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Miss Pinkerton

21 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Company

13 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in DOCUDRAMA

 

Army Of Shadows

11 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mr. Turner

20 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautifully filmed, written, acted, produced, directed.

Highly recommended, in case you wondered.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC, BIOPIC, Timothy Spall

 

Norman

14 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dead Man Out

11 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

You deserve the best

Find it.

See it.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Danny Glover, PRISON DRAMA, Rubén Blades

 

The Cut

06 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you will thank me gratefully that you have.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, GREAT FEAT DRAMA

 

The Sense Of An Ending

05 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Mother

05 May

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

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

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

It is amazing to witness her story.

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

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

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

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

Do see The Mother!

 
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Posted in Uncategorized

 

The Immortal Story

25 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is the most suicidal of all screen persons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Test Pilot

31 Mar

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

Beautifully written!

Alive!

Complete!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Sense Of An Ending

28 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Song To Song

27 Mar

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

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

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

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

Two things might be noticed about Malick’s method.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Love Is Colder Than Death

20 Mar

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

But – boy – does the director hold your attention!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I liked it. If liking is the word.

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

 

Pressure Point

27 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Edge Of The City

25 Feb

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

John Cassavetes plays an Army deserter and maybe killer starting out on a longshoreman job under a brutal, corrupt boss, played by Jack Warden. Warden invests the character with an unselfconscious crudeness, and this sort of extreme commitment to the acting of such films bring them alive. And they depend upon what in its day was called Method Acting, of which John Cassavetes was an adept.

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

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

The surprise of seeing this picture and these actors was one sought out by movie goers of the ‘50s who were fed up with the technicolor studio aesthetic, in which the face of Leo the MGM Lion had been replaced by the saucy mug of Doris Day.

We wanted reality and we wanted our actors to supply it. We went to such films as Edge Of The City hungry. Such hungers are never slaked, but only kept seeking sustenance and proof that sustenance existed.

The difficulty of such a film is that it supplied it, but not for the middle class. Cassavetes strained sustained anger was no match for the authentic Krakatoa of Marlon Brando’s. Cassavetes was good looking enough, brooding, sexy. And Poitier was a completely novelty, and perhaps a complete fantasy, which is that of a black man volunteering friendship and domestic hospitality to a white person.

What reaches one still about this film is the vibrancy of its setting in The Bronx, particularly in the workplace, playground, and streets. These are real, and they are of a reality not pleasant and having nothing to do with the plastic clarion visage of DoDo Day. They reached us then as ours and us, and they reach us still.

Sidney Poitier.

Before him nothing?

Before him, marvelous actors all of whom worked their craft, as all devoted actors do, with diligence, humor, skill, and curiosity. Hattie McDaniel was not the first black person to win an Oscar, but she was the first black actor. She was given a side table at the ceremony. But Hattie McDaniel said, “At home, I am Hattie, but in the studio I am Miss McDaniel.”

Paul Robeson, Step ‘n’ Fetchit, Louise Beavers, Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, the Nicholas Brothers, Butterfly McQueen, Canada Lee, Ethel Waters were performers of high skill. We admire their work to this day and not out of mere nostalgia. They still entertain.

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

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

His irises are centered in his eyes with fear and determination. The fear allows him to act.

The determination allows the sort of character he now always plays to make a pronounced effect.

He speaks with absolute certainty of expression. Is well spoken. Soft spoken. Does not reach for words or stammer for cues. Does not speak in Ebonics.

He exudes considerable charm when he chooses to exert it.

He keeps his figure into advanced age.

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

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

He is a handsome male and photogenic as all get out. He looks natural in a suit.

But most of all, from the start, he seizes the screen like great star.

See him do this, in Edge Of The City. He had not been seen before in a leading role in a major release. We all saw this at the time, and were fascinated to discover a black man heretofore completely unknown in a leading role and such an unexpected personality.

From this time forward, however, we will see him mostly play dignified professionals: doctor, lawyer, detective, minister, Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall. This limits his career, in the minds of some, to noble whitey parts and limits him artistically, since his roles are mainly constructed with him quietly receiving damage until the final reel, at which point he lets out with full guns firing. He also never plays a character with a psychological weakness. He seldom plays in romance. Or comedy.

But he cleared away the limitations for black actors like a prince on a snow plough. As a result, new limitations arose and remain: guns, violence, corruption, drugs occupy black fists now and sidetrack us all into the view that black folks are inherently corrupt. The middle class black story is not filmed. Tyler Perry’s Medea does bring rich, low-comedy, black satire onto the race. But the non-racial black story is rare.

One reason Poitier became a Hollywood star and changed the sort of role written for back actors is that Sidney Poitier was not American. He was born in Miami but to Bahaman parents and immediately reared in The Bahamas. He was not reared under the influence of black American argot or American ghetto. Indeed, to work, when he came here he had to rid himself of his Bahamian accent. The result is Poitier’s way of speaking. It is a way which anyone hearing it would never imagine he had not been bred an American negro, although “The American Negro” is completely absent from it. It is pure mid-Atlantic

Indeed, all of this screened him internally from playing ethnic American Negro types. He was too well-spoken. That was the invisible-man-illusion attached to him. And that fact played into casting him in the dignified and patient characters his career was built upon.

Sidney Poitier’s existence in film halted us on one walk and started us on another. Because of him and after him, the world could now see new sides of black soul. And America could relax, acknowledge, and our hearts could admire a black person in a way we had all always really wished to. Sidney Poitier is a fine craftsman. And a great star. He may not have meant us to. But we Americans owe an enormous debt to Sidney Poitier.
~ ~ ~

 

Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday

19 Feb

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

What was her charm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in BIODOC

 

I Am Not Your Negro

18 Feb

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

A personality ingratiating nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in Biodoc, POLITICAL

 

A Passage To India

08 Feb

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Lawrence Of Arabia

03 Feb

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Sing & Moana

29 Jan

 

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

★★★★★

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

A maximum of surprises, movement, angles, colors.

An amplitude of wit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

20th Century Women

24 Jan

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

I tend to adore Annette Bening.

 

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

 

Silence

20 Jan

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Neruda

20 Jan

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nightingale

11 Jan

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

It is no wonder.

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

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

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

See Nightingale.  

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

 

Nightingale

09 Jan

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

It is no wonder.

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

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

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

See Nightingale.  

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

 

Arrival

04 Jan

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nocturnal Animals

03 Jan

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lion or Far Away From Home

02 Jan

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

★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never miss him.

 
 

Fences

27 Dec

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

La La Land

17 Dec

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp

14 Dec

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The extras that go with it are tops.

 

A Passage To India

10 Dec

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Manchester By The Sea

28 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Hundred Foot Journey

18 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Man Who Understood Infinity

18 Nov

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Creed

17 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Extasis

15 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go look.

 

Moonlight

14 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the movie of the year.

 

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

M. Butterfly

12 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here it is in all its force and necessity.

 

 

 

The Mayor Of Hell

03 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Departures

02 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Body And Soul

01 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Band Of Outsiders

31 Oct

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

★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Lady In The Van

28 Oct

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

★★★★

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

~

What is this a duet of?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Washington Square & Acting & Maggie Smith

27 Oct

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

★★★

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

~

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

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

Perhaps they make a mistake.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

What does that mean – classical nature?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does the Dowager get away with it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or a baglady in a van.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

The hard thing is find the right cast.

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

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

The question arises as to how to play Catherine Sloper.

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

But how does an actress do that?

For real.

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

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

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

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

For unloveability itself cannot be acted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Now there is something actable.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

It helps makes one more forgiving.

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

 

~ ~ ~

 

 
 

The 100-Foot Journey

24 Oct

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

Denial

17 Oct

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Dressmaker

01 Oct

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Snowden

22 Sep

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
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