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Archive for the ‘ACTING STYLE’ Category

Mary Of Scotland

01 Dec

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

What’s the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Irishman

01 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a scene missing.

The crisis is simple:

Can you murder your best friend?

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

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

Can you murder your best friend?

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

Hoffa/Pacino is in the way.

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

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

Can you murder your best friend?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Laundromat

27 Nov

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

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

And why is that?

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

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

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

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

Meryl Streep?

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

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

This is on Netflix and was produced for Netflix.

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

 

Il Postino: The Postman

10 Nov

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

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

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

What’s the wonder here?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pain And Glory

08 Nov

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

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

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

And so it goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which does not mean they are not real.

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

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

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

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

 

Downton Abbey, the movie

30 Sep

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

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

The pleasure of seeing how the very rich live.

English beautifully spoken.

Fabulous period costumes.

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

A million dollar cast.

The power of the servants.

The big-hearted devotion of everyone to everyone.

In a story devoted to service and the industry it requires

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

Told as before,

In short, a legal addiction.

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Masterpiece Theatre Miniseries, Uncategorized

 

The Farewell

08 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I bow.

 
 

Moonrise Kingdom

27 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

18 Aug

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

The world!

Yes!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what will save her?

To me the answer is imaginative and visibly wonderful.

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

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

 
 

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

29 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, it isn’t.

Movies this good aren’t just a movie.

Are they?

 

BlackKlansman

25 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Last Black Man In San Francisco

15 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpected in all areas in which I have praised it.

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

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

 

Maudie

24 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Double Indemnity

03 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Morning Glory

19 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even though I saw Morning Glory in my own house.

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

 

The Preacher’s Wife

28 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I pity her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Denzel Washington

 

The Mustang

19 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

When will he break?

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

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

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

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

Does the prisoner’s character break?

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Matthias Schoennaerts

 

Diane

17 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Mary Kay Place

 

Ash The Purest White

04 Apr

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

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

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

The playing out of this truth makes the film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC

 

Hotel Mumbai

31 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Robert Redford Retires

30 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

It goes beyond that in small ways only.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2544 words

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

 

Blond Venus

30 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Hollywood Extravaganza, Marlene Dietrich

 

The Scarlet Empress

29 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Hollywood Extravaganza

 

The Wedding Guest

23 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ash The Purest White

23 Mar

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

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

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

The playing out of this truth makes the film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

Everybody Knows

11 Mar

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

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

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

Then the crime occurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Abraham Lincoln

09 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

The Pass

25 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here in The Pass we have similar matters.

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

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

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

That is the question that overhangs the story.

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

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

Easy, why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See for yourself.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

22 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC

 

Mary Poppins Returns

21 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ROMA

12 Jan

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

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

 

The Green Book

11 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vice

07 Jan

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

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

Vice has no objective.

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

That’s not enough for me.

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

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

What is the real story here?

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

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

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

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

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

And without ethos.

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

Those are the small potatoes of power.

Power means freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Mule

03 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

At Eternity’s Gate

01 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is that what Van Gogh wanted?

Did Van Gogh want to be recognized?

Or did he want his work to be recognized?

Maybe both.

But there is a difference.

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

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

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

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

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

Schnabel’s film seems empty and amateur.

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

Perhaps.

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

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

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

 

Black Panther

13 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC

 

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool

03 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Star Is Born 2018

01 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Sisters Brothers

08 Oct

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

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

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

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

The assassin, Joaquin Phoenix, is a bloodthirsty maniac.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Stronger

20 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a great matter we see before us.

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Miranda Richarson

 

The Bookshop

17 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Wife

08 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The truth is they both are crooks.

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

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

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

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

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

What is the key to such stories?

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

How did they wake to this?

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

 

Puzzle

26 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC

 

Leave No Trace

12 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DRAMA

 

Broadway Melodies of 1936 & 1938

08 Jul

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

We became allured.

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

For what does an audience do to make a star?

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

This happens at virtually the first glimpse of Robert Taylor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check it out.

 

First Reformed

18 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Son Of Saul

10 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Book Club

03 Jun

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

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

With The Amusement Park Of Fornication thrown in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It also must have witty dialogue.

And it must have comic genius in the playing.

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

How does The Book Club rank as Hollywood Romantic Comedy?

Its plot twists are often fun enough to be adorable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

La Sirga

23 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, SUSPENSE

 

The Pacific

16 May

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
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