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Shitt’s Creek

19 Oct

Shitt’s Creek — TV Situation Comedy 2014-2020, On Netflix and elsewhere.
★★★★★
The Story: A wealthy family loses every penny, save a hick town, which when rich they bought as a lark and in whose seedy motel they must now reside.
~
Shitt’s Creek offers us a situation we humans have loved from Twelfth Night through the comedies of the ‘30s to Gilligan’s Island to this. The rich brought low.

Nothing needs to be said about it except that I watched — at least I think I watched — all 60 episodes with delight and surprise. I deem it to be deservedly popular and its handsome awards just. Beautifully directed and produced, perfectly written — by many — and performed with extravagant imagination by all.

Moira Rose, the mother, in the Natalie Schafer role, is played not as a mother but, as a soap opera actress between engagements. Catharine O’Hara, dolled up in The Wardrobe Without End, manages to be overdressed in every outfit, although each be but black and white. Her performance gains in magnificence as her diction gains in elaboration. One’s tongue hangs out eager to translate her next utterance into the vernacular of common sense. I think O’Hara wrote her own lines. They’re very funny. She’s very funny. Her Moira Rose is as selfish as cats, and we root for her every bugle-bead of the way.

The two children are carousels of gargoyle gesticulation. The son constantly shakes his head No as though it held dice it prayed would, when shot, produce a Yes. The daughter‘s body thrashes about like a Mixmaster itching to whip itself into a meringue of charm. The kids never stop twitching. They seem to have no center, for they cannot stand still to experience one. Cartoons but valiant ones, if they once spoiled themselves to experience the all-and-nothing of The Great World, they now bring the daring of those spoiled spoils into their futures where they transsex them into large social benefit. They contributed nothing but cuff-lace until they ended in this rube burg.

Eugene Levy, as the paterfamilias, never loses the vocalization of the born entrepreneur. He is the anchor of the wrecked vessel. He is down-to-earth — always hopeful, always creating hope in others. His Johnny Rose is to me a mystery performance. He plays the character not as a fool or dullard. All his family bring the folly of their grandeur to the small-town. What he brings is a bent to live out his talent for business and thus realize his own life and by contagion the life of everyone in contact with him. He is the occasion for comedy rather than the enactor of it. A wonder of a performance.

Each actor who plays townsfolk is tip-top, perfectly cast, endearing as all get out. Their characters live out a story whose foundation is that acceptance is natural as breathing.

Indeed, the Rose family presents acceptance as prenatal.

For Shitt’s Creek is a story which The Politically Correct never sullies but from which it is never missing. Before, after, and instead of, we are presented with a world made real and funny by the absence of what never should have existed to begin with. How true. If untried. No finger wags here. For what is advice but the starvation of a salesman’s sample? And why a sample? — when the example of a whole body, a whole town may live it out for us — as here?

Instead, the foundation of its comedy lies, as comedy must, in that everyone accepts everyone and is irritated by everyone.

I recommend the series with no reservation save to start at the start, go to the end, then, as Moira Rose would put it, desist.

 

The Merchant Of Venice

13 Sep

The Merchant Of Venice — directed by Cedric Messina. Melodrama. BBC TV Play Of The Week
★★★★
The Story: An heiress disguises herself as a young lawyer to evade the death sentence of her fiancé’s friend — by a vengeful moneylender.
~
Charles Gray, with his voice like the curtains of a great opera house, plays the title character of The Merchant Of Venice, and quite right too, since the play is all about riches.

Or is it?

Launcelot Gobbo, well played by Bunny May, seeks to convince his blind old father that he is his very own son — but fails. As likewise blind Justice and blind Cupid also fail. Or are perhaps never put to proper trial.

For this production makes of the Venetians what they truly are — figurines of Venetian glass. And they are costumed as such to perfection — save that codpieces obviously don’t do well as penial prows on glass.

The play is Shakespeare’s usual admixture of modes, for the writing of the money-lender Shylock is garbed not in glass but gabardine. And so the jarring conflict of literary styles creates its own conflict amidst the conflict of the characters. The playwright refuses to allow you to know what to expect.

The greatest Shylock I ever saw was George C. Scott’s in Central Park. He played it as a Lower East Side kike in full oi-vey Hebe accent — which he allowed himself or obliged himself to do because he himself was Jewish. Frank Finlay plays in a lower key, nothing Jewish about him except what he says of himself.

This works well enough — the part is foolproof since its style is always earthy and no one else’s is. So his defeat by glass figurines has its irony in the spectacle of stone shattered by glass. It cannot fail.

The boys of Venice are fraternity boys. Their courtships are swift and lacey. They are based on nothing firmer than rash impulse, their loyalties to one another always a mite stronger to their mates than to their mates.

There’s a truth to engagements in such frivolity of choice. It’s a fairy tale and fairy tales are true.

Maggie Smith presents Portia as an adherent to ancestral law as, rueful of her duty but loyal to it, she honorably outwaits the fairy-tale plot of the courtship of the three caskets. She plays the great courtroom scene simply and directly. As the millionaire heiress she is made up like a porcelain figurine — which is right for the role — and as the young lawyer in court appears to wear no make-up at all. It’s all done with wigs. It’s a good performance, and she is well-cast for it.

The great duets — the ring duet is rushed — and the “on such a night as this” duet is unclear. Which is too bad, for we want to hear how glass sounds when singing.

But we don’t go to Shakespeare — the most heterogeneous of writers — for perfection. We are in it to endure the mélange of ourselves. So we’d best put up with what we find.

 

Winter of Our Dreams

08 Sep

Winter Of Our Dreams — directed by John Dulgan. Drama. 78 minutes. Color 1981.
★★★★
The Story: A suicide brings together a prostitute and a reporter, separated and gripped by what they have in common.
~
This is Judy Davis young.

She is one of the great actresses of motion pictures, isn’t she? Woody Allen said she was the greatest actor he had ever worked with. She won the AFI Award as Best Actress for this film. She won the 13th International Moscow Film Festival Best Actress for it also. As for me, I stand by my loud first sentence.
Setting accolades aside, I also love something else about her.

And that is her mouth.

Great film stars have in common that their audiences are enthralled by what their mouths express. Not the words said. Not the way those words are said. But their mouths. The mouth muscles natural to them express the actor’s nature to us and, by those muscles, the truth.

These mouths help make them great stars. For their mouths give us a locality of a bullseye to mesmerize our eyes — which is what we come to do when we go to a movie. We come to be lost. And entrancement works — for enthrallment is medicinal to certainty. You know this when you buy your ticket, and it’s what you buy your ticket for. You want it. Mouths give it. To know what’s going on on the screen, you — willingly captivated by them anyhow — watch mouths.

Not eyes.

An actor’s eyes are to listen with — for an actor’s task is not emotion but attention.

So you don’t watch their eyes for the truth any more than you watch their ears. Again, it does not matter so much what words they say — or do not say — or how they say them, but how their mouths move, especially when still.

Indeed, the truth from their mouths comes often when they’re not talking — how golden an actor’s silence is! — that’s when their allure is most encouraged. In their silence you watch. That’s when you see it.
The fascinating mouth is not learned. Not taught in acting class. Not found in practice nor in rehearsal. Nor in performance. No. Intriguing mouths are inherent to such actors. You don’t give such actors credit for them. These are the mouths actors were born with.

Natural to them — just as natural to them as it is natural for all of us to watch these mouths. Indeed to watch mouths is part of movie audience rubric. For just as the craft of acting has its rubric, its inherent laws, so does the craft of being an audience have its laws, the rules it must follow and does.

Katharine Hepburn — don’t you first watch her mouth? This is not to say she has nothing besides it to gear up your attention. But her mouth is the first to command it, isn’t it?

You may demean Joan Crawford as an actor if you like— and she certainly could not play comedy — but her mouth will tell you what is going down with no two ways about it — and what is more winning than her grin?

A gift of a screen actor’s mouth makes the actor’s face eventful — the event being truth. And provides a place to lodge our fascination and with this fascination- know-how we unwittingly but naturally and collectively create the following that makes a star.

For an audience, the truth gets known by something around an actor’s mouth.

Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, James Dean, Jennifer Aniston, Cary Grant, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lee Pace, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Louise Brooks, Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Mahershala Ali, Garbo.

Their truth arrives to us through a certain idiosyncrasy of their mouths.

his truth turns to fallacy with “television-acting” — where the actor makes quivering play with his lips to “convey” — what? — an emergency emotion to wallpaper the vacancies of the writing? Such actors think their mouths are an acting instrument. They’re not. For your mouth has rules of its own, which cannot be faked, and which you were born with whether you have a naturally interesting mouth or not. The good actor imposes nothing and, when tempted to, lets the audience do the job. (Which is not to say the character you play is not imposing.)

Bryan Brown is in the movie with her — this film dates from their early years as Australian film actors — and you can immediately see the difference in their talents. Brown plays everything in C sharp major. He plays very well in that key, but he has no modulation. Judy Davis has modulation galore.

Watch her mouth. Its truth is so subtle it’s impossible to miss it.

The camera watches.

We watch the camera watch We the voyeur watch the voyeur voyeur the actor.

Unable to distinguish the camera eye from our own eye.

Made one lens.

Hypnotized.

As by a cobra.

At the spectacle of human truth— by being made fluid made manifest.

By a mouth.

Watch it.

Watch acting. Watch it acutely.

It is so human, it is divine.

Both acting itself.

And the watching.

 

Journey’s End

25 Aug

Journey’s End — directed by Saul Dibb. Drama. 104 minutes Color 2018

★★★★★
The Story: Soldiers entrenched in C Company headquarters await a German attack whose exact hour they know. They respond accordingly.
~
Of course, Journey’s End is the most renown work of art emerging from WWI.

Since its first success, the play has been done continually, particularly in all-male schools. A number of movies have been made of it. Its great virtue, in its time and still, is its power as stark reportage. The man who wrote it, R.C. Sherriff, had lived it.

I do not apologize for not telling plots or story lines. The material is famously strong, so I relate no more about it than I would about Hamlet.

The role of Stanhope, company commander, embodies the insanity that it is impossible for a human not to internalize in a situation of perpetual, unavoidable peril to himself and those he is responsible for.

I recommend Sam Claflin’s performances above all others.

Every other performance is on his level, summa cum laude.

It is perfectly filmed by Laurie Rose and edited by Tania Reddin.

Director Saul Dibb has the ability to capture performance. Directors who can do it are rare — Jean Renoir, George Stevens — at least on this level of tension, which is as high as Greek Drama.

I like ruthless truth.

It is a necessary film.

 

The Children Act

26 Jul

The Children Act — directed by Richard Eyre. Drama. 105 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: A woman faces herself in areas of her life because of the one in which she is most conscientious — as a British Children’s Court judge.
~

When I watch actors in the certain way I do — which is in a state of incomprehension and wonder about their ability to do what they do at all — although for many years I myself have been a reasonably successful actor of principal roles on the stage and in film — I sometimes also wonder what some of them are doing up there at all. Some of them don’t seem to be actors in any sense of the word. Christopher Reeve. Kim Novak.

But when I see Emma Thompson, here in the role of a lifetime, as the family court judge in The Children Act, I am struck by the fact that she is a person doing exactly what she was meant by God to be doing — being an actor so you can’t tell.

Come see for yourself.

In The Children Act there is nothing to distract you from her by elements not up to the high standard in which she belongs. Everyone rises to the occasion.

Jason Watkins, who plays her clerk, her husband played by Stanley Tucci, and the young man whose life she must adjudicate played by Fionn Whitehead bring conviction to the story by being convinced. Stage director Richard Eyre, cinemaphotographer Andrew Dunn, editor Dan Farrell, costumer Fotini Dimu, and composer Stephen Warbeck enliven a film which never cheats, always honors the attention it grips, and fulfills a story whose expectations surprise.

The Children Act is a film for grownups. An entertainment which plays up to our hungry intelligence and teases our moral gauge.

The title, The Children Act, refers to an Act Of Parliament which reserves the duty of judges to find in favor of the child in medical cases.

But the story has a wider spread.

For The Children Act is law, and law is mechanical. The machinery of law has driven and influenced Emma Thompson’s judge in other areas of her life. It has influenced her marriage and it has also invaded her capacity to greet properly the consequences of her judgments.

Emma Thompson plays a character who goes by the book. Restrained, confined in her human interests, regimented in her day, inexpressive to those close to her, save to preserve her distance from them, she is, nonetheless, eloquent in her professional life. And she has an almost inhuman talent to pay attention.

Emma Thompson’s face has been with us for decades. She is now, at 61, in high middle age, every fracture showing. We have grown up with her. She is one of those movie stars, now too few, who live among one’s household gods, as one of the lares and penates that reassure one that certain best and lasting virtues still do live.

I am an eighty-six-year-old man, and when I ask myself, “Bruce, who would you like to be when you grow up?”

I’ll tell you who. I say, “When I grow up, I’d like to grow up to be to be Emma Thompson!”

 

The Untouchables & The Upside

06 Jul

The Intouchables – directed by Olivier Nekase and Erik Toledano – Dramedy – in French with subtitles – 112 minutes Color 2011.
★★★★★
The Upside – directed by Neil Burger – Dramedy – 126 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★

The Story: a quadriplegic billionaire hires a black parolee as his personal helper.
~
Remade in Telugu and Tamil and in Spanish and in English and in Hindi, this is generally seen to be the world’s most popular French film ever made. And it is not hard to see why.

First of all, it has two marvelous parts, one for an actor who scarcely moves, the other for an actor who never stands still.

I knew nothing of any of this when I found it in my Netflix mail, for I had somehow ordered it, never having heard of it.

When it came on, oh dear, it is in French, and my English subtitles are not on. Cantering along on my laziness, I thought I would watch it without understanding a word. Could it be told by pure physical action like a silent film?

It could. But the next day I saw it from the start with the subtitles on.

For what caught me was the performance of Omar Sy. I was fascinated – yes, by his hemispheric smile – but also by his physical style which is also hemispheric.

He won the French Oscar for this performance, and it brings home Marlon Brando’s adage that, in movies, if the actor’s contents are true it, it does not matter how broad the expression is.

Both films are worth watching.

The Intouchables being both the first film from the original documentary is the better. The Upside, in American English, expands certain scenes for comic purposes as it expands others for other purposes, but the first time one experiences such a story is the treasured one.

The two films are cast in obverse. An actor of smaller features and an admirable internal technique, Francois Cluzet, plays the quadriplegic and adopts, rightly, a minimalist attack to turn the glow of the character bit by bit out of the dimmer and on into full illumination. A smart strategy when set against Omar Sy who has big features and who is in full illumination every inch of the way.

In The Upside, instead of the broad facial effects of Omar Sy, Kevin Hart acts the helper smaller. Also smart. For Bryan Cranston – an actor of broad facial effects, indeed with a visage so mobile, it appears that he ought never to appear off the legitimate stage – plays the immobile quadriplegic.

Bryan Cranston is a fine actor, but a cool one, which is why it was right that he should be asked to carry through the arduous twists of Breaking Bad. It’s not a part for a nice guy. Or for a baddie. But not for a warm chap either.

As a consequence, in The Upside the chemistry between the men never clicks. Both screenplays tell us it does. The title Intouchables means: Can you possibly enter into the heart of one unlikely man with an injection from the heart of another? Can a breeding take place? And the answer is Yes. In both men, we sense it only in The Intouchables.

In The Intouchables, the billionaire lives in a Paris palace, which is more fun than the penthouse of The Upside. In that palace the entire staff disapproves of the black helper. In that penthouse, all that obstruction is condensed into one thankless role, beautifully executed by Nicole Kidman.

Which film to choose?

Well, do what I did, maybe. See The Untouchables in French. Then see it again with English subtitles. That is all you need. Full value guaranteed.

 

Gone With The wind

24 Jun

Gone With The Wind – directed by George Cukor, Sam Wood, Victor Fleming, Alfred Hitchcock*. Costume Drama. 221 minutes Color 1939.
★★★★★
The Story: A spoiled determined Southern belle takes on the prewar South, The Civil War, The Reconstruction and jeopardizes her entire love-life in the process.
~
I saw Gone With The Wind in 1939 when it first came out. My mother took my brother and me to a matinée at the Roosevelt in Auburndale on Northern Boulevard, Queens. In the intermission, a drawing won you a piece of thick white china with a double red rim.

I have seen it maybe four times since.

I remember the first time because of the film’s longueurs. I didn’t understand the history, and of course I was not interested to understand the love stories. I was six. But I understood the characters, and I understand them now in the same way as then, for they are clearly drawn.

Belle Watling was a woman outside society, but of big heart. Mammy was also of big heart and a firm disciplinarian who understood tradition better than anyone. Prissy was a foolish fish flopping about. Laura Hope Crews was an overstuffed bird with discombobulated feathers who never stopped cheeping. Thomas Mitchell was the impractical loving father. Harry Davenport was a big hearted and practical spirit. Ward Bond was a dumb cop. Barbara O’Neil was the serious practical mother. The O’Hara sisters of Anne Rutherford and Evelyn Keyes were squawking, jealous jilted sisters. Leslie Howard was the milksop aristocrat focus of all love attention. Olivia de Havilland was the benign spirit. Rhett Butler was a virile charming gunrunner crook. And Scarlet O’Hara was the vixen about whom all the others circled.

The rest of it bored me.

But what I did also understand, and this was all I understood on a gut level, was the huge change from the pastel organza of the sunny and lazy life of Tara, Twelve Oaks, and The Old South into the serious hard-working, and dark red rep décor of The Reconstruction.

The next time I saw it was also a matinée. At the Bayside, Queens. I was preteen. Those were the days I left a movie to stumble into the daylight but still be in the film, in its values and color and mood and lesson.

This time I knew it was a great film, because I knew it was all about Melanie Wilkes. It was about goodness, and how it prevails over selfishness and self-centeredness, with its love and its kindness. What had not gone with the wind was the strength of that gentleness. Oh, if only I could be good! Seeing Olivia de Havilland I thought I could be. I was mistaken.

If I ever saw it again in a movie house, I don’t remember. It’s a wonderful film to see in a picture palace, because of the reach of its history, its settings, its human content, its character types, and its length. Indeed, its very intimacies are spectacular.

The third time I saw it, I knew it was all about Scarlet and about home.

I saw it again yesterday in my little old-peoples living room on VHS tape.

The color had bleached into yellows. And this time I felt the falseness of the production scenes with their painted drops. The film is well produced, though, the musical theme remains moving, everyone is perfectly cast, Hattie McDaniel remains a wonder.

Things that stirred me before now didn’t, such as the keen folly of Thomas Mitchell’s death and Oona Munson’s speech. Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler, though from Savannah, does not speak with a Southern accent. The famous boom shot of Scarlet crossing the open-air hospital of wounded Confederacy soldiers registers as phony, because neither Atlanta, nor any other city, ever had that wide an expanse of dirt as a street. It had once set me agog. No more.

But this time, yesterday, now I knew the film was brilliantly about a dysfunctional relationship.

And a perfect illustration of one. It was not about Scarlet’s misguided love for a man who might lust for her but never love her. Or rather, that was just the flimsy foundation of just how badly two people could contrive to get along, which was the real story unfolding. Scarlet and Rhett always said or did the wrong thing to one another at the right time.

I’ve loved my versions of Gone With The Wind. None of them are amiss. I recommend the picture to all. Clark Gable, for once, looks wonderful in period costumes, a mountain of masculinity, his humor charmed by the selfish hell-cat Vivien Leigh so aptly gives us. Two survivors who adore that quality in one another.

Does she win him back when, on another day, back in Tara, she figures out how to?

Why, of course she does.

• Did you know — Hitchcock, who at the time was under contract to Selznick to make Rebecca, story-boarded the Ward Bond scene with the women tatting as they await the results of their husbands’ raid on the encampment. Check it out. It’s a perfect Hitchcock suspense scene.

 

Nicholas Nickelby

03 Jun

Nicholas Nickleby – directed by Douglas McGrath. Period Dramedy. 132 minutes Color 2002.

★★★★★

The Story: A multitude of coincidences and outrages and improbable persons converge to thwart and encourage a nineteen-year-old to care for and save his sister and widowed mother from destitution, derangement, and doom.
~
The recipe for a Dickens pie is to cook the first comic characters early and let their tang fade as the villains appear and let the villains fade as the romantic leads cinch the finale. Sprinkle Pathos Persons over the crust and devour.

What this means – but, fear not, the plot will out – is that love conquers all. It may as well, because the love interest here is played by two young beauties, Charlie Hunnam and Anne Hathaway.

The problem is that romantic love in Dickens is more a function of pity than sexual drive. Sex drive in his romantic leads is pictured more as feeling sorry for someone. Lovers are drawn to one another on rafts of compassion splashed with the lesser rain of pathos. Thus – real– but not quite real.

This means that the meanies and clowns dominate our interest.

So that Christopher Plummer’s brilliance as Old Man Nickleby astonishes us with his perfectly distributed sang froid, while the travelling theatre impresario Mr. Crummles of Nathan Lane fades under his nutty general good-heartedness – not without leaving behind a vivid memory of his wife played to a T by Barry Humphries inhabiting Dame Edna Etheridge as his grandiosely burbling and blindly devoted wife.

And the early villains fade behind the later ones. Jim Broadbent plays the defective school principal Wackford Squeers all out, and, boy, is he frightening! – as he should be – and, if he is not excelled in cruelty to children by his wife, done by Juliet Stevenson, that is because we are too blinded by the brilliance of both actors to distinguish one meanness over the other. You wonder how it is possible that English actors dare to body forth persons of such characteristic English vileness, but here they are, no holds barred.

But such is Dickens plenitude, that he has lots to spare as one richness is supplanted by the next.

The lubricious Sir Mulberry Hawk is given to Edward Fox to personate and bring to ruination, but he too disappears under the pustules of his disgrace, while Tom Courtenay as Plummer’s insolent coocoo-clock butler bores through his tippling to save the day for one and all.

You find Jamie Bell as Smike – the crippled dogsbody of the Squeers’ Dotheboys school and confidante of our hero, young Nickleby who kidnaps him away from it and saves Smike from being beaten to death. He dies beforehand, though.

The moving picture medium suits such a character as Smike because his painful lameness becomes visible there, so it carries an impact unwitnessed on the printed page, even those of the impressive Dickens. Likewise true of the Tweedledum and Tweedledee characters of the Cheeryble brothers played by Timothy Spall and Gerald Horan, masterfully bewigged for the roles – or role. Hello. Goodbye.

Because of the great entertainment value of Dickens’ material from its start as a serial in a magazine, then into a 600-page novel, Nicholas Nickleby has charmed its way into drama before now, as in the filmed 8-hour stage version.

But you cannot beat this 132-minute movie for its writing and casting and fully realized parts. It contains Christopher Plummer’s greatest film performance. The scar of his handsome, cockeyed face presents a temperament seized with the discretion of a rapier never drawn, always sheathed, always covered with blood. I love actors, let me say it again: I am always at a wonder how they dare to admit to the light of day that they have in them persons so vile.

Or so foolish. Or so funny.

Of course, no smart actor thinks his character is vile or foolish or even funny.

Every actor must take his character as the one vital to embody and preserve the highest of human values for all God’s eternity!

Those values, in their rainbow scope, are available to the reader or watcher of Dickens. Film nowadays may be interloped with an exclusifying crudeness, but the values of Nicholas Nickleby are real and do exist and are abroad in the air in their conflict with one another still. One place we go to appreciate, remember, and take sides with them, in and for our souls and hearts, is in the work and the fun of Charles Dickens.

 

Brooklyns’ Finest

03 Apr

Brooklyn’s Finest — directed by Antoine Fuqua. Cops&CrimeDrama. 132 minutes Color 2010.

★★★★★
The Story: Three cops imperil their souls in crime-prevention in three different ways.
~
If you want to enjoy Black History Month in rich dress, watch Brooklyn’s Finest, for it gives you top-form acting by all hands, but particularly by Don Cheadle, Ellen Barkin, and the great Wesley Snipes — fortified by the direction of black director, Antoine Fuqua.

Antoine Fuqua is one of those for whom the animate world exists — one of those rare directors who can capture performance — not just of actors but of places and things. And situations.

Antoine Fuqua directed Training Day, a film of honorable regard, and it is fascinating to see Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar for it, not appear as the lead in this one. Washington would have been cast against type as an ordinary grunt cop, grizzled and bushed, in his last week before retirement. Unheroic, and not even an anti-hero, the character is now miscast with Richard Gere, who, like Washington, is too good looking for the part, but who also does not possess the banality of a human whose daily drudge has not risen in his own and the eyes of his fellow cops above the routine of a milkman. It is a role for John C. Reilly.

Gere does beautifully with what he and is not and seizes the freedom to be so efficient in the part that you forget he is miscast. I take this as due to Fuqua’s direction, the script by Michael C. Martin, and Gere’s own love of his craft. All praise to him and them.

The point of this review is that the writing is first class, the direction is first class, as are the score, costumes, sets, editing, filming. All this feeds with diamonds the actors, such that none of them have ever been better in anything.

Ethan Hawke (also in Training Day) is the sleaze-cop stealing drug-bust loot. His face of a Juvenile, that usually stands against his credibility in mature parts like this, photographs finally as diabolical. It suits Hawke’s smug mouth, Mephistopheles eyebrows, and the inner nerve of his instrument — his braggadocio. So, finally, in a film, you do not stand outside of him with his privilege but pitch in with the hopeless desperation of the situation he finds himself in with his wife and three children and with his nasty streak in full array.

Lily Taylor plays his wife, tumescent with child. For the first or at least seldom time as an actor she does not ride her nag, but understands the power of a part’s being on the periphery. Her actor’s work is humble and just. She understands she is playing the part of a character focused elsewhere than the policework plot, but rather on her crowd of homemaking chores and on whatever her sacrifices to them that might entail. She’s wonderful.

As is the much under-used actor Ellen Barkin. Here she plays the ruthless police boss. She gives a rendition of such excruciating intensity that, although it is a supporting role, I want to see the entire movie again to watch her enact it.

Then we have Don Cheadle wedded in danger to Wesley Snipes. Cheadle’s default position as an actor is his tapioca heart not much on view here, I rejoice to report. That gentleness, that brown, soft-eyed withdrawal of danger into the warm canopied bed of a masculinity that would harm no one, has been his customary aura as an actor. And a beautiful one, too, and not on view here, as he seesaws almost imperceptibly between loyalty to his best friend and loyalty to his job as an undercover cop missioned to destroy that friend.

Another under-used actor, the great Wesley Snipes, plays the vice-king, a Terror Of The Earth or at least of Brooklyn. He again brings to the screen his danger and his sense of the immediate. In playing the immediate, the actor understands that one must always be one split second ahead of it.

How does an actor play that he does not know that?

Watch Brooklyn’s Finest and see if you can tell.

Engage with our finest A-A talent — our cultural heritage made right now — a Black History’s treasure shining its silver on today’s very table.

 

Passing Strange

15 Mar

Passing Strange — directed by Spike Lee. Rock Musical. 135 minutes Color 2009.
★★★★★
The Story: A young black man seeks true life, and the tour takes him through lovers and nations, songs and dances and wild surprises.
~
There is nothing passing or strange about it. Instead?

Performance Paradise.

Spike Lee’s greatest film.

And the best record of an actual stage production I have ever seen.

It is a movie made with 14 cameras during three performances (including the last) of the Broadway stage production.

I have seen filmed stage productions, but will not claim to have seen all, and I have seen Spike Lee pictures, but will not claim to have seen all.

But what distinguishes this from all other filmed stage productions is that here the cameras are never content to see what the audience sees. Instead we and the cameras are on stage with the performers amidst the rollicking and indefatigable energy of the music, the dance, the play and the players.

And talented they are. But the cameras are just as talented. They throw us as film viewers into a wild beauty. It is vulgar and meritorious since, once again, Spike Lee has surrounded his talent around the zest, imagination, and particularities of black aliveness. What an honor, what a treat to see it heritaged here!

This is what Spike Lee has brought to us year after year, and here it is in quintessential form. I bow down before the brilliant eccentricity of the book, the acting, the dances, and the lyrics. The original stage direction of Annie Dorson has not been fooled with, nor has any of the original sets, costumes, and choreography. Lee disports his invisible cameras in what was already a masterpiece.

The writer of the book and lyrics and some of the music is Stew, who plays the ringmaster of the story. He and every player and musician in it are in the moment. They are vigorous, inventive, and fun — black vim at its most tireless and true!

There is much more to say about this, but I am speechless with praise. If my enthusiasm is the least catching, catch Passing Strange and praise me for a month once you have enjoyed yourself silly watching it.

 
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Posted in Directed By: Spike Lee

 

True Detective Season 3

10 Mar

True Detective Season 3 — created, written, directed, produced by Nic Pizzolatto. Police Procedural 8 Part TV Series. Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: Detective partners can neither solve or shake the case of a little girl who has mysteriously disappeared.
~
With a figure suited to pornography, still at age 46 or so and like many males of his complexion who have stayed in shape, Mahershala Ali can stretch the ages he can play, as he does here, from, let’s say, thirty on the one hand, to let’s say seventy-five.

His success doing this, aside from elaborate makeup upon his heart-shaped face and useful costume changes and wigs, would not happen if some fundamental difference did not arrive in him to change our view of his character and his view of the world.

His character, young, begins as contemptuous and driven. Contempt is achieved by his keeping his eyelids half-closed, eyes averted, in a position of constant dismissal of all about him.

As an old man, those eyelids widen eyes with a wonder almost blind. Contempt gone. As to the drive, the character has arrived at the destination he was driving to when he was thirty, and therefore Ali sees to it that he is just stuck there: he is no longer driving: he is on automatic drive.

All of this works in behalf of the story it illustrates. Mahershala Ali throws in bandier bandy legs when he is older, and he and his partner detective move more creakily. (Actually, old people tend to walk slower not because their joints are stiff so much as they dread to fall down.) Does this interest you? It does me, because as soon as I saw him in Moonlight and The Green Book, I went on a Mahershala Ali bender. Wow! What is this? He mesmerizes one because of the recesses of his focus.

I read a little about him and find that he was once a professional basketball player, which makes me grasp why he is an actor with such perfect aim. Cary Grant started out in show business in the United States by waking on stilts in Coney Island and became an actor renowned for his balance.

The Arkansas State Trooper detective Mahershala Ali plays is unapproachable as a person, but as a professional he is uncanny in his hunches and tracking skills, so he fits right in with Stephen Dorff who plays his detective partner.

Indeed, the Mahershala Ali character is seen largely through the Dorff character’s eyes. Stephen Dorff’s performance has great carrying power in the matter as does the beautiful performance of the beautiful Carmen Ejogo who also distributes Mahershala Ali’s character to us by her response to it as his wife.

As to the story, True Detective adheres to the rubric for high-style detective fiction laid down years ago for our guidance by Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle before him that at no point shall we understand anything of what is happening. The plot will supply us with stupefying complexities, and we will continue to watch in the hope, never fulfilled, that all will come to a rational conclusion.

If you watch the new British TV Sherlock you will be treated to the same befuddlement as Doctor Watson’s, therein amplified by a camera, editorial, and narrative eccentricity of a brashness which dazzles as it beguiles.

Quite right too. The suspense of high-style detective fiction consists in the audience being suspended in its own utter stupidity. God exists in the decoration of wisecracks with which Raymond Chandler nails his truth, and without the high style of this décor, this stance, this wicked plasticity, nothing in the story here or there would bewitch, even once Mahershala Ali’s presence has secured one’s place before the screen.

So see it.

It is of the caliber of True Detective Season 1, with its astonishing performance by Matthew McConaughey.

It is 8 episodes, beautifully mounted, in country.

You would never watch a film this long, but it’s not a film this long. Episode-form is a separate form, and narration in episode-form is particular to the form, such that you can do nothing but watch it over days or weeks or years as it comes.

And it has a long, unexpected Lisztian ending. Be patient. No one knew how to end a composition like Franz Liszt.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Carmen Ejogo, DETECTIVE STORY, Mahershala Ali, Stephen Dorff

 

Harriet

02 Feb

Harriet – directed by Kassi Lemmons. Biopic. 125 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: When her sisters are sold south, a young slave woman strikes out North for freedom, achieves it, and then returns and guides many others to freedom too.
~
The most interesting films for me these past few years deal with black subjects.

Why is that?

I am a bigot. I am partial to them. I have been fascinated about black folks since I was little. I wanted to get inside their lives, their affection, their sexual power, their brown skins, and their ways.

Impossible.

But It’s not just because they are a group living in America without speaking the English I was reared with, or that I am beguiled by the colors of their skins, or by their unusual and thorough laughter, and by their skills as dancers, but I am also beguiled by their barriers all this is to an entry into their world. Don’t they know that everything they do shuts me out? I am biased. I adore them. Without black folks this country is unthinkable. A hope indefatigable by frustration still keeps me looking in their direction.

But their foreignness certainly must have had something to do with their lack of normal representation even in the not-so-long-ago frayed suburbs of film history. Oh, they were always there, but as showpieces. Now, in recent films, I see they are looking back at me. They are seeing me! I am sitting in the audience and they are allowing me in.

New black folks’ films are rich in the way white people’s films are poor. They are rich because so much is at stake. So with Just Mercy. So with Harriet. How come all this is happening now?

Tyler Perry is the probably the richest and most successful movie person alive. And it is his work I credit with opening the door to other black story-tellers, because he has filmed the numerous stage plays he authored and produced and he has directed many dramas and melodramas, and these allow us to see black actors in roles besides slum dwellers, prisoners, or crack sniffers. They show middle class black folks in full dress soap opera. Tyler Perry has had phenomenal commercial success.

But more potent in the liberation of black film has been Perry’s lowbrow farces, which has allowed black folks and white folks and yellow folks and all kinds of folks to laugh not with but at blacks. His brazen cartoons of racial stereotypes have scoured the screen of political correctness as regards blacks. Medea and her family have opened the black door. They did it by causing us to fall off our highchairs with such laughter as to open audiences to a world that can then bring to us such confident films as Harriet.

Ta-Nehisi Coates novel The Water Dancer includes Harriet Tubman as the Conductress of The Underground Railroad who as a young woman parted the waters and miraculously drew her family to freedom. In Coates’ story Tubman is accorded supernatural powers that could transport slaves through thin air from plantation to safety. It is completely convincing. So is her story here.

Because her family disappeared into a river, Tubman was called “Moses,” but her original name was not Harriet Tubman, but Araminta Ross, or “Minty” as she was called and as we first meet her.

This part of the film interested me most. It established her as an adolescent slave in a large slave family working a medium sized Maryland farm. I see her with her husband, who was a freed slave. And I also see her crack into proleptic seizures, in which she received instructions and warnings from Higher Power — and who for a minute can doubt her?

She runs 100 miles to Philadelphia in a first escape that is a wonder of endurance, resourcefulness, and faith. Having reached safe port, she returns to the dread plantation and brings her whole family back to freedom. We know a good deal of how The Underground Railroad stretched to Ontario once white folks pitched in in New England, but it is a necessary education to endure the peril, stress, and difficulty of this young woman’s ordeal of flight as it began through the woods, over the open fields, and across the rivers, with blood hounds hot on her heels and overseers determined to retrieve their valuable property.

In her ordeal, we see her character firm up before our eyes.

I recognize only one of the many actors around her, which is good. Nor do I recognize the actor who plays Harriet Tubman herself. Also good. For I want no star to outshine my ignorance of Harriet and her story as it essentially must have been. Stars always gleam with a prior glow. But the young woman who plays her I have never seen before. She is as unknown to me as Harriet is, which is perfect for my pleasure and my belief in her, which is profound.

Cynthia Erivo is nominated for an Oscar this year, which encourages me to invite you to see her Harriet before Sunday.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DOCUDRAMA, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

Brian Banks

21 Jan

Brian Banks — directed by Tom Shadyac. Courtroom Docudrama. 99 minutes Color 2019.

Hitchcock founded his career on stories of the wrongfully accused, and this film gives us the suspense and emotional catharsis of the form.

It also resembles this year’s Just Mercy because it parallels the work of the Alabama Innocence Project with the office of the California Innocence Project in freeing the guiltless. In most cases the prisoners are still in prison and on death row. But in Banks case, he was convicted when 16, served five years, was freed, and, adding pressure to the tale, Banks was already running out of time to prove his innocence before the deadline of his parole ran out.

Aldis Hodge plays Brian Banks, and he looks as young as 16 when he is shown to be 16, and as old at 27 when he is shown to be that. His has the physique to be a football player, the physical power to convince us he would have played in the NFL, and the courage to act the part to its full measure. He is well cast.

Greg Kinnear plays Justin Brooks, the lawyer heading up the California Innocence Project, as Michael B Jordan played Bryan Stevenson of the Alabama Innocence Project in Just Mercy, where Jaimie Foxx played the black man convicted — but the stories vary widely in their details, their characters, their flavor and their telling. For Brian Banks is told in a good old-fashioned, classical manner that carries us along on a ride through the interesting scenery of the legal horror story of the case, on a journey thrilling and fresh, although we have all taken it before.

Xosha Roquemore dazzles the story to a standstill with her playing of the young woman who lied Brian Banks into prison. Melanie Liburd is lovely fun as the young lady who fosters him when on parole. Dorian Missick is completely sympathetic and understandable as the parole officer who must abide by the rules. Sherri Shepherd as Banks’ mom aces her cinching speech. Morgan Freeman, ever-the sage-mentor, produces in us our customary but still welcome and fresh satisfaction with him.

But the performance that carries the balance of the tale is performed by Greg Kinnear as the head of CIP. As an actor he is able to be resolved in the smart decision to decline his help to Banks, and because of the honest way he plays this smart and dedicated man you have to agree with him, so that you never know whether Banks innocence will ever be established by the one lawyer able to do it. Pay attention to how the actor presents invisibly but clearly a resistance ever silent. The entire suspense of the story lies with this factor in this actor’s hands, hands he never tips, and he does not betray us. He’s just a man with a cause, close to but parallel with Banks’ cause.

I liked him and the picture a lot. Unlike with Just Mercy, the racial question of this picture hides itself in the inability of many black folks to receive legal justice because they can’t afford it. That wrong is still prominent and should be restored, so that the Innocence Project of various states can in honor retire.

Brian Banks is one of a fresh flowering of recent dramas skillfully engrossing us with how much black lives matter.

I want to see them all. I invite you watch with me.

 

1917

20 Jan

1917 — directed by Sam Mendes. WWI drama. 119 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: Two British soldiers are given the mission to warn a distant battalion not to engage the Germans in battle because it is a trap.
~

1917 is the name of the story, but it might as well have been called 10am to 11:59am, Friday, August 8, 1917, for the film is presented as one single action lasting the duration of the picture.

This is not a stunt, because 1917 delivers to our unavoidable eyes the inescapable fact that no escape from war is possible, particularly not for the viewer. 1917 accomplishes this impression by passing the viewer by the hundred corpses of those soldiers who lie rotting about and by the cadavers of towns and farms and homes and trees and fields. And they present war’s inescapability by the temporary escape-thrill of a race to hand-deliver a message to warn the British to escape a German trap.

Their flight though enemy lines offers the illusion of escape because it is so frightening for us the audience and so frightening for the two participants. They pass through trenches of soldiers also trying to escape not war but the tedium of war and the postponed peril of war — by playing chess, reading, writing home, gabbing, drinking, and sleeping. We whizz past these soldiers in British trenches, as the two corporals whizz by them on their way out of the dirty maze of those trenches and up, into, and across the promise of death intervening between their headquarters and the British front line, where the duped battalion faces the German trap.

In the very pitch of excitement of their mission, we witness the last escape soldiers make from war as they are balked by a sergeant gone mad.

The physical appearance of the film is beautiful, the score is wonderful, as is Roger Deakins’ photography. The director has made one error. The two actors who must race to the rescue of the battalion are unknown to us as is everyone else shown, but, alas, two world-famous actors put in cameos at the start and finish. The officer who sets the message in motion is Colin Firth and the one who finally receives it is Benedict Cumberbach, and their presence is garish, as the movie suddenly reeks of the greenroom. But each scene is brief.

The two soldiers are perfectly played by George MacKay and Dean Charles Chapman. The barriers they face are inexhaustible, but each difficulty is written unconventionally such that our surprise fosters respect for the truth of the perverse at play in war.

The escape from death does not let up. We humans love war because — by killing so many of us humans — it wakes us to the sleeping fact that death does not let up.

1917 stands equal in rare excellence with the WWI films of Milestone’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Renoir’s Grand Illusion, and Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory. Whatever you do, a picture palace is where you must see it, which you must do whatever you do.

 

Just Mercy

19 Jan

Just Mercy—directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Docudrama. 147 minutes Color 2020.
★★★★★
The Story: A law student volunteers in the Alabama prisons and, after he earns his law degree in Harvard, comes back to Alabama to free the wrongly accused, his first case being a thorny one.

Docudramas stand tall in recent releases. Boy Erased tells of the experience in and liberation from a homosexual cure institution. And here Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson join forces to fight for the liberation from an institution of a misprision of justice so ruddy its racial suppression had to be fast, sudden, final, and resolutely colluded in.

We don’t go to such movies to see character development or even depth of motivation. All those are “given,” — meaning tacit — meaning the audience must supply them — and indeed the audience wants to do just that. It knows how to. Each audience member is watching this dramatization of a piece of history in order to be informed, to follow gratefully history’s deep complications, setbacks, casualties. We do not watch Hamlet for Danish history. And we do not watch docudrama for the kind of high tragedy Elsinore delivers in Hamlet.

No. Docudrama offers a great and different drama for our interiors in tension, urgency, inspiration, education, concern for the living or once living. I Want to Live with Susan Hayward is a more harrowing audience experience than Star Wars. We go right into the gas chamber with her and all the delay and clumsy ritual attached. We die for her. We weep for her human suffering, for she was once a living being. Docudramas enlarge our compassion. And we leave the theatre determined to ally ourselves with the right side, take up causes in conversations and marches, write to our representatives, or back up our stirred ideals with contributions. And when the curtain comes down, we applaud all those involved for having the guts to tell the truth finally.

Just Mercy fully lives up the potential of the form.

Mind you, docudrama acting performances do not as a rule have an arc. Characters do not necessarily start somewhere and slowly and eventually end up internally somewhere else. Here they certainly do not. What you have here is an actor, Michael B. Jordan, who remains stalwart throughout — and that is as it should be. He is an actor who can hold the screen like nobody’s business — with his fine carriage, spacious face, sensitive instrument, and keen, open, direct gaze in which so much can be read because nothing is forced or imposed. All he need do is remain before us to convince of his firmness of purpose. As an actor he makes everything — the merest furrow of his brow — as small as he can — which is also correct — for it induces the audience to put themselves in his shoes.

Brie Larson plays his second in command, and the opening position the actress assumes of adherence to her cause encases her in the easy strength of loyalty to the business at hand. No hanky-panky, here but always at work toward the realization of justice for the wrongly condemned. It is a performance of humor and refusal to steal a single scene. No character development here, either. For the character remains as she started, and if the character did not, there would be no story to tell. Kudos to her.

Jaimie Foxx as the death row prisoner is less reserved, but the role clamors for emotion and tempts him into it, which ever and ever deprives the audience of feeling it themselves. Actual his change comes early in the story and his character remains constant afterwards.

I won’t disbar myself from your love by describing the great scenes, but, besides these, there are super-duper performances. Tim Black Nelson in a very well-written part as the false witness —is he up for an Oscar for this? Rafe Spall as the D.A. you want to strangle but it’s always too late; he walks around inside the role so that you never know where he will finally come out from it, if at all. Ted Huckabee as the sheriff holds the insolence of his position in wise reserve. Hayes Mercure creates a story without words of a prison guard who finds his lost humanity as the great case of righting the wrong unfolds.

Docudramas provide a great theatrical experience all their own. Each member of its audience creates in themself the response system particular to the form. Arcing inside each member are the emotional eyes which know how to see this form, experience it, enjoy it, weigh it. Those intestinal eyes are bent upon the form in ways which in some ways do blend with those which Hamlet requires, but they are essentially a system all their own.

Bryan Stevenson was the young lawyer who came back to Alabama with a mandate to free the unjustly condemned to death-row. 135 prisoners have by now and by his efforts been freed from that malign fate — many of them accused on racial grounds — to become cases of bitter and frustrated freedom, as did Walter McMillian.

The fight does not end with this movie or his deeds. And this movie revitalized us in the certainly that Stevenson’s fights are all our fights and thrill us to engage in.

 

Right Of Way

16 Jan

Right Of Way — directed by George Schaefer. Family Drama. 96 minutes Color 1983.

The Story: Their grown daughter is called to her elderly parents’ home where she learns of their determination to commit suicide.
~
They were born in 1908 and so are well into their 70s when Bette Davis and James Stewart pair up for this last hurrah.

Actors love to act, and therefore tend to go on acting. Sometimes it does not much matter the material, and the premise of this one is good, but, alas, the writing is not good.

Poorly realized dialogue leave the two actors with no glories to rise to save their delivery. Unlike the actors of our own, the actors of their era were renowned for their delivery — which is why they were easy to imitate.

In the case of Jimmy Stewart, a master of his craft, what his delivery delivered was his vulnerability, the awkward hem-and-haw of the bashful male. This stammer opened up a reality in him of a wrestling with principles threatened by his own unwillingness to harm anyone on the one side and on the other by the resolution of those principles through that struggle into temporary inner oak. His technique made him fluid, and he is so here.

He is affectionate with Davis, convincing as a husband, and, even at the pitch of anger, soft-spoken always. In shooting Two Road Together, John Ford, who preferred taciturn heroes, sat back in speechless wonder as Stewart made hay with his verbose character — and why was Ford so dumbstruck? — because James Stewart could make any line funny. That talent has no exercise here. The subject is serious as suicide.

Bette Davis’ delivery is blunt, emphatic, and authoritarian. It is her stand-in for all the parts she played from the age of forty. Her character is written exactly as difficult as Davis was in life. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She doesn’t even suffer gladly gladly. Bossy though she is, her voice is pitched high and plaintive. She sounds like a pleading child — and a nasty one at that. She flattens her lines as if to flatten the scene, the situation, and the other characters with them. Her performance is one step above amateur.

How then is it possible that she comes alive as an actor in that long conversation scene with Stewart? The film is worth seeing just for this passage. You will recognize it when it reaches you. Two actors simply playing with one another in the scene’s moment-by-moment. Natural as air. A jewel.

Neither actor expresses much physical vigor, a quality both were known for. And one wonders if this depletion were chosen or involuntary. Has age filched all their élan vital? Hard to believe. Opposite them Melinda Dillon operates on a level of vitality whose truth castes the two senior actors somewhat in the shade.

The movie is a museum piece. I enjoy museums. I always go.

 

Bombshell

04 Jan

Bombshell—directed by Jay Roach. Docudrama. 108 minutes Color 2019.

The Story: Females rouse and band to denounce the malfeasance of a TV studio head.

The story is less interesting as a current scandal involving well known persons, than it would have been as a simple story on its own. I was confused by its presentation — too many blonds all at once — and by the rat-tat-tat of brief scenes with so many participants I could not register them. I expect the writer felt he had to grant every bird on the perch its moment of urrent-events-fame, but each bird flew away too fast for me to care who they were.

What is interesting is the uprising of one woman, then more women, and then especially the queen herself against the king.

What is interesting is the human capacity to rise, resist, and overthrow oppression.

And what is interesting, nonetheless, is the resistance in the oppressed to join the revolution that would liberate them.

That is a battle not socially dramatic but internally dramatic.

In this picture Charlize Theron plays that queen. I did not recognize her. I kept waiting for her to appear. The character on the screen, whom the camera followed, I took to be a holding move—but it was Theron all the while.

She is unrecognizable— thinner than before, her face still as stone, her cheeks sculpted, her eyes impenetrably black. They exuded competence, confidence, collection. Her makeup must be marvelous, but how can you tell? It’s not noticeable like that of Aileen Wuornos whom she played in Monster. Nor is her character sympathetic, as Aileen was. Here she is not makeup-disguised. Here everything comes from the inside. Here she is reserved. Charlize Theron’s dimples, her generous smile, her gleeful, conniving eyes are nowhere evident. And yet one respects this character — Megyn Kelly, the superstar newscaster — whose very nature would draw audiences to her because she is inherently trustworthy.

So if you want to see why Theron is put forward this year for all the awards in her field, take in this movie. Charlize Theron gets 5 stars. If you love fine acting here it is: a masterpiece of interior lighting.

Surrounding her is Nicole Kidman as the first revolutionary, Margo Robbie as the most recent victim, John Lithgow as the molester, and in a wonderful turn as his Jewish lawyer, Allison Janney.

 

Marriage Story

10 Dec

Marriage Story—directed by Noah Baumbach. Comedrama. 2 hours 16 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: A professional business couple come to grips with themselves.
~
Well, if you’re interested to preview the Oscar winners for best actor and actress this year, watch Marriage Story to see Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver exceed themselves in it.

Both are wedded not to one another but to their calling, and both are stubborn as all get out.

That’s the situation but the execution of it by the writer who wrote it and the director who directed it, who happen to be the same person, liberates these actors, as he does the situation, so that truth be told on a scale and with an intensity seldom witnessed on the screen.

We are not talking about dead end kids here, but already accomplished middle class professionals on their way up to be established. So, for me, the ground is familiar. They are talking a tongue I know.

I saw the picture on Netflix last night. I am an ignorant person, for I thought it just came out at the local. Indeed, as you read, it still plays there. Maybe they have to release pictures in theaters by New Years to qualify for Oscars. Be that as it may, nothing is lost in watching this movie at home, for it depends for its impact less on the wide-screen spectacle movie screens prefer, but rather on a different sort of spectacle, that offered to close-ups.

And that really pays off as I see it on my iMac. For the writer has written at two points long monologues for his actors, the first delivered by Johansson to her shrink. I had never thought much of Johansson as an an actor, until I saw her do a short character part or two, where she surprised me. But now—wow—the director dispenses with that drain on our attention, the reaction shot, and lets the camera stay on her through the entire speech. He gives her to us wholly. I was so happy for her. Here was an actor at her best, here was an actor at the peak of her craft, here was an actor doing what she hoped one day to give when she started years ago.

Adam Driver’s turn comes later which you’ll recognize by your shock when you come upon it. He is one of those actors who, like Edward G. Robinson, one cannot take one’s eyes off of. Why? He is not homely, he is not handsome, he is not sexy. He is that rare thing: mysterious. It is lodged in the space he keeps still between his sometimes narrow eyes and his rich thick lips. You never know what he is feeling until it cheekily surprises you. Here he is in peak form.

Everyone else plays it for satire and are at the top of their game too: Laura Dern’s Hollywood lawyer, Alan Alda and Ray (Liotta particularly) as other Hollywood lawyers. All credit to all.

And all credit to the audience whose understanding, delight, and attention this ruefully truthfully told tale its director and writer honors.

 

Nakom

08 Dec

Nakom—directed by Kelley Daniela Morris and TW Pitman. Drama. 90 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★
The Story: A medical student must leave the city to tend to his father’s estate and finds in that hometown the great seduction of success.
~ ~ ~

My justification for buffing films is to reach to the public library shelf and pluck off such a gem of fairest ray as this.

I had never head of Nakom. Had you?

It threw me into a world I never knew of nor would expect to see—the long drawn out farm country of Africa. Village life there. Country folk there. This is the farm land, not of the big ranches of the Boers and English, nor of the coffee plantations of Out Of Africa, nor of Tarzan’s jungle, but the hard red soil of the onion fields and the giant stalks of the millet plant.

Beautiful. Bare. Green.

Into it the man comes to bury his father who had died out of season. There he finds the family farm run by the skeptical, lazy, and incestuous. He must martial them into action and strategize a drought to plant the seeds, but not before their time.

We see such interesting humans, cranky and bossy and frightened and warm. But to me the whole world of it is what is strange and new. What is ordinary to them is to me exotic and strong. The glaring women’s clothes, the rudimentary shorts and t-shirts worn by the men. The dance celebration at the huge public funeral.

He takes charge but will he stay? Will be he lured, as I am lured?

But his drama appeals to me less than the beauty of his family, his people, the way they weed their wide bare fields, water those fields with punctured gas tanks, eat their dinners on dishes on the floor. The peaked houses, the world of that world.

It is the first film set in Africa that was not pestered by foreign actors. Canada Lee and Sidney Poitier are wonderful actors, but why drag them in from Manhattan to do Cry, The Beloved Country? Here I see an Africa which now for the first time I can believe in.

But here it is for you, and once again I am so enthusiastic I cannot sit still to tell you what you might very much want to know about this film. I can say that it is a film that will hold and delight anyone over eight years old. Or over eighty, which is what I happen to be.

Nakom is penetrating, helpful, engaging, tough, real, imaginative. It is wonderful to look at. And follow. It is that rare entertainment: it is simple at the same time as it is intelligent.

Do let me know I have convinced you.

Do let me know I am right.

Be like me. Be ravished.

 
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Mary Of Scotland

01 Dec

Mary Of Scotland—directed by John Ford. Historical. 123 minutes Black and White 1936.
★★★★
The Story: An attractive young queen assumes her throne only to be bullied by everyone.
~
Mary of Scotland as a monarch is not a good subject for drama, although Mary Stuart as a person is so tempting that even Schiller placed his great talent at her disposal. I saw Eva Le Gallienne and and Irene Worth (and later Signe Hasso) do it in Tyrone Guthrie’s production at The Phoenix. It is a play frequently revived. It is based on a confrontation between the two queens Elizabeth and Mary that never (as politically inexpedient) could have taken place. And of course there is the opera Maria Stuarda of Donizetti, based on the Schiller. Schiller had a massive talent for extensive confrontation scenes of a romantic order. And they have a certain carrying power in his play. Shakespeare wisely stayed clear of the subject, even when his patron, the king, was Mary’s son, James. Maxwell Anderson, however, riding his over-stuffed studio couch of talent into the ditch accomplished a traffic jam.

What’s the problem?

Mary made unwise decisions. If we had a good play about her today, it would resemble the decisions the present queen of England is seen to make in The Crown: every single decision Elizabeth II makes is wrong. But her string of errors holds the story of her reign together.

But Mary was also a creature of determining bad luck, which Elizabeth II is not. And bad luck is a subject that cannot be dramatized. While if ever an actress was born to overrule bad luck it was Katharine Hepburn, even she cannot do it. Dudley Nichols, an able screenwriter if there ever was one, cannot do it. Pandro Berman has produced it magnificently, but that merely detours the problem. And, of course, John Ford directed it with his crude sentimentality and his robust love of men doing manly things this time in kilts. They execute them in close order marches, singing in brave choral unison, amid the screeches of bagpipes.

Frederic March as the sexy rash warrior Lord Bothwell is miscast although he assumes the position with all the will of the matinée idol he wasn’t. Frederic March cannot assume a role perfect for Errol Flynn. March’s real-life wife Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth falls into the same trap that snared Bette Davis in the role: playing the queen as a waterfront thug.

Katharine Hepburn alone carries the film, which is all over the place. Alone among the actors at least she is not over-costumed by Walter Plunkett. Sometimes she plays in the Noble Mode of her era and choice, but often she is touching, not because she can generate at will that left-eye tear of hers, but because Mary was flustered and muscled by her Scots lairds. She assumed a throne whose rule of a child-king had been in the hands a regency of men too accustomed to having their own way, and her assumption was ignorant, incompetent, and incorrect. But to see Hepburn helpless has its appeal.

She is supported by the brilliant filming of Joe August. If you want to learn something about how to shoot this sort of royal hooey (Game Of Thrones), watch Mary Of Scotland. Watch how his camera holds his actors in its embrace, caresses them with black, searches their faces in fade-outs.

When I was eighteen I lived in Oundle and visited the next town over, Fotheringhay, where Mary was held by Elizabeth in house arrest. After much delay, Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant. But when Mary was beheaded and fell dead, a commotion bestirred her garments. Then it was discovered she has secreted her lapdog in the voluminous sleeves of her dress.

It’s a telling detail of a woman too trivial to grasp the reality of her royal situation. A child woman, of course, Hepburn could play but only as a hoyden as Jo in Little Women. Still she looks lovely in the role and acts it with all the restraint necessary to an actor baffled by a role of a sexy woman once played on Broadway by the least sexy actress of all, Helen Hayes. That is to say, into the basic material nothing fits because the basic material for drama is not there.

Hepburn is not box-office poison, but the material RKO gave her in those days was. Or perhaps her arrogance in thinking she could overcome that material by force of personality was the poison. Hepburn was not an actress who could shape material to her own ends. That was not within her genius or appeal. She could do a lot. She could not do everything. Still if you love or admire her, as I certainly do, here she is in the least heroic role she ever played. And it is worthwhile to see how she keeps her seat in the role to ride it right off the cliff at the end.

 

The Irishman

01 Dec

The Irishman—direct by Martin Scorsese. Crime Drama. 3 hours 29 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: An agèd Mob hitman/thug/bodyguard recalls his professional life as the favorite sponsee/liaison of two big business potentates, one a union leader, one a gangland don.

Robert DeNiro plays the leading, title, and starring role here, Frank Sheeran. What he learns from the first mentor, the don, played by Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino, don of the Buffalo Cosa Nostra, is mastery of keeping the peace both in himself and between warring factions. What he learns from the second, Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the largest union in the world and played by Al Pacino, is to urge such peacekeeping on his volatile boss every minute of the day.

The picture unfolds at 3 ½ hours but never stalls, never bores, never repeats.

It is essentially a string trio for viola, with Pacino playing the violin, Pesci playing the cello, and De Niro the viola. Despite its chamber-work-compression of instruments, its scale is widespread in its localities, while remaining detailed in those settings. It holds forth all over the country on the one hand, and on the other it counts on intimate closeups of the three stars. We range from the gigantic to the particular with no conflict of style. This is because the development of relations is forefront at all times and throughout.

As to the acting, that is another story. Pacino and DeNiro never play their characters. Despite the blue eyes, you never believe De Niro’s character’s background is Irish/Swedish from Pennsylvania. You never believe Pacino’s character’s background is Irish/German midwestern. Both of them present as lower-class New York City Italian first-generation, with accents and mannerisms to match.

As such, each of them uses the same acting techniques and styles they have developed and employed for upwards of 50 years. No concession is granted to the parts they play in terms of nature, class, region, or background. This has partly to do with their understanding of the limitations and securities of their basic techniques, and partly to do with the denial of Method Acting Training to emphasize language or voice training of any kind for actors.

On screen, De Niro and Pacino are not like Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa. For such is not within their talent and interest. Rather Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa are like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. So Pacino and De Niro in those parts is not a matter of acting at is greatest reaches. It is a matter of casting. Their performances present zero surprises. As character actors give Pacino and De Niro an F. As movie star actors give them an A+.

For they engage their roles, if not their characters, full bore. As an audience you fully set aside their lacks, overcome as you are by the strength of their technique, its torrent and delicacy. Pacino thrusts his Hoffa forward with every eccentricity at his muster, and you go along with it because it is required for us to witness Hoffa as not just difficult, but so difficult as to be impossible, and so impossible as to be doomed. This sort of acting is the hand Pacino has dealt himself under the table for years.

Right before our eyes, likewise, De Niro, ever since The Deerhunter, has lodged into his face that rictus which he wishes us to be taken for stress, eyes aglare with threat, corners of the mouth drawn down. Nonetheless, it provides his Frank Sheeran with the cover and restraint necessary for the crises he faces, and it gives to his loyalty the black shiny surface of honest patent leather. It also gives him the cover to perform that impressive phone conversation, executed quite properly with the trick of making it hard for him to breathe. Struggling for breath would happen to any of us thus circumstanced, the whole body almost closing down to survive what against its own nature he must avow in that call.

Of the three, Joe Pesci’s playing as the Godfather, god-father, and god/father is different from the volatility one associates with Pesci’s work in the past. None of that former crazy, wild, out-of-control rashness is on view. Every hint of danger and unpredictability is reduced to just one wild horse in the corral instead of a herd of them. Careful, just, reasonable is what he gives us, and his is the best performance of the three, because not only are the character and actor Italian so his physical metaphor works, but his conviction, common sense, and kindness have the enormous carrying power of the subtle. You look into his eyes, and you understand everything his character does and must do. Pesci’s Russell Bufalino does nothing out of evil, cruelty or meanness, but only for what is best for business, that is to say for the protection and benefit of the largest group of people.

Indeed, you might say that The Irishman is the secret files of the personnel departments of two big businesses. You might think this would be tedious. It is fascinating, because of Scorsese’s treatment of the material, his attention to detail and to his sticking to what he knows best—and his ear for it.

The principal defect of the picture and what accounts for its length lies in the failure of the script to distinguish what hit-men do. They eliminate people in advance of or in response to revenge. Or they eliminate people who are in the way. We do not see this distinction made in the film because so much attention is given to revenge-hits, whereas Hoffa’s disappearance was an instance of the latter. He was a mad dog threatening a whole village. He was in the way.

For, towards his end, Hoffa threatened Union hegemony and the conduct of its vast pension funds. He didn’t see what a threat he was both to union business and to Mafia business or recognize what the Mafia would do about it.

Big business directs the story as a whole. But The Irishman is a story worked out in terms of the relations between its three main characters. All three have big hearts. At the end, the business story and the plot of these big-hearted relationships converge to make the crisis. But it stops short. The crisis is never developed.

There is a scene missing.

The crisis is simple:

Can you murder your best friend?

Is is kinder to put your belovèd ailing dog out of its misery or should you let unfriendly disease slay it?

Nonetheless, while a dog may be man’s best friend, your best friend is not a dog.

Can you murder your best friend?

Is it better that Frank murder Hoffa because, according to the code, it is more loving, it is more honorable, it is more loyal?

Hoffa/Pacino is in the way.

As the servant of two masters, will De Niro remain loyal to his best friend, Pacino, or will he remain loyal to his father, Pesci?

Can you actually hold a gun and deliver two shots to the back of your best friend’s skull?

Can you murder your best friend?

The writer and director have not seen this complex matter plain. And without the focus of a great confrontation scene fully mounted, the film lacks a KO and spreads itself into 3½ hours.

And, without it, The Irishman falls short of the great category of a high tragedy which is its proper sphere.

(Although, if it had attainted high tragedy, it is possible that De Niro does not have the talent to perform it.)

Still the film is worth seeing, because every scene, every shot is choice. If Scorsese has failed to tell his drama well, Scorsese has not failed to tell his story well.

As for the rest, Anna Paquin is telling as the daughter who sees through the lie of Frank’s life. She’s underused in the part, which would be the central for the scenes left out.

And it’s lovely to see Harvey Keitel at work again.

The movie is beautifully cast, produced, acted, and set.

Who does not bow before editor Thelma Schoonmaker has neither manners nor sense.

Also praise be to those who aged and youthened the three men’s faces as time planed or chiseled them. None of this bothered me or detoured my attention. I invite everyone reading to a like infatuation.

For Scorsese has not just dealt a hand of cards. He has dealt four hands. And they are beautiful, as one by one he plays them out, card by card, before our eyes so privileged to see them.

 

The Laundromat

27 Nov

The Laundromat—directed by Steven Soderbergh. Crime Dramedy. 95 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: The mad fairytale of the notorious off-shore tax evasion con is danced into floodlit glare by its perpetrators and victims alike.
~
Here we have a that rarity, a comic polemic, apt, imaginative, convincing. How well directed? Perfectly. How written, edited, costumed, set, and designed? Perfectly.

As to the acting, all the actors should be shot.

And why is that?

Because how could any of them exceed in excellence what they triumph as here?

The piece takes on the illegal, devious, cheap, and costly scam of off-shore tax shelters. 60 billion tax dollars lost last year to the common weal, stolen and stashed by America’s corporations.

I mean, how small can you get? How vile, how cheesy to cheat one’s countrymen of education? Food? Care?

Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman play international profits isolators, Banderas from Latin America and Oldman from someplace Teutonic, Tweedledum and Tweedledee in perfect sync. Believe me, they are believed to be must seen. Which means you dare not miss the black comedy of their grift, the irony of their alibis, their slippery sloping mealy-mouthed lying tongues. They play other parts as well, all in aid of mendacity and moolah.

Meryl Streep?

I leave you to wake to her particular genius again. We keep falling asleep about her. She keeps waking us up.

Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer—all in top form. Clear, cogent, creative.

This is on Netflix and was produced for Netflix.

Tip top entertainment. Which induces us all to rise to the occasion, I should hope.

 

Il Postino: The Postman

10 Nov

The Postman (Il Postino)—directed by Michael Radford. Drama. Color.
★★★★★
The Story: What could a world renown poet and his postman possibly have in common?
~
Every other male on that island is a fisherman, but our hero is no good at that, so when a part-time postman job comes up for a man with a bike, he bites.

The poet Pablo Neruda has taken refuge from political terror in Chile in a remote house on a small Italian Island. To bring him his mail, our postman bikes up the mountain road every day to his door.

The town is fascinated by the presence of this great celebrity—as famous for his politics as his poetry. Our postman understand his village, but is not political, not worldly nor widely read. He presently comes to ask Neruda’s help.

What’s the wonder here?

The wonder is the confluence of two styles of screen acting. It is a mesh so seamless you would not suppose two styles even exist.

The first is the style of the great French film actor Phillippe Noiret. He tells us in the bonus material that he based his portrait on Neruda never crossing his legs. Which, in terms of the rubric of acting, means that his Neruda is never at once remove from any situation or person, that he is always open, never posed. Noiret’s acting style is what was said of Mildred Dunnock’s: so experienced it looks fresh.

The second style is that of the actor in search of a style. Massimo Troisi, which is to say a famous belovèd comic screen actor obliged to stop being funny and start relating to other characters according to their dramatic status. This works because, since he and everyone hold Neruda in awe, the story requires that his character’s job is to find a way to enter into Neruda—into his house, into his talent, into his values—in order to to let Neruda into his. It is the story of one man learning from another, the character with no experience dissolving into reaching out for the experience of the other.

Troisi’s performance of this character is so taking that one supposed Troisi had never acted in his life before. It is breathtakingly new. The Zen beginner beginning before one’s very eyes. There is nothing like it in all cinema. You might suppose he was an amateur, someone they dragged in off the street, and blessed him with the perfect role. How happy this character makes me!

This film was loved in its day and is lovable today. Don’t miss it. Draw all those you love into a screening. After a bit the subtitles will not disturb anyone. Open-heartedness has never been so simple, so easy, so available, so beautiful.

 

Pain And Glory

08 Nov

Pain and Glory—directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Drama. 113 minutes Color 2019. ★★★★★
The Story: A renown film director in retreat from his calling faces the remote and nearer past.
~
Why do we watch with unvarying attention this film which has no plot and no discernible story?

Whatever can be said about the director’s treatment of his material, it is too integrated to sit back and grasp. So too the writing. The editing. Of course Almodóvar is also a film director, but who cares enough about that or him to situate him in place of the character up on the screen?

Do we care whether he will ever direct a film again? Perhaps it lodges as the only issue for suspense, but does it matter to us as we see that particular actor play a director called Mello? Do we care about his hypochondria? How silly and self-indulgent all that seems, just some sort of alibi. Do we care about his increasing drug addiction? Of course not. We all intuitively know that addiction is not a subject for drama any more than it is a proper subject for therapy, since addiction turns humans into robots, and drama is not a subject for robots but for humans.

And so it goes.

Why are we placing our unvarying interest in this film as we watch it?

The cause is a combination of all the forces above aligned by the director—set design, cinemaphotography, editing, and writing—to entertain us so richly we cannot pay an attention to them that veers away from the energy and eyes of the main character and the actor who plays him, Antonio Banderas.

Will I spoil the surprise ending for you by telling you the film has one? That last scene tells you why all the issues above are begged. It also thrusts you back into devoting one’s respect for the actor where it is due and intended.

Banderas is an actor, like Richard Burton, always on reserve, always holding back, indeed so used to holding back that it does not occur either to him or to you that he he is holding back. And that is the story of his character’s nature, as we see it unfold and not unfold before us. Reserve is Banderas’ habit. Which he wears like a habit.

Indeed, there is a homosexual content to this film that you never suspect for a minute until halfway through it emerges as natural as dawn.

All we know about this character is that he suffers. And we also know not why but that in his circumstances we too would suffer. Until we see, one by one, his causes for suffering dissolve into non-issues.

Which does not mean they are not real.

They are. Banderas makes them so. We participate with him in cooperating with this film with the attention to it that makes it fine.

Also, of course, there exists the strength of the garish palette of Almodóvar. So, for a time, I allow myself to live in a scab-red kitchen and amid the blatant chromolithographic forces of his pictures which scatter from our notions of such subject matter the impression that reality must be banal to be true. No, their reality is as solid and vivid as their colors.

The title of the film provides this is as the first fact to be faced. So is the presence of the vivid Penélope Cruz. Pain is not the way to translate “dolor”. “Sorrow” is the translation. No one is in pain here. Everything is recoverable.

There is much to say about this film and the films of Pedro Almodóvar, and I have here said none of it. I leave those words to your conversations with your friends after you have enjoyed yourself in its spell.

 

Downton Abbey, the movie

30 Sep

Downton Abbey, the film—directed by Michael Engler. Drama. 122 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: Upstairs and downstairs is challenged by a royal visit.
~
The mixture as before.

And why not? Into the cut-glass punchbowl are poured:

The pleasure of seeing how the very rich live.

English beautifully spoken.

Fabulous period costumes.

The interior, exterior, and grounds of a stunning palace.

A million dollar cast.

The power of the servants.

The big-hearted devotion of everyone to everyone.

In a story devoted to service and the industry it requires

The devotion in the audience to a saga it has followed for years.

Told as before,

In short, a legal addiction.

The grandees face survival. And so do the servants. A few of them face it prominently. But they all vortex around the overnight visit to Downton of King George V and Queen Mary. The entire machinery of the great house is both engaged and overset by the protocols of this visit.

I never tell movie plots to you that previews of their coming attractions have not already spelled out. So consider yourself satisfied with an appetizer intended to draw you to a feast and a dance that both surprise and delight and at the same time meet all expectations. Princesses and witches, wily servants and loyal retainers. And the blessèd absence of Shirley Maclaine.

Downton is a house none of us would now either work in or own. Such mansions were designed for royal processions upon which monarchs and their retinues once travelled Great Britain to dispense the king’s justice. They were stupendous motels. Our vainglorious and nosy pleasure in being allowed inside one for a weekend is the same pleasure we took in Tara, a worthwhile, fleeting indulgence as interlopers into a world of splendor and privilege that is gone with the wind.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Masterpiece Theatre Miniseries, Uncategorized

 

The Farewell

08 Sep

The Farewell— written and directed by LuLu Wang. Dramedy. 1 hour 40 minute Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: a clan gather to see the family matriarch who, unknown to her, has but three months to live—but decorum forbids them to tell her this.
~
If you find merit in The Joy Luck Club (and I do), you will find the same merit in The Farewell. For me that merit is to be carried inside of a large Chinese family into whose midst I would not ordinarily be invited and even if I were could not experience it up and down, inside out, like this.

Its drama lies with the American tendency to tell the truth no-matter-what in emergency-conflict with Chinese reticence. People from all over come to the matriarch’s home on the pretense of attending a family wedding, but actually to see the mother, grandmother and great grandmother of them all for a last farewell which they shall never allow themselves to utter.

The American point of view is embodied by a Chinese/American woman in her 20s, at loose ends, unsuccessful in her career, without a beau, with a poor figure, with a face distended with ire, and a resolve to blurt out the worst.

The actress who plays her makes her such a disagreeable person to be with, one wonders what on earth keeps one watching her, until one figures out, quite late in the film, it is the task of wondering why one watches her that keeps one doing so.

This is a tribute to the actress Awkafina’s sticking to her guns and sending out no appeals of charm nor bids for pity. Her resoluteness of performance makes the story happen not only on the screen but in the bodies of the audience.

Still, why doesn’t someone in that family tell the old lady the truth?

The conflict is made complex not just by the generation gap and nationality gap of family members, but by the seductions of common language, tradition, superstition, parental authority, family gatherings, and by the lure of all that incomparable food.

I watch this film made happily at ease by the perfection of the casting and the simple truth of the acting of everyone. The film is essentially comic, with death waiting at its core, that is to say the stakes are high.

I had a great time watching the opening marriage scene of The Godfather Part I, and I love a movie with lots of types bouncing off one another, such as the Rules Of The Game and You Can’t Take It With You. These sorts of films require a director to invigorate the crowds. It has one in LuLu Wang. Her film direction is rich, varied, impeccable.

She takes me into a world I wouldn’t belong and makes me feel comfortable there, by the simple strategy of showing me everything that is uncomfortable in it, and therefore humorous about it.

I bow.

 
 

Moonrise Kingdom

27 Aug

Moonrise Kingdom—directed by Wes Anderson. Slapstick Comedy. 94 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
The Story: A twelve year-old girl and boy run off into the woods together and a whole town seeks to find them.
~
Glad to see this from its start to its finish, for me it is as though Buster Keaton transmogrified himself into a technicolor camera and let loose a whopping good fable. Actually Moonlight Kingdom is It Happened One Night updated to 1965, and It Happened One Night was actually The Taming Of The Shrew 1591 updated to 1934. I am watching a movie with an animated cartoon aesthetic, except the aesthetic is belongs to Wes Anderson rather than Looney Tunes. Spectacular silliness.

For Anderson is not so much funny in what he says as in how he shows. And the acting style the actors hop onto is Anderson’s odd bandwagon of straightfaced dedication to the preposterous and necessary. The pictorial symmetry of the camera opens up my brain, as though both my eyes were finally and concurrently put to separate use and flattered so to be. As a story teller he compliments and complements me at every turn.

Here we have Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, and Bruce Willis to chase the children through the woods, and every one of them knows exactly what tone to pitch.

They are helped by a posse of a zillion boy scouts and a hurricane and Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, his Noah’s Fludde, and a fanciful score by Alexandre Desplat. Indeed I experienced the movie itself as a duet between the movie itself and its score.

Moonrise Kingdom is candy from one’s childhood, the kind I hadn’t tasted since long ago, the sort I didn’t think they made anymore. It put a smile on my face. It puts a smile on my face to search for the words to send you its way.

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

18 Aug

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?—directed by Richard Linklater. Drama. 130 minutes Color 2019
★★★★
The Story: Is this woman going insane?
~
What do you want from a movie?

The world!

Yes!!

And, if you can’t have that, then Cate Blanchette.

And here she is playing another different, difficult woman. I say “different” because you may remember Bette Davis. Bette Davis never played difficult women. She played impossible women, and they were all the same because she played them all the same, wonderful as she was. Blanchette’s are distinguishable from one another. Because she doesn’t play them all the same.

That she plays a genius here is not the difficulty. But it’s interesting.

Two things about it are interesting. The first is that you believe it. And the second, which has to do with the story, is: what does she have a genius for? And how is that joined to her madness?

Behind this lurks the deleterious narrative motive that this all has to do with +metoo issues, and also that these can be wrapped by a very small package of dialogue. The problem is, to begin with, *metoo issus can’t be wrapped up at all. First because they overflow the strings which they include. And secondly because +metoo issues do not pertain to this material.

This is the story of a woman who is chewing off her own tail by mocking the world around her. The director tips the odds against that world—which is not fair to the audience—but, by so doing, what harm is this woman doing herself, even so?

She is consuming herself alive, and this is the fascination of the performance and its mystery.

So what will save her?

To me the answer is imaginative and visibly wonderful.

Blanchette’s acting has great passages, if that’s worth a ticket to you. And she has
fine support in Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, and Laurence Fishburne, lovely actors all.

Be warned: the film enters an architecture of human difficulty not spared to females only.

 
 

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

29 Jul

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood—directed by Quentin Tarantino. Grand Guignol Dramedy. 161 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★
The Story: An ambitionless stunt double does his TV star friend a big fat favor when the Manson Family enters the premises.
~
Here’s the spoiler. Brad Pitt does not die at the end and ought to. Because if he did, his movie star best friend would be in character to aver nothing happened so as to amble up Sharon Tate’s drive to angle with her husband, director Roman Polanski, for a movie part. The comedy would not just be finito but finished funny.

Barring that, barring that the film goes on a bit long at the start, it succeeds as a wild escapade into early TV Hollywood and the stunning mechanics of TV acting then and now. In this, Leonardo DiCaprio is funny indeed, or at least the situations he is placed in are funny and he rises just high enough to the brink of those situations to reap the wit the director had in mind. Astonishing.

You would think Tarantino hated Hollywood movies, for he wreaks a rare satire on them, as one would upon a dumb seduction from one’s foolish past. Tarantino is remorseless. And for this reason we want to see what he does. Quentin Tarantino is Gilbert and Sullivan with, instead of music, blood.

He does what we dare not do and says what we dare not say, overkills all when we would wish to but would not be sufficiently skilled to. The entire film is set up to display our gory tongue. We watch caught up in the bloodletting which is the film’s finale and the excuse for it.

And, gosh, we watch agreeing with his violence in its every extremity. We wield Tarantino’s dismembering rapier deliciously. The young women are brained and burned alive, and not only do we cheer, we want more: more gore, more gore. We are on the side of Brad Pitt against “those Hippies!” Every available ambition of impotent resentment is summoned in the audience, as Tarantino prepares us as a chef preparing a chef d’oeuvre. We are the feast itself.

The film is an open invitation for audience members to disgrace themselves, and we all do!

But the thing is that, after all, it’s just a movie, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t.

Movies this good aren’t just a movie.

Are they?

 

BlackKlansman

25 Jul

BlackKlansman—directed by Spike Lee. Comic Spy Drama. 135 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: A black and a while men play Cyrano to one another as they infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
~
Of course! The vividness of Spike Lee’s energy and eye! The narrative imagination of Lee! The color behind the color! Lee’s launch of subjects and themes into their rashest limits! Why would anyone want to resist?

If it were not for the disappointments! If it were not for the infidelities to his medium! If it were not for his arrogance!

Stunning is Lee’s presentation of the speech of Stokely Carmichael before a gathering in Colorado Springs in the ‘70s, and brilliant Lee’s offering to us the impression of it upon those black folks listening.

What’s brilliant on the screen becomes recognizable. What’s not brilliant becomes a rut. What’s brilliant about this scene is the performance of a brilliant speech brilliantly by the actor Corey Hawkins and the simplicity of the camera in giving it to us.

What is also brilliant is the slow montage of dark close-ups of black faces, faces only, impassive, motionless, disembodied, as they absorb what Stokely Carmichael is saying. Of course those faces are not new to Carmichael: their hair-styles are already open to his views.

But what counts is that we see no emotion in their eyes. The story by their stillness delivers to us the contents of Carmichael’s speech directly, which we as the audience, also an audience, get with our own impassive faces impressed by what we are hearing, as though hearing it for the first time, which for many of us we are.

The hairdos of the black listeners may be wrong, but their faces, impassive as ours, allow us to be one with the moment a movement emerges. The movement goes on, or its content does. That’s a fiction good as a fact.

What are the obstacles in black folks as a whole which prevent their success?

If there is an answer to this question, the question is not even broached by the film.

What it gives us instead is the incompetence and silliness of the Klan. And David Dukes its leader, discretely played by Toper Grace, does not hate black people, as all the local Colorado Springs Klansmen must do: Dukes loves blacks: he simply wants complete segregation. In this, he is at emotional, polemical, and political odds with prejudice of any kind. Funny without saying so.

The story the film tells is how Dukes’ clan was duped by a well-spoken black police detective into encouraging a white detective who took the black man’s name to become an Intelligence wire inside Klan headquarters.

What a funny story! What derring-do! What cleverness in a black officer to lead the investigation and eventually thwart the assassination of the black student leader.

But the movie goes off track by becoming a tract. And which tract? There were so many black tracts in those days. It is as though Lee wished to to leave no outrage unpresented and thus to accommodate them all. To accommodate none would have been right.

The young actress called upon to play an Angela Davis-type organizer is called upon to deliver a line of racial argument as conversation during her wooing by the main character, and this tract falls flat, either because the actress is incapable of making it real, or because it is badly written, or because Lee cannot manage to be creatively behind it in this film, where it does not belong, even though he has clearly felt it was necessary and funny. It is neither. And we lose the story in the side-lining of this irrelevant romance.

Lee has the bad habit of collapsing a fictional story into documentary. He introduces Harry Belafonte to tell the story of the the public dismemberment and incineration by a mob of a backward black boy said to have make a pass at a white woman.

Belafonte-and-the-story is enough. But Lee ornaments the scene with black folks holding placards of postcards sold from photographs taken of this ghastly event combined with the horrified on-camera responses of those listening to it and turns the story into a protest march, and the point is lost. We, before our screen, not the audience of black folks in the film, are all the audience needed for that story. Without our audience-job, we are left with nothing to participate in, as Lee, does everything and so steals the movie from us.

Why mention these things? Because with them, they sabotage our faith in the story, whatever that is.

Whatever that is, Lee has cast the good guys and the bad guys perfectly. And they play their parts perfectly. Alex Baldwin as a proto-bigot undergoing the train wreck of recording a TV speech seizes the available satire by the scruff of its neck and shakes it for all it’s worth.

But Lee is even more favored in his principal players. First in Adam Driver as the stand-in for the black klansman. His part is the best written part in the film, and he fills it to the brim and over.

John David Washington is perfectly cast as Ron Stallworth, the black Colorado Springs Intelligence officer who in real life actually performed the neat feat of infiltrating the Klan as his white double played by Driver. Washington knows exactly how to seize the comic opportunities Lee has given him, from patting his Afro at the start to dancing a wild jig in Lee’s dancehall version of the stage shows of black singers then. Washington has the inner nature for the part, which must be played as he does play it on the comic brink of a well-spoken tongue-in-cheek interloper into the world of white bigots.

I write this way that you shall be fairly warned of the perils and pleasures awaiting you for a film you must see, because of the director’s unique imagination and visual vivacity. His spirit.

All film is entertainment. That we should entertain the contents of a work of art for a time is what the entertainment value of all art means. To entertain must be a film’s foremost concern and intent. How to do that?

Sometimes Lee forgets he is making a film, and thinks he is in a pulpit, forgetting that pulpits are boring, for their threats are redundant thunder. Never mind that. Lee is still in a film. Our job is to love the dickens out of him and to continue to pursue the valuable delights he has made for our inspection and glee.

 

The Last Black Man In San Francisco

15 Jul

The Last Black Man In San Francisco—directed by Joe Talbot. Drama. 121 minutes Color 2019
★★★★★
The Story: Two friend join forces to bring to fruition the dream of one of them.
~
Movies vital to be seen this year fall in line immediately behind this one.

White cinema coasts on by on the glib zeitgeist of its fads. Black films are more interesting and more necessary. They have available to them a greater range than white films because their characters have more at stake, so their situations reveal more, explore more, and offer keener human truths.

The premise of The Last Black Man In San Francisco is simple as pie. It is illustrated everywhere but spelled out nowhere.

This starts at the quirky beginning of the picture which reveals a San Francisco I have never seen, vistas never come upon, streets unknown to me, and I live here. Even if one did not live here, the spectacle of these places would disorient one, as would the behavior of the people shown and the way they are shown. So from the start we are in the hands of a director whose treatment of his material we have not experienced before and do not surrender to readily, as our trust in his storytelling is alerted, challenged, and beguiled.

Two black males pitch in on a task. Yes. But what we see play out before us is the lack of any foundation for young black males to prosper. They are reduced to pipe dreams, street corner braggadocio, and the rant of preaching. That is to say to hot air. That is to say to jive.

Don’t we know the pipe dream these two fellows shoot for will fail? Not because they are black, but because of the law of the land which has inherent in it a reasonable justice. But still, does one not believe that these two young men, if they put their heads together, could really accomplish something? But will they? What’s the obstacle? And is it insurmountable?

The obstacle is that black folks in this country are treated as immigrants. They are treated as newcomers without the welcome. They are treated like unwanted interlopers. The difference between the way blacks are treated and the way actual immigrants, from Central America, say, are treated is that blacks of this country have for so long a 400 years already paid their dues that they have no natural response available to their lack of welcome but the impoverished retreats of insanity, ghetto, or crime.

The two men here are native sons. They are not babies but are at least thirty. One is a butcher by trade and another a nurse. Both have dreams, the butcher to bring to life the world around him in drawings and plays—a perfectly valid vocation—the other to realize that that heartfelt dream and first and most basic need of all immigrants once they arrive, which is to make a home.

But they are denied the foundation for it. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the foundation for it. This is a foundation of air. But it is a true foundation nonetheless. That is why is it called a foundation. As is a foundation of expectation that they may establish a home. That too is a foundation of air. Upon such foundations is American grounded.

But is hot air all these two men are to be allowed?

Outside of the rigid spectacles of sport or song, do ordinary black folks deserve no better than base pay? Or worse than immigrants, must a racial past or complexion open to them no hope for their future and admit them no latitude?

None of this does the film pronounce out loud. But the foundation of spirit denied them—that is the hidden enemy facing these two ordinary men. They are not gangsters or drug dealers or hotshot academics. Not bright, not special. But exactly the ones we want to see.

The modern American black male cannot make his way, because he is treated as not yet a citizen. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if doled out remain unexperienced to black folks as a custom of the country, just as it would be to anyone. It is also unknown to those who deprive others of this foundation. And black males themselves do this to other black males, and, in this, the black dance with a white world remains a dance of concrete.

These are my underlying notions about the film, none of which will induce you to see it. But, listen to me, the film is impressive. Perfectly shot, directed, edited, with remarkable locations and set decoration. Ideally cast and impeccably performed in every part. Full of vitality, imagination, and constant interest. It is a masterful entertainment because of what you will find inside you as you see it.

What must draw you to see it is that its story and way are unexpected.

Unexpected in all areas in which I have praised it.

Its impression on me may in no way resemble yours—except it is bound to be aesthetic. It is bound to be your response to witness a beautiful thing.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Danny Glover, Directed by: Joe Talbot

 

Maudie

24 Jun

Maudie—directed by Aisling Walsh. Biopic. 1 hour 55 minutes. Color 2017.
★★★★
The Story: A crippled girl as the housemaid of a bad-tempered fisherman becomes a renowned painter.
~

Ethan Hawke is an actor less interesting than the vehicles in which he appears. His intelligence in choosing those vehicles has kept him before the public far longer than his talent warrants, but, God bless him, it has also brought those vehicles before a public that without him would never see them.

This is no small credit in his favor. So is the fact that he has kept his movie star figure. And he seems to have all his hair. Good.

My difficulty with him lies partly in the smug conformation of his mouth. And partly that he employs his mouth like a footman opening the front door as though he were lord of the manor. He uses it to semaphore thought, attitude, emotion, which tumult is always a sign of bad acting.

In this piece he uses his mouth to retain a vantage point of gruffness which is with us through thirty years of story. This is the Harrison Ford/Woody Harrelson School Of Acting. One never gets behind the gesticulation of the mouth. Yet here he is, holding the fort for an actor better than he, in this case Sally Hawkins.

Sally Hawkins plays Maudie Lewis, a young woman dismissed for a physical deformity, since her feet don’t work as others’ feet do and she has a cruel arthritis. She becomes the housekeeper of his tiny house, and, in time, despite his abuse of her, she become a renowned painter.

She’s an odd duck, and, while Hawkins overplays her, as a written character Maudie is impudent and fun, which saves her. Hawkins performance of her is also saved by the same thing that somewhat sinks her performance, Hawkins’ mastery of detail. This excess of detail is designed to pull in pathos, which is unwanted as a narrative fuel in this material, because the film is not about their relationship or about her so much as it is about how art, in this case painting, takes over the lives of everyone connected with it.

It is a rare movie for this reason. Most movies about painters have to do with the inadequately understood greatness of an artist. Fiddlesticks! It is not the painter that is of importance, it is the paintings, and these do not require a dramatic film of any sort.

The drama inheres in the fallacy that the big mean husband is in control, as he claims, over the poor trembling wife. He demands absolute leadership as the owner and head of the house and the male and healthy. And it looks like the weak cripple female must succumb and follow and abide.

But the drama behind this display of violence and subjection to it lies another drama, which is not stated even once but which subconsciously claims our interest, and that is the drama not of “Who leads?” but of “What leads?”

This being a movie of a certain length, mustn’t the woman lead in the final reel? Mustn’t the poor-put-upon cripple have her day? Mustn’t the underdog rise triumphant?

It’s a natural assumption, one born out of the convention in many movies. We expect it. We wish for it. But what lies behind this surface drama is the truth, not that love prevails between these two backward misfits, which it does, but rather that the love that prevails is Maud’s love, not of him, but of her soul’s relation to painting, that is to say of work, that is to say of her sacred calling.

This is the drama that unfolds like an unanticipated flower. Its theme is never stated. And this tacit suspense is what grips the audience as they await for what they do not know. For what really leads is Maud’s campaign to paint. That’s what leads and that’s what follows, all the way through. The battle in the film is not the battle for love, but for leadership, not of male over female power, nor of the power of one character over another, health over disability. The husband thinks he’s fighting Maud, but he’s not. Maud is not fighting him. She’s fighting to paint, but never tells. So he is outflanked.

This leader-theme seems to emerge unwittingly under the director Aisling Walsh’s hands. She tells Maud Lewis’s story well: the house is convincing, the landscape is convincing, the other actors are convincing, the story is convincing, and Ethan Hawke himself has passages in which he too is beautifully convincing. There is not a moment in which one’s attention is not held. We enter a small world from which emerges a large and radiant beauty.

The signal error of the film is that we never see Maud Lewis’s paintings plain. The color pallet of the film is muted. But the color pallet of the actual Maud Lewis paintings was brash, bright, and gay. Her pictures should have been brought forward at the end, boldly once, so we could see them in their vigor, vividness, and truth. What an unexpected, indeed astounding contrast they would have made to the dull brutality she endured and the dire pressures of her relation with her husband.

Still, the film’s value transcends its defects by miles. Those defects stand out in this review, but they do not stand out when you see the picture. Instead you rejoice in what is there, just as Maud did in her paintings when she made them.

 

Be Natural-The Untold Story Of Alice Guy-Blaché

23 Jun

Be Natural-The Untold Story Of Alice Guy-Blaché—directed by Pamela B. Green. BioDoc. 103 minutes 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: The record of the career of the first female film director that blooms, then is lost, then denied, then recovered from obscurity.
~
I see this story unfold in a treat of unexpected story skills—so much so that I feel I am seeing the best documentary I have ever seen.

But it is perhaps simply the best documentary of a human being I have ever seen.

We find her in the 1890s stumbling into the Gaumont Film Company as a teen-age stenographer. Gaumont sold movie projectors and he lets her direct company promos, but she soon starts making story films, and finds her métier.

We see scenes and clips of some of these thousand films, notable for their natural acting and management of broad slapstick.

I will not tell the story of how all this came to pass and to fade, but it is wrenching to witness. Although also amazing to see how resources of family and colleagues and archives brought out of dark closets and subterranean coolers the record, the truth, and the work.

The lady lived a good long time, so we hear her speak, see her lively eyes, and follow her devotion to her craft into its obscurity and out again. A delightful woman. A gifted natural-born film-maker. A super film about it all.

 
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Double Indemnity

03 Jun

Double Indemnity—directed by Billy Wilder. Crime Drama. 107minutes Black and White 1944.
★★★★
The Story: How dares the wife of a man who detests her collect twice the amount of his insurance when she and his insurance agent kill him?
~
The odd thing about Double Indemnity and the stalling point is that an inquest would have revealed at once that Stanwyck’s husband died from strangulation and not by a fall from a moving train. What were the writers, Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder thinking of!

So in other ways also is the rug pulled out from under this much praised and revived picture, for you never believe for a minute in the sexual attraction of Stanwyck and MacMurray. Perhaps that’s what’s so perverse about it. You are told to believe it, so you set the matter aside as understood and move on. This is perhaps intended—a sexual absence participating in a list of uncertainties to throw the viewer subtly off-balance at the same time as seizing attention as to their outcome.

A glimpse at the 1974 color version of this, based on the 1944 screenplay, reveals one basic certainty about the film, which is that its watching depends upon its being in black and white not color. And that Edward G. Robinson possesses a command of a cigar that Lee J. Cobb could never even dream of.

What this also leads one to realize is that black and white is probably necessary for all noir, for black and white is always grey, and color never is. So the true star of the picture is the cinemaphotographer John F. Seitz. For it is he who lit and filmed it such that we as audience enter into the mind-set of the material’s shadows, risks, lusts, greed, and duplicity, all in grey in many shades and stripes. As audience you are inside the body of a deviant mood. Even the sunshine on the street shows a boy pitching a ball to a girl batter. How bright, how innocent, and how free from ulterior motive. And yet how inverted. For in the movie, the male is also not batting the ball, the female is. Walter Neff enters the house and imagines that he is hitting homers, whereas the lady on the landing with the towel and the sunglasses in her hand and the gold anklet actually chooses his pitches.

Likewise, both MacMurray and Stanwyck wear wedding rings, MacMurray’s band perhaps to be useful to repel overly ambitious bed-partners, and Stanwyck’s laden with a jewel the size of a Buick and big enough to drown her in her own pool. Wedding rings: strange courtesy between these two in their hardboiled courtship.

MacMurray is called upon to play the tough-mouthed lothario, Stanwyck the fast-talking dame—both voices of the great Raymond Chandler who co-wrote the script with Wilder. But the idea of MacMurray being a tough-tongued lothario is absurd. Lying behind it and lying every inch of the way in him is the biggest sexual sap of all Hollywood leading men. Inside himself, McMurray doesn’t know the first thing about sex. it’s part of his charm. It’s what he was always cast for.

Chandler’s voice on their tongues confuses the film even more with its sardonic edge. The audience never knows where to settle itself as it watches, and this remains true of the picture no matter how many times one has seen it, and I saw it when it first came out, so I have a lead on everyone.

Another confusion for the audience is that Stanwyck plays her part scene by scene, with no overriding arc. Her acting leaves no traces. This means that the actor can invest as truth fully in every lie her character tells. So the audience never knows what the real truth is. The only truth she reveals is her shock just before the trigger is pulled that kills her. She never imagined not living forever.

MacMurray, on the other hand, has a different task, which unlike Stanwyck, is to carry the film, for he is never off camera, and the story of this picture is his. You also believe everything he does, but in a different way. And why? Because he’s just a big handsome galoot with broad shoulders who, because there is a pot of gold at the end, mistakes Stanwyck for a rainbow.

MacMurray is a man who doesn’t know his place. Colbert and Lombard, who were his usual co-stars, were out of his class. meaning above it. Stanwyck is also out of his class because she is beneath it. MacMurray reads their sexual connection as an equality, and it is not. MacMurray and Stanwyck made other films together, before and after, for which they were better suited. But here their ill-matching adds a confused and perverse interest to their so-called passion for one another. As you watch, you never know where you stand. Or sit. Or walk, as you try to draw a conclusion.

The conclusion of the film clarifies one strand, which is the relations between MacMurray and his immediate boss in the office, played with unerring alacrity by Edward G. Robinson.

Is their affection for one another honest or dishonest? Much play has been given to the idea that it is homosexual. This, of course, is impossible. It is honest, not homosexual, but it operates at an off-angle. It is rather the affinity of team players, one an ace athlete, the other the coach. Or it is the fondness of natural male friends but of different generations? Anyhow, the idea that a genital ambition lies behind this is unwarranted, misleading, and spiteful. Humans come to love those they go to school with, go to church with, volunteer with, live near, or work with, and this is the latter. It must be remembered that in this film the word “love” is written by Raymond Chandler, and therefore it includes in its spelling the reverse.

The subordinate, MacMurray, has it over Robinson because Robinson is too passionate a workaholic to light his own cigars. So instead of suggesting you drool over a gay subtext, let’s point you in the direction of those cigars. Robinson seems never without one, and what an adjunct they are to his genius. They keep him in actorly motion. They provide power and point. They conduct whole scenes like a wand. They lend triumphant confidence to his orations. He is a master with a Dutch Master.

Stanwyck and Robinson and MacMurray were the highest salaried people in the world. At the peak of WWII, the scathing truth of the war was that Rosie The Riveter dismissed females’ supposed lack of the ruthless acumen, mind and finesse needed to win a war. But momism refused to die—to this day Disney keeps it embalmed.

The mental conditioning that gave rise to film noir was that, post WWII (The War is never mentioned in this film.) the American imagination withdrew women from the home-front and put them back in the home, and any divergence from home is to be considered perilous to democracy and to the world as a whole.

Because World War II had flatly disproved the notion of female frailty, woman were now willing to kill in order to denounce the lie of the limit of their power. To embody this outrage, the tiger-woman in the anklet of film noir came into being.

Euripides put women on the stage as not to be underestimated.

Film noir put women right back on that same stage—Medeas, dangerous when wet. Dry Stanwyck’s character off with the bath towel she first appears in, Phyllis Dietrichson is a woman who would never desire to have children. There’s no mom in her. And as to her place in the kitchen, spurn anything she cooks up for you there. She lives at the other end of the spectrum of survival which is Death. As an emblem, Phyllis Dietrichson (Son Of Marlene Dietrich who never had a son) is not the psychology, but the righteous zeitgeist of women, then and now.

Double Indemnity is a perfect example of move-as-machine. You get caught up in the uneven gears of plot, casting, and performance into which the brilliant photography sidles you. Which is to say, it is a movie driven by the trance of its photographic appearance. Whether we know it or not, and we do not know it, any more than Neff and Dietrichson do not know anything they do not know, its photography is the chief, true and overbearing entertainment of Double Indemnity. Its photography swallows us whole. It is wonderful to be so lost. Such film photography is with us still, and I hope always will be.

 

Morning Glory

19 May

Morning Glory—directed by Roger Michell. Comedy. 117 minutes Color 2010.
★★★★★
The Story: An eager-beaver producer scrambles to save the sinking ship of a famed TV show but comes up against a gristly superstar and a soured anchorwoman who do not believe she can do it.
~
One longs to sit down and sing her praises. She when young would have been given the leading role here, now played perfectly in a quite different manner by Rachel McAdams—that part: the scatterbrained, young woman on the rise.

Instead, Diane Keaton plays a senior anchorwoman on the oldest and most decrepit morning show in the world. It is a position by which the character has has reached the peak of her talent, ambition, and capacity. This means that she is playing, not the daffy subservient one, a part in which she was equaled only by Goldie Hawn, but The Long Established Star.

Watch her, a master of detail, create this individual without a word. How she pulls the hair on the sides of her face to make it frame it into perfect symmetry for the camera. How she applies an improvement of lipstick at the last second. How she arrives in shameless curlers for a conference with the crew. How she smoothes her figure for promo shots with her co-anchor. How she somehow arranges her inner being to show us how this woman gloms onto her Life role. How she accepts her position will never get better and respects that fact, so never gets above herself.

We have seen Diane Keaton for many years. Better in comedy, we would conclude. And that’s quite all right, because comedy has given her longevity. Comic parts are still written for senior actresses to play. Comedy. therefore, has her still before the cameras in principal roles. Comedy and her glorious smile.

And that her face does not seem to have endured any tell-tale procedures. Procedures that are meant to make actresses look young succeed only to make them appear immortal. In the way zombies are immortal.

And Harrison Ford’s face seems also to have escaped the sculptor’s knife. It’s crumpled as an old boot. He has never been better in anything than he is as the prideful, mean, grouse of a once-famous newscaster, choked by nineteen Emmys and a taste for vintage scotch. To see that face in action is To Witness The Ogre—a lion roaring at a petunia.

The story focusses its attention more on him than on Keaton because its actual focus is the ambitious, workaholic, blabbermouth Assistant Producer who tries to rescue from extinction the oldest morning show of all. She is able, devoted, and a little slip of a girl. Keaton succumbs to the new producer early on. So the main body of the story turns its attention to the stand-off between Ford as the old, retrograde superstar and the new girl in charge of him.

Rachael McAdams does her full justice. One thing you may notice about her seizing of that justice is that the story gives McAdams full opportunity to enter the role with her whole body at all times. She runs when she could walk. She is never still even when she should sleep. She makes love on the fly. She is physically obsessed. It is a great example for all actors of the absolute need for full bodily engagement at all times of the person one plays.

For some actors this comes naturally as rain. Jeff Goldblum walks—and you just want to sit there and watch. He’s not doing anything but walking in the way he normally walks, but that‘s why he’s a star. You want to watch such humans. You don’t want to miss a thing.

The movie does not fall into the shallow trap of linking either women up with the Harrison Ford’s character. We have instead Patrick Wilson as the juicy neighbor who sees through McAdams’ gaucheries and woos her still. He has something of the way and look of Paul Newman, so it no wonder he succeeds.

Beautifully directed by Roger Michell and perfectly written by Aline Brosh McKenna, perfectly edited, costumed, cast, cut, produced, and set. Morning Glory succeeds on all levels, including not resembling the Morning Glory movie of 1934 that won Katharine Hepburn her first Oscar, also playing a show business wannabe.

Instead, taste Morning Glory, a light comedy, as A Special on the menu.

One wonders how long such skilled players of light comedy, so important to weekend film-going, will still fill theatres when blockbusters and smaller screens have filched audiences from the multiplexes. What will happen to such comedic talents as Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Jennifer Anniston bring us, when movie houses are the best place for us to love them?

Even though I saw Morning Glory in my own house.

Where I strongly urge you to gather soon and enjoy it too, whether I am home or not.

 

The Preacher’s Wife

28 Apr

The Preacher’s Wife—directed by Penny Marshall. Comedy. 123 minutes Color 1996.
★★★
The Story: A church nears receivership and when its preacher asks God for help and an angel arrives, the preacher disbelieves it—but his wife and the angel get along all too well.
~
Thank God for movie stars. By this I mean Denzel Washington.

Lying in the background is The Bishop’s Wife, in which Cary Grant was originally cast as the bishop but preferred the angel as the better part. David Niven played the bishop and Loretta Young the wife.

Now Loretta Young really knew how to be a movie star. That is to say, she knew how to glow. So the original version had three movie stars while the present has but one.

Courtney B. Vance is a good actor, but he is not a movie star and he is not an actor who is inherently funny, as was David Niven. Certain actors have that ability. John Wayne’s humor was an inherent wryness, Cary Grant’s an inherent slyness, James Stewart’s an inherent preposterousness. They could make any word sound droll they wished.

An empty comic hammock here must thus be filled by able supporting actors—Jennifer Lewis as the dread mother-in-law and Jennifer Devine as the lecherous church secretary in love with the fat bus conductor: “Lord, put that man under the Christmas Tree…if he’ll fit.” Gregory Hines, as the satanic real estate investor who own the church property, is jim-dandy.

Apart from the direction which lacks any touch of wit and the writing which lacks premeditation of the audience’s wit, the difficulty lies in the casting of the title role.

The difficulty is not that Whitney Houston is neither a natural nor a trained actress. The difficult is that she is a demonstration.

I look at her and I wonder. It is not that she is empty. That would be something. Mahershala Ali is empty, and out of that emptiness he spins characters. No. The problem is that Whitney Houston is vacant.

Reading up on her, I see she starts young as a church singer. As a teenager she is a recording backup singer. By her early twenties she is an enormous recording success.

The success is based upon her mezzo-soprano, which is strong and versatile—not particularly beautiful in any of its many ranges but remarkable for its litheness. As a young woman, she has huge hits, earns big money, and tours worldwide.

It’s a sorry story. Sorry because there is nothing else to the story. She hasn’t a chance in hell. She doesn’t garden. She probably doesn’t read. She probably has no education. Outside of her church singing, she probably has no cultural background. Her name heads a charity, but she does not seem active in public service. She does not jog. She probably does not cook meals. She probably has no conversation. What you see before you is a human being who has developed no personal resources. As to a spiritual life, which might have kept her safe when a girl, it does not transplant to show-business which lofts in altitudes above and far away from the spires of its cathedrals.

This is a terrible life for a human being. Not fatal, but perilous.

In addition, in Whitney Houston’s case, one of the problems with it lies in the voice and the use of the voice. Its predilection and foundation lie in the virtuosoism of gospel singing.

I don’t like virtuosoism. You see it in acting—Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger, Glenn Close—and you hear it in Whitney Houston’s singing.

When you look at her in song, her eyes remain the same throughout the song. She shines. She smiles. She has wonderful teeth. She is a pretty woman. But she is emotionally unconnected to the words. She relates only to what her voice can do. So the pleasure you get from her singing is not musical—because at once-remove from music. It is the pleasure of her demonstration of what her voice can do “to” the music, the pleasure, if it is your pleasure, of virtuosoism.

And I pity her.

She died a terrible death before she was forty. And when I see her standing there singing, I pity her most.

I pity her because there is nothing lying behind her singing, in her singing, under her singing. The lofty tricks her voice can perform received praise upon praise. Oh, yes, her melisma was bankable. But I look at this lovely young woman, and I do not wonder she took to drugs to fill the vacancy of her fame. What an easy mark she must have been.

No one is to blame, nor is she to blame. But it’s so obvious.

Denzel Washington paid her 10 million dollars to appear in his film. There is no way that either the drugs she was devoted to at that time or the price she demanded could lead to anything but to blind her from the ability to play the character she is hired to play, the wife of a preacher.

When you watch Denzel Washington, you can see an acting technique at work. He gathers the scene in his arms and his immediate response to it is performance. He is dressed entirely in silver, which does service for the habit of an angel, but all his acting needs is his body’s present apprehension. There he stands inwardly open. It is so simple. It drives the words out of him, yes, but the placement of his being is what is memorable. The use of his interior is what is memorable.

Art is a gutsy craft. It counts on the vast, powerfully telling, and superior intelligence of the instinct of the belly. Instinct is rarely virtuosoistic. Because its manifestations are so readable, it only needs to be virtuosoistic when the character is virtuosoistic, as in that passage in Training Day when Denzel Washington briefly takes on the conventional virtuoso voice of the black thug—the demonstration of the fallacy of which devastates his character right in front of the eyes of everyone.

Someone needs to get ahold of these singers and mentor them before their lives vacate them. Someone needs to warn them that, outside their time on stage, their time needs to be filled with a world neither show nor business. Left-over time to fill. Hard for any of us to make good use of. Hard to distinguish one fun from another. And the ego of the diva is larger than that of any king. No one seems to have learned from The Rose. No one seems to have seen Bohemian Rhapsody for what it is. No one.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Denzel Washington

 

The Mustang

19 Apr

The Mustang—directed by Laure-de-Cleremont-Tonnerre. Drama. 96 minutes Color 2019

★★★★
The Story: an enraged convict in for murder with no experience of horses must train a wild mustang.
~
Sentimentality is the coinage of gold into innumerable copper pennies Thus The Mustang follows the order of horse pictures since their start in silent films. The human rescues the horse, the horse rescues the human, the human rescues the horse. It’s a good format, overburdened here with a musical score and bum writing.

What’s interesting first and last is the authenticity of everything else. The Mustang seems to have have been made in a Nevada desert prison. The mustang rescue mission seems to be manned by actual prisoners. The horses seem to be real wild horses. Bruce Dern is actually that cranky trainer.

That is to say you never believe the characters are actors or that the cells are sets, or that the animals are doing tricks. One feels one is there then. This presence with-and-among never declines.

Indeed, Matthias Schoennaerts an established Belgian movie star, but one new to me, seems to not have been cast but to have been dragged reluctantly out of some gutter to stand in for the surly furious prisoner.

When will he break?

He’s tall and muscled and paislyed with tattoos. He wont talk. He scowls. He shovels shit. That’s it.

But, boy, does he give you your money’s worth. Because the strength that validates his violence tells his tale—it is the same strength that backs the violence of the horse.

This is a tale of inescapable setting. You might be able to dive off Alcatraz and crawl to shore, but no one could cross that desert and live. You live in the cramped cell, the cramped dining hall, the cramped showers with men who are no longer free but seek to free their souls despite it. And you live in the temperament of the horse, who has patience for nothing but freedom, but finds it in marriage to this man.

The material substance of the film is better than the artistic substance. Yes, but the material substance enrapts the eye and carries all the necessary value, and it is plenty.

Does the prisoner’s character break?

All expectations for the usual horse film fall apart as he does.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Matthias Schoennaerts

 

Diane

17 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Mary Kay Place

 

Ash The Purest White

04 Apr

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

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

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

The playing out of this truth makes the film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC

 

Hotel Mumbai

31 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Robert Redford Retires

30 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

It goes beyond that in small ways only.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2544 words

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

 

Blond Venus

30 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Hollywood Extravaganza, Marlene Dietrich

 

The Scarlet Empress

29 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Hollywood Extravaganza

 

The Wedding Guest

23 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ash The Purest White

23 Mar

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

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

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

The playing out of this truth makes the film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

Everybody Knows

11 Mar

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

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

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

Then the crime occurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Abraham Lincoln

09 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

The Pass

25 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here in The Pass we have similar matters.

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

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

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

That is the question that overhangs the story.

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

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

Easy, why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See for yourself.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

22 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC

 

Mary Poppins Returns

21 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
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