560 rooms and 44 suites. It was vast, 5-star, luxurious, and hated by the Pakistan terrorists who planned concurrent attacks throughout Bombay that day.

The film takes us into the rash luxury of the establishment—1600 staff including 44 butlers, with its floating staircase, and sitting flabbergasteringly right on the Arabian Sea—this offense to Muslim penury was the cherry on the sundae of the terrorist devastation of Mumbai, that center of Indian finance.

The movie takes us right into the guests and the staff, all of them beautifully played.

Armie Hammer, an American with a Muslim wife and child, seeks to protect and save them as the terrorists mow down everyone in sight. Jason Isaacs, playing the dissolute Russian tycoon, musters his manhood to rescue a woman he might otherwise buy outright. The local police defy their inadequacy to confront those weapons. The hotel master-chef, beautifully played by Anupam Kher, herds guests and staff hither and thither to keep them out of harm’s way. And one of his minor stewards, a family man who has left his pregnant wife with their infant daughter at the laundry where she works, finds the gumption to lead like a good shepherd all those he can find away and into hiding from the gunmen.

The great warren of the hotel provides the chambers and back stairs and secret corridors and unknown passages to keep his charges slipping away from their ministry to kill everyone and die, which eventually the terrorists do, in their own mess, screaming hollow prayers. 167 people are murdered. But in its own way the hotel itself saves the lives of the guests. And the staff, whose mission is to serve those guests, elevates that mission in a rescue attempt of unquestioning cunning, character, and courage.

This is a great story. And Dev Patel is well employed as the steward. He is in a beard because he plays a Sikh, but his luminous eyes tell story after story without a word said. It’s a part which brings the volatility and immediacy of those eyes into play, as they had been in the Marigold Hotel movies and Slumdog Millionaire. A great endowment, an actor’s eyes. Large, seeking, and interior—Dev Patel’s eyes carry the story of the disaster in them at every moment. Through them, we know what it is like to be there.

Yes, Hotel Mumbai puts you through the wringer—but it’s good to be put through it, especially now–when the fundamentalism of democracy purports to battle fundamentalism to the death.

Fundamentalism and absolutism and authoritarianism go together in America and in the world. No matter what religion, no matter how exalted the tenets of belief, no matter how peaceable the prayers or benevolent the creed, all religions are of the same violence who proclaim a monopoly on God, and all do.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, Armie Hammer, Dev Patel, Jason Isaacs

 

Robert Redford Retires

30 Mar

The Old Man and The Gun—written and directed by David Lowery. Crimeflick. 93 minutes Color 2018.

The Sting—directed by George Roy Hill. Grifterflick.124 minutes Color 1973.

A Walk In The Woods—directed by Ken Kwapis. Palflick. 104 minutes Color 2015
~
These three films show Redford in his characteristic role: the male involved in an improbable feat.
In The Sting he plays a cheap street con who gets an upgrade by mentor Paul Newman to engage in the overthrow of a wicked gang lord.
In A Walk In The Woods Redford pals up with a reprobate from his young manhood played by Nick Nolte, and, they set out as two out-of-shape old guys to walk the Appalachian trail from Georgia to Maine, 2,000 and some miles.
In The Old Man And The Gun, Redford plays an 81 year-old bank robber executing cross-country holdups, eluding capture.
All three films take on character by the smartness of the scripts and their environments.
The environment of A Walk In The Woods is the Appalachian Trail, through whose splendors we seem to walk with them.
The Sting won Oscars for the great Henry Bumstead for Set Design and for James W. Payne for Set Decoration, and to enter this film is to enter the ‘30s which I lived through and to be astounded by the imagination, authenticity, and liveliness of everything that surrounds the actors. The film won seven Oscars and these, along with Edith Head’s for costumes, remain eminent.
The splendors of its sets hold the film together for a time. But eventually improbabilities become unswallowable. The man in the black glove is forced on us too late as proof of Newman’s affection for the Redford character. As to the waitress set-up—brilliant but preposterous—Redford’s assassins would not have known he would go there and behave as he does. The difficulty with making grifter movies is that if you don’t watch out the audience itself gets cheated. Which is to say, let down with a baffling disappointment. So here.
Each film is well written. The Sting is a plot to produce a guessing game. A Walk In The Woods provides a guessing game without a plot, but the suspense is the same: will the two men be able to accomplish their goal?
In The Sting, Newman and Redford do not resemble Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, since in The Sting they do not act as a duet because they seldom act together, which Redford and Nick Nolte certainly do in A Walk In The Woods.
In A Walk In The Woods, although you wouldn’t think that as acting instruments Nolte and Redford would play well together, it turns out the comedy of their relationship depends on just that, and they do. Line by line of Redford/Nolte dialogue surprises as each man retains his self-possession while faced with and forgiving the incompatibility of the other.
Redford’s career in film began and remained grounded in the beauty of his appearance. The carefully disarranged head of thick hair, probably red, often blond, now brown, the fine shape of the skull, the strong jaw, the comic book hero mouth, the body of an athlete, white teeth, well-placed balanced voice, and the masculine gesture. Film by film we await this beauty to show itself or reveal its decline, much as we did with Elizabeth Taylor. Over time Redford seems not to have subjected his face to procedures. Of course, his Apollonian locks had always been worked up.
But even so, the curious thing about Redford is how much older he always was than the roles he played. He is 37 when he makes The Sting, not 17 which is what his character should be. Still he looks young enough.
What Redford did to retain his youth beyond its shelf-life, which was almost outdated by the time he began, was to keep his figure. I suppose he did this though exercise and diet. So he is able to make The Natural aged 48 and Out Of Africa aged 49.
But one price he pays for his beautiful youth is the limit it imposes on what he can show as an actor. His looks and his always advanced age oblige his acting to be cagey. Redford’s technique from the beginning to now is to offer unfinished emotional response. Nothing of his inner gesture is half-baked—it simply stops. He is never in extremis. He is always on hold, because he is always playing someone younger than he is. To play younger than he is, he must make his technique immature, that is, cut-off.
This means his work as an actor will have the same appeal as Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper once had, the appeal of the laconic American male—a popular type, the reserved man. What results is popular success, but also the eventual response in the audience that Redford never will show anything new because he never can show much.
Redford is therefore from the first and inevitably cast in parts of heroic mold–a mold. Comedy would rather not invite so staid an instrument into its jam session. But, because he has breadth of imagination for other actors, he is an actor around whom comedy can take place, such as Barefoot In the Park, where he is called upon to stop being such a stick-in-the mud. In A Walk In The Woods he actually does get suck in the mud—as well as the mud that is Nick Nolte, who is marvelously funny in his part. Redford’s line readings are never funny, but often humorous. Nolte’s readings are both. Redford is the one you watch. Nolte is the one you listen to, because he is the one more realistically and completely alive.

In A Walk In The Woods, Redford lives in an immaculate house with an immaculate wife, played with rich imagination by Emma Thompson, and in his life he has had sexual relations with this woman only, a record that is put to the test by Mary Steenburgen who plays, also with rich imagination, an avid motel owner.

Redford’s film characters tend to not fool around. He plays the perfect romance novel leading man. Indeed, he plays The American Dreamboat. You never see him off this ship even when drowning, even as in All Is Lost as his boat founders in the middle of the Pacific. For his line-readings never venture into the depths, into the rash. He never goes beyond his appearance. You never see him be ugly.

For instance he could never have played Paul Newman’s great poker scene in The Sting because he would not have risked Paul Newman’s nasty streak—a big stock-in-trade for Newman. But in A Walk In The Woods Redford’s line readings work well as the defensive measures of a loaf of white bread with a little cinnamon in it. Nolte has his character down pat, and his every wheeze amazes us because the energy behind his character is not hidden. Everything about Redford’s readings satisfies a comedy of taciturn defense. Everything he does suits to a T the description of his character in the script.

It goes beyond that in small ways only.

But those small ways are precisely cinematic. You never see Redford fake anything. He never uses his face to act with, he always comes from his reserves. For, that his convictions remain unstated does not mean that he does not have them. He has the virtue of perseverance—which holds him in good stead in All The President’s Men, Downhill Racer and many other parts.

We all know what Redford’s job as an actor has been. It is to construct on his beautiful shoulders platforms for other excellences—Sundance Film Festival and various nature conservation platforms. Acting is his penultimate calling only. Social benefit his ultimate one, and in this mission lies his prominence and his daring. That is where his heroism lodges, not in the celluloid heroism his beauty limited him to in film but which nonetheless provided the original platform of heroism on which his really heroic public missions could be borne.

The hero sacrifices his life to move mankind forward. As one watches Redford this knowledge in us draws our attention to a real-life hero, acting before us, as though we could see in the exercise of his modest craft the ultimate gift he ultimately put its use to.

With The Man With Gun Robert Redford bows out of film acting. And watching him in it is to see that he knows as much about that craft as Barbara Stanwyck and the factory actors of her day once did. You watch Redford’s mouth, when he acts, not his eyes, for his beautiful face is beautiful in its smallest gesture. Yes, he is limited in his instrument, yet, in what is essentially a comic role, the limitation of his technique is the limitation of a pond. Its motion is not oceanic, but its character is honest and worth dwelling on. We watch and wait the ruin of time.

He is now 81. Lines web his face and jowls add. The one difficulty now is his eye makeup. His age-lengthened eyebrows flare like petals and cast shadows on his brow to make his eyes look perpetually startled. His massive head of hair still lives. He still looks fit.

He plays an old man addicted to bank robbery. It is a typical Redford feat-role, and he plays it, as he always has, as a person to whom nothing life-threatening can happen. Jumping off a cliff, drowning at sea, careening in a car chase—in all film situations Redford’s character remains unperturbed. He shows no fear, is never nervous, for him peril has no peril. But also no excitement.

His character robs banks because it is invigorating, thrilling, daring. We are told this is so, he says it is so, but Redford evinces not the slightest glimmer that this is so. His affect in the heists is requesting lemon for tea. He is gentlemanly in all his hold-ups, even humorous. Well, the film is a biopic based on Forrest Tucker a renown back robber and prison escape artist known for his good manners. But Tucker did not rob banks for fame. He robbed them for the high, an exultation Redford never shows. Perhaps Redford himself has never known it.

Nonetheless while there are no big moments in Redford’s acting, only small ones—he is a master of them, of passing moves, of passages from one inner state to another. He is an international star with no oceans. He is all inlets.

But Redford brings to Forrest Tucker as to the Appalachian hiker the same all-purpose humor from which to launch his lines. This works well with his flirting scenes with Sissy Spacek, in which she is superb. She can’t make him out, and his flirting consists of his teasing her with it. They play as perfectly as Swiss cheese and ham. He is faithful to his feeling for her and to his job, but he never proposes marriage or a work ethic. That is to say, Redford’s character is resolutely faithful without having to be be committed.

The hero with the face unperturbed? But with an inside joke withal.

Surely, this is the way to play an anti-hero crook, for if you don’t play it that way, the audience is not going to go along with you. Cagney knew this, and his fast-talking smart-alecks pioneered what Redford chooses to play now—without the bumptiousness, of course. And Redford’s modest, confident, easy attitude plays well against the perils of his bank-robber profession.

Once upon a time, the story goes, Redford campaigned to play a character who longed for a woman who refused him. The producers sat him down and said, “Robert, dear—really—have you ever been with a woman in your life who refused you?”

The privileges and protections of great beauty insulate common perils from those who have it. There are certain things these people never have to risk and certain strategies they never have to attempt. As an actor this limits Redford. No matter what he does, the Redford character is impervious. This makes him a movie “hero.” His looks make him a matinee idol. These combined with his acting talent—that is to say someone who can tell the truth while lying and you believe him—make him a star, whether he is particularly real or not. John Wayne is a credible actor, but he is not real. No one is really like that. No one is really like Redford the movie star. Certain truths, as in this final film, he has no access to.

Elizabeth Moss in her single scene is wonderfully real as the daughter Tucker has never seen. Casey Affleck chooses to play exhaustion as the police detective who sets his sights on tracking down the robber. It is a smart choice because exhaustion keeps us in suspense as to whether the character will be able to sustain the oomph necessary to capture an old man, yet one so fleeting. We never see the moment when Affleck finds where the robber lives, but the performance is highly original. In the actor’s embrace of the tiring embrace of family life playing off against the tiring banality of a detective’s life and the price tiredness exacts in making this or any capture worthwhile—in this tiredness lies the energy of the film’s entire narrative.The film does not end. It simply stops. It doesn’t end, because addiction does not end. Tucker never stopped. So the film had to.

I will miss Robert Redford as a movie presence. I hope he sticks around and that I hear about his doings. He has the modesty of the noble heart. He has achieved the remoteness of the admirable.
When we were younger, we once bumped into one another. There we were, alone, between two movie vans of The Hot Rock he was making with Ron Liebman in West Greenwich Village. We chanced upon one another, looked at one another and immediately knew what we saw.

I saw a man of my own age whom I thought would be taller and who in real life was not relevant to me. He saw a man in whom he recognized something noteworthy without being able to name it. We did not speak.

In The Hot Rock he played a robber. Early or late, what Robert Redford had was the sort of inner and outer male beauty that one wants to invade one, to possess and to allow to possess one.
For beauty is a thing which that semi-permeable membrane, a human being, absorbs like a sponge. This is why Redford functions on that high level of stardom: longevity. His acting and his parts must fit into the sheath of that beauty. Males audiences can be with him and experience that beauty even when they sense that, in real life, through no one’s fault, they might not be companionable. But watching him in film, men clothe themselves in his perfection for a time and sip of the enormous advantages physical beauty guarantees. Even age 81 this is true of him. Robert Redford is still a robber we want to rob.

2544 words

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Emma Thomson: acting goddess, Mary Steenburgen

 

Blond Venus

30 Mar

Blond Venus—directed by Josef von Sternberg. Hollywood Extravaganza. 93 minutes Black and White 1932.
★★★★★
The Story: An inventor’s life’s work falls into jeopardy when a terminal illness strikes him, but his wife goes to work to speed him to a cure, and while he is away a man who looks like Cary Grant turns up at her place of business.
~
Taking Marlene Dietrich’s movies over-all, one thing remains constant: her business sense triumphs over the lust she inspires.

In this she is a statue in the park for the Me-Too limb of the women’s movement. For her triumph exalts her above prostitution which it also boldly includes.

Her films are set up to spotlight the gleam of drool on men’s lapels. This is not to say men are entirely at fault, for she has inspired this eructation herself, with a lowering of her meaningful eyelids, and a toss of the head to dismiss men as so much dandruff. This is because for her lust is a business.

In reviewing the Dietrich-von Sternberg films, what’s wrong about them is what’s right about them—meaning that every single thing is right about them. There is no point in calling them names, any more than there is a point in calling bonobo apes immoral. For his films neither redress nor replace morality. Morality is not their business. Their business is to pose. They are tableaux vivants of lust.

It is foolish to say what a thing should be or should not be, since at every point von Sternberg’s films with Dietrich are what they should or should not be. For Josef von Sternberg presents Marlene Dietrich as an object of desire so obvious, so uncontradictable, no word can be said against the fact that a film of his not merely represents but expresses in concrete form the lust in him for her that he felt and put on screen as natural as water. When you see The Scarlet Empress, you see the Hellish side of his lust for her pronounced as a gargoyle. But this hell is present in all seven films

In Blond Venus this hell takes the form of “the law of virtue”. This law stands in direct opposition to her nightclub stardom, an eminence which no true mother, of course, should occupy. She is advertised as blond, which Dietrich may have been, who cares? But no woman more unlike Venus could be conjectured. Venus is open, voluptuous, welcoming. Being with her, I found Marlene Dietrich to be cold as a statistic. And, while she is called Helen here and Helen was blond, it is also true that her smirk causes disasters in anyone near enough to witness it.

Herbert Marshall had the bad habit of English actors of speaking his lines faster than meaning can catch up with them. But he has a scene where he pleas for her and he has a scene where he is angry with her, and meaning is present. He plays the ailing husband, and off he goes to Europe for a cure. However, his introduction to Dietrich takes place in an extended nude bathing scene in which he sees her, watches her, talks to her, and steals all her clothes.

That is to say, lust launches the story. Shockingly, we next see Marshall with Dietrich as his wife and the mother of a four year-old son, Dickie Moore, in a setting which is domesticity itself. Dickie Moore went on to give Shirley Temple her first kiss, then rape Julie Harris in A Member Of The Wedding, then appear (with me) in Siobhan McKenna’s performance of Shaw’s Saint Joan on Broadway, then found an agency for child actors, write Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, about child actors, and marry Jane Powell. He is the best actor in this film.

He represents a recess from lust. For during Marshall’s cure in Europe, Marlene takes up with Cary Grant, a playboy with patent leather hair, who has given Marlene the money to send Marshall abroad.

Yes, Grant’s lust picks up where Marshall’s left off. For Grant she leaves stardom as a nightclub singer. For him she leaves her little apartment. For Grant, Dietrich goes into a trance on his lust. Nonetheless, when Marshall comes back, Dietrich would return to him, but Marshall will have none of her.

She escapes with her little son and resumes her path as a nightclub star. But here lies the crux. Lust now wears the pants. And we see Dietrich once again in them, flirting with the nightlife both male and female, her business to drive humans mad.

That is to say lust has achieved its natural and original state of having no gender. In this case—at the near end of its career—lust has no gender because it is all played out.

The law chases her. That is to say her humdrum husband has her chased from state to state, job to job, to reclaim his child. His child is that state of being which denotes the elimination of lust.

That is to say, lust in its most extreme form.

I say no more save that you never believe Cary Grant’s line readings, but you do believe the skepticism in his glance as he sees her sing for the first time. No wonder. It was the heart of the Depression, and the one entertainment everyone could afford was lust. No one wanted to be told that that too would be drying up and blowing away. But von Sternberg doesn’t care. Nor, obviously, does Dietrich. For she too had a child to support and a Paramount contract to be responsible to to do it.

In her films as in life, Marlene Dietrich was a business-woman. That her business in her films was prostitution is no mark against her. In films or out, she lives exalted above reputation. She is a triumph, not of Women’s Liberation but of Women’s Power. She broke the glass ceiling by not even acknowledging it. As a professional allumeuse, she put on her trousers and made her mark, just as she had to to meet the rent, as any other human has to, rent or no rent.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Hollywood Extravaganza, Marlene Dietrich

 

The Scarlet Empress

29 Mar

The Scarlet Empress—directed by Josef von Sternberg. Biopic. 104 minutes 1934.
★★★★★
The Story: A young German princess hastens to Russia to marry the to-be Tsar and her disappointment is sweetened with many consolations including her extirpation of him.

~
On screen, Marlene Dietrich has two expressions. The first is long before she commits adultery and the second is just before she commits adultery. In Dietrich films, adultery is always to be committed. As in her real life.

Here, the first expression consists of her opening her mouth in innocent stupefaction at everything and every one. The second expression consists of her closing her mouth. The first accompanies her opening her eyes wide as daisies to project unblinking virginity. The second expression co-ordinates with her lowering her lids to half-mast and ticking off her 10,000 previous sexual triumphs with her smirk. In the first her false eyelashes are smaller than in the second. In the second her lashes are so long she can lash people to death with them.

Think of Marlene Dietrich playing the innocent princess! The imagination is wrestled to earth at the proposition. But that is what she is called on to do by her puppet-master, von Sternberg for most of this film. Yes, she must be a virgin. After all the princess is only 15 and Marlene Dietrich is only 33.

How wonderful is this film! How complete an act of self-indulgence! How consummate a production and a presentation! Everything that can be overdone is overdone and then laughed at right then and there. The royals sit in immense gargoyle chairs and couches, and these gargoyles travel through every scene, nightmares of wood, ogres of plaster, tortures in marble. Through it all Dietrich is impervious to guilt, remorse, and thought.

We follow Dietrich from one costume change through a thousand others and are never bored, never refuse the offering of so much grotesquerie. Master Overdone, von Sternberg her director never asked her to overdo a thing. Au contraire, Dietrich as an actor is scarcely moved and scarcely moves. Her face is a mask of her very own face.

In her films, everyone behaves as though Marlene Dietrich were beautiful, but she is no more beautiful than a robot. She is a contraption of sexual experience. Except who the heck would ever risk their nuts by getting near her. Of course, she had many liaisons, from Jean Gabin to Jimmy Stewart to Yul Brynner. She bestowed herself upon various front line generals in World War II and upon many soldiers too—and good for her! She raised the War morale, and all received benefit by the training.

Here, we can only watch her, without love, without admiration even, but with unanswerable befuddlement, as she mocks the moralities which forgive everything because, in their permanence, they are simply immune to mockery. She herself rises to a higher plain of corruption. From promiscuity she dons snow white military trousers and rides a white stallion up the stairs of The Winter Palace and leaps over the murder of her lunatic husband the Tsar right onto the throne.

What’s so peculiar is that she also loves the handsomest man in all Russia, who pursues her and whom she crushes. The man is played by the lusciously handsome hyper-masculine John Lodge in a valiant wig. A scrumptious male whose like is not seen again until Marlon Brando, the lubricity of this attraction sears through the claptrap of the film’s history and the hysteria of its presentation, as Lodge supplies the only acting reality in the picture. which is to leave out Louise Dresser, wonderful as the Iowa-voiced fishwife Empress Of All The Russias and Sam Jaffe as the idiot dauphin Peter III. Dietrich herself, as she knew, was not an actress. She was a presentation.

And never more so than in this delirious picture, which is beautifully written, splendidly produced and directed, magnificently mounted, shot with genius.

Don’t deprive yourself of such pleasure as seeing a picture which resembles none other—until, of course, we reach the heyday of Maria Montez. Remember:there never was an actress like Maria Montez!

And also remember: there never was a non-actress like Marlene Dietrich.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Hollywood Extravaganza

 

The Wedding Guest

23 Mar

The Wedding Guest—directed by Michael Winterbottom. Romantic/Crime. 94 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★
The Story: A contract kidnapper travels to a provincial wedding to do business and falls in love.
~
The Wedding Guest. How to begin to list its wonders?

Since there are only two wonders, let us begin with India. But since there is nothing to be said about India that cannot be said in less than sixteen volumes of 1,000 pages each, let us button our lips. For, if we begin to read of a subcontinent so crowded with subcontinents as India, we shall leave out other subcontinents and become lost in the crimson corridors of shame and the pied passages of confusion.

Seaside paradise, urban squalor, golden domes, landscapes of eternal desolation, colors within colors within colors—India has no end of photogenic worlds. Each shot here is framed as by an accidental intrusion of the rare vitality of all that lies about available to the blinded eye. We rush to see movies made there.

The second and final item on its list of Wedding Guest wonders is Dev Patel.

He has moved away from the irresistible ebullience of his wild-boy parts in the Marigold Hotel movies and Slumdog Millionaire. Lest he turn into Mickey Rooney, he had to. So we have Lion and Chappie and The Man Who Knew Infinity.

It is quite clear that Dev Patel can carry a movie in his left rear pocket. Of course, I keep waiting for him to break into his India-wide smile and dash toward some fresh recklessness. But here he plays a man with no visible past working towards no visible future, so his brow must be furrowed. For not only is escape from the law serious business, but he has in tow a young woman of uncertain character—is she a cat, is she a mouse—and a dirt bag for the man lusting after her.

At 28 and at the peak of his masculinity, Patel towers over everyone. At 6’1¼” he seems as tall as the great American actor Lee Pace, 6’4” whom he resembles in many regards. They both have abundant dark hair and startling eyebrows, and what audience could defy the magnet of their eyes. Both actors are lanky and strong and agile. They do just fine bare. As actors they are physically complete for stardom, by which I mean one wants to look at them no matter who else is around. We make what they are to do, say, feel, and know important. Expression ripples across their faces like water over brook stones. Their voices are rich.

As to the actors’ inner instruments, you feel each could play Hamlet. and ought to do so at once. You feel they could do musicals and, of course, they have.

Patel is constrained somewhat by the role he plays here, because he goes from one momentous matter to the next with no interlude. Will he break out of his stern intent to walk east toward safety or west toward romance?

He is given good cause in Radhika Apte, as the bride-not-to-be. She has something of the look of waywardness of Mackenzie Davis which keeps the audience both in their seats and off balance. Even when she does the expected you don’t expect it. Jim Sarbh is marvelous as the dog’s-breath boyfriend.

As to Patel, we never see him behind his determined eyes. It is as though there is a scene missing. A door of loneliness needs to open in him so we can see that no one lies behind it but the stencil of a loneliness. We need a vision of his insides so we can care with passionate illogic about him, and no such vision is given by the story, cutting, director, or actor.

I go to all of Dev Patel’s films. He is soon to open in a movie about the terrorist attack on the Mumbai Hotel. He is to appear in a version of David Copperfield. Such a wonderful actor, will he play Macawber, will he play Uriah Heep or Betsy Trotwood? He will probably play the evil stepfather Murdstone or, even better, the irresistibly fascinating Steerforth. He could play all of them at once. I’m a fan. I shall go to find out!

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, ACTION/ADVENTURE, CRIME DRAMA, Dev Patel

 

Ash The Purest White

23 Mar

Ash The Purest White—written and directed by Zhanke Jia. Relationship Drama. In Chinese with English subtitles. 135 Minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The story: An underworld kingpin and his moll are linked, but do the links change over time?
~
Lots of cityscapes. Lots of landscapes. Lots of facescapes. In Ash, I never ceased to be surprised by what I saw of China, which I never expected to be that way at all.

Nor did I tire of the story of the relationship of these two. Was it going to end happily? Was it going to end unhappily? Was it going to end? Was it not going to end?

Oh, in the end, it adhered to the truth of such relationships. They are with one one’s whole life long, no matter what one says or does.

The playing out of this truth makes the film.

What gives it suspense is that you never know where the story is going, where it will take the characters, or where they will go from there.

And what makes the story gripping is that one must see it through to the end. One is never lost, because one is always journeying—to where?

Laid before us as the gangster is Fan Leo, àla George Raft, and very good he is, too.

The story’s principal focus is on the young moll played by Tao Liao. She is an actress of tremendous command. And she belongs in the part, because there is a strength in her character which we wonder will be her salvation or her ruin.

That she is a natural arbiter of justice is clear from the beginning. For she is also the arbiter of condemnation. And we know this because every man around her accepts punishment and mercy from her as within her natural right to bestow. It’s an extraordinary entrance for an actress—for itself and for the fact that it leads one to expect a lot more from her character, right from the top. Will her underlying ethos be destroyed or fed by the difficulties of her adventure?

The director is extremely fortunate to have this actress, able to deliver the age-range of the character, the right look, and an ability to inspire us to follow doggedly just behind her as she makes her way through the ash of the prison of her dream.

She and the film have won many awards, as has Eric Gautier who filmed it. See Ash for yourself. Don’t expected the expected when you do.

 
 

Everybody Knows

11 Mar

Everybody Knows—directed by Asghar Farhadi. Whodunit. 2 hours 21 minutes Color 2019

***
The Story: a big family gathers for a fine wedding, when a crime occurs that snares everybody in its net.
~
What great big loud fun Spanish nuptials!

It goes on for a time. All our characters are established and aren’t they great! You think you’re in a film by Jean Renoir!

Then the crime occurs.

What happens then is the film goes on for 2 hours and 21 minutes as the rug is pulled out from under our interest. and our loyalty to it. And how does that come about? How does the author and director manage to go about disengaging us from film, crime, characters, all?

He does it by not know when to shut up. He wrote what he directed—always a dangerous duet. The director falls in love with everything he wrote and the writer falls in love with everything he directed, and the audience is left with nothing whatsoever to fall in love with. Every variation on his themes is included, written to the maximum of histrionics and, because he is the director, the actors must perform that way.

Here we have the beauteous Penelope Cruz who brings to the screen once again the fulness of heart, body, and talent Sophia Loren used to please us with. She is the mother of two children, a boy of eight and a girl of seventeen. The wedding is attended by her former childhood beau, played by Javier Bardem, who never fails to intrigue. They and everyone else are perfectly cast.

One problem arises with the title of the movie: everybody knows what?

Well, there is only one thing to know: the father of Cruz’s daughter. And, since there is only one thing to know we all know that it must be Bardem. So we know from the start what we shouldn’t. And knowing it pollutes our suspense.

Trouble is you always suppose he knows it, too, for when the crime befalls, he alone behaves like father.

But does his character know he’s the father? No, he does not! We must be wrung with impatience to witness as he is wrung to witness what every character and every audience member watching knows from the start.

Oh, dear, I’m coming close to falling into the same trap the director fell into—the plot! I’ll never extricate myself if I write another paragraph.

Well, one more paragraph. It’s beautifully shot. And Bardem and Cruz are wonderful. So if you enjoy seeing them play in high style, see Everybody Knows. If not, wait until Bardem shaves his beard and he and his wife find better work together. For in my heart, where they do belong is where they and my heart deserve better. Still, to watch them here, critical acumen relinquishes itself into the comforting certainty of their gifts, for they represent an order of talent of such inevitability that, even if one had a wish to, it is virtually impossible to analyze it. So, if you go and when you go, tell me I’m not wrong.

 

Abraham Lincoln

09 Feb

Abraham Lincoln— directed by D.W. Griffith. Biopic. 97 minutes. Black and White 1930.

The Story: A child is born, falls in love with a pretty girl who dies, becomes a raconteur, lawyer, debates the issues of the day, jilts his fiancée on their wedding day, becomes President, moves into The White House with his bad tempered wife, conducts a war, is murdered at a theatre.
~
This is a first sound picture about the Civil War which those who had lived through it could hear. It is a Classics Comics Civics class lesson. It touches base with all the already salient points.

Every camera set-up is beautiful. But stalled. Probably because the microphones of 1930 could not move, the camera setups never do. So scenes, while perfect, look posed.

This matches the posed style of the acting. Each actor’s voice gazes off into clouds of white grandeur. Ian Keith as John Wilkes Booth tenses his eyeballs and declaims like the histrionic blowhard we are told Booth was. Kay Hammond is simply peculiar as tittering Mary Todd. Una Merkle’s pecking voice begs the question of romance with her monotonous poetical recitative. Griffith had a good eye but a poor ear.

To look at silent film acting today is to find it was more often modern than it was old-fashioned. The female actors particularly—Pickford, Bow, Davies, Talmage—are realistic actors in the modern sense. Their stories date but their work does not date.

But Griffith’s actors are of a different style. They stuff themselves with the big gestures of the theatre, just as they did in his early films. Griffith was evidently not interested in acting or didn’t understand it or felt the big gestural style he had always used was right. So, because it is emotionally and visibly stagnant the movie mainly plays as a series of tableaux. It could have been rescued by the performances.

Raymond Massey, Henry Fonda, Daniel Day-Lewis have played Lincoln, but Walter Huston, the first to so in a leading role in a full-length sound film, is the one perhaps best suited to Lincoln. He brings to the part his six foot height and his forthrightness. He brings to everything he plays and to this Lincoln that rare immediacy to the audience which none of the other Lincolns possess. Nor do they possess Walter Huston’s uprightness, even-temper, fair-mindedness, and gentleness combined with rugged masculinity and a vocal technique that releases something deep in him. The classical singer, his sister Margaret Carrington trained Huston, a cheap vaudevillian, into a legitimate theatre actor when he was thirty-seven, a vocal training which also released in Huston, more than in any other actor to play him, Abe’s foundational quality: honesty.

However, Huston too plays in The Manner Orotund! Its cloud-capped nobility filters these qualities from the needful eye.

United Artists produced it beautifully, nor is it over-produced—so the interiors are just right. The battle scenes and military parade scenes are vivid and real and terrible. They are important for any director to behold so as to see how good things are done.

Lincoln was an enormously entertaining person. People gathered around him at parties because he was so much fun, and the movie includes a good many moments of Lincoln as he tells stories and jokes. Stephen Vincent Benét, who wrote the Civil War epic poem John Brown’s Body, wrote the script, were are told, so he knew the territory as well as anyone, but, about whomever it was that actually rewrote it the film’s big historical inaccuracies make one wonder.

This was Griffith’s first sound picture. He made one more and never made a full length film again. One can understand why. As a young man, Griffith had opened up the potential of the moving camera. He also understood the size of the screen to hold epic subjects. But he was a martinet who lacked a sense of humor and drank. Not a good combination for a director. Particularly one embarking on a fresh medium—sound—a year after The Crash, on a subject that needed something more intimate than a stereotypical version of a life everyone already knew. However, it was a box-office success.

The film was originally almost two hours long. United Artists pared it down to ninety-seven minutes. The shorter version is the one I saw.

 
 

The Pass

25 Jan

The Pass—directed by Ben A. Williams. Drama. 88 minutes Color 2016.
★★★★★
The Story: In a crucial game, a young professional soccer-player chooses not to pass the ball to his teammate to make the goal, and the story of his solo success influences his love for that teammate and his subsequent life.
~
Abandonment is a remarkable word.

In one sense, abandon means to disown and depart from, as in “seduce-and-abandon.”

In another sense, abandon it means the reverse: to incorporate oneself with.

The first requires walking away. The second means to stand still, exercise, and at the same time surrender fully to power.

In the film Bohemian Rhapsody we see the two sorts at odds with each other. One is is the abandonment of the artist, in which case the artist paradoxically is in full control, and the audience is brought into the Dionysian spectacle of volatile calm in full spate, and thousands cheer. It is a giving back to the gods the gift of the gods.

The second sort of abandonment in Bohemian Rhapsody is sexual. Though sexual abandonment does not really resemble the first, it has the same word attached.

But in sexual abandonment, control leaves at the point that addiction to abandonment begins, and, in sex, the line between abandonment to pleasure and to addiction to pleasure is invisible.

Boredom is Rami Malik’s marked state whenever his Freddie Mercury is not performing or preparing to. So, in his utter boredom with everything that is not abandonment to music, Freddie Mercury seeks the false or Duessa duplicate of the public abandonment to the act and gods of his art, in sexual abandonment.

But the god of sex, in fact, does not exist. So not having a god means sexual abandonment has no inbred controls. And the folly of his sexual abandon becomes a compulsion, a disease from which Freddie Mercury contracts disease. From the explosive performance of a song Freddie Mercury can escape, because its orgasm is chronic for since it always comes it never comes, and by the simple virtue of the song’s end. But from the performance of sex Freddie Mercury can never escape because orgasm ends it, but the search for its resumption must stagger on and on and on.

Freddy Mercury’s fault was not to confront his boredom. The film about him and Queen is larger than the content of sex or song or Freddie or Queen. For the film Bohemian Rhapsody is itself an abandonment into its own art, that of film-making.

Here in The Pass we have similar matters.

In this case, the protagonist Jason abandons human love for athletic dominance. The kicker is he does it through betrayal.

So an enormously successful soccer player ekes out his celebrity with homosexual encounters which leak into rumors that he fears and has always feared. No one is frightened of love. But we all sense love’s consequences, and these may be fearsome indeed. Jason fears them: The thorn of rumor is stronger than the blimp of Image.

Is Jason going to abandon himself not to what he is (homosexually endowed—which is the version of his fear), or is he going to abandon himself to love the person he loves, male or not.

That is the question that overhangs the story.

The treatment of it in this film is no small matter because of the brilliance of the film itself. The story starts with two young men, just before the start of their careers as professional soccer players, as they hang out in their hotel room in their skivvies. They present themselves to us and to one another as rowdy, straight, nineteen-year-olds.

A great deal of pornography exists depicting the really easy seduction of straight males into homosexual acts.

Easy, why?

Because male sexuality has no particular gender attached to it—it responds to whatever hand touches it. And these two young men jest violently about sex, although never about sex with one another. Rather, sex is mocked. That enables both of them in their romps to throw the subject of homosexuality up into the air—although the only option available to them then is to raise their shoguns and shoot it down.

We have no sense in this tomfoolery that behind the clay pigeons fly doves.

Nope. What we see is two young fellows horsing around and nothing more.

It comes as a surprise to me then when, out of the blue they kiss one another, and mean it.

This it seems to me the one defect of an execution which in other respects is fascinating.

I don’t know where the fault lies. It seems that the story needs to be told from Jason’s point of view. Instead it is told from the camera’s point of view. It becomes a story about Jason, rather than a story of what is going on inside him at any given time. Tell it, not from the outside-in, but instead from the inside out. However, perhaps the play itself dictates otherwise.

But it is hard to linger any further on this matter when what the film offers overrides it. It is superbly performed by the four actors in it, Arinze Kene, Lisa McGrillis, and Nico Miraleggro. It is brilliantly written. It is perfectly filmed. Its settings, properties, and costumes are tops.

I would like to talk on and on about these excellencies. For they are two-fold.

The first fold would include everything named just above and would include the acting, which I will talk about, if I have sufficient wit.

The second fold is the one I won’t talk about, for that fold is the film’s power to give us so much to talk about, so much to mull, to come back to. It opens up questions never opened up so honorably before. And that is its goal, task, virtue, and cunning. It does not propose to answer such questions. It simply spreads them before us to partake.

The acting of The Pass is immensely interesting to me. I wonder if this material wasn’t at one time a stage play for four actors. I wonder how these actors all of whom are strangers to me got to be cast in parts in which they are beyond perfect. I am baffled by each of them. The story their acting tells us is so engrossing that I sit back in wonderment at the same time that I sit forward in wonderment.

The actor who plays Jason, offers a smile so dazzlingly beautiful and natural to him that one cannot but almost overlook that this smile invites one in, at the same time that it declares I-do-not-mean-it. He is the landlord of a terrible charm. His smile is a master of seduce-and-abandon.

Each act of the film is years on from the one before. And one sees in each the heart of this actor playing Jason wither as his fear for his success in the big business of soccer is met by his need to risk the act that will ruin it.

The actor is so good looking I wonder as I watch why he should feel any other male’s superiority—and perhaps he is drawn to it only to ruin it. Why does a character do this?

Because an actor exists capable of playing it. You witness the character’s cathedral of manipulations because the actor is willing to abandon his eyes to them. Just to watch him is to wonder!

The actor fools his face in fun, he wells with the truth of a lost value, he prances and threatens and laughs off everything. It is as though the playwright dictated every response and move. It is as though the actor writes the script as it goes. The character is beyond belief, beyond one’s own deserts, alive!

I watch each move as the actor abandons himself to the strictures of the role. There is no hero in this story, but The Daring To Love. And the suspense is: will he miss out? The strength of the actor’s performance is to abandon itself to a weakness which alerts us to the possibility of its very opposite.

My praise of Russel Tovey’s performance after only one viewing can only be clumsy, so I cease. I have seen very good acting in films this year—Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack, David Oyelowo, and Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy, for one—but Russell Tovey’s acting in The Pass is also acting on the highest level—fresh, apt, secure, and abandoned to the rubric of the acting craft—with this difference: the stakes of the story are for me closer to home.

The life-question asked here is: if work is the calling, a calling which requires abandonment to it, can, in the same life, abandonment to love also be the calling?

Perhaps that’s not fair. Perhaps that an imposition of my personal code on the subject of The Pass, whose truth may lie elsewhere.

But then, that is the virtue of this film. It promotes such questions. It bestirs one with its relevancy. It is two-fold.

See for yourself.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

22 Jan

Bohemian Rhapsody—directed by Dexter Fletcher. RockMusical. 2 hours 17 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: A rock quartet’s story, from the time its key player joins and launches them into their perilous popularity—and the band goes on.
~
I had never heard of this band, Queen, or of its lead singer, Freddie Mercury. So what was I faced with?

A band member whose vitality, talent, and imagination freed it into the brash, the ecstatic, the musically outré. A worthwhile type for a movie to focus on. In valor, like Lou Gehrig or Sergeant York, or Seabiscuit, a hero. We see the band fight one another, but also gather themselves around the fundamental wellspring of music whose boldness Mercury releases in them. He gives them a chance, but they give him a chance. Without him, what?

The adventure of his business acumen and downrightness launches the band into huge venues—stadiums where he is able to charm and floor vast audiences with his volatile accessibility. He can seduce 1,000 fans into sing-alongs.

His genius was manifold. It also included a power of stage improvisation which you can see also in Mick Jaeger. His body was attuned to dance his singing. He played the piano on stage—often a grand. He had a voice of singular purity, range, and power. This was his strongest gift, and his ability to use it was Orphian. But the real gift was the ability to expose himself to his audiences in such a way as to include and also exceed exhibitionism. He laid himself out on the altar of his art like a sacrifice. He is a virtuoso of the rash. I watch a long documentary on Freddie Mercury and observe this.

In all this, Rami Malek is indistinguishable from the part he plays. He brings all of this to the screen. And also that mad peculiar gleam in his eye of challenge and fear which combine to make Malek so much like Mercury in his range and rejoicing.

The picture is beautifully written, directed, produced, costumed, set, and cast. There is no drama here. What there is is a gorgeous color palette which shifts and changes with chromolithographic aptness from moment to moment, scene to scene, beginning to end. The film is a tour through the high-spots and low-spots of human superabundance, and, as a documentary, from what I read about Mercury, it is accurate. Indeed, why would anyone feel the need to improve on such facts? There is no tension, no plot, no dramatic oppositions. Or there are too many for any single one of them to operate on us seriously.

But this does not matter. As I watch, I may not care for Freddy Mercury, but, boy, do I care about him! Lots of what I see and hear is alien and unfamiliar to me. Rock and Roll was never audible to my heart or my glands. But the film lies beyond that. For there is always in the life of the band, Queen, plenty to attend to, learn, and wonder on. Bohemian Rhapsody is by no means the last film word on the life of Queen or Mr. Mercury—but is is a banquet of them for all of us to delight in and digest.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC

 

Mary Poppins Returns

21 Jan

Mary Poppins Returns—directed by Rob Marshall. Musical Comedy. 2 hours 10 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★
The Story: Though threatened with eviction, the Banks family of London take on a former nanny, who arrives with heavenly solutions in her carpet bag.
★★★★★
~
Reassurance reigns with the fresh face and person of Lin-Manuel Miranda biking around London putting out gas lights as the picture opens. What is it about him? Well, there were no gaslights in 1930’s London, but we forget that with the forthright, honest face of him, easy, simple, unforced— singing. And then the song, which is open in style and a welcome-mat to one’s hopes that the rest of the songs will be as accessible.

Few of them are. Generally the songs are over-written, cramped with verses whose wit is too quick to register, more adult than Gilbert and Sullivan, and not nearly as pretty. Kids won’t get it. Adults won’t wonder why: they won’t get it either.

The dancing of them is incorrectly shot, feet unshown, and so elaborate in choreography and rapidly cut, one does not have time to sit back and enjoy a thing.

This forced-feeding goes on throughout the film as muscal episode after episode is dolled up and stuffed with special effects that detract from the good-hearted message of the film which is: use your imagination. But imagination withers under the rain of these over-imaginative special effects. Under water we go. Up Big Ben we scale. High in the sky we fly. A bore. Because? Because they leave nothing to the imagination. Special effects dictate enjoyment, they do not necessarily provide it. Each musical number wrestles us to the floor and puts a stranglehold on us. With the command for us to surrender to it, the film does all the entertaining for us, leaving us with nothing to contribute to the joy.

The original Mary Poppins movie gave us breathing space and several songs our little daughter could sing. And I could too, and still can. The Return supplies us with no such air and and no such airs.

But it is delightful whenever all of this is not happening. Which is most of the time.

David Warner, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep all show up and bring the zest of their 10-20-30 pacing.

The faces new to me are really good: Ben Wishaw as the father-inferior beset with eviction, Emily Mortimer as his appealing sister and Wishaw’s three children Pixie Davies, Nathanael Sahel, and Joel Dawson—along with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Noma Dumezweni as the wicked bank owner’s staff.

My heart swelled a number of times as the Banks folks extricated themselves from the threat of becoming homeless—a situation millions experience today. Will the spoonful of imagination-and-good will help the medicine of expatriation go down? Alas, our modern-day refugees do not have the help of a magical nanny parachuting from the sky to answer that question.

I liked the first version of Mary Poppins, but I prefer this actress’s interpretation of Mary Poppins to Julie Andrews’, whose singing forces us to be pleased with it. Emily Blunt’s Poppins is not easy to take, maybe, but more understandable, more formidable, and more sly in her determination to ease the characters and us into the mind-set that imagination can win the day.

I recommend the film to everyone. The banks versus the Banks—I know whom I’m rooting for—every time! Same as you.

 

ROMA

12 Jan

Roma—directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Biodrama. 135 minutes Black & White 2018
★★★★★
The Story: Cleo scours and serves and washes and scrubs, so why does everyone love her?
~
Here are some reasons to stay away from Roma. It is:
* in black and white
• in Spanish
• slow
• episodic
• without a story
• of 2 hours 15 minutes duration
• about a teenage Aztec woman
• about a servant
• in a Mexico City neighborhood you would never visit
• a film with dog doo frequently visible
• also about four spoiled children
• a spectacle of puddles and mud and shacks
• graced with full frontal male nudity

See Roma if you like films
• that articulate the inarticulate
• like The Green Book, The Help, The Remains Of The Day, Mary Poppins, about a servant
• to take you out of yourself
• that stick to your ribs
• that are a moving masterpiece

 

The Green Book

11 Jan

The Green Book—directed by Peter Farrelly. Comedy. 2 hours ten minutes 2018,
★★★★★
The Story: An elegant black Jazz pianist hires a white bouncer to chauffeur his Cadillac on his tour of The South in 1962.
~

The story is Driving Miss Daisy backwards: the cranky passenger in back now is black, while the beleaguered driver up front is white.

In some ways it’s better than Daisy. The Daisy character is seldom played fully for the comic yenta she is, while here Viggo Mortensen milks every laugh within his reach as the tough Italian American, way out of his cultural depth in associating with the elegant society pianist played by Mahershala Ali.

The Green Book is the hotel list for black folks travelling in the South. This provides the two with comic adventures, but the entertainment of the film lies not so much with those adventures or with the relationship of the two grown men but rather with the brilliance of the two actors in capturing the human truth of each character as they skirt that relationship.

We live in an era of wonderful acting, but these two excel themselves. Mahershala Ali sets one at the edge of one’s seat by the chill with which he invests Don Shirley. The forbidding, contemptuous elegance of James Baldwin glimmers from his reachless back seat. It is a bravura performance executed without a flourish.

In the front the eyes of a slob roll at each spur of instruction. Hauteur is met with ham-handed wisdom. Viggo Mortensen startled me. I had no idea he had this comic range or range of characters—which happens to be the same thing in this case.

The material is beautifully managed by the writers and the director Peter Farrelly. The movie won the best film award at the 2019 Golden Globe Awards and best screenplay. Ali won for the best supporting actor. I grieved for it, since it is a leading role and since Mortensen’s was past any other performance this year save Ali’s.

If the function of criticism is praise, the word for the work of these two artists is “Alleluia!”

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen

 

Vice

07 Jan

Vice—directed by Adam McKay. BioPic. 132 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: A debauched dropout’s wife badgers him to get ahold of himself, and he turns himself into the most powerful, influential, and corrupt Vice-President the United States has ever known.
~
I sat baffled for the first hour of this film in wait for it to start. What I was watching was one fleeting exposition scene upon another—as though the writer/director Just Wanted To Get It All In. He threw details of history into my eyes like confetti, and he did not stop in the second half. By the end I realized I watched a fancy, dizzy civics lesson.

This treatment of Vice derives from the quick, cross-cutting technique of Jules Dassin’s Naked City by the cinemaphotographer William Daniels who won the Oscar for shooting it, and Paul Weatherwax who won the Oscar for editing it that way. The cross-cutting served up excitement for a long police chase across Manhattan’s Williamsburg Bridge, and it had an objective: the murderer.

Vice has no objective.

Or perhaps the objective is to show Dick Cheney to be the rat and murderer we all already knew him to be.

That’s not enough for me.

It means Vice is biased against Dick Cheney from the start. In its very title, it betrays the character imbalance that generates drama. In place of that we have collage. What’s there skips by with the merry glibness of a stone across a still pond. Nothing sinks in.

For there is nothing to sink into, because Dick Cheney is an unprosperous subject for a drama to begin with. He is a closed book. He never reveals himself verbally or emotionally. That is his professed strategy. So Christian Bale who plays him, through a makeup as vast as Eddie Murphy’s in The Nutty Professor II, is reduced to small motions of Chaney’s lips, out of which what little emerges is never the truth.

What is the real story here?

The film is adept and clever. At its close, it shows Cheney speaking to the theater audience to claim that he made America safe from terrorism, because that is what he was elected to do and that is what his job was.

It is a lie. For Chaney was not elected to office, any more than the tail of a dog is elected when you adopt a dog. Chaney simply was on a ticket with George W. To get there, he strong-armed candidate Bush such that, when he was elected, Cheney would be in charge of Foreign Affairs and other branches of presidential office never before assigned to a vice-presidency.

Bush knew nothing and knew it. He knew he was massively unqualified, gauche, and immature for President Of The United States. He feared to look bad in the job. He wanted an informed buffer. He wanted a trainer, someone whose chops would protect him—someone whose leash could drag him in this direction and restrain him from galumphing off in that direction. That is, Cheney could barricade Bush from showing the world his incompetence. What Bush didn’t know was that this meant someone who could do the job for him—for, because of Cheney, Bush never learned the job. What W. also got was a hypnotist. This he didn’t know, but Cheney knew it. Cheney made him sit, roll over, and bark.

But that Cheney was Bush’s stand-in was no secret—because Cheney’s exercise of his power over Bush was obvious to the many people around them. Just as everyone in the country knew Bush was an ignoramus—whether you believed it or not, it was obvious.

When Cheney was an habitual, jail-bait, trouble-making drunkard, his wife wrung his neck. So Cheney gave up potation for Potus. To Cheney it didn’t matter that he was not president. What he was interested in was getting drunk—instead of beer—on power. Indeed, to sustain such power, you had to remain alcoholically sober, as Nixon failed to realize. Cheney’s story is the displacement of one high by another. With Dick Cheney, we had a drug-addict running this country—the drug being power—and even worse—an addict with a stone heart.

And without ethos.

Cheney mistook military might for power. He mistook influence for power. And he mistook bullying for power. He also mistook the thrill of power for power.

Those are the small potatoes of power.

Power means freedom.

The ethos of America is not based on military might, which has no ethos. It is not based on land, which has no ethos. Nor is it based on religion or money, though each do have an ethos.

America is based on democracy. The ethos of democracy is deeper than those of religion or money. Democracy has so great an ethos that as a foundation for government it makes the ethos of religion and money, unnecessary, false, and forbidden. Conscience consciousness of this is the law of the land.

When Cheney turns to the theater audience and claims he was doing the job the voters hired him for, he lies. He did jobs he was not hired for. He interloped and declared war. When he said he made America safe against terrorists, he lied. For thousands of our soldiers lay dead on the sands his lies to us lead us to. He lied when he uttered the word America for, he did not care a fig about America.

One thing that Bale is able to make clear is that Cheney was a stupid human being. For all Cheney knew was the fear inculcated in him by his wife’s threat to stop being thrown into the drunk tanks of Wyoming jails. She stupefied him with the influence of her whisper, just as he stupefied the brain of that poor sap George W. Bush.

The ethos of America is stronger than people like Dick Cheney. I’m not worried. I am not going to waste my time accusing him or asking others to.

People with good judgement of character don’t vote for tickets like that or for tickets such as the present one.

Vice is obvious and flat. Everyone in it does a fine job. Tyler Perry as General Colin Powell, Steven Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as W, and Amy Adams as Mrs Cheney.

In fact, Lynne Cheney’s story, it seems to me, has a lot more promise than that of her husband, locked in the penitentiary of his life. For all that’s interesting about Cheney is the jail of the lie he ended up condemned to. But far more interesting is the woman who turned the key that took him from one jail and put him in another.

 

The Mule

03 Jan

The Mule—produced and directed by Clint Eastwood. Drama. 116 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: His business wrecked by the internet, a 90-year-old man becomes the most reliable drug runner in North America.
~
What a neat story for an actor in his ninth decade to star in! And the picture certainly retains its interest when Clint Eastwood is on the screen.

And it loses interest when the two secondary themes surface, of [A] the campaign against him of the Feds. And [B] the campaign against him by his long-abandoned family.

Every fifteen minutes or so these themes reappear, each time with the same material repeated:

[A] An Agency honcho crabs at G-men, Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña, that they must provide more and better drug busts for the Washington Office.

And [B] Dianne Wiest and her daughter crab at Clint for not showing up For All Those Years.

So the fault in The Mule lies not in the stars but in the writing. The writers have composed The Mule out of a handbook for screenwriting, a which says Thou Shalt Create A Character by write-by-the numbers psycho-analyses. But a daughter’s resentment does not make a character of her. All it does is smear the screen with it when the actor appears, and let human truth go begging. Every secondary character in the movie stands trapped in the mechanical inertia of such stencils. Poor Michael Penã does nothing but sit in a car like a car.

For an actor of Michael Peña’s talent, humanity, experience, personality, and age, he and we need more than just that he is the father of four children whom we never see. And Dianne Wiest incessantly bids for our pity as the abandoned wife because the script gives her nothing better to do with her mouth. We have a flash of Gene Hackman, an old acting chum of Eastwood, back into circulation to steal a scene from his friend, but he would have fared much worse had his role been a sunburst instead of a cameo.

Bradley Cooper, as the cop set to catch Eastwood, does just fine because behind Bradley Cooper’s quite ordinary masculinity lies a sense of humor in wait to appreciate whatever he is faced with. A sense of humor is a great tool for an actor (it carried John Wayne right up to his death). And in a role written with no reserves for the character to engage, humor thus becomes the reserve suitable for any occasion.

Eastwood brings the great advantages of his 88 years to the role of the robber. One of those advantages is that he too old to suspect of a crime. And too old to imagine dying. The man has gotten away with 90 years of life, he surely will get away with the rest. Of course, Eastwood’s presence on screen has always been baffling. You cannot but watch him and wonder why.

His acting is not one-dimensional. His acting is non-dimensional. It has always been so, and, indeed, its lack of dimension accounts for his stardom. He presents to us a hollow which we ourselves must fill. And we get sucked into it, simply because it exists, and because we are trained to be seduced by any film before us, a quality inherent in film itself. We do not go to a film not wishing to be taken in. That the hollow we are taken into is not deep does not matter: we are gaga from the start.

Eastwood is convinced of his mule-job, all the more so after he executes it so successfully that with his share of the loot he becomes a public benefactor. And so we the audience root for him not to be caught. Eastwood’s work as an actor is so simple that it carries the film, just as it has done for years. His acting swallows scenes whole without his even having to chew them.

Exactly why the drugs are run into Mexico rather than out of Mexico is unexplained. But Eastwood drives his pickup, holds his own with bandits, sings along with the radio, and as an individual is so much at home in himself you cannot help but want to be in his company.

Sad that he did not wait until he had a better script, for this one has a promising premise. Peter O’Toole lucked-out at a similar age with the script for Venus, a movie in which every supporting actor shines. Instead of which, in The Mule (which should be titled Hemerocallis or at least Day Lily) every supporting actor is made dull by dullness.

I hope this role does not end Clint Eastwood’s acting and directing work. He, like his character here, has been a workhorse. But we never have the sense that Eastwood loves to act, and his directorial style is so laid back it seems devoid of temperament.

I happen to like his laid-back style a lot. It gives me the space and time to enter into the landscape of a place or situation or character and digest something. Of course, Eastwood’s work seems so lanky and relaxed and dispassionate, I wonder why he does it. The music, as always in his films, is first class, and maybe that’s where his true love lies.

Anyhow, I hope he does not get an Oscar for acting this part. He might deserve one, I don’t know. But if he does win one for acting, then I bet he’ll close up shop in Carmel and go home, and I don’t want him to.

I don’t want Eastwood to end. In The Mule he ends up planting day lilies, which is what the character loves to do best. It is a bad prayer to ask for a person to go on doing what he does not love to do best. So, if it is so, I wont.

Instead, I’ll just end up here and plant day lilies myself

 

At Eternity’s Gate

01 Jan

At Eternity’s Gate—directed by Julian Schnabel. BioPic. Color 2018
★★
The Story: Farmed out to Arles and asylums, Vincent Van Gogh battles with loneliness, his neighbors, and Gaugin—again.
~
While they are still alive, most artists receive the attention they deserve. That is because their work deserves the attention their work deserves. The celebrity accruing to the artist himself is gravy slopping over the bowl of his works’ good repute.

An ironic poignancy hovers within the aura of Van Gogh’s ghost because he became world-famous pretty soon after he died from an accidental bullet from two kids playing cowboys and Indians with real guns. So much work, so little attention, so few pictures sold. It’s touching.

He was picked on by the local school boys and by the locals in general regarded as peculiar, which he was. Our hearts go out to him with the thought “If Only I Were There To Save Him!” “If Only He Had Lived A Little Longer!” “If Only Folks Then Could Only See What We Now See!”

But he looked odd, he behaved oddly, and his work appeared odd—so how many of us would really have realized his worth—or imagined his price which ranges now in multimillions?

Such suppositions tempt the compassionate imagination in all of us. All the more so because much of Van Goh’s work has not dated. It is still strong. Like Emily Dickinson’s poems, and Michelangelo’s sculpture, the world partakes in it of the primordial, recognizable to the guts of anyone who lays eyes on it. Renoir, Lautrec, Degas are no less valuable because they have dated because people don’t look like that anymore, but Van Gogh’s people never did look like that, and, like Monet, the vast body of his work depicts Nature. So his subject matter makes it easy to live with.

The film is terrible. I went to it because Julian Schnabel’s films are on my list to be seen. The real problem is the subject. Did Van Gogh ever need a single film about him? Or a film to redress him? No one could be more well known.

But here as well, we have artists talking with one another as they never do or would have done, holding forth on High Artistic Matters, Issues Of Cultural Reform, even politics, when, even if such discussions were reported in letters and memoirs, they now make for lousy dialogue. Van Gogh telling why he paints registers as A Speech. That Gaugin and Van Gogh may have said certain things at one time, does not make those words dramatic. And the cultural importance of the two artists is in no way embellished by accurate reportage in footnotes overheard.

The film is shot in stabs of hand-held cameras. It’s awfully hard to watch.

Van Gogh did not paint in stabs. His paintings are highly organized. They are focused by an internal beam so keen it is recognizable by anyone who sees them. He was not spastic, and his paintings are not spastic. They are sane. Their chaos, when chaos is their subject, is always fully realized. And if it is not fully realized, that is because the painting failed, as paintings will sometimes do, not because his technique was random, frantic, indecisive, or hand-held! Van Gogh was a master of the close-up, the middle distance, and the horizon line. Gateway To Eternity is a movie terrible to watch about a painter whose paintings are wonderful to watch.

That the script and the camera work make a mess of the film, leave the actor Willem Da Foe drowned. Da Foe has a good deal to offer Van Gogh. Da Foe is older than Van Gogh was for Da Foe, like Van Gogh, has done a lot of work. He has the right figure, his face looks right in a red beard. He is even of the right national extraction. When we see Da Foe in the fields wearing that wide-brimmed straw hat to keep off the maddening sun, we see Van Gogh himself sallying forth to find a subject.

I think the problem with those who make Van Gogh films is that they want to give Van Gogh the recognition he did not get when alive. We feel the same way about John Keats and Oscar Wilde—if only they had lived longer! But the problem for such film makers as Julian Schnabel or Vincente Minnelli is that they are confused between two recognitions. They want to right a wrong, they want to recognize an artist who wasn’t recognized in his day.

But is that what Van Gogh wanted?

Did Van Gogh want to be recognized?

Or did he want his work to be recognized?

Maybe both.

But there is a difference.

For every person in the world wants to be recognized. Not necessarily on a world scale. Not necessarily as a celebrity. Not necessarily as an artist. But as a human. Every child wants this. Don’t they?

Van Gogh probably wanted it too. As a child wants it.

But to confabulate fame for the artist with fame for the art is is to fail the distinction. And is the deciding fault of every one of the too-many films I have seen about Van Gogh. They are hazy about their subject.

Nothing can remedy Van Gogh now. Because he doesn’t need it.

Van Gogh was erratic. One would have had a hard time being around him. But his painting is not erratic. His painting’s subject may be The Erratic. That may be not a quite different matter, but it is a different matter.

Schnabel’s film seems empty and amateur.

Are Julian Schnabel’s films always about the unrecognized? The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Before Night Falls, Basquiat.

Perhaps.

And on the subject he has had great things to say.

But perhaps, on the subject, he has nothing further to say.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Directed by: Julian Schnabel, Willem Dafoe

 

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

16 Dec

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”—directed by Marielle Heller. BioPic. 106 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: How will the biographer of Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Tallulah Bankhead pay the rent now she has run out of fashionable subjects?
~
After committing some drunken atrocity, Dorothy Parker would write to her horrified hosts, “How can you ever forgive me?”

Since there is nothing worth holding onto blame for, those poor hosts probably did forgive Dorothy Parker and they probably invited her back— but not Lee Israel. Never to write for such forgiveness, Lee Israel evidently preferred to be unforgiven—to live as a hermit in spiked isolation.

Her agent, perfectly played by Jane Curtin, tells her so, and also wonders why Lee Israel wants to write a biography of Fanny Brice when no one is interested in Fanny Brice? Lee is a good writer who has written popular enough biographies, but she has run out of advances and ideas.

Poor Lee has no friends and none of her enemies enjoy her enough to spring for her, so how is she to pay the rent?

Her answer is to steal.

And she does this in two ways.

She lifts the styles of writers more famous than herself and writes letters they might have written. She then forges their names to them. Then she sells them for rent money. She is very good at this mimicry. And to this day, her forgeries are found in collections and quoted in biographies.

She also enters the special collections of universities and actually lifts literary treasures and replaces them with duplicates and sells the originals.

As I watch this thrilling imposture, I admire her skill, resourcefulness, and cunning. For she well understood the greed of collectors and the willingness of rare book store agents to be duped.

I also felt like a thief. For, as a writer, was I not a thief of every fine writer whose influence I had admitted into my being to breed me into a better one?

And I also wondered—doesn’t Lee Israel know that the jig will soon be up? For certainly she can’t go on like this. Rare book dealers are not as common as hockshops. Won’t she run out of fences?

What ameliorated my discomfort was when one turned up in the person of Richard E. Grant, a rogue and roué she befriends and who partners her. Grant is wonderful in this role, and the film lifts off when he appears. Indeed, one hopes he never goes away. Grant Grant an Oscar.

Melissa McCarthy is no more Jewish than my cat. So her casting as Israel is odd, but also a useful way around the issue of anti-Semitism, had the part been played by, say, Linda Lavin. I do not own a television, so I had never heard of Melissa McCarthy, but she is an acceptable receptacle for Lee Israel. Melissa McCarthy is never off-camera, and her plump pudding personality never grates, as it might had the role been played another way or by another actor. So I was glad to go through Lee Israel’s adventure with her.

Lee Israel’s woes and her past are not jammed down our throats, nor is her Lesbianism. In fact, I myself wished she could hook up with someone, and she almost does. At one point we even meet her former mate, beautifully played by Anna Deavere Smith, so we get a better inkling how Israel really cannot earn a living—is intolerable as a personality, infantile, and a drunk.

Yet, in the end, Lee Israel is so far from being impenitent about her forgeries that she confesses that writing those masterpiece letters was the greatest high she ever got in her writing life.

What this gives me is the validation for why I have been rooting for this impossible and foolish woman all along. For, I say, if the larceny was worth it to Lee Israel, it was worth it to me, too, and let the devil take the hindmost.

 
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Black Panther

13 Dec

Black Panther—directed by Ryan Coogler. Comic Book/Sci-fi/Fantasy Adventure. 134 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: Will the king win his throne or if he wins it, keep it or if he keeps it, lead his people to a better life?
~
Virtual virtuosity plus an imaginative story, well performed, and perfectly costumed.

The virtuosity of the special effects is not, never has been an endearing element in movies.

In the days of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille the special effects were often not virtual but real, and you gaped at the size and proportion of palaces and circus tents and cliffs and volcanoes and cities of the plains.

Many, however, were made with and for and as special effects, just achieved differently. They were not endearing either and sometimes not even convincing, but they sometimes were impressive and often fun, just as special effects are meant to be and are, here.

What were once miniatures made with scissors and paste, are now made with keyboards and screens. The point is, they are made. Seeing them exercises our capacity for wonderment —which is good, since we do not have the Grand Canyon before us daily. Huge railway stations, great sports arenas, picture palaces used to do this for us. Now film. And Black Panther is a prime example of the craft.

I say all this because, since I saw it on my 18 X 36 inch home screen, all of its effects were miniaturized. So, see this picture, if you must see it at all, in the biggest picture palace movie screen within striking distance.

Lupita Nyong’o who won an Oscar for 12 Years A Slave strikes the tone of the tale we are to see at the very start. We are faced not just with roles of hero and heroine, black buck wooing village maiden, but with strong women, and strong women who surround and give authority, experience-wisdom, and authenticity to the males. Black Panther’s woman stands not just as The New Woman, she also embodies an inner and rigorous platform of outreach which the story must come to grips with by resisting. Each of these females does this with humor.

For instance, our entire army is female. Danai Gurira plays the generalissima. What brings her alive is not the fact of her female eminence, but the teasing relations she has with the king and with everyone. Beautifully played and just funny enough.

Then we have the king’s little sister, a teenage science whizz who invents and oversees the technology at the palace, and the fact that solemnity is entirely skirted with this character is a tribute to the writing and the enthusiasm which Letitia Wright brings to the part. Her sauciness and dedication to her calling are a complement not just to her but to the casting of the entire film by Sarah Finn.

Madam Finn has gathered perfect talent to the piece. Everyone is absolutely suited to their part, and each actor understands the style of Comic book-Sci-fi/Fantasy we are operating in. The male actors are those most hard pressed not to pose and posture and cover the screen with creamy acting of the kind often found in Sci-fi/Comic Book/Fantasy. Loud noises from the diaphragm and plummy preachments are the trap—but not here. Here the writers have made the king deep, and Chadwick Boseman has brought his physical, facial, vocal beauty to serve that depth and the difficulties that open the character up to it.

Michael B. Jordan offers the only questionable performance. Rigged up in cockeyed pigtails, he represents opportunist/punk-energy—street smarts fueled by resentment. But his personal energy is wrong for the part. It needs to be played by someone who, if he actually toppled the king, would be able to be a king—a quality necessary for the audience to fear this might happen—which with Jordan in the role, we never believe for a moment.

Two of our most redoubtable actors, Forrest Whitaker and Angela Bassett hold their parts in good order as supporting royals.

The great and commanding feature of the film is the story, which veers off the expected at every turn, and thus keeps us worrying what outcome will come and then what outcome and then what outcome. It is the script, above all, which keeps the film above the routine of other comic book hero shows.

Ruth Carter has done the costumes, and if they do not receive all the awards available, justice is at the beach. We never tire or become too distracted by the imagination and brilliance of what people wear, how their hair is done. Although in every case extreme, in every case they are right.

Of course, Black Panther is not a great film. It lacks a universal inner myth—such as you find in Pinocchio. Or a single great character, such as in Gone With The Wind. But it has a luster of its own. I wanted the hero to prevail, and I could not guess how that might come about. You sympathize with it, you do not identify with it—but so much is offered, so generously, that you can’t help like it and say to others, generously: “Be generous to yourself and go!” —generosity being Black Panther’s true subject after all.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC

 

The Favorite

07 Dec

The Favorite—directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Historical Biodrama. 119 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: An All About Eve story in which Eve ends up, as usual, as a snake in the grass.
~
Males are born innocent. Females—never.

Nothing could be plainer in what assails and jades our eyes in The Favorite. Shot at Hatfield House standing in for Hampton Court, we stalk down looming corridors in which 18th Century courtiers all wear the same color, black, white, and midnight blue—a masterful trick to focus our attention not on the wittily and lavishly embellished wigs and gauds of the day, but rather on the faces of the three women raving inwardly and outwardly for dominance in that day.

Queen Anne Stuart, protestant daughter of Catholic King James II, was in real life a wise and competent monarch. She attended more cabinet meetings than any British monarch before or since. She succeeded the reign of her sister and brother-in-law, William and Mary of Orange. But she also suffered the tyranny of her close friendship with Sarah Churchill, the loss of 17 children, one a son and heir of 11, and chronic illness which exhausted her.

What this film gives of Queen Anne is Sarah Churchill, exhaustion, and bunny rabbits as surrogate children—to occupy a woman with a lot of time on her hands and absolute power. What would anyone possibly want from this collapsed person?

The immense popularity of Sarah Churchill’s husband the Duke of Marlborough may have been the force behind Sarah’s Churchill’s political ambition for his influence and the money it could produce. But no.

We never learn. And we do not need to. What Rachel Weisz gives us is unmotivated power-playing, as from an inherent greed for it. Put someone like Sarah Churchill next to someone like Queen Anne and you will bring out ferocity in the Duchess and capitulation in the queen. An addiction.

Thrust into this unhealthy pairing, a third woman finds herself made use of by both women. And takes over. Why? What drives her?

All we see, in her case, is a need for power as a tool for survival. But why then is she not contented by survival when the Queen marries her to a baron? Why does she have to go further? Why does she have to make an enemy of Sarah Churchill?

Not because of a cause. But because that’s the way she is.

We don’t know her etiology. What we see is the mania of her obsession, her addiction to more. More than that we do not see and do not need to see.

Because what we see is all that we have to see, which is the three women in operation in the present tense. Now. At the time. Then. With no exposition, back-story, past, the film is executed as spectacle from beginning to end.

And therefore a wonderful vehicle for all three actors. Emma Stone as the interloper is perfectly cast and I can’t imagine she will ever have a more suitable part. Starting from her desire to care for the Queen, Emma Stone without one obvious move, transforms her character from Florence Nightingale into Nurse Ratched.

Emma Stone is an actor whom you never know the truth of. Who can pin her down? Certainly not Ryan Gosling in La La Land or Joe Alwyn who plays the fellow who wants to marry The Favorite. Her huge wide-spaced blue eyes always tell the truth that she is not telling the truth. She is a cold actress—nonetheless, she is that rare cold actress you want to root for.

Olivia Colman as the queen leaves out nothing that will disgust us. Everything in the story depends upon what this actress can bring to a character who rules the Great Britain as a baby. An ugly baby. A baby squalid with disease and rudeness and self-indulgence and dependency and self-pity. Out of this messy character arises the only code of love in all the claims made for it in the picture by all the characters in it—a love for helpless creatures.

Don’t hold back from this degree of ruthlessness. Warm yourself by standing on its glacier. Learn. Admit. And smile.

 
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Tea With The Dames

14 Nov

Tea With The Dames—directed by Roger Mitchell. BioDoc. 1 hour 24 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: Four senior leading ladies of the British stage gather in the home of one of them in the garden on a sunny day and in the house on a rainy and gab about their love lives, theatre lives, and lives.
~
And they never drink tea.

They begin with lemonade, for their chat is tart. One of them, Maggie Smith, has wit. Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright each have a good sense of humor, all willing to laugh at the situations of age, acting, fame, and the personalities they’ve come across in their award-laden lives.

Film clips of them show them as young women starting out in the ‘50s. How young and fresh and pretty they were! And one looks at them now, to observe that all of them have lost their lips. Age seres lips. But once they were kissable. And they still are, but not in the same way.

We see snatches of performances, some are laughed at by the star under observation, but it is astonishing to see how bold they were when they started out, and to realize that their boldness increased with time. In her twenties, Judi Dench is luminous and eager in The Cherry Orchard with Ashcroft and Gielgud, and we see glimpses of her as Juliet, and hear of her terrible reviews.

How did Eileen Atkins and Maggie Smith start? We hear the strictly constricted encouragement they were given at the outset. And none of them were considered conventionally beautiful. Though on the stage, each of them behaved as though they were. And each of them feared the theatre every night. Why didn’t Eileen Atkins play Cleopatra when she was offered it so often? What happened when the others did play it. “I was frightened of it,” said Maggie Smith. “That’s why I only played it in Canada.”

Joan Plowright is now blind, which may be why it is in her home the filming takes place. Each of the actors performed with Olivier and we see them do it. And we hear good old stories about that famed tiger—and others. About all this and themselves, the four dames are hilarious. Highly competitive in their day, but chums, they regale us with their gossip, their lack of solemnity, their life wisdom.

Tea with them is delicious. They never drink tea. They end with champagne.

 
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Free Solo

11 Nov

FREE SOLO—directed by Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. SportsDoc. 10 minutes Color 2018
★★★★★
THE STORY: Bare handed, without ropes, Alex Honnold climbs 3000 feet cliff El Capitain in Yosemite.
~
What’s surprising and even more daring is the thoroughness of the preparation Honnold makes about the face of the mountains he scales. Inch by inch, handhold by handhold, minute ledge by ledge, he has looked at the bare, steep face of these cliffs and precipices, and knows their biography by heart before he takes a single tread.

Wonderful things: of course, how perfectly his face takes the camera. Then the drones which film him from angles no camera could achieve without them. Then the simplicity and lack of glamour of his non-climbing life, for he seems to be living out of a van.

Finally, on the negative side, is the dreadful presence and intrusion of his girlfriend. Poor thing. It’s clear she does not love him, because she wants him to love her more than he loves his calling, and why should he? It would be immoral. The care, attention, common sense, and gentleness with which his male team and film crew treat him is more loving than her nagging. She doesn’t mean to, but she wants to drag him down. She simply hasn’t a clue. Or rather, she seems to be driven by an understandable but irrelevant urge to domesticity which is not only out of place and dangerous but makes her look shamefully self-serving. One longs for her to go away; eventually she does.

She wants an embrace closer to his body than his body must embrace the side of a cliff. And we wonder how he does it. His two strong thumbs and the purchase on tiny ridges by the thin rims of two sneakers are all that hold him and move him up the vertical. And cleave him to it when he looks to be upside down.

The spectacle of his climbing leaves one agog.

And gravity speechless.

 
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Posted in BIODOC, Sports Documentary

 

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool

03 Nov

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool—directed by Paul McGuigan. 106 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: A faded American film star has a great love affair with a young actor in her rooming house, becomes part of his family, and is welcomed by them when she grows ill.
~
Elia Kazan declared female actors were more daring than male actors (with the exception of Marlon Brando). He was referring to Mildred Dunnock, Jo Van Fleet, Geraldine Page, and, in her way, Vivien Leigh. Had he worked with her, he would have also meant Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool.

She is at the top of her bent—which is pretty high as acting goes, and acting goes very high. She does not miss a measure. She bares all, or enough for anyone to take her as fully exposed as the character of this woman.

That the film is based on an actual film star, Gloria Grahame, does not matter if you do not know Grahame’s work. The treatment of the character has the truth of fiction rather than the mere verisimilitude of fact. And Bening does not do an imitation of Gloria Grahame. She simply plays up her tragic failing: her vanity. It was Grahame’s vanity that caused her, when young, to have such extensive plastic surgery done on her face, to make her beautiful in a way she never could be, so that her mouth became frozen with dead nerves—and her major film career ended because of it. Bening does nothing with this, thank goodness.

But, boy, do you see the in and out and up and down of this character in Bening’s gleeful attack on the role. If you love Bening, you must see the picture. She has that rare capacity of an actor to surprise and not surprise you. She not-surprises with a smile of shocking loveliness, but what lies around it and behind it and instead of it is what truly surprises.

Jaimie Bell, who in 2000 danced into our hearts as Billy Elliot, the boy who would dance ballet, is exactly in balance with Bening—meaning he has to be off balance a lot of the time because Bening’s character is. He’s tops. Bening’s character is in her late 50s, Bell’s in his late 20s, and the unlikely bridge over that 30 year span is absolutely convincing to behold in its strength and fun and rarity.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is beautifully told, directed, filmed, and cut. It even has the incomparable Julie Walters again playing Bell’s mother. As soon as Walters appears on screen, in no matter what, you know you’re really in for it. She does not disappoint. But the film’s leading performance is Bening’s. She’s a much better actress than Grahame, whose range was narrow—although it’s interesting to see Grahame come alive in Man On A Tightrope, just to see what she was willing, for once, to have a great director, Elia Kazan, make of her.

 

A Star Is Born 2018

01 Nov

A Star Is Born—directed, written, composed, produced by Bradley Cooper. Musical. 136 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: A catering waitress meets a singing star who helps to turn her into a singing star, while, because of his alcoholism, his own star fades.
~
A Star Is Born is a poor title for this material, since we never sense we are dealing with anyone close, in any sense, to their birth.

No actress who has ventured into this part has been a beginner, either in show business or in life. When Janet Gaynor did it in 1937 she was 31 and had already at 21 won an Oscar, Judy Garland in 1953 was 31, Barbra Streisand in 1976 was 34, and Lady Ga Ga in 2018 is 31.

They were all ten years too old for the role of an undiscovered beginner—particularly since musicians are generally discovered young, as each of those actresses in real life were.

Lady Gaga is up against some pretty memorable guns. She cannot match the charm of Janet Gaynor. She cannot match the lovability of Judy Garland. She cannot match the vocal prowess of Barbra Streisand. Although she is inherently a better musician than any of the singers, she is not young and from the look in her eyes, never was young.

As a show-woman she is in the line not of a pop singer but of Madonna (“madonna” means “lady) but is a better singer and musician than Madonna. As a show-woman, of the four women she is the most striking, daring, and original, but not in this part which has nothing to do with Lady Ga Ga on evidence on TV. Instead she remains a squat, olive skinned, Italian-American Joanne Germanotta with eyes that have already seen beyond everything they happen to be looking upon.

Keeping Lady Gaga in this incarnation, when everyone knows that Lady Gaga is at her most endearing, most real, and most vulnerable to our interest when she is most transvestited. Only when most artificial, most gotten up, most bewigged is she truly revealed.

Being a lump of ordinary neighborhood does not work for this material, even as a starting point. Garland, Streisand, Gaynor were never ordinary. But Inherently Joanne Germanotta is nothing special. What is special is her sense that something wild and bizarre must be constructed to frame and paint on its canvas that which can embody a soul for all to see and delight in as universal to us all. But this is not the story of the caterpillar, Joanne, drawing out of herself that true beauty and butterfly Lady Ga Ga. Therefore, alas, Lady Ga Ga is not in the film. Instead Joanne Germanotta is. And no one is born.

The only thing that carries her performance in A Star Is Born is that, as an actress, she is as good as any of the others who have played the part.

The film is misnamed also because her emergence as a star is not the real story of the film before us. The real story of this version takes place in the relations she has with her established singing star husband. That relationship begins and is played charmingly by her and by Bradley Cooper who produced, wrote its music, wrote its script, acted it, sang it, and directed it.

So, you would think he would take care to present his own character on camera properly and to ask someone to correct his acting choices

But for the last three quarters of the film, Cooper disappears. He disappears because the camera does not look at him full in the face. He disappears because he mistakenly plays Mr. Maine as inverted, introspective, reserved. He plays everything into his lap. But A Star Is Born is not a comedy in which shyness might be fun. Of course also, Maine is also an alcoholic, and alcoholism is an ocean in which one is invisible while standing right there. So the real story is lost in the disappearing act of its male star.

I made sure to see it in a picture palace, but the Dolby Sound drowns the voices of each singer, such that not a word they sing is discernable. Or else the actors speak in under-articulated whispers or in whispers their mikes could not articulate. You may as well be deaf as to attend.

If you want to see a marvelous movie about a singer who rises from ethnic obscurity to birth as a star, see Jersey Boys. It’s about Frankie Valli, and is a much better film as film. Better as to the approach to the music. As a musical. The music’s audibility. The thru-story of the characters. The relationships. The acting of everyone in it. And the ability of director Clint Eastwood in executing the material to slowly win the audience’s engagement such as to make our seduction into it part of the story as well.

None of this is true of A Star Is Born 2018. A star is stillborn is the obvious, unfortunate, bad joke finally required.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Backstage Musical, Bradley Cooper

 

The Sisters Brothers

08 Oct

The Sisters Brothers—directed by Jacques Audiard. Western Color 121 minutes 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: In gold rush days, four men, determined to kill one another, meet over a mother lode.
~
There’s nothing like a movie to do it for ya! On a big screen! In a theater with others! For the drama! For the spectacle, the dash, the color! For the ticket to see if it’s worth it! For the satisfaction when it is!

Here we have four males driven by their separate dispositions such as to torment us as to whether their encounter can shift the natures of any of them.

The chemist, Riz Ahmed, is an activist seeking to revolutionize society.

The tracker, Jake Gyllenhaal, is an overbred flaneur seeking fulfillment.

The assassin, Joaquin Phoenix, is a bloodthirsty maniac.

The mediator, John C. Reilly, is a warden wanting different employment.

The last two, Reilly and Phoenix, play the Sisters Brothers, a partnership made in hell, because inescapable. Paid killers in Siamese-tandem.

The forces of their natures lead them to take baths only in dirty places. But they ride through fields of flowers to get there. Through yellow lands. Under mountains made for prayer, of prayer.

None of this we see them notice, until the end, when one of them fools us all.

One’s interest never jades watching these contrasts. One sees them through the magic camera of Benoît Debie whose shots throw one into the spectacle as a necessity. Radiant, right, surprising—and the same can be said of the editing by Juliette Welfling. If these two don’t win Oscars for this I’m a cow.

The director, Jacques Audiard, who co-wrote it, caught Gyllenhaal, Reilly, and Phoenix at the top of their game, which means you do not know what to expect of them and so seek to know them better, and think you can, but can you?

You sit on the edge of a suspense so keen you haven’t even witnessed it before. Is Ahmed a con-man? Are they and all of Dallas being duped? Can our altruism root for him, him with his big clear eyes? Or will that too get conned? We feel our trust teeter as the story teeters.

The film unfolds as broadly as the landscape it covers, which is Oregon and Northern California. The story’s excitements are constant, and its surprises are long in coming but just. We never expect them but are never betrayed by them.

We have many great Westerns in the canon. Is this another?

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, WESTERN

 

Hal

02 Oct

Hal—directed by Amy Scott. Biodoc. 90 minutes. Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: Film director Hal Ashby’s renegade work prospered in the ‘70s, and how that came to pass and what Ashby was like remain key to indie production and the culture of film as we now know it.
~
He is not a particularly inviting figure surrounded as he is by the walls of an impenetrable cloud of pot and a vast beard.

But certain of his films remain marvelous. And the marvel of the man himself is made plain by the stories of accomplished actors and professionals whose performances still come to life before us.

Some of his work never did hold water—Harold and Maud and Being There—but The Last Detail, Shampoo, and Coming Home are vivid and valid as the day they were made.

Ashby did not fit into the Hollywood mold because no one worked so hard at his craft as he did or cared about it more.

And we hear his qualifications from every side: Roseanne Arquette, Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, John Voight, Lee Grant, Jeff and Beau Bridges, Lou Gossett, Dustin Hoffman. They all say not just how wonderful as a director he was but how wonderful he was as an individual to make a workplace heaven to be in. Cinemaphotographer Haskell Wexler, a difficult party if ever there was one, says the same, and so does director Norman Jewison.

Well, here’s a secret worth knowing for us all.

How did he do it? Probably because he loved all aspects of movie-making.

Except for the suits in the front office. Here he seemed to have behaved like a hippie fool—writing them rude letters, stamping his foot, and being puerile. He might have taken a tip from George Stevens and simply walked away from them and thus gotten to do what he wanted from the beginning.

After his successful decade, we hear about his last six films, all failures, although I still want to see them.

What became of Hal Ashby personally? I don’t know. Oh, he died of pancreatic cancer aged 59, but that’s not what I mean. Perhaps what happened to him was that he was a drug addict and that is why his work after Being There was unsuccessful. I don’t really know.

What I do know is that certain of his pictures have stayed in my heart, and I wanted to do what I could to find as much as I could about the human who arranged that for me all those years ago.

 
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Posted in Biodoc, DOCUMENTARY

 

Stronger

20 Sep

Stronger—directed by David Gordon Green. Biopic. 119 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: An ordinary young man loses his legs at the Boston Marathon explosion and faces an unwanted and unwonted heroism.
~
Boston needed a hero. The hero it made for itself was itself, and Jeff Bauman stood in as catalyst and figurehead of it and was baffled and doubly wounded to find himself—never a hero and still less now—with no legs standing in someone else’s shoes.

His coming to terms with his lack of commitment to life outside the confinements of his class, his pals, his family, and his mother’s attention is his agonistes. He has to do something different in all departments. Or not. HIs passionate and consistent impulse not to do it make for a strong and understandable drama.

It’s a strange story. It’s not the usual ’40s MGM pep-talk with foreseen success for the wounded hero and chins up for everyone else. This is a downbeat 28-year-old still stewed with his cronies on weekends, still fearful of life, love, responsibility. When—to brave-up he appears at the finish line with a poster to root for his on-again-off-again girlfriend, racing in The Boston Marathon—he meets his fate as a man who never could stand on his own two feet to being with.

The greatness of the film lies in its ruthlessness. It is hard to swallow as we witness the tearing off of the bandages from his stumps, (by the doctor who tore of Bauman’s), his fitting for artificial limbs (by the men who made Bauman’s), his reluctant rehab training (by the therapist who retrained Bauman). The pain, the humiliation, the closing-in—we feel it all—and all this is in the setting of family and friends so eager to pitch in and encourage him you wish you could strangle them.

He has no privacy and he has no guts. He does not want to be put on display for all Boston to praise. He does not want Oprah to interview him. He wants to get drunk and mope.

But, though history has thrust him into a role he does not want to play, will he find the virtue in himself to play it?

It is a great matter we see before us.

What we see blocking him is his own fear of evolution. It arrives from every quarter. Particularly from his family and friends, who are depicted as lower working class old time Bostonians whose emotional lives are so forceful that their big-hearted loudness drowns out any other reality. Their crudeness so numbs sensitivity it looks like stupidity. However, inside it and conveying it is the wit of a rollicking sense of humor and bonhomie. The director and the actors have spared us nothing of this ghastliness. And it is one of a great force fields ever to be witnessed in a film as a negative element of high drama—what you find in John Ford films disguised as manliness. Here it is a monster, one of many Bauman is met with. His girlfriend, his injury, his reputation, his family—all of them present as walls pressing in on a disposition long installed to evade them all.

Spearheading this is the performance of Miranda Richardson, an English actress, somehow. She is the stupid mother whose avowed care for her son garrotes him. It is a performance of rare daring. Her character wallows in her son’s misfortune like a sow. She makes an emotonal pig of herself over it, as does everyone in that family. She won many awards for this character, and was nominated for an Oscar, too. She deserved to win–but they all did that year—that’s why she didn’t. It is a wonderful performance, ideal for the film and absolutely necessary to fortify the drama Bauman faces.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bauman, and, of course, he is perfectly cast because he is so inherently diffident. He also has the ability to look less handsome than he is. It is partly a question of make-up and weight loss, but it is really what we see in his eyes.

Sometimes he makes the mistake of not letting us see those eyes. He co-produced the film, so it would be hard for him to call for retakes on the grounds of a misjudged performance. But he has huge actor’s eyes and a tragedian’s eyebrows, so let that matter stand over. He also has a tendency to mug—which means he uses his mouth as a prop. He has a broad mouth, so the trap is set. But let that stand over also. It is a wonderful piece of work by a fine character star. For it is not the leading men who come down to us in legend, but Irving and Booth and Jefferson and Burbage. just such actors as this, each one waiting for his day to play Richard III, or, even better, Richard II.

The film is perfectly directed and beautifully shot by Sean Bobbitt. The city of Boston rose to the occasion of its filming then as it did before. Seeing it, we sense the value of the hero in each of us, rising to the surface ten times a day to set itself aside and lend light.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Miranda Richarson

 

The Bookshop

17 Sep

The Bookshop—directed by Isabel Coixet. Drama. 112 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: A WWII widow opens a bookshop in an English seaside town and finds herself the focus of intense drama for survival.
~
In The Bookshop two renowned actors, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson find the roles of a lifetime. They do not disappoint.

As the film passes, one wonders why the widow remains, but the film answers the question as it is being asked. The camera plays upon the rain, the shrubs, the view, the byways, the sea. And with these glimpses we know she stays because the town is so particularly beautiful.

Emily Mortimer plays her wide open. She moves into, through, and past the local bureaucracy and against all rumor and logic opens her store. She hires help. She becomes known to the townsfolk and to the matriarch of which who regards her ambition with sterling silver spite. Patricia Clarkson plays this British grand dame as to the manor born. It could not have been played as well by an English actor, for not one of those great ladies would have played her without the comment of a point of view, which always includes the humor of forgiveness.

Clarkson provides none, and in doing so reveals the underside of the character wholly. For, without the humor concurrent with a point of view to excuse her, we must witness the presence of the venom within the fang.

Our heroine’s side is taken by a seething recluse, played by Bill Nighy. You feel his intensity will make the film celluloid curl and ignite. His gazes burns towards the young widow with rays of repressive ice. She is, to herself as to him, out of bounds, so instead of sending him the latest edition of Jane Austen, she sends him wild-assed Ray Bradbury and wins his favor and allegiance.

The bookshop owner is played by Emily Mortimer, an actor new to me, and one of that breed of leading English actors, Colin Firth is another, whose eminence is due not to their particular talent, skills, or temperament but rather to their simple ability to stand before the movie audience and provide an outline into which it can place itself unwittingly. She is very good at this. She is an actor who offers no difficulty but the seduction of a pleasing neutrality.

The film is beautifully directed, edited, and written. And necessarily narrated by Julie Christie. Like Moonlight it will probably be the word-of-mouth picture of the year and end up with awards (which have already begun) that will surprise nobody and gratify all.

 

The Wife

08 Sep

The Wife – directed by Bjorn Runge. Drama. 103 minutes Color 2018
★★★
The Story: A renowned novelist prepares to accept The Nobel Prize for Literature his wife has written.
~
Glenn Close plays her as a lady nothing could perturb. She’s miscast.

Francis MacDormand was originally to have played it and would have brought to the character the subtext of an individual capable of being duped because she was inherently unstable or co-dependent. Duped by the privilege of being allowed to write at all and be published. And duped by the hot flesh of the professor who seduces her as a partner in sex and crime.

But writing and publishing are not the same thing. And the screen writer does not honor or even seem to know this distinction.

Close says he is merely her editor. It’s not true. She rejects his editing. For, actually, her husband gets her published under his name because he is Jewish and a male and therefore supposedly “in” and therefore because he is a sort of agent/front-man who puts his name on her work, she is spared the drama of publisher’s rejection and the calisthenics of literary business. She sequesters herself from her family and writes, while nobody knows of the forgery.

Why then does her grown son find her behavior so unnatural, when, he himself is a writer and all writers do exactly that? Writing is a job. It requires a room of one’s own and working hours. Why does he accuse her of that? It doesn’t compute.

The script and the performance of Close are blotted with such anomalies. And Close allows the story to be carried by a smile so broad and fixed we cannot swallow it after a time as being anything but condescending.

Close and her cheatin’ hubby wait out the night for him to be announced as the winner of The Nobel Prize For Literature. When it comes, no indication is given, as they trampoline the bed, that there is an unbalance. Nothing speaks in their eyes. Close plays it as a grand dame who voluntarily corsets her power and likes it and approves. Close plays it like a duchess.

Jonathan Pryce perfectly creates the character of a crude Brooklyn Jew, and behind such a façade anything might be hidden and denied. He’s on the make. He always has been. Of course he’s gleeful to win. But she? She who has actually written the books? Her glee is as unreluctant as his. In fact, as written, there is no way the early scenes can be played. They defy subtext, and none is offered. On and on they go. Through flashbacks of his infidelities and now to his infidelities to come. He is allowed to fuck someone else’s body and she is allowed to write someone else’s books? The tradeoff doesn’t compute. Writer’s cramp would have seized her long before the finale.

Close’s performance coasts on the current Women’s Movement. The Wronged And Abused Female is the sleigh she smugly lays back in and rides. So until his comeuppance, she waits her moment for a nice big fat scene to play—when we’re supposed to feel partial to her as a poor wronged woman.

The truth is they both are crooks.

Christian Slater is perfectly convincing as the popular biographer pushy to sign Pryce on—willing to strong-arm his way into a contract because on the eve of the Nobel award he has guessed the truth. And Elizabeth McGovern is highly effective in the key scene where she inculcates Close in the folly of a female hoping to write anything worthwhile and get the attention a male would get.

One wonders what on earth Close will continue to write when the film’s story is over. How will her famous style not betray her previous con? The question shoves the story over the cliff into the preposterous.

Two recent films promote the same story. In Big Eyes Amy Adams played the woman who painted the Keane kids with their creepy pop-eyed peepers, and Christoph Waltz played the husband. And soon to come, Keira Knightly will play the title role in Colette, whose husband, Domenic West as M. Willy, published her first four books under his name and collected the royalties and spent them.

Of course, Colette’s story is more interesting than the two others because Colette actually was a genius. And because, while she was still young, she beat down the door she had allowed herself to be locked behind. She eventually obtained the rights to her early work, and of her later work, Julie de Carneilhan, Gigi, Cheri, The Last Of Cheri, These Pleasures, Sido and My Mother’s House are among our great literature.

Colette’s indentured service is a fascinating story to know about. Whether it is a great story to watch on the silver screen we shall see. The story of The Wife is not. Glenn Close is not really playing a writer. She is playing a polemic.

What is the key to such stories?

The key is: at what point and how did the artist realize her talent was viable? For if each of these young women knew she had talent, still none of these women yet knew that talent was interesting to a multitude. That is to say that her work was commercial. That is to say that she could make enough money from it to free her from a corrupt marriage and set her name down on a title page.

How did they wake to this?

That story I would like to behold. Not that the con happened, but how the artist came to realize she was richer than the counterfeit she herself had willingly, happily, lazily, and self-indulgently once allowed herself to commit.

 

John McEnroe: The Realm Of Perfection

02 Sep

John McEnroe The Realm Of Perfection – directed by Julian Faraut. SportsDoc. 95 minutes 2018.
★★★★
The Story: What drove the great tennis player to his many victories?
~
“I heard him announce the matches this afternoon. He knows what he’s talking about. He makes everything clear and understandable.” I hear this said as I take my seat to see this movie about him and I think: so that is what has become of him in the 30 years since he held sway! Good, I’m glad he can take care of himself.

However, in the documentary of him, I expect to see chaos on the clay, and, since I had never seen him play anywhere at all and knew him only from what I’d heard of his grumpy disposition, I was surprised to see how well reasoned he was in his complaints and to notice that every referee he spoke to on foul calls looked like a fool – even though McEnroe had no intention to cause him to.

Why did they look like that? Probably because their call was wrong.

Why did McEnroe bicker with them so? Probably because his call was right.

And why was he right? Probably because he was born that way, an Enneagram #1 if ever there was one.

And (whatever Enneagram #1 might be) why should that matter?

Enneagram #1 is the sign of those born as righteous perfectionists, and if you are a born perfectionist you expect others to be so also, and others are born something else and are not. That’s what’s imperfect about perfectionists.

Theories as to McEnroe’s character are aired in the film which was 30 years in the making and is the result of reels and reels of high-level tennis play shot by the now 90-year-old filmer of them, Gil de Kermadec.

To be a perfectionist means, not that one is perfect, but that one aims for perfection.

The error for the perfectionist is to assume one is perfect and to ask others to be perfect.

Is this what McEnroe did in his quarrels?

The voice-over says McEnroe took exception to make sure he had a thick enough wall of negativity around him to goad him to a level of play sufficient to pass through it. He invoked imperfection to produce perfection. I saw Allison Janney do this for her figure skater daughter in Tonya.

But I notice other factors.

McEnroe apparently deplores mess. He enters the court head lowered to blinker him to the mess of the crowd, the mess of the referees, the mess of the cameras, the mess of the noise of the recording devices, and the mess all around him of fame. He looks at the ground.

Is he shy? Quite possibly. His outspokenness is not hysterical or dramatic. “Why won’t you look at the line?” he insists over and over to the referee. He does not seethe or tear his hair. Only at the end of a lost game does he collapse in dismay.

Is shyness a protection of the treasure inside him that knew how to play tennis so well that it is obvious that it is as instinctual in him as walking?

We are told his forté was not power but rather the knack of returning the tennis ball so his body did not betray to his opponent by its posture where his return of his ball would go.

And his early charge to the net. There I see feats that seem impossible.

I know nothing of tennis. I like to watch it though. On TV. In this film what I like is what it teaches about this particular player’s tennis genius. And that I learn through the action of one player alone. For what’s different in this film from TV is that the camera does not encompass the full meadow of the court. Except for the end, I seldom see both players at once. Indeed, not till the end do I see a game played through.

What I see instead is McEnroe himself shown serving and playing, full body, as in an Astaire movie. He serves and he leave the ground! He flies forward into the ball! Often when he returns shots, he is airborne!

The camera seldom abandons his form, moving, leaping, running, skidding, turning. It is hard to believe anyone could be so agile.

Which leads me to another observation: he has good strong legs. Indeed, they make him seem bottom heavy. But they give his game stamina, litheness, and improvisational wit. They enable him to run in one direction full tilt, turn on a dime, and attack the opposite end of the court.

McEnroe is a great champion. But he is not a pretty one. You cannot empathize with him. You cannot sympathize with him. You cannot like him. He wouldn’t want you to. He will not stop to autograph a little boy’s program. He will not pose for an agreeable instant for a publicity shot. He will not stop griping.

Nor is his face one of particular beauty or masculinity. In fact, he reminds me of the Spanish tennis player I saw this morning: Rafael Nadal, with a mouth so snarling nothing can persuade one to root for him save a perverse attachment to the malformed underdog or the overruling fact that he is simply marvelous at tennis.

McEnroe’s face is not ugly. Nor is his intelligence. Nor is his voice. Nor his insistence that nothing invade his privacy of excellence on the court. He is or wishes to be unavailable to anything else but the finesse of his game. He is a star who does not wish to be a star, to him stardom is an interference. And he is right. His skill on the court depends upon a startling sensitivity.

John McEnroe:The Realm of Perfection is a portrait in motion. I watch it with the respect I afford to The Grand Canyon – a phenomenon inexplicable in its expression – and with the distance which true respect rewards and demands.

 
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Posted in Uncategorized

 

Puzzle

26 Aug

Puzzle – directed by Marc Turtletaub. Family Comedy/Drama. 105 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: A Bridgeport housewife, dully resigned to drudgery and a domineering husband and two sons, devotes her unused mind to jigsaw puzzles, and her speed at them takes her to an enlightenment.
~
In the quiet, dun space of this film’s inevitable start we face woman so speechlessly put upon it is hard to sympathize with her. The actress seems too young for the part (she’s exactly the right age, for the character has never matured) and not particularly original in it (which turns out to be just right, for that is her tragedy). Nor do we witness a single spark of temperament from her. Nor do we have before us an actress we have ever seen before, Kelly Macdonald, so we have no expectation to hold out for. Her life is a cardigan.

All this changes as she starts to lie to her husband about partnering up with an ace jigsaw player from Greenwich Village. He’s played by the luscious Irrfan Khan, whose deep voice, voluptuous lassitude, and oceanic eyes pose dangers on the spot. Wow! What’s going to happen here!

The story unfolds on the levels of her practice sessions with him, as she sneaks down to Manhattan to prepare for a jigsaw meet, deceiving the family to whose expectation of her servitude to them she is in careful but triumphant infidelity. She starts missing grocery shopping for her husband’s cheese and forgets to make a meal. For these sins the Catholic Church has no forgiveness.

Cast adrift in her own soul, she bit by bit awakens to her own wits. And the story is the story of a human being who unfolds and spreads wings it never knew itself to possess. The actual colors on those wings we the audience never expect her to possess either. We laugh aloud as each one declares itself.

The film is a comedy of character in the truest sense of the word: the humor is about how a typical character is really an atypical human. The story is held in the counterchecks of perfect balance as the great force of habit in her plays against various other forces, financial, marital, maternal, and amorous, that bloom in her sense of possibilities.

Perfectly cast and acted and directed and told. No car chase, 45, garroting, nudity, incest, rape, bomb, or dystopia. What a relief! Just a good story well told as the serious comedy it is.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC

 

Leave No Trace

12 Aug

Leave No Trace – written and directed by Debra Granik. Drama. 109 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: A teenage girl and her father make their home outdoors in an Oregon forest, until one day they are discovered.
~
Something off about this movie from the start.

Inside the sumptuous green of the forest, amid shade, ferny and thick, two humans live hidden. The silence of Nature – which only reveals Herself in silence – is punctuated by the added silence of the two.

And this silence is the problem. The picture needs less picture. It needs more words.

The daughter is played by Thomsin MacKenzie, an Australian actress of 18. From the point of view of exposition, she’s a bit old for the part, because the sylvan background of this story rejects a girl older than 13. But the main drama of the story, which is the discovery of them by forest rangers and the decision she must come to, requires 18. She’s a lovely actress, perfect for the part in her discretion and her reserve.

Ben Foster has a more difficult task. For his part is underwritten to the point of crippling it. The danger the actor faces is that being given so little he risks damaging everything by adding anything to it.

The film, that is, is wholly underwritten, leaving the audience to carry a load which only fundamentalist liberals can lift. Actors are directed to speak in tinny whispers – a hold-over from TV acting which is designed for living rooms not for a movie theater. This elocution pitches the voice into a plaintive realm and produces a false insecurity, bidding for audiences’ sympathy. I don’t buy it for a minute, liberal though I am.

So the direction is a disservice to the audience. And so is the screenplay which is written by the director and comes from a book which comes from an actual happening. But each devolution degenerates the original material.

For instance, we are shown the father making a living by selling VA drugs to hobo addicts. In fact, I know no veteran can get prescriptions in those amounts. I am a vet, I also get my prescriptions from the VA. In real life, however, the father made his money from a VA monthly compensation payment of some $400. It’s less “dramatic” but more mysterious and engaging. It’s also less banal and less phony.

Like the father, I am a single father and veteran who reared his daughter alone. Seeing this father and this daughter, I feel the parallels in this film and they are right. The difficulties and education are parallel. Even the living situation. What’s off is what underlies this story.

For instance, in the movie, when caught, they are separated, whereas in real life they were kept together since their captors could see how important this was for them. What’s off is the screenplay separates them merely to incite our “emotion.”

What’s off is that in real life, they were treated exquisitely at once, and the more interesting and dramatic story is what actually took place. How can two such intelligent, educated, isolated individuals be weighed by the mores of ordinary society, how can they be treated even-handedly when their own mores forbid society? Missing that is what’s off. What’s off is the lie lying shimmering but invisible beneath the screenplay and concocting it.

The real drama may lie between the temptation between two Edens, whereas what we are left with is that the woods are the Eden of the insane and the life of the hermit more evolved, while the Eden of the town offers sex. It is not a real conflict. Let’s have a battle between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a sequoia. It’s not a real conflict.

The film offers the audience an unearned sorrow which no one applauds. However, it must be said that the vulgarity and falsity in the direction and writing is almost completely camouflaged by the skill of the acting of the two principals and of the supporting players – for instance, Dale Dickey perfectly cast and perfect in the part and Jeff Kober perfectly cast and perfect in the part.

Like Granik’s Winter’s Bone, the story explores the ripening of a young woman’s self-sufficiency. But what’s off is that the story of the girl’s real relation to her father, which over the years granted her the latitude for that self-sufficiency, drifts off into the Oregon woods. His training of her set her free. But he himself is released finally into the wispy wilderness of the screenwriter’s sentimentality as a harmless loony. The debt to him is not explored, written, paid, or even imagined as owed. The drama of that gratitude is the missed drama. What’s off is that the writer doesn’t know that in film, as in life, the right words are worth a thousand pictures.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DRAMA

 

Three Intimate Strangers

14 Jul

Three Intimate Strangers – directed by Tim Wardle. Documentary. 96 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: At nineteen, three young men discover they were separated at birth as identical triplets and, in the years since that reunion, also learn the odd circumstances of their separation.
~
Once united, the boys immediately fall all over one another like puppies, and the ebullience of their meeting leads them to appearances in newspapers and magazines and on TV. They become celebrities. They are given a free pass. They have a grand old time as energetic, good-looking, young males painting the town red. Before long, they marry and go into business together.

Then the story behind their separation starts to stir. One suspicious oddity after another rises to the surface. They appear to have been the subjects of an unwise and foolish scientific experiment.

Unwise because no imagination was given to the traumatic effect of thoughtlessly wrenching apart three identical infants who had lain together in the same crib for six months.

Foolish because the separation was planned in order to compare three different child-rearing styles in a nature-versus-nurture experiment.

Nature-versus-nurture is a shallow ground for research, or even speculation, because, from the start, it overlooks the determining and more interesting factors of the boys’ inherent individuality. The young men gleefully recount that they smoke the same cigarettes, all wrestled in high school, and prefer somewhat older women. But the traits that make them similar soon appear as circumstantial. They were actually quite different.

Rather than exploring those differences, Three Intimate Strangers becomes dire and sinister in the forcing of their story in the direction of their victimhood only. The word “intimate” fades. Instead the documentary starts to level blame.

Rewarding as that is, I wished to know about their lives separate from their being triplets and about the lives of their children. What is these men’s current happiness? What are their callings? Where are they today in relation to one another? But the film sticks to its guns in a way that make one realize that they really are guns, pointed and firing all in one direction.

Of course, the real difficulty for the film is that we, its audience, have no other way to grasp these identical triplets save looking at them as physically identical. Three humans looking the same prejudices us. It blinds us to anything but the sight of three walking mirrors. That’s natural. What’s initially astonishing dominates. But looking alike, acting similarly, and talking the same way is trivial. Although we ourselves don’t realize it, we become immediately bogusly scientific. “Inside, they are also the same.”

Wrong conclusion.

Wrong pronoun.

Because they look identical and because the young men are beguiling, it’s hard not to be lured into and to remain inside of cheap speculation about them – them – not as individuals but as freaks, that is to say, always as triplets.

But the real reason God made triplets is to show that everyone has a distinct soul.

Still, the film remains fascinating and unexpected at every corner. You wake up the next day and think of its unfinished mood, its grievance. Three Intimate Strangers sticks to your ribs, but it’s not quite digestible. Nonetheless, without being satisfying, it is remarkable in letting one meet these three delightful individuals, and also the people, intelligent and varied and vivid, who are engaged with their upbringing, their case, and their individual stories.

Three Intimate Strangers was heavily advertised in my city, and, as soon as I heard of it, I wanted to go. For, when I was a kid, something about identical twins used to snare and frighten me. Was there someone on earth exactly like me? I used to wish there were. But it was a wish born of a desire for retribution and vanished with time. Besides, my doppelganger might have proved to be as flawed as I am myself.

So I went to Three Intimate Strangers – as to visit an old friend – a ghost of myself whom, still and all, I had never yet met.

 
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Posted in Biodoc, DOCUMENTARY

 

RBG

10 Jul

RGB – directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Bio/doc. 98 minutes Color 2018
★★★★★
The Story: The long past and present presence of a remarkable judge, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
~
If you do not know who that is.

If you do know who that is.

See it.

You will want to make her acquaintance.

Massively ignorant as I am, I knew of her. A Supreme Court Judge, yes – and, while I am interested in The Supreme Court more than the doings of Presidency or Houses of Congress, I am less interested in the personalities of the judges than in their findings.

RGB was a way for me to inform myself about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. To see her in common dress and the robes of her office. To watch her face do what it does. To hear her voice enunciate her views. To hear tell of her. To get a sense of her vitality.

For Vitality would be the word for her. She quiet as can be, and modest and small. But the life that beams from her judicious use of it illuminates her and her deliberations.

First Generation as am, I, she was born in Brooklyn. Bright as a button, she went to Cornell, where she met her husband, and moved with him to New York where she specialized in sexual equality cases. Carter and Clinton advanced her, and when she became a Supreme Court judge and moved to Washington D.C., her husband, a highly successful attorney, resigned this practice to move to Washington in support of her.

The best part of the documentary, however, is the presence of Justice Bader Ginsburg herself. She is quiet and droll and wiser than the hills.

Do see it.

When you meet her next, tell her I told you to.

 
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Posted in DOCUMENTARY

 

Broadway Melodies of 1936 & 1938

08 Jul

Broadway Melody of 1936 & 1938 – directed by Roy Del Ruth. Musicals. Black And White.
★★★★★
The Stories: Where is the leading female dancer going to come from for the Broadway producer’s first show?
~
Robert Taylor.

We became allured.

Here he is in the plum of his youth, 1936, aged 24, a good actor and completely accessible – which establishes him as someone an audience wants to watch.

For what does an audience do to make a star?

In the audience it is the inherent desire to dive into somebody more admirable than themselves – or more noble, more detestable, more beautiful, more adept, more funny, more something. And to do that one must be allowed to stare at that person in a way real-life ordinary modesty never permits but that movies do.

This happens at virtually the first glimpse of Robert Taylor.

Wow! – what a beautiful male! – beauty – with its untouchable advantage – human survival made easy!

An easy masculinity, too – a passport which – male or female – we all all wish we could own.

And so we become fans. Which is to say we, unbeknownst to him, start going steady. We write fan letters so he shall know it. Or we don’t. We simply buy tickets to see how we’re doing around hm.

Soon we become enamored, we lose critical discretion, for we are engaged. We can’t help ourselves.

The unwitting habit of loyalty weds us to him in a sort of morganic marriage. Marriage. which means we put up with anything – any alteration, miscasting, loss of skill, or scandal. Old and beat up, our star still lodges, and, also inside us, a fidelity remains as a memento of an aspiration felt when both his body and our own were young.

For years our bodies will remain faithful to that first fresh impression, keep seeking it whenever we go to see him– that impression stamped not always in the first movie, but soon enough – Roman Holiday for Audrey Hepburn, A Place In The Sun for Elizabeth Taylor, his early comedies for Tyrone Power.

The movie-goers’ eye awakens, and our spirit reaches out for something true. As in Robert Taylor in Broadway Melody of 1936. Here, he is, more true than he will ever be again.

It’s partly the casting. He plays a Broadway producer – that is to say, no one with any ancestral ties – a free-floating, natural-born businessman with the easy self-assurance of a man used to himself, one with no particular fear of failure, his body relaxed and his responses spontaneous. His mouth, smile, eyes, gesture, emotional shifts are immediate, ready, unself-conscious, and devoid of vanity. His response to other actors is fresh and right. He a young man of breathtaking beauty, but one who knows how to husband it ethically and isn’t fooled by it. We like to watch its play across his face. To follow it we become a following.

All this would disappear from Robert Taylor’s instrument as he was cast in noble roles of he-man, hero, and morally elevated Westerner. The intelligence of his instrument quickly fled. So did his sense of humor. Five packs of cigarettes a day dissipated his looks. He will in l937, be miscast, for instance, as Garbo’s young lover in Camille, for the part requires, among others, the quality of a sexually fresh boy, which Robert Taylor probably never was. A 25-year-old male that good looking has long since not been a boy.

Nevertheless, here he is in Broadway Melody of 1936, an actor of 24 yet of such ease of being it is no wonder he entered the aesthetic souls of audiences his same age who stood by him through the years.

He was never a bad actor, but he became a lesser actor. Here, he is nothing of the kind, and the story – although Jack Benny, the radio humorist is starred – is about Taylor and his maiden effort to mount a Broadway show. It is backed by a rich tootsie who has eyes for him. But no dice! His gaze is fixed on dancer Eleanor Powell, whose maiden voyage into leading roles this is.

What can be negatively said about the film can be said about every female in the piece: Sydney Guillaroff has not yet been hired by MGM to do their hair. The women are hair-doed in skull-gripping sausage curlettes, unbecoming to all, particularly to Powell, whose Dracula dog-teeth, small features, and large flat face require international espionage to be properly revealed.

Everything else about Broadway Melody 1936 is neat! Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed do the songs, the same songs they will do again in Singing In The Rain and In Broadway Melody of 1938.

In Broadway Melody of 1938: same Broadway producer, same gal dancing her way to stardom. Same backing of a blond bitch. Same Buddy Ebsen galumphing around as a Vaudeville rube. Same writers, Sid Silvers and Jack McGowan. Same brilliant editing by Blanche Sewell. Same impeccable direction by Roy Del Ruth. Francis Langford and Robert Benchley and the stifling Sophie Tucker appear in one film or the other. Una Merkel with her pecking voice wittily plays the producer’s conniving secretary in 1936, while 1938 displays a fourteen-year-old Judy Garland full of hope and good will, and in great voice to woe Clark Gable.

In ’38, George Murphy dances with Powell in a spectacularly good singing-in-the rain dance that is not danced to “Singing In The Rain” – and what all this means is simply that one good thing follows another.

For the dance numbers and specialty numbers in both films are imaginatively introduced and wittily executed. An extended Murphy, Powell, Ebsen dance sequence in a boxcar with a horse, surprises with an imaginative use of camera in a small space. The premise of every number seems right and fresh and vivid, and we are spared the staginess of Warner musicals of this era.

The stardom of Eleanor Powell was different from that of Robert Taylor in that it never took place.

Two reasons for that. Maybe more. But one was that her dancing, while effective, was not graceful. She employs the high kicks and top-spins and cartwheels of the acrobatic dancer, which is to say, it is closer to a circus performance. When you see her en pointe, the elbows and knees are over-extended. The ballet dancers chorus behind her makes her look like a horse.

She had phenomenal speed as a dancer and an eagerness to please. Unlike Ruby Keeler, he didn’t have to look at her feet. There is a witty glee in her eyes while tapping that has miles to spare. She is above technique. It’s fun to see.

But none of this ever changed. She always does the same thing, the same kicks, the same spins, the same tommy-gun taps. Astaire and Kelly took great care, in each film, to present something new in dance. Eleanor Powell has a good figure, the right height, 5’5”, and she’s pretty. She is a passable actress, too. She’s not unlikable. But she’s not very open. She’d like to be, but she’s not. And you’ve seen it all before.

This may have come about because she was a female, and, in those years, males controlled movie choreography in a way that females would never be allowed to do. She may have been told, “Do what you did before, Eleanor!” Or, maybe that’s all she could do. Anyhow that’s what happened.

Monotony, and not being open, the audience could not dive into her, nor really could a leading man. You are absolutely convinced that Robert Taylor loves her – simply, directly, happily – but there is no chemistry between them, because, in her, love is not a cartwheel. In her, a cartwheel is a cartwheel.

Judy Garland in ’38, as a frumpy, unformed teen-ager, starts singing, and no matter what the song, you root for her. In you go! You take the risk. Wow! What is going to happen here?

I feel for Eleanor Powell. I admire her. But she does not become a movie star – not because she isn’t placed as one, for she is – but because she is supremely good at one thing and is less good at all the rest. Momentarily arrested, audiences turned away.

Here she is at her best, and so is everybody else. Foolish entertainment was a staple of Depression breadlines. This one is glitzy, light, and slightly fattening – although the costumes by Adrian will mask it and so will the lighting by William Daniels. He began filming Garbo and ended filming Elizabeth Taylor. All this brings you something beautiful, a diversion both working-class and classy.

I recommend it, not for a history lesson but for an evening’s innocent pleasant diversion. You won’t feel cheated by any of it but feel surprised by most of it!

Check it out.

 

First Reformed

18 Jun

First Reformed –– written and directed by Paul Schrader. Drama. 114 minutes. Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: The pastor of a famed New England Church struggles with crises of faith, ethics, mission, courage, and his own past.
~
How does an actor convey all these at once?

He never conveys them. He holds still, opens his pores, and lets the audience convey them for him.

Of course, that’s the way it’s written and directed and filmed, but Ethan Hawke is an actor in the past covered with a sheen and endowed with an unfortunate smirk at the corners of his mouth, so he has never been an actor of much penetration, but rather an actor of unearned smugness.

But, recognizing himself to be not an A-list actor, the movies he has chosen to be in have been more interesting than his work in them. This has served him well and kept him before us. This has been true of him since he was young, which he no longer is. Here he plays a pastor of 47 which is also the age he is. He looks every day of it.

And he has largely mislaid his basket of acting tricks, we get only one empty side-long glance. His pushy charm and the coin of youth are gone.

He is not an actor who inhabits a character or whom a character inhabits. In his watchfulness as an actor there is the sense that he is not an actor at all, but a writer. So his instrument is limited and squeezed.

But what has always been so is that he is an actor who is present for the character to be present. And, oftentimes in screen acting, more than this is unwanted.

We are told about his minister; he tells us things; others tell us things; things are shown about him; the camera watches what he does, and all these things inform us with what we must learn in order for us to participate in creating this character.

So Ethan Hawke has begun to grow up in his craft. Hawke does not distract us or force a point of view of the character on us, so he is never remote. If, for narrative purposes, the character feels despair, we see despair in Hawke’s eyes and face. Otherwise not. If the character drinks, and it is narratively unnecessary for us not to know why, Hawke never betrays the story by detouring it into making whisky understandable. If the character is meant to internalize the ravage of the environment, the domination of the plutocracy, the fatness of the megachurch, his thoughtless fatherhood, he holds true to an ancient family and social code of consideration for others which would compress these influences and never show them. And we believe it. He does not indicate they are in him, and because he does not, we intuit that they must be in him.

Hawke keeps the physical circumstances of his body small. It’s a part which the slightest gesture would betray the role into overacting.

So we are not interested in Ethan Hawke here because he is, like Bette Davis, an actor of passionate histrionic drive whose physical show stuns us. No. Hawke simply leaves that out and lets the audience do the job of bringing the character alive in Hawke’s flesh. Hawke’s presence and the character become concurrent.

This is important because of the style of the film which is ruled by the decorum of church settings, music, and deportment. The film does not rush. It is as ritualized as a processional. Words are allowed to be heard. Scenes are allowed to develop. Arguments are allowed to ripen. We are in a film of grown up matters. There are social and spiritual and religious dialogues. We have to hear them out, for we too, as audience, have our pastoral duty. We see that characters do not realize that some of this formality is so beside the point that it is dangerous.

The film lets music play its role but never to enforce mood, but to counterpoint it. The camera is as steady as the style of the tale it tells. The acting of the others confirms the director’s style, which is to reveal the story straightforwardly and no more fully than our digestion permits.

With First Reformed we are constantly in the experience of story. Paul Schrader is like Satyajit Ray and Ingmar Bergman in this.

Hawke’s character has lost his ability to pray. Every human on earth loses their ability to pray every day. Each of us struggles towards an ethos vivid to us. Hawke’s character has lost this struggle. What is he to do?

I honor this film, everything about it, and everything in it.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Method, Ethan Hawke, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

Mountain

15 Jun

Mountain – directed by Jennifer Peedom. Nature Documentary. 74 minutes Color 2018
★★★★★
The Story: Hold your breath!
~
To do what movie film only can do: to take me into people and worlds I would never approach.

Renan Ozturk, record-breaking mountain-climber, took much of the film. Zooming into and among declivities, cliffs, precipices, peaks, ranges, sierras, glaciers, avalanches, cascades that I would destroy myself to get near to, but relish to see, here, in the marvelous world of worlds we never knew were here.

What beauty! What glory! What perilous heights! And who are those lunatic goons leaping off of them in sails or goating up their flanks with their fingernails?

There’s a sort of mischief in their hopping from pinnacle to pinnacle with nothing below but cool, impartial air.

I witness with gratitude every instance of splendor. I am dumbstruck with thanks to watch the massive intricacies of a thousand feet of ice doing nothing but waiting there, not interested in me at all.

What keeps a mountain high? What urge, still in it, retains? What gigantic cause brought it into being. Where it remains as a dictatorial urge on the horizon of the imagination of humility.

For what can you do but succumb with wonder at the imperious style, the posture assumed, of a pinnacle!

To call the film beautiful is to diminish the meaning of the word to its cause in nature — mountains that arise within with thrills of longing, fraternity, and imperishable distance. Unconquerable they are! That’s why they lure.

And we see a number of folks venturing on them from one motive or another. But the mountains themselves undiscoverable, unscalable. And the scale of the film is designed to prove it and does prove it. You witness in this film, the inconceivable. Majesty over everything. Nothing darling is here. Only the exhilaration that ends in respect and the miracle that one has been spared.

 
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Posted in Uncategorized

 

Son Of Saul

10 Jun

Son Of Saul – directed by László Nemes. WWII Tragedy. 1 hour 47 minutes. 2015.
★★★★★
The Story: A Jewish slave working in the gas chamber of Auschwitz goes to extremes to find a rabbi to say Kaddish over an adolescent boy whom he says is his son.
~
What makes a film great?

Ruthlessness is one quality. Ruthlessness of Carol Reed’s Outcast Of The Islands and Odd Man Out, Kazan’s East Of Eden, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Here, this high virtue is achieved by the camera never leaving the point of view of the main character; the refusal to let a music score dictate value; each actor must speak his native language; no detour of melodrama or comic relief allowed; no modern comment, religious bias, prepackaged pathos, straining for sympathy, and no irony; refusal to soften the color scheme; keep the viewer inside the prison; in the audience take no prisoners.

Audiences around the world have gone along with this masterpiece for this very ruthlessness. Without it, the film would into enter the category of grand Guignol or Horror and be therefore less horrible and therefore unwatchable.

As it is, it is difficult. But I trusted everything I saw. Even at its most grueling, I respected it, knew I must go through with it. Although I hated to see what it looked like there, still that’s the way it was, and it was important for me to know. For I lived through The War and well remember what we learned in Europe that spring of 1945, and what Life magazine then and George Stevens’ camera later showed.

For here I finally see what went on, how routine it was, and how clumsy. I believed every minute of the camp and the ovens and the behavior of the Jewish slaves who had to gas their co-religionists and clean up after them by burning them and by tossing their ashes by the shovelful into the river.

The main character is perfectly cast and acted, and so is everyone else. Both the main action of the story of finding a rabbi and the secondary action, having to do with the slave rebellion and escape, propel the main character towards our hopes. Direction, filming, sets, costumes – I praise every aspect of it without exception.

So does everyone else. For it won The Best Foreign Film in the Oscars, The Golden Globes, Palm d’Or at Cannes and prizes all around the globe in many other places and nations. Indeed, Son Of Saul is said to be the most awarded debut feature in the history of cinema.

In 2015 Birdman won best Oscar. Next to Son Of Saul, Birdman is nothing. Films forgotten tomorrow lie in heaps around the feet of this film. It stands next to those of Satyajit Rey, Kurosawa, Ophuls, Renoir. You owe it to yourself to see it, and, more, important, you owe it to the film.

 

The Book Club

03 Jun

The Book Club – directed by Bill Holderman. Romantic Comedy. 144 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: Four older ladies decide to reinvent their sex lives.
~
I loved fucking in the days when I did it, and it loved me. But this movie is not about men fucking, but about women not fucking and wishing they were and doing something about it. The jokes are vaginal and good and ready. The four actresses who deliver them are good at that and very funny – or they would not be good at at that. All of them miss the hardon no longer inside them. None of them miss love.

The women seek fucking. They find men. But the men seek love. And each lady makes her way by meeting up with what she did not dare to expect or risk if she came upon it: The Palace Of Perils Of Love.

With The Amusement Park Of Fornication thrown in.

They all start on their adventure by reading a book called Fifty Shades Of Grey. I have not read it, but evidently it bestirs these ladies to revisit their sex lives.

They are played by actresses whose ages vary from Jane Fonda aged 80, Candice Bergen and Diane Keaton aged 72, and Mary Steenburgen aged 65. But they are all presented as ageless beauties of that uncertain age called “contemporaries.”

Although we are not told that, the men they meet are younger — and, unlike the actresses, are unrecognizable, for, while all of the actresses have been before us on the silver screen in leading roles in recent movies, none of the men have – so I see the men as strangers – as does each woman as she meets him.

Andy Garcia plays a multimillionaire pilot whom recent widow Diane Keaton must fly from in order not to offend her grown children. Don Johnson, who has no known income (as befits his established screen persona), woes ice-queen Jane Fonda. And Federal Court Judge Candice Bergen assumes nothing good will come of her dinner date with the accountant played by the diminutive Richard Dreyfus.

The recipe is for a Hollywood Romantic Comedy. It is the sort of film that, pre-Doris Day, did not exist, nor did it exist in the ‘30s and would never have been made with older actresses. Nor did it exist when these four actresses themselves were young. But these four have aged before us through middle age and now into antiquity in major roles such as none of the male stars opposite them have been able to do. With the pleasing result that Jane Fonda aged 80 mates with Don Johnson aged 68, a fox devouring a wolf.

Such a film must stick to the Hollywood Romantic Comedy recipe laid down for our guidance. Which means, for the story to end happily, which it must do, its incidents must surprise our expectation into suspense.

It also must have witty dialogue.

And it must have comic genius in the playing.

It does not have to be true to life in any of this. Verisimilitude is not an ingredient in the recipe for Hollywood Romantic Comedy, ever. And crassness and coarseness are incensorable.

How does The Book Club rank as Hollywood Romantic Comedy?

Its plot twists are often fun enough to be adorable.

The wit of its dialogue is particularly fetching when the four ladies gather together to express it.

And the comic genius of the four actresses is at a peak.

Mary Steenburgen is endearing. Her genius is simplest: her comedy depends upon her being always The Foolish Virgin.

Jane Fonda’s comedy depends not upon her sense of humor (she perhaps has none) but upon the ability of her acerbic tongue to wring the most bite from her lines. Her persona on screen is, as usual, She Who Stands Alone.

The only actress of the four who actually has a sense of humor is Candice Bergen. Which means her sense of humor comes from including herself in every joke she makes. She’s the funniest of all of them. And she is given the right lines to say and the right things to do. (Check her out with the ice cream.) She is marvelous. Her underlying screen persona is her tried-and-true I Cannot Believe I Ended Up Here.

Diane Keaton’s comedy does not depend on a sense of humor, does not depend on what she is as a human in a chair, as does Candice Bergen’s, but on what she in motion does. She is a sort of Garbo of physical comedy, and, like Garbo’s, her acting depends upon a display of inner volatility refreshing muscular and emotional movement. As an actress, she is highly technical, perfectly planned, a through-instrument. Her comedy-central mind probably lies somewhere near her sacroiliac. Her persona is, as before, Paranoid. Her paranoia makes her readable. Without it, as an actress, she is opaque.

But she is not so here. And one of the great acting passages in film history is achieved in The Book Club by Diane Keaton in a scene I shall not destroy by preparing you for it.

Safeway sheet-cakes have certain virtues, one of which is that they sometimes taste better than they look. The Hollywood Romantic Comedy invariably calls for too much icing – you just have to swallow that. But the costumes of The Book Club by Shay Cunliffe are rare in their discretion and aptness. The director, Bill Holderman, co-wrote and co-produced The Book Club, and I can see no fault in his execution of the form.

Hollywood Romantic Comedy I generally spurn. But I love these four ladies. I’ve loved them for years. I’m glad they’re working. And comedy is where all four of them belong! I’m glad to be in front of them, still watching, still receiving such pleasure watching.

 

La Sirga

23 May

La Sirga – directed by William Vega. Suspense Drama. 68 minutes Color 2013
★★★★★
The Story: A teen-aged refugee comes to work in a dilapidated hotel by a vast lake in Columbia and the story of everyone else comes into being around her.
~
I watch with wonder at the unfolding of this story, told at a pace and in a style perfectly suited to its sedate subject. We would call it a classical style, which means it is a style which creates a class – a class of its own – to be imbibed if possible, stolen outright if not. We are in a world of color, wind, weather, noise, and place – alien and exquisite – which seem to narrate themselves.

The director, William Vega, and the camerawoman, Sofia Oggioni and the editor Miguel Schverdfinger, and the set decorator, Marcela Gómez Montoya, have captured in true film narration the sweet morale of the teenage girl on whom our attention and care is focused.

The big lake is itself a character in the story, as is the inn her uncle is trying to make presentable for guests who surely will never come. For the basis of this story is that of The Iceman Cometh. Castles in the air are the smoke of pipe-dreams, and no one will ever inhabit them.

Each character contributes, without demur, to the dreams of the others. The trout farm, the abandoned town we visit by raft, with its inexplicable towers, the young man who desires to take her away to a “better place,” her cousin with the evil mustache, and even her uncle who voyeurs.

In the eyes of each of them, she stands for the dream of starting over.

That is a great dream, is it not? And, of course, I won’t tell you how each turns out.

The young woman is perfectly cast, so we root for her, feel for her. Her female mentor, her uncle, the cousin, the boy in the raft – all of the actors play their parts perfectly and are perfect for them.

I seldom see as unusual a film as this, set in a part of the world I never saw, never heard of, with people I otherwise would not know, and brought forth with such calm and fitting beauty.

I am grateful for it. I recommend it as a first class suspense drama – meaning one that does not depend upon murder.

Do see it. See it with friends. It will confirm the relationship.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, SUSPENSE

 

The Pacific

16 May

The Pacific – various directors – produced by Tom Hanks & Steven Spielberg. 10 episode mini-TV series – drama 8 hours 15 minutes 2010.

★★★★★

The Story: Three marines and their comrades fight disease, filthy weather, bullets, burial, and the fanatic Japanese in the Pacific theater of combat of WWII.

~

I was 12 years old when The War ended, and I remember it well. But I remember mostly the European theater, because my parents were from England, and because Hitler, as an Aryan, was, to me, a more defined monster than the Japanese Hirohito, and because I lived on the East Coast nearer Europe.

But we certainly heard about the Pacific War, both on land and sea, as the troops stepping-stoned from atoll to atoll until they finally hit Japan on Okinawa.

I cannot recommend this series more highly than to say it is so convincing a picture of the guts and gore of war you may find it difficult.

I served in the Army during the Korean War, shipped there during the armistice. So I knew one ghastly feature of it – its tedium. The close quarters with other males for long periods of time has its merit and its murder. It brings out the worst and the best. And none of it is really anyone’s fault. It’s the situation that makes men nasty, hard, cruel, and violent as well as, in those same men, loyal, gentle, humorous, and true.

I knew none of the cast, but I was glad to see, once again, how wonderful our American actors are. I believed every one of them. I believe all I saw and could not imagine how the film-makers managed to recreate the massive landings and battles on those islands. But it sure gave me a picture of what those battles were like and what those men had to do to survive and prevail.

I take the series as a part of my education. And it is also a documentary drama of real soldiers, whose actual names are used, whose reflections we hear from them, and whose stories gripped me from beginning to end. I recommend it without reservation.

 

Tangerine

13 May

Tangerine – directed by Sean Baker – comedy – 28 minutes Color 2015.
★★★★★
The Story: A hooker, fresh from the pokey, learns from her best friend that her pimp has two-timed her, so the two of them set forth into mayhem.
~

Tangerine is The Importance Of Being Earnest set in the land of trans-gender prostitution the the streets of L.A. That is to say, it is as witty as Oscar Wilde’s play and has the same subject – which ought to be enough for anyone to leap toward and watch it.

The subject is: Which of us do you love more, her or me?

This mortal matter is pursued by the Cicely and Gwendolyn characters, Sin-Dee and Alexandra, beautifully played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.

To cut through other praises to the one that interests me most, let’s turn to the double-pluses of the camera-acting combo, the one dependent upon the other, so I believe.

The camera is an IPhone. This palm-held camera rids us of the patient awkwardness of a 35mm camera. Less waiting when shooting. Grab performance when it’s hot. The result is brilliant acting, some of which is improvised.

I, who deplore improvisation as a rule, stand corrected before the ability of the director, Sean Baker, to inspire and to capture performance – performance-capture – the denominator common to all great directors, which you find scattered through their films but seldom see pervasive throughout one. But it’s pervasive here.

The IPhone is held by Baker and Radium Cheung. I know nothing of the other work of these two, but I bow before them, palms-down. Scene after scene comes alive, fresh, real, and funny.

The cast is of varying degrees of experience, but it doesn’t matter: the value that holds is authenticity, and it is met by all. For instance, when the Lady Bracknell character – out To Save Society – appears on the screen in the form of the great Armenian actress Alla Tumanian, you immediately sense you are in the presence of someone experienced beyond the ordinary, but you also observe that she is playing in the style common to all the others. She does not stand apart; she simply adds to the brilliance before us. Sean Baker directed the acting, and, as editor, chose it. Good for him.

What lasts?

Story lasts. Yes, even more than performance. Two things matter, but story makes a film lasting, which Tangerine has become. Lasts because a human truth is unfolded along its path. That means that the theme is not merely present but honored through its quirks and faults and splendors. Such is the case here.

The theme is friendship, a great one. Don’t miss Tangerine. It’s funny and true and dear.

 

Nevada Smith

26 Apr

Nevada Smith – directed by Henry Hathaway. Western. 128 minutes Color 1966.
★★★
The Story: A young man lives his life to revenge the murder of his parents.
~
Steve McQueen aged 31 is asked to play a boy of 16. He is too beat up to do it, and it was not within his range as an actor anyhow. Otherwise the hole in his dirty shirt is the only actually authentic object in the picture and, you might say, his authenticity is a function of that. Indeed, McQueen plays here what he always played, a man without a code.

Does authenticity hold true for anyone else? The Indians are pristine in their feathers. So are the sluts. So is the excellent Brian Keith who plays McQueen’s mentor after two rough weeks on the trail with a shirt straight from the dry cleaners. Keith, Arthur Kennedy and Pat Hingle, Martin Landau, fine actors all, are Jim-dandy as McQueen’s challenges. But the costuming demotes everyone who appears, and the believability of the film suffers from it.

Of course, this is the way things were done in Westerns of this era. Perhaps McQueen started to question the sort of material he was appearing in. His interests were car collecting, motor cycles, and gang-bangs, McQueen always the first off with his britches. The film as a whole doesn’t ring true. Partly because McQueen is asked to play a man with a code, and his code does not extend beyond what promotes his already seductive masculinity.

This is too bad, because the material has merit. McQueen’s search takes him to various parts of the country, among which is a state prison in a swamp, a setting striking in its perils. Also too bad because Karl Malden plays the main object of his revenge, and Malden is wonderful, all the way through to the insane, surprising finale.

Henry Hathaway, a hardline, highly experienced director of male-oriented pictures, directed. Hathaway directed so many Westerns he may have become petrified in the production values that prevailed then. He was associated with huge male stars –Tyrone Power, John Wayne, Gary Cooper – and his stories display a high degree of testosterone, culminating in Richard Widmark’s Johnny Udo in Kiss Of Death shoving Mildred Dunnock in her wheelchair down a flight of stairs, and in the various rotters, here played by Hingle, Landau, Malden, and Kennedy. It’s a world blinded by its formulas to even the possibility of other stories, other resolutions, other energies.

One of the difficulties of Westerns in the 50s being filmed in color is in real life, they were lived out in sepia. Color in Westerns is good for the outdoors, not for close-ups, not interiors, to which it adds distracting interest, and certainly not to costumes which, particularly in females, delivers a gaudiness that adds nothing verifiable to their characters use in stories.

McQueen has an eventful face. With its folds, creases, muscles. Gable did too; so did James Dean. A lot could happen in such a face, and Gable had the ability to play comedy with it, which is to say, he was willing to look like a sap. McQueen is never willing to do that, is never funny, but, while serious to the point of solemnity, instead always seethes with sex. One always wants to take him under one’s wing and reform him, forgetting that his allure lies in his impenitent self-absorption.

The picture takes McQueen to various ages and various locales over 15 years – all the while holding revenge in mind. Malden would play the same target for it in One Eyed Jacks. But the most unusual locale involves Cajun girls who harvest the rice crop while the prisoners break rocks, and then come to the prisoners at night and everyone gets laid. Suzanne Pleshette plays the principal slut well, leading McQueen out of the swamp in a dugout, until she cops that he’s more interested in the dugout than in her.

McQueen was a crafty actor who stole scenes by underselling them. Watch him closely as he does this. He is able to draw all the energy in the room to himself, as James Dean did, by exuding and at the same time withholding a sensuality all the more tantalizing because it promised something that he would snicker you away from if you got serious. A number of actors of that era – Brad Davis, Alain Delon, Christopher Jones, Dean Stockwell – had this. It was very sellable.

Who has it now? Brad Pitt, who is a better actor than McQueen, with a wider range, and Pitt can be very very funny, a thing which McQueen was too full of himself to attempt.

Steven McQueen was a poor man’s poor man. He may get into a vest, tie, and Rolls for The Thomas Crown Affair, but he’s trailer-trash – which is his value to the silver screen – the underlying drama always being can his beauty surmount his origins?

Still I seek out McQueen’s movies. I have to admit it’s fun to see that rare someone for whom animal magnetism is so easy. A cute guy who could write his own ticket to Timbuktu and back. I watch out of envy and delight – and interest in his exercise of his small, fascinating, and undeniable talent.

 

Blackboard Jungle

21 Apr

Blackboard Jungle directed by Richard Brooks. Drama. 101 minutes Black and White. 1955.
★★★
The Story: A teacher just starting out in his profession faces a rude and dangerous classroom of delinquents and eventually wins their favor.
~
The idea is ridiculous. Students are not in class to bestow favor, as noblesse oblige. And teachers are not there to win favor. Swimming pools are for swimming and schools are for schooling, and everyone who goes to either place knows that. You don’t hold beer parties in church.

This is to say that the film is forced. And the part that’s forced is the cast playing the delinquents. Most of them are a bit old for the parts. But that doesn’t matter so much as that none of the actors see their characters from the characters point of view. This allows them to drift into caricature, and what we see is a bouquet of gutter roses, ala West Side Story.

Exception must be made for Vic Morrow who Methods his character into a maniac. He is never a gutter rose. He is always a stinker. This doesn’t mean one buys his interpretation as real.

Sidney Poitier aged 28 plays the one borderline kid who is 17. This one believes, partly because decency is inherent in Poitier, and partly because, unlike any of the others, he had already played leading roles in several films and knew certain pitfalls, and partly because of his confidence, and partly because his shoulder bones show under his t-shirts because he is so skinny.

He is the only kid whose performance one buys. Oh, it’s nice to see Rafael Campos, still a teenager; he’s lovely in his big scene. But the film belongs to Glenn Ford who apparently can act anything thrown at him. His commitment, balance, focus, and drive in each of the varied scenes casts aside the inauthenticity he is surrounded with. Fortunately he is virtually in every scene. The great Louis Calhern plays the most tired and cynical of these vocational high school teachers; one always sits back in one’s chair in confidence Calhern will give satisfaction, and he does.

Richard Brooks was not a director/writer of finesse, and this is as good an example of his work as any. When the picture came out it caused riots and a scandal, but that was because of the first rock-and-roll sound track in a film, and “Rock Around The Clock” became a million seller in its day. The film made a fortune.

The work of Poitier, Ford, and Calhern is not dated, but the film is long past its shelf-life. I wonder if a film has ever been made about difficult teenagers, as themselves, not as caused by environment or prejudice, but as themselves, as individuals. I have not heard of it. Such kids are called juvenile delinquents, but neither part of that term is helpful; it finishes them off. I’d like to see a film about their seed and core. Their action in their age.

 

Smart Money

20 Apr

Smart Money – directed by Alfred E. Green. Crime Comedy. 81 minutes Black And White 1931.
★★★★★
The Story: A small-town barber with a lucky streak heads for the big-time and succeeds in all his dreams but that of a lady to kiss.
~
He is my favorite actor. Edward G. Robinson. I love to watch him. I never tire – even though his effects linger from film to film. Richard Burton said of him that if he were on the screen with the most beautiful man alive, you would not watch that man, you would watch Robinson.

More alive as an actor than any other!

James Cagney made seven films in 1931, and The Public Enemy hadn’t come out yet, and Robinson, after Little Caesar, has the lead. They both started in New York Yiddish theater, and were friends, but this was their only film together.

It’s fun to see that Cagney could just as easily have played the part, or at least part of the part. The difference between them is this.

Robinson’s acts a character who is full of himself. But Cagney never played a character who was not full of himself. Robinson had to act it. But for Cagney being full of himself was the basis of his craft. It made him the schoolyard bully his entire career. It was not the basis of Robinson’s craft. Robinson has to summon hubris into the role. So Robinson is more appealing in the part than Cagney would have been. And the role has another part to it: Robinson is big-time, he is generous, kind, gallant, but no woman loves him. What would Cagney have done with that!

Perfect part for Robinson, and he played it more than once. Rather than romantic leads, who got the girl, Robinson often played professionals – such as the detectives he played in Orson Welles’ The Stranger or Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Absolute authority of attack is his genius. And, boy oh boy, does he know his lines!

The film was directed by a studio work-horse, Alfred E. Green. Green, an admirable director, knows exactly how to tell a story with a camera, exactly where to put the camera to do it, exactly what value to give a scene. He directed more Bette Davis films than another director. She learned her craft under him. I always welcome his name on the credits and know I am in good hands..

I have never before seen Evalyn Knapp, marvelous as the most important of the many blondes Robinson is drawn to. She is touching and real from the time she first appears till the time she withdraws. Not much of a career; one wonders why. Still, she is lovely. And all the blondes are lovely and good in their parts. Robinsons’ tremendous ebullience and bonhomie carry the film, which dates no more than anything well-made dates, which is to say no further than our affection for a bygone era.

 

Lilies Of The Field

25 Mar

Lilies Of The Field – directed by Ralph Nelson. Spiritual Comedy. 94 minutes Black And White 1963.
★★★
The Story: A coven of refugee nuns sequestered in the desert hoodwink a young man to build them a chapel.
~
Sydney Poitier gives an inexplicable performance.

To explain it requires a confession as to the director’s frivolity in his treatment of this material. Ralph Nelson handles it like an Andy Hardy/Judy Garland MGM let’s-find-a-barn-and-put-on-a-show musical.

So Poitier, rather than give a serious comic performance of someone helplessly frustrated, may have played into this mode, which here is mechanical – but with Garland’s and Rooney’s talents never was. So Poitier points all his effects. He gilds the tip of each wave of his performance with the froth of being “entertaining”. He’s fearfully “cute”.

This does release his Bahaman roots to dance and prance and shake it. (Poitier was not American.) But his performance does not fit in with that of the actual Austrian refugee, Lilia Skala, who plays it for real. Too bad. Here her performance was, right in front of Poitier, available to him, and he muffed it; he opted for “charm.” Lilia Skala is clearly a top-notch actor in full possession of her craft and she was nominated for an Oscar for this performance. Wonderful to behold her work.

Poitier won an Oscar for this performance as credit for an accumulation of parts, noble all.

But was it for their nobility Sidney Poitier found a public?

I think it was because Sidney Poitier was the first Negro actor to be likable.

Lena Horne was dynamic but not likeable. Ethel Waters was loveable but not likeable. Sammy Davis was impressive but not likeable. Canada Lee was likeable but sidelined. Paul Robeson was admirable but discredited. None of them got to be movie stars. And, of course, there was the times.

But Americans primarily want to like people, an instinct that can’t help but cut though race to the other side. Subconsciously they longed for a black actor to like. Sidney Poitier had talent, looks, luck, intelligence, a good figure, the right voice – and likeability was inherent in him. So, unwittingly, Poitier became a star. But, although he gave many better performances than this, this one might have been better had he not striven to be so “likeable”.

James Poe, a good screenwriter, wrote Lilies Of The Field; the great Ernest Haller filmed it simply. But, other than them, Lilia Skala’s work, and the desert, the lilies of its field have withered quite away.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, Sidney Poitier

 

The Death Of Stalin

25 Mar

The Death Of Stalin – directed by Armando Ianuucci. Political Comedy. 107 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: The Russian head of state dies and everyone squabbles as to who shall inherit the state?
~
The Death Of Stalin is directed with the lightning speed of farce – but it is not farce. It is gallows humor and so to be funny must be delivered gravely. It is not.

I fell asleep. Or you might say I passed out from the metronomic monotony of things dashing by in front of my eyes, the dulling hypnosis of looking into a kaleidoscope, ever turning, ever brilliant, and therefore indecipherable, and therefore tedious. We see everything in a whisking mosaic of scenes and are permitted to dwell on nothing. No scene is allowed to develop, and the visual jokes are taken for granted as funny, although, even so, some of them really are funny.

I went to the picture wanting to like it, and wanting to like helps one to, but it wasn’t kind to me. It is not measured to the level of the audience of those over 50 who know its Russian nabobs, who convene and plot, then plot on their plots – a shell game, in which the eye is not faster than the play, and you soon walk away out of patience with the trick that over and over again fools with you.

Also true is that the English actors speak too fast to be heard, and they are doubly incomprehensible because they speak English while they are doing it. American actors such as Steve Buscemi, who as Nikita Khrushchev shoves Stalin’s heirs around, is perfectly audible doing so speaking precision Brooklynese, while American actor Jeffrey Tambor ornates the film with his depiction of the mealy-mouthed Malenkov, a sort of zombie in a girdle, perfectly cast like everyone else.

The picture takes the form of a mordant wake in which everyone behaves badly because the corpse has trained them to. But the story arose not from an original screen play, but from a French comic book.

Now, most films these days, it would seem, do arise from comic books, and this has been going on at least since the Tarzan movies. The one great difference between such a movie as The Death Of Stalin and a comic book is this: a comic book is not whisked out from under your eyes as you look at it. You can linger long enough upon a comic book for it to register.

The remedy: First Kill The Editor! Oh, but before that kill The Director! Or maybe, as Beria would have it: Kill Everybody!

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, Steve Buscemi

 

Darkest Hour

10 Feb

Darkest Hour – directed by Joe Wright. Bio/Docudrama. 125 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: Distrusted, disliked on both sides of Parliament, Churchill is made PM and must face them and Hitler’s overrun of western Europe and the ambush of the French and British armies at Dunkirk.
~
The character takes over the actor and, since the character is Winston Churchill, the character takes over everything. But as the purpose of every other character is to squeeze Churchill into a thinner man, the drama consists in Churchill’s temptation to let them do it.

It is a dark hour indeed when a human tempts himself with his own ethical demolition. What Churchill stood for was the expansion of himself into economic security, based on feats of derring-do with prodigies of eloquence to make them known, both before and after. At this he was brilliant.

The question was, was he an honest man? He cared about his country, but did he care about his countrymen? Born in Blenheim palace as grandson to the Duke of Marlborough, did he even know his countrymen? One of the most effective scenes in the picture puts him in contact with them. And one of its most effective strands is his relation to his young female private secretary.

How come Gary Oldman was ever for a moment considered for this role I shall never hope to know. But the question slips from consideration as his Churchill faces the whopper crises of the spring of 1940. Whatever Oldman does here as an actor – and we all know that he is capable of plenty – I hand full credit to him and to his implacable makeup for allowing me to become lost in Churchill’s doings.

I lived through this era. I remember Churchill. I remember picking up the phone when I was 8 and finding Randolph Churchill on the other end, for my father syndicated his journalism. I lived through Dunkirk, for my people were English, and every scrap of news hit home in our household. I read Churchill’s histories of the War later.

But I never knew the key personal crisis he faced from within his war cabinet and from within himself as it seemed he must treat for peace with Hitler who had swallowed Hitler whole and was about to dine on England.

Will Hitler be invited to dinner? So, here I see Churchill collapse into doubt. Collapse. Churchill, a larger even than his own life personality in our world, a living cartoon of himself, is seen human, even by himself.

I like the movie. I liked the depth of its drama and beauty of its filming and the spot-on of its costumes – for I remember the period and what we wore.

But all that is set aside in my personal-biography interest. I was doing what I was doing here, while Churchill was doing what he was doing there. Now I get to put them together.

 

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

05 Feb

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – directed by Mike Nichols. Drama. 132 minutes Black And White 1966.
★★★★★
The Story: A college history professor and his wife host two newcomers to the faculty and engage everyone in a battle royal for marital survival.
~
Elizabeth Taylor was untrained as an actress but as a child took to it like a duck to water. By the time of this film she was the most experienced film actress of her generation but had long moved out of that rare category and her true forte of a romantic actress into the dramatic category. It is a great loss to movies, for Taylor from a fifteen-year-old up through Giant had a capacity for film acting never seen again on screen – sad, fun, loving, kind, tender – as perfectly strong as perfectly beautiful and at home in being such.

I had lunch with her during Butterfield 8. By that time, she had three children, was in her fourth marriage, and she and I were both still only in our mid 20s. She was a young woman with a big nut and had to work responsibly to meet it. The film roles available were not up to her; they were simply what was available. Over our tuna salad I suggested Nicole Diver in Tender Is The Night as one more Fitzgerald heroine perfect for her. “Eddie and I want it,” she said, “but David owns it and he wants Jennifer to do it, and she’s too old.” Getting good parts was not simple.

As an instinctual actress her very instinctual not-so-private life may have dictated the sort of films she wanted to do or would be believable in or be offered. Perhaps marriage to Mike Todd had coarsened her. She was no longer the romantic girl of The Last Time I Saw Paris. So, while she could write her own ticket, what actual destinations were available?

People came to Elizabeth Taylor’s films to mark the progress of her beauty, inner and outer. No one ever, off screen or on, got more attention. On screen she was gorgeous. Off screen, so beautiful, I could see she was actually un-photogenic. But by Butterfield 8, everyone knew everything that could be known about her. The inner beauty had largely disappeared. So, and with all of that, plum roles did not come along every year. But one did in 1966 when she played Martha. If she had to campaign to get Giant, and she did, she certainly had to campaign to get Martha, and to get Burton hired. It was the perfect film for Bette Davis who was the right age. Taylor twenty years too young, 31, but, stronger than dirt, got it.

I saw the original Broadway production of Virginia Woolf. Uta Hagen, also highly experienced, had a raw coarse texture as an actress. She was very good and right for the role. Arthur Hill was completely believable as her scholarly, refined, and more powerless husband. I recall George Grizzard’s Nick as a tennis coach, but he actually teaches biology, and I don’t recall Melinda Dillon at all, which is probably right, since the character tends to paste herself against the wall to get out of the way of the melee.

Taylor is miscast. She doesn’t look 50, but, more importantly, she does not have the instrument, the technique, the training to play it. Instead she plays Martha as though she had an “idea” of what Martha’s character was. But Martha is not a character; she is a figure in an allegory. Besides, since she is not within Taylor’s aesthetic realm, Taylor can’t really play her instinctually. Instead, she flings herself about in the role at fishwife pitch and gets all the swearwords wrong. Elizabeth Taylor was built for survival; it is her virtue and her vice; the same is true of Martha. Taylor drew on her own strength for survival, but Martha drew only on her own weakness. Martha is weakness miming strength. Either here or elsewhere, Elizabeth Taylor was never that.

But in certain ways Taylor is well cast. Martha is fundamentally Taylor’s specialty, a trophy-wife role. Also, Elizabeth Taylor had a rowdy, cackling sense of humor that worked well for the part. And her performance certainly has its moments. What I remember when I first saw it was a crying scene at the end in which she wept for her soul. Seeing it on VHS now, there is no such scene. Instead, Taylor has a finale on the window seat, and in her eyes is nothing left, which, considering Taylor’s eyes, is even more astonishing.

Still, she is fundamentally miscast. “Elizabeth Taylor is too beautiful a woman for any of that to have ever happened to her,” my wife said to me. “A woman that beautiful has other strategies at her disposal.”

But ya gotta hand it to Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, she does not play the beauty queen; she flings herself into the role like a bucket of slops tossed out a window. And she won an Oscar for it. And I have no criticism of the fact of that.

George Segal is best in the stupidity and naiveté of the guest. George Grizzard, of course, exuded intelligence and class – which gave the play, in the reduction of his character to a klutz, a secondary strong dramatic undercurrent. You don’t get any of that with Segal, but it doesn’t matter. Segal is a klutz to start with. What you get is Segal’s big heart in conflict with the unethical seduction of his ambition, both playing against the want of seduction in his wife.

Sandy Dennis, in her looney, abstracted, tricksey way, works perfectly for the mentally and intestinally fragile wife, Honey, and deserved the Oscar she got.

Richard Burton, it is said, was miscast. I’m not so sure. Yes, he is miscast in the sense that, unlike Arthur Hill, obviously Burton always has power to spare, and you don’t need that to play George, but it doesn’t stand in Burton’s way. It sometimes comes out when Burton employs orotundity to carry passages – always a mistake. But we must remember, at the end of the play George always has one power left, to demolish the frayed bridge of the marriage. He will declare the inviolable secret of a certain love between them to be
false and he will kill it. Burton with his hold on his power or Hill with his want of power – no matter – George will smash the delusion. Hill quietly pulls the switch. Burton quietly pulls the switch.

With it gone, what do each of them have to live for with one another? What do husbands and wives have to live for? Without their old fabrications?

We do not know.

They do not know. That’s the risk George takes, and in that lies the greatness of the play.

In the Burton version, we see him place his hand on Taylor’s shoulder to reassure her of the future. But there is no known future and maybe no future and who knows whether reassurance is a requirement to endure it?

The difference between the play and the film versions is that on Broadway the play is thrust forward and takes precedence over the performances. In the movie, the stars take over. To such a degree that Mike Nichols seems not to have coached Taylor away from her gaucheries and not to have forbidden that godawful wig. But no matter. Either way, the play prevails by swallowing its own imperfections as it goes.

The material itself would seem to be about alcoholic excess. But it isn’t. For in this case, there is no truth in wine. The play has the power not of alcohol but of vitriol whose extremes push the four to the bourne of their self-delusion and over its cliff.

The thing that keeps you going is the thing that is killing you? Yes? You agree? But still, are you really willing to sever and surrender the most cherished and most ingrained operational prevarications of your relationships with yourself and others?

52 years since I first saw Whose Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and didn’t understand it either time. Was it too startling to understand or I too young? But now that I understand the the poison it prescribes for a cure and the ritual of decapitation it demands for survival, would I actually risk outliving my own suicide? Would I surrender even one of the superannuated life-strategies I once found vital?

 
 
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