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Archive for the ‘ACTION’ Category

Test Pilot

31 Mar

Test Pilot – directed by Victor Fleming. Drama. 1 hour 59 minutes Black And White 1938.
★★★★★
The Story: A champion test-pilot refuses to be grounded by the lady he married, despite the good offices of his best friend.
~
What a terrific picture!

Beautifully written!

Alive!

Complete!

Clark Gable before he got frozen into Clark-Gable-roles, one ice cube after another. Which means the studio knew what lines he said good, and so gave him scripts in which he could say those good lines his way. John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, the same. Line reading actors at the end of lively careers.

But here? Not yet. Wow! Is he good!

Clark Gable has one of the great, mobile, actor-faces. Many events in that face. Broad readable features. Big expressive eyes. Flexible brows. A mouth that, even silent, never stops telling stories. And, like many actors of his era, a distinctive voice and delivery. The face is an entertainment in itself. Plus a big masculine energy. Lots of humor. And willingness to play the dope.

Here’s he plays a rash Test Pilot, womanizer, and cocky, short-fused, high-liver who emergency-lands his plane in a Kansa farm field, owned by the lovely good sport Myrna Loy. Brash, blunt Gable falls for the lady.

He brings her home, where his side-kick, Spencer Tracy looks askance at the dare-devil’s marrying anyone, when death lies in the very next sky. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy were one of the country’s favorite screen marriages of the ‘30s.

Watching Gable seize this part in his handsome jaws and shake it for all it’s worth reminds us of the sort of the happy-go-lucky sap he played so thoroughly in It Happened One Night, for which he won the Oscar in ’34.

The flight footage is the best I have ever seen – exciting, different, convincing. In fact, the film shows Tracy and Gable flying a B-17, which became a principle WWII weapon. The flight sequences were taken at air shows of the sort we used to go in the ‘30s. It’s whiz-bang entertainment. The U.S. (then) Army Air Force supplied the planes, and they’re fascinating to watch.

After the comic beginnings of the marriage, Loy realizes she has gotten herself into a pickle – the mortal danger test pilots court. Her part is a changeable personality, so you never know how she will resolve this irresolvable matter. Tracy offers her consolation and bitter truth. He plays the fulcrum of two crucibles in which a wobbly love loves on. You never know how the love story or the flight tests will end.

Victor Fleming, soon to direct Gable in Gone With The Wind, provides the actors with space to perform to the max. Test Pilot is wittily written; it was nominated for three Oscars, Best Editing, Best Story, and Best Picture.

I had a grand old time with it. You will too.

 

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.

 

 

Sing & Moana

29 Jan

 

Sing – directed by Garth Jennings. Animated feature. 110 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

Moanadirected by Ron Clements and John Musker. Animated Feature. 110 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

Stories: Both stories deal with ambitions thwarted and then triumphed.

~

Both films are perfectly suited to adults. And where I sat, the children were as quietly attentive as the adults that accompanied them. Why is that?

A maximum of surprises, movement, angles, colors.

An amplitude of wit.

And they supply – worse than any live action film can – horrendous catastrophe. In Sing it’s a catastrophic flood. In Moana it’s deified lava.

But the young hero and heroine surmount all difficulties. Not without unlikely escapes and rescues and a sentimentality that would crush a nun dressed as a dragon. (Neither of these feature such a creature.)

In Sing, to save his theatre, the young Koala Bear owner must put on a talent show. In Moana, a young woman must bring back a talisman to save her island people.

I enjoyed myself no end. I simply wandering in to sample them while waiting for the feature I’d paid for to start. Remained riveted to my seat.

In the watching, these films dwell on nothing. Remarkable individual beauties and Voltaire-like coups of imagination flit by in sumptuous plentitude. I wish they’d wait for me – I was reared on Pinocchio.

 My favorite character of all was played, in Sing, by the director Garth Jennings as Mrs Crawly, a superannuated loyal iguana secretary with a wandering glass eye. Every time the old woman meandered on in her well-meaning way, I rejoiced.

Such films are rightly called “animated.” For they animate the variety and particularity of the truth and comedy of human gesture in a way that no straight film actor can achieve – because animators are more daring than actors. Because more shameless.

In animation, we expect over-acting. Which means more acting than is necessary. Animation cannot achieve depth of performance, which is what human screen acting can, but it can achieve breadth of performance, which is what human screen acting avoids like Swiss cheese.

In Sing the characters are animals; in Moana, humans. I notice the animals in Sing are more human than the humans in Moana. But I quibble not.

I loved them, and you won’t waste your time, nor is time wasted on you, should you drag your inner or outer child to either or both.

 

Rush

01 Oct

Rush – directed by Rob Howard. Sports Auto Racing Action. Niki Lauder and James Hunt duke it out in Formula 1 races in the 1970s. 122 minutes Color 2013.

★★★

As anyone may do what I have done and look up these two once renowned drivers, they may easily find that the story Rush tells of them is bunk.

First of all they knew one another, liked one another, even bunked together. Second of all, Lauder did not quit racing because he preferred marriage to winning. He quit the Japanese race in the driving rain that day because, after a near fatal accident six weeks before, his tear ducts ran because his eyelids had been burned off and he could not blink. Lauder went on to race well into the 80s.

This put-up-job is a dumbing down into palatability of the fact that in this story of the tortoise and the hare, the hare wins. The reckless yet skilled, madcap yet smart, dissolute yet devoted driver James Hunt is the one most of our attention is on. But that is because the actor who plays him is so good looking. And we want this bad boy character to prevail, of course, for Niki Lauder seems to be rather a grunt.

However, one cares about neither of them. Never mind their roles, neither actor is likable. And that’s where the win lies for actors. You may wonder which wins the World Championship, Lauder or Hunt, but you do not care which actor wins, and mere curiosity is not a strong engagement factor for an audience. When you think of actors who have played big-time drivers – Clark Gable, Steve McQueen, Tom Cruise, Mickey Rooney, James Garner – you have a list of actors an audience can get behind. With Chris Helmsworth as Hunt you have a super-hero. He’s a very good actor. But you don’t need a very good actor in the role. You need someone you care whether they live or die.

The film itself is beautifully made. One gets a sense of what it is like to be on course during these races. The editing is kaleidoscopic, of course, and hyped up, because actually racing 74 laps is essentially an endurance contest over tedium marbled with occasional mortality.

At the matinée I attended the theatre was virtually empty.

 

 

 

 

The Grandmaster

11 Sep

The Grandmaster – written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. Drama. Two master martial artists are drawn to one another, though they are both sworn to duel. 130 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

See it by all means in a theatre now. For is a film of such resplendent beauty, subtlety, and distinction that you must sit back in the dark of a vast hall and let it play itself out hugely before your amazed eyes. You mustn’t wait until it comes into your mere parlor.

It is not a story about athleticism or about martial art, but about character and martial artists. Their dances are performed to music, and are shown in flashes, not of bodies bashing one another, but of slices of hands, scraps of wrists, flourishes of robes and fur. You would not want to see the actual moves. What you do want to see is the result of them. A body crashing through a window. You do not want to see technique. What you do want to see is the half smile of the executant.

What you want to see is beauty, and this you see in every frame, every face, every costume, every setting, and in every delivery of them to your astonished and gratified eyes. Beauty stirs in the puddles and the reflections of the gates in the puddles, in the waiting snow on the bough in the battle in the blizzard. And why should you see this? Why is this being offered? Because inherent in it is the dignity and discipline inherent in life lived – not necessarily this Chinese way – but inherent in life lived in many ways.

To establish that dignity and that openness, we are given as The Grand Master the face of Tony Leung, one of the most beautiful faces ever to bless the screen. And the face of Zhang Ziyi, whose mouth enchants as once enchanted the mouth of Janice Rule. You cannot but be lost in the beauty of these two faces, for their beauty expands and vibrates into a latitude which only movie faces of this beauty can do, and we are given plenty of opportunity to dwell upon them, for they are filmed close-up, still, often, and well.

Beauty has no moral. It is an arena to itself. Go. Bathe in it. You owe it to yourself. I say you do. I say you deserve it and you have always deserved it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

World War Z

21 Jun

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Victory

12 Feb

Victory – directed by John Huston. Action/Adventure. The Germans want to beat the British at soccer, so they enable the WW II POWs to practice for a big public game. 118 minutes Color 1981.
★★★★
What an interesting actor Sylvester Stallone is! In many ways he is marvelously equipped for his profession: he has a fine figure which he keeps in condition, he has a well-placed speaking voice, and he brings to every role a natural determination, a quality which is rarer in actors than one might suppose. In fact, this determination is the basis of his being cast in every role he plays.

He also has a visage freakishly difficult to look at, and the camera does not dwell upon it at any length, although the camera does have to dwell upon it often because he is the star. He has eyes which seem to float around in his face meaninglessly like frogs in a pond, and he has a thick-lipped mouth weak with aggression.

Surely he knows this. But he presents himself as a gutter Italian as an over-riding principle to everything else. This is not pleasing, although his purpose as an actor is not to please, but to impress. Many of his facial and emotional moves are over-the-top, but the top they are over is so low it is one’s natural request that he be dismissed as an actor. That would be a mistake.

For he presents his being and body, to the mentality of his fans, as a male not to be caged, and therefore a challenge – a challenge which can be met only in a fantasy of caging him. This makes him ideal as an action-adventure hero, unlike say, Harrison Ford, who is domestic in every way. Sylvester Stallone will not be brought low, and certainly not by the chains of good manners. He is a wild animal. He is not a very bright one, but that is scarcely the point when his wildness is so dominant, overreaching, and sure. When it is such a commodity. And certainly when he is in a prison-break movie, which this is.

I have seen him only once or twice in films and if I found him repellent that was because he reminded me of Italian boys whose bullying of me when I was a boy was so expert in its cruelty and crudeness there was no answer to it but murder. But not assassination. Stallone does not appear in serious films, but he does take his craft seriously: he took 30 pounds off his fighting weight to become limber enough to do the soccer moves the role requires.

He makes a very good stand-in for the ego of the director, John Huston, whose bushwah of personality well-accords with the arrogance of the Stallone character, an arrogance derived from no talent for soccer whatsoever. It’s the job of Michael Caine to keep Stallone off the team at the same time as he trains the team. So Stallone provides a certain comic quirk to the material just as Max Von Sydow provides a wit. The soccer games are staged by (and Stallone was trained by) the wonderful Pelé, whose unearthly skills and modest personality grace the picture at every turn.

I enjoyed the film a lot. It’s one of those action/adventure escape-from-prison movies we’ve all seen before and like to see again. This is our fifteenth chance.

 

Skyfall

15 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Guy Pearce Papers No 6 — Seeking Justice

01 Dec

The Guy Pearce Papers No 6

Seeking Justice – directed by Roger Donaldson. Action Thriller. A man’s wife is raped and justice is not about to be done, so he takes an offer from a stranger who will take care of the matter – and later he finds out that things are not so simple. 105 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★
How considerate to my dislike of Nicholas Cage that he has made so many movies I would not wish to see anyhow. He’d become The Whisperer. Every speech was uttered sub rosa as though to draw us forward in our seats toward the actor and his material. It’s a TV trick and I object to be thought so easily seduced. Having justly won the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, all one saw was a decline in talent and involvement in films of violence. Up until his Oscar he was super. After it, I avoided him. But now, because I had to watch Guy Pearce, I had to watch Nicholas Cage again.

And I must say he is really quite good. He is not whispering at all. He is giving a stand-up performance in a leading role. What he can bring to a role is mad devotion. This trait, both humorous and charming, is not so common as you might think in an actor, and in this role, as in Raising Phoenix and Moonstruck, it is the essential ingredient, and he has it in spades. We believe it completely and we believe that it is also his fatal flaw.

One of the common features action/thrillers, is that halfway through acting ceases and perspiration begins, as the hero rushes toward and away from peril. There is nothing an actor can do but run and sweat. But up until that time, Cage gives a very honorable demonstration of his craft, and it’s good to see.

His nemesis in the piece is a private vindicator played by the masterful Guy Pearce. From the moment he approaches our hero we know something is wrong. What is it though? Is there something wrong with that perfect suit? Is there something wrong with that Teutonicly shaved head? Is there something wrong in that he approaches Cage at all?

All that is good, but just listen to what the actor does. He does not drool. He does not flash a Vincent Pricey eye. In fact, he does not give away a thing. He’s just a normal even high-minded businessman, isn’t he?

All Pearce does is play it a half a stop lower than middle C.

There’s nothing wrong with this guy at all, right?

Well. if there isn’t, why are we asking this question in the first place?

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, ACTION ADVENTURE, CRIME DRAMA, Guy Pearce: ACTING GOD, January Jones, Nicholas Cage

 

Batman: The Dark Knight Rises

20 Jul

Batman: The Dark Knight Rises – directed by Christopher Nolan. Comic Book Action Adventure. Batman wants to retire. but no; the forces of virtue and of evil must be met. 164 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

A tragic aura dogs the claws of Batman, or at least dogs the velvet slippers of Bruce Wayne, and it’s fragrance imbues all who come in contact with him, from Michael Caine, who plays his loyal godsbody all the way to Anne Hathaway who plays the Catlady, a sort of second story jewel thief whose wit almost cuts through the sorrows of our hero, valiantly played by Christian Bale. Hathaway supplies the only comic relief of this piece and the actress is brilliant at it; one sighs with relief whenever her impudent self appears before us. As to the rest of the cast, they are the best actors in the world. Gary Oldman as the chief of police with a dark secret of his own; Tom Hardy as the heaviest heavy in all hell; Marion Cotillard as the billionairess out to save the day; Morgan Freeman as the keeper of the flame of Bruce Wayne’s fortune and dangerously advanced experiments. Then we have Matthew Modine as the cocky cowardly cop and Liam Neeson who is the cause of it all and Joseph Gordon-Levitt terrific as Batman’s volunteer helper. And the reason all is well with the acting is that the script is tops, with many diversions and excursions, examinations, and analyses, blasts and bombs and a flying bat jalopy and leaps and bounds, and so many long corridors of interest and imagination that one is lost, until the story finds one again at the end, the ends, the loose ends. I shall spoil nothing by saying that the obvious difference from this and all other Batman movies, aside from the superiority of the script, is that the big branagan at the end, and lots that lead up to is, is shot in full daylight. Batman was ordinarily a nocturne, wasn’t it? The Dark Knight operated only in The Dark Night? Because? Because why? Because he was a bat!

 

 

Objective, Burma!

06 May

Objective, Burma! – directed by Raoul Walsh. Action/Adventure World War II Drama. A company of soldiers after completing its demolition mission must walk two hundred miles through the Burmese jungle while tracked by Japanese intent on killing them. 142 minutes Black and White 1945.

★★★★★

Nominated for three Oscars, George Amy for editing, Alvah Bessie for writing, and Franz Waxman for the score, any one of them deserved it, but, apart from Raoul Walsh, the key genius in all this is James Wong Howe who filmed it. One of the great film artists, he brings a raw look to every shot, and every shot tells. Particularly in light of the fact that we always believe we are in a jungle in Burma, when, in fact, it was shot at the arboretum in Los Angeles and at a California ranch. The uniforms and equipment are authentic, not props and costumes, and the combat footage is actual footage from the China-Burma-India Theatre. So we get real parachute jumps and actual glider landing operations of that period, with tanks and trucks and troops pouring out of them in Burma, and takeoffs, too, which Howe’s footage and Amy’s editing match perfectly. Again Errol Flynn is Walsh’s star, and, with all the guns going off, and the peril of the jungle, the sweat, the hunger, the polluted water, he plays the leader of the slogging men quietly, modestly. The subtle shift in his eyes as he sees the dismembered bodies of his men is so great a film moment that we never have to see the bodies at all. Of course, while the other men grow beards during the long arduous trek, Flynn’s jaw remains shaved – but at least it is dirty, sweaty, and drawn. Walsh made many war films, and this is one of the most commanding World War II films by anyone. His supporting cast is admirable, with George Tobias as the company clown, Mark Stevens as the rescue pilot who cannot rescue them, Richard Erdman aged 19 playing a 19 year old, Warner Anderson as the young Colonel who must abandon them to their fate, James Brown as a doughty sergeant, William Prince in his first film, Frank Tang marvelous as the translator, and Henry Hull who speechifies his lines grandiosely, alas. (“All right, boys, no Hamlets in the jungle,” Walsh told them, but Hull didn’t listen. He was always that way, though; after all, he’d acted with Barrymore.) If you like action/adventure films, Walsh was the top director in his day of them. This is one of his best.

 

 

Wings In The Dark

20 Apr

Wings In The Dark — directed by James Flood. Action/Adventure Melodrama. To prove  the efficacy of blind instrument flying, a blind pilot … 75 minutes Black and White 1935.

★★★★

What made Myna Loy the great star of the 1930s? A melodious speaking voice? Yes. A long-legged slim figure that made her look tall and fabulous in calf-length clothes? Yes. Those restful wide-spaced yes? Yes. A talent for under-playing? Yes. The sweetest mouth in the world? Yes. But I think it was something else. I think it was the alternate sexuality of devotion. It is a sexiness that does not make demands on our endurance. Why? Because it itself endures. It does not flame up and it does not burn out. It is a quality that women in the audience could admire without envy because it represented marriage. It is a quality that men in the audience could admire without fear because it was settled. It led to the domestication of Loy’s talent in wife-roles for the rest of her life. Female transatlantic flyers were much in the news in those days, and this film, one of several aviatrixes Loy played, had Amelia Earhart on set as adviser, and Loy said she was charming, but was not called upon to do much. Loy was taken up for her first flight by famed daredevil pilot, Paul Mantz, who performed the stunts, and she flew upside down in an open cockpit. For Loy plays a barnstorming aviatrix performing trick flight for crowds at fairs – and I was born in 1933, before the days of airlines, and I remember my father taking me to see just such displays. When a plane flew over Queens in those days we all went out of the house to look. Loy marshals her talent to help Cary Grant, a blind-flying pilot-pioneer who actually has gone blind. Loy describes the film, one of 23 she made in three years, as not one of her best, but it has its charms and excitements. One of the charms is Grant who of course is interesting to watch and to hear. But he does have the tendency of the style of the period, to monotonize certain speeches. That’s to say, he will choose a basic emotion, and play it under everything he says, so that it loses variety and inflection and becomes a recitation. Actors don’t seem to do that much any more, but it was one of the riffs of the ‘30s. You can hear it in his high-minded offer to commit suicide. He pitches his voice up an octave and keeps it in that noble, fake-ingenuous realm from beginning to end. It was the sort of stroke that the journalists of the period would call hokum, the journalists of the period being much more satirical and sharp-tongued than those of today. (Rosco Karns is brilliant as an example of it here.) But that high-mindedness was a notion of the age nobly to stalk above fate. It’s also interesting to note how action/adventure works. In the first part of the film, you have wonderful character exchanges, talk, revelation, humor, but when the action/adventure takes over in such a movie, character, dialogue, everything, is swallowed up by the action and the excitement of the action. We know it’s going to turn out well, that’s doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the danger at the time, the thrill and suspense of that. Improbability doesn’t even factor into it. Only the peril. And in this case it’s very well handled by Flood and by cinemaphotographers Oscar-winning William Mellor on the ground, and in the air Dewey Wrigley. An action/adventure film is a story in the finale of which all humans are devoured. Except, of course, at the end when they are regurgitated for the fadeout.

 

They Drive By Night

15 Mar

They Drive By Night — directed by Raoul Walsh. Drama. Two truck driver brothers shoot for independence hauling fruit until two women try to put the brakes on them. 97 minutes Black and White 1940.

★★★★★

Raoul Walsh would rehearse the scene, set up the camera, call “Action,” and walk away and not look at the shoot at all. People wondered why he did this, but it’s real simple. George S. Kaufman did the same thing directing Broadway hits. He would go to the back row of the theatre and close his eyes. He knew and Walsh knew that if the thing sounded true it was true. The balance and breath and rhythm of a scene was all calculable aurally, once he had blocked it. Any corrections needed, and reshoots, could be made perfectly by an ear undistracted by the actors’ appearance or behavior or by his own hopes for it. This is George Raft’s best performance in film. He benefits enormously by the film being shot in sequence. He’s a tough guy but not a gangster, and his inner response to the adventure he is on is the liaison between the halves of the picture. For the picture is really two stories Siamesed together. The focus of the first one is Ann Sheridan. Now, Ann Sheridan is an actress I cannot take my eyes off. Unlike the female stars of today, Ann Sheridan actually was a woman. She has a luscious mouth, beautiful hair, searching eyes, a low voice, an excellent thing in woman. She is in full charge of her femininity and vulnerable and truly smart. Films were seldom built around her but she is always good humored about her role and in her role. To see her at her best see I Was A Male War Bride opposite Cary Grant. She was “everything,” said Howard Hawks its director. Here she is fast-talking, stoic, and wise. Her acting method sets her as a first class exemplar of 30s/40s female style. It isn’t method but it fits and it registers perfectly. The film itself is sharply written, with the snappy repartee of the era that is still so entertaining to see and fun to act. Allan Hale is always attributing this wit to his wife Ida Lupino, who never actually says a witty thing and who is a focus of the second half of the story. She is playing a role Bette Davis played in an earlier Paul Muni version, Bordertown; when Davis was asked if it bothered her, she said “No.” That’s because Lupino on screen is never not neurotic; those big desperate eyes are always in the madhouse; Davis, however neurotic her eyes were, could have other things in them. Without being a great actress, Lupino is a very effective one: see her at her brilliant best in Roadhouse. She’s very good here, and you must not complete your days without seeing her famous courtroom scene and her committing a murder in a floor length ermine trench coat. She is always costumed predaciously in furs or silky as a reptile or both. Raft is a very balanced and steady instrument, while Humphrey Bogart, a more volatile and sensitive instrument, was not a star at this point. He was a middle-aged actor who for ten years had been playing dispensable second leads. His next film with Walsh, High Sierra changed all that forever. The film is a perfect example of Walsh’s strengths as a director. Action/Adventure was his specialty, but the films were always about a man striving toward a woman. As here. Arthur Edeson shot it, Milo Anderson did the gowns, Adolph Deutsch did the score: top Warner Brothers talent all around. It was a big hit, and it still is.

 

Snatch

21 Jan

Snatch — Directed by Guy Ritchie. Action Adventure, Thriller. A diamond heist and a fixed boxing match mix it up in an Irish stew. 103 minutes Color 2000.

* * * * *

Brad Pitt plays a bad brit in this low-life gangster caper-comedy. Brad Pitt is an actor who can do no wrong except to wear a shirt and tie, a suit and vest, into the trap of which here he does not fall. Heaven spares us that, for in playing the members of the lower orders no one can touch him; in such parts he is an actor of genius. He has the capacity to play the fool, as did Gable, indeed to play a virtual idiot, but here he is playing an ace-up-his-sleeve English gypsy in an accent rendered as back-county double-talk. You know those English or Irish or Scottish films where you can’t understand a word said for the thickness of the accent? Well, Pitt takes this and runs with it, so that not a single word is comprehensible. It’s very funny. The two other Americans in the cast stand out as well as even funnier than the English actors themselves, all of whom are very good. Dennis Farina as a New York fence is astounding and Benicio De Toro as the beautiful heist-meister given to fine cigars, exquisite shirts, and craps is delicious. But this is a director-editor-writers’ film as much as anything, and boy do they have their comic chops down. As an example of visual narration it is up there with Lubitsch. Watch it and learn. Or learn, if you can, while laughing so hard.

 

 

 

Sherlock Holmes: The Game Of Shadows

18 Dec

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

* * * * *

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

 

 

 

The Reign Of Terror [The Black Book]

31 Aug

The Reign Of Terror  [AKA The Black Book] – Directed By Anthony Mann. Costume Thriller. A resistance member infiltrates Robespierre’s inner circle with a mind to save France. 88 minutes Black and White 1949.

* * * *

Should be called The Reign Of Error. I saw it when it came out, the bottom half of a bill that played Wednesday only, and I thought it was a lousy movie. I thought Robert Cummings a consummate silly and completely miscast as a swashbuckling hero. His big worried eyes – no. What got me in ’49 was Arlene Dahl, and she does so still, 21 years old and astounding. She had a beauty spot and she was a beauty spot. Anthony Mann, for once, gives the female a strong leading role, at times more proactive and more in charge than the males, and Arlene Dahl meets the acting challenge like the movie queen she is. (In profile, her face has, like Garbo, a recessed brow. Check it out; see what it does for her face.) Certain of Mann’s crew such as Charles McGraw and Arnold Moss turn up here and do darn fine work. The story lacks focus, or rather it has the wrong focus, or rather it has a mixed focus. Are we focusing on Freedom, on France, on deposing Robespierre, or on his little black book? The black book looks like a McGuffin with too much screen time. But we have Beulah Bondi to rivet us to any scene she’s in, and Richard Basehart, another Mann actor, as Maximilien Robespierre, and he always looked crazy, so why not? He is never out of his pasty white wig.  The picture lacks Mann’s big final chase scene down a narrow passage, and that wouldn’t have worked anyhow because the costumes are so capacious. Actually Robert Cummings now does not look as silly as he seemed then and plays his scenes with considerable interest and skill. The whole piece is Costume Pulp, but John Alton who filmed it makes every scene striking with camera angles that skew the point of view, just for the sake of it, and you feel Alton having a better time with the material than anyone else. Though Alton filmed it, it is not noir. At the heart of it, I guess it is still a lousy movie. I wonder what I expected in 1949. I know. A swashbuckling costume French Revolution picture filmed by anyone but the confining John Alton. That is to say, an Action Adventure quite the opposite, with the big open spaces of an Errol Flynn show. But to do that, you also actually had to have Errol Flynn.

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Two Women

01 Aug

Two Women – Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Low Tragedy. As World War II ends, a mother and her daughter seek shelter from destruction. 100 minutes Black and White 1960.

* * * * *

One of the great humorists of film and a master of many styles, De Sica was the most gifted, varied, and accessible of all the neo-realist film-makers of the New Wave. He made more films than any of the others, many of them before the War, and they ranged from White Telephone movies through neo-realistic movies like Bicycle Thief, to The Garden of The Finzi-Continis. Why the neo in neo-realism? I dunno. It was the first and only realism since silent pictures. Anyhow, this is a remarkable picture. Sophia Loren was slated to play the daughter, but when Anna Magnani was asked to play the mother she said, “Let Loren play her own mother!” and slammed the door on the role that won Loren The Cannes, The BAFTA, The Donatello, The Italian National, The San Jordi, The New York Film Critics, and The Oscar for the Best Performance By An Actress for 1960. She well deserved it. She plays a cunning, susceptible shopkeeper intent on preserving her 12 year old daughter from destruction from the bombing of Rome. They strike out for her native village in the mountains. There they live and survive. There she meets a student revolutionist, an intellectual wearing glasses, cast, in a stroke of genius, with the most sensual actor in films, Jean-Paul Belmondo. Loren is 25 when she does this, and is completely convincing as the widowed mother protecting her daughter like a tigress. Both Neapolitan, she and De Sica make wonderful film together. She has the energy and internal power of the lower classes from which she came, their knowledge, passion, strength, humor, and forgiveness. Moravia wrote the novel, Zavattini the screenplay. In all of this De Sica is never without humor, most of which is gestural and therefore all the more telling. See it.

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Death Race

24 Jun

Death Race. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Action. An innocent prisoner is forced by the warden to run a mortal auto race. 111 minutes. Color 2008

* * * * *

Joan Allen absorbs one’s fascination as imperviously as a sponge. There she stands, and she makes no effort to entertain, beguile, or dominate. Her choice as the prison warden is that as such she has all the power in the room, so she need not force anything; her word is already law. She does not have to throw her weight around. She produces for world-wide television an automotive death race on the prison grounds. All she cares to achieve are celestial ratings, and this she does by killing her drivers in races which she controls by switches. She is lethal and she is unstoppable, and these qualities are never acted by the actress but always acted upon. This is not the sort of film I usually watch; I rented it because she was in it. Watch her technique, as she confines her purpose simply to convincing Jason Statham to assume the role of the next race winner. He is excellent in the part, as are Natalie Martinez as the navigator in the car, Ian McShane as the mechanic, and Tyrese Gibson as the murderous opponent. But watch how Allen operates. In convincing Statham she holds all the aces. Therefore she can play her cards lightly, seriously, without smirking. She does not bargain or threaten or get noisy. But she does have to convince, and watch the importance and care she invests that with, to make sure Statham stays in the card game. It is a flawless performance, made so by the actress’ never overstating the character’s power, and thus increasing its peril a thousandfold. A master actress at work. Rejoice.

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The Road

23 Jun

The Road – Directed by John Hillcoat. Escape Drama. A father and his 11 year-old son head for the salvation of the ocean after an apocalyptic scourge. 111 minutes Color 2009,

* * * *

Scriptwriter’s failure. The father is sentimentalized with hugs and kisses and fond looks at his son, and the language which, as him, the remarkable Viggo Mortensen is obliged to speak makes one turn away in shame. The emotion of apocalypse never needs to be spelled out verbally. We do not need to know verbally what survivors’ feelings are. We can see it for ourselves and we can imagine it for ourselves. For the task, the pleasure, and the raison d’etre of an audience is to supply 50% of what is going on. And a picture of this kind, in its desolate tracts, needs to be mute. At other times, the script is darn good. As witness by what power Charlize Theron invests with it in her key scenes, and what Robert Duval brings to it as a decrepit vagrant. The two actors are remarkable in their daring and their clarity of statement. Guy Pearce fares far less well as the deus ex macchina at the end. He appears out of nowhere, as all good D.E.M.s should, and he is abetted in his role by his adoption of yard-long locks and bad teeth, which make him look like no expected savior – a very clever strategy because of its ambiguity. But then Pearce’s family is unnecessarily dragged in, his kindly wife, his same-age children, and a fumbled finale which we, having gone along through this film’s difficulties, must stumble off with. The director should have left Pearce alone on the screen with the boy, for the boy is the thing. Pearce’s scenes lie on the cutting room floor and we can see them, and they are no better than what is included. The cast is international: Mortensen is from South America and Denmark, Theron from South Africa, Duvall from USA, Pearce and Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays the boy, from Australia. Master Smit-McPhee is simply amazing throughout the film. Not only does he physically resemble Theron, who plays his mother, but he is entirely open and responsive and full – qualities any fine actor might envy. The film as a whole is beautifully produced, scored, edited, and directed. It’s a film about a very hard journey. I would embark upon it if I were you.

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The Thief Of Bagdad

19 Jun

The Thief Of Bagdad – Directed by Raoul Walsh. Fairy Tale. A daring thief of old enjoys his calling no end, until the end, when he learns his lesson. 2 hours and 31 minutes Black and White With Color Filters Silent 1924

* * * * *

The style is Silent Gestural, with the body cocked back and the arms thrown wide and hair tossed rakishly. There are no small gestures, there are only gesticulations. And Fairbanks is an excellent actor in this style. No pose he strikes does he strike too long, and he knows that the purpose of the style is to provide the narrative with an exuberant foundation. This is one of the great silent films because of his keen acrobatic sense of himself in film, because of his fine physique which is bare to the waist at all times, and because of the irrepressible impudence of the character he makes for us. All this is played against sets of unheard of magnificence and spectacle, elaborate, yet quite spare and because spare, surprising. It is the film which launched the young designer William Cameron Menzies, and the sets are revolutionarily entertaining, as are the highly imaginative and varied costumes by Mitchell Leison (later to become a director). So in a sense there is not an ounce of spare flesh on either the actor or the settings, and these elements works brilliantly together. When you are not entertained by the one, you are by the other. Arthur Edison (who later filmed Casablanca and many another masterpiece) held the camera. But it is Fairbanks’ vehicle or rather he is its vehicle, as all this whizzes by this speed demon of a character, who never walks when he can stride and never strides when he can fly. After a bunch of establishing escapades, all of which are comic in a way which only silent pictures can make them, he sets out to woo, since after all this is a fairy tale, the princess. Never mind what happens then; we know there are dread feats to be faced. With his narrow glittering eyes, he accomplishes them all. He’s very good in love scenes: he’s perplexed, which means he doesn’t know whether she loves him or not; in nothing else is he uncertain. And opposing him is the Mongol Highmuckymuck aided by the princess’ handmaiden, played by the great Anna May Wong, who slinks. Fairbanks, however, bounds – with bowed arms always swinging in determination, so how can he lose. In the meantime, never have you seen such headdresses as on the men: hats the size of skyscrapers, turbans the size of hot air balloons, all towering above Fairbanks to make him appear like a boy, which at 41 he was. Raul Walsh was a master director of extras (see The Big Trail), and here he has several thousand, so it’s well worth waiting to the end of this, Fairbanks’ longest film, to see them moving through Menzies’ fantastic sets as Fairbanks wins the day.

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Casablanca

07 Jun

Casablanca – Directed by Michael Curtiz. Escape Drama. A husband and wife seeking to escape fall into the hands of the wife’s former lover. 102 minutes Black and White 1942.

* * * * *

As everyone knows, none of the stars wanted to do it. There was no script when it started. Paul Henreid turned it down; his pal Bette Davis had to convinced him to perform it. When Bogart and Bergman met for a meal, they didn’t like one another. The director had a violent temper. The set was afire with arguments with the writers. They did not know how to end it, and so wrote two endings, shot the first, and when they saw it, knew it was right, and threw away the other one. The movie is a masterpiece of the balance of forces, particularly in the handling and placement of the supporting players. And it is also a masterpiece of Warner Brothers professionalism. Max Steiner wrote a big score which is fortunately suppressed by the inclusion of a good many songs. The lighting and photography by Arthur Edeson and the editing by Owen Marks are first class. But Bogart’s apparent character, sharp tongued and defiant, is countermanded by the affection and respect of his staff and what others will put up from him, how Peter Lorre sees him, how Sydney Greenstreet sees him, how S.J. Skall sees him, how Dooley Wilson and how Claude Raines see him. They create half of Bogey’s character. The drama is carried by these relations, all created by the dialogue, which won an Oscar, and not by the acting, which is plain, flat, direct, Hollywood crisp. All this gives Bogart a center from which his terrified eyes seek danger and give him a latitude wider than his staff, his night club, Casablanca itself. He seethes with supressed power. He is not a good actor, but he is a most effective one. Knocked over glasses prevail throughout the film as over and over again life threatens to be empty of wine. Bogart is introduced playing chess without a partner. Ingrid Bergman walks in with a partner, and Bogart does not resume the chess. Bergman is a good actor and brings variety and roundness and liquidity to balance Bogey’s Easter Island visage and Henreid’s Teutonic stone. Set off against them all is the glittering Conrad Veidt determined to eliminate them all. All these forces are held in perfect suspense as the escape works itself out. As we wait to see who will be on that plane and who will not. Nothing could be better.

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Invitation To A Gunfirghter

02 Jun

 

Invitation To A Gunfighter – Directed by Richard Wilson. Western. A Civil War vet comes back to claim his own and is met by claim jumpers. 92 minutes Color 1964.

* * * *

Janice Rule is one of the most rivetingly beautiful creatures ever to appear before a camera. As a teenager Life Magazine named her the most beautiful girl in the United States, and that might have been the end of her, but she developed into a powerful and daring actress. Watch how understated she is here. Watch how she is always making strong choices, starts strong in every scene, never sacrificing her female power. Listen to the clarity and beauty of her speaking voice. She is one of four in this story of greedy land-grabbing after the Civil War. Pat Hingle is the established villain of the piece but any one of the other three might turn out to be so also. George Segal is excellent as the returning rebel to a New Mexican town, which has been taken over willingly – except by Segal and by the local Mexican. Stanley Kramer produced it, and what that means is that it expresses the strong social consciousness of the 60s – in one of its least forced versions. Yul Brynner – an actor I usually avoid – becomes more increasingly convincing as the picture progresses, and is quite sterling in the final exposition scene. The picture is very well written, its issues argued out with intelligence and power by everyone. Worth seeing for that reason alone.

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Midway

02 Jun

Midway – Directed by Jack Smight – WW II War Action. Vast armadas clash at sea in a turning point battle in 1942. 132 minutes Color 1976.

* * * *

All the male stars, and there are many, make grim faces, and so they all look alike. The only one to whom a grim face comes naturally is the great Toshiro Mifune, but when he opens that face to speak, what few lines he has are dubbed. Anxious, fearful, watchful – the others are all the same: Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson, Robert Wagner, Robert Webber, Edward Albert, and, of course, the star, Mister Grim Mouth himself, Charlton Heston. This tends to level the playing field, or rather it makes it possible for certain actors to rise above the monotony of the waters and shine: James Shigeta, for instance, in radiator paint grey hair, who makes a telling character of the wise Admiral who sank the US fleet at Pearl Harbor now attempting to seize Midway Island which has become a US airbase for the bombing of Tokyo. It is a beautiful performance, perfectly calibrated to suit the ravages of fate, as the huge Japanese Navy, spearheaded by four carriers, sets out for the invasion. And Hal Holbrook, who makes a merry wag of the decoder who tracked down the target of the Japanese mission, which no one knew until the day before. Chance, dumb luck, craft, skill, experience, ineptitude, and ruthlessness on all sides come into play in this story which is a pretty good civics lesson overview of the personalities, strategies, and odds at play. The Japanese had a huge advantage, for the US Pacific Fleet had been generously destroyed by them at Pearl Harbor. The director and writer have endeavored to show these forces honestly and fairly, and we are never in doubt as to the names of the specific pilots on the specific missions which failed or succeeded. Oddly this keeps things impersonal, since we never get to know any of these characters well. But it does keep us informed as to the doings of the battle, and the chances of choice or of weather, for instance, which played such a notable part in the outcome. For huge vessels in fleets wallow around upon the fabric of a vast sluggish ocean trying to destroy one another, and doing so. All this manipulated by Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii. And Admiral Yamamoto on his battleship 300 miles away. Lots of color footage of the battle lend their flare to the story, and while the human relations are clunky, the relation to the personalities at play on the circumstances and events is influential beyond measure. It’s a worthwhile movie, highly dramatic, and clear, and necessary to know.[ad#300×250]

 

 

 

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

21 May

The Lost World: Jurassic Park – Directed by Steven Spielberg. Sci-Fi Action. Dinosaurs, still hanging around on a tropical island, draw competing scientists and developers. 2 hours 7 minutes Color 1997.

* * * * *

Pete Postlethwaite devours the screen like a brontosaurus rex whenever he is on it. This is wonderful to behold, because his ruthlessness outstrips the passion of any other character in the movie, and so one loves him for it. The others fare not so well. For the “action sequences” devour character as well as characters. This is true of all such films. David Koepp has written a brilliant script, which means that its wit compliments the wit of the director, and he has made for us characters who have a living eccentricity, in scenes that are beguiling and actable. But all of that is in the beginning of the film. As soon as the dinosaurs start competing with the humans all character is lost as the film bogs down in spectacle, escape, acts of derring-do, mayhem, terror, clumping and munching – in fact, in story- behavior in which, because it is minimally verbal, character, charm, eccentricity, and even motive are devoured. It’s no one’s fault. It’s simply a characteristic of the genre. They all end up this way. The chief consequence of this is that one ceases to love the characters – because they are characters no longer. And too bad too. Because we have the glorious Jeff Goldblum as one of a group of four heros (really five until our beloved Richard Schiff becomes an ors d’oeuvre for a rex). With his bright and wonderful face, and endearing tallness, and supple intelligence, he plays a character who disapproves of everything, in a role which almost becomes thankless because of that. Julianna Moore is delightful in a love scene walking away from him in the middle of a river; she plays a character who approves of everything. And the dewy Vince Vaughan plays a kind of side-car part which is actually underwritten and functions really only to make a certain defunct radio work to save the day (it’s actually night). Never mind. It’s a director’s film, and Spielberg has a witty mind. Never is he unprepared to entertain us. The action sequences unravel with imagination and care and stunning execution. And in this is he ably abetted by the camera of Janusz Kaminsky and the surprising editing of Michael Kahn, who will supply us with a sterling close-up of Moore’s face, for instance, just when you would never expect you would need the relief of it from the action in play. Spielberg always gets his endings wrong, and he does not fail us in this one. It’s a failure of value in him, as, for the wrong reason, he brings the tale around to a city he has not previously established, and so the big bus-wrecking sequences, and so forth, have no connection to us. The ending comes out of nowhere into nowhere. His wit does not fail him, as the rex clomps by an Animal Control vehicle, but his thinking does. This means that the value of actions floats free of the value of settings, streets, a harbor, a ship, and, most important, human inhabitants. However, the film has delivered so much “entertainment” one has to forgive him once again, simply on the grounds that our exhaustion forbids us from sustaining anything more than a sigh of relief that the entertainment is finally over.

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Panic In The Streets

16 Apr

Panic In The Streets – Directed by Elia Kazan. Suspense Thriller. A deadly plague threatens New Orleans. 96 minutes Black And White 1950.

* * * * *

This is one of Kazan’s best pictures. Filmed – and this is important – by the same photographer who filmed Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo – Joe MacDonald. He was a brilliant and economical director of photography, and it is his work which gives Panic its narrative carrying power. Kazan when directing did not pay attention to the actors – that came beforehand – what he did was cozy up to the director of photography, to learn, to watch. House of Bamboo has a commentary running with it that helps us here to see how MacDonald keeps the camera on groups and long shots and continuous shots and master shots, and how Kazan keeps actors moving at all times through this dance of the camera. The picture has Richard Widmark as the protagonist, which goes against the sort of actor he had played in Kiss Of Death and so often after. Here he is given a Gregory Peck part (who gave Kazan his canned Good Guy in Gentlemen’s Agreement). Widmark is well cast for he is, of course, not a good guy; he’s too freakish; he’s a character lead at best, and, as such, not an actor of much range or inherent interest either, but an oddity, an actor far less good than Dan Duryea, say, but chance put him leading roles from now on. Of course, he isn’t as odd as Jack Palance (no one is), making his film debut as the chief threat. Barbara Bel Geddes, whom Kazan worked with on Broadway as Maggie in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof), is always curiously affecting. And all the supporting actors are wonderful, held in check by the director and by the lighting by MacDonald. The film is full of non-professional supporting players from New Orleans, where it is filmed and set, and the down-to- earth, un-touristy, back alley life of that city comes alive as the waterfront did in a later picture. This picture should be added to the canon of Kazan’s great films, Baby Doll, Streetcar, East of Eden, Viva Zapata, Waterfront. It hasn’t dated.

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The Bravados

25 Mar

The Bravados – directed by Henry King – a western in which three loathsome bank robbers and their guide are pursued by a man bent on revenge – 98 minutes color 1958.

* * * *

This western looks like one of those movies aging movie stars engage in to prop up their work. But Gregory Peck was always an aging movie star. His chosen gravity caused no public alarm – but it also conveyed no mystery. So we have the case of a man of persistent and unvarying solemn righteousness tracking down three killers, led by a man far more fascinating than himself, the lusciously talented Stephen Boyd. Boyd was my reason to rent this film, and doing so was worth every scene he appears in. The direction is made one step past competent by the filming of the remarkable landscapes through which the pursuit ranges. These pictorial delights keep us away from the common face of Joan Collins, who is present as the old flame from New Orleans, although one cannot imagine Gregory Peck ever having lit a flame of his own sufficient to ignite her ever-ready tinder or having ever drifted into New Orleans to do it. She has all the aura of a not-quite-first-class call girl, and so one wonders at the possibility of His Righteousness getting down with her at the end. She is the sort of girl one does not bring home to meet your mother for fear your father would drag her up into the attic, and that she would prefer to go. She isn’t even pretty; merely beautiful, so beautiful she is grotesque: her eyes are more wide-spaced than her ears. No. Best look rather at the witty visage of Stephen Boyd whose gifts hold the screen like nobody’s business. He has a truly lecherous eye and a nastiness meant to lead even stiffs like Charlton Heston into hot water. What fun! What an actor! But, to turn back to Peck. His acting choice to be unvarying in his relentlessness is unabated by any inner doubt or struggle. So the entire conflict of the piece comes at the last moment, which he performs well, mind you, but, until then we have no outer or inner back-and-forth, and, worse, no humor in him, so the movie holds our interest but he does not. Imagine what Spencer Tracy would have done with this situation, and you’ll see what I mean. Peck looks to be one of those great big dismissible stars riding out their careers on the donkey of a chosen persona – like Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas. However! There was an actor inside Peck, and maybe even a great one, and it is visible once and once only, so far as I know, in and as the remarkable Old Gringo. Here Peck’s dull mania for justice is finally abandoned. Here he is willing to be no longer popular. It is the greatest swan song any major actor ever performed, and so, after all these years of respectability, one finally has to respect him.

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Traitor

11 Mar

Traitor – Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff – Spy Action. A CIA agent tracks down a Muslim demolition expert. 117 minutes Color 2008

What makes makes an actor excellent – sometimes without our even knowing it? Why does the appearance of Guy Pearce on the screen of this picture elevate the level of everything going on in it? Judy Garland had this ability and so does Alice in Alice In Wonderland. I do not know the answer, but certain qualities are worth considering and watching for. Let’s set aside his technique. Technique, it has been said, is the ability to make things right when they are going wrong – but this does not apply to film acting, because if an actor of the level of stardom of Pearce goes wrong, they just reshoot, so you never even begin to see the crash. There are other aspects of technique besides the ability to adjust in an emergency. For instance, Guy Pearce is a master of vocal disguise. It’s a gift, meaning he has a bent for it and it’s easy for him, once he has husbanded a particular accent, to sound natural in it. In this case, listen for President Jimmy Carter, softened. Also listen to his voice production; he doesn’t whisper; he’s fully audible; he is playing a balanced, soft-spoken, even-tempered character. You never have this played out for you; Pearce arrives with it, before he gets to the door. So you are given a certain character tuning, and a certain Southern accent, and a certain vocal volume. So much present are these that they fall by us unnoticed, as they should. For Pearce does not present himself as a virtuoso performer – as Frederic March does. He is not here for his craft to be noticed. He is here to do an honest job and play the role. One wonders how he can sustain a performance of this tactical moderation opposite the over-acting of the other actors, all of whom conventionalize their parts. The film is quite bad, bad direction, bad music, and bad script by the director who should have not done this to us. An absurd film, unconvincing at every point. An action-adventure spy story which is meant to whitewash Muslim devotion, and does the opposite because its hero is basically fanatic; one wonders why Don Cheadle engaged in it. Cheadle seems to have elected himself the heir of Morgan Freeman in the moral black male role model line. It is ruinous for an actor to be “good”. Pearce, although he is out to get the bad guys never strikes that note. There’s honesty in the gaze of his rectangular eyes that skirts all pretense. It looks, it searches, it responds. It allows us to be there. Watch for him, whenever he appears, and see him.

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3:10 To Yuma

01 Mar

3:10 to Yuma  — directed by Delmer Daves – Western. A reluctant farmer chaperones a desperado to jail. 92 minutes black and white 1957.

* * * * *

“Safe! Who knows what’s safe? I knew a man dropped dead from lookin’ at his wife. My own grandmother fought the Indians for sixty years…then choked to death on lemon pie. Do I have two volunteers?” So we have a style of telling dialogue that leads me to suppose that a lot of it was lifted wholesale from the novel by Elmore Leonard from which it comes. For the Leonard brilliance influences everything, and certainly directs the actors’ talent, particularly in the case of Glenn Ford, who gives one of the finest performances of his career as a character lead, a list that includes Teahouse of the August Moon and Gilda. He is fascinating to watch in his civility, calm, and assurance as the gang leader, caught because he lingers to chat with a pretty bartender, played by Felicia Farr. The delightful thing about this interlude is that he is not just using her for a quick lay, but instead really likes women, and really likes this particular one. Ford’s choice in this brings his character to a level of interest which sustains the entire film. He is perfectly cast, unlike Russell Crowe in the remake of recent non-memory, for Ford brings his puppy past to the part, whereas Crowe brings a violent mayhem-maker. Van Heflin plays the rancher in need of the $200 to save his place, and it’s interesting to hear how in some cases a certain actor’s natural speaking voice, because of its very timbre, lends authenticity everything he says. The piece is very well cast, directed, filmed (Charles Lawton) and edited (Al Clark). The plump Robert Emhardt beautifully plays the worthy who is backing Ford’s arrest, and Henry Jones plays the key role of the town drunk who stands by to the very end. Leora Dana plays Heflin’s wife, in a thanklessly written role, but her acting, such as it is, is betrayed by her makeup, for she wears full lipstick. Felicia Farr plays the bartender who, in a brief interlude, sleeps with Ford, and then no more is seen of her, even though she has star billing in the briefer of the two female roles. Ford goes on to seduce Heflin, and almost succeeds. The tension is palpable. It’s a tiptop story, along the lines of High Noon, the Last Detail, They Came To Cordura, but better than any of them. The acting style is the old one of Pick Up Your Cues. It works like all get out.

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127 Hours

22 Feb

127 Hours — directed by Danny Boyle — Sports drama. A young deserteer/mountaineer finds himself trapped in a canyon. 94 minutes Color 2010.

* * * *

I found myself detached watching this. Let’s assume it’s not because of a piece of undigested cheese, for the film is filled with a thousand felicities. But I have three questions. The film turned out to be exactly what I expected it to be: the story of a man escaping, played by a good-looking actor of some talent. James Franco plays him as a Merry Andrew isolate. I question the choice, not of an isolate, but of a man who is essentially volatile. The volatility may be inherent with Franco, but I wonder if the actual man, Aron Ralston was so. For Franco the desert is a lark. But if Ralston were actually a fellow of serious humor and of steady temperament, what would have happened to him in that canyon? As it is, on the soul-level, nothing happens to him. All he learns is: Always tell someone where you are going. Then, there is a problem with narration, by which I mean editing. In such a story it seems necessary to put the audience, not in the shoes of the main character, but in their own shoes in that perilous place. But that’s not what we get. What we get is the editing machine in that perilous place. So the editing takes over our job for us, without our saying we need it to. There are five million cuts, none of them necessary for our entry into the tale. So we end up with a virtuoso camera and editing, of which we never cease to be aware, and which, in my case, keeps me aloof from the events and from the actor playing him. For the actor is left with no single scene that is his own. Every scene is the camera’s, the editor’s. Franco is always on camera, but we are never allowed just to be with him. This is sad, because the story is remarkable, and because the list of things done well in this film would have no end: the desert shown, the meeting with the two girls hiking and their adventure, the kissing of the staple, the trailing of the rope, the handling of the rock-fall, the great last ten minutes of the picture. Another problem with the picture, just at present, is that too much is known about it beforehand; its publicity has killed it. But it is well worth seeing; it is not depressing; it is harrowing only when it needs to be and less harrowing than a thousand horror films. Expect the expected, and you won’t be disappointed.

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Beautiful Boxer

18 Feb

Beautiful Boxer – directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham – drama of a Thai renowned kick-boxer determined to become a female. 118 minutes color 2005.

* * * * *

Anyone across whose mind has passed the notion of altering their gender from male to female will have experienced in large or in little what this story dramatizes as a whole and will feel fascination and sympathy with it. Nong Toom, an effeminate teenager, enters the grueling and violent world of kickboxing to fee a sex change. His first goal is to help his disabled parents, but he is so skilled he becomes a national treasure – particularly when he starts wearing girl-makeup in the ring. The scenes of boxing are remarkable, the training is horrendous, the environment the same as for boxing anywhere, lousy. The film is brilliantly mounted and told by the director/writer; the editing and music and photography are stunning. And the brutal bullying, shame, and confusion are exactly no different from what any of us have received for the same natural quandary the world over, from the time we humans were children to the time we are old. So frightening is the situation — perhaps nothing is more frightening in life than to be derided for the body one has to survive inside of within one’s present incarnation — that one can only respect the strength of character Nong Toom’s determination shows in going through with his desire to be the beauty he sees in females. The boxer and his/her story are famous in Thailand, and Nong Toom is played by a champion current Thai kick-boxer, Asanee Suwan. What the film demonstrates more clearly than any Rocky movie can do is that the fight against gender-preference oppression requires a masculinity of a force greater than the force of homophobia by far, and that nothing less will do.

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James And The GIant Peach

15 Feb

James And The Giant Peach – directed by Henry Selick – Fantasy Fairy Tale. A ten-year-old boy desires to escape from his ghastly aunts. 79 minutes Color 1996.

* * * * *

Miriam Margolyes and the great Joanna Lumley play the venomous aunts in the live-action portion of the picture, the usual Disney horrible relatives which we all have. This story is a male version of Cinderella. In this case the little boy is worked like a slave by the wicked women, but salvation comes in the person a fairy godfather, played in the tattered uniform of a Napoleonic soldier by Pete Postlethwaite, a wonderful choice for the role, because you don’t know whether this is a poison pirate or a putative parent. For the pumpkin, which is the vehicle of salvation, we have a fruit of similar hue, a giant peach. Within this vessel and in animation now, our hero, well played by Paul Terry, is transported to The Ball, which in this male version is, of course, The Big Apple, a different sort of ball than a ball. He is accompanied by a gaggle of bugs: a centipede from The Bronx voiced by Richard Dreyfus, a seductive spider played by Susan Sarandon, Jane Leeves as Mrs Ladybug, Simon Callow magisterial as Sir Grasshopper, and David Thewlis voicing the Earthworm. They provide us with some merry songs and witty entertainment.  Whereas Cinderella is an important tale of sexual selection by a female assisted by no one, James And The Giant Peach, its male version, is the story of a resourceful boy headed for the commercial headquarters of the modern world and assisted by many. Make of that what you will, the piece is fine for anyone of any age, provided you are not a ten year-old boy who might take it to represent something true.

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Man On A TIghtrope

05 Feb

Man On A Tightrope – directed by Elia Kazan — Drama. The owner /ringmaster and his small touring circus fall afoul of The Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. 105 minutes black and white 1953.

* * * * *

Kazan was a high Virgo and while that means that he understood what was crucial, what was critical, it also means that he was highly critical of himself and his own work, and not always accurately. Thus his put-down of this work – an action adventure piece that actually comes alive completely in the bumbling escape attempt with which it ends. Man On A Tightrope is the best circus picture I have ever seen. Kazan adores the circus folk and their life, and really gets down with them. You see their color, their gypsy soul, their absurdity, their dignity, and their crazy fun. The story is based on the actual escape of a real circus from the Communists, and Kazan actually filmed this in Europe and actually uses that very circus in the film. He brings in Hollywood actors to play the principals, Alex D’Arcy, touching as the bashful lion-tamer, Gloria Grahame, once again as the girl who doesn’t want to say no, Richard Boone as the lumpen-heavy, Adolph Menjou covered with cigarette ash lying on a couch as he plays the bureaucrat out to outwit the owner, , and Frederic March as that owner. Kazan originally wanted March as Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman, which is strange because March is no more Willy Loman than my cat. He has too much inner stance. He is too middle-class. But he had used him in the original stage production of The Skin Of Our Teeth, a Kazan early triumph, when March told him, “Be careful with me. I tend to over-do,”  and which Kazan loved him for. It’s just wonderful how wonderful March could be. He is often miscast. He is not a sexually exciting actor. He doesn’t offer romance, even when young. But he can offer pain and its discombobulation and weakness. He can offer doubt. He offers the promise of middle-age, even when young, which means that he offers the values of a grown-up; at no point is he ever an adolescent. You have to take him seriously, even if you don’t particularly like him or don’t particularly like looking at his face, which is one thing you don’t have to do with a stage actor but do have to do with a movie actor. And you have to respect his technique which is displayed here with no showiness. Kazan, good naturedly said about March here that he had to keep Freddy from hamming it up, but March never seems in danger of doing that. Terry Moore, though, pushes it as the love interest with Cameron Mitchell, but that was the way she always was, and you wonder why Kazan allowed Zanuck to cast her. She’s a false note in a bad plot move, but the rest of the material is right on. What do you have to sacrifice to escape oppression is the theme. Perhaps Kazan didn’t quite realize it, but it’s a great theme. Too bad, but it’s still a marvelous piece, typical of Kazan in his love of actors, his spacious sympathies, and his phenomenal understand of human nature.

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The Big Red One

01 Feb

The Big Red One – directed by Samuel Fuller – Five men slog through adventures comic and perilous in WWII. 113 minutes color 1980.

* * * * *

The reason I like Sam Fuller’s films is that nothing in them intervenes between them and me. The story is right there, the characters are right there, that’s it. Thinking on it, another reason has to do with Fuller’s temperament, which is Tolstoian, by which I mean in one stroke of the brush the hard truth about a situation or an individual is rendered complete. That hard truth may be humorous or it may be tragic; Fuller’s treatment is the same. So we have nothing fancy to distract us from the material or to prevaricate a shallowness, nor anything fancy in the editing, score, or filming. This is a great boon in a war story, a genre I seldom watch. But here we see the war as Bill Mauldin saw it, and as the soldiers saw it. Here we have no Great Battles, no Heroes; instead we have the First Infantry Army doughboys and grunts quickly improvising to survive and to kill. The boys are less well drawn than they might be, reduced to characteristic gestures, but that is all right in my books because the story is held together by the Sargent, played by Lee Marvin, who is, of course, the very pineapple of self-possession. So, lying behind its remarkable episodes, the film is a rare example of the spiritual ritual of men as a group coming into their own masculinity under the aegis of a male mentor. They fall under the wing of his taciturnity, cunning, devotion, and care. He is willing to kill them to make them grow up. But he is not willing to sacrifice them. They breathe him in. Their pheromones grow on their own under his watchful eye, and what all the four actors in his group do, more than elucidate their own gestures, is to take this remarkable man in and mature by that act and by the acts that act of spiritual ingestion inspires. It is a movie with that rare thing, true subtext.

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Public Enemies

14 Dec

Public Enemies – directed by Michael Mann – action adventure drama . Bank robber John Dillinger is hunted down by idealist G-man Melvin Purvis. 2 hours and 20 minutes color 2009.

**

Shot with an impenetrable suavity that dooms it, we are kept from this picture even as we try to penetrate its tricks, its angles, its lighting, its attitude of Aren’t We Making A Movie Though! For it is a movie, not about its characters or story, but about Movie Making. Yet, for all its technical virtuosity, it is badly recorded, so one cannot hear what people say. Christian Bale, he of the face of shattered glass, plays Melvin Purvis the man who tracks down John Dillinger in 1934 , but although false calling seems to be the key to his character, we have no sense that Purvis is in the wrong profession, beyond a certain natural distaste for the distasteful aspects of it. This is partly because Depp’s line to Bale about it is inaudible, and partly because Bale is an English actor playing a Southern aristocrat, and Southern aristocrats have hotter blood, hot blood being a gift beyond Bale’s capacity. Cold blood, yes, hot blood no. Johnny Depp is playing a part ideally suited to Brad Pitt, that is to say the part of a man whose sexual appeal seduces everyone in sight, male or female and who is a lot of fun. And Marion Cottillard is appealing but she too is not American. She brings a great deal to the part, and is probably the best actor up there, but she has everything but Van Camp’s Pork And Beans, which is the one thing you need in that role. The shame and the blame lies with the director, though. The nine-lives story of Dillinger’s elusive, cat-like, getaways and the drying up of his career are clear and interesting and cautionary for us all. On his deathbed, Dillinger, wearing a Clark Gable mustache, watched Gable in Manhattan Murder. Public Enemies needed to be shot with the simple plainness of the gangster movies of its era, the 30s, instead of as this affected and fancy farrago.

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Who’ll Stop The Rain

14 Dec

Who’ll Stop The Rain – directed by Karel Reisz — action adventure drama about a man entering into a drug deal out of loyalty to his best friend – 2 hours 6 minutes, color, 1976.

* * * * *

I wanted to turn this off several times at the start. Drugs. I don’t take drugs and am fed up with the subject in films and won’t see movies about people dealing with them. And the reason is that Drugs steal the drama. They supplant the tensions, difficulties, and cross-purposes between people that make drama happen. But, I saw Kazan’s The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs on Broadway when Tuesday Weld was young. And something simple and straightforward in Nolte’s technique caught my attention. And eventually I saw that this film was not about slick crime but the reverse: about the tragedy of human professional ineptitude. Weld, like many Method actresses, suffers from failed vocal production, which makes her mousy and weak, where she needs to be in agony. Otherwise, she is fascinating. Michael Moriarty, playing her husband, is glassy-eyed and elsewhere, with a flat vocal affect that gives you Out To Lunch. He plays an ex-Marine gone back to Viet Nam as a photographer, and, though a clean cut chap, decides to export a load of smack to be carried by his best friend from the Marines, now a merchant seaman, played by Nick Nolte. They don’t know it, but they are out of their shallows as professional drug runners. And they come up against a series of similar incompetents. The story revolves around the mortal peril incompetence leads to, and the script brilliantly expands on this to give us a world run by inept decisions. Nolte is alone the warrior professional. The difficulty is that his main enemy is a Three Stooges trio whose slightly overplayed comic folly over shadows their ineptitude, resulting in a failure of tone. The motto is: If you can’t get anyone better, make do with what you’ve got, and then watch it kill you.

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Three Came Home

13 Dec

Three Came Home – directed by Jean Negulesco – docu-drama about a woman in a Japanese prison camp in WWII. 106 minutes black and white 1950

* * * * *

Sessue Hayakawa gives a fine performance as a Japanese officer overseeing a prison camp in WWII. The doubt and strain of his situation are well worked out in honest scenes between himself and the star Claudette Colbert, who is a model of screen acting at its best. Inherently game, like so many actresses of her era —  Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell, Carol Lombard —  she gives all her scenes full value. We never feel cheated by this actress. The story is both true and convincing, as are the settings and the tensions. The ending is a relief of a difficult and gripping situation. The title gives it away, but never mind. It’s exciting nonetheless.

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The Silencers

06 Dec

The Silencers – directed by Phil Carlson – a parody of Bond. — 102 minutes color 1968

* *

Do you find garage doors fascinating? Like them this film is a gadget, not without its grumbling use and occasional comical breakdown. And it itself is full of gadgets, huger doors, fatter death-rays, wilder amo. If you fire this revolver it will shoot you in the chest, if you press that button you will find a naked tomato in your bathtub. Of course, the hugest garage doors are the false eyelashes of the babes. They come crashing down, dislodging civilizations. Step back from them. Dean Martin certainly does. He is wise and unperturbed by the sexual affront they present and the cavernous décolletage they awn. Ah, for the peace of refusal which seems to be his, as he plays in this, the first of the Matt Helm mock-Bond series. Nowadays we don’t have leading ladies such as Stella Stevens whose hair is dyed Irish Setter and held in place with Gorilla Glue. She’s Helm’s fumbling side-kick, called that, I suppose, because she keeps kicking him in the side. Martin is some kind of easy dish, like spaghetti, pleasant and not without nourishment, easy to take. He never asks to be liked and so is likeable for it. He strolls through bullet-hails with benificent nonchalance. Daliah Lavi presents hair piled on the back of her head as though concealing a rocket launcher. Dozens of ladies, equally coiffed and lashed throw themselves at Martin’s head, but he retains his incredulity as to the animal fervor they advertise, as any normal intact male would. Their ferocious armamentarium promises pornography, that is to say, unearned nudity. And, since the film begins with a series of strip-teases, we are able to sustain no virginal delusions about what is to follow. Even when the miraculous Cyd Charisse performs. Two numbers are given her, miserably choreographed, vilely costumed, but her dignity, her alacritous genius, and the natural placement of her hip-bones conquer the drooling mess.

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The Next Three Days

20 Nov

The Next Three Days –– directed by Paul Haggis –– suspense thriller about a woman convicted of murder and her husband who is not at all convicted she did it. Color 2010.

* * * * *

Well, you may wonder if you are in your ripe forties and had the part Russell Crowe plays here how well could you play it? Not within a mile as well as Russell Crowe does, was my answer as I watched. He is in his scruffy three-days-unshaven mode here, and he is in the hands of rough story that carries us into its surprises without betraying our credulity. Crowe plays a man unexceptionally in love with his wife, well played by Elizabeth Banks, and the conviction he brings to his feeling for her is the carrying force of the film on an emotional level. This love is put to the test by his own foolish plans to rescue her which projects us into the level of action, where the film is never still, always thrusting us forward into its next frustration, calamity, conniption. Crowe is in virtually every scene, and his registration as an actor is sterling throughout. He is always on the emotional and physical money. The film, however, is grounded, not by this performance but by the writing and direction and playing of his son, who is quiet and calm and patient, and represents the unspoken value system of the piece therefore. True, the director takes us past certain improbabilities to reach its excitement, but they vanish swiftly as the plot parts and lets us in on it. Liam Neeson has one scene, and he is superb in it. Altogether a well-written, tightly told  action adventure piece, beautifully produced, costumed, cast, written, designed, and performed.

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Blessed Is The Match

17 Nov

Blessed Is The Match –– directed by Roberta Grossman –– a bio-doc about Hannah Senesh, a young Israeli woman who parachuted into Rumania to save lives from the final solution. 85 minutes color and black and white 2008.

* * * * *

We are blessed to have this video record of this woman’s, brought up in comfort in Hungary, then, as a grown-up, emigrating to Israel to labor on a kibbutz. Then volunteering to parachute into Rumania with an aim to help Hungarian Jews to escape. Hungary remained neutral, and so the Jews of that country remained untouched until late in 1944, when, although Germany was already losing the war, Hitler invaded, and 80% of the Jews were immediately and efficiently whisked off to death. The story takes her behind the lines and eventually into Hungary where she is caught, imprisoned, and tortured. A remarkable story about a woman who thought herself as a mere match lighting up a little piece of life. Joan Allen narrates part of her story.

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Silver Streak

08 Nov

Silver Streak –– directed by Arthur Hiller –– romantic adventure comedy in which nefarious doings get let loose on a speeding train. 113 minutes color 1976.

* * * * *

Gene Wilder’s eyes are of such a pellucid teacup blue that you know their innocence must be polluted before long. And so it comes to pass. I wouldn’t call the great Jill Clayburg pollution, but she does seduce him with an ease smoother than finesse and swifter than the swift at dawn. Ned Beatty a great actor who must have won three dozen Oscars by now, or none, plays, as usual, a person who wandered out of a Sinclair Lewis novel. Presently, the skullduggery starts to boil up, guided suavely by the person of Patrick McGoohan. Into the train wreck he plans for these person’s lives, zooms Richard Pryor, and the bullets start to fly to the right and to the left, but never, O never, to the heart of our hero which is preserved by his ironclad devotion to our Jill. The film starts as a leaden streak until Mr. Pryor’s arrival, but watch his invention, his imagination, his beautiful, restless, and exquisitely beggarly dissatisfaction driving every scene to glory. Have there ever been any more than five elegant leading women to appear in American film? Was Kay Francis one? Gwyneth Paltrow is certainly one. Jill Clayburgh is absolutely one, and it is a treat to know it as a rare fact right here in this amusing escape by train.

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Making The Misfits

08 Nov

The Making The Misfits –– directed by Gail Levin –– documentary on the last film of Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift  — 2001 black and white 2001

* * * * *

We who were alive at the time, knew a lot about what was going because Marilyn Monroe was such a photographed figure. Her genius was, in fact, for the still picture not the motion picture –– and Eli Wallach says the same. Monroe, Gable, and Clift all died before the film was released. I remember talking to Celeste Holm about it the week it opened; she’d gone to the Roxy to see it, and she said, “You could shoot moose in there.” Because the movie was a coffin? The theatre was empty when I went too. Holm said that Monroe couldn’t act. That’s probably right. In a sense Monroe was prevented from it by the script which makes of her a marshmallow saint whom everyone loves –– which means there was no inherent character defect or inner conflict in the character, nothing for her to play against, no failing to let us in. The film was remarkably photographed and produced, and the producers and their survivors talk about it. What the actors, such as Kevin McCarthy and Eli Wallach, say about their work is fascinating. John Houston was a gallant director, energetic but also lazy. He loved filming horses. The Misfits has a grainy and horizontal quality to it, and is well worth seeing. Its failure lies with Arthur Miller who wrote it; its failure lies not in its characters or situation but in its story. It would have been far more interesting if Monroe’s capacity for atrocious behavior had been an element in that story. Then you might have had something. Too late now, though. This documentary made years later seizes the world of studio filmmaking at it its richest. Scenes of the crew lying around in the hideous heat of Arizona while the demoralizing Monroe was hours late are a testament to the fortitude of the craftsmen whose skills and devotion brought the good strong films of that era before us.

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Batman Forever

07 Nov

Batman Forever –– directed by Joel Schumacher –– the caped superhero is beset on all sides, of course. ––122 minutes color 1995.

* * * * *

“Was that over-the-top? I can’t tell,” utters Jim Carrey, and one wonders at the question. Has Jim Carrey ever been under over-the-top? Certainly not in this film. He is clearly a great film creature, and give him a gilded cane and stand back. The picture itself is overloaded with focal possibilities. First we have Tommy Lee Jones miscast as someone who is not a genius and therefore cannot be played by him. All Jones can do is howl with gruesome laughter. He plays a petty thief running a covey of red capped robbers, but he is at once supplanted by Nicole Kidman, whose blond hair brings the only daylight into the night-owl doings of the Batman milieu. God helps anyone who commits a 9-5 crime in Gotham; Batman only saves the night, never the day. Kidman, no matter how ever-glorious, is soon supplanted by Jim Carrey as a sedulous inventor employee of Bruce Wayne. Carrey consumes every scene he is in, with his brilliant physical comedy and hyperbolic acting style and range of invention. He’s wonderful of course. But his Niagara turns everyone around him into a trickle. He is followed but not supplanted by Chris O’Donnell who enters as a fledging Robin. The whole film is all quite lovely, and gives full satisfaction to one’s longing for midnight draughts. Val Kilmer is Bruce Wayne, and why not? The part is cast for the mouth showing under the mask. He is a very good actor and perfectly at ease in the role of the adult orphan. Complaints are irrelevant. So is praise. Who could critique a mud bath at a spa or champagne fountain at a wedding? Not I. Over-indulgence is at times the only proper rule of law. All I can say is that Jim Carrey fifteen years ago was at the perfect age to have played Hamlet, and should have done so. He had the antic temperament, the innocence of eye, and the pain.

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The Town

27 Oct

The Town –– directed by Ben Affleck –– a gangster crime-flick: a bank robber falls in love, which sorely threatens his career. Color 1020.

* * * * *

Boy is Ben Affleck a good actor. And a good director. And a good writer too. Given the grace of a regional accent to execute, he comes alive like nobody’s business. It’s really not possible not to watch him while he’s on camera, and, unlike most actor-directors, he wisely does not hesitate to give himself proper screen time –– wise, because the internal life he endures is what molds the plot, and we need to be privy to it at all times. The picture is a bank-heist piece, with three, count them, three robberies, all done in costume, and all executed with charming finesse. Jeremy Renner plays the Joe Pesci part, a man addicted to his profession, just as he was in The Hurt Locker. Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite come in as ruthless old geezers, and Postlethwaite’s final scene is something to write home about. Actors, come and rejoice! Pete’s a treat. You completely believe in his power to intimidate. It’s never played for evil. Nope. The romantic lead is Rebecca Hall, and I find it hard to take an interest in her much, but the character is very well written. The whole picture has the virtue of its sources in the gangster films of the 30s with Lawrence Tierney and Pat O’Brien and James Cagney and Edward G Robinson, and it’s fun to think back on those movies and how simple they were in telling the same story. I like the relentlessness of that simplicity. And I like the searing spectacle of such modern elaborations as this. And I particularly light the sight of The Town of Boston, in which the director feels fully at home and alive.

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Roshamon

25 Oct

Roshamon –– directed by Akira Kurosawa –– murder mystery in which four versions of the event are related by those who were there, none of those versions agreeing. 88 minutes black and white 1960.

* * * * *

You will never forget it. And you will wonder what you really saw once it is over, for it never is over. When it was first shown, it entered into the consciousness of the world like scripture. I remember when it first appeared. The acting style was Japanese in one sense of the word in that it was intense, gutsy, highly emotional, contained, melodramatic, stylized; one had never seen humans like this before in a picture and never had one seen anyone oriental as the focus of a serious film. It opened up Asian film to the West. Toshiro Mifune was first seen by U.S. audiences in this picture, playing with bold, sudden, unaccountable strokes. The woodland scenes are completely free, the scenes on the two sets completely imprisoned. This time round all these 50 years later, I watch the commentary, and I recommend it highly; the critic is a master of his craft; he knows the picture in its 450 scenes, by heart. See it with your friends. If ever a film was a community experience, it is this one.

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The Far Country

24 Oct

The Far Country – directed by Anthony Mann – A Western in which our cranky hero delivers a herd of cattle to the Yukon only to be double crossed. 97 minutes color 1955

* * * * *

Jimmy Stewart plays a self-centered adventurer who lands on his feet in a series of astonishing Canadian Rocky settings outside Jasper. Walter Brennan without his teeth and Jay C. Flippen as a drunken gold-panner play his picturesque sidekicks. The story is episodic, but the episodes are attention-getting. John McIntyre as the law-gone-bad character is a study in self-confidence. The glorious mountains are a mess to negotiate but Ruth Roman’s hairdo is never mussed in the mountains, but that’s Hollywood for ya, idnt it?. One of several strong Westerns Stewart made with director Anthony Mann — always with the same horse, Pie. Worth seeing.

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Blood And Sand

24 Oct

Blood and Sand – directed by Fred Niblo. Romantic Melodrama. 80 minutes Black and White 1922.

★★★★

The Story: A cobbler’s son becomes a Spanish matador, marries his true love, and then is made the plaything of a rich masochist widow.

~

Well, there he is, Rudolph Valentino, looking pretty good in a suit of lights. He was the screen lover of all time, and women went mad for him. It’s a bit hard to see why. Not because he isn’t good-looking or a good actor, for he is both, but because you have to grow up with someone to become that sort of mad fan of them. Your sexual maturity has to correspond with theirs. You have to see something in them at just the moment when you need to see it, and become entranced with its reappearance from film to film.

Valentino has a somewhat fleshy face, a beautiful mouth when it’s in repose, a long jaw line with perfectly flat cheeks, the right one adorned by a little scar, a thick nose, a brow high and broad with long eyebrows which bracket his eyes like eaves. The eyes are large, long, wide-set, and the left eye is slightly larger than the right. He has a great ass. He uses his figure for effect, but he never uses his looks for effect.

As an actor he has the problem all actors of that era had, which was to hold emotion in place to make the sure the story was being spelled out. This created by a false tension, almost as tableau. But otherwise he is easy in his work, natural, interesting in his choices and details, and you remain attentive to him because the camera dotes on him, since he is, after all, the focal character. It’s his story.

It’s a story which never works because no actor can actually play the ignorance and country bumpkin naiveté required as the basis for the character as he gains in worldliness, wealth, and sexual access. Tyrone Power years later is flaccid in the role; Anthony Quinn should have had the part, instead of the gigolo to Donna Sol, played by the incontestable Rita Hayworth.

Nita Naldi in the part in the present film doesn’t quite stack up as a femme fatale. She is matronly of figure and so the relationship between her and Valentino doesn’t wash, although Valentino is excellent in the emotional outskirts of the part. It’s one of those tempestuous relationships you have to suppose it is true because the story depends upon it and says it is true and because it is acted out in front of you.

But as a parable the story plays beautifully and always will. Valentino is 27. His technique is modern, and, more, you actually want to engage with him. It is the sine qua non of big movie stars, and the only reason to watch him now. He is rare. He died at 31.

 

Secretariat

23 Oct

Secretariat –– directed by Randall Wallace –– a horse picture in which an unpromising horse meets an unpromising owner who hires an unpromising trainer to win three unpromising races, The Triple Crown. 116 minutes color 2010

* * * *

Every time Margo Martindale as Miss Ham appears, the screen comes alive. She plays the woman who named Secretariat, and the female “support” to Miss Chenery, Secretariat’s owner, played by Diane Lane, who is sadly miscast in this part because she cannot play middle-class women well. A technical actress, she consistently fudges and softens emotion with half-grins and moues. See her in The Perfect Storm to see how great she can be, opposite Mark Walberg, an actor perfectly suited to her range. It’s like casting Brad Pitt as a society boy. He is a great actor, but only in lower class parts, and the same holds true of Lane. Secretariat is a Disneyfication of the saga of this remarkable animal, meaning that it is story-telling by the numbers. Everything is spelled out three times, as though no one in the audience knew how to read. But still, it’s a horse-picture and I am always stirred by horse-pictures and I was stirred by this one all the way through. Of course, we all know how it turns out, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t exciting or suspenseful. That doesn’t mean my heart isn’t filled by this horse’s nobility, pride, élan, and talent. John Malkovich brings his usual perversity of affect to the proceedings, which supplies the sort of low brow comic zest in the old days supplied by William Demarest or Mickey Rooney or someone. The races also are poorly filmed, which is odd, isn’t it, for one sees either the feet of the animal or the top of the animal. It must be very difficult to actually film a horse while it is racing, but I missed the beauty of the creatures in full flight. The actual Preakness, the second of the three races is shown, probably from old color footage of that race, as a television event watched by Miss Chenery’s husband and children, which would have been more interesting had one been able to see it up close. But that’s all right. It was proper to tokenize the second race as a build-up to the last, The Belmont, in which Secretariat created records still unbroken. All of the settings and particularly the costumes, are fine, and so is the acting. especially when Margo Martindale is on screen. Oh, just watch that wonderful face. How right she is, particularly next to the, alas, consistent wrongness of Lane.

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RED

23 Oct

RED –– directed by Robert Schwentke–– an action spy comedy adventure in which a bouquet of experienced old-time CIA assassins come out of retirement when a past score starts to be settled against them. Color 2010

* * * * *

Ernest Borgnine at 94 is in fine form here as the keeper of the very most secret of all the files in the world. And our acting staff is all over 50, or is it 60? ––  and, like him, at the top of their game. Bruce Willis, always an excellent actor in the right roll, is particularly droll in registering the humor of the situation. Morgan Freeman plays the old reliable, and Helen Mirren and Brian Cox play former lovers rekindling their oomph amid the flames and firestorms of the genre. What makes the piece worth seeing is its unfolding until those firestorms start, at which time the wit stops, for it is impossible to be quite jolly and lighthearted while the Uzis fire. Or whatever that weaponry is. And besides the story then departs the arena of the possible and dashes into the arena of the improbable, and from that quickly seethes into the arena of the impossible, when Richard Dryfuss enters the picture and introduces the Vice-President of the United States as the man behind the man behind the man behind the woman, whom Rebecca Pidgeon plays with her usually chilling affect. It’s more than the comedy will bear. For the film is one step away in its fine early stages from an Abbott and Costello film, with Freeman, Willis, and Mirren all playing Costello and John Malkovich playing Abbott, the only serious lunatic in the bunch. Mary-Louse Parker is particular responsive and funny in the Dorothy Lamour role –– or is that from another series entirely? Oh, yes. But what then? She could have been in an Abbott and Costello film, couldn’t she? The piece is well written in its early stages of the preposterous, by which I mean in terms of narrative and dialogue and editing, and very well told by the director. It is when it devolves into the preposterously preposterous that expectations drop. But, never mind. Just expect them to.

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Carve Her Name With Pride

17 Oct

Carve Her Name With Pride — directed by Lewis GIlbert — a bio-pic in which a young WW II widow leaves her daughter and parents in London to risk great danger to help the French resistance. 1 hour 58 minutes black and white 1958.

* * * * *

A big star in her day, Virginia McKenna was not in possession of a great talent but rather of a popular one. Facially resembling Lizbeth Scott and with the vocal placement of Grace Kelly, in this piece she remains fixed within the virtues of its confines, and this serves the script very well. The story is told with cinematic economy and discretion, so doors close when they should, and the camera moves away from torture scenes better imagined than seen. Her steadfastness in the role is without neurosis or particularity, so it tells the story of a heroine rather than the story of an individual to whom these things happen. I do not complain. That is a legitimate mode of cinema acting-narration and, if not time-honored, certainly time-tested. Violette Szabo was a real English spy in France and did what we see, so when we witness her wipe out German after German, we have been well prepared by the fact that she was already a sharpshooter before she began, a veritable Annie Oakley. Her spy-partner is the redoubtable Paul Scofield. He had the most commanding presence of any actor on the English-speaking stage. And this is certainly in evidence here. Whether he was a great actor was obscured by his opacity and by his inveterate physical and especially vocal masculinity which carried all before it. I do not know whether he was a master actor because he was such a mysterious one. I saw him three times on the stage: King Lear in which he was effortfully boring; A Man For All Seasons in which he was effortlessly righteous; and Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing with John Gielgud, Diana Wynard, George Rose, Dorothy Tutin, in which, magnificent in furs, he dropped jaws of all beholders. Here he has already developed one trick of his personal trade: the secrete smile useful for passage work, such as getting across from the dance floor to the balcony. He has his moments: his face when she leaves;watch for it. Even when he is terrible he is just wonderful, and he’s far from terrible here in this simple, honest and well-told tale.

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Impact

17 Oct

Impact – directed by Arthur Lubin –– a noir thriller in which a man starts a new life with a new name when he is double-crossed by his wife, while a new love and wily detective help him out, 111 minutes. Black and white 1949.

* * * *

Ella Raines has a level-eyed honesty and shining directness that perfectly suited the smart but innocent heroines of the era. She had beautiful dark hair with a widow’s peak that could be worn in any style, a slender figure that looked wonderful in slacks. She was always physically limber and at ease on camera, and this helps opposite Brian Donlevy’s habitual stiffness as an actor –– here twenty years too old for the part, but still quite affecting in it. It’s a case of the role making the actor. The plot falls apart at the end, but the filming is excellent, including a wonderful car crash off a cliff, which I imitated as a little boy with my tinkerkoy convertible. Ah, death and destruction! We also have the delicious gravy of the great Charles Coburn as an Irish detective. What a master he was!

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