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Archive for the ‘ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC’ Category

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

 

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

 

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

 

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 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

 

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.

 

The Pacific

16 May

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tangerine

13 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What lasts?

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

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

 

Nevada Smith

26 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Blackboard Jungle

21 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

05 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do not know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Post

15 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I, Tonya

31 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the alternative to abuse?

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

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

27 Nov

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

The effect is shock. Outwardly.

Inwardly the outward emphasis on shock forbids depth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Battle Of The Sexes

22 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

American Made

11 Oct

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

A star was born. And rightly so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, BioDrama, Tom Cruise

 

The Big Sick

24 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Holly Hunter, ROMANTIC COMEDY

 

Cymbeline

15 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dining With Beatriz

25 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, John Lithgow

 

The Memory Of Two Mondays

09 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Norman

14 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dead Man Out

11 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

You deserve the best

Find it.

See it.

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

 

Pressure Point

27 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Edge Of The City & Sidney Poitier

25 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was Sidney Poitier!

The first great black actor?

Before him, nothing?

No.

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

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

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

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

As an acting instrument, what is he?

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

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

The determination allows his character to make a pronounced effect.

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

He exudes considerable charm when he chooses to exert it.

He keeps his figure into advanced age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was from the West Indies.

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

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

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

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

He is a fine craftsman and a great star.

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

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

 

Silence

20 Jan

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Nightingale

11 Jan

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

It is no wonder.

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

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

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

See Nightingale.  

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

 

Nightingale

09 Jan

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

It is no wonder.

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

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

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

See Nightingale.  

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

 

Arrival

04 Jan

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nocturnal Animals

03 Jan

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fences

27 Dec

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

La La Land

17 Dec

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Manchester By The Sea

28 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Creed

17 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Moonlight

14 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the movie of the year.

 

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

Body And Soul

01 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Snowden

22 Sep

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sully

16 Sep

Sully – directed by Clint Eastwood. Biopic. 96 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Forced gather to disprove the skill and heroism of the Captain of a passenger plane he landed in The Hudson River

~

Tom Hanks does not make a bad movie. Neither does Matt Damon. And for the same reason. They bring forward their middle class American foundation as foundation to their acting, and this is what I very much want to see. They are both lovely actors.

Tom Hanks has recently played a series of biopics, a sea captain whose grace under pressure saves the day; a lawyer brokering a spy exchange whose grace under pressure saves the day, and now a passenger airline pilot whose grace under pressure saves the day. All these parts require the authentic gravitas of life experience. He is the right age. He has the right look. He is ideally cast. He is always the same. Why should he endanger the part by forsaking his basic craft, type, and execution? It would be wrong. He is not playing characters; he is playing emblems. Offering emblems is one of the most important things films can do.

In Sully he plays the pilot of the airplane obliged to make a forced landing in the Hudson because both engines have failed. 155 persons aboard, all survived. The exploit was simple if you have 42 years of flight experience under your belt and a specialty in air safety as your sideline profession.

Laura Linney plays his wife – another expert actor – but in her case her exchanges are written conventionally, and there is nothing an actor can do with such lines except play them through. Besides, we do not care about the relations with the pilot and his wife, whether he will loose his job, whether their real estate will be foreclosed, whether he will be banished without a pension.

What we care about is whether justice will be done. For, the story unfolds as a trial staged by the aeronautics regulators to prove he could have made Teeterboro or La Guardia. So the film wrings us with suspense and anxiety and tension – which is just what we want such a film to do.

The staging of the landing on water, the conduct of the passengers as it happens, their rescue from the wings as the airplane settles in to sink is exciting and shown beautifully – twice! We root and worry for their lives on that deadly cold water. The whole outcome hangs in suspense, for eight years later everyone has forgotten the outcome of the investigation. Just because Tom Hanks is playing the captain and in our minds cannot be disgraced does not mean we do not sit on the edge of our seats until he is exonerated.

Aaron Eckhart, another lovely actor, plays his co-pilot and side-kick. Eckert sizes the part perfectly. Eastwood has directed it well and told its story in the right order.

Tom Hanks does not make a bad movie, which is not to say that he ever makes a great movie. Which is not to say Sully is routine or not worth seeing. It‘s real good. Hanks began with a splash. He’s still at it.

 

Cafe Society

07 Sep

Café Society written and directed by Woody Allen. Romantic Dramedy. 96 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: In 1934, a young man leaves his NYC family to work for a big-time Hollywood agent and to fall in love with the great man’s secretary.

~

Steve Carell continues to be new to me. He is faster than the script of Woody Allen, and whenever he comes on, the screen saturates with something happening.

Take a gander at the look in Carell’s eye when after two years he sees his former rival for the young woman Carell has married. “See! See! See what I’ve got! What you don’t have!” the glint in his eye says. “I won. You didn’t.” it says. So we are in the pleasure of witnessing an actor of imagination. And we are also in the pleasure of the only actor who is sharp enough to take his character to a depth beneath the facetious on which all the other players are stranded. Carell’s playing cuts through to an actual human being under the quips, jests, comic verbal and plot situations, and beneath the satire in which it is almost impossible for the other actors not to be captured and stalled.

For Allen’s script does not pass beyond the ceaseless twitches of his jokes. His jokes never stop. And the terrible thing about his jokes is that they are laugh lines intended to generate no laughs, because they are actually lines of comedy of character not comedy of gags. But here Allen makes characters only for satire. He is in a frenzy of satire. This frenzy makes for monotonous company after a time, just as, after fifty years, Woody Allen’s wishful nebbish is monotonous.

Alas, because here we have a great love story – but with no depth, and a lyricism talked about but never heard, except on the impeccable sound track, where Larry Hart’s mordant lyrics supply the deficiency. Here we have a version of Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet marries Paris and Romeo marries Rosaline. What then happens to poor Romeo or poor Juliet, when they still love one another all the time?

Because of the consistent jocular style, no growth is possible with the dialogue. Nothing can happen but the next jest, nothing can get beneath it the next comic stammer. The drama drowns in a monotony of wit.

The promise of this material goes unexplored also because of the casting of the two young people. Because of his terrible carriage, I have a hard time looking at Jesse Eisenberg. I suppose he can’t help it, but neither can I. He also falls into the film actor’s trap to indicate response by doing something with his mouth. Actually, he can act. I just don’t want to see him do it.

The leading lady Kristen Stewart on the other hand orders her technique lukewarm from TV. Minutely hammy, her response range is canned. Starvation follows our every swallow. Hers is the role two men from the same family fall madly in love with, and one wonders how come. She’s so doughy, so uncooked. What do they see in her? What does she see in herself?

Having said every unhappy thing I can say about the film, I certainly have nothing left to say but see it. Woody Allen wrote it, and he is still a national treasure. Santo Loquasto’s art direction is beyond great: the places he takes us: the bars, the palaces, the dives, the nightclubs of the ‘30s! The costumes of Suzy Benzinger are smart and vicious and fun. The supporting actors are tops, among them Parker Posey as a practical materialist fashionista, and Blake Lively as the witty Rosaline character.

It’s a romantic Dramedy, but don’t expect it will move you. It’s a marvelous story, even though Woody Allen stifles the drama with a joke every time an actor opens his mouth. Proceed to the movie house. But proceed with caution.

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DRAMEDY, Steve Carell

 

Florence Foster Jenkins

15 Aug

Florence Foster Jenkins – directed by Stephen Frears. Biopic. 110 minutes Color 2016

★★★

The Story: A New York Socialite devoted to classical music brings her collapsed singing to Carnegie Hall.

~

New York never looked like that then. I was alive in the 1940s and lived there. So the first falsity is in the costumes of the extras, the cars, the buildings, all of which are CGI and show it. Carnegie Hall and the other public interiors ring no truer than Lady Florence’s soprano. Is this treatment in conflict with or is it in support of the false basis of her talent in the ears of Francis Foster Jenkins herself? For the real question is, how come didn’t she know?

We never go deeply into it. And with Meryl Streep before us in the role, we could. The honest things about the piece are that Meryl Streep does her own singing and Simon Helberg does his own piano playing as her accompanist Cosmé McMoony. Otherwise all we get is the story of a flimsy delusion.

We do get that Francis Foster Jenkins was devoted to musical performance her whole life, and sacrificed a great fortune to pursue it when, as an 18 year old, her father refused to send her to conservatory and disinherited her when she left home and taught piano to continue.

The important element missing is that Francis Foster Jenkins actually made a recording of her voice – and she must have listened to it – and she must have known she was off pitch. So there is a disparity between her appreciation of Lily Pons in the ‘40s and Jenkins being knocked out by Pons’ singing. If we know Jenkins heard Pons, how come she couldn’t she hear herself?

Her vocal irregularities may have been a derangement brought on by tertiary syphilis. In which case we might sympathize with her as a human more deeply than we do, despite Streep’s success in making her a generous, charming and appealing individual, which in real life she may have been.

So one doesn’t know what to think of this film. It is certainly not the depiction of an egomaniac. Nor is it the depiction of someone whose God-given calling was to be a musical performer, although that was her God-given calling.

Hugh Grant plays her “husband” – actually her manager – one of several who fed her with flattery in exchange for the contents of her purse. He plays it well and is well cast, but it is a thankless role as written, because we never get a chance to explore him, except as a hardworking gigolo.

All this means that Streep is left with a narrow range in which to operate and operize. Still worth seeing, of course, more for Streep than Jenkins. And we humans should not deny ourselves. For, if Jenkins had done so, wherever would we be?

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, BioDrama, Hugh Grant, Meryl Streep: ACTING GODDESS

 

The Free State Of Jones

28 Jun

The Free State Of Jones – directed by Gary Ross. Historical Drama 139 minutes Color 2016

★★★

The Story: A Confederate Civil War deserter joins with local Negros and farmers to establish an independent county in Mississippi.

~

Newton Knight must have been a man of strong body and mind to have led so many into justifiable action in a difficult time. And Matthew McConaughey is an actor fortunate in his roles these days.

Unfortunately, the director wrote the piece. So, after the rescue in the swamp, the story demotes into a Hit-The-Highpoints Classic Comic, which enfeebles it.

For most directors should not direct their own scripts. They usually lack point of view about the story – how good it is, how long it is, and even as to whether it is a movie story at all. Unless the directors (Preston Sturges, Woody Allen, Billy Wilder) are inborn writers, chances are they’ll sink their own ship.

The problem is that this director/writer does not see that he has a dramatic story but does not have a dramatic character. What he has rather is a record of an unusual individual in an historical conflict, but that individual himself is not conflicted. Instead the movie’s only narrative option is to jam into the corset of itself the entire record so as not to leave anything out. It becomes a documentary.

As a history lesson of an unusual and worthwhile person and passage of American history, the movie has merit. And McConaughey is marvelous as the character, particularly in the early scenes as you first get to know him, and I’m glad he made it. But, as written, no interior drama exists in the character for him to play off of. Newton Knight is up against a lot in the war and its aftermath. He is never up against anything in himself.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Matthew McConaughey

 

The Neon Demon

26 Jun

The Neon Demon ­– directed by Nicholas Winding Refn. Drama. 117 minutes Color 2106.

★★★★

The Story: A naïve adolescent girl on her way to be the world’s top fashion model.

~

The difference between the A Star Is Born with Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland is that the Garland version shows the talent involved, the Gaynor does not. Gaynor just stands there.

Likewise, the talent involved in the Neon Demon is that the young woman on her way to superstardom just stands there, because all she is is particularly pretty. So she stands there as a medium with which others’ talents paint. They paint her to film her. They dress her to film her. They pose her up as an artist picks up a paintbrush and, with the ruthlessness proper to paintbrush selection, makes something with her.

Elle Fanning’s character, Jesse, is the perfect instrument for the artistry of others. She is entirely without artistic expression of her own as a model – except irony in her slight smile as to how others use themselves using her. And in the power she holds just standing there.

The predominant color of the director’s pallet, the red of dried blood, along with a ruthless camera style, well-suited to the ruthless business of modeling, entertain and hold us almost as a story in itself.

But the story itself decays before our eyes as it enters the realm of allegory.

Allegory is a delicate mode. It is a narrative of internal drama wholly. Its external characters and action are the machinery inside the human: psychological contraptions such as temptation, loyalty, veracity.

When Una in Spencer’s The Fairy Queen enters on a white mule, veiled, and led by a dwarf, we are actually in the presence of human essence pure inside any human. When Duessa appears looking exactly like Una, we are actually in the presence of an imposture of human essence pure, which we lead ourselves to believe is the real McCoy. Looks tasty. Is poison. Lies that lie like truth.

When this sixteen year old, wearing a dress of fantastic beauty, is chosen to climax a major fashion show, she is turned from a cherubim into a demon before our eyes. Wonderful.

But ever afterwards her hair formerly something painted by Botticelli becomes ordinary cover-girl hair. And the story is lost.

The story is the demonstration that fashion modeling is not done to adorn and present the female body to men – for romance or marriage or love or trophy. No, it is clear and it is also true that high fashion is created only to crush other women with it.

So this story is badly undermined by the entry into it of a lesbian character.

In fact, the desire of women to crush other women with the battle-axe of high fashion is one with no sexual content of any kind. In humans, admiration is followed by love is followed by a desire to be the desired one, is followed by hatred, and it all peters out in the exhaustion which the obsession to hatred leaves one with. No sex is involved.

Particularly as in this case, evil lesbianism. Lesbianism which kills what it can’t have or be or conquer. And if lesbianism, why evil? A wrong allegory move anhow. Human envy does the job. The other models are sufficient. Sex is miscast.

So the story collapses with its own false version of itself. Until then and even after it is watchable. Arresting. And special.

Keanu Reeves plays a seedy motel owner well. And the magnificent Christina Hendricks grants us her executive confidence as The Great Model Agent Of The World.

How beautiful Christina Hendricks is. How interesting. What a subtle and distinguished actress. How noble in bearing. And what is the story to be filmed to encompass all this more valuable than anything in this film?

So many gifted actresses among us! So many actresses of rich character and talent! Did we really need this story of modeling? What is high fashion, after all, but gold lamé trash?

No elegant woman ever got her elegance out of a fashion magazine.

 

 
 
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