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Archive for the ‘ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC’ Category

Grandma

26 Sep

Grandma – directed by Paul Weitz. Dramedy. 78 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★

The Story: a young woman and her grandmother scour the city to raise funds for the young woman’s abortion.

~

One is down on one’s knees morning and evening that the part of the cranky grandmother was not cast with Shirley Maclaine. Instead as surprising absolution for our sins we are given the caustic highball of Lily Tomlin, for those who like their drinks best with bitters.

There she is aged 76 with her suspicious gorilla eyes and smile wider than generosity. This is why we go to the movies: simply to watch such people. To learn the answer, watch the posture she assumes as she tracks down Sam Neill.

The picture is a saga of Tomlin and her granddaughter traipsing from door to door of old lovers and acquaintances and debtors with hands held out. It’s a good story, satisfactorily told.

The difficulty is that the way it is directed eliminates the actual experience of the development of the relationship between the grandmother and her granddaughter to take place, for it relies on cross cuts – which is the method of focusing on one character as she speaks, and then focusing on the second character while that character speaks. What you get is a series of monologues, however brief, rather than the constant underlying potential of mutual energy actually moving between the two.

One problem may be that their dialogues are in cars, side by side. Another may be that the granddaughter is written, cast, and played uninterestingly. The result is that you feel nothing ever happens between them. The story rolls along without inner human development, although this shifts when late in the day the girl’s mother played by Marcia Gay Harden turns up to cauterize the scene.

It is also perhaps the fault of the writing in making Tomlin’s character alienating. She’s acerbic. She’s testy. She has her opinions and is outspoken with them. All of this presents a hard surface which does not allow penetration either in or out. As a feisty lesbian, we have a character hard to put up with.

But we also have it played out by Lily Tomlin, whose nature it is to express the tonic truth. This exists as a ground of being with Tomlin rather than a character choice. And we count on her for it. And she does not disappoint. The ruthless reversals of the expected are the response to life that fall from her. We wish nothing better for ourselves at all.

 

A Life Of Crime

16 Aug

Life Of Crime – directed by Daniel Schechter. Crimedy. 98 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

The Story: three inept criminals target a rich woman for kidnapping.

~

Aren’t you glad I never give away the story?

Why should I when sitting through one as pleasing as this is half the reason for going to a film at all.

Jennifer Aniston plays the lady earmarked for snatching. Is she not the best actress before the cameras today? You may discount her because her haircut does not change. But don’t short-sell her as an actress to watch, follow, wait for, harken to. Her responses are always fresh. You’d think they might not be. You’d think maybe she was stale from all that TV work. You’d wonder that she hasn’t aged. You’d discount her because she always looks good in her clothes. You’d be distracting yourself, if you did, from the brilliance of her work, her mastery of the tone of a role, her instinctual sizing of a part, her ability to strategize a role. Her delivery. Her artistic self-possession. I don’t know what you’re waiting for. She is a masterpiece Chinese meal, a little taste at a time, and a feast throughout.

The film is well written and played perfectly. Tim Robbins plays her cad-husband with disarming relish and talent. Isla Fisher is wonderful as his doxie. Yaslin Bey (known to many as Mos Def, rap artist) is right on the money as one of the crooks. But the one I liked a lot was John Hawkes, an actor I do not remember having seen before, but have actually seen a number of times, mainly in The Sessions where is plays a paraplegic laid out on a bed and receiving sexual services from a surrogate. Where have my eyes been all this while. He has had a big career in film, Oscar nominations and all. I shall seek him out, good, self-taught Virgos as we both are. And he’s just wonderful here as the crook with some common sense and sensibility.

Have I gone off my rocker?

I hope so. Join me. Delight in A Life Of Crime.

 

Magic Mike

10 Aug

Magic Mike – directed by Steven Soderbergh. Backstage Stripshow. 110 minutes Color 2012

★★★

The Story: Experienced male strippers introduce a teenager to their chorus.

~

We haven’t got much story here. And the teenage lad is not a performer of much interest. But that’s not the problem.

The problem lies with the director’s penchant for dialogue improvisation, with the notion in his noggin that improvisation produces an effect, if not the reality, of natural spontaneity. What it actually produces is a baroque elaboration of painful discursiveness. The décor of the palace of Versailles is a final resting place for the over-complicated. Improvisation generally leads to splashing around in the shallows. Its effect is arch, longwinded, and spurious. It enervates drama. And it does not allow the audience to reveal human nature any farther than a raindrop’s circles in a puddle.

The effect on this material is that it attenuates the material beyond necessity, style, or stretching point. The result: so much time is wasted by the halting of scenes with their improvisation that there is hardly a story at all.

It doesn’t matter that a very good actor, Channing Tatum, is called upon to engage in it. In natural, real life people come into big dramatic scenes knowing their feeling exactly. Whatever hems and haws it takes to arrive at their utterance are over once over. Underlying the style lies a disgraceful bid for sympathy.

The annoyance of the inappropriateness of this style of directing – for which Soderburgh is renown – is remedied in part by the garish dancing of the men, particularly Tatum, whose métier this world once was. He is astonishing to behold.

It is also salvaged in part by the verve of Matthew McConaughey, playing the strip club owner.  As an actor, his application to the moment is admirable, and just what’s needed to play a character living on a racket. His seizure of every actor on stage with his attention enlivens every scene he is in. He is an actor of great wit, as well, which means he is quick enough and willing enough to play a character where he can make the joke be on himself.

The sequel, Magic Mike XXL, is better. For one thing, it has a story. It also has more interesting women. In Magic Mike all we have is Tatum’s leading leady, a pill. In Magic Mike XXL we have Andie McDowell and Jada Pinkett-Smith, both brilliant, both fascinating, both fun. The dancing more than carries both films, but in Magic Mike the only reason to revisit the film is the dancing itself. None of which is improvised.

 

Irrational Man

09 Aug

Irrational Man – written and directed by Woody Allen. Perfect Crime Comedy. 96 minutes Color 2015.

★★

The Story: While deciding on an affair with a student, a philosophy professor decides instead to better humanity by killing someone.

~

The story does not work because the main character, the professor, is stunningly miscast.

Joaquin Phoenix cannot articulate the role at all. That is to say, he cannot get his mouth around the words he is asked to say.

One wonders what Woody Allen had in mind in hiring him. Phoenix is a great actor, but devoid of imagination for any style that does not correspond to his own intestinal depths. In brain-damaged roles, those depths are wonderful, but he is an actor incapable of a thought. He cannot imagine how to play an intellectual, because his acting instrument is not tuned for it: a respected, highly accomplished, well published full philosophy professor working at a New England college such as Bard.

Phoenix is a master-musician of the crude but sensitive soul. But Allen should not ask him to dally in a realm perfect for Jeremy Irons blindfolded. In his mouth every line Allen has given him sounds ill-written, phony, off-key. He cannot act them, that is to say, he cannot get his nature around the expression of a character whose life is of the mind.

So, unwittingly, he turns into a platitude what might, for Allen, have been an interesting excursion into rash land. Phoenix doesn’t mean to, of course; he’s not mean spirited or doctrinaire; he’s just not bright in the way required. For in his life he has chosen an engine for acting which forbids his operating in any other style save the one he has already installed. He runs on diesel, not gas.

He is not helped much by Emma Stone who appears to be a rather ordinary young actress playing a rather ordinary young woman. She’s a good actor, but her efforts batter against the brick wall of Phoenix’s technique like custard pies hurled at a Richard Serra wall.

The film is beautifully mounted by Santo Loquasto as usual. The music is tops. The costuming is questionable, since, in class, it keeps Phoenix in the same dull shirt for weeks, and it keeps Stone in skirts so short she looks like a toddler in didies. When she gains wisdom, the designer covers her legs, duh, in slacks.

The supporting people are darling. We even have Parker Posey, who almost turns her character into a substitute for the main interest– a stand-in waiting to go on. None of this salvages the film. You cannot mount a Perfect Crime Movie with the perpetrator played by Goofy.

 

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

02 Aug

Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Action-Adventure. 131 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: In this 5th of the series, the indestructible Ethan Hunt and his cronies take on a terrorist syndicate who kill world leaders.

~

Tom Cruise always gives good value. Starting out – Taps – he evinced a love of acting, a devotion to it, a reveling in it. Intensity was the result of this passion, and a release of vitality admirable to beholders. He is never lazy.

In the new Mission Impossible, intensity is somewhat taken over by the intensity of the perils which cascade all around him. And Cruise Vitality, like a star superseded by the understudy, has been supplanted by the Vitality Of The Special Effects.

But in the few “acting” scenes he has Cruise hits his targets. Of course, in films of high action, it is a general rule that the acting has to be quieter in order to let the action carry the excitement, fear, and focus. Action films require a great deal of standing still while the next catastrophe is being born and the audience acts it out for themselves.

Here the credibility of the action is also compromised by feats in which he is shown doing what could neither be done nor filmed as it is filmed if it could be done – Cruise hanging on to the outside door of an aircraft taking off, to start with. It may have been filmed in a wind tunnel, but one does not lend it credence in mid air. Once this abuse to our credulity is passed, though, tricks and trials zip before us before we even are us enough to catch them. Clever they are, perhaps, and they continue to the clever end.

All this is made palatable by the supporting cast of Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin, Simon Pegg, Sean Harris, and Rebecca Ferguson. They are delightful foils for him and for one another.

As to what they face, it is comparable to a cartoon in which the bulldog is flattened into a pancake by a steamroller. Every one leaps up into survival afterwards. Drownings, bullets, bombs, falls from altitudes – none of this leaves an impression on one because we know they have to survive it until the last reel is reached. Besides, they’re Special Effects: Movie Impossible. In the old Silents, the damsel on the railroad tracks was going to be rescued in the nick. The difference is that then, the oncoming engine was real.

Still we don’t mind. Our pleasure is lowered in each new version of these impossible escapes because each new version is numbed by the previous version. Cruise has physical strength, a certain wit, and good looks enough to outlast anything – just as we all want him to. He’s a good actor, here as elsewhere, and, as elsewhere, he knows the genre in which he works and plays well within its decorums.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, ACTION/ADVENTURE, Alec Baldwin, FOREIGN LANDS, Jeremy Renner, Tom Cruise

 

Donnie Darko

27 Apr

Donny Darko – directed By Richard Kelly. SpookyDrama. 133 minutes Color 2001.

★★★

The Story: A teenage boy sleepwalks his way into a unlived life.

~

The Gyllenhaal kids are in this one, she the easy one, he the difficult one. Which is not to say he is the bad guy and she is the good girl, she nice, he nasty. No, they do not exist in these realms at all. One day fifteen years or so from now, when they are pushing fifty, they may play the brother and sister in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, but until that time we shall simply have to wait. Nice and nasty doesn’t apply to them. Her face is raised to the world, his face is hang-dog. There’s mystery enough in that.

If she delights to have fun, and he is reluctant to have fun, well then, there lurks in him a smile withheld for a more honest and more understanding gathering. Drew Barrymore as his English teacher offers it. So does Katharine Ross as his therapist. But the only one giving him the quality of attention his frown demands is his girlfriend, nicely played by Jena Malone.

The film is one of those messes written by the man who directed it. Will people never learn? Do not direct what you have written, because you will invariably direct everyone but the writer. But another reason prevails for its being a mess.

The director is by nature conventional and to try to be unconventional makes a movie about time-travel – not realizing, time-travel is a thing conventional directors conventionally try.

So what is a conventional persona supposed to do?

What they had better do is don’t try to be unconventional, but to adhere rather to the gift of conventionality they have been given, and, if they are no brighter than this director, what that means is to honor the strength of a strong story line, and seek out a strong story line to honor. That would set the matter of conventionality and unconventionality aside with an iron hand.

As it is, we have a foolish film about an oddball adolescent, played when Jake Gyllenhaal was 20 and just the right age. Gyllenhaal’s personal recalcitrance carries the picture. The picture does not carry the picture. It simply presents weirdness pretending to significance.

Inside this is cocooned an interested personality biding his time for a role more generous to his gifts, as, say, in Nightcrawlers.

He is well supported by Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, all women you will note. Females rush to protect Jake Gyllenhaal. Men steer clear of him, you will note. It is the abiding subtext of many a Gyllenhaal film, most pronounce in his most renowned one, Brokeback Mountain.

 

The Liberation of L.B. Jones

24 Apr

The Liberation of J.B. Jones – directed by William Wyler. Drama. 102 minutes Color 1970.

★★★★

The Story: In a Tennessee town, two bad cops pursue domination over the black community, while two black members of it seek and achieve retribution.

~

Important violence raises this picture out of the mud flinging of a message film and into an imaginative tale of human fact which has not dated.

Willi Wyler’s films earned more Academy Awards for acting than any other director in history. Usually it is Hollywood-type acting, but he certainly cast his pictures well. The original casting of the Lee J. Cobb lawyer who compromises justice for the sake of social peace was Henry Fonda, who would have brought more scope to the role’s requirements of a basically honest man doing the wrong things for what he thinks are the right reasons.

The real mistake in casting is in placing Lee Majors in the key role of his nephew and neophyte law partner, for Majors has a peculiarly corrupt Hollywood handsomeness to him and gift for histrionics that is truly oaken. Barbara Hershey is fine as Major’s wife, but neither of them have scenes sufficient to make the balancing of the whites dangerous.

Not so the casting of the black actors, which is impeccable. The excellent Yaphet Kotto looms as the sweet-natured avenging angel, and Roscoe Lee Brown brings his storied refinement to the role of the rich undertaker who is divorcing his wife. She is played by Lola Falani who is very beautiful and very gifted as an actor. She moves through a dozen ambiguities in the role of Brown’s young wife, and her skill keeps us away from asking a simple obvious question about her: Why doesn’t she just tell her husband? Fayard Nicholas and Zara Cully bring their piquancy and smarts to open the material up for us into the black world. Watch Nicholas, that dancing genius, turn and waylay that woman with a just blow to the jaw. What timing!

Anthony Zerb plays the principal fool cop, and, like Arch Johnson as the other one, they lose their characters behind their put-on deep South accents, so their human projection is lost behind their stereotype sound. It’s a common foible for actors. All you have to do is listen to Chill Wills here to get what a real country sound does when it rings true.

The film is a fine picture, Wyler’s last, co-directed by Robert Swink, for Wyler was laid up by the Southern heat. As a subject it stands as a recompense for his two cowardly attempts at The Children’s Hour, both of which failed and should have failed. But this is a strong film, interestingly framed and shot by Robert Surtees. It is the first film ever made showing a black man killing a white man. And about time too.

During the filming in Humboldt Tennessee, someone approached Roscoe Lee Brown on the street and said, “How come you don’t talk like other colored folk?” To which Brown replied, “Because when I was young, we had a white maid.” And about time too.

 

Danny Collins

22 Apr

Danny Collins – writer, director, Dan Fogelman. Comedy/drama. 106 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★

The Story: A 70-year-old rock star decides to stop touring and write songs again and also to look up his long-lost son.

~

This is star-acting. Movie-star-acting. It’s a sub- or super-genre under the rubric of acting, and it requires space to shine in. This space is usually provided by a series of long scenes.

They are given. But they are interrupted by scenes which interlope the procedures necessary for star-acting. The story goes off the rails when we are asked to believe even for one Manhattan minute that his manager and his new girlfriend and certainly his own common sense could appear at a nightclub to debut only one number, when he would actually need thirty new songs to debut anything at all. 

Here again we have the write-director fallacy, the one unable to hear the other throw up. 

This side-track, so phony, kills the real interest of the material, which is: can he actually write a new song after thirty years of hackwork singing other people’s songs? 

We end up in a byway of a mawkish drunk claptrap, that we are spared the worst only by the playing of the long-lost son by one Bobby Cannavale, a lovely actor, whose strategies opposite the star capture us despite the cheap failed trick of the diversion. 

The star-acting is done by Al Pacino, I hope. And I hope you do not think you will be in for anything less. He is not offering a miniature, a water color. He is offering a big canvas, a Rubens. He covers an entire wall. His work is not about realism, naturalism, The Method, or any such. It is rather the projection of the actor’s imagination to create a world towards which the world itself must respond. The danger of star-acting is that it turn hammy. Pacino does not. Pacino is an actor of rich imagination, and even a playful modesty. He is worth beholding, as Bette Davis is worth beholding, and for the same reason. They’re big. If you don’t like Big get out of the kitchen. 

Annette Bening, another star-actor, dims her glow to support his importance, like a stewardess does a pilot. We needed more of her to hold the story true to writing songs, a highway we loose in the blue roads of the plot. Jennifer Garner helps a lot, and so does a little girl, Giselle Eisenberg, as does Christopher Plummer as Pacino’s doughty manager. 

Pacino is a real entertainer. Go. 

But remember: you don’t go to an amusement park because a roller coaster is absent.

 

Woman In Gold

16 Apr

Woman In Gold – directed by Alexei Kaye Campbell. Docudrama. 109 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A Los Angles shopkeeper explores her right to reclaim a painting stolen from the walls her the family’s apartment by the Nazis 70 years before.

~

Whether or not you consider Gustav Klimt’s work to be Liberace on canvas or not or have no view of or knowledge of it one way or another, this docudrama is simple, straightforward, and arresting. There is nothing special about its acting or its direction, and there doesn’t have to be.

Rather there is the sense of a thread unfolding into an enormous carpet stretching from California, right through The United States Supreme Court, to the grandeurs of Vienna where it encounters a bureaucracy of Olympic rigidity.

The painting in question is not simply worth over $130,000,000. Its real worth is that it is the portrait of the belovèd aunt of Maria Altmann and hung over the fireplace of the luxurious home she lived in until she was married and the Nazis came to steal everything , kill its occupants, and deposit the painting in the Belvedere Art Museum of Vienna, where it became the iconic painting for the city itself. It was called The Woman In Gold rather than the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, for, of course, she was Jewish.

The movie covers all the unlikely sides of this attempt at restitution. The case is handled by an inexperienced lawyer, well and honestly played by Ryan Reynolds. Frau Altmann is played by Helen Mirren, as the upper class woman she was, well bred, and resigned to forget the past, until she wasn’t. They are ably supported by Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth McGovern, Charles Dance, Frances Fisher, Jonathan Pryce, and others.

The story, rather than the picture, carries the picture. It is a plain basket and does its job stoutly. It never betrays its material. And my suspense in its outcome, even though I knew it beforehand, since its headlines involved the most expensive painting in the world, continued until I was gratified and enlarged to learn how it ultimately came to survive.

 

American Sniper

29 Jan

American Sniper – directed by Clint Eastwood. WarDrama. 133 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

~

The Story: A natural marksman becomes a sniper with the most kills in American military history, and his family suffers by it.

Of course, Clint Eastwood is the most experienced maker of war films alive, and this would be, as such, his masterpiece.

The movie is far from a masterpiece. for the domestic drama is badly written and directed, and the poor actress whose unappetizing job it is to slog through the part of the wife does not have the character or variety of craft to relieve it of its monotony, shallowness, and borrowed tone. All the character does is whine and plead. But that’s the way it’s written. It is as though this woman, who has lots of moxie when we first meet her in a bar, has no inner resources of her own, but exists only as a dependent clause of her husband.

Eastwood has a habit he shares with Spielberg of, after a champagne banquet, for dessert serving Cheerios. It’s too bad, because, by this, the actual ruin war has on males is given short shrift. Oh, tut-tut, he almost throttles a dog that is playing roughly with his son! Not enough, Clint!

Perhaps the problem was that it was based on Chris Kyle’s autobiography. It might have been better told like Hawk’s Sargent York, as fictionalized as could be. But it’s not.

The result of this is that Kyle does not emerge through Bradley Cooper’s acting. Oh, the character is there, the actor has done his work well, but the scenes are not there. Klye is essentially a feminine, receptive individual; that’s why he such a subtle, long-suffering marksman. It’s also why he just stands there and recites his indoctrination about protecting America. Don’t be fooled by his bulk, he is most tractable of men, which is why he would one day make a good teacher of the intractable, and why his escape from his forced submissiveness is to lay in wait and kill.

For why he goes back to kill in four deployments has nothing to do with his stated reasons: patriotism, care for his corps. It has to do with what we ourselves feel as he lies there on rooftops waiting to slay. The sheer inner lift of it. The exaltation the concentration gives us. And the desire to see bodies splat and fall. The satisfaction of seen slaughter. It’s a resource available to almost none, but in all its forms it serves well as an antidote to abuse, a bypass for resentment, a getting-back against tyrannical fathers.

The war scenes are the best you’ve ever seen. The movie is well worth experiencing because of them. They are not to be missed. The film benefits from Eastwood’s usual broad, relaxed narrative canvas. But how anyone ever escaped alive from such belligerence is incomprehensible. The stations on the front, with their unindividualized male personnel have the presence and power of a personality in and of itself, the character of a whole human society. A light shines in on how men are. Which is essentially gentle with one another. And never more so than when in crisis.

 

Top Five

01 Jan

Top Five – written and directed by Chris Rock. Comedy/Drama. 112 minutes Color 2104

★★★★★

The Story: As he walks around the city a top comedian with a serious movie coming out is interviewed by a woman from The Times.

~

I had never seen Chris Rock before, save MCing the Oscars. He was fine, but I saw that he was a cute, black guy who told jokes, and none of those things interested me enough to see him again. Then I read a review of Top Five, saying the movie was really funny. So I went.

The movie is not really funny, and once I got over my expectation that it was supposed to be, I found it really entertaining and humorous. I loved it.

He walks around town on his professional errands being queried by Rosario Dawson, and they bring out the best in each other, by which I mean they bring out what is human and real. I was delighted to watch them.

Their adventures take them into a scene with his family members in the Projects, and it all looks wild and improvised and a whole lot of fun. However, it must also have been carefully written and well rehearsed and skillfully shot for it to work as well it does. I don’t get inside black folks homes when in family; I surprised myself being invited there.

Rock also has big scenes with Cedric The Entertainer who takes over Rock and the screen and the whole state of Texas and two ladies of the night all in one day or night. I could scarcely understand a word he said, but I didn’t mind one bit, his attitude told all. He also has a bodyguard mentor beautifully played by  J.V. Smoove.

With Dawson he has a quickie in a low down T-room that’s rich and witty. She accompanies him on interviews and at last to a bachelor party, for the film hangs between two clothes hooks. The line on which it is all hung is that both of them are former addicts.

One hook is his approaching, arranged marriage to a Reality TV actress with nothing to her name but her celebrity. The other hook is the opening of his film on the Haitian slave revolution – which no one wants to see. Action/adventure is not his speed.

What is his speed is that he is a wonderful, natural screen actor. One wants to watch him. One wants to see his response to life and to Dawson, and the same is true of Dawson. He is open and easy and apt. He is also smart, which makes me smart too.

And what’s even better he is shown in long, extended scenes that develop and expand and require human speech. One is allowed in. The film is a grown-up movie. One is permitted to have an experience, not one shoved down one’s throat. The lovely thing about it for me is how old fashioned and friendly to its audience it is, and how much it asks from us. I dove right in and did my part and enjoyed myself no end.

 

 

Wild

24 Dec

Wild – directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. BioDrama. 113 minutes Color 2014.
★★★★
The Story: A young woman treks 1000 miles on the Pacific Coast Trail on a quest for peace from a disarrayed life.
~
What did I believe?

I believed in the presence of the actor in the wilderness, the woodland, deserts, rocks, stones.

I believed in the chronology of the weeks it took.

I believed in the eventual diffident acceptance of rain, storm, snow.

I believed in the voice-overs from her diary.

I believe in the fundamental journey.

I believed in the wilds she went through.

I did not believe Reese Witherspoon’s playing of the character as a whispering, sensitive, shy, vulnerable creature.

Playing it this way damages the character. First, It leaves the actor with no place to go, save where the voice-overs inform us she goes. In the actor/character we see nothing happen. She starts withdrawn. She ends up withdrawn.

Moreover, Reese Witherspoon is not a leading lady. She is not an actor of heroic mold. She is a character lead, and a good one. So if you ask her to play the heroine, you bark up the wrong tree. It’s not within her instrument to play a part perfectly suited to Ingrid Bergman or Sophia Loren.

To cast the part of Cheryl Strayed you must cast her with whom? Charlize Theron? – who exudes strength, who is physically formidable, someone who can cause trouble. Cast someone like Theron and you have an Amazon becoming a real human as the arc of the character. For the story cannot be about a city mouse becoming a country mouse. It’s not about a mouse. The woman who embarks on this trek is already brash. She is out there. She is not withdrawn. She is brave and foolish. But this is not within Reese Witherspoon’s range. And to choose to play her introverted is a miscalculation, although it may have been the only avenue open to her.

This being said, the movie is a good one. Taking a long walk to clear up a mess is good medicine, and every human knows it. This is the story of that. It does not even have to count as a story of some poor weak female doing it. For the same vexations, perils, boredom, exhaustions, and self-discoveries, both pleasant and unpleasant, prevail not as matter of gender but as human matters and with whomever takes such a journey. And in this sense it is good, beginning to end, to take the journey too.

The film is well filmed but not well acted, and the reason for that is that it is underwritten.We need language, language language, for in a wilderness language is what we are left with. Language in the mind. That and the landscape which language tries to defy.

 

Fury

18 Oct

Fury – written and directed by David Ayer. War Story. 134 minutes Color 2014.

★★★

The Story: Tank warfare in World War II against Germany is the challenge which five tank members face.

~

The word cliché has become a cliché. For respect must be assigned to it as describing something importantly human. Important because humans use and become clichés so readily. For clichés are based on thoughtless, automatic repetition. Just as our heartbeats are. And so perhaps there is that in them which assures our safety and our immortality.

It is a case of a writer directing his own script – always a perilous thing to do – for a director cannot distinguish what should be cut, or what should be de-emphasized, or what is not so hot.

What’s not so hot in Fury is the power the director ascribed to what we have all heard and seen before, as though we could only entertain what reassured us. Fill in the cliché:

A: The stalwart leader of the troop, perfect in all his strategies.

B: The beardless recruit who will develop five o’clock shadow.

C: The beastly bully who turns into a cupcake.

D: The ethnic type, braver than Ajax

E: _________________________________________________

F: __________________________________________________

G: __________________________________________________

The result is that one feels nothing for this group of males. One feels everything for the situations in which they find themselves and the blistering, bewildering jump of war. But of the main characters? – nothing.

This is a shame for the subject is fascinating, and the workings of tank warfare a novelty. At least I had never seen a film devoted to a weapon so confined. All that is very good.

And the actors are very good too. Their regional accents are too thick, but who could surpass them? Michael Peña as the Mexican driver, Logan Lerman as the raw recruit, Shia LeBoeuf as the cannoneer, and especially Jon Bernthal as the bully. Brad Pitt at 51 is excellent as the sergeant in charge of them. It’s interesting to see him in a mentor role. He is so good a playing fools, that one hopes he does not have to abandon comedy for the gravitas of such parts – at which he is, here, nonetheless, excellent.

There is an interesting scene in the movie, in which he and the raw recruit intrude into the apartment of two young ladies. And into which the other men also intrude. The effect is overdone. But it’s too late now, isn’t it? War isn’t fought like that any more. It isn’t fought for love or for hatred. It’s valor wasted on oil. Monotony of emphasis is also a cliché. What we need is maybe this director. And maybe Leo Tolstoy to give truth and human humor and the particularity of actual war experience to the poor soldiers before us, instead of these holdovers from the days of Paramount Pictures of 1945.

 

The Last Of Robin Hood

06 Sep

The Last Of Robin Hood – written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Biopic. 94 minutes Color 2014.

★★

The Story: A faded movie star takes up with 15 year-old girl, abetted in the affair by her mother.

~

A hollow enterprise, since it is miscast.

Everyone knows that Errol Flynn was a magnificent specimen, 6’2”, elegant, slender, athletic, beautifully proportioned, and gorgeous. Kevin Kline is none of these things and never was. But if you are to play the part of an actor whom everyone still watches in movies, you have to have some of those things, and the most important of them is probably to be 6’2”. Hugh Jackman, who comes from Flynn’s part of the world (Tasmania), is the right age and the obvious choice to play him, for the wreck of that seagoing yacht Errol Flynn needs the oomph of the remains.

Kline brings his charm to it, his fine appearance in well-tailored clothes, his way with a cigarette. We all love Kevin Kline and want him to be good – but his Flynn accent is slightly off – why is that? Flynn came from an academic background, and actually had breeding, and Kline has no trouble in convincing us he was a gentleman. But you have to get Flynn’s accent exactly right to do it. And you have to get his crocked grin, too, his sense of conning you for all you’re worth. But the script leaves him with nothing more than a journeyman-like performance to enact. We do not have scenes of Flynn’s merriment, sense of fun, playfulness, or even his love and skill with the sea. We hear about it, but we never see it.

Susan Sarandon is equally miscast as the mother of this nymphet. She is too old to play her. She skirts around the role, as she often does with parts, and does not take it head on. She has lines and scenes that tell us what the character is, but we never see from Sarandon what the character is. She is the guardian and promoter of a grande cocotte. But she herself is not grand. She has bought into being touched by the greatness of a Hollywood star as her highest moral value in life. This we never see in the actress. We hear it in the lines, but not in the actress. There is a value system at play larger than the one before us with this woman, and we need to feel it.

Finally, there is Dakota Fanning, woefully under-cast in the part of the girl. In real life, Beverly Aadland was as sexy as a young Brigitte Bardot, and couldn’t help being so, any more than Bardot could when young. Flynn was mesmerized by her. She evidently had a full natural grasp of repartee, which anyone would be drawn to once they had stopped making out. Dakota Fanning is no sexier than a pudding. It is not her fault. It is not her fault that there is no way at all that she could play this role. She has none of the natural taunt of such a girl, none of the erotic drive and certainty, none of the inherent readiness.

Unless the movie-going public is fascinated to know about the private life of these three now after so many years have gone by that no one remembers it at all any more, I think they will stay away in as large a group as I observed staying away from the seats where I witnessed this unfortunately titled dud stumbling forth from the screen. Spare your penny. See Kline in something else.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, BIO-PIC, Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon

 

The Immigrant

02 Jun

The Immigrant – directed by James Gray. Tragedy. 117 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: A young woman is snatched from Ellis Island and forced into prostitution by a man who competes with her favors with his ne’er do well cousin.

~

The Immigrant would be an important picture-going experience, except for one ingredient which cancels it out as such and leaves one merely shrugging.

It is beautifully produced. The costumes are apt and evocative. The filming and editing are tip-top. The direction of crowds, the engagement with real settings cannot be surpassed. The casting is…

Yes, the casting.

Setting aside the secondary roles of Polish immigrants and Irish cops which are perfectly cast, we must bow down as well before the casting of Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. No two actors in the world are more suited to play opposite one another than these, because they are the two most rash actors on the planet at the present moment.

On the one hand we have Phoenix’s construction of the pimp as a man of almost priestly quietude and intent – except when he is madly drunk. Phoenix gives but one indication of his extremes, until the big scenes at the end – exactly the way to strategize the role. His awkwardness as the m.c. in a girlie show is the perfect choice.

Opposite this is the extrovert Renner, who plays an illusionist who is a suave public performer. And what a beauty Renner is to look at! What eyes! What physicality! Where Phoenix offers you nothing to empathize with, you fall for Renner on the spot. He captures the Mercurial instability of the character in a snap. Phoenix’s instability as a character is of another flavor entirely. They are both masters of the extreme.

The fatal damage comes in the playing of Marion Cotillard whose performance clogs the piece to a standstill. What is she up to, you wonder? What is she shooting for? She plays “helplessness.” She plays “innocence.” She plays “placidity.” That is to say, she plays qualities – instead of playing actions. What is her character is doing is saving her sister and  is laid out by the dialogue, but you never see anything stir in Cotillard’s performance in that direction and in aid of it. She is inert.

Ever since playing Piaf, Cotillard has been doing this sort of dumbshow acting, as though, seeing the situation her character is in, the audience will “feel” her response to it. That the audience will fill in the blanks. That the audience will empathize the contents into being. They won’t. They’ll feel cheated. They won’t be fooled. They won’t care. They’ll suspect her of stinginess. They’ll suspect her of artistic stupidity. They’ll suspect her of vanity and self-indulgence. Opposite two such extreme actors, an actress cannot coast or play against the grain or abdicate. She cannot play a trick. If she does the result is narrative incoherence, which is what we have here.

Less is not always more, but less than less is a monstrosity. Cotillard in a film is a sabotage not waiting to happen. This film is demolished by her.

 

My Cousin Vinnie

13 May

My Cousin Vinny – directed by Jonathan Lynn. Screwball Courtroom Comedy. 120 minutes Color 1992

★★★★★

The Story: Two 18 year-old college boys are falsely arrested for murder in an Alabama town, and their cousin Vinny and his girl friend from Brooklyn act as an inexperienced legal defense.

~

We are in the land of grown-up comedy of character here, that now rare American concoction.

What comedy of character means is that the actors do not have to have huge funny mouths  and they do not have to make jokes. What is funny is the characters’ response to the situation at hand. Comedy of character depends upon scenes that do not promote the line of the story. Decoration is where God tells the truth in comedy of character.

We have such scenes here, and they are all famous – in which Marisa Tomei takes the part of a hunted deer, in which Mitchell Whitfield imagines he is about to be buggered, in which Tomei and Pesci get turned on over automotive statistics, in which Fred Gwynne checks on Joe Pesci’s pronunciation – and so forth. The story is How Can These Innocent Boys Escape Death When Their Lawyer Is Such A Dope? The suspense lies in that, but the comedy does not. The comedy lies in the periphery of glances, gestures, stances, and spontaneous responses. The comedy lies in the unnecessary, the parenthetical, the lace.

What actors do have to have is what Fred Gwynne has as the judge, which is a grasp of how droll being dead serious can be, and how to lavish a really-O-truly-O Georgia accent upon it. His orotundity is a dish of caramel pudding. You may not laugh out loud at what he does, but you sure appreciate the humor of it.

I was interested to watch Ralph Macchio as the captured cousin and the cuter of the two boys. His is almost a thankless role, and he does not try to blow it up, but plays it for real, always internally, always responsively. It is an affecting because right-sized performance.

Pesci and Tomei are masters of the beings they play, and they bring to us their natural irresistability. Pesci is appealing in spite of himself. Tomei is downright lovable. He jumps around the court, and she outlines her female righteousness with her red-nailed hands. You want to kiss them both.

Joe Pesci won the supporting actor Oscar for Goodfellows while My Cousin Vinny was shot, and Marisa Tomei won the supporting Oscar for My Cousin Vinny after it was shot.

The story shudders, shakes, and trembles with improbabilities, but never mind, the playing keeps it erect. Have fun. See it.

 

Then She Found Me

15 Feb

Then She Found Me – directed by Helen Hunt. Dramedy. 100 minutes Color 2008

★★★★★

The Story: A woman on the lea-side of 40 wants to have a baby, but she doesn’t want to adopt, especially when her own long-lost birth mother turns up to drive her nuts.

~ ~ ~

Here’s an interesting film you haven’t seen and haven’t even heard of.

Is that true?

It’s true that it’s interesting. And what is more interesting still is how Helen Hunt worked on it for years as a writer and producer before she could get it made. She directed it and stars in it. She describes this whole process with unusual candor in the Extra Features, and you will like how smart she is and how honest, gifted, and determined.

And I think you will like her playing of the main character. As you will Bette Midler as the birth mother, Matthew Broderick as her husband, and Colin Firth as the attractive but erratic divorcé she takes up with.

The movie has a dumb title. It really should be called The Comedy Of Betrayal, because that is the subject driving both Hunt and the story. What place does betrayal play in a relationship? Is it necessary? Perhaps. Is it inevitable? Probably. How do you mine its riches?

The picture is shot in Brooklyn, from what I can tell, and it has a playful, searching script, made marvelously and justly funny by Midler, whom you want to strangle and love all at the same time, and by Matthew Broderick as the gormeless hubby.

It’s a perfect movie for home viewing with a bright mate. Check it out. There’s a lot to see and a lot to surprise you here. And a lot to talk about afterwards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snow Falling On Cedars

06 Feb

Snow Falling On Cedars –­ directed by Scott Hicks. Mystery. 127 minutes Color 1999.

★★★

The Story: A Japanese fisherman is accused of the murder of an American fisherman, and the former lover of the Japanese fisherman’s wife may know the truth.

The movie opens with an alluring shot of the American fisherman out at sea barely visible in a thick fog. Into it one peers, with all the need to know one possesses.

Other scenes follow – a still boat on a bay of Pudget Sound surrounded by still trees and colossal skies.

Other scenes equally exquisite follow one upon the other.

Yet none of the expectations continually before us in these displays of beauty are supported by the material underlying them in the human interactions also displayed.

The principal fault is not just the casting of Ethan Hawke who does not have sufficient character to carry a film. (I confess, I also find his face hard to look at.)

Everyone else is perfectly cast, John Cromwell as the canny judge, Richard Jenkins as the hemming-and-hawing sheriff, and Sam Shepard as the editor with probity. James Rebhorn as the hard-driving D.A., Youki Kudoh as the loyal wife, and the ambiguous-eyed Rick Yune as the accused fisherman. Max Von Sydow is delicious as his defense lawyer.

The director has also co-written the piece, and therein lies the fault, for he is blind to see that the Japanese are all presented from the outside, and that this cannot be. They must be presented from the inside. The TV series Tremé is a perfect example of a movie in which exotic cultures are presented inside-out; you see them in relation to the world around them. But presenting the ill-treatment of the Japanese-American population during and after World Ward II from the outside never invites us in and reduces their tragedy and their story to a polemic. Oh, too bad, we say. What we need to say is nothing: we need to be them. We need to say, “Ow! That hurt!”

A good deal of time is given over to the romance of Hawke and Kudoh when young, and because all of it is conventional none of it convinces. It has plenty of environment and no eccentricity. Without this properly established we cannot much care what Hawke is going through.

The director points out three mysteries in the film, but he is telling a whopper. There is only one. He also points out that Hawke has only one arm. Because the presentation of it was not properly introduced, we had to be told. These are things we shouldn’t have to be told. They should be self-evident. Instead, we are betrayed by the allusive. The title is one such allusion. Snow? Yes. Cedars? Where? Perhaps that’s the fourth mystery.

 

Nebraska

01 Feb

Nebraska – directed by Alexander Payne. Classic Comedy. 110 minutes Black and White 2013.

★★★★★

The Story: an old man sets out to walk from Montana to Nebraska to collect a million dollars, while his son and whole family do all they can to thwart him.

Isn’t it terrific!

What?

You mean you haven’t seen it!

Well hie yourself down to the picture show and do so.

And when you do, be prepared to sink into this picture as into a somewhat worn, even threadbare easy chair which you’ve known all your life and has become your favorite.

It is very very funny — a classic comedy in the same way that one by Moliere is — The Miser, say — or Jonson’s Volpone — or better yet, Frank Capra’s comedy It Happened One Night. It has the same story. That is, one person wants to run away; another person wants to bring the first person home. Both of them are very stubborn. No one really wants to dance with the runaway, although some want to dance with his money. 

The pace of the picture looks anti-comedic, but is as it should be and should be no other way. The casting of the picture is as it should be, and everyone is just lovely. The music, editing, direction are ideal. It’s good to see it in a big old movie house because of the spaciousness of the land of Nebraska, which beckons and forbids by dint of its immeasurable latitudes. Cinemascope was invented for this.

Some of the folks you will encounter are June Squibb as his naggy bag of a wife – who grows on you. Stacy Keach as the old man’s mendacious former business partner. And Will Forte who has the essential and pivotal role of the old man’s son, in a lovely performance entirely.

And the geezer, played by Bruce Dern, always an actor of great resources, in the central role. Hobbling along in a profound stoop abetted by unlaced clodhoppers, padded torso, white hair learing about his head, the blowing desert of an unshorn beard on his face, and wearing specs – the actor has done everything to create and enhance the impenetrability of the character, the characteristic upon which the entire story depends. Dern makes him very taciturn, very slow to speak and very slow of speech. And gathering all this to him, Dern gives the wittiest performance in the world. It is the canniest piece of acting I’ve seen this year. You will so appreciate him, and the passage you will move through in yourself as you become acquainted with him you shall indeed be grateful for.

It’s a lovely suspense adventure. You don’t know how it will end. You know it has to. But you don’t want it to. It is the best written screenplay I have seen this year.

Make sure to go with your friends. They’ll hug you for it. After they stop applauding, as everyone in the audience I saw it with did.

Because – isn’t it terrific!

 

 

Her

29 Jan

Her – directed by Spike Jonze. Psychological Romantic Drama. 126 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

The Story:  A thirty-something divorcé starts up a love-affair with a perfectly formulated human who is a voice on his computer.

The premise may seem so repellent as to keep you away. But the execution of it is so arresting you will remain riveted to the screen. And the reason for that is the voice is that of Scarlett Johansson who delivers the best performance of her life, a piece of work made more wonderful because she never appears before one, for Johansson’s physical appearance and mimetic awkwardness has been a detriment to her creamy advantage all along.

You will also remain riveted because, when you are not, you are riveted by your own mulling of the matter at hand. These recesses come up whenever the writing declines to the tropes, diction, and obligations of soap opera. For, alas, the director is also the writer, and when this happens a picture usually tends to fall foul of a want of critical acuity and an absence of slapping self-indulgence on the fanny. The divorce-papers scene between the man and his soon-to-be former wife is such a scene. It is not necessary, and it does not ring true, unless the two participants are stewed on daytime drama and their emotions are quotations hiccupped up from it.

The acting is helpless not to imitate these TV styles of histrionics. Joaquin Phoenix falls into the trap of the unnecessary smile, the puerile giggle, the senseless smirk upon which soap opera actors lean with toppling weight to flesh out the vapid moment and lend it a smear of good will. Amy Adams, as his chum, is no less a victim of the style. But it’s not their fault. There is no other way to play junk save as junk, unless you are Garbo – and, don’t worry, Garbo smiled a lot! That’s not the problem. The problem is the style. The style turns everything silly — silly without being funny. But that’s only sometimes. For:

However. And there is a big however here. We still have Joaquin Phoenix, who is the most sensitive actor before the cameras today, and we have Amy Adams who is as versatile as her hair-dos. And we have Scarlett Johansson, speaking endearingly, intelligently, gamely, with him. We have the ups and downs of their courtship. We have the surprises of her development as a character, as a human, as a spiritual possibility – and she is the only character who has these traits – and so the picture never flags. We are kept poised for the next interruption of her into his life. We are poised for the next unexpected. And it always captures us unpoised.

The story takes place in some unset time when all humans seem to conduct their lives in talk to earphones. Where writing folks’ billets-doux is parceled out to love-letter-professionals. Where jobs involve TV productions in which housewives fuck refrigerators. Where automaticity reigns.

Is Love a Machine? Is Romance a Fabrication? Companionship a Contraption?

Except that people remain absolutely themselves. Human. Real. Baffled. And yearning.

I should go see it, if I were you. It is the most unusual Hollywood film I’ve seen all year.

 

August: Osage County

19 Jan

August: Osage County – directed by John Wells. Family Drama. 121 minutes, Color, 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: A paterfamilias goes missing and the clan gathers, poisoned daggers out, lips drooling with vitriol.

Misty Upham, as the American Indian caregiver, is the only sane and decent woman within miles.

First, We have sister number one, Juliet Lewis, who in no movie is ever sane and who arrives in a condition of advanced delusion about honeymooning in Belize with her sleazy boyfriend, Dermot Mulroney. Then we have sister number two, Julia Roberts, who arrives in high, control-freak denunciation and a condition of covert separation from her husband played by Ewan McGregor. Then we have Margot Martindale, a battle-axe aunt castigating her feckless son and married for 38 years to Chris Cooper. And last but most, we have Sam Shepard’s wife, Meryl Streep as the Medusa of the family, dedicated to speaking the hideous truth, the whole hideous truth, and nothing but the hideous truth, and suffering from cancer of the mouth and extreme drug addiction, to boot.

To record all this here seeps mockery into one’s tone, since the dishes are piled with more food than one can swallow. The actors sink their jaws into it, though, and shake it all about. It is wonderful to see acting of this high order and imagination.

Indeed I sit back in wonder and amazement at the daring, skill, and inventiveness of the performers. Julia Roberts is filmed in close-ups that leave no leeway to age. And Meryl Streep is extraordinary as the Oklahoma materfamilias out to get every member at her dining table with the meanest mouth in the West. She plays a woman seared by age. She plays not an old woman. Rather, she plays a woman denounced by age, demoted by it, defeated by it, although her dying cries are ear shattering. The beastly mouth of old age indulges itself. The part is about already being old. She laughs it off; she lies. I have never seen Streep explore such a thing before.

The play itself is not about age but about the dubious proposition that if you had a terrible childhood passing it on makes you understandable and, indeed, excusable. You are awarded all this once an author writes you an exposition scene about how nasty your own mother was to you that time. No one breaks the chain, here. There is never a choice-point, every woman spits out the venom, as to the manner born, which they were, and perhaps the playwright does not have in his belief system that people can change. The venom is very well written venom. It is not venom in a Dixie cup. It is venom in a chalice.

The writer is less adept with those less verbally adept, the parts of McGregor’s and Robert’s daughter, and of the third sister and her boyfriend. These three are mute victim bystanders, the collaterally damaged. However, all three parts are weakly conceived and written. Moreover, Benedict Cumberbach misconstrues the boyfriend as somewhat simple-minded, which he is not. In any case, both characters would be better kept off-stage entirely. They would be more potent if they could not or would not appear on it at all. That writing error leads to a bad misplacement of dramatic energy in the Third Act.

But this is a cavil in a piece which we all must see, we who honor and love and enjoy acting for itself alone. On this level, August: Osage County can’t be beat. See it.

 

 

Shame

12 Jan

Shame – directed by Steve McQueen. Drama. 101 minutes Color 2012. ★★★

The Story: A handsome thirty-year-old ad-man pursues sexual release in every spare moment, and even in some that are not.

It’s beautifully filmed and shot and acted by performers of the first order. Carey Mulligan plays his sister exquisitely. James Badge Dale has the right-on-the-money, live-wire inventiveness of Cagney as his boss. Nicole Beharie stuns us with her telling performance of the co-worker who dates him.

And Michael Fassbender is stuck with a misconceived main role. On camera, getting up naked, going to the bathroom, screwing, we get nothing from his character that we need from a good story, although we get everything we could possible expect from a good actor.

The idea that an individual’s soul and psyche can be transmitted to film without words is not feasible. The words would be interior. But we here instead have only the skim of his addictive actions. The Lost Weekend did not make this mistake. Addiction does not speak for itself. For in its isolation it is highly aware of the consequences and rituals of its deeds. Hell is never quiet.

The mistake may arise from the notion that film is mainly a visual medium, a medium of physical narration, a mistake perhaps arising from its visual charms and possibilities. Or a mistake falsely and callowly taught in film schools. Sometimes no speech is needed in film, true. Sometimes no speech is needed in written fiction also. But the inner verbal process is always needed, and “pantomime” (a technical term for the actor’s physical manifestation) has its limitations and things it cannot show or do. Perhaps the error arrises out of undue adultation the great rhetoric of Silent Pictures.

But Silent Pictures were not silent. In them people are always talking. Just because you cannot hear them does not mean you do no understand what they are saying. You know exactly what they are saying. For Silent Film actors are physically engaged in what they say and they respond to what is said to them – just as actors do in talkies. Just because we cannot hear them or read their lips does not mean we do not know what they are saying. No. And of course there were the placards. And of course, to spell things out, there was far more music in Silent Pictures than in talkies.

In Silent Pictures pantomime played a part which it still plays in film, by every talking actor in every scene, although the Silent Film actor might telegraph things a bit more. This did not hinder the realistic acting of Gloria Swanson or Mary Pickford or Laurette Taylor. Their styles are quite modern.

But, to take the silent craft of Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, Harry Langdon as the dernier mot on screen narration is a modern folly, since it is to disregard that they were not actors but clowns and always playing against the settings. And clowns never speak. Film actors must speak. While it is true that in film actual words must be wordless, words are not extraneous, but half the job, and story must provide them. At least in certain films, and Shame is one of them.

Shame starves us of the words needed to grasp what the character is going through. But a raw description of the story reveals there is no opportunity for it. The sister is thrown away as relevant only to the convenience of the brother’s exterior life. The character she could provide as a confidante is lost. And the film is without monologue.

Instead, are we expected feel what he is going through simply because he runs in the rain or gets blown in a gay bar? I’m sorry, it’s not enough. We are supposed to experience his shame. But we don’t. Through no fault of the actor, it is never articulated. For shame is a human emotion that exists with words always. It is always something we are telling ourselves or are hearing others tell us. It is never readable as a gesture, as a sex act, as a run in the rain.

The sex addict story still needs to be told. The director is a good director. He also wrote it. What a shame. Someone still needs to write it.

 

Tyler Perry’s A Medea Christmas

09 Jan

Tyler  Perry’s A Medea Christmas – written, produced, and directed by Tyler Perry. Low Comedy. 100 minutes Color 2013. ★★★★★

The Story: Medea’s bustin’-out-all-over extended whatever gathers at a farm to open the gift nobody wants: The Truth!

I like Tyler Perry’s Medea pieces, because they are like the old Abbot and Costello movies: you know the style of the story will not tax you and will not fail you. The stories are as obvious as a limerick. And as humanly humorous. This is not Cartier’s. This is the Five and Ten Cent Store, and I respect its treats and decorums.

Medea is played by the director, of course, with an unconquerable bosom and the quack of a drake dressed up as a duck. The free-floating mouth of this matron is met fully by the wonderful playing of the domineering mother of the bride of Anna Marie Horsford and by Kathy Najimy as the mother of the groom who takes her on in a brilliant turn. Najimy is a performer not seen often enough in principal roles in principal films. So grab your chance while you can, and catch her here.

But, of course, the great treat is anticipating the mercurially volatile Media’s opening her mouth to blurt out another outrageousness. Perry has a true talent with this character, a human being who knows no bound of race or age or religion or type. She is one of the rare free sprits around.

So his films are not just for black audiences at all.

Go and check it out for yourself, and when you come back I’ll say: “See, I told you so.”

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Kathy Najimy, Low Comedy, Tyler Perry

 

American Hustle

04 Jan

American Hustle – directed by David O. Russell. GrifterFlic. 138 minutes Color 2013. ★★★★★

The Story: Complications pile on complications as the characters of the characters execute and sabotage and execute and sabotage themselves and each other in a super-sting operation.

~

Everyone has phony hair. And yet the motto of these dodgers is, “From the feet up!” meaning everyone has to be authentically committed to the ruse at hand.

False hair’s a wonderful image, redounding on each character’s flaws as the story unfolds. Bradley Cooper has tiny pin-curls to make his black straight hair curly and cute. Jennifer Lawrence has a baroquely streaked blond coif, always in flirtatious display. Amy Adams has ringlets manufactured down to and included in her décolletage, which is always arrayed for us, and, in its bra-less excellence would, we fear, be on array upon her presentation to The Queen. Jeremy Renner’s pompadour has a pompadour. And Christian Bale has a comb-over so complex it requires a combination. “From the feet up” – means until-but-not-including the crown of the head, which, of course, leaves everybody uncommitted.

The story is told in big long fully developed scenes that you can glom onto and relish, and the writer/director lodges the story not in plot but in the plot’s being directed by the divergences of each main character’s character. Jennifer Lawrence, in a particularly well-written role, makes her contribution by always being right by making everyone else wrong, doing one thing and saying another. Amy Adams levels her battleship intelligence on the false target of swindling her way into love. Bradley Cooper is shredded by his own intensity, which is blind. Jeremy Renner, the only sympathetic character among the bunch, loses his way in the byways of honest ambition. And Christian Bale, who is not quite on target with his character, is shot in the foot with his own rifle – which is firing blanks. As an actor he alone misses the innocence of his character, and innocence is important for all these fools, because, as Oscar Wilde said (and Oscar Wilde  was never wrong), “It is always wrong to be innocent.”

Is the story too complicated to follow? No. Is it engrossing? Yes. Does it have its legitimate surprises? Yes. Does it betray its audience’s credulity? No. Is the story well and unusually and strongly told? Yes. Are the scenes daringly played? Yep. Do you experience being entertained? Yes. Are you seeing some of the best acting in your life? Absolutely. Does it stick to your ribs into the lobby? No. Have you wasted your time? No.

2013 is strong year for male performances, and Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper look good here. And so do Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. The cast is great, but as ensemble, since there are few ensemble scenes to speak of, that is not the draw, but, performance by performance, you can’t do better. And the whole shebang is wonderfully and humorously told. It is one of several important GrifterFlics this year: The Wolf Of Wall Street runs side by slippery side with it in local theatres. See ‘em both. Tell ‘em Bruce sent ya.

 

The Wolf Of Wall Street

03 Jan

The Wolf Of Wall Street – directed by Martin Scorsese. BioPic Black Comedy. 189 minutes, Color 2013.

The Story: The rise and rise and rise of a sharpie-broker to the heights of wealth and disorder, and the outcome in ultimate wealth and disorder and gullibility for all.

★★★★★

I was disappointed to read in the credits that The Wolf Of Wall Street was based on someone’s life, for it is such an imaginative movie, I expected it to be as made up on the spot as the many dodges it chronicles. It is the wittiest movie I have seen in ten years.

It starts with a 26 year old Leonardo DiCaprio being put in a trance by Matthew McConaughey, a trance in which he remains for the duration, and in that trance enacts the dance of greed and more greed (in the word “greed” the “more” is silent), until at the end we are shown the whole world to be in an obsessive trance, too.

McConaughey’s fugazi-cadenza of the fairy dust of Wall Street opens the piece with a The Gambler’s Creed. It shows that capitalism, meaning brokerage investment (meaning stock and bonds), is silly. For it is based on a cheap thrill. To which one and all must be addicted. Meaning entranced. Get Rich Quick is the silly thrill.

The film is a must. For the writing. For the mastery of execution of the director. For the performances of the McConaughey, along with Rob Reiner as Belfort’s irascible father, Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife, the beauteous Joanna Lumley as her aunt, and everyone involved, small part to major. Jonah Hill is the co-star, and his scenes put one in mind of the early work of Scorsese in Raging Bull, as does the acting work throughout, with its ruthless improvisations and trash talk at will.

Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor of deep shallowness as a leading man, brings his thin-sliced white bread and slather of profound character-acting talent to bear on the part of the cavalier investment broker on the make, and gets up on his hind legs, and his abilities shimmer throughout the picture and hold our interest at a fascinated distance, as he continues his compulsion to trick the customers into speculations from over-the-counter penny stocks, which no one may profit by but him. He gives us a deal of rash playing. The entire performance is flavored into reality by the fragrance of a Bronx accent.

The law bears down. This does not dissuade him from drugs, sex, and high-rolling.

But why go on? Why spill the beans, when it is such a pleasure for you to see them topple out on your own? It is because of Scorsese’s dab hand with this material that you must  attend, and for DiCaprio’s in playing it out with him.

Is it the best film Scorsese has ever made? Could be.

You tell me.

 

Captain Phillips

29 Nov

Captain Phillips  directed by Paul Greenglass. BioPic. Pirates take over a container ship in the Indian Ocean and kidnap its captain, engaging a U.S. Naval mission for his rescue. 123 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

The style is documentarian and it works like gangbusters. One feels one is in Somalia with the Somalis in their desperate situation as it resolves into theft, kidnapping, bribery, and frequently ingested drugs, and one is aboard as well with the crew, in its fear, resourcefulness and valor.

So the great virtue of the treatment of this material is its evenhandedness between the invaders and the sailors. There are no villains; there are simply certain people doing certain things. Members of the crew somewhat emerge, while Tom Hanks carries the sailor side of the story, but the Four Somalis emerge clearly as persons. Surrounding them is the document of the vast sea, and one has the sense that the entire film was shot actually at sea, not in a studio water-tank. The ocean is the document. She is both the tool of the piracy and the tool of its comeuppance. She permits the pirate to board the ship, and she slows down their escape.

I don’t have TV and I don’t watch the news any more, nor do I read movie reviews, and so I was unfamiliar with the misadventure of the Maersk Alabama. Consequently everything commanded my intelligence, everything surprised me, everything interested me, particularly the reality of the insides of the Alabama, its corridors, appointments, engine room, and fo’cstle, and the curious interior of a modern life-boat, whose aspect I shall not betray here, lest surprise fail you when you actually see it for yourself.

Apart from all this, I was fascinated, tense, thrilled. I had no idea what was going to happen. The capture of Captain Phillips and the intermittent threats to his life were exasperating, even exhausting, but one is meant to sit through them for the uncertain outcome, just as he had to.

The trial by water is made worthwhile by the playing of the leader of the pirates, a wonderful Somali actor, Barkhad Abdi, who is just right in his relations to the other three henchmen, one of whom. insane on drugs and religion, wants to kill Phillips, and one of whom, a tyro to all this, is taken over from time to time by his own naive kindness.

Tom Hanks plays Captain Phillips as a dull bourgeois, which is exactly right. He is a competent sailor, he knows how to lead a crew and preserve their lives, and he is almost always devoid of snappy Hollywood cunning. This makes his Captain Phillips a triumph, for it means an ordinary person in extraordinary peril, may have just enough wit to bring rescue about. Clearly his Captain Phillips is a bad actor when trying to convince his captors to a certain course, to search certain sections of the ship, to think a certain way, but his very ineptitude at being convincing is enough to confound the search of the ship and ensure his crew’s safety. It is a stunning anti-heroic choice for the actor to have made.

The screenwriter and actors have also fashioned a relationship between him and the pirate chief which emerges as the focal point of interest, for these two are men of practical intelligence who are interested in one another’s being, nature, and position. Both are fighting for their lives, both in different ways, and it is our fascination to see which shall prevail before the sun sets upon them.

 

A Dirty Shame

16 Nov

A Dirty Shame – directed by John Waters. Farce. The prudes against the profligates in a war of the sexing. 89 minutes. Color 2004.

★★

And so it is!

For if you are not, as I am not, familiar with the works of John Waters on film (I much admire his writings and his interviews), you would have to scratch your head in dumb wonderment as to how this galumfrey might have issued from his rare mind.

What it looks like is a beautifully paced picture with no consistency of style, which is all right, but its also shows no consistency in the quality of the performing of it.

The main thrust is camp. Or supposed camp – camp being the mockery of emotion by the person to whom it is at that moment happening. Chris Isaak as the priapan Pan does well with the style, as do Selma Blair and Johnny Knoxville.

However, Susan Shepherd and Mink Stole, as raging, raving puritans, play in a vein of positive realism, and are a little bit better at it than are the others are at camp – camp, which takes the physical finesse of a Betty Grable. So that’s two styles.

The third style is that of Tracey Ullman, who is the focal figure of this farce, but who seems to be playing in the vein of silent film gesticulation. She throws herself around. She is never as a loss for a grimace. At this she is not very good. She never seems lodged in either her prude or her profligate. She mugs like a chimpanzee but, oh, I wish she were as funny as a chimpanzee. It’s a case of an actor dancing Swan Lake on one roller skate. It’s too outlandish at bottom to be enjoyable. Your sense of humor is swallowed by your pity for the performer and terror at her failing of invention.

We do have in this piece a custard pie in the face for SAA and other sexual recovery groups. We do have everyone in town running around screwing, but no sense that anyone actually does screw. It is as though the entire film, in its desire to deride and overthrow priggishness, is more sexually repressed than the icecap. To laugh at sex addiction as a treatable condition is, after all, a sacrilege against the robust sexual health 12 Step Sexual Recovery Programs strive for.

One senses a certain monkishness in the director, no?

For the corollary of sex for everyone is sex for no one. Sex meaning in these frames the same as going to the bathroom in any toilet you find. As though sexual need were impartial. If it is, it is therefore zero.

 

 

Gravity

15 Oct

Gravity – directed by Alfonso Cuarón. SciFi Drama. Two astronaunts on a space mission come up against The Universe. 90 minutes, Color, 2013.

★★★★★

George Clooney has the most hopeful eyes. And there’s such fun in them. This is what makes it virtually impossible for him to die in a movie. A real hero, yet. Gary Cooper had it written into his contracts that his characters would never die — because the only thing Gary Cooper could do was be a hero. Such are the qualities and strategies of The Stars!

Sandra Bullock has wary eyes, almost skeptical. She doesn’t quite believe. This also makes her good as a hero – because it means she is up against her inner lack of faith in the Universe, as well as everything else on the bus-ride. “This can’t work out but I’ll go through with it anyhow,” is her mantra.

What a pair they make!

Dancing through space, they make us see the Earth itself as dancing through space, and doing so compulsively, thank goodness, as by the merest chance. How vulnerable the huge Earth is, and how dear – never more plainly seen as from the great distance from it to which this story takes us.

Space!

What a place!

How beautiful! How restful! How dangerous! How unlikely!

You’ve never seen it before, and never have you had the opportunity to appreciate it more than in Gravity, in part written, produced, and edited by its Mexican director.

How on earth Clooney and Bullock ever signed themselves up for this project I shall never know. I mean, from Y Tu Mamá También, how could these grand stars have the least inkling that this was not just going to be another Buck Rogers cliff-hanger? How could they ever have imagined it would be this good!

The film is breathtakingly beautiful in how it shows what is breathtakingly beautiful.

Both actors are super-duper. Clooney plays a jocular raconteur blabbing on all the time, and Bullock plays an introverted scientist he mentors.

I saw it in 3-D in a picture palace, and it is well worth seeing it thus. And, of course, besides all that, it really is a cliff-hanger!

 

Bruce Almighty

03 Oct

Bruce Almighty – directed by Tom Shadyak. Comedy. A local small-time newscaster yearns for advancement and sells his soul to God to get it. 101 minutes Color 2003.

★★★★★

I always thought Jim Carrey should play Hamlet. With those eyes. So handsome. So slender. So essentially romantic.

Imagine all that attack held in check. “To be … or not to be!” Imagine him entering the “not-to-be” of that speech, the demoting ratiocination of it, the reduction, the sin of that repression. For if ever an actor was gifted with the To Be it is this one.

This picture is a comic Faust, the tale of a man given supernatural powers, and then having to live up to them imaginatively and compassionately.

Of course, Carrey is very funny when he is not doing that, and the script helps him bountifully.

Jennifer Aniston is present with all her skill as a light comedienne, a skill equaled by no other actor of our time. We have the great Phillip Baker Hall as the boss. We have Steve Carrell playing a nasty, a part which suits him to a T. And we have Morgan Freeman playing God. Or perhaps we should say we have God cast as Morgan Freeman.

Well, the film is full of sight gags, gags which are very witty, and amusement reigns throughout.

What is the reverse of a sight gag?

Hamlet is the reverse of a sight gag.

Jim Carrey is a sight gag. He, like Hamlet, is also a genius.

 

Enough Said

29 Sep

Enough Said – directed by Nicole Holofcener. Romance. Their children about to start college, two middle aged folks try to make a match of themselves, but complications attack. 92 minutes Color 2013.

★★★

This is not a chick-flick. It is a hen-flick. It is a movie for an audience of the-past-middle-age. Indeed, the matinée audience I saw it with was packed, and they were all seniors or approaching that without-hope-of-sex moment or past it.

Why was it packed? Perhaps they were a senior club on an outing, I should have asked. Perhaps because Julia Louis-Dryfus had such a hold over a loyal public as a TV actor for so many years? Or because of her combination with James Gandolfini, who also held sway on the tube? Did it get good reviews? I never read its reviews. I am ignorant. I don’t have an answer.

Certainly the script is no higher than Situation Romance. People say things they would never say and behave as they never would. And then, to look human, wear the wrong clothes for a scene or two. The writing is moribund.

Certainly Julia Louis-Dreyfus is frozen in TV acting technique, and, as it is her story, we see a lot of her, and, of course, she’s very nice, and her toothy smile is ever-present, and she can act, in that debased mode more than adequately, but who wants to see it, really? Everything she is asked to do we are asked to find funny, even before it happens. No actress worth her salt, and Dryfus is worth more than a few shakers full, can survive such prefabrication in a full-length motion picture.

James Gandolfini, a lovely actor, is limited or limits himself to being the big hearted stout fellow. But then it is not his story. Nor is it the story of the invaluable Toni Colette, the best friend and confidante, married to a husband who is looked down upon and a housemaid who is also looked down upon, both without cause. Nor the story of Catherine Keener as the first wife, whose fine house has no real bearing on the story and who offers to strike up a friendship with Louis-Dryfus that is without foundation in nature.

I would say it is not well-directed did I not feel that its heart was in the wrong place and that no direction of any kind could have resuscitated it into breath. It is the story of mistaken identity eluding itself. When I imagine what George Stevens and Jean Arthur would have made of these possibilities, I turn myself away from this in shame, enough said.

 

Thanks For Sharing

28 Sep

Thanks For Sharing – directed by Stuart Blumberg. A quartet of sex addicts in recovery stumble toward one another in mutual aid and redemption. 112 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★

Josh Gad is probably miscast as the premier liar of this story, for his casting is like casting Bud Abbott in the role. He is meant to supply fat-boy comic relief to material that does not welcome it, since the underpinnings of the lie are nothing-funny.

These people are stern addicts. And their humor would have been best served by its emerging in meetings themselves, where 12 Step style can be very funny indeed, but germane, which Gad’s is not. It’s not the actor’s fault. It’s the fault of the role.

Otherwise we have an excellent film to go to with your fellowship buddies or with those who need some education as to the catastrophe of the condition of addiction to pornography, prostitution, exhibitionism, sexual resorts, and the long list of the rest. For the film does a fair and honest and informed job of looking closely at the addiction in action and in remission – remission being no guarantee of recovery, of which no such thing has ever been known. It’s hard to quit sex addiction; harder than alcohol. You carry around your saloon in your britches.

Pink is completely convincing as the raving sex maniac who comes into the program late and, with help, finds her way toward sobriety. Mark Ruffalo plays a man five years on the sexual wagon, and he is solid in the role. Tim Robbins plays his long-time sponsor, a bleeding deacon of the S-Fellowship (which is never defined), and the parent of a son who has gone sober from drugs cold-turkey on his own. His relation to this son, his refusing to work an 8th and 9th Step with him, is a key drama in the story and one important to behold.

The Ruffalo character has not had sex or a date in five years, and, when he allows himself to, he falls quickly in a relationship with an eager beauty played by Gwyneth Paltrow.

Paltrow is one of the great creatures of the modern screen. When Audrey Hepburn appears on screen one falls in love with her. There is no question as to how good an actress she is. She occupies our heart. And the same holds true for Gwyneth Paltrow, who is a very good actress indeed. She is an actress of great suppleness, intelligence, and grace. Aways fresh. She responds to everything happening to her physically, as though it belonged to her. Like Audrey Hepburn, she is a lady. But one with no stodginess to her. She is fascinating fun to watch.

And all this being true of her, the audience’s energy moves more towards whether this relationship will work out than to whether the quartet of addicts will stay sober.

But the story still honors their stories. And the record of them is true to the facts of sex addiction and its effects on everyone, addict or not, sober or not. So inform yourself. Thanks For Sharing will do for sex addiction what The Lost Weekend once did for alcoholism. It’ll give you the inside story.

 

Prisoners

27 Sep

Prisoners – directed by Denis Valleneuve. Police Procedural Suspense Thriller. Two little girls are abducted and cannot be found. 153 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

This picture trips up over the train of its final complexities. Even the great Melissa Leo cannot render the unnecessary exposition scene at the end. Motiveless malignancy is all you need. Rationales do not have to be given for human nastiness. Nastiness is a gift of God, and we all are capable of it, and that we are unites us with Medea, Richard III, and Iago in a way that excuses and personal history and reasons for villainy keep us away. Alibis don’t make an audience empathetic. They make us dismissive. Don’t tell me why Iago did it. He did it because, no matter what his “reasons,” he had the  means, the will and the bent to do it, just like the rest of us. If you find out his motives you diminish his size. Such is the case here.

But I go on too long, for otherwise what else but praise can be due to the director and writer for bringing this marvelous picture show to us. And what good fortune to have Roger Deakins film it in dank color. What a pallet he has! What a way of harvesting light.

The performances of all – Leo, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, and Maria Bello are terrific. They rise to the writing like the grateful actors they are, recognizing good material at long last.

And to carry the sleigh we have the tandem horses of Jake Gyllenhaal as the investigating detective and Hugh Jackman as the father.

Jake Gyllenhaal is as moody as his sister is merry. He is the knight of doleful countenance, a melancholy Dane for our time. It is always necessary to see any picture he is in. He has that in common with few other actors of his generation – perhaps only Joaquin Phoenix. Gyllenhaal grounds the detective in personal probity – a quality scripted for the character but which he plays without irony opposite Wayne Duvall, cogent as the sloppy captain of the force. But there is something inside Gyllenhaal which animates this probity, a search for gutsy justice against exhaustion, failure, and opposition. He irons everything out.

What mainly needs ironing out is the father played by Hugh Jackman. This is the surprise performance of his career, and he has never to my knowledge demonstrated himself to be an actor of genius. Always good, mind you, always juste in his craft.  Never have you seen Jackman at this pitch. Never have you seen him capture a character particular – not general – and an American particular, but also, never have you seen him go to such extremes as you might only find in a female actor, in Geraldine Page, perhaps, or Anna Magnani. He is something to behold, and I hope you do behold him. He is extraordinary.

The film is thrilling.

And beautiful.

 

Home At The End Of The World

23 Sep

Home At The End Of The World –– directed by Michael Mayer. Drama. Two male lovers housekeep with a screwy female. 96 minutes Color 2004.

Robin Penn is far too old to play this lady with the rainbow hair. It’s a part for a fat young woman with no confidence in her own sexual attraction. Robin Wright is very handsome and is in her late 30s, and she would not be fooled by this hair for a Manhattan minute. And the actor, in fact, does not relate to the hair at all; she simply wears it with less adventure than she might wear a Halloween wig. It is an earmark of a performance by an actress, usually canny in her craft, usually offering us something novel and brilliant. And yet one feels that she is fully engaged. And so she is. The trouble is that there is nothing very much for her to be fully engaged with. She is a tiger engaging with an antipasto.

The script and the direction are flimsy, the tone of the picture is false, the casting is false, the playing is false. Sissy Spacek’s work is vaporous.

Colin Farrell is off-base and phony as the adult gay lover. He play-acts innocence and dumbness. His eyes wander about like Mayflies, and he affects a little lost smile. It is a strange piece of amateurism, when his own innocence, his own stupidity would have done just fine.

And worse still the director and author seem to think that homosexual relations are devoid of blood-rare lust, that they are something one sips genteelly like lemonade. For none of the players evince anything more than a pastel passion.

This is fraudulent. Aside from there being nothing at stake in it and therefore no drama, it is an attempt to make homosexuality nice – which is stupid – since part of the charm, the power, the influence, and triumph of sex of any kind is victory over the “nice.” “Oh, for a delicious smooch!” as one finds in Almovódar’s Law Of Desire, for instance. “Oh, for a great big juicy steak!”

And to top it off, the film does a toe-dance over the affliction of AIDS. It offers us the Farrell character as too stupid to know his partner has it, when it is obvious that that is exactly what he has.

So, spare yourself the dismay. Do not, whatever you do, take up residence in the Home At The End Of The World.

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Cissy Spacek, ENSEMBLE DRAMA, FAMILY DRAMA, Gay, PERSONAL DRAMA, Robin Wright

 

Marnie

01 Sep

Marnie – directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Psychological Drama. A young woman with a past meets up with a man who wants to free her from it. 130 minutes Color 1964.

★★

Sean Connery is an actor who really belongs up there. Handsome, sexy, virile, strong, with a deep musical voice, great eyes, an interesting face and mouth, photogenic, at ease with himself, humorous, smart, responsive, charming, fun, physically flexible, convincing in his readings, and with a hairy chest, he is one of God’s gifts to film.

Tippi Hedren is someone who does not belong up there at all, and it is painful to watch her. She is frozen, the voice is tight and not well-placed, she is unpleasant of visage, she is no fun, has no humor, and what is worse, she has a pile of bleached blond hair on her head that distracts in every scene, much as the same hair does with Catharine Deneuve. “Which way will it be dressed now?” is the sole focus of interest with her. For she herself is completely lacking in interest, and is not an actress at all, poor thing.  Bamboozled by Hitchcock’s name, she let him make her a star, momentarily. When you see her speaking on the Bonus Features, she is a lovely woman, intelligent, well spoken, and interesting. But as an actress she is none of those things. Grace Kelly was scheduled to do it, and it would have benefitted from her breezy style and the fact that she actually was an actress, but Grace Kelly backed out.

At the point this picture is made, Hitchcock is involved in sleazy self-indulgence, combined with a falling-off of talent, combined with a failure to grow in his craft. The script is far too long, and it stalls in long conversations whose content were better taken silently. For Hitchcock sometimes is able to tell a story well, and sometimes brilliantly, as in the passage where Marnie opens a safe, while unbeknownst to her a cleaning woman approaches mopping from around the corner. But it is a passage of suspense in a film which, over-all, does not have any suspense and which is so badly told it is dumb.

For one thing, Hitchcock asks us to be involved in a relationship entirely devoted to therapy, as Connery takes on the role of the shrink – and the psychotherapy offered is twaddle. No one is going to endure this boring woman’s cure! The filming is crude and overstated. Except for Connery, the actors are bad because badly directed. Diane Baker comes across as smug; Louise Latham has a badly written part. The styles are a hodgepodge, and nobody seems to belong in the picture together with anyone else. The picture is a half hour too long. As usual with Hitchcock, the sets are unconvincing.

Hitchcock at this point in his work thinks he knows how audiences think, how they respond, scene by scene and beat by beat, and his arrogance in refusing to question this so-called mastery dooms him. You may witness the doom if you like, for Sean Connery is certainly worth the ticket.

The Bonus Features feature people making insane claims as to the virtue of this picture. “If you do not like Marnie, you do not like Hitchcock. Indeed, if you do not love Marnie, you hate film,” which is to say that if you do not love beets you hate vegetables. Well, I like vegetables. I do not love Marnie, and I do not love Hitchcock and I do not hate film. So shoot me.

 

Robot and Frank

29 Aug

Robot and Frank – directed by Jake Shreier. SciFi Drama. An elderly man is assigned a robot to be his caretaker. 89 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★

Frank Langella is a wonder to watch as he gets to accept his odd companion, played by the voice of Peter Sarsgaard. Langella has been around the block as an actor so long that he surprises every nook and cranny he comes upon.

The story is by a half-wit writer (according to the moronic Extra Voice Over he supplies, a “sort of” Valley Boy, using “sort of” six times a clause), but, unlike him, it has its charms, which supply the robot with a moral and ethic denied to the Langella character who is cat burglar striving for his final hit. He teaches the robot to pick locks.

Supplying a welcome set of variations for these two, we have three fine actors, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, and the inestimable Susan Sarandon. Watching Sarandon these days one sits back as confident as in the company of the best claret and simply enjoys a skill which is as past expertise as the moon the earth. What ease! What human insight! What open presence!

These three circle around Frank and his robot and they work toward a perhaps too sappy denouement for such a grouch.

But never mind. The idea of a robot pal ordered-in to care-take a dotty senior has a fine simplicity to it, and we look upon the doings of these two as perfectly possible in the near future.

A pleasant way to spend time without wasting it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Butler

26 Aug

The Butler – directed by Lee Daniels. A poor black farm boy becomes Butler to the White House during six Presidential occupancies concurrent with the Civil Rights movement. 132 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

What did those folks feel who did nothing during the Civil Rights years – which extended from The Eisenhower administration and still go on? What were those folks like? What did they go through?

I, a white man, was one of them, and so were a great many black folks. And this movie pays attention to those who were not on the firing lines, favored the black cause, but hung back. Rather than Cecil Gaines, the White House Butler, the true subject of this film is the sort of human he was: reserved, conservative, restrained, domestic, uxorious, responsible, honorable, hard-working, and unimaginative about and unsupportive of the racial revolution under his nose. Many black people were the same. They may have doubted or disbelieved or felt The Civil Rights Movement was not the way to go. They may have simply felt they were content with their lot or were lost in their own pleasures, work, and lives. They felt the movement was disrespectful and ill-mannered. They did not hold back the tide, but were carried along with it, and, in the end, had to acknowledge the accomplishments attained and still to be attained. The Presidents Cecil Gaines served all fall into this category as reluctant participants. They were ignorant of blacks. And to all of them, the Civil Rights Movement was an annoyance. It was supposed to be.

Cecil Gaines, who rose from the cotton fields to be the White House favorite, was reluctant also. Forest Whitaker plays this man with all his might, and his work is enforced by Oprah Winfrey, perfectly cast as his self-indulgent wife and the domestic tangle she and her son, played by David Oyelowo, in different ways, represent to Gaines. Coleman Domingo is brilliant as the White House matre d’ interviewing Gaines for his job. Clarence Williams III is grand as the man who first mentors him, as is Vanessa Redgrave, telling as the plantation owner who takes him into her house as a boy to learn to be a footman. Cuba Gooding Junior brings the character of a fellow butler and friend fully to life in every scene he plays. Various presidents are played by Robin Williams as Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber marvelously made up and played as Johnson, and Alan Rickman as Reagan. James Marsden has Kennedy down pat. But most amazing of all is John Cusack capturing psycho-physical screwiness of the rodent that was Richard Nixon.

The picture paints a strong picture of a part of the black world of that era – the world of the uncommitted or limitedly committed, that is to say, the majority. It balances and honors it. It puts before us ourselves as we were.

It is a rich entertainment indeed.

I was deeply influenced by seeing it.

 

 

 

Elysium

26 Aug

Elysium – written and directed by Neill Boomkamp. SciFi Dystopian Drama. Earthlings now reside in a wrecked planet while the plutocrats inhabit a disease-free, gated garden in space which, seeking cure, a sick man and a sick child strive to reach. 109 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

We watch it because we want to watch Matt Damon carry another picture on his handsomely buffed shoulders. And we are not dissatisfied to see him do it once again. Except, of course, during the final reel, when, as is the long established and fitting custom in action/adventure movies, all character interaction dissolves in the tension inherent in his surviving the villainous remaining obstacles. This tension is in him and in us. Or is it in him? Or is it that we simply see him beat the odds with superior wit, muscle, and plot necessity, while we do all the tensing?

In any case, these sequences are over-cut, because we must not be asked to believe them, because to do that we would have to see them slowed down, and doing that, we would never find them credible. As it is we never find them credible. They simply zip by. And so the hero, the story, the human element – all are lost in the flash and speed of the editing, and we are bamboozled.

Are we bamboozled?

Nah. We don’t really buy it.

I’m not sure I buy the Jodie Foster freeze character of the mean Secretary of Defense of Elysium, as written, either. And I cannot understand two of the actors at all: Wagner Moura as Spider, Damon’s rebel chief, whose shaking curls destroy his articulation, and Sharlto Copley whose burr is so garbled and pitched that nothing the actor says can be heard. These characters, of course, are perfectly clear in their roles, but not in their gobbledygook. Bad direction. Too bad. It means all their humor is lost.

What’s not too bad is Damon, who, as always, is apple-pie, threatened, within or without, with strychnine. A completely identifiable actor, like Joel McCrae or James Stewart. And the entire contraption of the film is given and validated in its feeling and value by him and by Alice Braga. She is a wonderful actor, womanly, humorous, fluid, heaven to look at. She is a tincture of health in the sour atmosphere of nasty doom, exemplified by the part played by William Fitchner, a piece of work if ever there was one – Mr. Elegant Death, a sort of walking very expensive coffin.

The film satisfies as briskly as any other fast food you can think of. If you want to spend time without wasting time, you might like it.

 

12 Angry Men [Jack Lemon Version 1997]

26 Aug

12 Angry Men [Jack Lemon Version] –– directed by William Friedkin. Courtroom Drama. A jury reconsiders a foregone verdict. 1 hour 57 minutes Color 1997.

★★★★★

Each of the three versions of this screenplay is longer than the one before it, and each is perfectly adequate to the task. None of them is a moment too long or too short. This one is interracial, the most bigoted member of it being Black Muslim. It is beautifully cast, directed, and acted, as are the other two. And in each case the principal actor gets older. Robert Cummings is 44. Henry Fonda is 55. Jack Lemon is 72.

I imagine it is impossible to badly direct this piece. It is not impossible to overact it, for it is occasionally and in certain small ways, in all its versions, over-written, but that is a cavil. It is not overwritten in its addition of material and episodes. None of the actors dally or milk their parts for attention. This version holds us, even though, after three versions, we know its episodes, its moves, and its outcome. In this version color adds a good deal to the drabness of the jury room itself, and in this version the rain convinces. Nothing is more insufferably sweltering than a July downpour in New York City. A minor matter is that Bayside High is said to have a football team. It does not even have an athletic field. I went there and I know.

Jack Lemon, a wonderfully jittery actor and comic master, evinces none of his trademark volatility and plays the part steady-on, as it should be played. He is exemplary, and his evident age adds a bent of physical vulnerability subtly advantageous to our tension.

One of the expanded parts of the play is the final scene which George C. Scott plays coming to terms with the scar of hatred for his own son. I saw George C. Scott starting out on the New York stage in The Andersonville Trial. He was mightily impressive, and has remained so ever since. However, he has not shown us anything new for years. Until now. This is the finest and most extreme demonstration of his gift I have ever seen – an extraordinary performance, which opens him up to a region I never associated him with. Don’t miss it. He won Golden Globe and Emmy for it that year.

I admire great actor-technicians such as Scott and Armin Mueller-Stahl. All the actors are excellent, and James Gandolfini, a different sort of actor entirely, is particularly lovely.

This version was made for television, and I saw it on VHS. All versions are riveting. All versions are worth seeing.

Jack Lemon, Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen, Tony Danza, Hume Cronyn, and Mary McDonnell as the judge.

Henry Fonda, Lee. J. Cobb, Robert Webber, George Voskovec, Ed Begley, Jack Warden. Joseph Sweeny, Edward Binns, E.G. Marshall, John Fiedler, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman.

Robert Cummings, George Voskovec, John Beal, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold, Joseph Sweeny, Paul Hartman, Bart Burns, Lee Philips, Norman Fell, Larkin Ford. 

 

12 Angry Men [Henry Fonda Version]

26 Aug

12 Angry Men [Henry Fonda Version] – directed by Sidney Lumet. Courtroom Drama. A hung jury unhangs themselves. 96 minutes Black and White 1957.

★★★★

Three years after the Robert Cummings original TV version, Fonda produced this film, and it didn’t do well – except in Europe where it took off. One wonders why it did not do well here. It was a small film put into huge release, and well publicized with a big star. Perhaps the American public had seen it done quite well on TV already in the Robert Cummings version, and, without subtitles, the Europeans hadn’t. It caught on later.

One trouble, might be Henry Fonda in the Robert Cummings role. Fonda is not an ambiguous actor. He is a good guy actor, so the audience would expect him to win out over this bunch of sweaty bigots, and this would undercut the suspense., Or perhaps Lumet’s treatment of the jurors as individuals, rather than as a mass grouped against Fonda worked less well.

At any rate, we do have Jack Warden stealing every scene by his clever and apt use of props. As to the other actors, Lee J. Cobb, as usual, eventually overplays his hand, which Edward Arnold in the same role, for once, did not.  Jack Klugman is a study in actor-attention, Joseph Sweeny is even better than he was in the first TV version, Walter Abel was more rich and active in reserve than E.G. Marshall who sulks.

The sopping heat of New York City in a summer downpour is not followed through, and is, in any case, a superficial outside pressure. None of them play a frantic desire to get out of that sweltering, un-air-conditoined room.

I did see it in 1957, and I was mightily impressed and moved, partly because of its grimy, paint-peeling setting and un-Hollywoody, Method-type actors,  and the theme of common justice. When critics say a picture has not weathered well or stood the test of time, that probably means that the critic has not. Have I lost my ideals? If so, blame it on me that I now see the fault lines in the piece. How did Fonda buy that knife? How could they calculate that elevated train ride? Why would they notice the glasses line on that woman’s nose?

Well, the charm of the piece is that it is actually a detective story, with Robert Cummings and Henry Fonda and Jack Lemon (in a later TV version) all playing Sherlock Holmes to eleven prejudging Dr. Watsons – while never leaving the room. As a detective story it’s a pretty good one. As a young idealist of 24 I rejoiced to see justice done. Now I am more interested in the truth of the casting, so while there is something to be said for each cast, I prefer Cummings in the leading role over Fonda. Fonda has a beautiful face, but the emotional affect of a small town druggist. I find him flat, dull, and slightly self-satisfied. So his is a prescription rather than a performance. We shall see what Jack Lemon brings to the role. Then we shall know all there is to know, shall we not?

Henry Fonda, Lee. J. Cobb, Robert Webber, George Voskovec, Ed Begley, Joseph Sweeny, Edward Binns, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, John Fiedler, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman.

Robert Cummings, George Voskovec, John Beal, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold, Joseph Sweeny, Paul Hartman, Bart Burns, Lee Philips, Norman Fell, Larkin Ford. 

 

 

Blue Jasmine

15 Aug

Blue Jasmine – written and directed by Woody Allen. Satirical Tragedy. A wealthy woman falls on hard times, moves in with her sister, and things get harder still. 98 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★

The movie is fun to watch because everyone in it is fun to watch, from Glen Caspillo who plays a cabdriver in one scene to Cate Blanchett who is virtually in every scene.

Are Woody Allen movies ever miscast? We have sub-stars, such as Alex Baldwin who spreads his face with the merciless fixed smile of the opportunist and we have Sally Hawkins touching as Blanchett’s ordinary sister whom she moves in with and Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight, ideal as the millionaire in shining armor. But we also have every single minor character perfectly acted and played. As the maraschino cherry on top: Bobby Canavale playing to perfection the baby-bully of Hawkins’ boyfriend.

And we have Allen’s cunning script, which keeps us moving from the beach house on The Vineyard to the walkup on Van Nuys in San Francisco, set decoration by Kis Boxell and Regina Graves, and Production design by the ever faithful Santo Loquasto. Javier Aquirresarobe excellently shot it. What a team!

I don’t know if Cate Blanchett was Allen’s first choice to play this woman, but she is my first choice to play it right now. She is never without resources. She is always in the situation which she is, which she has created, and which she dearly wishes to escape. Vocally she has a rich, melodious alto, which one never tires of hearing. She wears that last desperate little Chanel jacket with a difference positively valiant. She looks smashing in the clothes and in the milieu of the millionaire she has married. She is riveting. She is imaginative, varied, and true.

And you do not give a rap about her or about anyone or anything else in the story, so no one is applauding. You sympathize with her at times, but the character is a character of satire, not of tragedy. She is one of Truman Capote’s swans. She is a woman with no inner resources whatsoever, and so there is no alternative for her. She pygmalioned herself out of a dull upbringing and changed her name of Jeanette into that of A Trophy: Jasmine – a  fragrance without a past, an invisible surface. This means that there is no inner drama, no other possibility, no might-have-been. The drama is between going mad and living out the madness of the life she still wishes for herself.

Jasmine has been compared inaptly to Blanche Dubois, but Blanche Dubois was a schoolteacher, and she had an inner life. Jasmine was never anything except the interior decoration of a tycoon. When that falls apart, she has nothing inside herself to fall back on. She has no money, no calling, no children. What happens to King Lear when his job falls away? He too goes mad. But with a mounting difference. There was that in him – authority – which invites obedience to it. Being every inch a king is different from being every inch a society bitch. And the difference is that Lear learns something from the denuding and self-denuding of his authority; Jasmine learns nought, for there is nothing learnable in her. She is a just a story about a past told by a verbose half-crazed lush who once had one.

 

12 Angry Men [Robert Cummings TV Version] 1954

06 Aug

12 Angry Men [Jack Lemon Version] – directed by William Friedkin. Courtroom Drama. A jury reconsiders a foregone verdict. 1 hour 57 minutes Color 1997.

★★★★★

Each of the three versions of this screenplay is longer than the one before it, and each is perfectly adequate to the task. None of them is a moment too long or too short. This one is interracial, the most bigoted member of it being Black Muslim. It is beautifully cast, directed, and acted, as are the other two. And in each case the principal actor gets older. Robert Cummings is 44. Henry Fonda is 55. Jack Lemon is 72.

I imagine it is impossible to badly direct this piece. It is not impossible to overact it, for it is occasionally and in certain small ways, in all its versions, over-written, but that is a cavil. It is not overwritten in its addition of material and episodes. None of the actors dally or milk their parts for attention. This version holds us, even though, after three versions, we know its episodes, its moves, and its outcome. In this version color adds a good deal to the drabness of the jury room itself, and in this version the rain convinces. Nothing is more insufferably sweltering than a July downpour in New York City. A minor matter is that Bayside High is said to have a football team. It does not even have an athletic field. I went there and I know.

Jack Lemon, a wonderfully jittery actor and comic master, evinces none of his trademark volatility and plays the part steady-on, as it should be played. He is exemplary, and his evident age adds a bent of physical vulnerability subtly advantageous to our tension.

One of the expanded parts of the play is the final scene which George C. Scott plays coming to terms with the scar of hatred for his own son. I saw George C. Scott starting out on the New York stage in The Andersonville Trial. He was mightily impressive, and has remained so ever since. However, he has not shown us anything new for years. Until now. This is the finest and most extreme demonstration of his gift I have ever seen – an extraordinary performance, which opens him up to a region I never associated him with. Don’t miss it. He won Golden Globe and Emmy for it that year.

I admire great actor-technicians such as Scott and Armin Mueller-Stahl. All the actors are excellent, and James Gandolfini, a different sort of actor entirely, is lovely.

This version was made for television, and I saw it on VHS. All versions are worth seeing. All are riveting.

Jack Lemon, Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen, Tony Danza, Hume Cronyn, and Mary McDonnell as the judge.

 Henry Fonda, Lee. J. Cobb, Robert Webber, George Voskovec, Ed Begley, Jack Warden. Joseph Sweeny, Edward Binns, E.G. Marshall, John Fiedler, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman.

Robert Cummings, George Voskovec, John Beal, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold, Joseph Sweeny, Paul Hartman, Bart Burns, Lee Philips, Norman Fell, Larkin Ford. 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, COURTROOM DRAMA, Edward Arnold, Franchot Tone, George Voskovec, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Robert Cummings

 

The Informant

06 Aug

The Informant –­– directed by Steven Soderbergh. Big Business Biodrama. A corporate whistle-blower works with the FBI and into a hornet’s nest of surprises. 108 minutes Color 2009.

★★★★

Am I crazy or is this character Matt Damon plays crazy? And, if crazy, how can I ask myself to invest in his story as one in which a drama of personal choice is embedded. If he’s nuts he can’t choose. Fix, lies, and audio-tape don’t work with a nut as protagonist.

Sold to us a comedy, this a Good Humor man selling us the same bill of goods as the criminals in it. The fault lies in the length of the piece, which has a wonderful screenplay, but which offers us at the last twenty minutes a string of daft surprises, as though everyone involved suffered the obsession as the main character and simply couldn’t stop. “This stuff really happened. It is so good, no one could make it up.” Yes, but you have to apply the same rigors of story-telling as if you had made it up. Your responsibility is to entertainment not to journalism.

Mark Whitacre is a fabulist from the start. That is to say he tells himself a story about himself, and then tells it to everyone else around, and he is so whitebread, everyone believes it, particularly himself. For instance, he seems to believe that once he overthrows the company-heads for price-fixing that he will be put in charge of the company himself.

Everyone rolls their eyes at this daffy dream, but no one comes outright to say he is dumb to think this and, moreover, to install it as the basis of his operations as a white-hat do-gooder. This is big-business. No one is going to put him in charge for turning them in. Doesn’t he get it?

What Matt Damon brings to the part is his willingness to wear a lot of padding over his buffed frame, to wear a mustache the shape of a fart, and to engage his head with a bald wig that renders him virtually unrecognizable. But he also plays the part with a naiveté that fuels Whitacre’s acts and keeps us as the audience on the sympathy-with-the-character side of the fence. Damon keeps us fooled. Just as Whitacre keeps fooling himself, and with the same means: innocent fairy tales.

It may sound like faint praise to call Damon the most useful actor in films today, but it is meant as real praise. For he takes on all sorts of non-leading-man, character roles, as here when, at the peak of his masculinity and looks at age 32, he embarks on this impersonation. An actor of perhaps fatal likeablity, because of Damon, we stay for the outcome of Whitacre’s life long after we have lost patience with it. Damon tends to play his characters as men of marked reserve, and, because the script doesn’t offer it, we never get inside Whitacre, although we get a lot of outside. If Whitacre is bi-polar, we never see it here, perhaps because being bi-polar is just another Whitacre fable. Here Whitacre is just a crafty fool. It would be interesting to see Damon play a character of high temperament. It would be interesting if Damon one day gave us poles.

The film is beautifully shot, directed, written, and beautifully scored by Marvin Hamlisch.

 

The Big Picture

03 Aug

The Big Picture ­­­­–– directed by Christopher Guest. Satire. A film student gets discovered by Hollywood and barters away his soul, almost. 100 minutes Color 1988.

★★★

I am actually zero degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. For back in the palmy days of the 70s, my lady friend drew me from Greenwich Village to a big Thanksgiving party in the Philadelphia house of Kevin Bacon’s parents, whose father was city planner. Kevin was a kid running around the yard playing touch.

Because of this gratifyingly high position I hold in his life, I have always wanted him to be a favorite actor of mine, but there are too many degrees of separation for that.

There is a human model called Fusion, which divides folks into two outer types, either the controlling or the withdrawn, and each of these combines with an inner type, either the steady or the volatile. Katharine Hepburn would be Volatile/Controlling, and Spencer Tracy would be Steady/Withdrawn. Kevin Bacon would be Volatile/Controlling also, and his best friend in the movie and his girlfriend would both be Steady/Withdrawn.

The problem with Kevin Bacon as an actor is that his Controlling energy is used, probably unconsciously, not to control his surroundings and make them better, but to control himself. The result is a tension ever present and useful only in dramatic roles. In a comedy, which this film is, it is useless and indeed detrimental. In dramatic roles it gives him a certain deadness; this makes him an ideal villain. But it prevents him from being a natural comic actor, someone who is inherently funny. And without this quality the present film falls flat.

And it falls even flatter by contrast when there appear in it actors who are inherently funny, or who can do funny things, or both. Such ones are Fran Dresher, who is marvelous as the Hollywood wife who is forever redecorating her home. Or Martin Short, whose exquisitely and imaginatively rash take has an uncanny viability as a gonzo Hollywood agent,. Or Teri Hatcher as the sex-bomb starlet. Or Jennifer Jason Leigh, my least favorite actor, who, in a very well-written part, is brilliant in making the manically volatile film student into someone one’s heart bleeds for. These four have talents that can rise to meet the challenge satire demands.

As has the great J.T.Walsh as the sinister, controlling studio head. But Bacon is so tense, even his teeth are tense. It throws his timing a half-beat short. It makes everything he does preplanned, so even his improvisations seem like nothing is actually happening to him. Nothing looks fresh. Everything looks thought-out even when nothing is. He is a very good actor, but his presence in this material is the ruination of it. It’s a Tom Hanks part; it needs someone you can get behind, someone inherently a fool. The best Bacon can come up with is routine naiveté. It wants not just an actor you like but one you can admire for making a jackass of himself, someone so vulnerable they are lucky.

 

The Way, Way Back

31 Jul

The Way, Way Back –– written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Comedy/Drama. A fourteen year old boy on a ghastly/wonderful seaside vacation. 143 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

The perfect summer movie, because it encompasses like an ocean roller all the sun, salty air, sand, sadness, and silliness of the July days of youth. Sadness because one is no longer eleven but fourteen, and defiance is in order.

We have the cast of casts to bring it to us, at least as far as the adult actors go. First there is Steve Carell as the wicked stepfather-to-be, and he daringly offers the character not one redeeming feature. I do not own a television, I had never seen him before, and I understand he is a television entertainer. Well, he certainly entertains us here with this setting-your-teeth-on edge prick.

The can-do-no-wrong Toni Colette plays the lady considering marrying him, and she has wonderful moments in a part which is underwritten and under-examined by the writers, who take the part for granted.

However, present as the blabbermouth neighbor is The Great Allison Janney, one of the finest actors working today. She is a treat and a tonic necessary for one’s health and for one’s belief in the future of the race. There is a public edict out that any film she is opens in must be rushed to. Everything comes alive when she is on. And boy is she on! She is devastatingly funny and extravagantly generous with her gifts, as usual.

Finally, we are offered the madcap amusement park proprietor of Sam Rockwell, an actor who seems to have no limitations, or, at any rate, whose gifts are so pronounced that, watching him display them, one cannot imagine what they might be. He plays the zany owner of the vast Water Wizz aqua- park, where a good deal of the action transpires. The man is witty, quick, and desperate. Rockwell gets all of this: a man who exists for the thrill of summer has cheapened himself and knows it.

The focus of the story is on Toni Colette’s son, played by Lliam James. The writers write less well for him and directs him less well. In fact, an actor of his age needs to be directed exactly like an adult. The difficult is that he plays a mome. And the writers have left it at that and asked the actor to carry more than there exists for him to lift. One has to take the performance on faith, which is fine, since the story has its valleys and joys, as expected of a summer movie, and since its tropes are so familiar one sings right along with the little bouncing ball of it, the audience carrying the load for him, and happy, very happy indeed to do so.

 

 

 

Fruitvale Station

27 Jul

Fruitvale Station ­ directed by Ryan Coogler. Drama. The final 24 hours in the life of a man senselessly slain after a dust-up in San Francisco Bay Area BART train. 90 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

Michael B. Jordan carries the film, which is equally carried by everyone involved with it.

It is not just that Jordan is an excellent actor, one who can do all the turns required from the character in these circumstances, but he also has the talent, natural to be sure, thank goodness, to hold the screen with his life-mystery, which we shall have to call the mystery lying behind the character, which happens to be his own.

I had never seen him before, so this was a great treat.

The piece elegantly written by the director, and seen at The Grand Lake picture palace in Oakland, not far from the Fruitvale BART stop where the finale occurs, gave point and pertinence to the movie-going experience, for in the huge attentive audience were those who may have known Oscar Grant and ridden on that train that night. And it meant that I was not far from the permission for such violence, which the improper upbringing of American males of his generation and locale prompts. There are no male-mentor figures in the movie – just some few left-over uncles at a birthday party that night.

The problem is diction. The problem is that black folks in this country rightly retain and rejuvenate Ebonics as a code and safeguard and barrier and entertainment for themselves. It has had enormous influence on American speech. All black culture has had an enormous influence on America, none larger from any other ethnic group. The language of Ebonics is marvelous, especially when one cannot understand what is being said because some of it is dis-annunciated and some of it is in grunts and some of it is a highly decorumed code of respect.

But in the case of unmentored males, the diction often becomes suddenly over-the-top violent and insultingly, venomously, dangerously crude. The chip worn on the shoulders of black males is almost professionally sensitive. The language becomes more than justifiable pride. It becomes an ego-trip. It is the language of a deliberate bravado. The women who mother and grandmother these males have no way of stopping it, because the language itself, picked up from other males, is taken to be a mentorship in manhood.

It is a false version. And the entire catastrophe of this young man’s life and death is a demonstration of nothing more than the falseness of that version of Ebonics diction. Every male around him picks up on the diction and uses it in insult-matches. The prison bully himself taunts Oscar Grant in a white-supremacist adaptation of a Ebonics fliting, whose next step is physical violence from all parties. And the police themselves, called to keep the peace at the dust-up site, employ the same Ebonics diction of the unripened black male, and it leads to a gun being drawn and shot.

It is fabulous to see the tragedy of words unfold in all its variety and inevitable horror. And desperate to know that nothing, nothing will be done.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Michael B. Jordan, TRAGEDY

 

World War Z

21 Jun

World War Z –­ directed by Marc Forster. Action/Melodrama. A G-man with special skills tracks down the remedy for the Zombies who are gnashing everyone to death. 116 minutes. Color and 3D 2013.

★★★★★

I was highly entertained, held, and surprised at every turn. It’s beautifully filmed, directed, and cut. Its pace is impeccable. I wore out the edge of my seat.

Unless inhabited by stars of unusual charm, there are several sorts of movies I usually avoid. Horror is one. Sci-fi is another. Zombie films certainly fall or stumble into both categories, and I can’t say I have seen a Zombie film since the one I saw with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard when I was a kid. It did such a good job of scaring the lights out of me I knew nothing further in that line could ever do the job better.

But Brad Pitt is an actor I usually want to take a reading of, and here he is. Naturally I expected the worst. I expected there would be dumb ghoulies and that Pitt would not be on camera much.

Well, I was pleasantly wrong. He is on camera the whole time and the ghoulies are not the point. The point is his story and his attitude about what befalls him as it befalls.

He is an actor who can carry certain films in one pocket. He allows his jaw to drop as things take place and as he moves through terrors and trials. This gives him an expression of openness to experience. It also makes him look young.

Here he is dressed in his usual rags and bobtails – which is necessary to play against a being of such cuteness as he is. As usual he is classless. Or at least certainly not upper class. We continue to be thankful not to see him in a suit and tie.

All this being said, he is an actor of sublime balance. His humor and his sureness are simple, not stretched for, not “acted”. His taking them for granted lets us do the same. It’s a courtesy he does for us. The thing of himself he arranges for us to see is honest without being introverted and physically adept without being showy. It’s always a treat to see him.

He is in every scene, and that is exactly where you want him to be. I recommend you betake yourself to your local. I saw it in 3D which is a lot of fun with this film. The special effects beggar description. I don’t know how they did them. But then, also, I don’t want to know. World War Z is a very high class picture of its kind.

 

 

Before Midnight

06 Jun

Before Midnight – directed by Richard Linklater. Marital Drama III. A married couple of 40 fight it out on vacation. 108 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★

How do you make a romantic drama with two stars who are despicable? That’s the question I faced going in. And what I also faced was how you could make a romantic drama with two actors who have no sense of humor? This doesn’t mean that they cannot play comedy, for they certain nail line after line, and both of them at times are very funny, but it does mean that the salve of inner humor is not present to back them or to use as a no-man’s land for truce.

What we get is an opening scene badly over-written and overacted in which Ethan Hawke says goodbye to his 14 year-old son. Hawke plays fatherly solicitousness, a utilitarian emotion, not a real one. The boy carries the scene.

This is followed by a long sequence in a car, which is brilliantly acted by Julie Delpy and by Hawke, a sequence whose writing is so calibrated of waves dashing against one another that we never wish it to end. That’s Act I. Act II is an al fresco lunch of four couples — in their early 20s, their late 30s, their 50s, their 70s — all of whom are partnered, each individual voicing views and tales of married life.  Act III then takes place on the way to and in a hotel room where they can be free of their eight year-old twin daughters for a night.

What Hawk and Delpy do is fight. And fight. And Fight. They do it in the car, they do at the lunch, they do it until The End. Is this George and Martha? Is this Jiggs and Maggie? Is this Kate and Petruchio? It certainly isn’t Tracy and Hepburn or Russell and Grant because it never is any fun. It is a humorless textbook on marital discord. It plays well but only as an object-lesson.

Hawke is marvelous acting his part, and so is Delpy hers, since a more captious actress cannot be imagined than Julie Delpy. She is belligerent by nature and preference, and since she wrote the script with Hawke and the director, what we are really faced with is Ma and Pa Kettle, Delpy wielding the rolling pin and Hawke dodging her in between paper glider valentines he scoots her way.

But it does not work because the fundamental work has not been done by director, writers or actors. The two actors can act the parts; they cannot act the roles. You never believe they are the parents of those three children. You never believe Delpy is a talent in architecture. You never believe Hawke is a writer. You never believe they love one another. You certainly never for a minute believe they are married. And because you never believe they are married, you never believe there is a marriage at peril, and so you are treated to a drama about nothing-at-stake.

I love films in which characters talk a lot and talk wittily. I loved the long sequences in this film in which that talk rises and falls and turns around on itself again, only to rise and fall, and smash itself against a cliff. I am glad the picture was made as it was. I wish it had been made as it wasn’t.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Ethan Hawke, MARITAL DRAMA

 

Mississippi Burning

21 May

Mississippi Burning –– directed by Alan Parker. Drama. Two FBI agents search a small Southern town for the murderers of three young civil rights workers. 128 minutes Color 1988.

★★★★★

It hasn’t dated one day.

Two widely divergent investigative styles cross their purposes in this recounting of the actual murders. And in this the film has its only flaw, which is the casting of Wilhem Dafoe as the conservative by-the-books young Turk agent whose methods overwhelm the investigation. He is either miscast or not a good enough actor to play the role unconventionally. Instead we get the conventions: the glasses and the stuffy manner. We get the primness and the stiff necked pride. The problem is as soon as the role is played that way the audience dismisses the character as known.

It needed to be played with easy physical flexibility and charm. The character would still have to say the same lines, it’s just that you would never be able to expect what was coming. It needed an actor much more temperamentally lithe than Dafoe – Robert Downey Junior, say – an actor with whom you never know what’s coming, an actor who can play against the script and still reveal it.

Particularly as opposite him, Gene Hackman, as the second string agent, gives what may be his finest screen performance, in a character so fluid and variable that he can infiltrate a den of snakes and out-writhe them. Every choice is subtle and pertinent. His scenes opposite that great actress Frances McDormand, as the modest wife of the criminal deputy are exquisite.

The film uses Southern negro townsfolk, and their wonderful faces and beings illuminate the screen with telling force. The same is true of the sets and set decoration, which is first class (I know those Southern bungalows) and the locations, most of which were taken in the deep South. These lend an astonishing veracity to the poverty and down-troddenness of the black folk, and the brain-damage of the white folk whose blind bigotry strong-arms and gentles the negroes into the shanty mind of second class citizens in a free nation. Which changes with glacial rapidity. Not even that.

Yet it happened, and they caught those rats.

I was moved by the story and impressed by the authenticity of everything I saw in Mississippi Burning. All of it still pertains.

 

The Street With No Name

20 May

The Street With No Name –­– directed by William Keighley. Police Procedural. An FBI agent imbeds himself in a bank robber gang and almost doesn’t make it. 91 minutes Black and White 1948.

★★★★★

This good film is listed as a Noir, which it is not. It is not, because in Noir the protagonist much have something wrong with them, and there is nothing wrong with Mark Stevens at all. He is a good-looking honest-John male period.

The person who has something wrong with him is Richard Widmark who once again plays the psycho thug, which he began his career with by pushing Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs in Kiss Of Death while snickering. He did this sort of thing in a number of pictures in the ‘40s until he put his cloven-hoof down – but, in fact, he is much better as psychopaths than as a leading man. Here, thank goodness, he is a violent closeted homosexual.

Mark Stevens plays the agent who infiltrates Widmark’s gang, and to say he is too straight to be the hero of a Noir is not to diminish his gifts, for his playing is smart. He makes the character blithe, as though he didn’t have a care or worry in the world. He flirts with Widmark and sails into the harbor of the gang without a glance to the left or right. It’s a shrewd acting move, and Stevens is good at it. He laughs his way through peril. At least that is what he does while others are around and until the thrills start.

A word about such actors. Nice-guy actors form a blank which audiences fill in with themselves. The actor just stands there in his masculinity and his decency, and you do the rest. You find this all the way through literature, from Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince Of Tyre to Dickens’ David Copperfield to almost everything Gregory Peck ever did. These good-guy actors sometimes seem to almost have no temperament as actors, no human imagination, although lots of moral imagination, which is why they crowd together as leading players in Westerns. There are too many of them to list. They provide an empty upright outline which it is the audience’s mission to flesh and fill, a job the audience readily adopts because such actors are always in heroic roles.

A word about Noir style. It’s easy to mistake such a picture as this as Noir because of the way it looks. This one looks terrific, and that is because it was filmed by Joe MacDonald, a master of city streets at night. He would film Sam Fuller’s remake of it, House Of Bamboo, and Kazan’s Panic In The Streets. You might say that the story is really told by the way Joe MacDonald lights and films and moves it, that the narration is really in his hands, rather than the director’s, although the direction is good. The astonishing shoot-out in the immense factory at the end is an example of Joe MacDonald’s extraordinary ability to make a story happen. Someone should fo a study about the narrative power of such photographers as William Daniels, Ernest Haller, Joe MacDonald and other master photographers – although it’s probably already been written, ignoramus as I am.

The film is an A level crime film, with Lloyd Nolan, John McIntyre, and a teen-age Barbara Lawrence, in a gorgeous performance as Widmark’s beard-wife.

 

Mud

15 May

Mud -–– directed and written by Jeff Nichols. Drama. Two fourteen year old boys set out to rescue a derelict on a desert island. 230 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

Is Michael McConaughey despicable?

There are such things as despicable in the realm of acting. Shelley Winters? Yes. Jack Palance? Certainly. This does not mean they are bad actors. They have their uses. And long careers even.

McConaughey, with his sleazy confidence and smug affect– one steers clear of him, repelled. Partly because all of this is found to be mighty sexy by certain females.

And it is true that he has presence, moves interestingly, his face takes the camera well, he has a wonderful figure when stripped, fine sloping shoulders, a handsome back of his head, and the most beautiful speaking voice in film since Charles Boyer. My goodness. So Southern. So ruthlessly seductive. So smart. So all things Texas.

Despicable. As romantic leads. Playing what he calls Saturday boys. The sexually confident one in a modern comedy. Despicable. But here we have him actually playing a despicable character, and he is not despicable at all. He is quite fine, and all the character requires him to be: off-hand, devoted to a cause outside himself, efficient. He is well cast as a male whose body has nothing left but his masculinity, and nothing to do but devote his whole male being to a woman with it.

He is not a trained actor, but rather one of those who wandered in off the street like Gary Cooper and someone put a movie camera in front of him, and it took. Nor is it any mark against it that he comes to his craft untrained. Many a fine actor has done the same. He single-handedly wrecked Spielberg’s Amador with his mod beat jarred up against the era of John Quincy Adams, but what else could he do? He was incapable of anything else. And there are a lot of actors whom you can’t put into costume. Jimmy Stewart would head the list. Lots of them.

But here he is and he’s really worth being with. And so is everyone else in this fine and unusual picture. Which is really about a fourteen year-old boy who lives in a bayou houseboat with bickering parents. Living off subsistence fishing, the boy, well played by Tye Sheridan, comes upon McConaughey, as Mud, living in a boat in a tree on a desert island in the sea. The boy and his buddy get caught up in the romance of Mud’s needs which consist of his yearning for a rapprochement with his old sweetheart, Reese Witherspoon.

Everyone is dandy, and the setting and the story and the adventure keep one attentive right up to the end which is a bit more patly worked out than the texture of the material promises, but never mind. We have Sam Shepard, super as a cranky coot, leading a fine supporting cast. And fascinating are the settlings, the place, the world of the fisher folk. And completely believable is all those two boys dare on their secret rescue of Mr. M.

 
 
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