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Archive for the ‘ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC’ Category

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool

03 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Son Of Saul

10 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

La Sirga

23 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, SUSPENSE

 

Lilies Of The Field

25 Mar

Lilies Of The Field – directed by Ralph Nelson. Spiritual Comedy. 94 minutes Black And White 1963.
★★★
The Story: A coven of refugee nuns sequestered in the desert hoodwink a young man to build them a chapel.
~
Sydney Poitier gives an inexplicable performance.

To explain it requires a confession as to the director’s frivolity in his treatment of this material. Ralph Nelson handles it like an Andy Hardy/Judy Garland MGM let’s-find-a-barn-and-put-on-a-show musical.

So Poitier, rather than give a serious comic performance of someone helplessly frustrated, may have played into this mode, which here is mechanical – but with Garland’s and Rooney’s talents never was. So Poitier points all his effects. He gilds the tip of each wave of his performance with the froth of being “entertaining”. He’s fearfully “cute”.

This does release his Bahaman roots to dance and prance and shake it. (Poitier was not American.) But his performance does not fit in with that of the actual Austrian refugee, Lilia Skala, who plays it for real. Too bad. Here her performance was, right in front of Poitier, available to him, and he muffed it; he opted for “charm.” Lilia Skala is clearly a top-notch actor in full possession of her craft and she was nominated for an Oscar for this performance. Wonderful to behold her work.

Poitier won an Oscar for this performance as credit for an accumulation of parts, noble all.

But was it for their nobility Sidney Poitier found a public?

I think it was because Sidney Poitier was the first Negro actor to be likable.

Lena Horne was dynamic but not likeable. Ethel Waters was loveable but not likeable. Sammy Davis was impressive but not likeable. Canada Lee was likeable but sidelined. Paul Robeson was admirable but discredited. None of them got to be movie stars. And, of course, there was the times.

But Americans primarily want to like people, an instinct that can’t help but cut though race to the other side. Subconsciously they longed for a black actor to like. Sidney Poitier had talent, looks, luck, intelligence, a good figure, the right voice – and likeability was inherent in him. So, unwittingly, Poitier became a star. But, although he gave many better performances than this, this one might have been better had he not striven to be so “likeable”.

James Poe, a good screenwriter, wrote Lilies Of The Field; the great Ernest Haller filmed it simply. But, other than them, Lilia Skala’s work, and the desert, the lilies of its field have withered quite away.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, Sidney Poitier

 

The Death Of Stalin

25 Mar

The Death Of Stalin – directed by Armando Ianuucci. Political Comedy. 107 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: The Russian head of state dies and everyone squabbles as to who shall inherit the state?
~
The Death Of Stalin is directed with the lightning speed of farce – but it is not farce. It is gallows humor and so to be funny must be delivered gravely. It is not.

I fell asleep. Or you might say I passed out from the metronomic monotony of things dashing by in front of my eyes, the dulling hypnosis of looking into a kaleidoscope, ever turning, ever brilliant, and therefore indecipherable, and therefore tedious. We see everything in a whisking mosaic of scenes and are permitted to dwell on nothing. No scene is allowed to develop, and the visual jokes are taken for granted as funny, although, even so, some of them really are funny.

I went to the picture wanting to like it, and wanting to like helps one to, but it wasn’t kind to me. It is not measured to the level of the audience of those over 50 who know its Russian nabobs, who convene and plot, then plot on their plots – a shell game, in which the eye is not faster than the play, and you soon walk away out of patience with the trick that over and over again fools with you.

Also true is that the English actors speak too fast to be heard, and they are doubly incomprehensible because they speak English while they are doing it. American actors such as Steve Buscemi, who as Nikita Khrushchev shoves Stalin’s heirs around, is perfectly audible doing so speaking precision Brooklynese, while American actor Jeffrey Tambor ornates the film with his depiction of the mealy-mouthed Malenkov, a sort of zombie in a girdle, perfectly cast like everyone else.

The picture takes the form of a mordant wake in which everyone behaves badly because the corpse has trained them to. But the story arose not from an original screen play, but from a French comic book.

Now, most films these days, it would seem, do arise from comic books, and this has been going on at least since the Tarzan movies. The one great difference between such a movie as The Death Of Stalin and a comic book is this: a comic book is not whisked out from under your eyes as you look at it. You can linger long enough upon a comic book for it to register.

The remedy: First Kill The Editor! Oh, but before that kill The Director! Or maybe, as Beria would have it: Kill Everybody!

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, Steve Buscemi

 

Phantom Thread

22 Jan

Phantom Thread – written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Drama. 130 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: An artist suffering from mater-philia becomes inspired by a young woman who, to cure him, must practically kill him.
~
What are the force-fields inside an individual which draw a human to force-fields inside another – and how can they be made to fadge, converge, and agree?

The execution is suave. The picture luxuriously filmed, perfectly cast, marvelously directed, impeccably scored, ideally set, fabulously costumed, vividly acted. The setting is some fifty years ago when London was a fashion center and its focal character, Reynolds Woodcock, was the most renown women’s designer of the time.

All that is window-dressing, albeit superb, but the picture must have it in order to explore the sub-surfaces which are its true subject.

Woodcock in a once-in-a-lifetime-draw to a young waitress with a figure perfect for his clothes, spirits her away to his home. She falls for him. But when she does, he finds her annoying, and we soon see his interest in her is neither romantic nor personal. He has made her his muse. But she has no other interest for him.

He lives in a household and work-world entirely female. And he admits that his first and main muse was his own mother. Indeed, she is the phantom thread with which he has woven his life into what he is: a gourmet monastic, and that mother will reappear as that phantom.

His sister runs his business, has his number, and knows that his strength comes from women – from their mother, from herself, from various women he lives with, from his battalion of seamstresses, and from his clientele. Such strength as he possesses lies in the brilliant, shocking, chilly genius of his dresses.

But the young woman he has carried off comes from an even colder clime. She sees that, in order for him to love her, she must mother him, and in order for that to happen she has to rescue him from peril. And to do that, she must create the peril.

Have I already said too much? No. Find out for yourself. Go see it.

As it starts, the film is slightly overwritten, as characters explain themselves in ways they wouldn’t and we don’t need them to. One day someone must do a study of the accents used. And the film will only half-satisfy because the default position of the woman’s psyche is left unattended to. So the plot remains a mythic scheme stumbling towards a finale that does not exist, a stream with no pond to feed. But never mind that. The satisfactions available in it outstrip its wants.

And it is played by a group of sterling, deeply experienced actors, who are a pleasure to behold. Vicky Krieps plays the young woman who sees through Woodcock; her performance is a treasure. Lesley Manville plays his sister; her performance is a treasure. Harriet Sansome plays a Barbara Hutton type about to marry a Porfirio Rubirosa type; her performance is a treasure. Every performance is a treasure.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays the designer – at first with the too-knowing smile of a man no woman he has set his sights on can resist – and then he just plays him. His is the story of a cool man whom to wed a good woman must first cremate. Day-Lewis, a great cold actor, is well cast as this gelid gent.

Day-Lewis is not a romantic leading man. He is a character-lead, but the part is close to a leading man role, yet here, by his mastery of the technical acts of fashion design, the actor skirts the category: how pins are applied, how cloth is moved and discussed, how scissors close on a fabric, how a sketch-book is held, the way he wears the clothes he wears and that he chooses to choose them (I want those magenta socks), and the infantilism of the Divo – all that which, through deeds, decodes the obsession in him that blinds him to what he cannot more greatly adore. It is a performance consummated sheerly on the level of behavior.

But Krieps is an actor and a character who takes him on, and, boy – even cooler than he – does she ever! She realizes the foundation in the maternal in him is too strong to collapse but to crack its depths she must bring out another and different female side lying beneath the maternal, to dare to release an even greater muse, the normal. With the gentlest of drills, she embarks on a mining operation seldom seen in film.

For the story of Phantom Thread – the overthrow of the default position of an individual or a relationship – the reference is Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Have I said too much? Yes, I have.

Find out for yourself. Go see it.

 
 

Call Me By Your Name

19 Jan

Call Me By Your Name – directed by Luca Guadagnino. Homoerotic-drama 132 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: A doctoral candidate comes to assist a professor for six weeks, and the professor’s teen-age son falls in love with him and he falls in love with the teen-age son.
~
He who has loved and not lost has not loved at all.

First love never ends.

These are the regulations our bodies have set down for us, and wonderful and terrible are their truths.

The American Ph.D. candidate, played by Armie Hammer, is all virility and dispatch. The teen-ager, played by Timothée Chalamet, lingers in that truce of time called adolescence. Hammer is fully confident and at home in his body. Chalamet’s body is scarcely formed. We know that he is drawn towards the hunky candidate because he gazes wonderingly at him, as does everyone. We have no idea if the interest is returned by the hunk, for the two of them bicker and grouse.

But the young man opens half his shell to reveal the pearl. And the hunk responds as though nothing could be easier or more normal, and he goes for it, albeit gingerly, with the respect due to his boss’s son.

We are flooded from the start with full frontal photographs of Greek statuary. At one point such a statue is raised from the Mediterranean grave of an ancient trireme, and we see its beauty and its powerful genitalia.

But we never see the genitalia of the two lovers – male genitalia, that focus of curiosity, activity, and power. Or the object of ridicule, revulsion, and shrugs?

Why don’t we see these two males make love to one another’s’ privates? Because they’re movie stars? Or out of a sense of prudery? Or because the theme wishes to attend to “other” erotic values? Or we would be “descending” into pornography?

We have seen Mark Rylance in full erection and penetration in the 2001 film Intimacy, so we know what a movie star’s member looks like in full erection and action. Here, we can only suppose that the genitalia on hand would be shameful, meager, or flaccid, and so they remain unrevealed for reasons too many and too silly to contemplate. So, the sexual act is turned from to gaze at trees outside the window.

But those two actors, Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet sure do enjoy kissing one another; they sure do have a grand old time making out. And because they had a good time, I sure did have a good time to watch them have a good time. And because they had had a good time I believed them and took the significance of their affair under advisement because the story told me to. I believed that the love of their lives was taking place.

I wanted to believe it in order to offer it the tribute of my envy. As does the father of the Chalamet character, well played by Michael Stulhbarg, who, at the end of the movie, sits his young son down and spreads out the table cloth of his son’s life in its good fortune and riches.

After such love, there is nothing but a fire in a fireplace to look into. The fire is not the fire we have been asked to witness. A fireplace is outside of one.

The inside fire does not leave. But the warmth of the mating does not last, although its power to burn does. Mundane geographical distance removes that warmth.

Scorched recollection is the price we never stop paying for great love.

A lifetime of tears, would we say, is its inevitable and fair exchange? The fireplace of a fire that will not quite go out.

 
 

The Shape Of Water

14 Jan

The Shape Of Water – written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. Thriller Fairy Tale. 123 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: An Amazon river god is imprisoned in a U.S. research installation, where he is tortured and threatened with dismemberment until a cleaning woman nurses and rescues him.
~
Of course, fairy stories are true. Myths are true. Allegory is true. That’s how come they last and carry weight in the spirits of children and indigenes. What “true” means is that fairy tales and myths and allegory mimic the inner procedures of the human psyche. The reason fairy tale and myth and allegory endure is that their method of communicating the most important human truths has never been supplanted.

So we see the kindness of the cleaning woman to be the real food she offers the creature, along with hard-boiled eggs.

But what use has this scary creature? The use is, as with all gods, that they never die. What goes with that territory is that they can heal death in others. Mercury, the god of thieves, medicine, tricks, and messages, is the winged avatar of this still, but Hindu religion is crammed with others. In all cases, they heal.

Not always in the way you might want, and in this case the healing teeters perilously before it is revealed. For the god has taken the shape of a merman, and his aspect is daunting. He is played by 57-year-old Doug Jones, lithe, sensual, sudden.

I can’t think of an actor who might have better played the cleaning woman who becomes his mate. Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito (which in English means “exposed” or “transparent”) opens her character up not just to him but to her colleague played by Octavia Spencer whose every word one always believes and so it is here. Over a movie house which seems to be playing forever the same B-Toga epic, Hawkins lives in generous neighborly conjunction with with a commercial illustrator whose style has dated him.

Richard Jenkins does him perfectly. He is the artist who cannot make a difference, the old fool, The Failed Father Figure Of Fairy Tale. Rather like the sad king with the unmarriageable daughter whom you find all the time in those stories. Either she herself or someone beyond unusual must rescue her from the doldrums of the kingdom. And in this case, the doldrums are enforced by a vicious tyrant played with his usual perfection by the handsome, hard Michael Shannon.

Mortal stupidity swirls them around – by the American military bureaucracy typified by Nick Searcy as the general in charge of everything – and by the Russians who want to steal the merman, and whose plans are foxed by Michael Stuhlbarg, who who plays a scientist/spy bent on saving the merman.

So you see, you have a full complement of forces, modern and fantastical, to urge our attention and our loyalties on.

The film is beautifully filmed and imagined. Just what you want for such a tale.

And what is it that you want?

What you don’t want is to be told. So both the merman and the cleaning woman are mute and must, nonetheless, make themselves perfectly understandable to themselves and to us. We see that it is not hard to do.

What you really want is resurrection.

And that’s what the picture provides.

Enjoy yourself. See it.

 

The Greatest Showman

09 Jan

The Greatest Showman – directed by Michael Gracey. Musical. 105 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★
The Story: An orphan boy, spurned by his betters, rises to prominence, wealth, and expression through an ability to amaze the public with the odd, the daring, the questionable, and the spectacular.
~
Hugh Jackman is an actor very hard to miscast. Tall, lithe, handsome as the day is long, geared to acting with a winning zest, he plays villains and rotters with the same dispatch as he played Curly in Oklahoma! He is the only principal actor in the world with the talent, background,and range to play the lead in a major film musical. He is the springboard of this film and he’s adept in all departments.

The problem is that some of the departments are not adept. You listen for a song in the songs that are sung and they sound just like other songs in other musicals that others have sung in just the same way, which is to say without distinction. Song, but no melody, song no one can hum, song that does not support the wit of the lyric.

And if the lyric has wit, you cannot tell because the sound recording of modern film musicals is atrocious. It’s partly mic-ing the actors. It’s partly the fault of melodies which do not support lyrics. When Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds dance together, you hear every word and every word connects with every note and every note tells the story required at that moment.

But here you cannot make out the words. All you are perhaps meant to get is a smear of the thing the characters are supposed to be feeling. Rushes of energy and sweeps of frenzy are meant to convey what? – enthusiasm? hope? a change of heart?

What a shame! Because a great deal of wit is evident in this show. Marvelous costumes, raves of choreography. Surprises and entertainment at every turn.

One of the difficulties with the Phineas T. Barnum story is that Jackman is too old to play Barnum when young. He is paired with Michelle Williams in the stereotypical role of the society girl (Alexis Smith) who marries hypogamicly below her class, but marries talent. Williams is an actor of sterling resources. Give her a scene with mundane demands, she always brings something from those resources that capture us with its counterpoint. But she is also too old.

To youthen things up the screenplay supplies us with handsome young Zac Efron as Barnum’s partner (in real life Bailey but here Carlyle, for some reason) and a mulatto trapeze artiste girlfriend played by Zendaya. Will Carlyle cross the color-line? It’s a cheap trick and an unworthy one, considering Barnum’s own bigotry.

All this detours our attention from Barnum himself and his wonder-working and leaves the film unfocussed. Miscegenation is touched on. Barnum’s snobbery is touched on. His workaholism is touched on. His fraudulence is touched on. Mob violence is touched on. Prejudice against the physically challenged is touched on. And the musical touches down on all this like a mechanical firefly, putting in cameo appearances of its own themes.

And yet you want the whole thing to succeed as well as the energy, color, vibrancy, magic, fun, and superabundant talent succeed in bedazzling us.

But the whole shebang is simply manufactured. Jackman and the director introduce the film by congratulating the audience for being in a movie theatre to watch it, and at the end we are told that 15,000 were given jobs in the making of it – dull remarks which P.T. Barnum would have exploited more vivaciously.

We’ve all seen spectacles about Barnum’ accomplishments – Rogers and Hart’s musical Jumbo, and de Mille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. And I have been to the Barnum and Bailey Ringling Brothers’ Circus in the ’40’s when the freak show which made Barnum’s name (Tom Thumb, Jumbo the elephant, and The Siamese Twins) still included a magical juggler of boxes, a fat lady, a thin man, a sword swallower, a tattoed man, a bearded lady, and Gargantua and Toto, gorillas who glowered. (That’s all they did but it was plenty.)

This was in the heyday of three-ring acrobats, aerialists, tight-rope walkers, the Wallendas, clowns including Emmett Kelley, dog acts, dancing elephants, and prancing horses, a tamer of lions, and a flight of hundred white doves released en mass to swarm through air of the Madison Square Garden and back again to the woman whose arms had a minute ago released them.

Showmanship!

Animal acts gone, side-shows gone, and Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus gone. Not forgotten.

But, like this film, soon to be.

 
 

Ida

14 Dec

Ida – directed Pawel Pawlikowski. Drama. 82 minutes Black And White 2013.
★★★★★
The Story: Her niece pays a visit to an aunt she never knew she had, and the niece, a novitiate, and the aunt, a hedonist, embark on a search into the dynamic past of both of them.
~
Boy, here’s a film you won’t want to see: Black And White, Polish and in Polish, about a nun, and the grim aftermath of WWII. Yet it seems to have five stars tattooed above and to have won the Oscar For The Best Foreign Film Of 2013.

Why would I pluck this off the library shelf if I had never even heard of it? Don’t answer. Because the answer is: because you and I are both in luck.

People die when no one’s looking. And they live when no one’s looking. We all know that. This seems to be the square in which Pawlikowski frames his actors – lives seen beneath monstrous skies they do not notice.

It is perfectly acted by Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida, the novitiate. Hundreds of actresses were auditioned. She was discovered at a café table, a rank amateur, and thus began a film star career.

The aunt is played by Agata Kulesza, an actress of deep experience and every wile.

These two explore the places and persons of the past, as they travel through Poland in search of the core of the mystery encompassing both of them.

You will regret not a minute seeing this film. And having said that: you might regret every minute not yet seeing it.

 

Padre Padrone

02 Aug

Padre Padrone – directed by Paolo & Vittorio Taviani. Drama. 114 minutes Color 1977.
★★★★★
The battle of a father to overlord his son to lifelong enslavement and ignorance against that son who hears a song from afar he recognizes as his own.
~
Ruthless.

I like films ruthless about what they show. As a corrective to the flaccid films that ruled the ‘50s of my youth, I required transgressors like Brando first was.

Now, late in life, I come upon one of the great films of that era, by brother-directors whose work I have never before seen.

How does an individual survive the abuse of a life? No. Not survive. But emerge, not with a white flag, but with a rag of his own devising, coloring, conception, and will? Waving on a crooked stick, he holds it aloft as he clambers out of the ditch.

This story takes place in the upper hills of Sardinia. Shepherd people live nearto rude survival. Their temperaments male and female are violent, cruel, unforgiving, unchanging. The mother tortures the boy, the father beats him almost to death. No escape across those stony hills is in view nor in view of anyone else around. No examples of dropping out, hitting road, or carving a future of one’s own.

This is Italian neo-realism at its most forceful and grainy. It, like the films of Robert Rossellini, is executed with care, predication, rigor. Nothing careless here. Nothing cheap or underdone. It is as consumate as a Freed Unit musical at MGM – but in style and treatment, of course, it is without gloss or relief. I feel I am there. I feel I am actually seeing it. I am walking through it, and it is walking through me. I cannot stop it or bring aid to it.

It won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. It won world-wide praise and attention. It is a relevant and immediate and gripping today as when it was made. Beautifully restored by the Coen Brothers.

Acted by masters. Costumed, set, lit, filmed, directed by masters. Entertain yourself with their power and their truth.

 

Army Of Shadows

11 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Cut

06 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you will thank me gratefully that you have.

 
Comments Off on The Cut

Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, GREAT FEAT DRAMA

 

The Immortal Story

25 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is the most suicidal of all screen persons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Love Is Colder Than Death

20 Mar

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

But – boy – does the director hold your attention!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I liked it. If liking is the word.

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

 

A Passage To India

08 Feb

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Lawrence Of Arabia

03 Feb

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Neruda

20 Jan

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lion or Far Away From Home

02 Jan

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

★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never miss him.

 
 

A Passage To India

10 Dec

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Hundred Foot Journey

18 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Man Who Understood Infinity

18 Nov

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Extasis

15 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go look.

 

Departures

02 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Band Of Outsiders

31 Oct

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

★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Washington Square & Acting & Maggie Smith

27 Oct

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

★★★

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

~

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

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

Perhaps they make a mistake.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

What does that mean – classical nature?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does the Dowager get away with it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or a baglady in a van.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

The hard thing is find the right cast.

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

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

The question arises as to how to play Catherine Sloper.

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

But how does an actress do that?

For real.

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

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

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

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

For unloveability itself cannot be acted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Now there is something actable.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

It helps makes one more forgiving.

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

 

~ ~ ~

 

 
 

The 100-Foot Journey

24 Oct

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

Denial

17 Oct

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Dressmaker

01 Oct

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Our Little Sister

16 Aug

Our Little Sister ­ directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. Family Drama. 128 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Three young bachelor sisters live alone in the big house of their grandmother, and, when they invite their teenage younger half-sister in, all their lives change.

~

Cartoons, action adventure films, films of violence, fantasy, science fiction, horror, chick flicks, drug films, Nicolas Cage films do not find me populating their crowded audiences.

Because they have no content.

So, it is with glowing relief I watch this story unfold. The three sisters do not carry side arms. They do not engage in midnight abortions. Their sexual arrangements are clear, understood, and peripheral.

What they present is a modern and unusual drama of family life whose content is their home, their city, Kamakura, their past, their prospects. Two of them bicker. One drinks a little and engages with worthless boyfriends. Another is a head hospital nurse moving into care of the aged, and taken for granted by her married boyfriend. The youngster proves to be a super soccer player and hops on bike ride with teammate through a paradise of cherry blossoms. The sisters make wine from a family plum tree. They laugh. They learn. What has become of their mother?

Why these ingredients have content is simple. The content of those listed above is theatrical and virtuosoistic and therefore vacuous. The content of Our Little Sister is human, realistic, and clumsy, therefore dramatic. You can actually be present with it as a fellow human being. Their conflicts are perfectly understandable and sympathetic as Japanese and perfectly understandable and sympathetic as our own.

The film was awarded the Best Japanese Film Of The Year, Best Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Sets, Best Leading Actress, Best Supporting Actresses, Best Newcomer, Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Lighting, Best Cinemaphotography, Best Musical Score.

The cast is incontestable.

The movie is true.

It sticks to your ribs.

Go.

 

Éxtasis

24 Jun

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go look.

 

Washington Square

13 May

Washington Square – directed by Agnieszka Holland. Costume Drama. 116 minutes Color 1997.

★★★

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

~

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

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

 

Perhaps they make a mistake.

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

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

 

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

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

Wayne’s instrument was not of a classical nature. Wayne’s instrument could play in costume legend, which is what Westerns are. For Wayne’s particular instrument to be effective it had to be in costume, which in Western  would be jeans and which in modern dress would be military uniform, captains’, admirals’, marines’ and such. This was true from the moment he started, in The Big Trail, where he is in fringed white buckskin. Put him in a suit and tie and you have a problem. He is or became a performer of ceremonial plots with dialogue spoken with the ritual intonation of a doxology. He was successful at it. As King Lear he would not have been successful, and Paul Scofield would have failed as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach.

 

Maggie Smith’s instrument is of a classical nature. And it is one of the quirks of such an instrument that the noise it makes, whatever else it may be able to do, is generally not endearing, John Gielgud being an exception to this rule.

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

 

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

John Wayne?

Really, who could have been better?

 

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

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

If you look at her work in Downton Abby, you must observe that, except for Daisy and Mrs Patmore belowstairs, Smith is the only source of comedy, and the only upstairs version. Why does she make you laugh?

(Those who know her say that as a person Maggie Smith is inherently funny!)

The Dowager Countess is funny because she is wickedly funny.

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

Why isn’t it just malicious?

It almost is.

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

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

How does the Dowager get away with it?

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

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

Partly what’s funny is that Smith makes The Dowager so completely selfish in this that you have to laugh.

And the screenplay grants her license to be so. Still, how does she get away with it?

She gets away with it because The Dowager tells the truth and it is always out of place, except that no one can put her in her place because being a countess she has the highest title, because she is the principal forebear, because she is old, because she is rich, because she holds maternal power, because she is beautifully spoken – all of which are givens with the role which do not have to be acted and which Smith does not need to act – but all of which allow her to tell the truth out of place. She is privileged as a child who cannot be spanked. What the rest of us have in mind but dare not say, she blurts.

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

Such characters as The Dowager and Lady Trenton in Gosford Park have riches, power, position,. They have everything. And so they are characters free to speak their minds.

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

Or a baglady in a van.

 

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

She is not a star of the universally admired forces: The Heroic (such as Katharine Hepburn); The Endearing (such as Elizabeth Bergner); The Trophy (such as Elizabeth Taylor); The Sex Kitten (such as Brigitte Bardot); The Tough Dame (such as Barbara Stanwyck) or The Striver (such as Joan Crawford).

Those women gave fine performances, but Maggie Smith is not an actor of such universal sort. She is not an actress of the great forces that drive us. That is not her whatness,

If Geraldine Page were not in a class by herself, you might want to put Maggie Smith in her class. But Maggie Smith does not possess Page’s power, which is why Page is in a class by herself.

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

 

So you’d best not say you don’t like Maggie Smith when what you may really not like is the character she is playing. You’d best not confuse the actor with the character she is acting.

The actor will use herself to do the acting. She can play a beast and a bitch because those things are in her and because they are in everyone. She may be amusing or not.

But do not expect her to be always decent, as you do Henry Fonda, or emotionally pretty, as you do Marilyn Monroe.

As I say, the only thing you might expect of Maggie Smith is that, within the realm of the character itself, she might be funny.

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

 

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

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

That seems to be the case with Washington Square, a TV adaptation of Henry James’ novel of that title. It had previously been done from a Broadway Play in a film called The Heiress.

It’s about an upper class girl with no confidence who is wooed by a good looking worldly young man with no money. Her father acts as though the young man must want to marry her for her money and tries to put the kibosh on the wedding.

The hard thing is find the right cast.

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

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

The question arises as to how to play Catherine Sloper.

Her father sees her as unmarriageable – awkward, charmless, dull —  and calls her so.

But how does an actress do that?

For real.

Because the play, which has been successful many times, is about one thinking one is not lovable.

I think that’s what it’s about. “Nobody will ever love me,” is the mantra behind all of us that makes us want to prove this story out and stick with it

But unloveability cannot be acted.

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

Physical awkwardness might do something, but it’s external. And it doesn’t work here, because it’s exaggerated in a dance scene where she looks at her feet and counts beats. Doesn’t ring true.

Besides, doing that would make Catharine Sloper an idiot, and if she were retarded, she probably could not be pursued for a wife legally by anyone.

She has bad taste in dress?

She wears one which is hideous, true, but that’s not enough to make one unmarriageable in the eyes of all the world.

The character lacks self-confidence.

It seems to me, that’s the heart of it, but in and of itself that is also unactable. That is, technically an actor cannot act such a thing as lack of confidence.

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

But she’d have to be a very small hypocrite for a suitor to get past it.

 

The key to the part lies in her father’s behavior towards her. Her birth killed his wife, and so in his mind Catherine’s very existence deprived him of love and sex. So he in turn denies her both. It just comes out of him that way. When she is little, he treats her as his devoted spaniel. And no more than that. We later learn what in his eyes her life should be: a spinster and permanent household companion. Obedient. Faithful. Fawning. He never wants her to leave the house. He never wants her to marry. He always wants her kept on a leash. He wants her faithful to him. He wants her to be a dog.

So, we see her as a child tearing down the stairs and jumping up on him like a clumsy puppy, and there we have the foundation for Catherine’s character.

How would it feel to be treated like a pet dog but wanting to be treated like a human?

Dog into human, human into dog. Now there is something actable.

Perhaps Catharine’s failing is that she approaches life and others like a puppy.

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

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

 

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

Jennifer Jason Leigh has always been a problematic actress. She usually plays creeps.

We see something unstable in her as she does this. This not so much in evidence here, but the actress, here as elsewhere, deliberately makes herself technically unmoored. Her characters are all gaga. This makes her into a loose canon, such as she so brilliantly was in The Ugly Eight. And this is what she uses to show why Catharine Sloper is taken to be unlovable. Meaning unattractive. Meaning so odd no one can get a fix on her long enough to court her. It doesn’t work.

Jennifer Jason Leigh does not get to the heart of anything here, but still she is a professional actress playing a part for which she is suited.

And she fails because in the end we know we do not want her suitor to love Catharine any more than her father does.

 

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

De Havilland is a pretty a woman if ever there was one, so that Catharine is supposedly plain doesn’t work. Instead, her Catherine is supposed to be ordinary, which is not quite enough either. But Ralph Richardson turns his opaque eye upon her to good effect. Montgomery Clift as the penniless suitor is beautiful enough to make up for all the other qualities which the suitor Maurice Townsend is meant to possess: brilliance, charm, and a well-travelled sophistication, in all of which Clift is completely void.

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

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

 

Another American actor, Judith Ivey, is excellent.

The costumes are superb and are of the ugliest period of women’s clothes in the history of the world. Urban crinolines topped by sausage curls. Hideous. But accurate.

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

 

What Maggie Smith does is have a grand old time – strictly within the bounds of the size of the part. Aunt Lavinia, poor woman, is as much in a passion over Maurice Townsend as Catherine Sloper is. Smith’s sexual dabbing on him, her brazen and fake-bashful rendezvous with him in a bordello, her interloping and go-betweening actually capsize the affair. Having so little business of her own, she noses into others’ business like mad.

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

 

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

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

But her speech patterns are English. They are of English Modern Comedy, in which she excelled. Restoration comedy, in which she excelled. Shaw, in which she excelled. Oscar Wilde, in which she excelled. Comedies of Shakespeare, in which she excelled.

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

 

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

But if you look for the whatness of an actor at work you may find in you elements for judgment with which you can weigh and distinguish what you’ve seen or are seeing. That way, you are more able to avoid saying that you hate an actor, that such an one is a bad actor or that so and so gave a bad performance.

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

Still, it’s more fun to look a little deeper. Not much deeper, just a little.

It may help make one more forgiving.

 

 

Eye In The Sky

01 May

Eye In The Sky – directed by Gavin Hood. Thriller. 102 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: A little girl selling bread near an important drone target is the focus of the tension between the commander of the drone operation and the young man trained to pull the trigger on the target.

~

The story approaches absurdity as one higher-up after another is called upon to okay the pulling of the trigger. It skips over The Queen and would have landed on the crowded desk of God if things had gone on any further.

Why the heck are the Brits in command of a target upon which an American soldier must open fire? This curious distortion of the film holds one subconsciously in check as one watches. Its unposed question seals us in suspense as the surface difficulties regarding the little girl weave the protagonists in a cats cradle of difficulties.

Around the conference table pace and halt Alan Rickman, Jeremy Northam, and ranks of cellphones pulled tight as red-tape strangles everyone.

What makes the film work is the charm of the child on the one hand, which we get in following her day, her family, her tasks. And set against these, two people who never get to know her as we get to know her.

These two are Helen Mirren who, in a parallel line to her Detective-inspector Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect, runs the operation from a War Room and urges the immolation of the child at every turn – every turn turned-down.

The effectiveness of the entire film, however, depends upon the casting of the actor whose job it is to aim the drone and fire it. The film would not work at all without the presence of the particular actor the producers have hired.

Aaron Paul eyes possess the rare capacity to register an internal moral certainty being deeply questioned by the authority of external information coming at him. This was the quality that sustained Breaking Bad throughout its six seasons.

Paul’s ability to do this as an actor places the entire story in our shoes. His presence, the presence of those eyes, is a narrative necessity. And his strength, which the story requires, to sustain this balance, this question, this quandary, and to act upon it is the real story that supplants all the rest.

 

Brooklyn

28 Feb

Brooklyn – directed by John Crowley. Drama. 112 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: A simple Irish girl is given the chance to move to America and makes the most of it.

~

Although she resembles John Cusack, Saoirse Ronan, the young actress reminds me, in her strength and female sparkle, of the teenage Elizabeth Taylor. I see the same beauty in them both.

She plays a young Irish girl who longs for a life better and other than the one arrayed before her in her native village. With the help of a Catholic priest in Brooklyn she transports to the new world. There she finds herself homesick, but presently acclimates herself to Brooklyn and the lives of those about her. She finds them attractive and alive, and she begins to better herself with night classes.

Circumstances, however, draw her back to Ireland, and this is the important part of the story for us, the viewers – the need one day to go back to ones roots for whatever reason – to settle matters, to get love right, to take measure – and this one must do in person.

I’m not going to tell you anything more about the story but that. For as she does this, we do it with her on our own account. So the movie has the force of myth, entering the house of death with all its lures and coming back out of it alive.

Ronan is just right for the role; she gives just enough that we may give our share too. She is up for the Oscar for the best performance, and her victory would grace the honor.

Two ringers appear in the film with her, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters, both of whom are actors who wear their comic apparel as though they had lived in it for ages. Broadbent plays the kindly priest who sponsored her, and Walters plays the harpy landlady of the women’s boarding house where she lodges. And a lovely young actor plays her beau in Brooklyn, Emory Cohen; his every move endears you to him. You understand his courtship as necessary to his intentions. You understand his attraction to Irish girls, his valentine to her as a physical dance.

The period would be in the early ‘50s, and the costumer and production designer and director have caught it all just right.

All this is in addition to Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Eilis Lacey whom you dote on and travel with and become.

 

Youth

23 Dec

Youth – directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Drama. 124 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: Two old artists recuperate at a fancy Alpine hotel as their pasts and futures converge on them.

~

You wonder momentarily under what circumstances Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel could have become boyhood best friends, but the common ground is, of course, that both are walking slums. Caine has risen to great heights as a conductor and composer, but he is retired and now refuses to conduct a composition of his before The Queen. Keitel is in retreat with his screenwriters to finish his latest script. They are both in their late 70s, and what the film is about is less its story, which has its suspense, than what old age is like for each of them.

It’s not bad. It’s not what you thought it might be – which is to say that fleeting memory is not looked upon as a defect or loss, but as an advantage which offers to them a wider horizon for living life itself. Life itself, lived, with that horizon filled with nothing but itself. Not dismay. Not fear of death. Not major discomfort. Not regret or remorse or nostalgia for what has departed. But simply space.

I have never seen the matter of age presented in this way, and I, as an 82 year old, welcome the painting of a recognizable landscape. Dignity does not consist in resignation, or bearing-up. It consists of looking reality in the face with shrewdness and humor. And this takes a relish in a slower pace, which this film affords, and a willingness to forgo colors one no longer can relish and to enjoy colors one never expected existed.

The aim of certain scenes does not hit their target, such as the parade of Keitel’s screen heroines on a hillside. But many stern and stunning scenes hold my respect for their novelty, daring, beauty. We are given a good long time to contemplate here, which is what being 82 gives you. Editing does not rush us by. Things can register.

Youth’s story is told with a quirky idiosyncrasy easy to get used to. Jane Fonda has three terrific scenes, one with Keitel, one going nuts in an airplane, and one as a peasant woman holding a basket. Rachel Weisz is particularly fine in a long monologue. Paul Dano is just right as an abused movie star. Luca Bigazzi filmed it beautifully. And the concert at the end is certainly worth waiting for.

The director also directed The Great Beauty, which won the 2014 Oscar for the Best Foreign Film.

 

Gandhi

16 Dec

Gandhi – directed by Richard Attenborough. Biodoc. 188 minutes. Color 1982.

★★★★★

The Story: An East-Indian lawyer briskly walks the stony path of leading his nation to social justice and freedom from colonial rule.

~

He was assassinated on 30 January 1948. He was 78. I was 14. He had ben a household word my house all my life and by all households in this country. His doings were known and found strange and wonderful and admirable.

He was one of a world of great humans of his time with whom I had the fortune to be a contemporary: FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Einstein, Schweitzer, Churchill. Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Toscanini, and many others. What they did, they stood for – in all our eyes. There are only a few such now. World heroes. Ai Weiwei, the artist/rebel is one. I grew up with many.

When Gandhi was killed, it was the first of a string of assassinations which continued with JFK and King, Lennon, and today’s public slayings, all designed to erase a social presence with which fanatics disagreed. Bullets end compromise.

Attenborough’s film begins and ends with that occasion. In between, it is a chronicle of Gandhi’s political strategies, working always around English colonial power. It does not account for his beginnings in South Africa where he came under the spell of Tolstoi’s teaching, nor does it examine the progress of his ethical or personal growth. But what it does do is to place Gandhi in his arena of the strenuous political action of non-violence.

In this arena, he appeared, often virtually unclothed. Thus this thin naked man met his opponents, and with simple shrewdness convinced the world and those opponents the right thing to do, and they did it.

Ben Kingsley plays Gandhi. He is a cold actor, and his performance is a model of how the thermodynamics of an actor can serve a role, for Gandhi never turned aside as he strode through crowds who gathered to love him, as though their love of him was irrelevant. Which it was, compared to the task at hand. His fame never detoured him. He knew their love of him, was really their love of what he stood for. Kingsley never veers.

Gandhi’s story is told simply, carefully, directly. Only a film could tell it, and it must be told because we must not forget it. The film is impressive in its honesty, directness, and innate character. It seems to inhere with the spirit of Gandhi himself.

It won eight Oscars, Best Picture, Director, Editing, Costumes, Script, Sets, Photography, Leading Actor. But the real quality of the film’s excellence lies in, for instance, the four hundred thousand extras that volunteered to enact Gandhi’s funeral, the extras that crowd every scene by the hundreds, the help of the very people of India for whom Gandhi lived and died. It was they who made Gandhi.

 

The Martian

16 Oct

The Martian – directed by Scott Ridley. Scifidrama. 141 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: An astronaut left behind and believed dead on Mars, contrives to survive, while rescuers on earth exhaust various schemes to save him.

~

Among actors of his generation Matt Damon possesses the rare quality of human decency – which Tom Hanks possessed and Jimmy Stewart possessed and which his contemporary Jim Caviezel also possesses. It means that he can bring to his characters an atavism, a strain of honesty which supersedes modernity by going back to the American primordial, a strain which is recognizable, trustworthy, and inviting. As such, Mark Damon is an actor as useful as bread. Not for just the characters he may sometimes play, but always for the way he plays the character.

For the character is not always white bread.

Here it is sour rye. His character is not peachy clean. He has temperament. Opinions. Dislikes. Vanity. Tartness. In embodying this, Damon gives to us someone we might know. And whose survival we might care about and root for.

All this, naturally, is in the writing, but Damon extends himself into each word said as a physical release – which is important, since he is often bench-bound. And since his resources for survival are so technical they cannot be appreciated, save in the actor’s practical, personal commitment to them.

The story is beautifully filmed and directed. Each member of the all-star supporting cast is scrumptious to watch. Each of them is a space program bureaucrat. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the NASA mission director; Michael Peña plays a fellow astronaut; Benedict Wong plays the rocket engineer; Donald Glover as the aerodynamics pro who masterminds one of the rescue missions; Jeff Daniels as NASA head; Jessica Chastain as the captain of a space ship.

If you like The Wizard Of Oz, you will find that this is the sort of story The Martian is. A fellow human finds himself unprotected and alone in strange land. Assisted by friends, plus his own gumption and perseverance, he must make a long journey through it to reach the salvation that will whisk him home.

You will cheer at the end. I understand you will cheer even more if you see it in 3D. I didn’t, but I enjoyed the story and the spectacle just as well. It’s a big hit, and Damon well worth the Oscar for it, don’t you think? For his opening scene alone. Check it out.

 

Everest

14 Oct

Everest ­– directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Docupic. 121 Minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: Four commercial climbing expeditions join forces for the sake of safety as they take their clients up to the highest elevation in the world.

~

Well they certainly found the perfect actor to play the lead. Jason Clarke, an Australian actor, brings to his role the requirements needed to hold the entire story together. Because there is that within him that allows you to believe that he holds the entire expedition together. It is he who has the foresight to see that five expeditions cannot embark on the same day, and gets three of them to join with his group. This actor exudes the compassion, expertise, and common sense which makes us go along with him on what is, after all, a $65,000 ticket to a thrill for the climbers.

The film takes us into the depths of the mountains, and I wonder how they ever managed to film it. I was astonished. I was held. I kept learning. I felt present on the spot.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays an expedition leaders, a rapscallion. And John Hawkes plays a climber on his last chance to make it. Josh Brolin plays a climber addicted to mountaineering. The great Icelandic actor, Ingvar Eggert Sugurösson plays a leader who never uses oxygen and who does jim-dandy without it. He alone is clean-shaven, which helps his performance, for it is often hard to tell one character from another, since all the men wear beards which cooperate with the snow and the oxygen-masks to disguise them. But you can identify the characters by their parkas. And the director makes the back-and-forth of the perils they meet as clear as can be in all that white.

The female actors are particularly strong. Keira Knightley as Clarke’s pregnant wife, Robin Wright as Brolin’s. Elizabeth Debicki as the base camp doctor holds the fort with the wonderful Emily Watson who plays the base camp manager. What a treasure she is!

I won’t tell you the story, because I did not know it myself when I saw it. But I surmised that things did not turn out well for all these people, or the film would not have been made. It’s beautifully done. The mountain itself looms above it all, deciding who will live and how and who will die and how.

The peril is threefold. Steepness. Oxygen deprivation. Cold. I am a cold person, so the last of these interested me most, in that some of the characters are clearly more comfortable with cold than others.

Of course, by cold, I do not mean nasty, narrow, cruel, prudish, or mean. Cold is a temperature of love of life and a latitude for moving through it. Hot blooded people are colorful, bold, and tempting. But the cool ones love the reserves in themselves, and the path therein to their souls and their callings. So I like snow. I like ice. I like to witness the perils inherent in them. The perseverance. The melt.

Also, I saw it in 3-D, which helps, I think. Anyhow, I recommend it, as, of course, I do the film itself.

 

Results

12 Jun

Results – directed by Andrew Bujalski. Oddball Comedy. 105 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A colliding romantic trio circles around a physical fitness gym, until two of them bump the other one off and realize the inevitable.

~

Four great actors working today give me the cue for adoration. They are Allison Janney, Lee Pace, Joan Allen, and Guy Pearce. I eagerly trace them to their latest. I am predisposed to rave them. I am prepared to sit back and allow them to prove me happy.

Guy Pearce is the most essential of these, in the sense that his presence in supporting roles always turns the key to the dynamic of the story. What he brings that no one else can bring is a conservation of energy through which the role as written can make its mark on the story for the audience. But sometimes he is give a great big dolloping leading role, and such a role we have here, and I pray you do not miss it.

He plays the completely brain-empty proprietor of a physical fitness gym. He spouts nothing but the most steadfast clichés. It is quite wonderful to hear him vocalize the human potential babble which is the vision of his firm. As an actor he never relents. He never falls back on a roll of the eyes or a pitch for empathy. He is ruthlessly the character itself.

Backed by three wonderful actors I have never heard of, we get Pearce in full force of his gift for give and take. It is an actors’ jubilee.

Cobie Smulders plays his star trainer and sometime squeeze. She is absolutely marvelous. And so is Kevin Corrigan as an orphaned nouveau riche, and Giovanni Ribisi as the slime bag lawyer. They are all backed by a fully written script with characters so fleshed out you simply never know what they are going to do or say next.

The writer staged and directed them, and while it is my usual caveat to speak against the possible success of such a pairing, here it works like gangbusters. The direction and filming and color and cutting look patchwork – but that is the basic ground of alliance for these characters. None of them fit together. As romantic couples you could not possibly suppose any of them would get along for two minutes.

But the richness is: what the hell are most married couples doing together anyhow? Can you really understand why two people are so joined? What do they possibly have in common? What keeps them together all these years?

You’ll sort it out for yourself in the coffee shop afterwards. I so enjoyed it. I wish I could be there to hear you did too.

 

The Wire

19 Mar

The Wire – various directors. TV Series. Color.

★★★★★

The Story: A Baltimore cop moves through the worlds of the waterfront, public schools, newspaper publishing, and politics to bring a drug cartel to justice

~

Well, now I’ve seen it all.

And so I must bid a fond farewell to certain characters. I say “to certain characters,” rather than to the story itself, for I found the characters more taking than the stories abounding.

The seasons are five. One story deals with the lives of stevedores on the waterfront. A second with the public schools. A third with the world of politicians. A fourth with that of newspapers. Laced through these are stories of the drug business on one hand and on the other stories of the police who seeks to dismember them.

All of this set in the city of Baltimore and shot there.

The star of the series Dominic West, an English actor in perfect voice for an Irish- American cop, I liked very much. He’s good looking, sexy, interesting, and a darn good actor. His Jimmy McNulty has a rapscallion-eye, and the daring to inaugurate rash plans, but we learn he does not really possess the imagination to execute them. A flaw.

For this he needs the doll-house-furniture-maker cop Lester Freamon, played by the inestimable Clarke Peters, also English, whom we shall see again in the producers’ Treme, as chief of the New Orleans Indians. He’s an actor who has to function around machines yielding delicate information – he it is who runs the wire taps – and it is a credit to his skill that you believe everything he does in relations to them. He brings the undramatic alive.

Deidre Lovejoy is the great looking DA who outsmarts the politicians, the judges, the police, and she is always a welcome sight in the doings. Frankie Faison also reappears in Treme in a similar role of a corrupt functionary, and he is just wonderful in this sort of part. Also in Treme, Wendell Pearce, with his easy searching eye, is a comfort to civilization as Bunk Moreland, McNulty’s chum.

As drug lords we have the perilously handsome Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, the brains fronting The Barksdale drug consortium. He is sorely missed when he leaves the story, as are J.D. Williams as Bodie, who leads the street hawkers. I began by disliking him and ended by rooting for him. As, at the last moment, I rooted for the incomprehensible Felicia Pearson playing the gender-unidentifiable Felicia “Snoop” Pearson. Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, the ex-policeman now high school teacher played by Jim True-Frost, grows on one too. Proposition Joe, the local drug connection with the waterfront smuggler, The Greek, I also much miss. How could one forget him. He is played brilliantly by Robert F. Chew. Michael Kostroff is super as the drug lord’s lawyer, Levy. And we have Aiden Gillen as the newly elected mayor of Baltimore an actor perfectly suited one day to play that other unworthy worthy, George W. Bush.

One hopes to see these actors again and often.

But the three characters I’ll miss most are Bubbles, the shopping cart salesman hop-head, played with wide-eyed wonder by Andre Royo. What a wonderful actor. How fascinating he becomes! How real!

It is he I will miss most, along with Michael K. Williams as Omar Little, the efficient, highly ethical sawed-off-shotgun-toting robber of the druggers.

And the boy who protects his three brothers as best he can from the fates awaiting them.

For the most part the main story lodges in front of the background of a U.S. Senator’s overthrow and the entrapment of the drug kingpins. This main story is the feud between Omar and a newcomer to the Boston Drug field, one Marlo Stanfield whose icy eyes execute everyone around him who blinks the wrong way. His presence directs the style of seasons four and five. To watch Jaimie Hector act him is fascinating because of his perpetual petrifaction. He shall not be moved. His two eyes are beautiful and not quite even, which gives him a gaze of incalculable power.

These actors, in parts a little more well-written than the stories which house them, hold my attention, curiosity, and care. This is why I watch their stories to their outcomes so loyally. A series like this affords us full immersion. And here, as later in New Orleans’ Treme, the city of Baltimore allow us to visit and explore streets and scenes and persons we would know nothing of, perhaps even if we lived there.

Many interesting conclusions are to be drawn, many significant inferences. For all these worlds are worlds of double-conscience. And none of these worlds are familiar to me in any way whatsoever. If they are veracious, and I sense they are, it is a view of America harsh, but worth all the entertainment the series affords.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

15 Mar

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — directed by John Madden. Screwball Comedy. 82 minutes Color 2015

★★★★★

The Story: The lively young owner of a hotel in India wants to expand his operation and get married at the same time and also continue to adore and serve and praise his elderly clientele and also….

~

What are doing sitting here reading this! You should jump up at once and grab your family and friends or just yourself and go see this inspiriting comedy of mismanagement.

It is fueled by the effervescent and insatiably charming Dev Patel, who performed the same services for us at the First Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a season or so back. He gambols through the piece like a gazelle. What an actor! What a silver-footed turn-on-a-dime comedian! What a sunburst of delight! I’m going to see it again.

So to save myself time in order to rush to do that, and to save you time too, I shall shorten this review by saying only that, like the first, the second film is a tonic!

Patel operates in the foreground of the fidelities, infidelities, careers, and Brittle British exchanges of a witty script fortified by the playing of Maggie Smith as a lower caste Scottish accountant, Bill Nighy as a duffer of frail memory who must fill his purse with lectures of tourist sites whose details escape him, Judi Dench who adores him from afar and then nearer and nearer, Diana Hardcastle as the bewitching straying wife of Ronald Pickup.

Celia Imre is the lascivious lady wooed by two maharajas, David Strathairn is the deciding executive of the deal, Tina Desai is the delicious almost forgotten bride-to-be, Shazad Larif is the stiff competition. Richard Gere, with his low class accent and high class wardrobe, is the dupe who dupes the dopes.

It all ends as comedy always should with a wedding and a dance.

All this in the flaming color of India!

Hasten my dears. You can’t do better for a comedy just now.

And when you come back, tell me you adore me!

 

Rosewater

22 Dec

Rosewater – written and directed by Jon Stewart. BioDrama. 103 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: An Iranian-born reporter from Newsweek is arrested as a spy in Tehran and fails to prove his innocence.

~

Beautifully and imaginatively filmed and directed, the film leaves one informed but blank.

Why is that?

It seems to do an honest job with the story, which is the hardest thing to do with a story which is based on a true story so recent we may demand adherence to its details, when actually adherence to its details may be the last thing we need. For the first thing we need is drama itself, not a record of someone’s misfortunes, however true.

Yet there is so much to recommend this film. How beautiful it is! How sterling are the flashbacks and fantasy sequences! How perverse are the twists! How masterful is the rendering and handling of everything! And the actors – the gorgeous Shohreh Aghdashloo plays Maziar Bahari’s mother, and we are on the level of Katina Paxinou and Anna Magnani. Dimitri Leonidas plays his madcap driver bro, and Kim Bodnia plays his chief tormentor. Delightful actors, all.

But the problem is twofold. First, since Bahari was not much tortured his torture was in his confinement itself. The room is large and white and bare. Somehow it needed to become his torturer and it does not.

Second, Bahari is played, and beautifully played, by Gael Garcia Bernal – what a dancer he proves to be! However, Bernal is sexy and handsome and young, and the problem with that is that those characteristics contain prerogatives which set any human who possesses them in a category whose freedom from confinement of them merely leads to the resumption of them. Nothing deeper is threatened, so nothing deeper need be imagined by those of us who watch. The part needs to be played by an ordinary bloke, which is what Bahari in real life appeared to be. A plain Joe. Not a movie star. Someone who has nothing extra, nothing but his life. A career as a photographer, yes. A wife and child on the way, yes. Someone whose resources might be shattered. Someone we might watch as ourselves. Someone run of the mill.

I felt nothing in particular because nothing in particular could happen in the character before me. To cast an actor like Bernal is a role like that is to cast too much foreground for a background. He gives a lovely performance. He’s lovely to see. I admire him. But admiration is delusion in those circumstances. Don’t give me filet mignon when porridge is supposed to be served. Or I just won’t care.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC

 

Nine

22 Oct

Nine – Directed by Rob Marshall. Soundstage Musical. 2009 COlor 118 minutes.

★★★★

The Story: A film director puts off everyone as his film goes into production, but he can’t admit he has no script.

~

Daniel Day-Lewis stars in this musical in which one cannot say he dances any more than a monkey might, for his strong body is put to musical acrobatic uses, and perhaps he has two left feet. The dancing and the singing are left up to the cherishable skills of Marion Cotillard, Penèlope Cruz, Fergie, Kate Hudson, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, and Sophia Loren. Who could ask for anything more?

Not I. The dances are super-duper and the songs are fun. Judi Dench is a musical comedy singer from way back, and does a wicked Follies Bergère number with a mile long boa. Fergie in a wilderness of hair that somewhat unnecessarily masks her interesting face reviews her philosophy of Italian love in a wild song and dance. Kate Hudson plays an American reporter who does a big witty number about Italian Cinema.

For the musical is about the block Day-Lewis has in writing his next musical. All the women pose delays, distractions, denials. And in the end Nicole Kidman writes his new film off because he cannot show anyone a script. He is impotent. She sings goodbye to him.

What starts with Penèlope Cruz performing a hot comic turn as his mistress winds up with Sophia Loren singing him a lullaby to reform – no two actresses have resembled one another in film history more than these.

One would not question the execution of this material. One might question the strength of the source of this material. For it devolves from Fellini’s 8 1/2, which is about a similar predicament for a director. It starred Marcello Mastroianni. Mastroianni is an interior sort of actor, the kind that doesn’t move much, and the story of impotence is too navel-gazing to move me much either. Both seem weak. And Day-Lewis is cast in and plays the part along the lines of Mastroianni also. His opening scene where he lies to the press is his funniest, and it also displays his Italian accent and manner ruthlessly.

No, it is neither he nor the story that carry the film, but the women, their exuberance, their talent, and the dances in which the choreographer has put them to use.

I liked it. I didn’t think I would. But I like it. Because I liked these women, their sauciness, their independence, their smart take, their beauty, their agility, their out-front-ness, and the talent in each of them whose bigness warrants their being up there before me. They gave me their all and I took it for the plenty it was worth.

 

Marketa Lazarova

18 Oct

Marketa Lazarova – directed by Frantisek Vlácil. Historical Drama. 162 minutes Black And White 1967.

★★★★★

The Story: Clans feud in the dark ages in Czechoslovakia.

~

What does the word “great” mean?

What does it mean when it means nothing less than the most it can mean?

Let’s put it this way: this film is on the order of Beethoven’s 9th.  King Lear.

It is on the level of the best films of Tarkovsky, Rossellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Mizogichi, Satyajit Ray.

I don’t think I need to go on any further about it.

Great is the comprehending of that which is beyond comprehension.

I like that kind of thing.

The sublime. The profound.

The Grand Canyon.

Marketa Lazarova.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Old Lady

28 Sep

My Old Lady – directed Israel Horovitz, 107 minutes Dramedy Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: An impoverished American inherits a Paris apartment and its complications.

~

Time was in American films when you could see stories about grown-ups. Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer and Rosalind Russell and Claudette Colbert and Cary Grant were grownups. Love Story is a movie about people in their forties. So is Penny Serenade and Woman Of The Year, and they were enormously successful because grownups went to movies in those days, and because age added luster to the skills of the performers and made their exact age immaterial to the universal entertainment their gifts guaranteed.

In My Old Lady, we have such a picture. It is well worth seeing for the maturity of language dedicated to its predicament – for it is a talking picture – meaning that narration does not fall into the trap of being a function of motion only, of pictures only. The people before us are strong minded, articulate, and possessed of fully developed characters.

And they are brought to us by actors we love to watch, whom we have seen over the past twenty years and so are interested in their development.

Can Kevin Kline retain his relevance as a performer? That’s bound to be a question since his screen performances are fairly rare. The answer is up for grabs as you watch his finessing the role of a ne’er-do-well failed novelist on his uppers, as he bamboozles various French operatives out of their ready money trying to keep afloat while he sells or promises to sell a Paris apartment which is not quite yet his.

What prevents this is the presence in it of Maggie Smith who has right of residence as long as she lives – she who has already lived long and promises to live longer. And he is also met by the firm gaze of her daughter played by Kristin Scott-Thomas.

Scott-Thomas is a personality I have not cottoned to in the past, but she really takes hold here as an unmarried woman of fifty or so, learning the truth of her mother’s relations to the man who deeded her the apartment, Kline’s own father. She is interesting to watch and she presents a stern front breaking down as the truth of her life and her relations to Kline’s father emerge. Kline’s weakling breaks down too to reveal a piratical firmness at all odds. Maggie Smith herself, that past mistress of ambiguity nailed by eyes like two cockatoos, crumbles as the worst comes to be known.

The material comes from a stage play and in film form has three acts, the second of which is the richest. The first arranged the predicament for us, the second confronts it, but the third goes off into a siding of romance, which is out of character for Scott-Thomas and damages the weight of the material.

Still we have wonderful actors performing it, great support from the French cast, particularly Dominique Pinon as a real estate agent. We have a real Paris. A film beautifully filmed and well directed, and the spectacle of a virtuoso actor, Kevin Kline negotiating a role without falling into its tempting traps. Grownup fare. Dig in.

 

As Above, So Below

11 Sep

As Above, So Below – directed by John Erick Dowdle. Horror/adventure/thriller. 97 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: A young female archeologist inveigles a bunch of daredevil explorers into seeking out a stone lodged in a wall of the Paris catacombs.

~

What a brilliant thriller! My Goodness. I believed every moment of it. I don’t know how they did it. It looked like the Paris catacombs to me – although I have never actually been in them.

Evidently the catacombs are the ancient boneyards of Paris, and there are miles of them, threading through old collapsed streets. In this spelunker, we are led by our young heroine who is guided through the narrow walls by an alchemy text which must be decoded by her associate, a young man who is deathly afraid of caves.

As the journey beneath the earth continues, each of the members of the crew comes up against his own past horrors. And I wish I could tell you more of the story, because it was exciting and unusual to me. But telling plots for me is a forbiddance. As are entrances to certain subterranean chambers these young folks come across but which much be entered anyhow, of course, so they do.

The piece is beautifully acted by what appears to be an English cast, and I have never seen one of them before, but they are all admirable. The film is remarkably directed and cut. It is shot with a hand-held camera, so those who get mal de mer from such a gadget better stay home. The camera work brings great veracity to the adventure. I felt I was there. And I’m glad I didn’t have to be. But just watching.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, SURVIVAL DRAMA

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

31 Mar

The Grand Budapest Hotel – directed by Wes Anderson. Farce. 99 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story:  A fancy hotel manager and his apprentice chase and are chased around mittel-Europe after and because of their love-lives with their lady friends.

~

Wes Anderson knows the first rule of farce: face directly forward and deliver it all full-front to the audience.

He also knows the second rule: symmetry. And it’s shadow twin: asymmetry.

The third rule he does not know. Which is that the third act must not pause even for a joke. The not-pausing is the joke.

So go to this picture, and expect that something pneumatic will leave as its third act halts along. Watch it stall when Edward Norton appears. He pops in like a jack-in-a-box, which is fun, but he lacks farce-style, which is crisp, innocent, and depends upon the fixed position of the character – a position often made clear by a mustache – all actions unmotivated and revealed as physicalizations almost mechanical. Then, the scene after the prison escape dwells on itself too long. Then, the gunfight is not handled wittily. Then, does the story need that fourth prisoner to die? And how did she fall out that window anyhow?

Still, the director does understand how to transfer stage farce into film farce. He turns the camera into all the doors farce requires. His lens opens and slams shut with perfect timing. The joke lies less in what the characters are saying or doing than how and when they appear and disappear before us. The show is directed right out to us. And all the tricks are droll and appreciate our wit in enjoying them.

So go: relax and enjoy the pastry of great film farce. Jeff Goldblum as the trustee of the will, Adrien Brody as the dagger villain, Tilda Swinton as his 85 year-old aunt, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Bob Balaban as concierges, Willem Dafoe as the grim hit-man, Tom Wilkinson as the author old, the impeccable Harvey Keitel as a thug. The central story is introduced and framed by F. Murray Abramson and Jude Law, and the  inner and main story is carried by Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, who are first-class. The settings are rich, unusual, and flabbergasteringly funny.

I don’t know what you think you are doing with your lives, but you shouldn’t be going to any other film right now but this one.

 

The Monuments Men

09 Feb

The Monuments Men – directed by George Clooney. War Drama. 118 minutes Color 2014.

★★★

The Story: A WW II mission to save works of art destined for destruction should the Nazis loose.

~ ~ ~

If ever a movie sank more solemnly under the freight of its miscasting, I have yet to see it. Art museum directors, curators, scholars, educators, archivists — George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Bill Murray, thou never wert.

If John Goodman was not obviously such a good actor, he might be convincing as a sculptor.  And if Jean Dujardin were not so helplessly charming one might root for his loss from a profession we never grasp. This leaves Bob Balaban, who might pass for an academic in the world of world art, Hugh Bonneville as a former drunk, Dimitri Leonidas as the German-speaking Brooklyn Jew, and Cate Blanchett who is thoroughly convincing as the Jeu de Paume curator who kept a record of the stolen pieces.

All the others, wonderful actors though they are, exercise their noble craft as best they may, imagining that the good will which backs our affection and admiration for each and every one of them will supply the deficiency of their being in the wrong parts entirely.

George Clooney is the main culprit. For he is producer, writer, actor, and director. It is as a writer he is first to be stripped of his medal. For he has given the men the most routine of male chat to move things forward. Silent strength – you know the sort of thing – stalwartness in red, white and blue. I once worked in the high-testosterone History Of Art Department of Yale in the early ‘50s, and the chat was not that.

As director he lets his actors go where they will, as they will, each of them basically falling back on their star masculinity to perform their roles for them. As an actor, Clooney reverts to his casual, laid back, insouciant manner, and lets tacit charm muscle a job which has no place in it. Damon falls back on his Everyman quality, Murray on his piquant personality; both are irrelevant.

As producer, the picture cost 70 million – although how so blandly round a figure is come at one wonders – and it made what is essentially a small movie about a large subject, into a large movie about a subject which is invisible.

For Clooney sermonizes that these works of art must be saved from destruction and returned to their owners because they are the golden fruit of Western civilization. Everything we are fighting for! A great “accomplishment” which must not be lost. What vulgarity! What nonsense!

The only reason these works of art should be saved from theft and destruction, much less returned to their owners, is their priceless and inherent beauty. All these rescuers were chosen for their dedication to beauty. But “beauty” is a word never uttered by Clooney nor by anyone else. It is as though the word “beauty” were unmanly. The entire adventure operates under the cow pad of this omission.

 

 

 

Good Bye, Lenin!

08 Feb

Good Bye, Lenin! – directed by Wolfgang Becker. Comedy/Drama. 123 minutes Color 2003

★★★★★

THE STORY: Just before and after the end of the Berlin Wall, a young couple conspire to prevent their PTSD mother from learning the perhaps fatal truth.

~ ~ ~

This movie goes on for a good while, and a good job too! Because it needs to evolve through its complications at its own pace, and to force us to wait respectfully for the working out of its theme — which is the uses of lying.

Here we have a mother lying to her children in a far more profound way than they lie to her, and yet, without their knowing her truth, they lie to save her from her own mortality.

The film is neither moral nor political in any way. Its playing is made superb by the actors, particularly Katrin Sass as the mother, an actress who puts me much in mind of Joan Allen. She has the same inner eye.

So here is story-telling well-paced and a story quite unusual. We lie to protect those we love. Nothing new in that, save that I do not know of so interesting and just an examination of the matter. Acting is the art of living-it-out.  But film is a two dimensional medium, so it is very hard to find characters in a movie one can actually walk around completely to see all sides of.

Of course the great master of this is the director Jean Renoir. (The Rules of the Game, French CanCan, et al.) I won’t say the director achieves that here, but I sink with wonder that actors can do as much as they do to make the story “move” — that they walk in and out of buildings and fry eggs — as though only I were watching them, and no camera at all, and no crew around. What a remarkable feat!

Just watch, if you will, the recognition scene between the father and son, how right the older actor is in that passage! How right the girlfriend is in every scene! How right the neighbor with the pile of blond hair downstairs is! Praise be to all actors of all nations. That the piece is in German is no barrier to the craft they execute so daringly and so simply before us.

 

Salò

14 Jan

Salò – directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Drama. 116 minutes, Color 1975.

★★★

The Story: A group of teenagers are forced into sex school by a coterie of autocrats.

If this is denounced as pornographic, it is enduring a terrible because irrelevant wrong. For no one has a good time at all in sex here. Everyone is either too mean or too horrified to feel or even pretend any pleasure. So, taken at its face value as pro-church and anti-pleasure – since any natural and easy pleasure that seeps in is punished morbidly – one must assume that Salò is about something else.

Watching it, my notion was that it is about sexual addiction, that is to say the imperious, internal compulsion that forces one to have sex rather than by normal inclination. For everyone is strong-armed into it here. All the young players are between 14 and 18 years old, and they are first kidnapped and then roughed into various sexual congress. But it’s never any fun and always unlovely, for, as it is based on a work of De Sade, it is, perforce, sadistic. The only beauty is that provided by a pianist who accompanies their lectures in degradation by playing Chopin. The exit of this pianist from the proceedings is typical of the director’s rigorous anhedonic message.

So, in terms of the actual material, Salò would seem to be The Allegory Of Rough Trade, which was Pasolini’s fancy and by which he soon was soon slain.

You have to go to the Extra Features to learn that the film was meant to be an allegory of neo-capitalism, the fascism of consumerism. There we learn that we are all being put under the trance of pleasant things. Pasolini himself tells us so. But you may be sure that when a director tells you what he intended to be in a film that he has failed to include that intention in it.

For no pleasant things are in the film itself. Or I should say, there are certain pleasant things, but they have nothing to do with neo-capitalism. We have such pleasant things as the nude bodies of the children who act in it, a bouquet of inviolable adolescents. And we have the sets, which are more interesting than the events which take place in them, for they are often big spare rooms decorated with elaborate old wallpaper. Pasolini has a classic eye for the formality of spectacle. And Pasolini’s set-ups and the arrangements of the personnel in them reveal a fine old-fashioned enjoyment of ritual. All these are pleasures to be sure. But sexual pleasure?

Pasolini himself says that power is anarchic, since it can do what it wants. And he’s right, and this is cogently illustrated by the rites of anarchy we see before us here. For fascism, dictatorship, absolutism, fundamentalism must have tremendous regimentation in which to do as it pleases. Too bad that, having achieved that level of power, doing what one pleases results in no pleasure whatsoever. The only two young people who slip out and take sexual pleasure are slaughtered.

What is it like seeing Salò? There are virtually no closeups, the camera seldom moves, and there is no focal character, only groups. Individual personalities do emerge, because Pasolini likes humans and is shy of them, both of which make him a good voyeur, so he is able to capture persons at true and characteristic moments. But that still leaves Pasolini as a bigot – the commercial classes being his detestation – since he sets them up as The Corrupt Against The Innocent – but bigotry is bigotry no matter what class you hate, and especially, as always is the case, you are fervently partial to your own notion of virtue in doing so.

Besides there is a technical problem with his Allegory, for you cannot have an allegory without a focal dupe. You cannot have a Duessa without a Red Cross Knight, a principal innocent. When in Allegory, even aimed at groups, a single person must carry us through it, as through a supermarket of abuse and temptation. For it is we, the reader, we the audience, who must pass through it with that dupe and therefore wake up to the trance of vice we are permitting ourselves to repose in. Here we witness a crowd from a distance beyond Pasolini’s own distance to it.

So the allegory is lost. But it is lost mainly because a sexual arena leads one to look for sex. It’s the crude but natural thing to do. Setting up A School For Orgy is such a bind on the imagination that the message about consumerism is somewhere over there off-campus. Yes, one is offered bread and circuses, if only in the shape of a starved clown and a crust, but still they are offered in the Circus Maximus of sex. In it, one cannot simultaneously overhear too well a homily from Saint Peter’s down the street. A different internal mob attends.

It has been elaborately re-released in a two-disc box, the second disc of which containing professors talking to professors about what professors talk to professors about. All this keeps professors in business professing, but has little to do with the actual picture, Salò, about which they are endeavoring to make a case. Although there are interesting inclusions by actual participants, such as actors, designer, original writer, and Pasolini, who is handsome, rather dear, very masculine, and genuinely reserved. A booklet of essays includes itself. I have not read it.

And why shall I read it? To prove myself wrong in all that I have said here. For why on earth would anyone read anything at all, save to be seriously disabused? For perhaps I too am lost in the vicious pleasure of consumerism. And what would it be that I consume so hungrily?

Why films, of course. Which is why I watched Salò, just as Pasolini asked me to, wanted me to, and why he made it for me to consume to begin with.

 
 
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