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Archive for the ‘ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC’ Category

Darkest Hour

10 Feb

Darkest Hour – directed by Joe Wright. Bio/Docudrama. 125 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: Distrusted, disliked on both sides of Parliament, Churchill is made PM and must face them and Hitler’s overrun of western Europe and the ambush of the French and British armies at Dunkirk.
~
The character takes over the actor and, since the character is Winston Churchill, the character takes over everything. But as the purpose of every other character is to squeeze Churchill into a thinner man, the drama consists in Churchill’s temptation to let them do it.

It is a dark hour indeed when a human tempts himself with his own ethical demolition. What Churchill stood for was the expansion of himself into economic security, based on feats of derring-do with prodigies of eloquence to make them known, both before and after. At this he was brilliant.

The question was, was he an honest man? He cared about his country, but did he care about his countrymen? Born in Blenheim palace as grandson to the Duke of Marlborough, did he even know his countrymen? One of the most effective scenes in the picture puts him in contact with them. And one of its most effective strands is his relation to his young female private secretary.

How come Gary Oldman was ever for a moment considered for this role I shall never hope to know. But the question slips from consideration as his Churchill faces the whopper crises of the spring of 1940. Whatever Oldman does here as an actor – and we all know that he is capable of plenty – I hand full credit to him and to his implacable makeup for allowing me to become lost in Churchill’s doings.

I lived through this era. I remember Churchill. I remember picking up the phone when I was 8 and finding Randolph Churchill on the other end, for my father syndicated his journalism. I lived through Dunkirk, for my people were English, and every scrap of news hit home in our household. I read Churchill’s histories of the War later.

But I never knew the key personal crisis he faced from within his war cabinet and from within himself as it seemed he must treat for peace with Hitler who had swallowed Hitler whole and was about to dine on England.

Will Hitler be invited to dinner? So, here I see Churchill collapse into doubt. Collapse. Churchill, a larger even than his own life personality in our world, a living cartoon of himself, is seen human, even by himself.

I like the movie. I liked the depth of its drama and beauty of its filming and the spot-on of its costumes – for I remember the period and what we wore.

But all that is set aside in my personal-biography interest. I was doing what I was doing here, while Churchill was doing what he was doing there. Now I get to put them together.

 

Le Week-End

24 Jan

Le Week-End – directed by Roger Michell. Marital Dramedy. 93 minutes Color 2013.
★★★★★
The Story: A 30-year anniversary honeymoon, brings a sorely alienated couple to Paris for a weekend.
~
First of all, it’s a grown-up film. By which I mean to say that it is a film for anyone who is or ever might want to be grown-up.

Marriages are discarded like Kleenex. So you wonder how this one has staggered along so long. They arrive in advanced-bicker. The sex bed is dead. He’s a drooling fool, and she’s no fun anymore.

Walk through their lives with them as they frisk their way through Paris, tossing their budget to la brise. Spearing one another with love’s unwanted darts and prickles. Defying the law. Escaping the law.

In the midst of these skirmishes, Jeff Goldblum appears like a deus macchina out of a cloud of his own glory, to draw them into the realm of the sacred which, of course, includes a huge apartment, a grand feast, and lots of money. He performs perfectly in a part in which he is perfectly cast. He is so real, down to earth, gutsy, and fun you forgive him all he has that you have not.

The couple are played by Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent. They are beyond praise in their allowing themselves to be in their threatened, ill-fitting, middle-class selves.

Marriage after 30 years, a vast wasteland in which they still vividly cavort, they bring to us a comedy-drama down to the bones. The drama is the moment-by-moment living before our wondering eyes the unedifying truth of this relic of a marriage combined with the suspense: can this marriage survive and, if possibly, how? How?

But this is how marriage is. Maybe. Or something like it. Maybe. This is what one signed up for. And there were good reasons for it. Weren’t there?

 

Dunkirk

06 Aug

Dunkirk – written and directed by Christopher Nolan. WWII Docudrama. 106 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: The Germans surround Allied armies of 400,000 on a beach in Belgium with no escape, while a flotilla of smacks, little yachts, and pleasure boats strike out on the high seas to rescue them.
~
I lived through The Depression, Hitler’s rise, World War II, Hiroshima. When the war ended, I tied tin cans on the back of my bike and raced up and down the boulevard hollering with joy like everyone else. I was twelve. I lived in an English household. I remember The Blitz; we had a handsome British soldier lodged my bedroom, Captain Byatt. And I remember Dunkirk.

Oh, the surge of heart we all felt for fellow Britains for courage and nautical skill and resolve! Wow! It was hard to believe they’d brought it off, but they had! It seemed each boat had taken upon itself to sail over. As though those Sunday fishermen all had a mind of their own and it was the same mind. It was the largest armada of small boats ever to set sail on the sea.

The film showing this crazy escapade is wonderful in that before special effects production, the film we see could never have been made. I am thankful for seeing scenes otherwise too complicated to stage and too expensive and too dangerous.

The film is told in three narratives.

The first is the spectacle of the army trapped and holding off the enemy, and lined up on the beach, waiting for rescue ships which do not come, and when they come make big fat targets for submarines and Luftwaffe.

The second story is that of Royal Airforce pilots in three Spitfires who fly over to supply air cover.

The third is the story of a father and son and local boy who set out on their pleasure craft and head for Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers.

All of this is wonderful and beautifully done.

Kenneth Branagh plays the naval Commander leading embarkation from an exposed wharf and Mark Rylance plays the father at the wheel of his boat. These two anchor the film with known faces and known energies. All the rest of the large cast is played by actors one does not know, and they therefore become the anonymous soldiers and citizens who actually lived it all out.

What I miss is the sense of a communal effort. For the first of these stories tells the through-story of a single young soldier and his adventures harrowing and heroic to get on a boat to England. So much time and attention is given to these complex miracles that the greater miracle, that a hundred little vessels set out to save him is lost. Did save him. Brought him and 400,000 others by the skin of their teeth and the seat of their pants back to the sceptered isle, in a hundred bobbing boats.

This error is so elaborate and interesting and spectacular in its chapters that we do not tear our eyes from it, but the fact is that it eats up film time from the real story which is that the English people gathered their resolve under the national resolve of Churchill to collectively save this soldier, and we only see one strand of it, Mark Rylance’s in his old pleasure cruiser.

Rylance is wonderful, so is everything seen, taught, told. I hope never to forget the sight of the Spitfire seen from above as it wings its way silently over the beaches across which the Armies queue on their way to the water.

I saw it at an Imax on recommendation, and, while I don’t know therefore what Dunkirk would feel like in a lesser projection, I enjoyed it. I had never seen Imax before. The world had never seen a Dunkirk before and might never see such a thing again. If I were you, I would not miss the chance.

 

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

05 Jul

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – directed by Nagisa Ôshima. WWII prisoner Of War Story. 123 minutes Color 1983.
★★★★
The Story: The Commandant of a Japanese prison in Java falls in love with a British prisoner.
~
As in In The Realm Of The Senses, Ôshima deals with love’s wildest extremeties.

He is a director of simple means. He does not inflate; he does not relate. The story unfolds before one’s eyes in eminent visual narrative and in scenes in which all is present that needs to be and nothing else.

So much for his skill.

The camera captures performance like no body’s business, and everything seen convinces and holds.

Four main characters work out this material, and three of them are not actors, but hardworking, earnest, gifted amateurs. Each has a world of performance experienced in him. But of the three one becomes an actor, Takeshi Kitasno, the famed Japanese comic, who sets down in it naturally, as comedians often do when they are called upon to act – Jackie Gleason being the most renowned example of this I know of. Somehow or other Kitasno does so too.

Two world-famous rock stars play the main characters.

Tyuichi Sakamoto plays the slight, powerful, Shinto-devoté commandant who falls in love at first sight with a spiritually-freer-than-he handsome blond prisoner.

Sakamoto’s job is to repress everything. For an actor, repressing means trying to hold back going to the bathroom. You squeeze. And the credit you hand this first-time actor is that you side with him because he is in so much pain. You believe in the frozen rapture of his discipline, his ethos, his meditation, his sword-play. There is not a moment uncorsetted, until the moment of letting go happens to him, and we see him feel the greatest ecstasy he has ever felt combined with the greatest shame.

David Bowie is not an actor, but he buckles down and works his part. In other arts, we have seen David Bowie as a performer of his own fascination. And why not? He is magically beautiful and he is endowed with enough neurotic eccentricity to scrub an ocean. He is, like Robert Downey Junior, one of the angel/devil beings, born to entice and to bless and to know it. He is shameless – good. But his eyes are always in charge. So it does not matter what Bowie’s face reflects. The character is inert. The inner actor is missing. This prevents us from moving towards him as a human.

This is often the way with non-actors. The idea that non-actors are naturally free and spontaneous is delusional. What is needed from them – and many notable stars do not possess it – is the lit candle of the calling. Bowie can be the part, yes – but Bowie cannot play the part.

Such is certainly not the case with Tom Conti, an actor of choice. In interviews, he criticizes himself for too much “acting” in this film, and at times it is true, but he has the ability to respond to an imaginary situation imaginatively, situationally, not as a performer or star or personality, but as an individual meant to act in it.

We have many fine prisoner movies. I would not number this one among them. Burt Lancaster is a bad actor but he is an actor, and so The Birdman Of Alcatraz works. Acting is a high calling. David Bowie is a gifted performer, but forming and acting are not the same thing, and we all know the difference. David Bowie is beautiful. In acting, beauty does not cross the bridge. When we find the candle of the actor lit, no matter how many beautiful creatures stand near it, Edward G. Robinson is whom we will look at always.

This film is a fictional account of the war experiences of Laurents van der Pos. Accompanying this film is a biographical documentary of Laurents van der Post worth more that the film itself.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC, HISTORICAL DRAMA, PRISON DRAMA, Tom Conti, War Story, World War II

 

Mr. Turner

20 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautifully filmed, written, acted, produced, directed.

Highly recommended, in case you wondered.

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

 

The Sense Of An Ending

05 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Sense Of An Ending

28 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

M. Butterfly

12 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here it is in all its force and necessity.

 

 

 

The Lady In The Van

28 Oct

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

★★★★

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

~

What is this a duet of?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Man Who Understood Infinity

15 May

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

45 Years

02 Feb

45 Years – directed by Andrew Haigh. Marital Drama. 95 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: On the brink of their 45th wedding celebration, the past catches up with them.

~

The eyes of Charlotte Rampling are two sphinxes, but not the same sphinx. Hers is a mouth of serious sensuality, not given comfortably to smiling. Indeed, smiles on her face seem out of place. An actress of narrow range, her talent and type would seem to be on the same order of – say Lauren Bacall.

All this is true, so you might wonder how come she could be cast as a woman long married for love to a middle-class, middle-range executive in a provincial manufacturing plant. She walks her dog. She makes their meals. She is friends, with her husband, to local couples. You would take Rampling for a woman who could go out on a tear from all this, but the character does not.

You would also have to take Rampling as having absolute confidence in herself sexually, as a woman, and as a human.

That is why to cast her as a character who slowly falls apart in all these departments makes her story so telling. You keep saying to yourself, “This can’t be happening to her.” But it does happen.

It’s an example of the advantages of casting against type. For the sort of talent Rampling has is exactly the right size to reveal in quiet, inward, minute collapses the catastrophe of her character’s self-doubt as it takes hold in her.

The character does it to herself. But that is what makes the story so universally human. She takes information and she uses it against herself. Her husband should never have revealed to her the contents of that letter, but, of course, he could scarcely help it, for the letter is unwittingly opened at the breakfast table.

There are things people should never, never be told, as Rampling in her personal life well knew. The truth imprisons as often as it sets free. But keep watching Rampling’s watchful eyes. It’s a wonderful performance by an actress of small talent and considerable fascination and honesty.

Tom Courtanay plays the husband, married for 45 years to Rampling. As an actor I always feel Courtanay is “acting” natural, which makes his acting unnatural. He plays the addled hubby. To me the performance never looks grounded. He playacts the character rather than simply leave it alone and let it take care of itself. To “make” the character addled is to invest it with the contempt of the actor for the character. The actor who thinks there must be something “done” to the character is like the pianist who thinks something should be “done” to the nocturnes of Chopin to make them melancholy.

It is beautifully filmed, just what we like in terms of pace and registration, which is to say that it is played in exactly the right key at exactly the right speeds. Geraldine James is superb as the best friend. The film is well worth seeing, mainly because the inside story Rampling is called upon to play is never seen in film. The failure of film is that it generally prefers the dramatic over the true. Rampling brings to her part the essential characteristic of being ingrown, and, with that, we witness life lived as we really do live it outside the picture palace every day.

 

 
 

The Rover

22 Jun

The Rover – directed by David Michôd. Crime Chase Drama. 142 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: 10 years into dystopia and world chaos, a man seeks justice, and justice seeks him.

~ ~ ~

One of my two favorite actors in the world, Guy Pearce holds the screen with a focus so intense, you stay with him through thick and thin, although you have no idea what, if anything, is at stake. If you want to know what it takes to carry a movie, watch Pearce here. He scarcely moves a muscle, he scarcely shows a feeling, because what he has in mind must be – mustn’t it? – more precious than his life. With Pearce it is not, and never has been, that less is more. It is a question of him somehow having subtlely mainlined a character, and then honored the essential.

In saying this I am speaking of a talent that cannot be learned. I don’t know how it is done. Perhaps he doesn’t know either. It is probably inborn. But he does know how to do it. As you can see as you watch him be Houdini, or Edward, Prince Of Wales, or the detonation expert of The Hurt Locker, or Andy Warhol, or the cad husband in Mildred Pierce, what you see is a character brought into being with a minute shift. Pearce may appear as he appears, he may sound as he sounds, but the soul-flavor of the other person is in him, and that is what is being given. He knows how to do this, naturally, as some people know how to sing – which he happens also to know how to do, if you have ever seen him in The Slipping-Down Life. He is the one modern actor I suggest you watch and study and enjoy. He is not often cast in comedy, although he did not long ago play the petty villain in a Walt Disney Dog Movie. As with any good and interesting actor, I would love to see him in one of those Restoration Farce roles Olivier took such delectation in.

While the story here focuses on him, you are willing to put up with your own ignorance as to what is at stake – but as soon as he is joined by Robert Pattinson, an artistic wreck takes place. You get a consummate master faced with a consummate ham. The story drains as soon as this actor appears playing the backward brother of the fleeing antagonist.

Pattinson, like bad TV actors, makes much play with his mouth. Will it never stop thrashing about? He makes much play with his body, which flies flaccidly in all directions. He makes much play with his eyes, which never stop roaming except when they do long enough for you to wonder when they will start roaming once more. He withdraws focus from his eyes. He slurs his speech – which is never forgivable because never necessary – so you cannot understand what he is saying. What’s more – and this is the quandary beyond all quandaries – he plays an Australian low-life with an accent from Lil’ Abner (although Pattinson himself is from England.). All this with heavy makeup on his teeth and a half beard and you have?  You have a pitch for pathos, that’s what you have.

The excess of effects is just galling. And the result is that attention is distracted from the story – for you cannot feel compassion for him as a human being – and that is the actor’s job in this part, because the story is exactly the same as the story of Maleficent; that is to say, it is the story of a person who hates someone eventually coming to care for them. You’ve got to see how someone can come to care for him, and you can’t. The startling and beautiful ending to this movie is lost in the anarchy of Robert Pattinson’s show. All an actor needs do is one thing. For this part all Pattinson needed to do was play: To survive I Don’t Need To Know Right From Wrong; I Just Need To Believe What You’re Telling Me — Is That Right? Instead he does nine things, none of them available to the audience because none of them entertainable by them.

 

Great Expectations [2013 version]

11 Nov

Great Expectations – directed by Mike Newell. A young man is snatched out of the lower classes and thrust into the role of a gentleman. 128 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★

Dickens is an author of immense imagination, and while it is perfectly easy and obviously attractive to track his characters and situations down to his biography – ingénues with names beginning with E, for instance – the greatness of him lies in a world which his words create and that has nothing to do with current events or his own life at all.

Pip is one of those characters who is a white paper outline, a figure meant for us to fill with our own selves as we pass through his crises. And actors can be quite bland in such roles. It is rare to find Alec Guinness in such a part, but there he once was. And now it is nice to find both the romantic leads of Estella and Pip played by actors with some character to them and some real responsiveness, not settling to just stand there and let us do the work.

A lot of Dickens depends upon his treatment of characters in what they say, and this is garnered to this film, thank goodness, for they do not do the melodrama-speak the plots and the times adored, no; they speak quirkily, unexpectedly, endearingly.

A lot of Dickens depends upon the supporting players; Great Expectations is rich with them.

The trouble now is that all subsequent versions must compete with the David Lean version of 1946. In making his nasty-eyes, Ralph Fiennes does not bring anything special to Magwich, and is certainly less horrifying than Finlay Currie was in the sudden terror of his first appearance. Fiennes is probably miscast. As Jaggers, Francis L. Sullivan is almost equaled by the work of the current and wonderful actor, Robbie Coltrane, a man of similar mien and girth. Sally Hawkins is all wrong as Pip’s mean sister. She is played as though a crazy woman, whereas Pip’s sister is really just an ordinary example of British child-rearing. Olly Alexander is better than John Mills as the jolly, generous, eager Pocket. But Helena Bonham Carter is over-costumed perhaps to compensate for her inappropriateness in a role forever haunted by the calamitous Martita Hunt as Miss Haversham. What Bonham Carter is doing in this part is baffling. She lacks power and therefore credibility.

But the story is so wonderful to visit and revisit. It is one of the great novels of literature because of the great vibration of its inherent ambitions, which we all have: to get back at those who have wronged us; to become sudden princes; to be allowed the love we love. These and their frustrations and barriers and disappointment are rich in Dickens. So we watch the TV version, in which we receive such satisfaction to actually see Bentley Drummle kicked to death by the horse he is beating. And we see, in the modern version with Ann Bancroft disgracefully out of place as Miss Haversham, but the enchanting Gwyneth Paltrow as an Estella we can actually believe in.

There is always something wonderful, and there is always the wonderful story.

 

The Princess Bride

03 Sep

The Princess Bride — directed by Rob Reiner. Fractured Fairy Tale. Two young lovers are separated by doom and dastards until both are vanquished and the lovers kiss. 98 minutes Color 1987.

★★★★★

“Have you seen The Princess Bride?”  I ask folks, and everybody I ask has. But me.

I thought it was a little girls’ movie. But, in fact, in a very pleasant and useful conceit, a bed-ridden little boy introduces it by rejecting it by the same measure as I rejected it, that it wasn’t for boys at all. This little boy, and his gramps who reads the story to him, played by that master of accessibility, Peter Falk, interlope throughout to comment on the action, halt it, and increase the magic of its grounding: that fairy tales are meant to cure the sick, All entertainment is meant to cure the sick, but fairy tales most of all.

I thought it was only made last year, but I see that brilliant actor Robin Wright , in the title role, is being introduced to the screen in it, and the year is 1987, 25 years ago.

It is not played as a straight fairy tale, but a fractured one, by which I mean a modern sensibility intrudes in the diction and demeanor of certain characters, such as those played by Carol Kane and Billy Crystal as two antediluvian Cony Island Jews pushing magic for bucks and by Wallace Shawn who’s a modern boss bastard.

Others bring other things to it, such as Mandy Patinkin playing a sword-happy hidalgo hello-bent on revenge. He wields the most wonderful sabre you have ever seen.  You want to hug André The Giant as The Giant and even Mel Smith as a torturer with cold sores and Peter Cook the clergyman who cannot pronounce his Rs or Ls. Christopher Guest and Chris Sarandon play the Basil Rathbone/James Mason parts of the evil count and his monarch. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright are just right as the lovers. You want to kiss everybody in it.

All sorts of medieval special effects are on offer, a fiery swamp complete with ROUS (rodents of unusual size) and a cliff-hanging cliff-climb and a stupefying torture chamber.

It is all as you wish it.

One of those movies that do just what movies alone can do and rarely do do. It satisfies its own medium.

 

 

Downton Abby, Season 3

18 Jul

Downton Abby, season 3 – various directors. Period drama, 8 part TV series. Will the great house fall or will it not fall? Color 2012.

★★★★★

Is it based on George Stevens’ Giant? It is largely the same story: enormous holdings are  invaded by the younger generation with ideas of their own and with tolerances intolerable to the masters of the spreads. Bick Benedict is the American Robert Earl of Grantham, and The Riata the holding comparable to Downton. Outsiders and lower-class folk interlope into the families, and Robert and Bick must learn new ways, or succumb. Members of the families marry outside their station, and always hypogamously. And everywhere the ranching and the farming are impressive.

Anyhow, here we have another topping season of one’s favorite characters, acted by a first class cast. I won’t summarize the story, why should I? Once you start it, two seasons back, you tell it yourself as it goes along. This version does contain the killing of two major actors, but be it far from me to reveal who. (One of them got a job in a Broadway play, and so must die. Serves that actor right.)

The clothes gain in brilliance and beauty and cut and tailoring. The makeup. The direction. The writing.

Oh, wait, the writing. This version includes the presence of Shirley MacLaine, and writing of her part is all wrong. Why is that? Because there is nothing dramatic at stake with the character being brought in. There is no question in the MacLaine character that she will provide the money. She cannot, even if she would.

Vilely costumed and wigged, her entrance is a put-up job. The scenes she plays are also not well written in terms of the other characters. All Americans are thought of as vulgar upstarts by the aristos of Downton, and perhaps by the author Julian Fellowes as well. Indeed she is even given the Jewish name of Levinson, although nothing is made of this. Her daughter, The Countess Cora, beautifully played by Elizabeth McGovern, is the finest lady in the Abby – so how could she have such a woman for a mother?

To play the part, Shirley MacLaine, who actually as a person is vulgar, is hired, I imagine, in order to confirm this view of American vulgarity. And she does. Therefore the play, even on the level of character surprise has nowhere to go when she comes on.

Nor does anything witty or rare arise in the playing of MacLaine with the other characters, such as Mrs Crawly or The Dowager. Their scenes together are not filmed as matches.

Nor indeed can MacLaine actually act them. She has no timing. It is as if she cannot act at all any more; doesn’t even know what acting is. To all reports she is great off-camera, but on camera she is inexplicable and a mess.

But this is a minor error. The rest is tops. Of course, you will see it. It is not a question of volition. It is inevitable as birth. If you were born, then sooner or later Downton Abby lies before you.

 

Malice

09 May

Malice –– directed by Harold Becker. Drama. A young woman sues a successful doctor for a botched operation –– with dire consequences. 106 minutes Color 1993.

★★★★

Misnamed, Malice is a confidence-game story of the sort I love, like The Grifters. And if you like that sort of thing, this is a good one. True, we are not properly prepared for the finale, and the house on the cliff with the seas raging below is a miscalculation, but never mind; our delight in this mischief has been satisfied long before that.

Particularly as Ann Bancroft has a star turn as an old drunkard in a single scene well worth replaying. She is manipulating to get and manipulated by a bottle of single malt scotch, and her character is tougher than all the Bronx.

Each in single scenes, we also have George C. Scott as a Harvard medical dean and Gwyneth Paltrow brilliant as an insolent high school sophomore.

Indeed, the film is perfectly cast, for who can ever trust Alec Baldwin’s smile? And who can ever mistrust Bill Pullman’s earnestness?

Nicole Kidman is the female star, and I read how David Thomson in his book about her wonders how she could take on this role.

The reason lies in several factors. And it might be fun and perhaps profitable to consider what an actor goes through to accept a role.

First, consider how much Nicole Kidman is like another major film star, Bette Davis, differing from her in her instrument, of course, and being far more of a glamour-puss than Davis. But like Davis in two regards: that she is willing to take on unglamorous parts to play women older than herself, people mean, vicious, hapless, lost, which Davis did all the time. And also that Nicole Kidman possesses an acting talent on the same level as Davis, which is very high indeed, both in innate and developed talent and in ambition for it. Such are her tendencies and position.

Second, terribly, an actor must continue acting, but can accept only what is available at the time. So the question as to why Nicole Kidman did not make a movie of Hedda Gabler, a role she is perfectly suited for, is because no one was making a movie of Hedda Gable at that moment.

Thomson is prejudiced against the material and denounces ii, but he blindsides himself.  He claims Kidman is skewing her character towards ordinariness, which she does not. She is feisty and quick and realistic in relation to her husband and her situation. She never plays innocent. She right-sizes both the devoted social worker and the mistress of the dodge.

But never mind the choices she makes in playing the part. Let’s consider instead the choice she exercised to accept the part at all.

The poet John Hollander once said to me that actors were stupid. I don’t agree. Indeed, certainly less stupid about poetry than poets are about acting, and certainly intelligent in the sort of roles they believe they can play well. That is to say, they have the sort of intelligence which can weigh the specific weight of a role in terms of their own gifts and their own instrument, just as a poet has an intelligence about the sort of poem he will or will not write. It’s a sort of inherent cunning in an artist. And it is a cunning that may see that a part is playable, and yet fail to see that the material is slack. Or it may not see, as how could anyone see, how a piece of material as complicated and communal as a film will pan out in ultimate execution and public appeal. So, very good actors appear sometimes in very stupid movies. That the movies are bad may give the impression that their acting also is bad, but that is usually not the case. Even as young as 25, Malice is a good choice for Nicole Kidman to have made. And it is her informed choice.

Think of it this way. Sviatoslav Richter played only two of the Beethoven concertos and only two of the Rachmaninoff concertos and only two of the Saint-Saens concertos and only two of the Prokofiev concertos, though each composer wrote five. Why? Because Richter knew he had nothing to bring to the missing twelve. They were not right for his particular talent, or, in his case, his genius. Nicole Kidman, an actor of genius, is not a genius at everything either, and her intelligence will tell her what her particular genius can make of a part. Like Richter she is not meant to play everything. She choses what she can bring or not bring her gifts to. It’s a calculation about craft.

How can I make this clearer?

All right.

I have played many leading roles in plays. I could play King Lear. I could play Big Daddy. But I know darn well I could not play Willie Loman. My instrument is not made for it.

This film was highly successful, and she is flawless in it. She achieves complete bafflement over everyone, including the audience, which is the confident woman’s job, isn’t it? And when you look back on the performance you can see that there is no dissociation between what Kidman presents of the character as wife and what the character hides from view.

But, more particularly, it is a role exactly right for her in the writing, atmosphere, and treatment. It is something she could do that we did not know she could do until we saw her do it here. But she knew she could do it.

 

 

The Statement

19 Feb

The Statement – directed by Norman Jewison. Manhunt. A former French collaborationist is tracked by two entities, one determined to bring him to justice, the other to murder him. 120 minutes Color 2003
★★★
The fatal error of the film is also its only abiding attraction, which is the casting of Michael Caine as a man we might have cause to hate. But we could never hate Michael Caine. He’s too much of a honey. We are asked to view him as a war criminal. whereas all we can do is sympathize with this wretched human being at his lowest ebb. We are asked to view him as a once-ruthless assassin, but now, all we can do is stand back in pity and wonder at the abjectness of his devotion to the Catholic Church whose sanctuaries for him play so many roles here. We are asked to see him as a cold assassin, but all we can do is empathize with the tears of his condition, as one might that of someone suffering from a terrible disease. He is such a darling actor, that even when he is kicking a dog, we say to ourselves, Well it doesn’t really count. You never want him to get caught, and you never believe for a minute that he was ever that dreadful betrayer of the Jews.

But, if the part had been properly cast, we would still be at the mercy of the flaccid story-telling of the director the writer, who allow the manhunt to become lost in too much responsibility to detail, one sanctuary too many really. We being with a thriller and watch it deconstruct into the thuds of a documentary. And we must sit through the Extra Features to hear from that director who the person was who was trying to kill Caine and why, and learn that the final scene is telling us that this person would be soon punished. None of this is clear in the film. The assassins are murky characters – is Ciarán Hinds a cop, a member of the FBI? Is his boss, John Neville, a politico, a Jew, a churchman, a member of the Chevalier? All this is unclear. So we lack two established rivalries for the manhunted.

What is abundantly clear is the too creamy camerawork of the south of France, so out of sync with the needs of this material. We also get the pseudo-Hitchcock moves of a director experienced enough to develop his own. We are treated to the tedium of helicopters landing and cars arriving and leaving. The film becomes clumsy, as though suavity would violate the memory of the Jews this man murdered.

But we have Tilda Swinton as a French magistrate, and we have Jeremy Northam better still as the French Police Colonel who accompanies her in her pursuit. The chase takes us into the presence of other fine actors. Alan Bates is Uncle to Swinton in a scene of heavy warning beautifully played. Frank Finlay is completely convincing as a French vintner and former friend of the fugitive. And Charlotte Rampling is particularly fine as his dowdy wife.

I loved Michael Caine in this. It is the best thing I remember him doing in film. If you like him, and I sometimes do, I think he will surprise you by what he offers. But, just remember, the offer is attached to a story that has an expiration date that becomes overdue long before we come to the end of it.

 

The Last Station

05 Feb

The Last Station – directed by Michael Hoffman. Biodrama. 82 year-old Leo Tolstoi, both novelist and utopian guru battles both sides of his work, and flees the fray to fall ill in a railway station, while the world watches. 112 minutes Color 2010.
★★★★★
Five stars for Helen Mirren who plays every scene all out, God bless her, and who makes Sophia Tolstoi the heroine of the piece without contest from the start.

Several factors mitigate toward this mistake, and they all lie in the blame of the director/writer. He does not have a clear intention as to the story he is telling. If it is about love, well then, we know what everyone else loves, but what does Tolstoi love? Does he love the idea that his noble work will go on after he dies, and so takes his royalties of his life and work from his wife and children and hands them over to the chief administrator of the Tolstoi legend – with its hortatory texts, its communes all over the place, its passionate socialistic practices and platforms, and its vast and statuesque reputation and influence – Gandhi learned passive resistance at Tolstoi’s feet.

If so, we are never given a single instance upon what that influence was based that so many should abject themselves before it and follow him and it with unswerving and self-sacrificing devotion. In an attempt to avoid the trap of portraying a genius, the director/writer has portrayed him as a plate of potatoes. But what are people, what is the whole world responding to? Never does Christopher Plummer, who is wonderful in the part, ever have a single line that would suggest this was a man of revolutionary ideals.

The second error the director makes was either to cast Paul Giamatti as the administrator or to allow him to play him as a heavy from the start – forever twirling his mustaches like the villain from the old play. No, we must believe in the administrator’s innocence, his noble motives, and the purity of his ideals. If we don’t trust and back him, then Helen Mirren is without competition and the story is a foregone conclusion.

The third error is to have cast James McEvoy as Tolstoi’s tyro secretary. He is never believable. To the same degree as he was believable in The Last King Of Scotland is he unconvincing here. He is hammy from start to finish, making big scowling eyes like Barrymore. He plays too knowingly a character who knows nothing.

This leaves us with Christopher Plummer as Tolstoi. Sixty years ago I saw him in Stratford Ontario In Henry IV with Jason Robards as Hotspur and the two of them again in A Winter’s Tale, and I saw him on the Broadway stage in Arturo Ui, The Lark, J.B.; he was nothing more than a conventional actor with a good voice, cold. But he has grown with time. The older he gets the better he gets; he is almost a different actor entirely. May he live long and often.

Leo Tolstoi was the greatest writer of death scenes who ever lived, and his own surpassed any he ever wrote. The movie misfires by not knowing what it is about, and scanting the farcical elements of its finale which Tolstoi, great humorist that he was, would never have missed for a minute. Too bad. The movie is well filmed, beautifully costumed and set, and completely convincing as having been shot in Russia, which, of course, it was not.

 

Skyfall

15 Dec

Skyfall – directed by Sam Mendes. Action/Adventure/Spy. James Bond XXIII must protect the home office, M16, which is under attack by one of its own. 143 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★
Yes, the 23rd James Bond Movie, and over what forgotten cliff did the others drop? Here Bond is again in the person of the sour-faced Daniel Craig, whom I have a very difficult time looking at, or paying attention to, since my ineradicable loyalty is to Sean Connery’s Bond, with his insouciance, humor, easy virility, mischievousness, and lookable looks, none of which qualities does Craig possesses to any degree. He doesn’t even have a hairy chest.

In fact he seems to have no variety of expression whatsoever, nor any particular physical presence that would make him outstanding, save a fine figure, which he has to strip down to reveal to my bored gaze – and action/adventure films are not played in the nude.

This leaves us not with an actor but a role. That is to say, a cutout figure who can gesture through the complexities of the material – material which then has an extra burden placed upon it, since, without a human hero, it can only exist in and of itself and not in relation to the leading actor playing a part in it. A film with this load to carry can turn heavy pretty fast, and it must move with a grace and wit all its own.

This it succeeds in doing, at least at the start, when we are treated to a spectacular opening motorcycle chase. But the problem then arises as to how to best that sequence in the finale. This the film fails to do, for its closing is heavy and witless and long.

But as the film goes along it is saved by various added ingredients that offer brisk entertainment until they exhaust themselves, and the film has to bring on a different freak to delude us into being entertained. Lacking a smart story or vivid leading actor, we are given [a] exotic settings, [b] new characters late in the day [c] the stalling effect of slow, skilled seductions. The film therefore takes us to various settings in Southeast Asia, Macau and Singapore. It brings on Javier Barden late in the day and Albert Finney even later. And it treats us to delicious females in the persons of the talented Naomie Harris, who will continue in the series, and Bérénice Mariohoe a ravishing Cambodian beauty as the Madame Unmentionable Sin who leads Bond to his nemesis. What a dish, what a debut!

These are saving graces, as is the principal savior, Roger Deakins who filmed it so beautifully you are given the relishing impression of never in your life having seen a picture so glorious to look at.

The main problem is the story because it presents as the focal character to be saved from danger an actor so completely unsympathetic, miscast, and technically unqualified that we wish, rather than ending with it, the film had begun with her death – and that is the dreadful Judi Dench. All she can bring to the part is dour righteousness. It’s her default position as an actor, and it stinks. She is mercifully slain and replaced, as M, head of the British Secret Service, by Ralph Fiennes, who may bring some imagination to this role and some wit to XXIV of the series. I didn’t believe in that dagger for a minute, did you?

 

Coriolanus

15 Aug

Coriolanus – directed by Ralph Fiennes. High Tragedy. A great warrior refuses to be polite for political position in. 123 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

Changing People’s Minds is the subject of many of Shakespeare’s plays. What is the outcome of asking people to go against their grain? Hamlet tortures himself with it. Macbeth tries it although he knows it won’t work. Lear’s daughter refuses to do it. Coriolanus is the great examination of this subject. Changing people. And of all his great tragedies it is the one that contains scenes of the most excruciating brilliance. How does someone who is set in his ways, see himself other than what he takes himself to be? How can he see himself at all. “That’s just the way I am,” he will say, not realizing that the real truth is, “That’s just what I do.” Identification with one’s own behavior as The Truth, identification with one’s own emotional habits, identification with the righteousness of one’s conduct and story, obscured by the triumph of its success in certain circumstances, enriches our spectacle of this extraordinary person, Coriolanus, a man made darker of mind by the fabulous rhetoric he can speak to support himself on his path. The text is simple and thorny, the diction plain and incomprehensible because the utterance of internal musings. This is how the mind actually works, the words not so much a way of thinking as an interiority. And it is very difficult for the ear to reach into. I performed Cominius in this play once in my acting life, and it is remarkable how, once reading the script which seems to be written in another language, one gets under it to find how physical it is, and therefore how renderable. Brian Cox, who plays the campaign manager Menenius, is a case in point of an actor who has discovered this, the secret of making all the points so small they reverberate with reality. When he leaves we should miss him more. The ubiquitous Jessica Chastain plays the worried wife, a thankless role we thank no lesser actress is performing. Vanessa Redgrave, an actress who I monstrously dislike, is Volumnia, the mother, the holder of moral suasion for the hero, but her performance is too exquisite for us to see Volumnia’s neurosis as being more hypnotic to Coriolanus and herself than either her maternal care, her passion, or her reason. After all, there really is something wrong with Volumnia. But the performance is simple, direct, and clear. Although there is nothing Mediterranean about her, the same is true of  Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, a part one would suppose him too slight of vitality and physique to play (Richard Burton was notable in the role), but not so. He is marvelous. With his lowering brow, his intention is so resolute, it has no place to go but collapse. His belligerence is massive. He fights with Gerard Butler as Aufidius as though every knife blow were a deep passionate kiss. They both do. Aufidius can kill Coriolanus, but cannot conquer him. He cannot out-best him. The best he can do is hate and adore him. Fiennes brings to the role an unexpected physical solidity, a snobbishness so symphonic you dare not admire it, the assurance of a hero who has his own back. He tends to play many of his big scenes small, and so he should, for the camera, after all, is right at his nostrils. He has a trick of raising his upper left lip in contempt and disgust, which is essentially mugging, and like many English actors he tends to generalize and bray when loud, so the words are lost. And the principal responsibility with filming Shakespeare is that it be detailed, not a word lost – not to whispers and not to shouts. But, for the most part, one leans forward in the wonder of what resides behind Shakespeare’s incredible diction. The power of it to release the human truth of the actor is without competition. It is a very great play, Shakespeare’s only tragedy in the Greek mode, Coriolanus, the drama of  a man of the highest accomplishments and whose valor preserves civilization, being brought down by the rigidity of his own ideals. His is the human tragedy of holding onto the part of you that you take to be yourself, yet your relinquishing of that part to your peril. Not easy watching. But great watching.

 

 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

12 Jun

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – directed by John Madden. Comedy/Drama. A group of retirees seek economic comfort at a Jaipur hotel, which they find also to be a retiree. 124 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

If by some merry chance you should be gulled into seeing this piece, relax then and wander for a time with this bunch of expatriates and be one of them, for in each of us at some time and place is each of the characters we find before us here, and are just as we would be should we find ourselves here. We first of all are the impecuniously retired. We are also the one so fearful of going out of doors in Jaipur India that we miss the fun of the color and assault of the stench and the poverty and the endless wealth and variety of life. Then we are also the one who betrayed a love long ago. We are no less the one who must cling to her safety blanket of familiar foods, never daring to nibble a dainty. We are the racially prejudiced. We are the brash strider venturing forth into the escape of a world both opposite to his own and also unavoidable. The mad and kindly proprietor of this old hotel is a young man who has just inherited it, and his enthusiasm is as boundless as his promises and equally unfulfillable. Never was a film so perfectly, so justly filmed and edited. Never was one so fortunately cast. The balance of the scenes is exquisite as played off against one another for length, tone, plot, and color. Tom Wilkinson plays the lover in search of his once lost love. My favorite, Maggie Smith, who is the most physical actor of her generation, plays the lower-class foodie, and gives to us, once again, that rare gift of an actor, embodiment. Richard Nighy is the fellow who ventures out into the wilds of the city. Which brings us to Judi Dench. I have always thought that to act opposite Judi Dench would be to act opposite a rock. I don’t like her. There is no give in her. Instead an adamantine quality in her chooses the moment for “sympathy,” as by a schoolmarm’s ferule.  She is an actress of advanced calculations, always an instant ahead of the moment. She’s mean. She irritates me. Usually. For this is not one of those times. Here she is given to play the part of a woman entirely opposite to all that, one naive to the world, a woman whose dead husband took care of everything, with the exception of providing for her in the event of his death. She plays it freshly. She appeals. All of them do, but the one who really appeals most is the young actor playing the delirious proprietor of the hotel. What a wonderful voice and face and energy. What a sense of humor. What a darling guy. He is Dev Patel of fond memory of Slumdog Millionaire. And the movie is directed by John Madden of fond memory of Shakespeare In Love. So you see. Whatever age you are, you cannot go wrong with this movie, for whatever age you are you too are a retiree from something, waking up in a new place and, just like our friends here, just like a newborn baby, comically disoriented. Catch it at once.

 

 

Becoming Jane

02 Mar

Becoming Jane — directed by Julian Jarrold. Romantic Drama. Desperate pressures to get her married beset a lovely 18 Century bluestocking eventually to become Jane Austen. 120 minutes Color 2007.

★★★★

Set here in Ireland acting as Berkshire and perfectly cast as a late 18th Century place, one feels absolutely at home in the rough, peeling-painted, rectory-cum-farm of the film’s landscape, which never fails one second of this film’s footage to look right. What does fail is the sound and sound editing. The music, which is excellent, is always too loud, never more so than in the ballroom scene early on when not a single sentence of the dialogue can be heard above it. The actors do not help, either, for they believe, perhaps, that wit depends upon speed of utterance, and it does not. The elaboration of syntax, upon which much of the wit of Austen and the age depends, requires a careful mouthing. A tasting. A lingual pondering. Like wine. And dare I say it? – a drawl. It cannot be spit out like shot. Oscar Wilde was not at all like Noel Coward. And this is the age of Byron, behind whose drawl massed the power of his position and the greatness of the style of Don Juan. Ian Richardson knows the truth. His buffalo brow of disapproval looms like a dark eave over his enunciation of sentences of death. American actors think wit requires speed. Sometimes it does. But only for arrows. Austen’s zingers even when brief are instinctually weighted, tremendously elaborated shafts sent over the immense distance of a banquet table. These the actors tend to pipe or whisper. Not good. Certainly Maggie Smith understands this as she pecks apart her opponents with her chicken head beak and eyes wider than judgment. Her character relishes speech. For her, for the English, not just language, but speech is a consummate and delicious sterling silver tool. Perfectly cast, the film is also beautifully arranged for our enjoyment by the director and costumer. Anne Hathaway could not be bettered in the role of Jane; she has the intelligence, the strength of a love of independence, and no sense that she is using her looks to land a mate. She never flirts. She also understand speriod style. James McAvoy, on the other hand, is required to use his looks, and he is suitably combed and brushed and decked, and plays the part with no frippery extras but with great earnestness. (One wonders if he will ever graduate out of the category of jeune premier.) You quite believe the attraction between the two, which counts for a lot, although it does not directly feed the real plot of the film, which is how this enforces a literary imagination in the making. Julie Walters is grand as the mother of the daughters, particularly in her big scene hoeing potatoes, and James Cromwell as the minister has just the right looseness of attention to suggest his failing bank account. It is a film whose ending does not work. It needs the same ending as Splendor In The Grass: two lovers see one another after fifteen years, and it should break your heart. Instead of which it dissipates into the sentimental distraction of his having named his daughter Jane. Responsibility to historical accuracy shoots it dead in its traces. But by that time, a pretty good film is over.

 

A Murder Of Quality

04 Feb

A Murder Of Quality — directed by Gavin Miller. WHODUNIT. Spymaster George Smiley is dragged out of retirement to solve a murder in a boys’ public school. 90 minutes Color 1991

★★★★★

Gary Oldman and Alec Guinness, after and before, have been called upon to play the ruthless taciturn Mr. Smiley but the role clearly belongs to Denholm Elliott, who, granted, is asked to resuscitate the character only for the petites pommes de terre of a policier of a provincial whacking. Guinness, he of the moonstone school of acting perfected by Ralph Richardson and finally put out of business by Paul Scofield, was the most opaque and Gary Oldman the most ruthless of the Smileys, but Denholm Elliott outsmarts even those masters of scene larceny by giving Smiley not just one implacable spine but a suppleness of carriage that gives him a place to begin and a place to go. He first appears to be a mealy-mouthed amateur when meeting the local inspector, masterfully cast and played by Matthew Scurfield, not as a bumbling dope or bigot but as a highly proficient but frustrated professional with a strong personality and smart views. Denholm Elliott is assisted in the detection by the curmudgeon-mouthed Glenda Jackson, and one can see the reason for her Oscars by just the way she puts a napkin down on the table and rises in utter silent disgust at the fascism of the culprit when she learns of it. Billie Whitelaw scares us silly as mad Jane the local loony, simply by the swiftness and lack of motivation of her violence, a wonderful choice by an actor. Then on the one hand we have Joss Ackland as the grandiloquent gay master fascinating his boys with his magic quotes from the Rubyiat and on the other as one of the boys, Christian Bale, he of the inner smirk. Yes, even at 16 years of age this is so. A completely untrained actor to this day, Bale brings to the character a minimalism perfect for an adolescent out of his depth in the machinations of adult doings. If you look at him carefully, or even carelessly, you can see here his systèm. He begins with a tiny single point and retains it. In later years this skill spokes out to produce performances and characters of  terrifying intensity. Think of him as the opposite of Sean Penn, but playing the same sorts of parts with the same rash effect. He is one of those masters-through-experience actors I prefer. I find it very hard to look at him. I don’t like his face, which difficulty makes his work all the more admirable to me. A craft and a talent devoted to stretching beyond the extreme borders cuts through my revulsion of a physiognomy he simply cannot help. It would be fascinating to see him perform Noël Coward’s Private Lives, that is to say a high comedy of manners: Mirabel in Congreve’s The Way Of The World. Jack in Bunbury. Someone, that is to say, not doomed by what he knows.

 

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus

16 Jan

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus – directed by Terry Gilliam. Fantasy. A travelling theatre offers its eternal creative powers out to a world not interested in them whatsoever, until a certain Tony turns up. 123 minutes Color 2009.

* * *

Terry Gilliam is your ordinary fantasist, thank goodness, which means that his story is firmly lodged in classical narrative rubric, e.g., once upon a time there was an ancient magician who had a beautiful daughter. Living in their magic cave was a monster and a servant boy who was in love with her. The magician had failed in his work, however, because he had made a deal with a demon: he could live forever if he gave his first daughter as the demon’s bride. One day, the theatre company saved a young man from drowning. This man, named Tony, was set dire tasks to save the daughter: he had to enter the magic world of the wizard with three females whose souls he would sacrifice.  And so forth and so on. All we see is quite delightful and well grounded. The piece is fanciful and well cast, with Christopher Plummer as the magician, and where it is not well cast, the costumes supply the deficiency. All is well, or would be well, until the drowning man appears. Then things fall apart. For Tony is played by Heath Ledger, in what should have been the most daring and entertaining performance of his career, save for one thing: it is made invisible by facial hair. You cannot see what he is feeling or thinking; you cannot see what he wants; you cannot see what sort of person he is. The performance is a dead loss. For there is a rule for young leading male film actors. Keep hair out of all parts of your face. Keep your head hair combed back off your brow, no matter how much younger than you are you want to look, and keep all beards, goatees, mustaches, sideburns miles away from you. Beards are fine for the stage where the close-up is outlawed, where no one can see your features anyhow, but on film, nope, never. In film, they do not define character; they demote it. (You may, as Clark Gable did so effectively, wear a thin mustache as a sort of medical prescription. But that’s it.) Facial hair destroys performances. It never adds character. It always conceals character, because it conceals filmed human response. If you are a leading man, that is. If you are Monty Woolley, do as you please. Anyhow, we sigh and wander on through the film in all its expected and unexpected treats. Jeff and Mycheal Danna have written charming music and the special effects are a riot. Until we come to a point in the story when Ledger has to take three of the ladies through the magic mirror, at which point he turns into impersonations of himself, which is a lot of fun. The first is played by Johnny Depp, and that’s all right; the second by Jude Law, and that’s all right too; the third, however, drowns us in excess and even Colin Farrell, who is fine in the part, cannot rescue the logorrhea of the director, who throws into the last episode everything he ever thought up about everything – and the movie is swamped and goes under. He has a fecund imagination but no talent to cull the fruit.  Too bad.  A lost film. A lost performance.

 

 

The Iron Lady

13 Jan

The Iron Lady — directed by Phillida Lloyd. Biopic. A woman entering senility is visited by recollections of her career in British politics which lead her to become Prime Minister. 105 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

Because I neither watch nor read the news, I never saw Margaret Thatcher on television or heard her speak or paid attention to her work in office. So I cannot tell whether Meryl Streep is good at being Margaret Thatcher, but I do know that she is superb at not being Meryl Streep. For I do not see the actress in the performance. I see an old woman moving through her apartment, somewhat stooped with age, and not quite compos mentis, but also far from playing mad scenes, far from helpless or deranged. Her husband, admirably played, of course, by Jim Broadbent, has died some years before, but visits her here and in memory. Like a woman of good sense this both amuses and annoys her. We see her in her younger days start out with him, and proceed to enter politics and eventually take over the government, but none of these scenes are developed – partly because there is no antagonist in the film. There are The Males Of The World Of Politics and there are The People, but there is no individual and there is no ideology opposing her. She opposes. But that is her nature. Her husband has her number but she herself does not. So what we get is a portrait of an absolutist. She is always sure of herself. She never questions herself or her notions. It is a drama without a drama, that is to say,  with a protagonist but without an antagonist until she becomes the antagonist of herself, and, in a scene of astounding rudeness, makes the error of unconsciously demoting herself from Prime Minister to hectoring schoolmistress by scolding her cabinet ministers. She doesn’t get it, but it is the end of her. Her cabinet may accept her commands but not her demeans. All of this has a certain civics lesson merit, and in it we see at once her innocence and her humorlessness. But what interested me most was how she was in that apartment, just walking around from room to room, a person who seems to have forgotten she held great power once and not troubled at all that it is no longer hers. A woman who has to crack an egg, deal with over-solicitous helpers, get her pearls off and on. The ordinariness of these scenes, and they dominate, brings forward a human being unguarded, smart, and willing to live. It is fascinating to watch. It is an enactment of an historical figure largely in moments which are not historical, and as such it provides a riveting entertainment. Streep does not give a bravura performance here. You might say it is not a performance at all. It is a being being a being. It hardly matters that the being happens to be called Margaret Thatcher. As to the movie itself — never mind about the movie. It is a setting for a diamond.

 

Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy

02 Jan

Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy — directed by Tomas Alfredson. Spy Suspense. There is a Russian spy secreted in British Intelligence, but which of the four suspects is it? 127 minutes Color 2011.

* * * * *

You gaze as into an aquarium, and past your eyes many strange things pass, among which one of four identical fish may be poisonous. One is riveted by the strange slow movement of things back and forth before one and by the subterranean places one visits. This particular aquarium stretches from London to Paris to Budapest to Istanbul. Among the hunters and protectors of the poisonous fish is the premier English actor Gary Oldman, playing a man of great reserve, watchfulness, and respect. The barest response. The civillest tone. And a pair of glasses that hide everything or nothing, screening a face as closed as a shell. He is supported by a cast, which is as exquisite and apt as he is, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds (although his character needs to be given more play), John Hurt, Kathy Burke, David Dencik, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbactch. As we move through this aqueous stillness, we are held by the deliberation of the scenes, places, tones, which float the vessel of suspense entirely, for we too know nothing. We too haven’t a clue. So we surrender to that ignorance of the truth upon which suspense is built, if we participate in what is being done to us visually. We wait for it to be announced, not to be fooled but to be revealed as co-agents of the crime. Clearly the director is master hand. Clearly the editor Dino Johnsâter and the photographer Hoyte Van Hoytema are master hands, as are the set designers and art directors and composer. The medium they deliver us into is the jell of suspense itself, so we are not vexed by red herrings but prompted by them. The piece is drawn from John le Carré’s novel set in the cold war, and the movie strikes into the very center of the dirty heart of war, whose mindset is a bureaucratic tenement. We have here the drab underpinnings of espionage, so dandified up in the James Bond movies of fond memory. The film is a gem, a masterpiece, not to be missed or dismissed. Brilliant on every level of execution and a very high entertainment indeed.

 

 

Sherlock Holmes: The Game Of Shadows

18 Dec

Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows — Directed by Guy Ritchie. Boulevard Thriller. 129 minutes Color 2011.

* * * * *

Better than the first one by a long shot. Firstly because it is more witty, and secondly and thirdly because it is more witty. By that I mean that while it is also more spectacular, the spectacle is witty. I am not going to spoil the jests by describing them; let them come upon you unawares. Then too, the story swans around Europe with uncommon velocity and the picture simply expects you to go along for the ride, which is essentially Dr. Watson’s ride, since that is who we have to be, since none of us can ever be Holmes, can we. When a director or storyteller takes wit for granted in his audience he has done the wittiest thing he could do. And always the director lets us in on the joke, by which is meant that he expects us to finish the punch line for him, Alà Lubitsch. And it also means that the dialogue is witty, and dialogue can only be witty in a film if there is really a lot of it, so that we can sink our ears into it and live with the flavor of it as things unfold. There are mistakes, or rather one mistake, which is that, again, the fight scenes fall prey to scrambled editing so that there is no knowing what is going on or what is doing by whom to whom. But these are over early, and the story opens out into its drolleries and detours amply. The décor, the costumes, the carriages, and the protocols are all Teutonic, the jammed living rooms, the opulent restaurants, the creamy excesses of dress and manner, the expression, the repression – all are Germanic. It is 1891 and Victoria is on the throne and she was a German. Victorianism everywhere always has a German accent. And the designers have made the most of this and played off against it in the person and personality of Robert Downey Junior, who is the most romantic in appearance and affect of any Sherlock Holmes before. He never wears a high collar or a tie. His shirts are always Byronically open at the neck. He never does the prim Basil Rathbone/Jeremy Brett thing of the pinched genius with the long condescending nose. Instead he is all close-up and personal and tousled and Peck’s Bad Boy. Of course, like those others, he is dreadfully neurotic. He also speaks a lot more clearly here than in the first installment. In all this he is ably mated by Jude Law, again as Watson, who almost equals Holmes in magical prestidigitations. Stephen Fry makes an astounding appearance as Mycroft Holmes, Sherry’s brother, and a welcome presence he is indeed. Can we follow all this? We are not meant to. All we are meant is to feel privileged to tag along. I liked doing that. It is a sumptuous ride.

 

 

 

The History Boys

03 Nov

The History Boys — Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Comedy. A bunch of private school boys cram to get into Oxford with the help of a doughty gay professor who wants to get into their pants. 109 minutes Color 2006.

* * * * *

I had never seen the actors before, but I found them wonderful, particularly Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, who are fascinating to watch perform a highly literate script in an absolutely realistic tradition freshly. I went to a school like this in England and sat for the exams these boys sit for , so you might say I know the milieu. But that’s not the question. The question is not “verisimilitude” or “meaning” or “morality”. Because those are not on offer here. What is on offer is: can one watch a play and entertain the passions in it without having to draw a conclusion or level a judgment on them? Like them, I passed the test. I enjoyed this piece immensely. If you like “The Corn is Green” with Bette Davis, or “The Browning Version,” this may speak to you — though this story has its wits about it more than either of those, and is, in the best sense of the word, more ruthless. The question is not whether something here is right or wrong or good or bad, it seems to me, but is it provocative? Has the author dealt with material proper to him? Is his tale told well? To all of this I say, Yes! I saw it in a movie house and was thoroughly satisfied. I don’t go to a movie house to be preached to, as a rule, either as a liberal, which I am, or as anything else. And I was not preached to here, but rather met with a work of high imagination with which I could dance. To me it is a joy. It does what movies do best. It was my favorite movie of 2006.

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Withnail And I

02 Nov

Withnail ANd I — Directed by Bruce Robinson. Picaresque Farce. A couple of down-and-out actors jaunt off for a weekend in the country pursued by their homosexual uncle. 107 minutes Color 1986.

* * * * *

Picaresque Farce? Well, why not? I like films that are written. And then they have to be acted well. That’s what I prefer. Those are my indulgences and I do not look much further. If I am caught up by “the direction,” “the camera angles,” “the lighting,” then there is perhaps something wrong. Here we have a super-duper smear of a film, brilliant as gasoline in a rain puddle, very funny in its wording, and inhabited by four characters behaving with the most astonishing self-service and self-indulgence in the world — and I loved them. Perfect impenitence, you see: that’s what I strive for. I sought the film out for the great British actor Richard Griffiths who manned the lads in The History Boys. One of the great comic monsters in film is the dealer played by Ralph Brown. For this alone, I toss my hat in the air.

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Easy Virtue

09 Sep

Easy Virtue – Directed by Stephen Elliott. High Comedy. The scion of an upper crust British family brings home his American wife. 96 minutes Color 2008.

* * * *

Noel Coward’s (aged 25) drama of class snobbery is updated in diction and tone to the present day, although still set in the 20s. All that works just fine. Colin Firth, not an actor I much admire although there is nothing not to like about him, plays the veteran of WWI who fiddles with a motorcycle and keeps mum while his highly controlling wife makes life miserable for one and all. Kristin Scott Thomas plays her brilliantly. It’s the Gladys Cooper part, you understand, and we are to learn rather late in the day that she objects to the young wife because she really wishes to keep her son home because the estate is failing and presumably he can save it. But it’s a phony excuse, for the reason she is a bitch is the same as any woman is, because she wishes to blanket all the sexual energy in her bailiwick.  Some of Thomas’ lines are lost in the rush of British, a common error of English actors when scurrying through the heady regions of contempt. But the real reason the piece doesn’t work is that the American is played by Jessica Biel who is neither attractive nor fascinating and plays the character with no sense of inner style, one way or another, whatsoever. You need a modern Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, Loretta Young in the part, but, I guess there are none. The Extras are informative and fun. The direction is excellent. The costumes are tops. The fabulous houses in which it was shot are worth the visit, and so is a fox hunt and a great tango scene, in which Firth takes the floor. He is very fine in the dance and in the part, there and elsewhere, and I may start to warm up to him after all.

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Jane Eyre

01 May

Jane Eyre – Directed by Cary Fukunaga. Gothic Melodrama. A governess is duped by the lord of the manor. 120 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

All the nighttime interiors are filmed like de la Tour: candles both glamorize and mortify the faces. Outdoors the sun never seems to shine. And this captures the lugubrious inner climate of Victorian fiction, with the doom of death, which we find in Dickens, in Tennyson, and here, where a wedding is the next best thing to a funeral, the first being the white prelude to the black childbirth demise of the second. All this the director has realized. And so has the costumer Michael O’Connor, and so has everyone on the technical side, with one exception, the casting director. For it is perfectly clear in the novel and it is perfectly clear in the screenplay that Jane and Rochester are homely people, yet they have been cast with handsome people. ‘Do you find me handsome?” asks Rochester at one point, and when Jane says “No,” we must suppose that she is, for the first time, lying, or that she is as blind as Rochester will one day become. The novel has the great advantage over films of this story in that we never see these two. But films of this story lie to us over and over, in version after version. Joan Fontaine, even in her wan drab stage was pretty, and Orson Welles was infernally magnificent. Without their being homely, the entire story is baffling nonsense, for the entire story is that of honesty cutting through all levels of fine and proper appearance: of wealth, of religion, of position, of gender, of face, of figure, of sexuality and even of physical deformity, since Rochester ends up blind. As it is, all you’re left with in this version is that you have got to be blind to get married. I prefer Rebecca, which is its most famous duplicate. Or I prefer the 1998 Masterpiece Theatre television version. This one is a movie; it’s too short. This one leaves out how much Jane enjoyed running the school she founded; it even leaves out that Rochester’s ward is infuriating and is actually his illegitimate child. It leaves out how come Jane starts out as a girl of high temperament and becomes a teenager of no temperament whatsoever. The 1998 TV version also has at least an unusual looking Jane. This one, however, has Judi Dench, quite fine as Mrs Fairfax the housekeeper, and it has the great Sally Hawkins as the wicked witch Mrs Reed, and it has our own Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell, as St. John. In the TV version the characters are more fully rounded, St. John, for instance, because the material is a big Victorian novel, and two hours cannot compass the long vital surgery it performs, the first layer of which is the meaning and meaninglessness of the want of beauty in its principals.

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The Entertainer

08 Apr

The Entertainer — Directed by Tony Richardson. A third-rate vaudevillian schemes to stay working. 96 minutes Black and White 1960.

* * * * *

Why is Tony Richardson one of the greatest of all film directors? I can’t answer the question, but maybe you can. If you want to start, see The Entertainer. I saw it when it was first done on the stage. It was Olivier’s attempt to catch up with the kitchen sink drama that had taken over serious theatre in England, and John Osborne, who wrote Look Back In Anger, was the first of these rotters. So Olivier jumped off Richard III and into Osborne’s Archie Rice. He is much better on the screen in the part than he was on the stage; in the film you can see what a creation Archie is; you can actually get behind the character and begin to understand him. Archie’s a sleaze-bag, and he seems to have so little talent, you wonder that he lasted as long as he did. Son of a famous and gifted vaudevillian, Billie Rice, Archie tries one scam after another to keep at work. But the audience isn’t there, and the material isn’t there, and his son is a war prisoner, and his wife is a blabbering nag. Olivier was the most quick-witted actor, a quality that didn’t always serve him well, but certainly serves him here. You can see his Archie slippery slop, as he segues into one escape from the truth after another; you can see him thrust his dagger of defense this way and that, now using his musical hall patter to fend off attack, now using his own brand of cruelty, now using his patience, now using his charm. Everyone around him is excellent; virtually the entire cast from the stage version performs it, and they are deep and ripe in their roles. Joan Plowright is tops as the stand-by daughter; Brenda De Banzie is moving as Phoebie, the mother’ Roger Livesey is delightful as old Billie Rice, the vaudevillian. The screenplay is superb; it opens up the story into settings around the seaside resort where the old theatre is. This grounds the picture, and it also makes evident how brilliant Osborne’s writing is. The writing alone is worth the price of admission. But it is the imagination of the director, Tony Richardson, which holds it and offers it out to us, that makes it a love object. What was it that he had? What was his gift? Take a look at The Entertainer. See for yourself.

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Somers Town

10 Mar

Somers Town – Directed by Shane Meadows – Comedy. Two 15 year-old boys, one a runaway scamp from Scotland, the other a shy Polish photographer, fall in with one another and fall in love with the same pretty waitress. 71 minutes Black and White and Color 2008.

* * * * *

This highly acclaimed film brought the work of this director to the pleasure of my attention, and I can do nothing but say, Check it out. The style is old-fashioned kitchen-sink, and at first I found it, as I do a lot of kitchen-sink drama, tedious. It also seemed to be played by two kids whom the director had dragged in off the street – we don’t want any more Andy Warhol in our lives, do we? But as soon as Perry Benson showed up as a scallywag street vendor and as soon Ireneusz Czop showed up as the father of the Polish boy, I had to revise my attention of the boys, for both older men are experienced actors of the first class, which is to say they are accomplished improvisationalists and, from the background of their own characters, can respond fully to the situation and persons around them. Thomas Turgoose plays the runaway as a lad of shrugging indifference to any feelings about his lost state, and Piotr Jagiello as the Polish boy is too ingrown to have any feelings. But is what is really true is that neither young actor is operating on a ground of back-story. They are simply operating on a ground of present being, which is why they appear flat and dull and apathetic at the start – which is exactly what they are supposed to be. When they join up, it is not their acting but the strangeness of their relationship at all that keeps one watching. How can these two people have a single thing to say to one another? Yet they do. For the plot dictates that they must. Their doings and their truancies become quite droll. And I soon realize that I am in the hands of a director who has considerable skill in achieving his ends. Improvisational acting usually dooms actors to falling back on their shtick. That simply means that in the long run the performers are too hardened in their response-capacity for anything actually to happen to them; they are not really playing characters; they are not really playing themselves, either; they are playing something that, in real life, is merely socially useful. And without imagination acting is useless, crass, and dull. Art, as always, lies in the imagination. What the director Shane Meadows has imagined is an arena in which imagination can take place, and that freedom grants the film its charm, its humor, and a place in which the audience can meet up with what is going on and respond. Elisa Lasowski as their light o’ love, and  Jane Dickie as a kindly acquaintance complete a perfectly cast and realized short film. Somers Town is a London ‘hood.  This is a tiny, telling vision of it.

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Butterfly Collectors

05 Mar

Butterfly Collectors — directed by Jean Stewart — 2 Part TV Police Procedural. A detective becomes partisan to a crime suspect. 150 minutes Color 1999

* * * *

What gifts bring an actor to the fore? Here we have Pete Postlethwaite playing opposite a very beautiful young man, who is also a good actor, Jamie Draven. And yet if the director were tempted to put them both in the same frame at the same time, one would not watch the beautiful young man. Put Edward G. Robinson on the stage with the most beautiful actor in the world, as Richard Burton said, and you would not be able to take your eyes off Edward G. Robinson. Postlethwaite’s face. Wide-spaced large blue eyes filled with uncertainty and searching. A ruddy complexion. A wide expressive mouth. A hatchet face marred or made by time. An incipient bald spot. A sense coming off of him that you do not know what he is going to do next, and whatever it is, you might not like it. A lower class affect. It would be hard to imagine him in a leading tuxedo part. He has, however, toured in King Lear playing all the parts, which means he played the dukes and the king and evidently all the princesses too. Emotionally he seems to have that rather rare quality in an actor –—Toshiro Mifune had it — of being able to turn on an emotional dime, a faculty which saves directors and screenwriters an enormous amount of time. He’s of middle height. Slender. Moves well. Can smoke innumerable cigarettes. Can give over to being entirely, deeply internal. Does not seem to act for the camera or for the second balcony, as Ingrid Bergman did. And a curious, distinctive, and well-placed voice. Does this help? In any case, here he is in a big long principal role in this two-part detective film. One of the great actors of modern times. I owe to myself to see him wherever I can, and to bring him to you, so that you may wonder and delight.

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Another Year

13 Feb

Another Year – Directed by Mike Leigh – Classical Drama. A senior married couple offers hospitality to the needy. 129 minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

A perfectly constructed picture, this is a Baucus and Philemon story, of two old farmers who offer hospitality and food to those who are difficult and in difficulty. In the myth, the gods reward such kindness by allowing them eventually to die simultaneously, and in the picture the reward is clearly that the two old ones retain their ability to be kind. The story is anchored in the four seasons, but even more firmly in their seasonal tasks of mucking in the soil of a gardening commons in which they have a plot and in which they raise fine small crops by themselves and for themselves. In this story, they apparently are not peasants, for they have travelled the world, they are well educated, and they both have jobs which benefit society; however the gardening gives them the privilege of peasants which is to meet the deities of their lives. Middle class people usually don’t meet such deities, but here they do. One of those deities is The Temptation To Act Out Of Impatience which the audience may feel the characters ought to feel, for the audience feels it itself, towards their three monstrous guests. The first and most eminent of these is Mary, a flirtatious alcoholic whose realization of the triteness and triviality and exile of her own destiny the movie’s story slowly shows in no uncertain terms. Her story is framed by the dull version of it, in which, at the start of the film, the wonderful Imelda Staunton plays a woman refusing to change her destiny in exactly way the character of Mary refuses at the end. Mary is played with dauntless fury by Lesley Manville, in a remarkable exposure of worldly human error. It is a great performance in a film of the highest level of performance. The balance between Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen is a wonderful piece of writing and acting, the one fitting the other, entirely without sentimentality, and without resembling the other. Any man of the right age who does not offer his hand to Ruth Sheen is an ignorant fool. The other two guests are Broadbent’s catatonic brother, played by David Bradley and his gluttonous friend Ken, played by Peter Wight. The God Of Impatience appears in full and terrifying form in the person of Carl, beautifully played by Martin Savage. It has been said this picture is about the difficulty of growing old. It is nothing of the kind. It is about the choices one makes all along – here demonstrated by a marriage that is created piece by piece before our very eyes.

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