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?


Paddington 2

03 Feb

Paddington 2 – directed by Paul King. Children’s/Grownups/live/animation. 103 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: A young bear, adopted by a London family, has adventures and misadventures as he seeks to stop a wicked theft.
Paddington, came after my time and came after my daughter’s time, so I missed Paddington 1, and if you count the book, I also missed Paddington 0.

What sin of omission I have committed to be omitted from the treat of this personable orso I cannot imagine, but I must be a good boy now, because now I am given him, and I take him to me and everything that brings him to me.

These include the greats Joanna Lumley, Julie Walters, Sally Hawkins, Brian Geeson, Imelda Staunton, Eileen Atkins, Tom Conti, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Bonneville – and, as the villain of the piece as a divo actor, that scalawag Hugh Grant.

They delight me, and they all know how to act with a little bear who, of course, is added after or before or at some other time – a little bear who looks not like a bearbear and not like a teddybear but a movie bear – and in so looking looks like all those actors aforementioned look. What a charming miracle!

What delighted me was the wit of the problems set and the wit of the solutions offered for Paddington’s predicaments. The wicked actor Grant plays is broke and looking to replenish his purse with swag whose whereabouts were coded in an old popup book. He fails, naturally, but the contortions offered in his wickedness and Paddington’s escape from them are fun and more fun.

If this all seems dated and preposterous, well, just watch the jests as they unravel — and how they all knit together as things move on. The message of the picture is that there is no plight that people, if they have big hearts, cannot get one another out of, provided they pull together and have a seaplane.

What a delight are the sets and places and the power of animation to outrival Special Effects or spectacle in engaging me, and out of the preposterous create in me the believable! I smile as I write this. It’s a film to love watching. Watch it.

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Le Week-End

24 Jan

Le Week-End – directed by Roger Michell. Marital Dramedy. 93 minutes Color 2013.
The Story: A 30-year anniversary honeymoon, brings a sorely alienated couple to Paris for a weekend.
First of all, it’s a grown-up film. By which I mean to say that it is a film for anyone who is or ever might want to be grown-up.

Marriages are discarded like Kleenex. So you wonder how this one has staggered along so long. They arrive in advanced-bicker. The sex bed is dead. He’s a drooling fool, and she’s no fun anymore.

Walk through their lives with them as they frisk their way through Paris, tossing their budget to la brise. Spearing one another with love’s unwanted darts and prickles. Defying the law. Escaping the law.

In the midst of these skirmishes, Jeff Goldblum appears like a deus macchina out of a cloud of his own glory, to draw them into the realm of the sacred which, of course, includes a huge apartment, a grand feast, and lots of money. He performs perfectly in a part in which he is perfectly cast. He is so real, down to earth, gutsy, and fun you forgive him all he has that you have not.

The couple are played by Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent. They are beyond praise in their allowing themselves to be in their threatened, ill-fitting, middle-class selves.

Marriage after 30 years, a vast wasteland in which they still vividly cavort, they bring to us a comedy-drama down to the bones. The drama is the moment-by-moment living before our wondering eyes the unedifying truth of this relic of a marriage combined with the suspense: can this marriage survive and, if possibly, how? How?

But this is how marriage is. Maybe. Or something like it. Maybe. This is what one signed up for. And there were good reasons for it. Weren’t there?


Phantom Thread

22 Jan

Phantom Thread – written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Drama. 130 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: An artist suffering from mater-philia becomes inspired by a young woman who, to cure him, must practically kill him.
What are the force-fields inside an individual which draw a human to force-fields inside another – and how can they be made to fadge, converge, and agree?

The execution is suave. The picture luxuriously filmed, perfectly cast, marvelously directed, impeccably scored, ideally set, fabulously costumed, vividly acted. The setting is some fifty years ago when London was a fashion center and its focal character, Reynolds Woodcock, was the most renown women’s designer of the time.

All that is window-dressing, albeit superb, but the picture must have it in order to explore the sub-surfaces which are its true subject.

Woodcock in a once-in-a-lifetime-draw to a young waitress with a figure perfect for his clothes, spirits her away to his home. She falls for him. But when she does, he finds her annoying, and we soon see his interest in her is neither romantic nor personal. He has made her his muse. But she has no other interest for him.

He lives in a household and work-world entirely female. And he admits that his first and main muse was his own mother. Indeed, she is the phantom thread with which he has woven his life into what he is: a gourmet monastic, and that mother will reappear as that phantom.

His sister runs his business, has his number, and knows that his strength comes from women – from their mother, from herself, from various women he lives with, from his battalion of seamstresses, and from his clientele. Such strength as he possesses lies in the brilliant, shocking, chilly genius of his dresses.

But the young woman he has carried off comes from an even colder clime. She sees that, in order for him to love her, she must mother him, and in order for that to happen she has to rescue him from peril. And to do that, she must create the peril.

Have I already said too much? No. Find out for yourself. Go see it.

As it starts, the film is slightly overwritten, as characters explain themselves in ways they wouldn’t and we don’t need them to. One day someone must do a study of the accents used. And the film will only half-satisfy because the default position of the woman’s psyche is left unattended to. So the plot remains a mythic scheme stumbling towards a finale that does not exist, a stream with no pond to feed. But never mind that. The satisfactions available in it outstrip its wants.

And it is played by a group of sterling, deeply experienced actors, who are a pleasure to behold. Vicky Krieps plays the young woman who sees through Woodcock; her performance is a treasure. Lesley Manville plays his sister; her performance is a treasure. Harriet Sansome plays a Barbara Hutton type about to marry a Porfirio Rubirosa type; her performance is a treasure. Every performance is a treasure.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays the designer – at first with the too-knowing smile of a man no woman he has set his sights on can resist – and then he just plays him. His is the story of a cool man whom to wed a good woman must first cremate. Day-Lewis, a great cold actor, is well cast as this gelid gent.

Day-Lewis is not a romantic leading man. He is a character-lead, but the part is close to a leading man role, yet here, by his mastery of the technical acts of fashion design, the actor skirts the category: how pins are applied, how cloth is moved and discussed, how scissors close on a fabric, how a sketch-book is held, the way he wears the clothes he wears and that he chooses to choose them (I want those magenta socks), and the infantilism of the Divo – all that which, through deeds, decodes the obsession in him that blinds him to what he cannot more greatly adore. It is a performance consummated sheerly on the level of behavior.

But Krieps is an actor and a character who takes him on, and, boy – even cooler than he – does she ever! She realizes the foundation in the maternal in him is too strong to collapse but to crack its depths she must bring out another and different female side lying beneath the maternal, to dare to release an even greater muse, the normal. With the gentlest of drills, she embarks on a mining operation seldom seen in film.

For the story of Phantom Thread – the overthrow of the default position of an individual or a relationship – the reference is Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Have I said too much? Yes, I have.

Find out for yourself. Go see it.


Call Me By Your Name

19 Jan

Call Me By Your Name – directed by Luca Guadagnino. Homoerotic-drama 132 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: A doctoral candidate comes to assist a professor for six weeks, and the professor’s teen-age son falls in love with him and he falls in love with the teen-age son.
He who has loved and not lost has not loved at all.

First love never ends.

These are the regulations our bodies have set down for us, and wonderful and terrible are their truths.

The American Ph.D. candidate, played by Armie Hammer, is all virility and dispatch. The teen-ager, played by Timothée Chalamet, lingers in that truce of time called adolescence. Hammer is fully confident and at home in his body. Chalamet’s body is scarcely formed. We know that he is drawn towards the hunky candidate because he gazes wonderingly at him, as does everyone. We have no idea if the interest is returned by the hunk, for the two of them bicker and grouse.

But the young man opens half his shell to reveal the pearl. And the hunk responds as though nothing could be easier or more normal, and he goes for it, albeit gingerly, with the respect due to his boss’s son.

We are flooded from the start with full frontal photographs of Greek statuary. At one point such a statue is raised from the Mediterranean grave of an ancient trireme, and we see its beauty and its powerful genitalia.

But we never see the genitalia of the two lovers – male genitalia, that focus of curiosity, activity, and power. Or the object of ridicule, revulsion, and shrugs?

Why don’t we see these two males make love to one another’s’ privates? Because they’re movie stars? Or out of a sense of prudery? Or because the theme wishes to attend to “other” erotic values? Or we would be “descending” into pornography?

We have seen Mark Rylance in full erection and penetration in the 2001 film Intimacy, so we know what a movie star’s member looks like in full erection and action. Here, we can only suppose that the genitalia on hand would be shameful, meager, or flaccid, and so they remain unrevealed for reasons too many and too silly to contemplate. So, the sexual act is turned from to gaze at trees outside the window.

But those two actors, Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet sure do enjoy kissing one another; they sure do have a grand old time making out. And because they had a good time, I sure did have a good time to watch them have a good time. And because they had had a good time I believed them and took the significance of their affair under advisement because the story told me to. I believed that the love of their lives was taking place.

I wanted to believe it in order to offer it the tribute of my envy. As does the father of the Chalamet character, well played by Michael Stulhbarg, who, at the end of the movie, sits his young son down and spreads out the table cloth of his son’s life in its good fortune and riches.

After such love, there is nothing but a fire in a fireplace to look into. The fire is not the fire we have been asked to witness. A fireplace is outside of one.

The inside fire does not leave. But the warmth of the mating does not last, although its power to burn does. Mundane geographical distance removes that warmth.

Scorched recollection is the price we never stop paying for great love.

A lifetime of tears, would we say, is its inevitable and fair exchange? The fireplace of a fire that will not quite go out.


The Post

15 Jan

The Post – directed by Steven Spielberg. Docudrama. 116 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: When the Justice Department bans the farther publication of The Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post seeks to continue, and the battle to do or not to do this seethes throughout the Post’s personnel.
It’s a civics class, presented as a scrapbook of walloping headlines and fill-you-in-quick info. Which, in film terms, means that it is collage as montage.

We get big, fat, hairy History Facts. The crudeness of their presentation means they must be jammed down our throats rather than presented cinematically. And all the supporting parts are overwritten.

The style is to hype all this into a suspense story, and it sure achieves that effect. For the film excites as the suspense mounts, for it mounts as the fears mount. And the fears mount. Or at least reproduce like fleas.

Will the Post survive? Will the Post staff go to jail? Will publication ruin the stock options for the Post? Will the First Amendment be forsaken? Will the Post get The Pentagon Papers? Can The Post reporters assemble a coherent copy from unnumbered pages? Will the scaredy-cat Post Board Of Directors and lawyers prevail over the valiant editorial staff? Will Robert McNamara’s friendship with Post’s owner, Mrs Katharine Graham, override her ability to disgrace him? Will she be able to seize the steering wheel of the paper like the good feminist she doesn’t even know herself to be? And will Ben Bradlee, her editor-in-chief, lose his job to disgrace and failure?

I sit on the edge of my seat for all this as though I didn’t know the outcome. And the Berkeley audience at the multiplex, which also knows, applauds each time Mrs Graham makes the ethically adventurous choice. Each episode offered us keeps the movie going: John Williams’ score excites; Janucz Kaminski’s camera captivates; Ann Roth’s costuming convinces. We’re all ganged up on by Spielberg’s bunch and we expect to be.

Because what we have is an old-fashioned movie about a heroine.

Heroine-acting is – well, let’s give a fond example – Katharine Hepburn acting. She did that sort of acting a lot, and it’s done with a lot of tears and nobility of jaw and a sky-blue righteousness.

Meryl Streep does not play Mrs Graham in this vein. She does the opposite all. She plays it, let’s say, in a pair of old sheepskin bedroom slippers and a comfy bathrobe. That is, she underplays big moments. She throws them away. Watch her do it. And see how you pick up what she throws before it hits the ground, polish it up, and hand it to both of you.

This acting decision makes Streep’s every character decision personal to the character. It’s that simple.

Kay Graham was Jewish. Streep gives her a tiny overlay of this in her accent. She was an ordinary, well-bred Vassar girl of modest ambition, and Streep makes clear that which was unclear in Graham, not an easy thing for an actor to do. It’s a good character performance which we all can enter into as its boundaries and qualities unfold.

Tom Hanks plays the supporting role of her goad and ally, the editor-in-chief bent on the big fun of a big story. Bradlee was a virile, brash personality, which is not in Hanks’ usual line. One thing he does to nail Bradlee is to play in his shirtsleeves, for earthy honesty is Bradlee’s ethos, which is in Hanks’ line, and it carries the role.

Hanks squeezes the part into his brow and into a mouth that does not speak with forked tongue, so you get Bradlee’s toughness, resolve, and vim in an inner battle between restraint and outbreak. And Hanks does beautifully a well-written monolog late in the film, and, like Streep, it is taken anti-heroically as he lounges back on a couch. He’s an actor who knows it’s the woman’s picture, but since that doesn’t offend the actor, so it does not offend the character, which is essentially what makes the character work as an influence in a story not his own.

The directorial style is forced and crude and obvious. But one does not ask and has never asked for subtlety of treatment from Spielberg, but for a big-bang-up subject to stir and engross, with the soft landing of a moral at the end. Such perils provide the entertainment of the thrill of a free fall into a dish of tapioca pudding. I always go to them. Good old-fashioned movie-going is what I know I’ll find, and I do.

The movie may seem apt right now, because, as with Nixon then, we once again have a lunatic rat in The White House. Nixon, of course, was clever but devious. If Trump is clever he’s too clever to ever have revealed it, and he is as devious as a load of garbage cascading down a mountainside.

Both presidents sought to squelch the press. Bu in Nixon’s day newspapers still existed as a source of truth – valiant truth sometimes. Nowadays, newspapers have been superannuated by screens, and screens are a compromised medium – as compromised as the president who would compromise them further. One believes neither president nor press. All there is, is the blatant outrage of misconduct by all parties and on all sides, whose sleep alone allows the peeps of liberal complaint to seep through. We cannot have freedom of the press if freedom has no place to exist. We cannot have freedom of the press if there is no place for content. If we cannot hold a newspaper in our bare hands, what can we possibly believe. If those who create it do not have to hold it in their bare hands, why should veracity bother them.

So even this civics lesson picture falls under suspicion of mis-information and pious prevarication. How true is all of this? Did this really happen? In this order? Or is this just another People magazine version of a celebrity inside-story by those whose power prefers to shout from outside the gate with impotent resentment across a vast lawn to a White House whose occupant’s mentality of an orange is in Florida. That is to say, is this another splash of muck on just another screen. In 2015, The Washington Post itself was sold to Amazon for 250 million dollars in cash – which is to say it was sold to just another computer screen.


The Shape Of Water

14 Jan

The Shape Of Water – written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. Thriller Fairy Tale. 123 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: An Amazon river god is imprisoned in a U.S. research installation, where he is tortured and threatened with dismemberment until a cleaning woman nurses and rescues him.
Of course, fairy stories are true. Myths are true. Allegory is true. That’s how come they last and carry weight in the spirits of children and indigenes. What “true” means is that fairy tales and myths and allegory mimic the inner procedures of the human psyche. The reason fairy tale and myth and allegory endure is that their method of communicating the most important human truths has never been supplanted.

So we see the kindness of the cleaning woman to be the real food she offers the creature, along with hard-boiled eggs.

But what use has this scary creature? The use is, as with all gods, that they never die. What goes with that territory is that they can heal death in others. Mercury, the god of thieves, medicine, tricks, and messages, is the winged avatar of this still, but Hindu religion is crammed with others. In all cases, they heal.

Not always in the way you might want, and in this case the healing teeters perilously before it is revealed. For the god has taken the shape of a merman, and his aspect is daunting. He is played by 57-year-old Doug Jones, lithe, sensual, sudden.

I can’t think of an actor who might have better played the cleaning woman who becomes his mate. Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito (which in English means “exposed” or “transparent”) opens her character up not just to him but to her colleague played by Octavia Spencer whose every word one always believes and so it is here. Over a movie house which seems to be playing forever the same B-Toga epic, Hawkins lives in generous neighborly conjunction with with a commercial illustrator whose style has dated him.

Richard Jenkins does him perfectly. He is the artist who cannot make a difference, the old fool, The Failed Father Figure Of Fairy Tale. Rather like the sad king with the unmarriageable daughter whom you find all the time in those stories. Either she herself or someone beyond unusual must rescue her from the doldrums of the kingdom. And in this case, the doldrums are enforced by a vicious tyrant played with his usual perfection by the handsome, hard Michael Shannon.

Mortal stupidity swirls them around – by the American military bureaucracy typified by Nick Searcy as the general in charge of everything – and by the Russians who want to steal the merman, and whose plans are foxed by Michael Stuhlbarg, who who plays a scientist/spy bent on saving the merman.

So you see, you have a full complement of forces, modern and fantastical, to urge our attention and our loyalties on.

The film is beautifully filmed and imagined. Just what you want for such a tale.

And what is it that you want?

What you don’t want is to be told. So both the merman and the cleaning woman are mute and must, nonetheless, make themselves perfectly understandable to themselves and to us. We see that it is not hard to do.

What you really want is resurrection.

And that’s what the picture provides.

Enjoy yourself. See it.


The Greatest Showman

09 Jan

The Greatest Showman – directed by Michael Gracey. Musical. 105 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: An orphan boy, spurned by his betters, rises to prominence, wealth, and expression through an ability to amaze the public with the odd, the daring, the questionable, and the spectacular.
Hugh Jackman is an actor very hard to miscast. Tall, lithe, handsome as the day is long, geared to acting with a winning zest, he plays villains and rotters with the same dispatch as he played Curly in Oklahoma! He is the only principal actor in the world with the talent, background,and range to play the lead in a major film musical. He is the springboard of this film and he’s adept in all departments.

The problem is that some of the departments are not adept. You listen for a song in the songs that are sung and they sound just like other songs in other musicals that others have sung in just the same way, which is to say without distinction. Song, but no melody, song no one can hum, song that does not support the wit of the lyric.

And if the lyric has wit, you cannot tell because the sound recording of modern film musicals is atrocious. It’s partly mic-ing the actors. It’s partly the fault of melodies which do not support lyrics. When Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds dance together, you hear every word and every word connects with every note and every note tells the story required at that moment.

But here you cannot make out the words. All you are perhaps meant to get is a smear of the thing the characters are supposed to be feeling. Rushes of energy and sweeps of frenzy are meant to convey what? – enthusiasm? hope? a change of heart?

What a shame! Because a great deal of wit is evident in this show. Marvelous costumes, raves of choreography. Surprises and entertainment at every turn.

One of the difficulties with the Phineas T. Barnum story is that Jackman is too old to play Barnum when young. He is paired with Michelle Williams in the stereotypical role of the society girl (Alexis Smith) who marries hypogamicly below her class, but marries talent. Williams is an actor of sterling resources. Give her a scene with mundane demands, she always brings something from those resources that capture us with its counterpoint. But she is also too old.

To youthen things up the screenplay supplies us with handsome young Zac Efron as Barnum’s partner (in real life Bailey but here Carlyle, for some reason) and a mulatto trapeze artiste girlfriend played by Zendaya. Will Carlyle cross the color-line? It’s a cheap trick and an unworthy one, considering Barnum’s own bigotry.

All this detours our attention from Barnum himself and his wonder-working and leaves the film unfocussed. Miscegenation is touched on. Barnum’s snobbery is touched on. His workaholism is touched on. His fraudulence is touched on. Mob violence is touched on. Prejudice against the physically challenged is touched on. And the musical touches down on all this like a mechanical firefly, putting in cameo appearances of its own themes.

And yet you want the whole thing to succeed as well as the energy, color, vibrancy, magic, fun, and superabundant talent succeed in bedazzling us.

But the whole shebang is simply manufactured. Jackman and the director introduce the film by congratulating the audience for being in a movie theatre to watch it, and at the end we are told that 15,000 were given jobs in the making of it – dull remarks which P.T. Barnum would have exploited more vivaciously.

We’ve all seen spectacles about Barnum’ accomplishments – Rogers and Hart’s musical Jumbo, and de Mille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. And I have been to the Barnum and Bailey Ringling Brothers’ Circus in the ’40’s when the freak show which made Barnum’s name (Tom Thumb, Jumbo the elephant, and The Siamese Twins) still included a magical juggler of boxes, a fat lady, a thin man, a sword swallower, a tattoed man, a bearded lady, and Gargantua and Toto, gorillas who glowered. (That’s all they did but it was plenty.)

This was in the heyday of three-ring acrobats, aerialists, tight-rope walkers, the Wallendas, clowns including Emmett Kelley, dog acts, dancing elephants, and prancing horses, a tamer of lions, and a flight of hundred white doves released en mass to swarm through air of the Madison Square Garden and back again to the woman whose arms had a minute ago released them.


Animal acts gone, side-shows gone, and Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus gone. Not forgotten.

But, like this film, soon to be.


I, Tonya

31 Dec

I, Tonya – directed by Craig Gillespie. Sports Drama. 119 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: Tonya Harding, with a calling for figure skating, is driven to prominence by a ruthless mom and toppled from prominence by low-life associates.
I don’t understand it. Maybe it’s the casting. Or maybe it’s the treatment by the director. Or maybe the writing.

To start with the casting. The crippling of Nancy Kerrigan is instigated by a man so stupid he presents himself as an international spy when he is not out of diapers and is so dumb as to have not a spark of what would draw him to become Tonya Harding’s husband’s best friend. And the actor playing the husband is not dumb enough to have him as a friend. A link between them is missing, the plot depends on it, and without it a vacancy occurs?

The direction of the material is unexceptionable so is the editing. But the material is monotonous. The mother is violent and in the same way violent. The husband beats Tonya and she beats him back just as before. And nothing changes. The judges repeatedly downgrade her because she lacks finesse, and it’s obvious and she knows this. The vulgarity of her costumes remains uncorrected all her professional life. There is no development. Monotony as another vacancy?

We never plumb the life of Tonya Harding beyond the area of abuse. On the one hand the perseverance, physical strength, and ardor of figure skating on this high level are mentioned but not explored. That’s only fair. A film cannot do everything. But in this case, Tonya Harding also had a calling to skate, had it as a four-year-old, and knew it. This aspect of her nature might have led us to a dramatic conflict between the sanctity of her calling and the coarseness of breeding. But we never get inside her. Instead we get the unrelieved sensationalism of abuse. Is there a vacancy here?

For I want to know what was at stake in this individual to begin with. And I don’t mean an Olympic medal. I mean, what was at her essence? What was humanly important?

Three vacancies leave the film uninhabited by I, Tonya. Except, of course, for the notorious Kerrigan incident, but we knew all about that to begin with. Although the story ends with her conviction for crimes the movie clears her of, it’s the surprise of a dull thud.

The performance of Margot Robbie, who plays Tonya, is television-acting, with much play of the mouth. Calisthenics of jaw, of lips, of chin, work on the small screen because external, and the small screen is tolerant of it. But on the movie screen is inescapably big. It requires an internal delectation; in movie houses,lower-face-emotions telegraph a message with no content.

Allison Janney plays Harding’s mother with a mouthful of ice, ruthlessly intent on a human experiment to see how it will turn out, never giving an inch, for the reason that she does not have an inch to give and nothing else to live for. She’s an actress for all time.

The sad thing about Tonya Harding, so far as I can see, is that she had a sacred calling, figure skating, which with nun-like devotion she embraced. The hours, effort, falls of that calling are excruciating and interminable. But her skating’s eventual execution was corrupted by the personal style of bullying which was thrust upon her and which she never knew how to liberate herself from. She was bullied by her mother, by her husband, and she bullied skating. You can see it in her presentation. Except you can’t, because none of Harding’s actual skating is shown so you never see what the judges object to. Tonya Harding was not an exquisite skater. Here an amalgam of doubles skates for her exquisitely. Just as with “Black Swan” and the “Battle Of The Sexes” you never see the real thing.

What is the alternative to abuse?

Sensitivity. In real life Tonya Harding had a sensitive face. Margot Robbie does not. Another vacancy. Her skating lacked sensitivity. That she was a bulldog on ice is left out. Another vacancy. In this sense the film is a masterpiece of editing. Of leaping over abysses. Omissions. Vacancies. You never see on any level what the trouble really was.


Rebels On Pointe

21 Dec

Rebels On Pointe – directed by Bobbi Jo Hart. Dance Documentary. 90 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: A backstage collage of history, performance, wedding, family, training, rehearsal of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the celebrated all-male classical dance company which has toured and entertained the world for forty years.
They are all the same fruits as all the other fruits.

If they were not performing on the stage they would be stoned.

We are told they evince “gay sensibility” as though that sort of sensibility were the only sensibility homosexual life had.

And why do they do it?

Because if they do it they will be accepted in the nest?

The senseless giggle behind which there is nothing funny whatsoever. The mincing moue. The hyperbolic flare. The glare of a Paris washwoman. Eyelashes long enough to unbalance them. Bitch Queens in tutus.

They are allowed all this and, like all dancers, so much less.

And every one of them has fought for it. Every one of them have striven to legitimately embody the goddess grace and fanatical virtuosity of the dancer of white ballet, the ballerina.

No professional athletic training reaches the strenuousness of that required for toe-shoes.

So what we see is bravery under fire like no other. Doll within doll within doll, now male, now female, now both at once, now neither.

Each of these males dances an unwitting statement in the sensibility and deep knowledge of each member of the audience of the mediation of gender.

Each physical utterance contradicts and disproves the givens and doxologies of an aeon of cultural history. A pirouette revises custom to its core. An arabesque exceeds the rules of expectation.

That which would merit the exile of derision is here apotheosized.

The Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo is a sex church. Because every ballet they perform is a sex ballet. All white ballet is. That is why it is white. Their narratives are actually talking about the gestures, the moves, the graces, the physical encompassment of gorgeous mating. But they are doing it in the nunnery of classical ballet, no art form being more chaste. The entire featherbrained rigmarole of male/female reproductive presentation topples.

Parody means the song parallel to the ode. Can be below it: can be funny and mocking. Can be above it: can be inspired and adulatory. But it must include the ode. And thus their dance includes the dance, classical ballet done seriously, in the ease of its difficulty. But sometimes with a cherry on top. With a male Maestoso.

The fortitude, perseverance, stamina, rigor for toe-shoes aims each life towards this flittering devotion as adamantine as steel.

What a good time I had! What a changed person I found myself exiting the theatre!

I don’t bow to them. I bow to what lies inside and behind each one of them that impels them, through movement, to embody this truth. There’s an oracle in it that, for our own peace of mind, all of us want to hear.

It is, at unexpected times, of course very, very funny.

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14 Dec

Ida – directed Pawel Pawlikowski. Drama. 82 minutes Black And White 2013.
The Story: Her niece pays a visit to an aunt she never knew she had, and the niece, a novitiate, and the aunt, a hedonist, embark on a search into the dynamic past of both of them.
Boy, here’s a film you won’t want to see: Black And White, Polish and in Polish, about a nun, and the grim aftermath of WWII. Yet it seems to have five stars tattooed above and to have won the Oscar For The Best Foreign Film Of 2013.

Why would I pluck this off the library shelf if I had never even heard of it? Don’t answer. Because the answer is: because you and I are both in luck.

People die when no one’s looking. And they live when no one’s looking. We all know that. This seems to be the square in which Pawlikowski frames his actors – lives seen beneath monstrous skies they do not notice.

It is perfectly acted by Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida, the novitiate. Hundreds of actresses were auditioned. She was discovered at a café table, a rank amateur, and thus began a film star career.

The aunt is played by Agata Kulesza, an actress of deep experience and every wile.

These two explore the places and persons of the past, as they travel through Poland in search of the core of the mystery encompassing both of them.

You will regret not a minute seeing this film. And having said that: you might regret every minute not yet seeing it.



06 Dec

Sunrise – directed by F.W. Murnau. Marital Drama. 95 minutes Black And White 1927
The Story: A young farmer, in midst of a mad affair with a cosmopolitan woman, follows his wife to The City, and their lives are changed forever.
It’s the only film allegory I know of. Allegory is a favorite mode since reading The Faeirie Queene, because the truth of how we humans actually live our inner lives is deeply explorable in allegory.

Anyhow, the film is a masterpiece for other reasons, not least because of the performance in it of Janet Gaynor. Sunrise won the first Oscar for best film and Gaynor won it for a collection of performances she gave that year, Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, and this. She certainly deserved it.

Watch what she does when he takes her out in the boat to drown her. Watch her when the boat is at the shore.

Gaynor was an actor of charm. One gets tired of charm. But not here Charm connects to the child’s approach to the vicissitudes of life. Its passport carries its bearer beyond the point of: “I know you won’t hurt me,” into an irresistable triumph. You can understand why George O’Brien is drawn to the porcelain sexuality of Margaret Livingston, with its core of brutality and greed. Such love is a complete system with no outside view. So they plan to murder the wife. Gaynor knows he is having the affair, but she then senses he means to kill her.

The film begins, as in Shakespeare, in the middle of all this and goes from sin to sin, as it shifts to The City with its luxurious barber shop, its mashers, its piggishness, is vagrant fun, its glistering pleasures. And Murnau has these two pass through these worlds, anyone of which could destroy them, somehow protected by the charm Gaynor exudes – charm as an armor, on an Amazon innocent of it and even ignorant she is an Amazon.

The picture was made by the old Fox studio then under the guidance of the sound-pioneering William Fox, so it has a sound score and sound effects. But you don’t need words. Not for the first time, the silence speaks louder than they.

Sunrise is generally considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. When you see it, or see it again, you probably won’t have any trouble with that conclusion.

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The Novitiate

05 Dec

The Novitiate – Directed by Margaret Betts. Drama. 123 minutes Color 2017
The Story: With no outside pressure, in fact directly in the face of her mother’s disapproval, an eighteen-year-old girl enters training to be a nun.
Divided of purpose, unlike its heroine, the film loses its attack on the subject through its casting. The great Melissa Leo? Miscast? Let’s see.

Fortified with an enormous technique, distinctive looks, and a particular and well-placed voice, Leo always offers someone definite. Good. She plays the Mother Superior as unnecessarily strict. The Mother has taken her very identity from the generations-old and rigorous disciplines of her order, and now Vatican II, with its slackening of ritual and custom, threatens that identity.

But the split in the story lies just here. For the Mother Superior’s obsession with her order precedes the introduction of Vatican II into the story and one might say has nothing to do with it.

“Are there any questions?” she asks the fresh novitiates. A hand is raised. “Go home,” she coldly says. “You must not question.” But the point is or ought to be that the obedience Mother Superior offers might be a value worth our attention, yet Leo’s cold playing throws our chance for that out the window along with the novitiate she has just discharged. Because Leo is draconian, we align ourselves against her and whatever she may stand for. The performance leaves no room for doubt in the novitiates or in us the audience, for, just as they do, we need the suspense of doubt to engage with their plight.

If the words had been said kindly, we would have had a chance to wonder about the values Reverend Mother offers. And to remember that, at times, unquestioning obedience is good for our souls. If the Mother Superior is played as a martinet, we are robbed of the drama of our own decision in the matter.

Perhaps the part appears to be written that way. Perhaps Leo was told to play it that way. But playing it that way dismisses the disciplines of nuns as the malpractices of sadists. Wasn’t there more and other to their practices than that?

We hear Leo lament that Vatican II declares nuns will no longer wear medieval wimples and indeed are now ordinary people. And when the film proper is over, we read that 90,000 nuns left the church. (I go on a yearly silent retreat at Santa Sabina, one such former priory.) Well, if the neighbors don’t look up to nuns as special, what is the use of remaining or becoming one. And if your spirituality in its delicacy cannot be part of and protected by walls and encouraged by the modest idolization of an order, how is a young woman to make a life’s work of devotion to God at all?

The story splits. If it were not already split by a lesbian explosion in the novitiate, Sister Cathleen, whose bone fides in a genuine spiritual calling prepare us in no way for this disruption. Margaret Qualley in the part holds our attention by remaining a complete mystery.

Leo is marvelous in all she does, but I wish the director had asked her to do something else. She holds us in our seats – but for the wrong reason.

The supporting people also hold us in our seats, particularly Julianne Nicholson as Sister Cathleen’s earthy mother, and Dennis O’Hare’s masterful fun delivering his ultimatums as an experienced and lets-get-down-to-business Archbishop.

The life of the celibate eremite is almost lost to Christian religion. The choice to withdraw forever into the gated cloister merits and requires protection, support, understanding and – why not? – respect. So where are these young people to go for the quiet, lifetime contemplation of God? Where? Many recent films have blared out the scandal of sexuality in The Church. Good. But will that stop it? Were those films meant to stop it?

Yes, they were. And in the process they seem to have damaged the structure for holy calling itself, as here, in The Novitiate. It’s a topic still worthy of a film worthy of it.


The Shop Around The Corner

03 Dec

The Shop Around The Corner – Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Romantic Comedy 1 hour 33 minutes Black And White 1940.


The Story: Much ado about two young folks who bicker but, unbeknownst to one another, are writing pen-pal love letters to one another all along.
It’s always been a great story, and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is but its extreme variant. Here we do not have nobility and rapiers and Dogberry. Instead, we have MittleEuropean pastry by its greatest chef, Ernst Lubitsch. If we are not in Vienna we are in Budapest, and if not there, at least in the high season of that Hollywood middle-class bliss, light comedy. With a truth all its own.

It’s a perfect Christmas movie. For it works itself toward snow and galoshers, and decorating the holiday shop window as a plot twist.

Margaret Sullivan has top billing because everyone in those days adored her; indeed Jimmy Stewart in his early acting days had a crush on her, but his friend Henry Fonda married her. Yet Lubitsch focuses his camera on Stewart, for as we all know to our joy he was one of the great comic actors of film.

Comic actor?

Yes, but not the Jerry Lewis sense. You might better say, or I might better say “an actor of comedy of character.” Which is to say he appears to be unwitting in his effects, although a master of them.

Well, he’s marvelous for actors to watch, and endearing to us all. In Stewart’s delivery, when he wants, there is something inherently humanly humorous. What is it, would you say?
His attack on the material is preceded by a resident forgiveness. It simply has not gone out of date. But why do we root for him? Of course, he’s an accessible type, but with the most sensual of mouths. Skinny. With a voice like the spring on an old screen door.

In all this, I must stop. I am raving. For he is is surrounded by tip-top actors. Joseph Schildkraut as the unctuous nephew of the boss played with hearty bluster by Frank Morgan and by that true-blue actor Felix Bressart as Stewart’s buddy in the shop.

The Shop Around The Corner is generally considered to be a perfect film. It is thought of as Lubitsch’s greatest comedy, one of the greatest comedies ever made.

Is it, though? Join the line and find out. Or find out again. I saw it when it first came out in 1940 and remember it fondly. I saw it again last week and, as you can see, remember it fondly.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

27 Nov

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – written and directed by Martin McDonough Melodrama. 155 minutes Color 2017
The Story: A woman, to uncover the murder of her daughter, a crime about which she believes everyone else has fallen asleep, wakes them up.
Grand Guignol is a writing style whose aim is to cover the audience with as much gore as room-service can carry in on the tray of its plot.

The effect is shock. Outwardly.

Inwardly the outward emphasis on shock forbids depth.

Who suffers from this lack of depth in the writing most cruelly is Frances McDormand, whom we all love, for the style leaves her character of the heroine in the same position in which it first presents her, of rigorous retaliation. It isn’t her fault. Woody Harrelson, as the local sheriff, plays the angel, so of course, he never changes. Sam Rockwell suffers less, simply because his character of the villain is more mobile and less predictable.

In one sense his performance is so good, you think it’s being performed by an amateur. A part of every human being is dangerously stupid. Rockwell does not play-act this stupidity; he discovers, embraces, and revels in it.

Of course, in another sense, Rockwell sufferers most of all, for we are expected to swallow that he undergoes a fifth-act character change from a man who can’t foresee two feet in front of him to a man who can strategize himself into the solution of an unsolvable case. A maniac into a maven on the turn of a dime? Now, I ask you.

What you get with Grand Guignol is a picture drooling with violence and the improbabilities necessary to support its presentation.

If what you want is this, then this is what you want: Cancer blood coughed all over your face, having your mother kick your schoolmates in their groins, covering your head with a velvet bag and shooting your brains out, wife strangulation, a chemo tube wrenched from one’s veins and its blood splashed over the walls, Molotov cocktails tossed into the local police station for no reason, an innocent boy beaten to a pulp and thrown out a second story window, that boy’s young female office mate smashed in the face with a Billy club, pyromania as an act of wifely correction, a window engulfed in flames smashed through by a man to burn almost to death on the street, a lovely teenage girl, murdered, then raped, then set ablaze.

This is the realm of Grand Guignol. It is the realm of BDSM. With the writer/director the dominant/sadist, and the rest of us having to endure the punishment of reading a movie review recording his bent.

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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Frances McDormand: acting goddess, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson


Battle Of The Sexes

22 Oct

Battle Of The Sexes – directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Farris. Sports Biopic Dramedy. 121 minutes Color 2017.

The Story: 55-year-old former tennis champion challenges 29-year–old current champion, Billie Jean King to a tennis men-against-women circus in the Astrodome, while, off-court, their marriages quake.

Stop making those faces, Emma Stone! You keep working your mouth in that odd way. Thrusting out your chin. Doing something with your jaw. Your mouth muscles. None of it means anything, it’s just fill.

And fill is needed for this badly written, shot, and directed film. The token tears are followed by the token kisses are followed by the token “meaning” of it all, and everything accompanied by the token music.

The story of King’s emerging lesbianism is not interesting because it cannot be filmed, although, once it is released it is interesting to see that she is as aggressive on the couch as she is on the court. The story of Bobby Riggs’ marriage, as one threatened by his addiction to gambling, is also not interesting, even though his wife is played by the wonderful Elizabeth Shue.

Riggs is an effective fool. And the tennis circus when it appears, is astonishing. King rides into it, like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, on a float born aloft by half nude men! Riggs must have made a mint from the show. I hope King did too.

Probably no character-lead actor going could have played Riggs at all or as well as Steve Carrell. He has to mouth a lousy script and endorse the parochial aesthetic of the directors, but there he is and you never question him.

What you question is that neither star plays tennis. They’re dubbed. As in the dumb Black Swan, their heads top off guillotined bodies like cherries on sundaes. The match is shot with Riggs’ back to the camera (and it isn’t Carrell), and King facing it (and it isn’t Stone), but Stone suffers worse because the distance carefully keeps her face out of focus, so you know it’s fake.

The marriages were fake. Their stories were real. The Riggs/King meet was real. The film’s a fake.

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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Emma Stone, Steve Carrell


American Made

11 Oct

American Made – directed by Doug Liman. Biopicish. 115 minutes Color 2017.


The Story: A bored TWA pilot seeking loot and thrills in a CIA overthrow of a Central American country, finds himself up to his elbows in drugs, guns, and peril.
What makes the American Made protagonist, Barry Seals — a real-life gun-runner for the CIA — worth watching is partly the unlikelihood of his adventure and partly the narrative trick of Seals’ video-taping himself introducing each episode of it. But mainly the playing of Tom Cruise.

You watch and you wonder: how could anyone be so reckless as Barry Seals? And the answer is before you every instant. For Cruise makes Seals a man with absolutely no foresight, no ability to plan ahead, a man whose grasp of outcomes is wholly retarded. A character both brilliant and dim. It’s an astute choice.

This make Seals’ video-taping his adventures all the more touching, since, while the tapes might be used as evidence against his enemies, they would be impotent if Seals were dead. You can see this imprudence in Cruise’s slight accent and in his eyes, as he leaps towards and finesses all the pots of gold and the derring-do.

For what makes Cruise doubly watchable is that Seals is a king-of-the-mountain at what he does as a buccaneer drug and gun runner. No one does it better. And no one does such parts better than Tom Cruise.

In his first film, Taps, Tom Cruise was an unbilled extra on a close-order drill team. One of the leads had to leave the shoot. Cruise had played his drill-team cadet with such intention, practice, and concentration, they said, let’s try him. So Cruise got to play one of the leads, a fixated sharpshooter. Cadet or killer – the same devotion to the craft of acting and to the craft of the character.

A star was born. And rightly so.

For there is no actor on the screen today who enjoys acting more than Tom Cruise clearly does. The passion of professionalism he brings to his craft is the same signal quality of the expertise of the professionals he so brilliantly plays. A pool shark, a sports agent, a motivational speaker, a war activist, a super-detective, a Wall Street hotshot, a Courts Martial lawyer, a race car driver, a senator, a boxer. In each of these roles, the narrative depends on the character’s high professionalism. Each character does his work brilliantly, devotedly, obsessively.

Thus we see how an actor may use a single strand of his own nature to make a career.

For, despite his looks, we do not think of Tom Cruise as playing a husband, a family man, a great lover. His films do not generally show him in such roles. And the authenticity of American Made, although it includes such elements, does not depend upon them as narrative motives, but rather on the character’s dedication to and focused on the work at hand. As a businessman. Cruise’s Seals is a fool, as a husband cursory, and he is not quite sure how many children he has. But as a renegade pilot, he’s a whiz.

Cruise at 55 is the perfect age to play Seals at around 43, because, in order to stay an A-list actor, Cruise kept his figure – and his face, although a little beefy, sure looks the part in EXCU. Cruise has done his job as a star. And so Tom Cruise is the perfect producer of Tom Cruise pictures, which are pictures with great big fat parts for him. For they are vehicles for an actor who loves to act, and for us who love to see someone who does.

I don’t see all Tom Cruise pictures, for the subjects of them all may not draw me. And I have seen some that did not satisfy me. But in every one I have seen, he has given full value. And that’s because, at an early age, he fell in love with the work, and never fell out of it.

I wonder what will become of him as he enters his retirement years.

When you see him in as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder play a gut-fallen, cigar-chomping, bald, fat-fingered, Hollywood producer do a victory dance, it is evident that he has a natural gift for low comedy of character.

When you see him with Conan drive around London and you watch his responses and you see they are perfect let’s–go-with-it-improv-responses – having nothing to do with low comedy, but with the ability to arrange himself to open and exploit a comic situation which his doing these things brings into being – you see that he might perform tuxedo comedy, ala Cary Grant.

When you see him in the locker room scene desperately convince Cuba Gooding of something which Gooding can only end up laughing in his face about, you see that he is willing to make a jackass of himself, which is the necessary faculty the actor in comedy must arrive on the scene with pre-installed.

The failure of Hollywood to make mature comedy nowadays might mean that the talent to write them is atrophied. And all film depends on the writing. But wouldn’t it be entertaining to watch Cruise play out his career doing comedy? What would it be like if he had a partner, like Stan Laurel? Or doing character work, like this?

Behind the handsome/cute guy lies an actor of talent. Not all talents. But enough to keep me interested about what might come next.

Tom Cruise is American-made. Take him in. Let him take you in.

What’s coming next is, in fact, here right now: American Made. Catch it.

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In Name Only

06 Oct

In Name Only – directed by John Cromwell. Romantic Drama. 94 minutes Black And White 1939.
The Story: Out fishing, a young woman finds herself attracted to a handsome man on a horse, but he’s married and his wife would rather kill him than release him.
Carole Lombard tended not to make “serious” films. She felt a responsibility to her studios to make money for them, and her comedies were perennial hits. She made George Stevens’ “Vigil In The Night” to get an Oscar and she’s darned good in it but she wasn’t even nominated. So you might think that a film with this title, particularly one with Cary Grant, would be a 30s comedy, but it aint.

It’s a serious romantic drama, and well worth seeing because everyone is good in it. Grant is an actor seamlessly adaptable to any genre. He is so victorious in tuxedo comedy that one supposes this film might turn into one, but it never does.

Kay Francis plays the calculating wife, and, in its way, she is the most interesting character – or almost. For what motivates a human being to trick someone she does not love into marriage and then clutch it to her forever? I don’t mean the outer motivations of money and place, I mean the inner motivation, the inner human contraption. Only an actor could truly display such a thing, and Kay Francis reveals glimpses of it.

But of course, Carole Lombard and Cary Grant have the focus of our hearts. And Grant is at his handsomest – although, oddly, his sports clothes are of the wrong material. Why is that? Was this before he brought his own clothes to his roles?

Lombard’s misery at being his mistress is completely convincing, as is the sexual energy between them. Lombard was an actor of clearly defined decisions. She always knew how to tell her story clearly, using a single small detail. The audiences of her day appreciated her for this.

She has that wonderful female quality of the comediennes of her era – and all of them had it – Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy – they were game. They were up for some fun. They were game dames. Women who were ready to take a chance. To throw themselves into it – whatever it was. It’s not a quality you find in modern film comediennes, good as some of them are.


Imitations Of Lives

30 Sep

Imitations Of Lives, 1934, 1959. directors John. M. Stall and Douglas Sirk. 108 minutes Black And White 1934. 124 minutes Color 1959.
The Story: A black woman and a white woman raise their daughters together, but one daughter wants to pass as white and the other wants her mother’s boyfriend.
The difficulty with the films’ material lies in that the attention given to the white story is greater than the attention given to its greater, unique, deeper title story, the story that actually would carry the film if it were handled honorably – that of the black business-partner/housekeeper and her daughter who wishes to pass as white.

The prosperity-story of the white woman’s rise to professional security is never in doubt because each lady is played by superstars Claudette Colbert and Lana Turner. When each has her success, each becomes a fashion plate. Even when poor, we never see them messy. We never see them seriously depressed. These things are touched on, but we are spared. Each ascends into fox furs by the hot air balloon of Hollywood narrative bunk.

Colbert has an advantage over Turner in that Colbert’s leading man, Warren William, is a more ambiguous charmer than Turner’s and possesses a masterful wit in lovemaking and dialogue, whereas Turner’s fella’s sense of humor is nowhere evident.

Colbert also has more natural presence and give as an actor than Lana Turner, is more humanly appealing, just as pretty, more instinctual, just the right age, and a lot of fun. She can also play on several levels. That is, she has the advantage of being more diverting. Being diverting was enormously important for a film actor of her era, for presence, charm, humor, and sheer character was necessary to divert us from the improbable routines of the stories.

Lana Turner is diverting, yes, for as long as you find an artificial flower to be diverting. For Turner has a hard time holding your attention surrounded, as she is, by her accoutrements of makeup, dress, and a hairdo as stiff as a mummy’s beard. In the 1959 remake, instead of rising to fortune on pancakes she rises to it as a Broadway actress, if you will. Saddled with a young daughter, a widowhood, and a cold-water flat, her costly, peroxide perm stretches our credulity way past Lana Turner’s girdle. For Turner is already a woman of a certain age, and what encumbers her even more is that her leading man, John Gavin, is younger and far more beautiful than she.

Jean-Louis coifs Lana Turner with his costumes. They stun and they are no more to be believed than her hairdos. Turner knows how to entice. And she has a moment or two as an actor, but she is left to her own devices by the director, and since she lacks taste and sensibility as an artist, her moments get lost in her performance decorations, one of which is her refuge to easy tears. We also come to understand why she never played in comedy, for she has no sense of humor.

And then enter My Lady Squeal, Sandra Dee – immediately at one with the vulgarity of the Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk treatment. For the screen smears us with the candy of technicolor general lighting – that favored Hollywood illumination of the ‘50s which cursed us with American Dream pastels and avocado kitchen appliances. It fattens the film as it fattened the age. The film is swinish.

In both versions their false-eyelash direction, acting, writing, lighting, sets forbid the black women’s story from being played authentically. Juanita Hall and Louise Beavers, actors of quality, cannot play the parts because they cannot play the parts realistically but only as written in the false styles of each film, styles dead to any human relationship that is not narrative in motivation.

The issue of the story is not that of wanting to pass, but why. We never see it.

So, neither Beavers nor Hall can play their parts of the mothers beyond a general expression of sweetness, forbearance, and pain – sometimes all at once. The writing allows them no particularity, idiosyncrasy, or detail. We have to swallow an indigestible self-sacrifice from each. To these actresses of this race no other choice is provided. It’s really a form of racial bigotry passing.

Both films do have grand black funerals — the Beavers’ one being particularly characteristic — the pallbearers’ itching their rears, the horses caparisoned with net. The Juanita Hall cortege imitates it, but, of course, it is less impressive in color. Mahalia Jackson sings the elegy, and even Lana Turner is allowed to show a line on her face.

Turner’s version is an imitation of the life of An Imitation Life which wasn’t even an imitation of life to begin with. It makes no sense to think of these films as Black Flicks That Matter, but does make sense to think how, for a long time, black flicks, even when they appeared to exist, didn’t matter because they really didn’t exist at all, except as tokens still content to shove blacks into the rear of the human bus.


Bardelys, The Magnificent

27 Sep

Bardelys The Magnificent – directed by King Vidor. Silent Swashbuckler. 90 minutes Color Filters 1926.
The Story: A philandering blade, on a Cymbeline-bet to marry a certain lady, falls for her on sight and is almost hung for his pains.
What we see here is John Gilbert as a quite good actor.



Watching Queen Christina, who would have guessed? There, he looks like a high-strung ham.

Here, however, everything he does is geared to bodice-ripper style but played in the lowest key. He simply lets the tinpot gesticulations of the plot zoom around him, while he stays real. Smart actor. Too much makeup on his eyebrows does give their whites a gluttonous glare of intensity, perhaps, but otherwise he is light and easy, convincing and fun.

He rescues himself at the end with a series of spectacular aerial acrobatic feats, ala Douglas Fairbanks, worth waiting for. In the meantime, he has the fair Eleanor Boardman, (soon to marry King Vidor, the director). She is lovely, real, unusual. Worth seeing her acting and her spirit.

In a different way, the same can be said for Roy D’Arcy. Now there’s a villain for you. The eye makeup astonishes. Covering his eyebrows with flesh-colored tape, he pastes tiny upward slanting brows and below them the suspect balcony of a moustache, and below that the poisoned stiletto of a goatee. In silents, even in late and technically advanced ones like this, actors sometimes still used stage-makeup. What terrifying teeth! What a loathsome smile he generates with them! What a captivating gift is his! Repulsive. Silent films were his onion. Don’t miss him.

The story, of course, is tosh. But it is wittily over-costumed, and the sets, which look like sets, are hyperbolic – just what this sort of material requires. Amid a flurry of unconvincing duels with sabers, the film contains a number of famous scenes. The love scene in the punt with the swans floating past the weeping willows is justly renown.

This is MGM at its most expensive. The great William Daniels, who photographed Garbo and right up to Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, lavishes the talent of his lighting on every scene.

Check it out for your revision of Gilbert’s gifts. Gilbert almost married Garbo. He married Ina Claire for fifteen minutes. Marlene Dietrich saved his life in her usual manner. Dead at thirty-eight, alas. His daughter by actress Leatrice Joy, whom he also married, talks about him movingly, and the extras include two well informed commentators.

It’s a King Vidor film, so it has the power of true sexual attraction in it. The film was thought lost until recently. Its discovery and reconstruction is a wonder and a treat.


The Big Sick

24 Sep

The Big Sick – directed by Michael Showalter. Romantic Comedy. 124 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: A couple fall into bed and in love, but to move love forward challenges ancient family, racial, religious, national, and medical customs.
I turned away from it. The great American actress Holly Hunter was in it, but its mis-title, The Big sick, repelled me, and I forgot to go. Still, it stayed at a local picture palaces month after month. And friends kept whispering The Big Sick in my secret ear. I went.

The word romance denotes, between hero and heroine, a distance – impossible to best – swim, plumb, sail, or drain – a distance the size of an ocean. Pornography does not even connote the distance of a dewdrop; no difficulty obtrudes for one member to attain the other, which is why pornography is never dramatic.

In this case, the ocean is unimaginably huge. It is the distance between the mating of a Pakistani man with a woman who is not Pakistani, a distance forced upon him by the man’s mother, who insists he make an arranged marriage and to a Muslim, and to this end she invites beautiful Pakistani maidens to family dinners to meet him.

Not only is he not interested in an arranged marriage or being a Muslim, he is in love with a blond. And not only that, he is a standup comedian making small coin in small bôites and uber-driving for rent.

The rose quivering at the difficult-to-attain center of Romance is conjugal bliss. A thousand hedges surround this rose – hedges of thorn, hedges unleapable, too thick to shear, too complex to un-maze. In this romance, no hedges: they sack-out at once.

What makes this different from porn or a bachelor flick is that both lovers are different from anyone else and matched in their wits. He is a droll chap; she is a kooky blond. The calm with which they speak unexpected truth to one another forms the basis for the comedy style of their romance, and one sits with them amused and charmed by their candor, authenticity, and valor. As each of these arise in them as natural as roses, we know in our hearts it’s because they each give rise to each in each other.

The young woman falls ill. Enter Holly Hunter – all mother – and her father, a lug played by Ray Romano, a character the actor unfolds and unfolds as the story progresses. Zoe Kazan plays the kooky blond, perfectly cast. And so is everyone else. And you know this because the level of the writing is so particular to each of them in scenes never hackneyed, even in scenes required.

The hero is played by Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistani stand-up comedian to whom it actually happened, and written by him too and by his wife Emily V. Gordon, to whom it also happened.

Nanjiani’s energy as an actor is low key; he never laughs at his own jokes; even appears not to know he is making them so natural to him is their source. This steadiness leaves him open to his human responses, and we witness his character, not so much as a good stand-up comedian’s creation as a good actor’s.

This balance between steady and volatile energy in mated couples is customary in casting actors. The volatile Kazan opposite the steady Nanjiani. The volatile Hunter opposite the steady Romano.

My particular pleasure was to watch the great Holly Hunter in full spate. She’s an actress of rash, but choice choices. Watch her make an entrance into an apartment, you don’t know whose. Hunter grabs a black overcoat coat to sniff. That tells us she recognizes it as her daughter’s. Because she prizes her child, we immediately know we are in her daughter’s apartment and that she does prize her child – all, in a split second.

She is an actress who never stops acting. Nothing goes unrealized. Her responses are never store-bought. They are always tailored to the moment as she lives it. Watch her eyes. She has mother-eyes. She registers as a mother, not as an actor looking to impress with “feeling,” but as someone who knows what a mother knows. She arrives into the movie with that mother-reserve already alive within her. Perfectly cast: volatile mother of a volatile daughter.

I wish people would write more movies for her. I wish she had parts as good as this one to play. I wish the same for every actor in this film. But, since I doubt that will happen to any of them, be sure to see them in these roles while the opportunity presents.

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15 Sep

Cymbeline directed by Michael Almereyda. Shakespearean Fantasy. 97 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: A princess, against her father’s wishes, marries her love who is forced to flee, and, after extreme complications, he is restored to her.
The director has cut the play, quite rightly and expertly, to its stony bones. It’s set in modern times, but it was written in the time of Game Of Thrones, which is to say in a Dark Ages that never existed save in fantasy drama – a genre which remains enormously popular to this day.

It would be silly to track the story here, as it would that of Game Of Thrones, for our interest lies in who shall be king. Everything in the story subserves that end.

Except, in this case, Shakespeare has created marvelous humans to enact the exploits and coincidents and passions so multitudinously arrayed before us. Cymbeline, being a pre-medieval computer game, is the most modern of Shakespeare’s plays, and the director gives it to us in modern dress. What does not work is that he gives it to us in modern acting style.

The recreation of the Globe Theater in London is large and holds 1400. The original Glob Theater held 3,000. (Radio City Music Hall holds 6,000.) So you see, the original Globe was enormous. So Shakespeare’s words were written for a certain vocal production audible in a vast theater, open air, out of doors, in full daylight, in a busy noisy city.

None of the actors here have the training in this particular voice production.

It is not simply a matter of speaking loud. It is a way of speaking, of surrounding words chosen for that way of speaking, surrendering to them, getting not just behind but way behind them. None of the actors, save one, has the inner placement from which to deliver the language.

Actors required for Shakespeare also, have to have enormous stage personality. And as good as Ed Harris’s Meisner training might be as the basis for the main body of his fine work as an actor, Meisner despised and denounced Shakespeare, and so Harris does not fare any better than the others do in opting to make the lines colloquial, gutsy, and intuitive. The voice is placed just at the back of his throat, so everything comes out without weight, without emphasis. He can act the part, but he cannot speak the part. The investment is missing. The investment is not Method investment, but an investment in a place in the human body from which these truths must be uttered.

This is true of all the actors, and because they have wonderful parts one watches them through. John Leguizamo, as the obedient/disobedient retainer, gathers himself into and out of the situations convincingly. His physical weight has carrying power and as a middle-aged actor we care for his destiny. Leguizamo knows something that enables him to play this part.

Anton Yelchin plays the brat/villain with every convention sticking out of his performance like a porcupine. We need to identify with this character’s compromised position in the drama, not dismiss him out of hand as a stereotype.

Dakota Johnson as Imogen gives us this great role with vapid tone, her voice wrinkling like a Valley chick. But Imogen is not a Valley chick. She, like Desdemona, is a young woman of parts, a role for a young Katharine Hepburn, a woman who dares defy her father to marry the man of her choice, and who will not back down. You need a big personality to play this young woman. It was a role for which Ellen Terry was renowned. But Johnson’s Imogen does not know what she is saying nor how to say it.

Ethan Hawke takes the choice role of Iachamo. Certain things he does well: the closet scene with the chest, for one. I believed it. But it is a pantomime scene. When he opens his mouth, the words that come out do not belong to Iachamo, nor to Hawke either. Nor does he seem to understand the character.

Iachamo is a Texas A & M fraternity boy of devastating looks and charm – and a nasty streak a mile wide. His ego sets the play in motion, but Hawke plays him mildly, as an After Sunset chap with a sly eye. No. Iachamo is the brat of brats. He’s a horror, but you’ve got to hand it to him. Finally, Hawke is simply too old for the part.

The one actor who does not suffer from inadequacy here is the great Delroy Lindo as Belarius, the stepfather of the princes. He simply has by nature the voice the role requires. When will someone give Delroy Lindo Lear?

I loved watching the movie; I liked the cuts; one gets to see Cymbeline too seldom. I was grateful for a lot of it. And – oh, that late Shakespeare – best in my appreciation books.


Ace In The Hole

29 Aug

Ace In The Hole – produced, written, and directed by Billy Wilder. Docudrama. 115 minutes Black And White 1951.

The Story: To hot up the headlines, a sleazy reporter stretches out the rescue of a man trapped in a mine.
A remarkable film. In some ways. None of which count.

I saw it when it first came out and disliked it for a reason I now understand. It is over-written and over-acted, which is a form of waterboarding. Force everything down our throats and we have no room to respond. The movie failed in America.

Looking at Kirk Douglas chew every line to death with his many teeth, I wonder at him. Is this a human being at all? I have never found him so, save once, Lonely Are The Brave. Otherwise, I watch him force his lines and attitudinize, and I realize that the director must also have wanted this. But why? Douglas’s character becomes a crazy Hitler – an egomaniac who can manipulate events into a spectacle that will hypnotize a multitude. Billy Wilder was a Nazi-fled Austrian Jew, and I don’t think the film has anything much to do with America, a country, unlike Germany, geographically too large to give itself to a single morbid distraction.

For supporting players, the difficulty when the leading actor overacts is the requirement to play into his pitch and overact too. The only one who escapes this necessity is Porter Hall, the one character in the picture you believe.

What’s remarkable about the picture is its setting in New Mexico and the vast cast of extras which gathers to witness the rescue of the trapped prospector. The costumes by Edith Head are tip-top. But the main appeal of the film as a story lies in the way it is told by the camera, which is in the hands of (18 Oscar nominations) Charles Lang. He’s as much responsible for Paramount style as Claudette Colbert is. It is one of those films whose posthumous reputation can be credited more to him and the Paramount production team than by the temperament of its director.

Wilder always kept things simple. It’s a good rule. He had made Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Boulevard, and was to go on to make Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, most of which Charles Lang also filmed. But if you have a bastard for your leading role, he must first be human. Human first. Bastard second. In fact, human alone would probably suffice.



12 Aug

Detroit – directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Race Riot Docudrama. 163 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: Seven innocent people are tortured and murdered in Detroit’s Algiers motel during Detroit race-riots.
I speak of difficulties I had with this extraordinary film. I found them damaging at the the time and in retrospect. But I do urge you to see it. The director brought us The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Seven. Her gift to us is the rare one of ruthlessness.

So you will hold onto your seats at the same time as you lean forward into what is happening to the people and to the city set fire around them and by them.

The film takes necessary time to home in on its eventual action by displaying the background and foreground of the dreadful riots that ruined a great deal of Detroit some years back. All this is brilliantly and thoroughly done, some of it with footage from the events themselves.

We then telescope in on the abuse by a member of the Detroit police, two cronies, and a National Guardsman who corral a group of black folks and two white girls in the house of an annex to the Algiers motel. These folks are beaten, degraded, and murdered. A big police force and the Michigan State Troopers and The National Guard surround the house which the corrupt cop insists houses the gun of a sniper.

A stupid show-off had simply fired blanks out a window with a starting gun.

Difficulty number one was that I had no idea the gun was firing blanks. The gun he fired out the window had a white handle and I did not see the white handle when he fired a blank at one of his buddies earlier, as a trick. So, when he fired out the window, I thought he fired real bullets out of a different gun.

Second problem, those being brutalized know a gun has been fired in the house and that it fired blanks. Yet they endure hideous torture without mentioning this gun when all the cop wants is evidence of a gun on the premises.

Third, the man wielding the gun now lies dead in the next room. Why don’t the tortured tell the cop to look on his body for the gun? The gun is probably on the body.

Fourth, why doesn’t the cop think to do it?

Fourth, and very important, in the torture the cop and his henchmen scream racial curses at the black men, and at the girls who are accused of having sex with them. But their attack has an even more towering object, which is to exercise power over others, including the power to murder them. With this the film leaves racism and the realm of docudrama and enters the realm of video games and the notion of “enemies”.

Fifth, and most important, the cop is played by an actor whose performance is more riveting than any other element before us. Will Poulter builds a performance of a psychopath in extremis that is a wonder of such passing excellence it holds pride of place in one’s attention. His performance outstrips the film he is in. There was probably no way for the direction to deny attention to it. The result is that one’s interest in this actor’s ability supersedes one’s sympathy for the lives of his victims, although these are played superbly. It is a histrionic performance of a great monster. Who can turn aside for scheduled compassion, when mad fascination looms?

Sixth, these lapses in narrative focus and balance of treatment and presentation divide attention among violent racism and police brutality and great acting and anything else that might be thrown into the hopper, including special effects.

It depletes the film and it’s a shame, because watching Detroit I never thought I was not present at the time in the events shown or the dreadful difficulties the characters endured.

Technically the movie is momentous and gigantic. It is a hugely orchestrated symphony inside of which an octet concerto is played with agony, depth, and beauty.

John Boyega is perfectly cast for the presence of mind he brings as a security guard. Algee Smith, playing the lead singer of a quarter hoping for a shot at Motown and caught by accident in the mania at the motel Algiers, moves into every mode and mood of the part with exactly the right measure. Hannah Murray is brilliant as one of two fearless young ladies trapped there too.

Despite these minuses, the film leaves a larger impression than its flaws. The impression it leaves is not of wounds from foul racism and judicial injustice and promiscuous riots. The impression it orates throughout is that, on all souls involved by these deeds, immortal scars are made.

Detroit aims and and achieves a ruthlessness greater than this criticism of it. See it.

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Picture Snatcher

10 Aug

Picture Snatcher – directed by Lloyd Bacon. Newsroom Comedy. 87 minutes Black And White 1933.
The Story: A crime lord goes straight to a newspaper to go straight, leading to his becoming an ambulance chaser-photographer which is almost as bad as being a crime lord.
Picture Snatcher is the key to Cagney. If it is not the best performance he ever gave in movies, I haven’t seen a better.

It’s perfectly directed by Bacon and shot by Sol Polito and edited by Bill Holmes. top craftsmen at Warners. Warners made pictures about low-life, and this is one, but that didn’t mean those films didn’t get Waldorf-Astoria treatment.

You’ve got to see the film, because Cagney is just so good. I didn’t like him as a kid. It felt like I was growing up with a bully. And there is that element in him. But essentially, Cagney’s technique is grounded in fear, by which I mean the automatic defensiveness of the little man with a Thompson Machine Gun personality. You can see it melt from time to time as he meets up with this or that honey or hitch.

Cagney’s fear gave him technical confidence, and from that springs his awareness to improvise physically – so you never know what he is going to do next! This makes him interestingly dangerous. It also makes his technique reliable and at the same time fresh. For instance, watch for the moment when he dashes into a telephone booth to call his girl. The instant before he dials, he scoops the coin return to scarf a forgotten dime. Only Geraldine Page had this capacity for detail in running performance.

Cagney’s musical theater technique, which was the ground for what he did in films, may have originally been learned on the streets of New York. It was so installed in him that it prevented him from playing his parts in any other way. He had only this explosive technique to stand on. Playing a priest, you could always sense the Tommy Gun under the aub. I feel it’s rather tragic, because he wanted to play different roles. He could not do it. He couldn’t play them differently.

Certain artists can do practically anything: Schubert and Mozart. Other artists find their niche and mine it. Chopin, for instance or Piazzolla. Nothing wrong with it. Wonderful, in fact. Cagney: in his vein. See him here at his best in it.



06 Aug

Dunkirk – written and directed by Christopher Nolan. WWII Docudrama. 106 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: The Germans surround Allied armies of 400,000 on a beach in Belgium with no escape, while a flotilla of smacks, little yachts, and pleasure boats strike out on the high seas to rescue them.
I lived through The Depression, Hitler’s rise, World War II, Hiroshima. When the war ended, I tied tin cans on the back of my bike and raced up and down the boulevard hollering with joy like everyone else. I was twelve. I lived in an English household. I remember The Blitz; we had a handsome British soldier lodged my bedroom, Captain Byatt. And I remember Dunkirk.

Oh, the surge of heart we all felt for fellow Britains for courage and nautical skill and resolve! Wow! It was hard to believe they’d brought it off, but they had! It seemed each boat had taken upon itself to sail over. As though those Sunday fishermen all had a mind of their own and it was the same mind. It was the largest armada of small boats ever to set sail on the sea.

The film showing this crazy escapade is wonderful in that before special effects production, the film we see could never have been made. I am thankful for seeing scenes otherwise too complicated to stage and too expensive and too dangerous.

The film is told in three narratives.

The first is the spectacle of the army trapped and holding off the enemy, and lined up on the beach, waiting for rescue ships which do not come, and when they come make big fat targets for submarines and Luftwaffe.

The second story is that of Royal Airforce pilots in three Spitfires who fly over to supply air cover.

The third is the story of a father and son and local boy who set out on their pleasure craft and head for Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers.

All of this is wonderful and beautifully done.

Kenneth Branagh plays the naval Commander leading embarkation from an exposed wharf and Mark Rylance plays the father at the wheel of his boat. These two anchor the film with known faces and known energies. All the rest of the large cast is played by actors one does not know, and they therefore become the anonymous soldiers and citizens who actually lived it all out.

What I miss is the sense of a communal effort. For the first of these stories tells the through-story of a single young soldier and his adventures harrowing and heroic to get on a boat to England. So much time and attention is given to these complex miracles that the greater miracle, that a hundred little vessels set out to save him is lost. Did save him. Brought him and 400,000 others by the skin of their teeth and the seat of their pants back to the sceptered isle, in a hundred bobbing boats.

This error is so elaborate and interesting and spectacular in its chapters that we do not tear our eyes from it, but the fact is that it eats up film time from the real story which is that the English people gathered their resolve under the national resolve of Churchill to collectively save this soldier, and we only see one strand of it, Mark Rylance’s in his old pleasure cruiser.

Rylance is wonderful, so is everything seen, taught, told. I hope never to forget the sight of the Spitfire seen from above as it wings its way silently over the beaches across which the Armies queue on their way to the water.

I saw it at an Imax on recommendation, and, while I don’t know therefore what Dunkirk would feel like in a lesser projection, I enjoyed it. I had never seen Imax before. The world had never seen a Dunkirk before and might never see such a thing again. If I were you, I would not miss the chance.


Padre Padrone

02 Aug

Padre Padrone – directed by Paolo & Vittorio Taviani. Drama. 114 minutes Color 1977.
The battle of a father to overlord his son to lifelong enslavement and ignorance against that son who hears a song from afar he recognizes as his own.

I like films ruthless about what they show. As a corrective to the flaccid films that ruled the ‘50s of my youth, I required transgressors like Brando first was.

Now, late in life, I come upon one of the great films of that era, by brother-directors whose work I have never before seen.

How does an individual survive the abuse of a life? No. Not survive. But emerge, not with a white flag, but with a rag of his own devising, coloring, conception, and will? Waving on a crooked stick, he holds it aloft as he clambers out of the ditch.

This story takes place in the upper hills of Sardinia. Shepherd people live nearto rude survival. Their temperaments male and female are violent, cruel, unforgiving, unchanging. The mother tortures the boy, the father beats him almost to death. No escape across those stony hills is in view nor in view of anyone else around. No examples of dropping out, hitting road, or carving a future of one’s own.

This is Italian neo-realism at its most forceful and grainy. It, like the films of Robert Rossellini, is executed with care, predication, rigor. Nothing careless here. Nothing cheap or underdone. It is as consumate as a Freed Unit musical at MGM – but in style and treatment, of course, it is without gloss or relief. I feel I am there. I feel I am actually seeing it. I am walking through it, and it is walking through me. I cannot stop it or bring aid to it.

It won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. It won world-wide praise and attention. It is a relevant and immediate and gripping today as when it was made. Beautifully restored by the Coen Brothers.

Acted by masters. Costumed, set, lit, filmed, directed by masters. Entertain yourself with their power and their truth.


Dining With Beatriz

25 Jul

Beatriz at Dinner – directed by Miguel Areta. Drama 82 minutes Color 2017
The Story: A Mexican masseuse finds herself stranded in the mansion of a client who invites her to a big-business dinner with a Trump-like hotel magnate.
Preaching to the choir from beginning to end, nothing relieves the liberal piety save the occasional satire of the other guests and the occasional interest the magnate takes in the person hurling her tedious truisms into his face.

The entire cast is superb in all they do, save Salma Hayek in the title role, who is miscast. In all I have seen Hayek do she is an actor of cascading righteousness, and she is so here. Miscast, because this quality means her character has no place to go internally. Her righteousness leaves nothing for Lithgow to be but immune to her. And we join him in that. The result is either a standoff between them or a war. That is to say, dramatically nothing can occur..

We may laugh at the airs of the kowtowing guests and their formulaic ways with one another. We may delight in Lithgow’s spot-on playing of the magnate. But our interest in Beatriz is forced on us by the consistency of her closeups and the camera’s adherence to her. The film fails – not because of her skill as an actress, for Hayek can act all right – but because from the start, Hayek is set in her ways, pre-determined, already cooked.

The part needs an actress who is open, ignorant, and much lower in class and on the beauty-pageant scale. Someone who can wake up, whereas Hayek isupper class and so wide awake she wants to everyone else out of bed by tossing ice-water in their faces. She repels. This repellent quality of the actress worked in playing Frida Kalho, who was a repellent individual certainly, and, like Hayek, of the privileged class.

A high and honorable place in acting exists for actors who are personally despicable. Vincent Price, Shelly Winters – Laurence Olivier, even. Ida Lupino, Burt Lancaster, Agnes Moorehead, Kirk Douglas, Gale Sondergaard, Robert Mitchum, Gloria Graham, Basil Rathbone, Eleanor Parker, Richard Widmark. When Humphrey Bogart walks onto the screen, this is a person one must take into account! Rod Steiger had a big career. Dan Duryea was a terrific actor. Jack Palance made a fortune by unsettling us. I wish Hayek would find her niche, the place among them where she really belongs, the roles in which she can develop her gift and shine.

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23 Jul

Yojimbo – directed by Akira Kurosawa. Samurai Action. 110 minutes Black And White 1961.
The Story: A yojimbo, or strong-arm for-hire, exploits his employers in a small town at war with itself.
It is the perfect war movie: at the end, no one is left standing. The town is turned into debris and cadavers. The only ones alive are two old guys, the coffin maker and the barkeep. And the God of War, who movies on to the next battlefield.

Greed, lust, envy fuel the feud that drives the townsfolk to take sides. Commercial control starts it all. When it’s over, the only artist in town, a drummer, emerges beating his drum blindly and murders the last survivor, an act from which he reappears covered with blood and drumless. For, you see, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, the wife of Mars, does not survive war propaganda.

Toshiro Mifune plays the God of War, as a disreputable samurai of no renown who wanders into the embattled village. Once there, he sees his job as a strategy that everyone in town shall destroy everyone else, without his having to do the fighting. From the Olympian distance of a high tower or through the crack in a wall, he observes the mayhem he causes.

But he betrays his method by coming to Earth and saving the life of a young woman, her young husband, and their little boy. For this error he is beaten almost to death.

Finding recuperation in a temple, as a God should, he returns to the village and wreaks death all about, and leaves.

It is a film whose story is organized with a minimum of exposition and a maximum of movement. Mifune has scarcely a line to speak. But he is the focus of the mystery of what the outcome will be and how it will be. We wait. Suspense is our treat.

Mifune plays the character as an individual with a sense of humor unusual for a Mars figure. He does not present his warrior as a Gary Cooper character, but as a rapscallion who will lie, cheat, and steal to forward his plot and to assess its players. Resolute without being an absolutist, we never know what to expect as his fate, any more than we know what trick he will come up with to salt the wound of the next surprise. Clint Eastwood would take this story and this character and invest it throughout his career with gutter ethics. Mifune does not have to reach for that. His sense of humor is his six shooter.

Mifune and Kurosawa made 16 films. Is this the best? From the first twitch of his itchy shoulders to the last, Mifune is captured by the great camera of Kazuo Miyagawa and by Kurosawa’s ruthless sense of effects. The actors astonish. The guts of art have been equaled but never been surpassed.


The Memory Of Two Mondays

09 Jul

The Memory Of Two Mondays – directed by Paul Bogart. Drama. 88 minutes Color 1971.
The Story: A teen-ager starts a job to pay his way to college and finds himself in the company of co-workers who, by the day he leaves, have changed radically.
It’s the 1930s and everyone is holding down his job for dear life, even though work may be soul-searing and dull. Arthur Miller who wrote it about his youth gives us an introduction to it, for it’s a memory piece, like The Glass Menagerie, and all the better for that.

Everyone is stirring and interesting, and some of the characters seem fated and are not and some seem not and are. But the deliciousness of it is the acting by all these New York actors at the peak of their gifts. One saw them on the New York stage in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and one found them again in film and tv, and what wonderful actors they were.! How they always surprised! How they always delighted! How generous they were in their technique.

Estelle Parsons as the blowsy accountant sets the show in motion. Jack Warden, perfect and rich in one of his died-in-the-wool crudes roles. Bernard Hughes, a magical actor at all times, as his drunken crony; we saw him in Shakespeare In The Park in those days in big leading roles. And there was J.D. Cannon whose dark male voice held the stage as Shakespeare’s heroes, here playing an ossified drunk, whom his co-workers try to save from self-destruction.

George Grizzard plays the sales manager with every single car part’s place in the warehouse tragically memorized along with every part for every car ever made. Harvey Keitel is listed as prominent in the cast, but his part is minute; 45 years ago, this would have been right. Tom Hamilton is lovely as the Irishman who wants the dingy windows cleaned, and then is horrified when he gets his wish.

This is an immaculate cast and one is grateful to see its immaculate preservation. It’s part of the priceless Great Performances TV Series, among which we have Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock and George Segal in another play of Arthur Miller, Death Of A Salesman.

Every film in this series is worth exploring. And this one is particularly for the big-hearted work of those fine New York actors in their heyday.

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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DRAMA, Jack Warden, Kitchen Sink Drama


Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

05 Jul

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – directed by Nagisa Ôshima. WWII prisoner Of War Story. 123 minutes Color 1983.
The Story: The Commandant of a Japanese prison in Java falls in love with a British prisoner.
As in In The Realm Of The Senses, Ôshima deals with love’s wildest extremeties.

He is a director of simple means. He does not inflate; he does not relate. The story unfolds before one’s eyes in eminent visual narrative and in scenes in which all is present that needs to be and nothing else.

So much for his skill.

The camera captures performance like no body’s business, and everything seen convinces and holds.

Four main characters work out this material, and three of them are not actors, but hardworking, earnest, gifted amateurs. Each has a world of performance experienced in him. But of the three one becomes an actor, Takeshi Kitasno, the famed Japanese comic, who sets down in it naturally, as comedians often do when they are called upon to act – Jackie Gleason being the most renowned example of this I know of. Somehow or other Kitasno does so too.

Two world-famous rock stars play the main characters.

Tyuichi Sakamoto plays the slight, powerful, Shinto-devoté commandant who falls in love at first sight with a spiritually-freer-than-he handsome blond prisoner.

Sakamoto’s job is to repress everything. For an actor, repressing means trying to hold back going to the bathroom. You squeeze. And the credit you hand this first-time actor is that you side with him because he is in so much pain. You believe in the frozen rapture of his discipline, his ethos, his meditation, his sword-play. There is not a moment uncorsetted, until the moment of letting go happens to him, and we see him feel the greatest ecstasy he has ever felt combined with the greatest shame.

David Bowie is not an actor, but he buckles down and works his part. In other arts, we have seen David Bowie as a performer of his own fascination. And why not? He is magically beautiful and he is endowed with enough neurotic eccentricity to scrub an ocean. He is, like Robert Downey Junior, one of the angel/devil beings, born to entice and to bless and to know it. He is shameless – good. But his eyes are always in charge. So it does not matter what Bowie’s face reflects. The character is inert. The inner actor is missing. This prevents us from moving towards him as a human.

This is often the way with non-actors. The idea that non-actors are naturally free and spontaneous is delusional. What is needed from them – and many notable stars do not possess it – is the lit candle of the calling. Bowie can be the part, yes – but Bowie cannot play the part.

Such is certainly not the case with Tom Conti, an actor of choice. In interviews, he criticizes himself for too much “acting” in this film, and at times it is true, but he has the ability to respond to an imaginary situation imaginatively, situationally, not as a performer or star or personality, but as an individual meant to act in it.

We have many fine prisoner movies. I would not number this one among them. Burt Lancaster is a bad actor but he is an actor, and so The Birdman Of Alcatraz works. Acting is a high calling. David Bowie is a gifted performer, but forming and acting are not the same thing, and we all know the difference. David Bowie is beautiful. In acting, beauty does not cross the bridge. When we find the candle of the actor lit, no matter how many beautiful creatures stand near it, Edward G. Robinson is whom we will look at always.

This film is a fictional account of the war experiences of Laurents van der Pos. Accompanying this film is a biographical documentary of Laurents van der Post worth more that the film itself.

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Miss Pinkerton

21 Jun

Miss Pinkerton – directed by Lloyd Bacon. Murder Mystery. 66 minutes Black And White 1932.
The Story: A hospital nurse takes on a police case in a creepy mansion.
Joan Blondell is the face of the ‘30s. Big-eyes open to life, quick of tongue, game, pretty, and strong as an ox. Not Crawford or Shearer or Hepburn or Lombard or Arthur, but this lower-class tootsie, Joan Blondell, a little too susceptible to love, but up for any role, any case, any dance. She was the world’s greatest tonic for The Great depression. As lovable as she was skilled.

She played leading roles sometimes, such as Miss Pinkerton, but she was not a leading lady but a jolly soubrette.

Here she plays a bored-to-death hospital nurse who is assigned the care of an old woman in whose grisly mansion a shooting has occurred.

So many plot twists and angles and changes and characters interlope on her attention that you wonder how the makers of the picture are ever to solve the murder. I’m not sure they ever did.

The film is beautifully shot, and imaginatively directed by Lloyd Bacon. He keeps us guessing and off balance, yet leaning forward still into what is going on.

The picture is 1932, a year in which Blondell made nine films, and is advertised as pre-code. While it has nothing risqué in it that I could tell, it sure has a lot of love twisters. And more meaningful looks than a bathhouse. And it has the suavely smirking George Brent as the likeable detective assigned to crack the case. He has a voice like a cast iron radiator. Smooth-talker that he is, he soft-soaps her into his arms consistently and, of course, at last. She is eager.

This is Warner Brothers cheap entertainment, which does not mean it is bad entertainment. Not at all. Coney Island is good entertainment, because it is well done. So is this.

We passed the time with Blondell in many a movie in those days, and she went on acting (in over 100 pictures) right until the end.

She was sexy, funny, ripe, and vulnerable. A fast-talking dame, she could dish out the snappy dialogue with the best of them. To Cagney she delivered the renowned put-down: “You’re the biggest chiseler since Michelangelo!” He never recovered – in that movie anyhow.

We watch her in this one with complete sympathy, interest, approval, and concern. But she saves herself from doom every time. No one could scream on camera like Joan Blondell. No one was ever so simply likeable.


The Company

13 Jun

The Company –– directed by Robert Altman. Docudrama. The backstage and onstage life of the dancers of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. 112 Minutes Color 2004.
A hybrid tea rose. Gorgeously filmed by Pierre Mignot, who took many of Altman’s later films.

This is Altman’s penultimate work, a small masterpiece, which offers the current of a story not spelled out but floating along in the stream of the life of the dancers in which Neve Campbell, the actress who wrote it, produced it, and does (unlike that other young woman who won an Oscar) actually dance it.

She was trained in ballet long before going into acting, and she worked for three years with another writer to grant the Joffrey their story. And then for months she trained, as no professional athlete could train, to get into ballet condition.

Nothing is filmed in documentary style; everything is filmed in dramatic film style. All of this is quite fascinating if one can step back and realize that only five actors are actually used and only three of them have principal roles, and only one of them says much. The dancers are beautiful actors, doing what they would do anyhow, which is dancing and being humans preparing to dance.

This means that all of the backstage, dramatic relationships are worked out largely as pas de deux, or pas de trois, or pas de howevermany. And so we get a view of how the dancers actually live. On the stage they are accoutered gorgeously and lit like angels. Off stage they waiter in saloons to make ends meet and sleep on the floor, because they are not paid a living wage.

But that is not so much what we get as it is that we see the ambiance and the mechanics of a great dance company in counterpoint. Malcolm Macdonald is hilarious on target as the domineering head of the Joffrey, and Neve Campbell and James Franco sweetly play the young lovers, two youths separated and united by their skills. We see the business arrangements and we see the dance arrangements, and we see that, like the lovers, they do not meet except in hiding. For what see on stage is glorious in its riches.

We witness about six astonishing ballets of the Joffrey, with the full company engaged in them and preparing for them by their choreographers and dance masters.

Will you sit back in delight as I did to watch these highly theatrical pieces? Will you send out for this film, better than sending out for a pizza – and far more digestible, you may be sure? Will you remember me and thank me that you read this and behaved, as the saying goes, accordingly? Will you enjoy yourself so deliciously?

I hope so. What gifts Altman had to give when his heart was in his work!

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Army Of Shadows

11 Jun

Army of Shadows – directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Spy Drama. 2 hours 25 minutes Color 1970/2009.
The Story: Hairbreadth escapes dog the ground commanders of the Maquis, the French Resistance in WWII.

As I left the theater I heard someone surprisedly say, “The picture never shows what those in The Resistance actually do.” What is also true, however, is that the result of whatever they did was of high danger to the occupying Germans who pursued them ruthlessly and to the death for it.

It is also surprisingly true that virtually all of those shown as leaders of the French Resistance are middle aged-people you would never take to be important spies and renegades at all. This inspires bafflement. Where is young Harrison Ford? Where is ever-young Tom Cruise?

And an additional advantage is that the actors who play them are unknown to one –at least to an ignoramus like me. I’d never seen Paul Meurisse, Lino Ventura, Claude Mann, Christian Barbier, Paul Crauchet. That means that one has no preconception as to how the story of their characters will develop or end and no idea what to expect from them as one watches. They are perfect strangers one experiences for the first time and finds one’s way into.

In France, each of them was a prized star, as was Simone Signoret (a German/Polish/Jewish/French actor who during The War took her mother’s name, Signoret, to survive deportation). Signoret plays Mathilde, the mastermind on the ground, a great woman, although in real life the wife of just some shopkeeper. Signoret’s visage with its huge, wide-spaced eyes and flexible mouth is one of the most striking of movie faces, and here it is used in various disguises – the rich widow, the head nurse, the dull housefrau, the blowsy tart, as Mathilde wends her way through enemy lines. Signoret often played grande or petite coccottes. Where are her grande amoreuses; where her Léa de Lonvals of yesteryear?

All these unknowns add mystery, surprise, and wonder to watching this film, which depicts extreme actions but focusses on the responses of the characters to those actions and is executed with rare acuteness, economy, and choice.

Melville was a participator in The Resistance. It was a perilous calling. And his great first film, The Silence Of The Sea is a stunning account of the resistance on the ground. See it. See this too. Army Of Shadows is a rare treat. Miss it under peril of the scowl of the Cinema Gestapo!


Mr. Turner

20 May

Mr. Turner – directed by Mike Leigh. Biopic. 2 hours 30 minutes Color 2014.
The Story: The English painter successfully moves through the scenes of his renown and successfully also hides out from it.
Mr. Turner is a drama without conflict.

How a superbly accomplished artist moves through his days at the peak of his success is the worthwhile subject of this Mike Leigh masterwork, Mr. Turner.

Is Turner dissolute, drunk, stingy, mean, competitive, bellicose? Yes.

He is eccentric, also, which means his actions spring from his inner sources. He is a master of his medium, true, and if his means are odd, he also had worked them out as a child in his father’s barber shop. He is unattached by marriage, but that is because he is married to his calling. The two of the three women he is sexually involved with seem pleased by him.

All this is hidden. All this is revealed. We move through his worlds of The Great Houses of Britain whose owners decorated their walls with the sublime scenes he liked to make. We move through his comfortable domestic life and his home gallery set up splendidly for sales. We move through his life hiking through the seaside hills and through the common streets and rooms which were his true environment and where he found his subjects.

For, though he was wooed by the aristocracy, hung out in their palaces, his home base was lower class inns with lower class folk, the industrious shopkeepers and fisherfolk of the villages and cities, people like himself.

A crude man of infinite delicacy, the Mr. Turner of Timothy Spall won several awards for this performance, and we rejoice to see him in such a big, fat, long juicy role, surrounded by Dickensian characters and stove-pipe hats.

It may seem odd that Turner goes out to work every day to paint dressed in a suit, silk hat, and vest, yes, but consider: England is cold by the seaside; he dressed for warmth – warmth as well as a way of not being noticed as being as odd as he was – a painter to hoofing it.

Beautifully filmed, written, acted, produced, directed.

Highly recommended, in case you wondered.

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14 May

Norman – written and directed by Joseph Cedar. Drama. 119 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: An obnoxious New York operator finds himself out of his depth in the charmed circle of The Great.
Norman is called a fixer. Actually, he is more the Jewish male version of Dolly Levy, a matchmaker. He’s a connecter. He’s a webmaker. A deal-maker. He’ll introduce you to someone who has a skill that can help you to get something that will cost a certain amount of money which can be raised by someone else he knows who also knows a relative of your aunt Mini. And a percentage might accrue to him in passing.

Thing is, Norman is mighty annoying. He will not let up. He’s a pesterer. He bends your ear no end.

He’s not a sleazebag. He wears a good coat. But he’ll accost you in the park, in the men’s room, in the synagogue. That is to say he’s an unavoidable irritant who won’t be said no to, like an itch.

Richard Gere, one of our “detestable” actors, is perfectly cast playing him. Since he’s not an actor whom you can get behind, your sympathies are held in abeyance as you watch the spectacle of Norman’s maneuvers.

And you start to suffer for him in his humiliations and in the way he forgives insult and how he sticks to his guns.

We don’t find American films devoted to character study, but here one is, so let’s rejoice. The film is beautifully edited, shot, and told. Superbly acted.

Its director/writer is of the Ernst Lubitsch school of directing, which means that he provides the audience with plenty of chances to do the story telling for themselves. He does this by what he leaves out, so the audience can supply it. And he gives us deliciously long scenes for us to supply it in.

This method lends itself to the visual strength, the motion of motion pictures, the moving on the screen of moving pictures. We have two characters who appear to be standing almost in the same room talking to one another on cell phones, but they are continents apart. We do the work of separating the locations and knowing the separation is immaterial. A wordless jest. We have a pair of shoes to which we supply drama, comedy, tragedy in turn, not a word said.

Norman is a witty, engrossing, and surprising movie experience. Deprive yourself of it not.

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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Richard Gere, Steve Buscemi


Dead Man Out

11 May

Dead Man Out – directed by Richard Pearce. HBO Drama. 87 minutes Black And White 1988.
The Story: A psychiatrist, tasked with restoring a death-row inmate to legal sanity, finds himself entangled with the soul of the man he treats.
Where has Rubèn Blades been all my life?

I assumed an actor this dangerously brilliant must be dead, but I see he has a going career in television series, and I am glad for him and all his kin. I had read his name but assumed it was Spanish and pronounced Bladès. He is Panamanian by extraction, but his last name is English, Blades. As you already probably know.

This praise for him must be couched in another praise, which is that his performance takes place in a very great TV play. Great in the sense that The Ajax is great, or that Coriolanus is great or The Outcast Of The Islands. Which is to say that it deals with a human dilemma so massive it steals the power of conception from the viewer. No solution can be imagined for it for either protagonist.

Blades is a crazy-behaving prisoner, and he must be treated back to normalcy. Danny Glover is his treater. Glover is a lovely actor all his life and perfectly suited to the part because of his big open features behind which anything might be felt. Glover is 42 when he does this, which is just at that perfect age before middle-age, when the inner life is only partly settled. As he persists with the treatment, it is borne in on him that the man he is treating is far more intelligent than he is, far more daring, more eloquent, with far more at stake.

As that man, Blades is 41, and so he must be, for the character is ripe in the ways of the world and of prison. Blades plays him full out. Nothing is omitted and because nothing is omitted we credit him with full humanity, full intelligence, full ability to perceive and know and speak. You root for Blades’ character at his worst and best. He is humanity as seldom revealed, so you have no option but to invest. Blades gives him all you ever knew about life.

The film exists on VHS, where I saw it, but also on DVD, neither expensive. Every collection of great film acting must contain it.

You deserve the best

Find it.

See it.

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The Cut

06 May

The Cut – directed by Fatih Akin. Family Drama 2 hours 18 minutes Color 2014.
The Story: A young husband and father is conscripted into the army and separated from his wife and daughters by many perils and pains, yet seeks to find them wherever they may be
I bow down at once. A masterwork!

And that is partly because I had no interest in the subject before. Some Armenians? Some war? No blond people? No tap-dancing?

But I was held from the moment it began, and could not possibly anticipate its ending.

So beautifully and simply made. Moving from the vast barren mountains and blond deserts of the Middle East, to a series of locales which I shall not name to you, for fear of spoiling their importance to the story.

I was agog at the travails and trials this young man went through, and the solutions he found for them as he moved the heaven and the earth that lay upon his shoulders.

I don’t really want to say a single thing more about this piece. Because I want to you know them for yourself right in front of your eyes.

Beautifully acted, directed, produced, costumed, scored, shot.

The thing I most understood about it was how he refused to abandon his daughters, how he would not allow himself to be separated from them, how that tie to them in him forbad him from relinquishing his family bond to them, how he set everything aside, every consideration, every pleasure, every opportunity for money or success, or comfort in order to make sure his daughters knew their father was alive and had sought them.

One day when we meet again, I will ask you, eagerly, if you saw The Cut.

And you will thank me gratefully that you have.

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The Sense Of An Ending

05 May

The Sense Of An Ending – directed by Ritesh Batra. 108 minutes Black And White 2017.
The Story: As his daughter prepares to have a child, a London Shopkeeper looks back on his life, to unearth the mystery of a college friend’s suicide.
Jim Broadbent is the motive to go. It’s lovely to see this senior actor play an ordinary man as he plays off against past events which may not have been as ordinary as he thought. Broadbent has the great inner energy of the actor which can go in any direction to lay out the human truth. He deserved the Oscar he got.

Julian Barnes wrote the prize-winning novel on which the story is based, and it may work as a Tchekov novel might work, but, as a film, it plays as a Why Did He Do It, which makes its energy and our interest more than ordinary and other.

I believe this Agatha Christie aspect of the material subtracts from attention to the Broadbent character. One of the most interesting scenes in the picture occurs when a passerby enters Broadbent’s used-camera store and enquires about the expensive Leicas. Broadbent comes alive to the situation as though he felt, as I did, that the man was a thief. For the rest of the film, I wondered if Broadbent would turn up at his store and find it had been sacked. But no.

Charlotte Rampling is perfectly cast as the older version of Broadbent’s college girlfriend, and Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary, to you) is also perfectly cast as the lesbian, pregnant daughter.

It was interesting for me (as a first-generation English-American) how English males have a dear but dumb way of speaking that in no way reveals the truth and how English females have a way of being bitches and say what should never be said. Every female character is cold; every male character is warm.

I found the movie as satisfying as a glass of water. But one needs water in some form every day. Not exiting, perhaps, but an inner requirement notwithstanding.

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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC, Charlotte Rampling, FAMILY DRAMA, Jim Broadbent


The Mother

05 May

The Mother – directed by Roger Mitchell. Drama. 112 minutes Color 2003.
The Story: An English grandmother takes up with the sexy, young carpenter her daughter is sleeping with.
What’s remarkable about this movie is the performance of Anne Reid as the mother.

She’s an actor of wide and long experience on British TV, but I have never seen her before now.

I look upon her with wonder now. For the woman she plays is extraordinary in being ordinary. Driven by a lust she welcomes and has never known before, nonetheless she is a quiet soul, biddable, and modest. Her voice is a quiet plaint. She takes life smack in the belly, and never raises an objection. She plays a woman who is used to having gotten nothing great from life, not looks, not career, not love, not the devotion of children – and just put up with it. For that was her temperament.

It is amazing to witness her story.

The whole movie is beautifully directed, produced, and made, and all the actors are grand.

Fourteen years ago, the young man who plays the sexy carpenter was a Daniel Craig fourteen years younger too, a dish, and perfectly cast. He’s not an actor I am moved toward, but his body language, his use of himself, his sexual sovereignty in this role, as they slowly emerge, have a vitality that writes its own ticket for both character and actor.

Most American films I see are not about anyone I might come across. I adore Tom Cruise and Emma Watson and the rest of them, but never in my life would I ever come across a one of them, and neither would anyone else. Nothing wrong with this. In real life, you would never actually come across Cary Grant. For in real life there is no such person.

But here is a story of a woman who we might come across at any time. And it is a pleasure and a relief to do so.

Do see The Mother!

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Posted in Uncategorized


The Immortal Story

25 Apr

The Immortal Story – written and directed by Orson Welles. TV Drama. 58 minutes Color 1968
The Story A multimillionaire pays for a man and a woman to enact a sailors’ age-old sexual fantasy.
This is said to be Welles’ last completed film, and a very good one it is. Of course, it contains Welles’ usual tropes, which reflect his hobby as a magician, in that his films are defter than the eye that watches them, and thus, always sinister – in that they are all left-handed, and contain a touch of evil – at least what he enjoyed to be evil.

So many books about Orson Welles. To plumb his mystery and to represent some or other aspect of his character or genius elsewhere dismissed or unobserved. Yet he was probably simpler than supposed. And probably thought of himself so too.

The thing about Welles is that he is essentially a virtuoso radio actor. By which I mean, he reigns by means of his voice. Virtuoso radio acting and with that voice supported his stage ambitions as a young man of an energy so superabundant and inventive that everyone stood aside for it and served it – there being nothing else to do with it except resent it. He retains that voice in film, life, and Lear which I once saw him perform in a whale chair.

The thing about Welles in all his doings and roles and life is that that he must be The Main Event or he is nothing. He will withhold his toys; he will not play.

From the time he was a child he had been treated as The Main Event. By his father, foster father, teachers, and because he had a retarded brother. His voice and remarkable appearance confirmed it. Adoration, adulation was his from the start and forever. So that his survival depended on everyone treating him as The Main Event, and he rewarded their expectations or prolonged their expectations to the point of death and after. Indeed, if he is not The Main Event, he is impotent. With his great height, weight, voice, reputation, and bearing, as soon as frustrated he becomes a huge baby – effrontuous, verbally violent, refractory. The problem of, with, and for Orson Welles is that he had to be The Main Event, and in movies he was not. In movies, the one who makes the movies is The Main Event. In movies, The Producer is the Main Event. Neither writer, director nor star, not, never Welles but The Producer.

His rudeness to producers is legendary. His inability to get good money from them is epic. His career cascaded from the moment he left the cutting of The Magnificent Ambersons to save South America from the Axis in WWII – an even bigger main event than Ambersons. He never recovered from that folly.

His life in film and his entire life depended upon producers and the money to be extracted from them – humiliation enough – and in his neurosis in realizing his dependency on them and in realizing their realizing that they, not he, were The Main Event, we see him squalling and peevish and recalcitrant toward them to a mortal degree.

He made his films under budget, but seldom in time for the producers who owned them to release them to theaters in time. He cut and he recut his films – for months, for years. He delayed to give them to the producers who owned them and whose money had enabled him to make them.

He is the most suicidal of all screen persons.

Caught in the machine of himself, he goes on and for years dies, at work on the next project and the one after that.

His life is a wonderful spectacle. As endearing and innovative as a child, each in turn, the brat and the baby emerge from within him, never at war with one another, but always at war with his life itself.

The Immortal Story is a beautiful film of a beautiful story beautifully told. Isaac Dinesen wrote it, and Welles was in and perhaps never out of his Dinesen adoration period.

In it, Welles, in full stage make-up, plays a cold, old millionaire living in 19th Century Macao. His secretary, cast and played perfectly by Roger Coggio, elicits the help of a local woman, Jeanne Moreau, to play the part of the wife. Welles himself hires the beautiful young sailor, Norman Eshley, who will sleep with her.

That is enough for you. For you must see it. See it for the object of beauty it is, with its incisive score by Eric Satie, its brilliant set decoration by André Piltant, and the miraculous camera work and lighting by Willy Kurant. Of course, since Welles is The Main Event always, much of this comes from his fecund imagination and restless hands. There he is stationing his massive edifice in vast chairs. Pontificating, prodding, prominent. A Main Event.

Welles is in all things The Manipulator. All his roles are like this– on camera, off camera, in reality, and in his dreams. He does not know how to be anything else but the manipulator. Magician and puppeteer of himself, he offers to the world his rich love of its riches one of which was, most certainly and to our undying gratitude, himself.


Test Pilot

31 Mar

Test Pilot – directed by Victor Fleming. Drama. 1 hour 59 minutes Black And White 1938.
The Story: A champion test-pilot refuses to be grounded by the lady he married, despite the good offices of his best friend.
What a terrific picture!

Beautifully written!



Clark Gable before he got frozen into Clark-Gable-roles, one ice cube after another. Which means the studio knew what lines he said good, and so gave him scripts in which he could say those good lines his way. John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, the same. Line reading actors at the end of lively careers.

But here? Not yet. Wow! Is he good!

Clark Gable has one of the great, mobile, actor-faces. Many events in that face. Broad readable features. Big expressive eyes. Flexible brows. A mouth that, even silent, never stops telling stories. And, like many actors of his era, a distinctive voice and delivery. The face is an entertainment in itself. Plus a big masculine energy. Lots of humor. And willingness to play the dope.

Here’s he plays a rash Test Pilot, womanizer, and cocky, short-fused, high-liver who emergency-lands his plane in a Kansa farm field, owned by the lovely good sport Myrna Loy. Brash, blunt Gable falls for the lady.

He brings her home, where his side-kick, Spencer Tracy looks askance at the dare-devil’s marrying anyone, when death lies in the very next sky. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy were one of the country’s favorite screen marriages of the ‘30s.

Watching Gable seize this part in his handsome jaws and shake it for all it’s worth reminds us of the sort of the happy-go-lucky sap he played so thoroughly in It Happened One Night, for which he won the Oscar in ’34.

The flight footage is the best I have ever seen – exciting, different, convincing. In fact, the film shows Tracy and Gable flying a B-17, which became a principle WWII weapon. The flight sequences were taken at air shows of the sort we used to go in the ‘30s. It’s whiz-bang entertainment. The U.S. (then) Army Air Force supplied the planes, and they’re fascinating to watch.

After the comic beginnings of the marriage, Loy realizes she has gotten herself into a pickle – the mortal danger test pilots court. Her part is a changeable personality, so you never know how she will resolve this irresolvable matter. Tracy offers her consolation and bitter truth. He plays the fulcrum of two crucibles in which a wobbly love loves on. You never know how the love story or the flight tests will end.

Victor Fleming, soon to direct Gable in Gone With The Wind, provides the actors with space to perform to the max. Test Pilot is wittily written; it was nominated for three Oscars, Best Editing, Best Story, and Best Picture.

I had a grand old time with it. You will too.


The Sense Of An Ending

28 Mar

The Sense Of An Ending – directed by Ritesh Batra. 108 minutes Black And White 2017.
The Story: As his daughter prepares to have a child, a London Shopkeeper looks back on his life, to unearth the mystery of a college friend’s suicide.
Jim Broadbent is the motive to go. It’s lovely to see this senior actor play an ordinary man as he plays off against past events which may not have been as ordinary as he thought. Broadbent has the great inner energy of the actor which can go in any direction to lay out the human truth. He deserved the Oscar he got.

Julian Barnes wrote the prize-winning novel on which the story is based, and it may work as a Tchekov novel might work, but, as a film, it plays as a Why Did He Do It, which makes its energy and our interest more than ordinary and other.

I believe this Agatha Christie aspect of the material subtracts from attention to the Broadbent character. One of the most interesting scenes in the picture occurs when a passerby enters Broadbent’s used-camera store and enquires about the expensive Leicas. Broadbent comes alive to the situation as though he felt, as I did, that the man was a thief. For the rest of the film, I wondered if Broadbent would turn up at his store and find it had been sacked. But no.

Charlotte Rampling is perfectly cast as the older version of Broadbent’s college girlfriend, and Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary, to you) is also perfectly cast as the lesbian, pregnant daughter.

It was interesting for me (as a first-generation English-American) how English males have a dear but dumb way of speaking that in no way reveals the truth and how English females have a way of being bitches and say what should never be said. Every female character is cold; every male character is warm.

I found the movie as satisfying as glass of water. But one needs water in some form every day. Not exiting, but an inner requirement notwithstanding.

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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC, Charlotte Rampling, FAMILY DRAMA, Jim Broadbent


Song To Song

27 Mar

Song To Song – directed by Terrence Malick. Romance. 129 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: Boy meets boy, boy meets boy’s girl, boy steals boy’s girl, girl leaves boy for girl, girl goes back to boy and boy, and then just boy.
Roony Mara is the Cleopatra of this fable, which feels like a personal story from the director’s life. Roony Mara? Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite monotony. She is the least mysterious, alluring, fatale of female creatures. Why any director casts this sphinx without a secret in major roles of sexual attention by everyone in the cast is not visible to the practiced eye. Or does lackluster have a luster all its own? She orphans everything she plays. A want of fire illuminates her.

She drifts as drift others through multiple and shifting plate-glass palaces and lowly cottages. Their interior furnishings are as empty as their interior lives. These settings wander as characters wander, with no fixed motive, no fixed affiliation, and no fixed income. How the hell are these people earning a living?

At the top of the heap stands a creepy billionaire record producer played by Michael Fassbender. He promises people careers in show-bizness, but he gives them the bizness. And he never unzips his fly for sex, so you know how dissolute he is.

A song-writer of ordinary talent is played by Ryan Gosling, Fassbender’s new best friend and first betrayed (The music business may be a stand-in for Hollywood.) Natalie Portman turns up as a gorgeous waitress also promised a rock-star role. And, in fact, there is Val Kilmer who once played a rock star again playing a rock star, this one in his stout fifties. Cate Blanchette plays Gosling’s rebound. Bérénice Marlohe plays the juicy lesbian. And somewhere lost in all of this is the great Holly Hunter.

Two things might be noticed about Malick’s method.

The first is that his is essentially a silent film method. You have to use an ear phone to hear what little dialogue there is, whereas, in silent film, lots of title cards tell you what it’s about. Here title cards take the form of voice-over.

Malick fell into the voice-over habit with his first film Days Of Heaven, when the little Bronx girl was coaxed into making the story clear by voice-overing it. Voice-over derives from the false notion that film is predominately not a spoken medium. With Song To Song, what you see is not a talkie.

Here we have “The Meaning Of It All” voiced-over, and it’s flaccid and tepid and vapid and vacant. However, unlike silent film, Malick’s words are devoid of humor. And in Song To Song there are no songs.

The second thing is that the acting is improvised. And this is always a mistake. When you make actors improvise a play, you make the actors write a play. Therefore, in an attempt to make things look natural, they look unnatural. In fact, they look hammy.

It’s a hamminess that is the reverse of over-acting. It is the hamminess of under-acting. Desultoriness and inertia emerge on the one hand, and on the other the actors’ choices look actorish. The actors’ choices look not what humans would do or what characters would do, but what actors would do.

Better leave them to act. Particularly with a director at once so icily controlling and lackadaisical as Malick. Indeed, at one dull spot, I noticed an actor listening intently while another actor spoke, and I realized it was Holly Hunter just doing her job.

Despite Malick’s elaborate narrative, Song To Song is rudely simple. He does get her in the end.


Love Is Colder Than Death

20 Mar

Love Is Colder Than Death – Directed by Rainer Werner Fasssbinder. Gangster Drama 88 minutes Black And White 1969
The Story: A gang syndicate invites a crook to join them, but he won’t, and then what?
No one feels anything. Emotional inertia is both the style and the subject. Characters stare off into space full front. A car tracks the wet city streets for five minutes looking for someone in a yellow dress. Much Significant Lighting Of Cigarettes. You care about none of these sorry folks or their doings, nor do you care about the law that seeks to keep them off the streets. So what whether any of them live or die.

But – boy – does the director hold your attention!

Why you can’t put it down, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because you want to see if any of their masks will betray a single human quirk.

This description may put you off, but I should be wicked to wish that to happen to you, for a master-hand is already at play here, even though this is Fassbinder’s first feature film.

He takes one of the three leading roles, and the other two are for the first time taken by actors he was to work with often in years to come, both of whom had big careers in German and international cinema.

Ulli Lommel plays the handsome, heartless hit-man. Hanna Schygulla plays Fassbinder’s girlfriend.

The title of the film is misleading, since Love is never at stake. The Fassbender character plays fast and loose with his girlfriend/whore, but no attraction is evinced between him and her, nor between her and him, nor between him and him. Such is not where the drama lies.

It lies in the audience, held in suspense to see if any of these people is worth anything at all, and they are not. But the film is. The experience of watching it is.

Oh, the ending is botched as well as the bank heist they plan. But by that time the film is over. A corpse.

I liked it. If liking is the word.

Held by it is the word. Held by the confidence of its energy. And by the insolence of its means.


Pressure Point

27 Feb

Pressure Point – directed by Hubert Cornfield. Drama. 91 minutes Black And White 1963.
The Story: A black prison psychiatrist takes under his care a crazed white-supremacist convict.
Sidney Poitier in his most characteristic role, The Patient One. His Patient is played by Bobby Darren.

Darren is a devoted extremist, member of The Nazi Bund, and declarer to Poitier that, when the round-up for the cattle cars comes, Poitier will be easy to recognize. The characterization is easy to meet, because Darren internalizes the role to such a degree that he never steps out of it while playing it, by making the character evil, thus to say: “See, I’m really not like this.”

Poitier keeps the ball rolling by picking up his cues and by holding back his rage until the final scene, where he lets Darren have it full bore. It’s the customary structure of Poitier films, the soft-spoken man, sufficiently put-upon, becomes the hard-spoken man in the last reel.

All the big actors in Hollywood had turned down the role of the bigot, but Darren campaigned for it. He is excellent; he got a Golden Globe nomination for it.

Stanley Kramer had a lot of people on the payroll after the big success of Judgement At Nuremberg and he had to put them to work. He directed only the framing scenes including Peter Falk, scenes which weaken the power of the story.

All of Stanley Kramer’s pictures are dated, and were so at the time, because they were all delivered with a violin obbligato of 19030s sentimental idealism. That means that they deliver the pain of democracy’s failures at the same time that they congratulate themselves for nostalgia for the same failure.

It has always been startling that actors could get their mouths around his lines. For this perfumed idealism is lodged in the writing. It is writing to side with the pre-ordained underdog, writing slanted in such a way that we are given no choice.

But Poitier is always good to see and never wastes our time by a single line.


Edge Of The City & Sidney Poitier

25 Feb

Edge Of The City – directed by Martin Ritt. Drama. 85 minutes Black And White 1957.
The Story: A black longshoreman befriends a white fugitive from justice on the loading docks.
In the ’50s, directors came over into movies from TV where they’d directed live dramas. Martin Ritt was one of them, and this is his first movie. Produced by TV producer David Susskind, its strengths are those of Roberto Rossellini. This means a newsreel look, carefully controlled in natural settings (in this case, The Bronx), with lower-class characters, and earthy acting.

John Cassavetes plays an-Army-deserter-and-maybe-killer working under a brutal, corrupt boss, played by Jack Warden. Warden invests the character with an unselfconscious crudeness – and this sort of extreme commitment to the acting in such films brings them alive. In its day this was called The Method, of which John Cassavetes was an adept.

However, as an actor, Cassavetes seems to play the outer requirements of the role, without actually creating a character who might have stumbled into those requirements. But Cassavetes had the lower-class sensibility, so we take him at his word. He is a macho male cast as an insecure male who must repeatedly reassert his manhood. He is particularly good in the final scene. This was his first major role in a major movie.

This is also almost Sidney Poitier’s first major role in a major movie. (In a shorter version, he had done it on television.) And it will surprise you to see Poitier in a merry mood, singing, dancing, married, and actively befriending a white male stranger. However, laughing a lot though he is, the set-up of the role is the same as in subsequent Poitier films: the nice black guy finally has his say.

The experience of seeing such a picture and such actors was one eagerly sought out by movie goers of the ’50s such as myself. Black And White TV had brought such earthy stories into the parlor; we were fed up with the Hollywood aesthetic and the technicolor mug of Doris Day.

We wanted guts. We may not have been able to express our own, so we wanted our actors to supply it. We went to such films as Edge Of The City, hungry. Such hungers are never slaked, but only keep seeking the sustenance of proof that sustenance exists. They don’t make you gutsy; they only show you who is.

The difficulty of such a film is that it supplied it. But, though Cassavetes’ strained sulk was no match for the Krakatoa of Marlon Brando, Cassavetes was good looking, brooding, and just plain sexy. And Poitier was a completely novelty — a black man volunteering friendship and hospitality to a white person.

What reaches one still about this film is the vibrancy of its setting in The Bronx, its workplace, playground, and streets. These are of a reality not pleasant and having nothing to do with Technicolor’s ice-cream sundaes. They reached us then and they reach us still.

And then there was Sidney Poitier!

The first great black actor?

Before him, nothing?


Before him, marvelous black actors worked their craft, as devoted actors do, with diligence, humor, skill, and curiosity. They were given respect and commercial importance in their professions. Hattie McDaniel said, “At home, I am Hattie, but in the studio I am Miss McDaniel.”

Paul Robeson, Step ‘n’ Fetchit, Louise Beavers, Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, the Nicholas Brothers, Butterfly McQueen, Canada Lee, Ethel Waters were performers of high skill. We enjoy their work to this day. They still entertain. Their work still has carrying power.

But before Poitier, black roles were largely for singers and dancers, wily fools, and yessah-servants.

When Poitier appeared on the screen, something closed down and something opened up.

As an acting instrument, what is he?

His irises are centered in his eyes with fear and determination.

The fear allows him to act. Because it keeps him aware.

The determination allows his character to make a pronounced effect.

He delivers his lines with certainty of expression. He’s well spoken, soft spoken. Does not reach for words or stammer for cues. Never speaks in Ebonics.

He exudes considerable charm when he chooses to exert it.

He keeps his figure into advanced age.

He is an actor of marked discretion of attack. He never over-acts or miscalculates an effect. He knows when to make his move and makes it unmistakably.

He has a good carriage and holds himself tall. He perhaps understands the dramatic effect of his fine neck, for his response will often not be facial, but make use of his boyish, well-shaped head.

He is a handsome male and photogenic as all get out. He is at ease in a suit.

But most of all, what struck us was that he is a black male in a big leading role! And what didn’t strike us was that we granted him stardom no questions asked. Suddenly, in Edge Of The City, we were fascinated to discover a black actor — my God! — playing a part heretofore completely unknown to the movies — a gentleman! Sidney Poitier was playing, for the first time in pictures, a role that was not blackface-in-disguise!

From this time forward, we will see him mostly play dignified professionals: doctor, lawyer, detective, minister, Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall. His roles are middleclass or below. This limits his career to noble Henry Fonda parts, and this also limits him artistically, since his roles are constructed with him quietly receiving damage until the final reel, at which point he fires both guns with invariable verbal power. He also never plays a character with a psychological weakness. He never plays in romance. Seldom in comedy.

But Sidney Poitier cleared away the limitations for black actors like a prince on a snow plough.

As a result, new limitations arose and remain: guns, violence, corruption, drugs, and ghetto grunge occupy black films now and sidetrack us into the view that black folks are only worth regarding when degraded. The middle-class black story is not filmed. True, Tyler Perry does bring low black satire before us, thank goodness, but, Perry aside, the non-racial black story is rare.

One reason Poitier became a Hollywood star and changed the sort of role written for back actors is that Sidney Poitier was not American.

He was from the West Indies.

He was born in Miami to Bahaman parents on a short visit and was immediately returned to and reared in The Bahamas. He was not reared under the influence of an American ghetto and its argot. Indeed, once he came here, he had to rid himself of his West Indian accent to find acting work. The result is Poitier’s “way of speaking”. Not only The West Indies but also “The American Negro” is completely absent from it. His intonation is literally mid-Atlantic. Behind it, his merriment is West Indian and therefore, as non-American, seldom shown in films. It is why he did not do black American comedy and that, when he does so, as in Uptown Saturday Night, he is slightly off-key.

All of this screened him from playing ethnic, native American Negro types, for he wasn’t one. But “West Indian” was the invisible-man attached to him, and reserved him instead for the dignified, patient characters his career was built upon. He was sold as American, and America bought it, and for a very good reason. Behind the trick, as well as in front of it, was a recognizably understandable fine human.

Every actor has spaces of his craft it is his fate never to explore. When Poitier was young he was friends with Harry Belafonte. Belafonte wanted to be an actor, Poitier a singer. Poitier may have stayed in American too long to know what The Bahamas was, and if he was forced by the times to be the actor we know, still we do know him. And, because we do, we know something fine in ourselves too.

For Sidney Poitier’s existence in film halted America on one walk and started us on another. Because of him and after him, the world could now see unseen sides of the black soul. And America could relax, acknowledge, and admire a black person in a way we had all always wanted to.

He is a fine craftsman and a great star.

He may not have meant us to — but we Americans owe an enormous debt to Sidney Poitier.
~ ~ ~

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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DIRECTED BY: Martin Ritt, Jack Warden, John Cassavetes, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier


Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday

19 Feb

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


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


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

What was her charm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in BIODOC


I Am Not Your Negro

18 Feb

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


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


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

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

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

A personality ingratiating nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Biodoc, POLITICAL

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