RSS
 

Archive for the ‘ACTORS FEMALE’ Category

Mary Of Scotland

01 Dec

Mary Of Scotland—directed by John Ford. Historical. 123 minutes Black and White 1936.
★★★★
The Story: An attractive young queen assumes her throne only to be bullied by everyone.
~
Mary of Scotland as a monarch is not a good subject for drama, although Mary Stuart as a person is so tempting that even Schiller placed his great talent at her disposal. I saw Eva Le Gallienne and and Irene Worth (and later Signe Hasso) do it in Tyrone Guthrie’s production at The Phoenix. It is a play frequently revived. It is based on a confrontation between the two queens Elizabeth and Mary that never (as politically inexpedient) could have taken place. And of course there is the opera Maria Stuarda of Donizetti, based on the Schiller. Schiller had a massive talent for extensive confrontation scenes of a romantic order. And they have a certain carrying power in his play. Shakespeare wisely stayed clear of the subject, even when his patron, the king, was Mary’s son, James. Maxwell Anderson, however, riding his over-stuffed studio couch of talent into the ditch accomplished a traffic jam.

What’s the problem?

Mary made unwise decisions. If we had a good play about her today, it would resemble the decisions the present queen of England is seen to make in The Crown: every single decision Elizabeth II makes is wrong. But her string of errors holds the story of her reign together.

But Mary was also a creature of determining bad luck, which Elizabeth II is not. And bad luck is a subject that cannot be dramatized. While if ever an actress was born to overrule bad luck it was Katharine Hepburn, even she cannot do it. Dudley Nichols, an able screenwriter if there ever was one, cannot do it. Pandro Berman has produced it magnificently, but that merely detours the problem. And, of course, John Ford directed it with his crude sentimentality and his robust love of men doing manly things this time in kilts. They execute them in close order marches, singing in brave choral unison, amid the screeches of bagpipes.

Frederic March as the sexy rash warrior Lord Bothwell is miscast although he assumes the position with all the will of the matinée idol he wasn’t. Frederic March cannot assume a role perfect for Errol Flynn. March’s real-life wife Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth falls into the same trap that snared Bette Davis in the role: playing the queen as a waterfront thug.

Katharine Hepburn alone carries the film, which is all over the place. Alone among the actors at least she is not over-costumed by Walter Plunkett. Sometimes she plays in the Noble Mode of her era and choice, but often she is touching, not because she can generate at will that left-eye tear of hers, but because Mary was flustered and muscled by her Scots lairds. She assumed a throne whose rule of a child-king had been in the hands a regency of men too accustomed to having their own way, and her assumption was ignorant, incompetent, and incorrect. But to see Hepburn helpless has its appeal.

She is supported by the brilliant filming of Joe August. If you want to learn something about how to shoot this sort of royal hooey (Game Of Thrones), watch Mary Of Scotland. Watch how his camera holds his actors in its embrace, caresses them with black, searches their faces in fade-outs.

When I was eighteen I lived in Oundle and visited the next town over, Fotheringhay, where Mary was held by Elizabeth in house arrest. After much delay, Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant. But when Mary was beheaded and fell dead, a commotion bestirred her garments. Then it was discovered she has secreted her lapdog in the voluminous sleeves of her dress.

It’s a telling detail of a woman too trivial to grasp the reality of her royal situation. A child woman, of course, Hepburn could play but only as a hoyden as Jo in Little Women. Still she looks lovely in the role and acts it with all the restraint necessary to an actor baffled by a role of a sexy woman once played on Broadway by the least sexy actress of all, Helen Hayes. That is to say, into the basic material nothing fits because the basic material for drama is not there.

Hepburn is not box-office poison, but the material RKO gave her in those days was. Or perhaps her arrogance in thinking she could overcome that material by force of personality was the poison. Hepburn was not an actress who could shape material to her own ends. That was not within her genius or appeal. She could do a lot. She could not do everything. Still if you love or admire her, as I certainly do, here she is in the least heroic role she ever played. And it is worthwhile to see how she keeps her seat in the role to ride it right off the cliff at the end.

 

The Irishman

01 Dec

The Irishman—direct by Martin Scorsese. Crime Drama. 3 hours 29 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: An agèd Mob hitman/thug/bodyguard recalls his professional life as the favorite sponsee/liaison of two big business potentates, one a union leader, one a gangland don.

Robert DeNiro plays the leading, title, and starring role here, Frank Sheeran. What he learns from the first mentor, the don, played by Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino, don of the Buffalo Cosa Nostra, is mastery of keeping the peace both in himself and between warring factions. What he learns from the second, Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the largest union in the world and played by Al Pacino, is to urge such peacekeeping on his volatile boss every minute of the day.

The picture unfolds at 3 ½ hours but never stalls, never bores, never repeats.

It is essentially a string trio for viola, with Pacino playing the violin, Pesci playing the cello, and De Niro the viola. Despite its chamber-work-compression of instruments, its scale is widespread in its localities, while remaining detailed in those settings. It holds forth all over the country on the one hand, and on the other it counts on intimate closeups of the three stars. We range from the gigantic to the particular with no conflict of style. This is because the development of relations is forefront at all times and throughout.

As to the acting, that is another story. Pacino and DeNiro never play their characters. Despite the blue eyes, you never believe De Niro’s character’s background is Irish/Swedish from Pennsylvania. You never believe Pacino’s character’s background is Irish/German midwestern. Both of them present as lower-class New York City Italian first-generation, with accents and mannerisms to match.

As such, each of them uses the same acting techniques and styles they have developed and employed for upwards of 50 years. No concession is granted to the parts they play in terms of nature, class, region, or background. This has partly to do with their understanding of the limitations and securities of their basic techniques, and partly to do with the denial of Method Acting Training to emphasize language or voice training of any kind for actors.

On screen, De Niro and Pacino are not like Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa. For such is not within their talent and interest. Rather Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa are like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. So Pacino and De Niro in those parts is not a matter of acting at is greatest reaches. It is a matter of casting. Their performances present zero surprises. As character actors give Pacino and De Niro an F. As movie star actors give them an A+.

For they engage their roles, if not their characters, full bore. As an audience you fully set aside their lacks, overcome as you are by the strength of their technique, its torrent and delicacy. Pacino thrusts his Hoffa forward with every eccentricity at his muster, and you go along with it because it is required for us to witness Hoffa as not just difficult, but so difficult as to be impossible, and so impossible as to be doomed. This sort of acting is the hand Pacino has dealt himself under the table for years.

Right before our eyes, likewise, De Niro, ever since The Deerhunter, has lodged into his face that rictus which he wishes us to be taken for stress, eyes aglare with threat, corners of the mouth drawn down. Nonetheless, it provides his Frank Sheeran with the cover and restraint necessary for the crises he faces, and it gives to his loyalty the black shiny surface of honest patent leather. It also gives him the cover to perform that impressive phone conversation, executed quite properly with the trick of making it hard for him to breathe. Struggling for breath would happen to any of us thus circumstanced, the whole body almost closing down to survive what against its own nature he must avow in that call.

Of the three, Joe Pesci’s playing as the Godfather, god-father, and god/father is different from the volatility one associates with Pesci’s work in the past. None of that former crazy, wild, out-of-control rashness is on view. Every hint of danger and unpredictability is reduced to just one wild horse in the corral instead of a herd of them. Careful, just, reasonable is what he gives us, and his is the best performance of the three, because not only are the character and actor Italian so his physical metaphor works, but his conviction, common sense, and kindness have the enormous carrying power of the subtle. You look into his eyes, and you understand everything his character does and must do. Pesci’s Russell Bufalino does nothing out of evil, cruelty or meanness, but only for what is best for business, that is to say for the protection and benefit of the largest group of people.

Indeed, you might say that The Irishman is the secret files of the personnel departments of two big businesses. You might think this would be tedious. It is fascinating, because of Scorsese’s treatment of the material, his attention to detail and to his sticking to what he knows best—and his ear for it.

The principal defect of the picture and what accounts for its length lies in the failure of the script to distinguish what hit-men do. They eliminate people in advance of or in response to revenge. Or they eliminate people who are in the way. We do not see this distinction made in the film because so much attention is given to revenge-hits, whereas Hoffa’s disappearance was an instance of the latter. He was a mad dog threatening a whole village. He was in the way.

For, towards his end, Hoffa threatened Union hegemony and the conduct of its vast pension funds. He didn’t see what a threat he was both to union business and to Mafia business or recognize what the Mafia would do about it.

Big business directs the story as a whole. But The Irishman is a story worked out in terms of the relations between its three main characters. All three have big hearts. At the end, the business story and the plot of these big-hearted relationships converge to make the crisis. But it stops short. The crisis is never developed.

There is a scene missing.

The crisis is simple:

Can you murder your best friend?

Is is kinder to put your belovèd ailing dog out of its misery or should you let unfriendly disease slay it?

Nonetheless, while a dog may be man’s best friend, your best friend is not a dog.

Can you murder your best friend?

Is it better that Frank murder Hoffa because, according to the code, it is more loving, it is more honorable, it is more loyal?

Hoffa/Pacino is in the way.

As the servant of two masters, will De Niro remain loyal to his best friend, Pacino, or will he remain loyal to his father, Pesci?

Can you actually hold a gun and deliver two shots to the back of your best friend’s skull?

Can you murder your best friend?

The writer and director have not seen this complex matter plain. And without the focus of a great confrontation scene fully mounted, the film lacks a KO and spreads itself into 3½ hours.

And, without it, The Irishman falls short of the great category of a high tragedy which is its proper sphere.

(Although, if it had attainted high tragedy, it is possible that De Niro does not have the talent to perform it.)

Still the film is worth seeing, because every scene, every shot is choice. If Scorsese has failed to tell his drama well, Scorsese has not failed to tell his story well.

As for the rest, Anna Paquin is telling as the daughter who sees through the lie of Frank’s life. She’s underused in the part, which would be the central for the scenes left out.

And it’s lovely to see Harvey Keitel at work again.

The movie is beautifully cast, produced, acted, and set.

Who does not bow before editor Thelma Schoonmaker has neither manners nor sense.

Also praise be to those who aged and youthened the three men’s faces as time planed or chiseled them. None of this bothered me or detoured my attention. I invite everyone reading to a like infatuation.

For Scorsese has not just dealt a hand of cards. He has dealt four hands. And they are beautiful, as one by one he plays them out, card by card, before our eyes so privileged to see them.

 

The Laundromat

27 Nov

The Laundromat—directed by Steven Soderbergh. Crime Dramedy. 95 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: The mad fairytale of the notorious off-shore tax evasion con is danced into floodlit glare by its perpetrators and victims alike.
~
Here we have a that rarity, a comic polemic, apt, imaginative, convincing. How well directed? Perfectly. How written, edited, costumed, set, and designed? Perfectly.

As to the acting, all the actors should be shot.

And why is that?

Because how could any of them exceed in excellence what they triumph as here?

The piece takes on the illegal, devious, cheap, and costly scam of off-shore tax shelters. 60 billion tax dollars lost last year to the common weal, stolen and stashed by America’s corporations.

I mean, how small can you get? How vile, how cheesy to cheat one’s countrymen of education? Food? Care?

Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman play international profits isolators, Banderas from Latin America and Oldman from someplace Teutonic, Tweedledum and Tweedledee in perfect sync. Believe me, they are believed to be must seen. Which means you dare not miss the black comedy of their grift, the irony of their alibis, their slippery sloping mealy-mouthed lying tongues. They play other parts as well, all in aid of mendacity and moolah.

Meryl Streep?

I leave you to wake to her particular genius again. We keep falling asleep about her. She keeps waking us up.

Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer—all in top form. Clear, cogent, creative.

This is on Netflix and was produced for Netflix.

Tip top entertainment. Which induces us all to rise to the occasion, I should hope.

 

Pain And Glory

08 Nov

Pain and Glory—directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Drama. 113 minutes Color 2019. ★★★★★
The Story: A renown film director in retreat from his calling faces the remote and nearer past.
~
Why do we watch with unvarying attention this film which has no plot and no discernible story?

Whatever can be said about the director’s treatment of his material, it is too integrated to sit back and grasp. So too the writing. The editing. Of course Almodóvar is also a film director, but who cares enough about that or him to situate him in place of the character up on the screen?

Do we care whether he will ever direct a film again? Perhaps it lodges as the only issue for suspense, but does it matter to us as we see that particular actor play a director called Mello? Do we care about his hypochondria? How silly and self-indulgent all that seems, just some sort of alibi. Do we care about his increasing drug addiction? Of course not. We all intuitively know that addiction is not a subject for drama any more than it is a proper subject for therapy, since addiction turns humans into robots, and drama is not a subject for robots but for humans.

And so it goes.

Why are we placing our unvarying interest in this film as we watch it?

The cause is a combination of all the forces above aligned by the director—set design, cinemaphotography, editing, and writing—to entertain us so richly we cannot pay an attention to them that veers away from the energy and eyes of the main character and the actor who plays him, Antonio Banderas.

Will I spoil the surprise ending for you by telling you the film has one? That last scene tells you why all the issues above are begged. It also thrusts you back into devoting one’s respect for the actor where it is due and intended.

Banderas is an actor, like Richard Burton, always on reserve, always holding back, indeed so used to holding back that it does not occur either to him or to you that he he is holding back. And that is the story of his character’s nature, as we see it unfold and not unfold before us. Reserve is Banderas’ habit. Which he wears like a habit.

Indeed, there is a homosexual content to this film that you never suspect for a minute until halfway through it emerges as natural as dawn.

All we know about this character is that he suffers. And we also know not why but that in his circumstances we too would suffer. Until we see, one by one, his causes for suffering dissolve into non-issues.

Which does not mean they are not real.

They are. Banderas makes them so. We participate with him in cooperating with this film with the attention to it that makes it fine.

Also, of course, there exists the strength of the garish palette of Almodóvar. So, for a time, I allow myself to live in a scab-red kitchen and amid the blatant chromolithographic forces of his pictures which scatter from our notions of such subject matter the impression that reality must be banal to be true. No, their reality is as solid and vivid as their colors.

The title of the film provides this is as the first fact to be faced. So is the presence of the vivid Penélope Cruz. Pain is not the way to translate “dolor”. “Sorrow” is the translation. No one is in pain here. Everything is recoverable.

There is much to say about this film and the films of Pedro Almodóvar, and I have here said none of it. I leave those words to your conversations with your friends after you have enjoyed yourself in its spell.

 

Moonrise Kingdom

27 Aug

Moonrise Kingdom—directed by Wes Anderson. Slapstick Comedy. 94 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
The Story: A twelve year-old girl and boy run off into the woods together and a whole town seeks to find them.
~
Glad to see this from its start to its finish, for me it is as though Buster Keaton transmogrified himself into a technicolor camera and let loose a whopping good fable. Actually Moonlight Kingdom is It Happened One Night updated to 1965, and It Happened One Night was actually The Taming Of The Shrew 1591 updated to 1934. I am watching a movie with an animated cartoon aesthetic, except the aesthetic is belongs to Wes Anderson rather than Looney Tunes. Spectacular silliness.

For Anderson is not so much funny in what he says as in how he shows. And the acting style the actors hop onto is Anderson’s odd bandwagon of straightfaced dedication to the preposterous and necessary. The pictorial symmetry of the camera opens up my brain, as though both my eyes were finally and concurrently put to separate use and flattered so to be. As a story teller he compliments and complements me at every turn.

Here we have Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, and Bruce Willis to chase the children through the woods, and every one of them knows exactly what tone to pitch.

They are helped by a posse of a zillion boy scouts and a hurricane and Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, his Noah’s Fludde, and a fanciful score by Alexandre Desplat. Indeed I experienced the movie itself as a duet between the movie itself and its score.

Moonrise Kingdom is candy from one’s childhood, the kind I hadn’t tasted since long ago, the sort I didn’t think they made anymore. It put a smile on my face. It puts a smile on my face to search for the words to send you its way.

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

18 Aug

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?—directed by Richard Linklater. Drama. 130 minutes Color 2019
★★★★
The Story: Is this woman going insane?
~
What do you want from a movie?

The world!

Yes!!

And, if you can’t have that, then Cate Blanchette.

And here she is playing another different, difficult woman. I say “different” because you may remember Bette Davis. Bette Davis never played difficult women. She played impossible women, and they were all the same because she played them all the same, wonderful as she was. Blanchette’s are distinguishable from one another. Because she doesn’t play them all the same.

That she plays a genius here is not the difficulty. But it’s interesting.

Two things about it are interesting. The first is that you believe it. And the second, which has to do with the story, is: what does she have a genius for? And how is that joined to her madness?

Behind this lurks the deleterious narrative motive that this all has to do with +metoo issues, and also that these can be wrapped by a very small package of dialogue. The problem is, to begin with, *metoo issus can’t be wrapped up at all. First because they overflow the strings which they include. And secondly because +metoo issues do not pertain to this material.

This is the story of a woman who is chewing off her own tail by mocking the world around her. The director tips the odds against that world—which is not fair to the audience—but, by so doing, what harm is this woman doing herself, even so?

She is consuming herself alive, and this is the fascination of the performance and its mystery.

So what will save her?

To me the answer is imaginative and visibly wonderful.

Blanchette’s acting has great passages, if that’s worth a ticket to you. And she has
fine support in Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, and Laurence Fishburne, lovely actors all.

Be warned: the film enters an architecture of human difficulty not spared to females only.

 
 

Maudie

24 Jun

Maudie—directed by Aisling Walsh. Biopic. 1 hour 55 minutes. Color 2017.
★★★★
The Story: A crippled girl as the housemaid of a bad-tempered fisherman becomes a renowned painter.
~

Ethan Hawke is an actor less interesting than the vehicles in which he appears. His intelligence in choosing those vehicles has kept him before the public far longer than his talent warrants, but, God bless him, it has also brought those vehicles before a public that without him would never see them.

This is no small credit in his favor. So is the fact that he has kept his movie star figure. And he seems to have all his hair. Good.

My difficulty with him lies partly in the smug conformation of his mouth. And partly that he employs his mouth like a footman opening the front door as though he were lord of the manor. He uses it to semaphore thought, attitude, emotion, which tumult is always a sign of bad acting.

In this piece he uses his mouth to retain a vantage point of gruffness which is with us through thirty years of story. This is the Harrison Ford/Woody Harrelson School Of Acting. One never gets behind the gesticulation of the mouth. Yet here he is, holding the fort for an actor better than he, in this case Sally Hawkins.

Sally Hawkins plays Maudie Lewis, a young woman dismissed for a physical deformity, since her feet don’t work as others’ feet do and she has a cruel arthritis. She becomes the housekeeper of his tiny house, and, in time, despite his abuse of her, she become a renowned painter.

She’s an odd duck, and, while Hawkins overplays her, as a written character Maudie is impudent and fun, which saves her. Hawkins performance of her is also saved by the same thing that somewhat sinks her performance, Hawkins’ mastery of detail. This excess of detail is designed to pull in pathos, which is unwanted as a narrative fuel in this material, because the film is not about their relationship or about her so much as it is about how art, in this case painting, takes over the lives of everyone connected with it.

It is a rare movie for this reason. Most movies about painters have to do with the inadequately understood greatness of an artist. Fiddlesticks! It is not the painter that is of importance, it is the paintings, and these do not require a dramatic film of any sort.

The drama inheres in the fallacy that the big mean husband is in control, as he claims, over the poor trembling wife. He demands absolute leadership as the owner and head of the house and the male and healthy. And it looks like the weak cripple female must succumb and follow and abide.

But the drama behind this display of violence and subjection to it lies another drama, which is not stated even once but which subconsciously claims our interest, and that is the drama not of “Who leads?” but of “What leads?”

This being a movie of a certain length, mustn’t the woman lead in the final reel? Mustn’t the poor-put-upon cripple have her day? Mustn’t the underdog rise triumphant?

It’s a natural assumption, one born out of the convention in many movies. We expect it. We wish for it. But what lies behind this surface drama is the truth, not that love prevails between these two backward misfits, which it does, but rather that the love that prevails is Maud’s love, not of him, but of her soul’s relation to painting, that is to say of work, that is to say of her sacred calling.

This is the drama that unfolds like an unanticipated flower. Its theme is never stated. And this tacit suspense is what grips the audience as they await for what they do not know. For what really leads is Maud’s campaign to paint. That’s what leads and that’s what follows, all the way through. The battle in the film is not the battle for love, but for leadership, not of male over female power, nor of the power of one character over another, health over disability. The husband thinks he’s fighting Maud, but he’s not. Maud is not fighting him. She’s fighting to paint, but never tells. So he is outflanked.

This leader-theme seems to emerge unwittingly under the director Aisling Walsh’s hands. She tells Maud Lewis’s story well: the house is convincing, the landscape is convincing, the other actors are convincing, the story is convincing, and Ethan Hawke himself has passages in which he too is beautifully convincing. There is not a moment in which one’s attention is not held. We enter a small world from which emerges a large and radiant beauty.

The signal error of the film is that we never see Maud Lewis’s paintings plain. The color pallet of the film is muted. But the color pallet of the actual Maud Lewis paintings was brash, bright, and gay. Her pictures should have been brought forward at the end, boldly once, so we could see them in their vigor, vividness, and truth. What an unexpected, indeed astounding contrast they would have made to the dull brutality she endured and the dire pressures of her relation with her husband.

Still, the film’s value transcends its defects by miles. Those defects stand out in this review, but they do not stand out when you see the picture. Instead you rejoice in what is there, just as Maud did in her paintings when she made them.

 

Double Indemnity

03 Jun

Double Indemnity—directed by Billy Wilder. Crime Drama. 107minutes Black and White 1944.
★★★★
The Story: How dares the wife of a man who detests her collect twice the amount of his insurance when she and his insurance agent kill him?
~
The odd thing about Double Indemnity and the stalling point is that an inquest would have revealed at once that Stanwyck’s husband died from strangulation and not by a fall from a moving train. What were the writers, Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder thinking of!

So in other ways also is the rug pulled out from under this much praised and revived picture, for you never believe for a minute in the sexual attraction of Stanwyck and MacMurray. Perhaps that’s what’s so perverse about it. You are told to believe it, so you set the matter aside as understood and move on. This is perhaps intended—a sexual absence participating in a list of uncertainties to throw the viewer subtly off-balance at the same time as seizing attention as to their outcome.

A glimpse at the 1974 color version of this, based on the 1944 screenplay, reveals one basic certainty about the film, which is that its watching depends upon its being in black and white not color. And that Edward G. Robinson possesses a command of a cigar that Lee J. Cobb could never even dream of.

What this also leads one to realize is that black and white is probably necessary for all noir, for black and white is always grey, and color never is. So the true star of the picture is the cinemaphotographer John F. Seitz. For it is he who lit and filmed it such that we as audience enter into the mind-set of the material’s shadows, risks, lusts, greed, and duplicity, all in grey in many shades and stripes. As audience you are inside the body of a deviant mood. Even the sunshine on the street shows a boy pitching a ball to a girl batter. How bright, how innocent, and how free from ulterior motive. And yet how inverted. For in the movie, the male is also not batting the ball, the female is. Walter Neff enters the house and imagines that he is hitting homers, whereas the lady on the landing with the towel and the sunglasses in her hand and the gold anklet actually chooses his pitches.

Likewise, both MacMurray and Stanwyck wear wedding rings, MacMurray’s band perhaps to be useful to repel overly ambitious bed-partners, and Stanwyck’s laden with a jewel the size of a Buick and big enough to drown her in her own pool. Wedding rings: strange courtesy between these two in their hardboiled courtship.

MacMurray is called upon to play the tough-mouthed lothario, Stanwyck the fast-talking dame—both voices of the great Raymond Chandler who co-wrote the script with Wilder. But the idea of MacMurray being a tough-tongued lothario is absurd. Lying behind it and lying every inch of the way in him is the biggest sexual sap of all Hollywood leading men. Inside himself, McMurray doesn’t know the first thing about sex. it’s part of his charm. It’s what he was always cast for.

Chandler’s voice on their tongues confuses the film even more with its sardonic edge. The audience never knows where to settle itself as it watches, and this remains true of the picture no matter how many times one has seen it, and I saw it when it first came out, so I have a lead on everyone.

Another confusion for the audience is that Stanwyck plays her part scene by scene, with no overriding arc. Her acting leaves no traces. This means that the actor can invest as truth fully in every lie her character tells. So the audience never knows what the real truth is. The only truth she reveals is her shock just before the trigger is pulled that kills her. She never imagined not living forever.

MacMurray, on the other hand, has a different task, which unlike Stanwyck, is to carry the film, for he is never off camera, and the story of this picture is his. You also believe everything he does, but in a different way. And why? Because he’s just a big handsome galoot with broad shoulders who, because there is a pot of gold at the end, mistakes Stanwyck for a rainbow.

MacMurray is a man who doesn’t know his place. Colbert and Lombard, who were his usual co-stars, were out of his class. meaning above it. Stanwyck is also out of his class because she is beneath it. MacMurray reads their sexual connection as an equality, and it is not. MacMurray and Stanwyck made other films together, before and after, for which they were better suited. But here their ill-matching adds a confused and perverse interest to their so-called passion for one another. As you watch, you never know where you stand. Or sit. Or walk, as you try to draw a conclusion.

The conclusion of the film clarifies one strand, which is the relations between MacMurray and his immediate boss in the office, played with unerring alacrity by Edward G. Robinson.

Is their affection for one another honest or dishonest? Much play has been given to the idea that it is homosexual. This, of course, is impossible. It is honest, not homosexual, but it operates at an off-angle. It is rather the affinity of team players, one an ace athlete, the other the coach. Or it is the fondness of natural male friends but of different generations? Anyhow, the idea that a genital ambition lies behind this is unwarranted, misleading, and spiteful. Humans come to love those they go to school with, go to church with, volunteer with, live near, or work with, and this is the latter. It must be remembered that in this film the word “love” is written by Raymond Chandler, and therefore it includes in its spelling the reverse.

The subordinate, MacMurray, has it over Robinson because Robinson is too passionate a workaholic to light his own cigars. So instead of suggesting you drool over a gay subtext, let’s point you in the direction of those cigars. Robinson seems never without one, and what an adjunct they are to his genius. They keep him in actorly motion. They provide power and point. They conduct whole scenes like a wand. They lend triumphant confidence to his orations. He is a master with a Dutch Master.

Stanwyck and Robinson and MacMurray were the highest salaried people in the world. At the peak of WWII, the scathing truth of the war was that Rosie The Riveter dismissed females’ supposed lack of the ruthless acumen, mind and finesse needed to win a war. But momism refused to die—to this day Disney keeps it embalmed.

The mental conditioning that gave rise to film noir was that, post WWII (The War is never mentioned in this film.) the American imagination withdrew women from the home-front and put them back in the home, and any divergence from home is to be considered perilous to democracy and to the world as a whole.

Because World War II had flatly disproved the notion of female frailty, woman were now willing to kill in order to denounce the lie of the limit of their power. To embody this outrage, the tiger-woman in the anklet of film noir came into being.

Euripides put women on the stage as not to be underestimated.

Film noir put women right back on that same stage—Medeas, dangerous when wet. Dry Stanwyck’s character off with the bath towel she first appears in, Phyllis Dietrichson is a woman who would never desire to have children. There’s no mom in her. And as to her place in the kitchen, spurn anything she cooks up for you there. She lives at the other end of the spectrum of survival which is Death. As an emblem, Phyllis Dietrichson (Son Of Marlene Dietrich who never had a son) is not the psychology, but the righteous zeitgeist of women, then and now.

Double Indemnity is a perfect example of move-as-machine. You get caught up in the uneven gears of plot, casting, and performance into which the brilliant photography sidles you. Which is to say, it is a movie driven by the trance of its photographic appearance. Whether we know it or not, and we do not know it, any more than Neff and Dietrichson do not know anything they do not know, its photography is the chief, true and overbearing entertainment of Double Indemnity. Its photography swallows us whole. It is wonderful to be so lost. Such film photography is with us still, and I hope always will be.

 

Morning Glory

19 May

Morning Glory—directed by Roger Michell. Comedy. 117 minutes Color 2010.
★★★★★
The Story: An eager-beaver producer scrambles to save the sinking ship of a famed TV show but comes up against a gristly superstar and a soured anchorwoman who do not believe she can do it.
~
One longs to sit down and sing her praises. She when young would have been given the leading role here, now played perfectly in a quite different manner by Rachel McAdams—that part: the scatterbrained, young woman on the rise.

Instead, Diane Keaton plays a senior anchorwoman on the oldest and most decrepit morning show in the world. It is a position by which the character has has reached the peak of her talent, ambition, and capacity. This means that she is playing, not the daffy subservient one, a part in which she was equaled only by Goldie Hawn, but The Long Established Star.

Watch her, a master of detail, create this individual without a word. How she pulls the hair on the sides of her face to make it frame it into perfect symmetry for the camera. How she applies an improvement of lipstick at the last second. How she arrives in shameless curlers for a conference with the crew. How she smoothes her figure for promo shots with her co-anchor. How she somehow arranges her inner being to show us how this woman gloms onto her Life role. How she accepts her position will never get better and respects that fact, so never gets above herself.

We have seen Diane Keaton for many years. Better in comedy, we would conclude. And that’s quite all right, because comedy has given her longevity. Comic parts are still written for senior actresses to play. Comedy. therefore, has her still before the cameras in principal roles. Comedy and her glorious smile.

And that her face does not seem to have endured any tell-tale procedures. Procedures that are meant to make actresses look young succeed only to make them appear immortal. In the way zombies are immortal.

And Harrison Ford’s face seems also to have escaped the sculptor’s knife. It’s crumpled as an old boot. He has never been better in anything than he is as the prideful, mean, grouse of a once-famous newscaster, choked by nineteen Emmys and a taste for vintage scotch. To see that face in action is To Witness The Ogre—a lion roaring at a petunia.

The story focusses its attention more on him than on Keaton because its actual focus is the ambitious, workaholic, blabbermouth Assistant Producer who tries to rescue from extinction the oldest morning show of all. She is able, devoted, and a little slip of a girl. Keaton succumbs to the new producer early on. So the main body of the story turns its attention to the stand-off between Ford as the old, retrograde superstar and the new girl in charge of him.

Rachael McAdams does her full justice. One thing you may notice about her seizing of that justice is that the story gives McAdams full opportunity to enter the role with her whole body at all times. She runs when she could walk. She is never still even when she should sleep. She makes love on the fly. She is physically obsessed. It is a great example for all actors of the absolute need for full bodily engagement at all times of the person one plays.

For some actors this comes naturally as rain. Jeff Goldblum walks—and you just want to sit there and watch. He’s not doing anything but walking in the way he normally walks, but that‘s why he’s a star. You want to watch such humans. You don’t want to miss a thing.

The movie does not fall into the shallow trap of linking either women up with the Harrison Ford’s character. We have instead Patrick Wilson as the juicy neighbor who sees through McAdams’ gaucheries and woos her still. He has something of the way and look of Paul Newman, so it no wonder he succeeds.

Beautifully directed by Roger Michell and perfectly written by Aline Brosh McKenna, perfectly edited, costumed, cast, cut, produced, and set. Morning Glory succeeds on all levels, including not resembling the Morning Glory movie of 1934 that won Katharine Hepburn her first Oscar, also playing a show business wannabe.

Instead, taste Morning Glory, a light comedy, as A Special on the menu.

One wonders how long such skilled players of light comedy, so important to weekend film-going, will still fill theatres when blockbusters and smaller screens have filched audiences from the multiplexes. What will happen to such comedic talents as Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Jennifer Anniston bring us, when movie houses are the best place for us to love them?

Even though I saw Morning Glory in my own house.

Where I strongly urge you to gather soon and enjoy it too, whether I am home or not.

 

Diane

17 Apr

Diane—written and directed by Kent Jones Comedy/Drama 95 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: Diane is the story of how People take care of one another, take care with one another, care about one another, just as this single, unheroic woman does.
~
Invisible people? What are they about? The people we dismiss—what are their ordinary lives about?

Movies about black people make them into heroes, stars, entertainers, victims or fools. But of ordinary black people we know nothing, save what August Wilson and a few others have vouchsafed us.

Oh, there’s nothing wrong with stories of black heroes, entertainers, victims, or fools. It’s just that white people have been telling such stories about themselves for ever, so we never get out of the jail of such stories.

But here’s an unveiling of a mystery—what are the old up to?

The answer is that behind the mask of our indifference to them, they are living full lives. Lives with a character that we never see and with a smartness we might never guess.

“How old would you be if didn’t know how old you wus?” said Satchel Paige.

Oh, they’d don’t live lives dancing on tables, but that doesn’t mean, behind our disdain of them, that they are not still alive and on the move, dealing and working and exercising the nifty wit of experience.

This movie is not about a co-dependent woman who goes about breaking her back for a love that never comes. Not at all. Yes, she does a lot of public service, but that is a narrative device to get her into a variety of settings to deal with a variety of folks her own age and degree.

The story brings them all together in various kitchens and parlors and hospital rooms. Once there, we do not wish to look away—for the mysterious ordinary life of the old is wonderful, funny, smart, loving, fully engaged.

A movie may be covered in rubies. How wonderful! But a movie might be a piece of costume jewelry also worth looking at. The kitchens, parlors, super-markets, hallways, bars, snowy roads, back alleys, and lower-middle-class houses that bring us along in Diane may validate our lives with an attention better than rubies—better, because we ourselves know them better than we know rubies. They are right there on the street that we live.

The lives the old live are not about saving the world. The lives of the old are about the old. Saving the world might be just one such activity now as they save one another.

For when illness comes in the front parlor, it means you you set your ambition aside for it and entertain differently there. Death comes like the silence after a thunderclap. What do the old do then? Cock their ear for the next thunderclap?

Mary Kay Place is an actor I have never noticed before, but her face alone can carry a film. As Diane, she is a rapture to behold, and so is Estelle Parsons and all the other fine senior actors—none of whom are made out to be cute or spry, or particularly fragile. All of whom stand out—as the young in movies never stand out as individuals. The old are finally what they are—unlike the young, who always wish to be anything but what they are.

Diane is a unique experience in American movies—by which I mean both that it is a remarkable experience and the first such experience I know of in American film. It’s not there to teach you anything. It has no politics. It has no preachment.

Its superseding truth is that life has no plot. And that a story may have no line. It may simply splash down. The splash of life, which the old come to know, we come to witness here. Martin Scorsese produced it. How old is Martin Scorsese? 72.

At such an age, what better place could he bring us to then than Diane?

 
Comments Off on Diane

Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Mary Kay Place

 

Robert Redford Retires

30 Mar

The Old Man and The Gun—written and directed by David Lowery. Crimeflick. 93 minutes Color 2018.

The Sting—directed by George Roy Hill. Grifterflick.124 minutes Color 1973.

A Walk In The Woods—directed by Ken Kwapis. Palflick. 104 minutes Color 2015
~
These three films show Redford in his characteristic role: the male involved in an improbable feat.
In The Sting he plays a cheap street con who gets an upgrade by mentor Paul Newman to engage in the overthrow of a wicked gang lord.
In A Walk In The Woods Redford pals up with a reprobate from his young manhood played by Nick Nolte, and, they set out as two out-of-shape old guys to walk the Appalachian trail from Georgia to Maine, 2,000 and some miles.
In The Old Man And The Gun, Redford plays an 81 year-old bank robber executing cross-country holdups, eluding capture.
All three films take on character by the smartness of the scripts and their environments.
The environment of A Walk In The Woods is the Appalachian Trail, through whose splendors we seem to walk with them.
The Sting won Oscars for the great Henry Bumstead for Set Design and for James W. Payne for Set Decoration, and to enter this film is to enter the ‘30s which I lived through and to be astounded by the imagination, authenticity, and liveliness of everything that surrounds the actors. The film won seven Oscars and these, along with Edith Head’s for costumes, remain eminent.
The splendors of its sets hold the film together for a time. But eventually improbabilities become unswallowable. The man in the black glove is forced on us too late as proof of Newman’s affection for the Redford character. As to the waitress set-up—brilliant but preposterous—Redford’s assassins would not have known he would go there and behave as he does. The difficulty with making grifter movies is that if you don’t watch out the audience itself gets cheated. Which is to say, let down with a baffling disappointment. So here.
Each film is well written. The Sting is a plot to produce a guessing game. A Walk In The Woods provides a guessing game without a plot, but the suspense is the same: will the two men be able to accomplish their goal?
In The Sting, Newman and Redford do not resemble Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, since in The Sting they do not act as a duet because they seldom act together, which Redford and Nick Nolte certainly do in A Walk In The Woods.
In A Walk In The Woods, although you wouldn’t think that as acting instruments Nolte and Redford would play well together, it turns out the comedy of their relationship depends on just that, and they do. Line by line of Redford/Nolte dialogue surprises as each man retains his self-possession while faced with and forgiving the incompatibility of the other.
Redford’s career in film began and remained grounded in the beauty of his appearance. The carefully disarranged head of thick hair, probably red, often blond, now brown, the fine shape of the skull, the strong jaw, the comic book hero mouth, the body of an athlete, white teeth, well-placed balanced voice, and the masculine gesture. Film by film we await this beauty to show itself or reveal its decline, much as we did with Elizabeth Taylor. Over time Redford seems not to have subjected his face to procedures. Of course, his Apollonian locks had always been worked up.
But even so, the curious thing about Redford is how much older he always was than the roles he played. He is 37 when he makes The Sting, not 17 which is what his character should be. Still he looks young enough.
What Redford did to retain his youth beyond its shelf-life, which was almost outdated by the time he began, was to keep his figure. I suppose he did this though exercise and diet. So he is able to make The Natural aged 48 and Out Of Africa aged 49.
But one price he pays for his beautiful youth is the limit it imposes on what he can show as an actor. His looks and his always advanced age oblige his acting to be cagey. Redford’s technique from the beginning to now is to offer unfinished emotional response. Nothing of his inner gesture is half-baked—it simply stops. He is never in extremis. He is always on hold, because he is always playing someone younger than he is. To play younger than he is, he must make his technique immature, that is, cut-off.
This means his work as an actor will have the same appeal as Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper once had, the appeal of the laconic American male—a popular type, the reserved man. What results is popular success, but also the eventual response in the audience that Redford never will show anything new because he never can show much.
Redford is therefore from the first and inevitably cast in parts of heroic mold–a mold. Comedy would rather not invite so staid an instrument into its jam session. But, because he has breadth of imagination for other actors, he is an actor around whom comedy can take place, such as Barefoot In the Park, where he is called upon to stop being such a stick-in-the mud. In A Walk In The Woods he actually does get suck in the mud—as well as the mud that is Nick Nolte, who is marvelously funny in his part. Redford’s line readings are never funny, but often humorous. Nolte’s readings are both. Redford is the one you watch. Nolte is the one you listen to, because he is the one more realistically and completely alive.

In A Walk In The Woods, Redford lives in an immaculate house with an immaculate wife, played with rich imagination by Emma Thompson, and in his life he has had sexual relations with this woman only, a record that is put to the test by Mary Steenburgen who plays, also with rich imagination, an avid motel owner.

Redford’s film characters tend to not fool around. He plays the perfect romance novel leading man. Indeed, he plays The American Dreamboat. You never see him off this ship even when drowning, even as in All Is Lost as his boat founders in the middle of the Pacific. For his line-readings never venture into the depths, into the rash. He never goes beyond his appearance. You never see him be ugly.

For instance he could never have played Paul Newman’s great poker scene in The Sting because he would not have risked Paul Newman’s nasty streak—a big stock-in-trade for Newman. But in A Walk In The Woods Redford’s line readings work well as the defensive measures of a loaf of white bread with a little cinnamon in it. Nolte has his character down pat, and his every wheeze amazes us because the energy behind his character is not hidden. Everything about Redford’s readings satisfies a comedy of taciturn defense. Everything he does suits to a T the description of his character in the script.

It goes beyond that in small ways only.

But those small ways are precisely cinematic. You never see Redford fake anything. He never uses his face to act with, he always comes from his reserves. For, that his convictions remain unstated does not mean that he does not have them. He has the virtue of perseverance—which holds him in good stead in All The President’s Men, Downhill Racer and many other parts.

We all know what Redford’s job as an actor has been. It is to construct on his beautiful shoulders platforms for other excellences—Sundance Film Festival and various nature conservation platforms. Acting is his penultimate calling only. Social benefit his ultimate one, and in this mission lies his prominence and his daring. That is where his heroism lodges, not in the celluloid heroism his beauty limited him to in film but which nonetheless provided the original platform of heroism on which his really heroic public missions could be borne.

The hero sacrifices his life to move mankind forward. As one watches Redford this knowledge in us draws our attention to a real-life hero, acting before us, as though we could see in the exercise of his modest craft the ultimate gift he ultimately put its use to.

With The Man With Gun Robert Redford bows out of film acting. And watching him in it is to see that he knows as much about that craft as Barbara Stanwyck and the factory actors of her day once did. You watch Redford’s mouth, when he acts, not his eyes, for his beautiful face is beautiful in its smallest gesture. Yes, he is limited in his instrument, yet, in what is essentially a comic role, the limitation of his technique is the limitation of a pond. Its motion is not oceanic, but its character is honest and worth dwelling on. We watch and wait the ruin of time.

He is now 81. Lines web his face and jowls add. The one difficulty now is his eye makeup. His age-lengthened eyebrows flare like petals and cast shadows on his brow to make his eyes look perpetually startled. His massive head of hair still lives. He still looks fit.

He plays an old man addicted to bank robbery. It is a typical Redford feat-role, and he plays it, as he always has, as a person to whom nothing life-threatening can happen. Jumping off a cliff, drowning at sea, careening in a car chase—in all film situations Redford’s character remains unperturbed. He shows no fear, is never nervous, for him peril has no peril. But also no excitement.

His character robs banks because it is invigorating, thrilling, daring. We are told this is so, he says it is so, but Redford evinces not the slightest glimmer that this is so. His affect in the heists is requesting lemon for tea. He is gentlemanly in all his hold-ups, even humorous. Well, the film is a biopic based on Forrest Tucker a renown back robber and prison escape artist known for his good manners. But Tucker did not rob banks for fame. He robbed them for the high, an exultation Redford never shows. Perhaps Redford himself has never known it.

Nonetheless while there are no big moments in Redford’s acting, only small ones—he is a master of them, of passing moves, of passages from one inner state to another. He is an international star with no oceans. He is all inlets.

But Redford brings to Forrest Tucker as to the Appalachian hiker the same all-purpose humor from which to launch his lines. This works well with his flirting scenes with Sissy Spacek, in which she is superb. She can’t make him out, and his flirting consists of his teasing her with it. They play as perfectly as Swiss cheese and ham. He is faithful to his feeling for her and to his job, but he never proposes marriage or a work ethic. That is to say, Redford’s character is resolutely faithful without having to be be committed.

The hero with the face unperturbed? But with an inside joke withal.

Surely, this is the way to play an anti-hero crook, for if you don’t play it that way, the audience is not going to go along with you. Cagney knew this, and his fast-talking smart-alecks pioneered what Redford chooses to play now—without the bumptiousness, of course. And Redford’s modest, confident, easy attitude plays well against the perils of his bank-robber profession.

Once upon a time, the story goes, Redford campaigned to play a character who longed for a woman who refused him. The producers sat him down and said, “Robert, dear—really—have you ever been with a woman in your life who refused you?”

The privileges and protections of great beauty insulate common perils from those who have it. There are certain things these people never have to risk and certain strategies they never have to attempt. As an actor this limits Redford. No matter what he does, the Redford character is impervious. This makes him a movie “hero.” His looks make him a matinee idol. These combined with his acting talent—that is to say someone who can tell the truth while lying and you believe him—make him a star, whether he is particularly real or not. John Wayne is a credible actor, but he is not real. No one is really like that. No one is really like Redford the movie star. Certain truths, as in this final film, he has no access to.

Elizabeth Moss in her single scene is wonderfully real as the daughter Tucker has never seen. Casey Affleck chooses to play exhaustion as the police detective who sets his sights on tracking down the robber. It is a smart choice because exhaustion keeps us in suspense as to whether the character will be able to sustain the oomph necessary to capture an old man, yet one so fleeting. We never see the moment when Affleck finds where the robber lives, but the performance is highly original. In the actor’s embrace of the tiring embrace of family life playing off against the tiring banality of a detective’s life and the price tiredness exacts in making this or any capture worthwhile—in this tiredness lies the energy of the film’s entire narrative.The film does not end. It simply stops. It doesn’t end, because addiction does not end. Tucker never stopped. So the film had to.

I will miss Robert Redford as a movie presence. I hope he sticks around and that I hear about his doings. He has the modesty of the noble heart. He has achieved the remoteness of the admirable.
When we were younger, we once bumped into one another. There we were, alone, between two movie vans of The Hot Rock he was making with Ron Liebman in West Greenwich Village. We chanced upon one another, looked at one another and immediately knew what we saw.

I saw a man of my own age whom I thought would be taller and who in real life was not relevant to me. He saw a man in whom he recognized something noteworthy without being able to name it. We did not speak.

In The Hot Rock he played a robber. Early or late, what Robert Redford had was the sort of inner and outer male beauty that one wants to invade one, to possess and to allow to possess one.
For beauty is a thing which that semi-permeable membrane, a human being, absorbs like a sponge. This is why Redford functions on that high level of stardom: longevity. His acting and his parts must fit into the sheath of that beauty. Males audiences can be with him and experience that beauty even when they sense that, in real life, through no one’s fault, they might not be companionable. But watching him in film, men clothe themselves in his perfection for a time and sip of the enormous advantages physical beauty guarantees. Even age 81 this is true of him. Robert Redford is still a robber we want to rob.

2544 words

 
Comments Off on Robert Redford Retires

Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Emma Thomson: acting goddess, Mary Steenburgen

 

Blond Venus

30 Mar

Blond Venus—directed by Josef von Sternberg. Hollywood Extravaganza. 93 minutes Black and White 1932.
★★★★★
The Story: An inventor’s life’s work falls into jeopardy when a terminal illness strikes him, but his wife goes to work to speed him to a cure, and while he is away a man who looks like Cary Grant turns up at her place of business.
~
Taking Marlene Dietrich’s movies over-all, one thing remains constant: her business sense triumphs over the lust she inspires.

In this she is a statue in the park for the Me-Too limb of the women’s movement. For her triumph exalts her above prostitution which it also boldly includes.

Her films are set up to spotlight the gleam of drool on men’s lapels. This is not to say men are entirely at fault, for she has inspired this eructation herself, with a lowering of her meaningful eyelids, and a toss of the head to dismiss men as so much dandruff. This is because for her lust is a business.

In reviewing the Dietrich-von Sternberg films, what’s wrong about them is what’s right about them—meaning that every single thing is right about them. There is no point in calling them names, any more than there is a point in calling bonobo apes immoral. For his films neither redress nor replace morality. Morality is not their business. Their business is to pose. They are tableaux vivants of lust.

It is foolish to say what a thing should be or should not be, since at every point von Sternberg’s films with Dietrich are what they should or should not be. For Josef von Sternberg presents Marlene Dietrich as an object of desire so obvious, so uncontradictable, no word can be said against the fact that a film of his not merely represents but expresses in concrete form the lust in him for her that he felt and put on screen as natural as water. When you see The Scarlet Empress, you see the Hellish side of his lust for her pronounced as a gargoyle. But this hell is present in all seven films

In Blond Venus this hell takes the form of “the law of virtue”. This law stands in direct opposition to her nightclub stardom, an eminence which no true mother, of course, should occupy. She is advertised as blond, which Dietrich may have been, who cares? But no woman more unlike Venus could be conjectured. Venus is open, voluptuous, welcoming. Being with her, I found Marlene Dietrich to be cold as a statistic. And, while she is called Helen here and Helen was blond, it is also true that her smirk causes disasters in anyone near enough to witness it.

Herbert Marshall had the bad habit of English actors of speaking his lines faster than meaning can catch up with them. But he has a scene where he pleas for her and he has a scene where he is angry with her, and meaning is present. He plays the ailing husband, and off he goes to Europe for a cure. However, his introduction to Dietrich takes place in an extended nude bathing scene in which he sees her, watches her, talks to her, and steals all her clothes.

That is to say, lust launches the story. Shockingly, we next see Marshall with Dietrich as his wife and the mother of a four year-old son, Dickie Moore, in a setting which is domesticity itself. Dickie Moore went on to give Shirley Temple her first kiss, then rape Julie Harris in A Member Of The Wedding, then appear (with me) in Siobhan McKenna’s performance of Shaw’s Saint Joan on Broadway, then found an agency for child actors, write Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, about child actors, and marry Jane Powell. He is the best actor in this film.

He represents a recess from lust. For during Marshall’s cure in Europe, Marlene takes up with Cary Grant, a playboy with patent leather hair, who has given Marlene the money to send Marshall abroad.

Yes, Grant’s lust picks up where Marshall’s left off. For Grant she leaves stardom as a nightclub singer. For him she leaves her little apartment. For Grant, Dietrich goes into a trance on his lust. Nonetheless, when Marshall comes back, Dietrich would return to him, but Marshall will have none of her.

She escapes with her little son and resumes her path as a nightclub star. But here lies the crux. Lust now wears the pants. And we see Dietrich once again in them, flirting with the nightlife both male and female, her business to drive humans mad.

That is to say lust has achieved its natural and original state of having no gender. In this case—at the near end of its career—lust has no gender because it is all played out.

The law chases her. That is to say her humdrum husband has her chased from state to state, job to job, to reclaim his child. His child is that state of being which denotes the elimination of lust.

That is to say, lust in its most extreme form.

I say no more save that you never believe Cary Grant’s line readings, but you do believe the skepticism in his glance as he sees her sing for the first time. No wonder. It was the heart of the Depression, and the one entertainment everyone could afford was lust. No one wanted to be told that that too would be drying up and blowing away. But von Sternberg doesn’t care. Nor, obviously, does Dietrich. For she too had a child to support and a Paramount contract to be responsible to to do it.

In her films as in life, Marlene Dietrich was a business-woman. That her business in her films was prostitution is no mark against her. In films or out, she lives exalted above reputation. She is a triumph, not of Women’s Liberation but of Women’s Power. She broke the glass ceiling by not even acknowledging it. As a professional allumeuse, she put on her trousers and made her mark, just as she had to to meet the rent, as any other human has to, rent or no rent.

 
Comments Off on Blond Venus

Posted in ACTING STYLE: Hollywood Extravaganza, Marlene Dietrich

 

Ash The Purest White

23 Mar

Ash The Purest White—written and directed by Zhanke Jia. Relationship Drama. In Chinese with English subtitles. 135 Minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The story: An underworld kingpin and his moll are linked, but do the links change over time?
~
Lots of cityscapes. Lots of landscapes. Lots of facescapes. In Ash, I never ceased to be surprised by what I saw of China, which I never expected to be that way at all.

Nor did I tire of the story of the relationship of these two. Was it going to end happily? Was it going to end unhappily? Was it going to end? Was it not going to end?

Oh, in the end, it adhered to the truth of such relationships. They are with one one’s whole life long, no matter what one says or does.

The playing out of this truth makes the film.

What gives it suspense is that you never know where the story is going, where it will take the characters, or where they will go from there.

And what makes the story gripping is that one must see it through to the end. One is never lost, because one is always journeying—to where?

Laid before us as the gangster is Fan Leo, àla George Raft, and very good he is, too.

The story’s principal focus is on the young moll played by Tao Liao. She is an actress of tremendous command. And she belongs in the part, because there is a strength in her character which we wonder will be her salvation or her ruin.

That she is a natural arbiter of justice is clear from the beginning. For she is also the arbiter of condemnation. And we know this because every man around her accepts punishment and mercy from her as within her natural right to bestow. It’s an extraordinary entrance for an actress—for itself and for the fact that it leads one to expect a lot more from her character, right from the top. Will her underlying ethos be destroyed or fed by the difficulties of her adventure?

The director is extremely fortunate to have this actress, able to deliver the age-range of the character, the right look, and an ability to inspire us to follow doggedly just behind her as she makes her way through the ash of the prison of her dream.

She and the film have won many awards, as has Eric Gautier who filmed it. See Ash for yourself. Don’t expected the expected when you do.

 
 

Everybody Knows

11 Mar

Everybody Knows—directed by Asghar Farhadi. Whodunit. 2 hours 21 minutes Color 2019

***
The Story: a big family gathers for a fine wedding, when a crime occurs that snares everybody in its net.
~
What great big loud fun Spanish nuptials!

It goes on for a time. All our characters are established and aren’t they great! You think you’re in a film by Jean Renoir!

Then the crime occurs.

What happens then is the film goes on for 2 hours and 21 minutes as the rug is pulled out from under our interest. and our loyalty to it. And how does that come about? How does the author and director manage to go about disengaging us from film, crime, characters, all?

He does it by not know when to shut up. He wrote what he directed—always a dangerous duet. The director falls in love with everything he wrote and the writer falls in love with everything he directed, and the audience is left with nothing whatsoever to fall in love with. Every variation on his themes is included, written to the maximum of histrionics and, because he is the director, the actors must perform that way.

Here we have the beauteous Penelope Cruz who brings to the screen once again the fulness of heart, body, and talent Sophia Loren used to please us with. She is the mother of two children, a boy of eight and a girl of seventeen. The wedding is attended by her former childhood beau, played by Javier Bardem, who never fails to intrigue. They and everyone else are perfectly cast.

One problem arises with the title of the movie: everybody knows what?

Well, there is only one thing to know: the father of Cruz’s daughter. And, since there is only one thing to know we all know that it must be Bardem. So we know from the start what we shouldn’t. And knowing it pollutes our suspense.

Trouble is you always suppose he knows it, too, for when the crime befalls, he alone behaves like father.

But does his character know he’s the father? No, he does not! We must be wrung with impatience to witness as he is wrung to witness what every character and every audience member watching knows from the start.

Oh, dear, I’m coming close to falling into the same trap the director fell into—the plot! I’ll never extricate myself if I write another paragraph.

Well, one more paragraph. It’s beautifully shot. And Bardem and Cruz are wonderful. So if you enjoy seeing them play in high style, see Everybody Knows. If not, wait until Bardem shaves his beard and he and his wife find better work together. For in my heart, where they do belong is where they and my heart deserve better. Still, to watch them here, critical acumen relinquishes itself into the comforting certainty of their gifts, for they represent an order of talent of such inevitability that, even if one had a wish to, it is virtually impossible to analyze it. So, if you go and when you go, tell me I’m not wrong.

 

Abraham Lincoln

09 Feb

Abraham Lincoln— directed by D.W. Griffith. Biopic. 97 minutes. Black and White 1930.

The Story: A child is born, falls in love with a pretty girl who dies, becomes a raconteur, lawyer, debates the issues of the day, jilts his fiancée on their wedding day, becomes President, moves into The White House with his bad tempered wife, conducts a war, is murdered at a theatre.
~
This is a first sound picture about the Civil War which those who had lived through it could hear. It is a Classics Comics Civics class lesson. It touches base with all the already salient points.

Every camera set-up is beautiful. But stalled. Probably because the microphones of 1930 could not move, the camera setups never do. So scenes, while perfect, look posed.

This matches the posed style of the acting. Each actor’s voice gazes off into clouds of white grandeur. Ian Keith as John Wilkes Booth tenses his eyeballs and declaims like the histrionic blowhard we are told Booth was. Kay Hammond is simply peculiar as tittering Mary Todd. Una Merkle’s pecking voice begs the question of romance with her monotonous poetical recitative. Griffith had a good eye but a poor ear.

To look at silent film acting today is to find it was more often modern than it was old-fashioned. The female actors particularly—Pickford, Bow, Davies, Talmage—are realistic actors in the modern sense. Their stories date but their work does not date.

But Griffith’s actors are of a different style. They stuff themselves with the big gestures of the theatre, just as they did in his early films. Griffith was evidently not interested in acting or didn’t understand it or felt the big gestural style he had always used was right. So, because it is emotionally and visibly stagnant the movie mainly plays as a series of tableaux. It could have been rescued by the performances.

Raymond Massey, Henry Fonda, Daniel Day-Lewis have played Lincoln, but Walter Huston, the first to so in a leading role in a full-length sound film, is the one perhaps best suited to Lincoln. He brings to the part his six foot height and his forthrightness. He brings to everything he plays and to this Lincoln that rare immediacy to the audience which none of the other Lincolns possess. Nor do they possess Walter Huston’s uprightness, even-temper, fair-mindedness, and gentleness combined with rugged masculinity and a vocal technique that releases something deep in him. The classical singer, his sister Margaret Carrington trained Huston, a cheap vaudevillian, into a legitimate theatre actor when he was thirty-seven, a vocal training which also released in Huston, more than in any other actor to play him, Abe’s foundational quality: honesty.

However, Huston too plays in The Manner Orotund! Its cloud-capped nobility filters these qualities from the needful eye.

United Artists produced it beautifully, nor is it over-produced—so the interiors are just right. The battle scenes and military parade scenes are vivid and real and terrible. They are important for any director to behold so as to see how good things are done.

Lincoln was an enormously entertaining person. People gathered around him at parties because he was so much fun, and the movie includes a good many moments of Lincoln as he tells stories and jokes. Stephen Vincent Benét, who wrote the Civil War epic poem John Brown’s Body, wrote the script, were are told, so he knew the territory as well as anyone, but, about whomever it was that actually rewrote it the film’s big historical inaccuracies make one wonder.

This was Griffith’s first sound picture. He made one more and never made a full length film again. One can understand why. As a young man, Griffith had opened up the potential of the moving camera. He also understood the size of the screen to hold epic subjects. But he was a martinet who lacked a sense of humor and drank. Not a good combination for a director. Particularly one embarking on a fresh medium—sound—a year after The Crash, on a subject that needed something more intimate than a stereotypical version of a life everyone already knew. However, it was a box-office success.

The film was originally almost two hours long. United Artists pared it down to ninety-seven minutes. The shorter version is the one I saw.

 
 

Mary Poppins Returns

21 Jan

Mary Poppins Returns—directed by Rob Marshall. Musical Comedy. 2 hours 10 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★
The Story: Though threatened with eviction, the Banks family of London take on a former nanny, who arrives with heavenly solutions in her carpet bag.
★★★★★
~
Reassurance reigns with the fresh face and person of Lin-Manuel Miranda biking around London putting out gas lights as the picture opens. What is it about him? Well, there were no gaslights in 1930’s London, but we forget that with the forthright, honest face of him, easy, simple, unforced— singing. And then the song, which is open in style and a welcome-mat to one’s hopes that the rest of the songs will be as accessible.

Few of them are. Generally the songs are over-written, cramped with verses whose wit is too quick to register, more adult than Gilbert and Sullivan, and not nearly as pretty. Kids won’t get it. Adults won’t wonder why: they won’t get it either.

The dancing of them is incorrectly shot, feet unshown, and so elaborate in choreography and rapidly cut, one does not have time to sit back and enjoy a thing.

This forced-feeding goes on throughout the film as muscal episode after episode is dolled up and stuffed with special effects that detract from the good-hearted message of the film which is: use your imagination. But imagination withers under the rain of these over-imaginative special effects. Under water we go. Up Big Ben we scale. High in the sky we fly. A bore. Because? Because they leave nothing to the imagination. Special effects dictate enjoyment, they do not necessarily provide it. Each musical number wrestles us to the floor and puts a stranglehold on us. With the command for us to surrender to it, the film does all the entertaining for us, leaving us with nothing to contribute to the joy.

The original Mary Poppins movie gave us breathing space and several songs our little daughter could sing. And I could too, and still can. The Return supplies us with no such air and and no such airs.

But it is delightful whenever all of this is not happening. Which is most of the time.

David Warner, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep all show up and bring the zest of their 10-20-30 pacing.

The faces new to me are really good: Ben Wishaw as the father-inferior beset with eviction, Emily Mortimer as his appealing sister and Wishaw’s three children Pixie Davies, Nathanael Sahel, and Joel Dawson—along with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Noma Dumezweni as the wicked bank owner’s staff.

My heart swelled a number of times as the Banks folks extricated themselves from the threat of becoming homeless—a situation millions experience today. Will the spoonful of imagination-and-good will help the medicine of expatriation go down? Alas, our modern-day refugees do not have the help of a magical nanny parachuting from the sky to answer that question.

I liked the first version of Mary Poppins, but I prefer this actress’s interpretation of Mary Poppins to Julie Andrews’, whose singing forces us to be pleased with it. Emily Blunt’s Poppins is not easy to take, maybe, but more understandable, more formidable, and more sly in her determination to ease the characters and us into the mind-set that imagination can win the day.

I recommend the film to everyone. The banks versus the Banks—I know whom I’m rooting for—every time! Same as you.

 

Vice

07 Jan

Vice—directed by Adam McKay. BioPic. 132 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: A debauched dropout’s wife badgers him to get ahold of himself, and he turns himself into the most powerful, influential, and corrupt Vice-President the United States has ever known.
~
I sat baffled for the first hour of this film in wait for it to start. What I was watching was one fleeting exposition scene upon another—as though the writer/director Just Wanted To Get It All In. He threw details of history into my eyes like confetti, and he did not stop in the second half. By the end I realized I watched a fancy, dizzy civics lesson.

This treatment of Vice derives from the quick, cross-cutting technique of Jules Dassin’s Naked City by the cinemaphotographer William Daniels who won the Oscar for shooting it, and Paul Weatherwax who won the Oscar for editing it that way. The cross-cutting served up excitement for a long police chase across Manhattan’s Williamsburg Bridge, and it had an objective: the murderer.

Vice has no objective.

Or perhaps the objective is to show Dick Cheney to be the rat and murderer we all already knew him to be.

That’s not enough for me.

It means Vice is biased against Dick Cheney from the start. In its very title, it betrays the character imbalance that generates drama. In place of that we have collage. What’s there skips by with the merry glibness of a stone across a still pond. Nothing sinks in.

For there is nothing to sink into, because Dick Cheney is an unprosperous subject for a drama to begin with. He is a closed book. He never reveals himself verbally or emotionally. That is his professed strategy. So Christian Bale who plays him, through a makeup as vast as Eddie Murphy’s in The Nutty Professor II, is reduced to small motions of Chaney’s lips, out of which what little emerges is never the truth.

What is the real story here?

The film is adept and clever. At its close, it shows Cheney speaking to the theater audience to claim that he made America safe from terrorism, because that is what he was elected to do and that is what his job was.

It is a lie. For Chaney was not elected to office, any more than the tail of a dog is elected when you adopt a dog. Chaney simply was on a ticket with George W. To get there, he strong-armed candidate Bush such that, when he was elected, Cheney would be in charge of Foreign Affairs and other branches of presidential office never before assigned to a vice-presidency.

Bush knew nothing and knew it. He knew he was massively unqualified, gauche, and immature for President Of The United States. He feared to look bad in the job. He wanted an informed buffer. He wanted a trainer, someone whose chops would protect him—someone whose leash could drag him in this direction and restrain him from galumphing off in that direction. That is, Cheney could barricade Bush from showing the world his incompetence. What Bush didn’t know was that this meant someone who could do the job for him—for, because of Cheney, Bush never learned the job. What W. also got was a hypnotist. This he didn’t know, but Cheney knew it. Cheney made him sit, roll over, and bark.

But that Cheney was Bush’s stand-in was no secret—because Cheney’s exercise of his power over Bush was obvious to the many people around them. Just as everyone in the country knew Bush was an ignoramus—whether you believed it or not, it was obvious.

When Cheney was an habitual, jail-bait, trouble-making drunkard, his wife wrung his neck. So Cheney gave up potation for Potus. To Cheney it didn’t matter that he was not president. What he was interested in was getting drunk—instead of beer—on power. Indeed, to sustain such power, you had to remain alcoholically sober, as Nixon failed to realize. Cheney’s story is the displacement of one high by another. With Dick Cheney, we had a drug-addict running this country—the drug being power—and even worse—an addict with a stone heart.

And without ethos.

Cheney mistook military might for power. He mistook influence for power. And he mistook bullying for power. He also mistook the thrill of power for power.

Those are the small potatoes of power.

Power means freedom.

The ethos of America is not based on military might, which has no ethos. It is not based on land, which has no ethos. Nor is it based on religion or money, though each do have an ethos.

America is based on democracy. The ethos of democracy is deeper than those of religion or money. Democracy has so great an ethos that as a foundation for government it makes the ethos of religion and money, unnecessary, false, and forbidden. Conscience consciousness of this is the law of the land.

When Cheney turns to the theater audience and claims he was doing the job the voters hired him for, he lies. He did jobs he was not hired for. He interloped and declared war. When he said he made America safe against terrorists, he lied. For thousands of our soldiers lay dead on the sands his lies to us lead us to. He lied when he uttered the word America for, he did not care a fig about America.

One thing that Bale is able to make clear is that Cheney was a stupid human being. For all Cheney knew was the fear inculcated in him by his wife’s threat to stop being thrown into the drunk tanks of Wyoming jails. She stupefied him with the influence of her whisper, just as he stupefied the brain of that poor sap George W. Bush.

The ethos of America is stronger than people like Dick Cheney. I’m not worried. I am not going to waste my time accusing him or asking others to.

People with good judgement of character don’t vote for tickets like that or for tickets such as the present one.

Vice is obvious and flat. Everyone in it does a fine job. Tyler Perry as General Colin Powell, Steven Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as W, and Amy Adams as Mrs Cheney.

In fact, Lynne Cheney’s story, it seems to me, has a lot more promise than that of her husband, locked in the penitentiary of his life. For all that’s interesting about Cheney is the jail of the lie he ended up condemned to. But far more interesting is the woman who turned the key that took him from one jail and put him in another.

 

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool

03 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Stronger

20 Sep

Stronger—directed by David Gordon Green. Biopic. 119 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: An ordinary young man loses his legs at the Boston Marathon explosion and faces an unwanted and unwonted heroism.
~
Boston needed a hero. The hero it made for itself was itself, and Jeff Bauman stood in as catalyst and figurehead of it and was baffled and doubly wounded to find himself—never a hero and still less now—with no legs standing in someone else’s shoes.

His coming to terms with his lack of commitment to life outside the confinements of his class, his pals, his family, and his mother’s attention is his agonistes. He has to do something different in all departments. Or not. HIs passionate and consistent impulse not to do it make for a strong and understandable drama.

It’s a strange story. It’s not the usual ’40s MGM pep-talk with foreseen success for the wounded hero and chins up for everyone else. This is a downbeat 28-year-old still stewed with his cronies on weekends, still fearful of life, love, responsibility. When—to brave-up he appears at the finish line with a poster to root for his on-again-off-again girlfriend, racing in The Boston Marathon—he meets his fate as a man who never could stand on his own two feet to being with.

The greatness of the film lies in its ruthlessness. It is hard to swallow as we witness the tearing off of the bandages from his stumps, (by the doctor who tore of Bauman’s), his fitting for artificial limbs (by the men who made Bauman’s), his reluctant rehab training (by the therapist who retrained Bauman). The pain, the humiliation, the closing-in—we feel it all—and all this is in the setting of family and friends so eager to pitch in and encourage him you wish you could strangle them.

He has no privacy and he has no guts. He does not want to be put on display for all Boston to praise. He does not want Oprah to interview him. He wants to get drunk and mope.

But, though history has thrust him into a role he does not want to play, will he find the virtue in himself to play it?

It is a great matter we see before us.

What we see blocking him is his own fear of evolution. It arrives from every quarter. Particularly from his family and friends, who are depicted as lower working class old time Bostonians whose emotional lives are so forceful that their big-hearted loudness drowns out any other reality. Their crudeness so numbs sensitivity it looks like stupidity. However, inside it and conveying it is the wit of a rollicking sense of humor and bonhomie. The director and the actors have spared us nothing of this ghastliness. And it is one of a great force fields ever to be witnessed in a film as a negative element of high drama—what you find in John Ford films disguised as manliness. Here it is a monster, one of many Bauman is met with. His girlfriend, his injury, his reputation, his family—all of them present as walls pressing in on a disposition long installed to evade them all.

Spearheading this is the performance of Miranda Richardson, an English actress, somehow. She is the stupid mother whose avowed care for her son garrotes him. It is a performance of rare daring. Her character wallows in her son’s misfortune like a sow. She makes an emotonal pig of herself over it, as does everyone in that family. She won many awards for this character, and was nominated for an Oscar, too. She deserved to win–but they all did that year—that’s why she didn’t. It is a wonderful performance, ideal for the film and absolutely necessary to fortify the drama Bauman faces.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bauman, and, of course, he is perfectly cast because he is so inherently diffident. He also has the ability to look less handsome than he is. It is partly a question of make-up and weight loss, but it is really what we see in his eyes.

Sometimes he makes the mistake of not letting us see those eyes. He co-produced the film, so it would be hard for him to call for retakes on the grounds of a misjudged performance. But he has huge actor’s eyes and a tragedian’s eyebrows, so let that matter stand over. He also has a tendency to mug—which means he uses his mouth as a prop. He has a broad mouth, so the trap is set. But let that stand over also. It is a wonderful piece of work by a fine character star. For it is not the leading men who come down to us in legend, but Irving and Booth and Jefferson and Burbage. just such actors as this, each one waiting for his day to play Richard III, or, even better, Richard II.

The film is perfectly directed and beautifully shot by Sean Bobbitt. The city of Boston rose to the occasion of its filming then as it did before. Seeing it, we sense the value of the hero in each of us, rising to the surface ten times a day to set itself aside and lend light.

 
Comments Off on Stronger

Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Miranda Richarson

 

The Bookshop

17 Sep

The Bookshop—directed by Isabel Coixet. Drama. 112 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: A WWII widow opens a bookshop in an English seaside town and finds herself the focus of intense drama for survival.
~
In The Bookshop two renowned actors, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson find the roles of a lifetime. They do not disappoint.

As the film passes, one wonders why the widow remains, but the film answers the question as it is being asked. The camera plays upon the rain, the shrubs, the view, the byways, the sea. And with these glimpses we know she stays because the town is so particularly beautiful.

Emily Mortimer plays her wide open. She moves into, through, and past the local bureaucracy and against all rumor and logic opens her store. She hires help. She becomes known to the townsfolk and to the matriarch of which who regards her ambition with sterling silver spite. Patricia Clarkson plays this British grand dame as to the manor born. It could not have been played as well by an English actor, for not one of those great ladies would have played her without the comment of a point of view, which always includes the humor of forgiveness.

Clarkson provides none, and in doing so reveals the underside of the character wholly. For, without the humor concurrent with a point of view to excuse her, we must witness the presence of the venom within the fang.

Our heroine’s side is taken by a seething recluse, played by Bill Nighy. You feel his intensity will make the film celluloid curl and ignite. His gazes burns towards the young widow with rays of repressive ice. She is, to herself as to him, out of bounds, so instead of sending him the latest edition of Jane Austen, she sends him wild-assed Ray Bradbury and wins his favor and allegiance.

The bookshop owner is played by Emily Mortimer, an actor new to me, and one of that breed of leading English actors, Colin Firth is another, whose eminence is due not to their particular talent, skills, or temperament but rather to their simple ability to stand before the movie audience and provide an outline into which it can place itself unwittingly. She is very good at this. She is an actor who offers no difficulty but the seduction of a pleasing neutrality.

The film is beautifully directed, edited, and written. And necessarily narrated by Julie Christie. Like Moonlight it will probably be the word-of-mouth picture of the year and end up with awards (which have already begun) that will surprise nobody and gratify all.

 

The Wife

08 Sep

The Wife – directed by Bjorn Runge. Drama. 103 minutes Color 2018
★★★
The Story: A renowned novelist prepares to accept The Nobel Prize for Literature his wife has written.
~
Glenn Close plays her as a lady nothing could perturb. She’s miscast.

Francis MacDormand was originally to have played it and would have brought to the character the subtext of an individual capable of being duped because she was inherently unstable or co-dependent. Duped by the privilege of being allowed to write at all and be published. And duped by the hot flesh of the professor who seduces her as a partner in sex and crime.

But writing and publishing are not the same thing. And the screen writer does not honor or even seem to know this distinction.

Close says he is merely her editor. It’s not true. She rejects his editing. For, actually, her husband gets her published under his name because he is Jewish and a male and therefore supposedly “in” and therefore because he is a sort of agent/front-man who puts his name on her work, she is spared the drama of publisher’s rejection and the calisthenics of literary business. She sequesters herself from her family and writes, while nobody knows of the forgery.

Why then does her grown son find her behavior so unnatural, when, he himself is a writer and all writers do exactly that? Writing is a job. It requires a room of one’s own and working hours. Why does he accuse her of that? It doesn’t compute.

The script and the performance of Close are blotted with such anomalies. And Close allows the story to be carried by a smile so broad and fixed we cannot swallow it after a time as being anything but condescending.

Close and her cheatin’ hubby wait out the night for him to be announced as the winner of The Nobel Prize For Literature. When it comes, no indication is given, as they trampoline the bed, that there is an unbalance. Nothing speaks in their eyes. Close plays it as a grand dame who voluntarily corsets her power and likes it and approves. Close plays it like a duchess.

Jonathan Pryce perfectly creates the character of a crude Brooklyn Jew, and behind such a façade anything might be hidden and denied. He’s on the make. He always has been. Of course he’s gleeful to win. But she? She who has actually written the books? Her glee is as unreluctant as his. In fact, as written, there is no way the early scenes can be played. They defy subtext, and none is offered. On and on they go. Through flashbacks of his infidelities and now to his infidelities to come. He is allowed to fuck someone else’s body and she is allowed to write someone else’s books? The tradeoff doesn’t compute. Writer’s cramp would have seized her long before the finale.

Close’s performance coasts on the current Women’s Movement. The Wronged And Abused Female is the sleigh she smugly lays back in and rides. So until his comeuppance, she waits her moment for a nice big fat scene to play—when we’re supposed to feel partial to her as a poor wronged woman.

The truth is they both are crooks.

Christian Slater is perfectly convincing as the popular biographer pushy to sign Pryce on—willing to strong-arm his way into a contract because on the eve of the Nobel award he has guessed the truth. And Elizabeth McGovern is highly effective in the key scene where she inculcates Close in the folly of a female hoping to write anything worthwhile and get the attention a male would get.

One wonders what on earth Close will continue to write when the film’s story is over. How will her famous style not betray her previous con? The question shoves the story over the cliff into the preposterous.

Two recent films promote the same story. In Big Eyes Amy Adams played the woman who painted the Keane kids with their creepy pop-eyed peepers, and Christoph Waltz played the husband. And soon to come, Keira Knightly will play the title role in Colette, whose husband, Domenic West as M. Willy, published her first four books under his name and collected the royalties and spent them.

Of course, Colette’s story is more interesting than the two others because Colette actually was a genius. And because, while she was still young, she beat down the door she had allowed herself to be locked behind. She eventually obtained the rights to her early work, and of her later work, Julie de Carneilhan, Gigi, Cheri, The Last Of Cheri, These Pleasures, Sido and My Mother’s House are among our great literature.

Colette’s indentured service is a fascinating story to know about. Whether it is a great story to watch on the silver screen we shall see. The story of The Wife is not. Glenn Close is not really playing a writer. She is playing a polemic.

What is the key to such stories?

The key is: at what point and how did the artist realize her talent was viable? For if each of these young women knew she had talent, still none of these women yet knew that talent was interesting to a multitude. That is to say that her work was commercial. That is to say that she could make enough money from it to free her from a corrupt marriage and set her name down on a title page.

How did they wake to this?

That story I would like to behold. Not that the con happened, but how the artist came to realize she was richer than the counterfeit she herself had willingly, happily, lazily, and self-indulgently once allowed herself to commit.

 

Broadway Melodies of 1936 & 1938

08 Jul

Broadway Melody of 1936 & 1938 – directed by Roy Del Ruth. Musicals. Black And White.
★★★★★
The Stories: Where is the leading female dancer going to come from for the Broadway producer’s first show?
~
Robert Taylor.

We became allured.

Here he is in the plum of his youth, 1936, aged 24, a good actor and completely accessible – which establishes him as someone an audience wants to watch.

For what does an audience do to make a star?

In the audience it is the inherent desire to dive into somebody more admirable than themselves – or more noble, more detestable, more beautiful, more adept, more funny, more something. And to do that one must be allowed to stare at that person in a way real-life ordinary modesty never permits but that movies do.

This happens at virtually the first glimpse of Robert Taylor.

Wow! – what a beautiful male! – beauty – with its untouchable advantage – human survival made easy!

An easy masculinity, too – a passport which – male or female – we all all wish we could own.

And so we become fans. Which is to say we, unbeknownst to him, start going steady. We write fan letters so he shall know it. Or we don’t. We simply buy tickets to see how we’re doing around hm.

Soon we become enamored, we lose critical discretion, for we are engaged. We can’t help ourselves.

The unwitting habit of loyalty weds us to him in a sort of morganic marriage. Marriage. which means we put up with anything – any alteration, miscasting, loss of skill, or scandal. Old and beat up, our star still lodges, and, also inside us, a fidelity remains as a memento of an aspiration felt when both his body and our own were young.

For years our bodies will remain faithful to that first fresh impression, keep seeking it whenever we go to see him– that impression stamped not always in the first movie, but soon enough – Roman Holiday for Audrey Hepburn, A Place In The Sun for Elizabeth Taylor, his early comedies for Tyrone Power.

The movie-goers’ eye awakens, and our spirit reaches out for something true. As in Robert Taylor in Broadway Melody of 1936. Here, he is, more true than he will ever be again.

It’s partly the casting. He plays a Broadway producer – that is to say, no one with any ancestral ties – a free-floating, natural-born businessman with the easy self-assurance of a man used to himself, one with no particular fear of failure, his body relaxed and his responses spontaneous. His mouth, smile, eyes, gesture, emotional shifts are immediate, ready, unself-conscious, and devoid of vanity. His response to other actors is fresh and right. He a young man of breathtaking beauty, but one who knows how to husband it ethically and isn’t fooled by it. We like to watch its play across his face. To follow it we become a following.

All this would disappear from Robert Taylor’s instrument as he was cast in noble roles of he-man, hero, and morally elevated Westerner. The intelligence of his instrument quickly fled. So did his sense of humor. Five packs of cigarettes a day dissipated his looks. He will in l937, be miscast, for instance, as Garbo’s young lover in Camille, for the part requires, among others, the quality of a sexually fresh boy, which Robert Taylor probably never was. A 25-year-old male that good looking has long since not been a boy.

Nevertheless, here he is in Broadway Melody of 1936, an actor of 24 yet of such ease of being it is no wonder he entered the aesthetic souls of audiences his same age who stood by him through the years.

He was never a bad actor, but he became a lesser actor. Here, he is nothing of the kind, and the story – although Jack Benny, the radio humorist is starred – is about Taylor and his maiden effort to mount a Broadway show. It is backed by a rich tootsie who has eyes for him. But no dice! His gaze is fixed on dancer Eleanor Powell, whose maiden voyage into leading roles this is.

What can be negatively said about the film can be said about every female in the piece: Sydney Guillaroff has not yet been hired by MGM to do their hair. The women are hair-doed in skull-gripping sausage curlettes, unbecoming to all, particularly to Powell, whose Dracula dog-teeth, small features, and large flat face require international espionage to be properly revealed.

Everything else about Broadway Melody 1936 is neat! Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed do the songs, the same songs they will do again in Singing In The Rain and In Broadway Melody of 1938.

In Broadway Melody of 1938: same Broadway producer, same gal dancing her way to stardom. Same backing of a blond bitch. Same Buddy Ebsen galumphing around as a Vaudeville rube. Same writers, Sid Silvers and Jack McGowan. Same brilliant editing by Blanche Sewell. Same impeccable direction by Roy Del Ruth. Francis Langford and Robert Benchley and the stifling Sophie Tucker appear in one film or the other. Una Merkel with her pecking voice wittily plays the producer’s conniving secretary in 1936, while 1938 displays a fourteen-year-old Judy Garland full of hope and good will, and in great voice to woe Clark Gable.

In ’38, George Murphy dances with Powell in a spectacularly good singing-in-the rain dance that is not danced to “Singing In The Rain” – and what all this means is simply that one good thing follows another.

For the dance numbers and specialty numbers in both films are imaginatively introduced and wittily executed. An extended Murphy, Powell, Ebsen dance sequence in a boxcar with a horse, surprises with an imaginative use of camera in a small space. The premise of every number seems right and fresh and vivid, and we are spared the staginess of Warner musicals of this era.

The stardom of Eleanor Powell was different from that of Robert Taylor in that it never took place.

Two reasons for that. Maybe more. But one was that her dancing, while effective, was not graceful. She employs the high kicks and top-spins and cartwheels of the acrobatic dancer, which is to say, it is closer to a circus performance. When you see her en pointe, the elbows and knees are over-extended. The ballet dancers chorus behind her makes her look like a horse.

She had phenomenal speed as a dancer and an eagerness to please. Unlike Ruby Keeler, he didn’t have to look at her feet. There is a witty glee in her eyes while tapping that has miles to spare. She is above technique. It’s fun to see.

But none of this ever changed. She always does the same thing, the same kicks, the same spins, the same tommy-gun taps. Astaire and Kelly took great care, in each film, to present something new in dance. Eleanor Powell has a good figure, the right height, 5’5”, and she’s pretty. She is a passable actress, too. She’s not unlikable. But she’s not very open. She’d like to be, but she’s not. And you’ve seen it all before.

This may have come about because she was a female, and, in those years, males controlled movie choreography in a way that females would never be allowed to do. She may have been told, “Do what you did before, Eleanor!” Or, maybe that’s all she could do. Anyhow that’s what happened.

Monotony, and not being open, the audience could not dive into her, nor really could a leading man. You are absolutely convinced that Robert Taylor loves her – simply, directly, happily – but there is no chemistry between them, because, in her, love is not a cartwheel. In her, a cartwheel is a cartwheel.

Judy Garland in ’38, as a frumpy, unformed teen-ager, starts singing, and no matter what the song, you root for her. In you go! You take the risk. Wow! What is going to happen here?

I feel for Eleanor Powell. I admire her. But she does not become a movie star – not because she isn’t placed as one, for she is – but because she is supremely good at one thing and is less good at all the rest. Momentarily arrested, audiences turned away.

Here she is at her best, and so is everybody else. Foolish entertainment was a staple of Depression breadlines. This one is glitzy, light, and slightly fattening – although the costumes by Adrian will mask it and so will the lighting by William Daniels. He began filming Garbo and ended filming Elizabeth Taylor. All this brings you something beautiful, a diversion both working-class and classy.

I recommend it, not for a history lesson but for an evening’s innocent pleasant diversion. You won’t feel cheated by any of it but feel surprised by most of it!

Check it out.

 

The Book Club

03 Jun

The Book Club – directed by Bill Holderman. Romantic Comedy. 144 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: Four older ladies decide to reinvent their sex lives.
~
I loved fucking in the days when I did it, and it loved me. But this movie is not about men fucking, but about women not fucking and wishing they were and doing something about it. The jokes are vaginal and good and ready. The four actresses who deliver them are good at that and very funny – or they would not be good at at that. All of them miss the hardon no longer inside them. None of them miss love.

The women seek fucking. They find men. But the men seek love. And each lady makes her way by meeting up with what she did not dare to expect or risk if she came upon it: The Palace Of Perils Of Love.

With The Amusement Park Of Fornication thrown in.

They all start on their adventure by reading a book called Fifty Shades Of Grey. I have not read it, but evidently it bestirs these ladies to revisit their sex lives.

They are played by actresses whose ages vary from Jane Fonda aged 80, Candice Bergen and Diane Keaton aged 72, and Mary Steenburgen aged 65. But they are all presented as ageless beauties of that uncertain age called “contemporaries.”

Although we are not told that, the men they meet are younger — and, unlike the actresses, are unrecognizable, for, while all of the actresses have been before us on the silver screen in leading roles in recent movies, none of the men have – so I see the men as strangers – as does each woman as she meets him.

Andy Garcia plays a multimillionaire pilot whom recent widow Diane Keaton must fly from in order not to offend her grown children. Don Johnson, who has no known income (as befits his established screen persona), woes ice-queen Jane Fonda. And Federal Court Judge Candice Bergen assumes nothing good will come of her dinner date with the accountant played by the diminutive Richard Dreyfus.

The recipe is for a Hollywood Romantic Comedy. It is the sort of film that, pre-Doris Day, did not exist, nor did it exist in the ‘30s and would never have been made with older actresses. Nor did it exist when these four actresses themselves were young. But these four have aged before us through middle age and now into antiquity in major roles such as none of the male stars opposite them have been able to do. With the pleasing result that Jane Fonda aged 80 mates with Don Johnson aged 68, a fox devouring a wolf.

Such a film must stick to the Hollywood Romantic Comedy recipe laid down for our guidance. Which means, for the story to end happily, which it must do, its incidents must surprise our expectation into suspense.

It also must have witty dialogue.

And it must have comic genius in the playing.

It does not have to be true to life in any of this. Verisimilitude is not an ingredient in the recipe for Hollywood Romantic Comedy, ever. And crassness and coarseness are incensorable.

How does The Book Club rank as Hollywood Romantic Comedy?

Its plot twists are often fun enough to be adorable.

The wit of its dialogue is particularly fetching when the four ladies gather together to express it.

And the comic genius of the four actresses is at a peak.

Mary Steenburgen is endearing. Her genius is simplest: her comedy depends upon her being always The Foolish Virgin.

Jane Fonda’s comedy depends not upon her sense of humor (she perhaps has none) but upon the ability of her acerbic tongue to wring the most bite from her lines. Her persona on screen is, as usual, She Who Stands Alone.

The only actress of the four who actually has a sense of humor is Candice Bergen. Which means her sense of humor comes from including herself in every joke she makes. She’s the funniest of all of them. And she is given the right lines to say and the right things to do. (Check her out with the ice cream.) She is marvelous. Her underlying screen persona is her tried-and-true I Cannot Believe I Ended Up Here.

Diane Keaton’s comedy does not depend on a sense of humor, does not depend on what she is as a human in a chair, as does Candice Bergen’s, but on what she in motion does. She is a sort of Garbo of physical comedy, and, like Garbo’s, her acting depends upon a display of inner volatility refreshing muscular and emotional movement. As an actress, she is highly technical, perfectly planned, a through-instrument. Her comedy-central mind probably lies somewhere near her sacroiliac. Her persona is, as before, Paranoid. Her paranoia makes her readable. Without it, as an actress, she is opaque.

But she is not so here. And one of the great acting passages in film history is achieved in The Book Club by Diane Keaton in a scene I shall not destroy by preparing you for it.

Safeway sheet-cakes have certain virtues, one of which is that they sometimes taste better than they look. The Hollywood Romantic Comedy invariably calls for too much icing – you just have to swallow that. But the costumes of The Book Club by Shay Cunliffe are rare in their discretion and aptness. The director, Bill Holderman, co-wrote and co-produced The Book Club, and I can see no fault in his execution of the form.

Hollywood Romantic Comedy I generally spurn. But I love these four ladies. I’ve loved them for years. I’m glad they’re working. And comedy is where all four of them belong! I’m glad to be in front of them, still watching, still receiving such pleasure watching.

 

Darkest Hour

10 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

05 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do not know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Le Week-End

24 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Post

15 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Shape Of Water

14 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what is it that you want?

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

What you really want is resurrection.

And that’s what the picture provides.

Enjoy yourself. See it.

 

I, Tonya

31 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the alternative to abuse?

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

 

The Novitiate

05 Dec

The Novitiate – Directed by Margaret Betts. Drama. 123 minutes Color 2017
★★★
The Story: With no outside pressure, in fact directly in the face of her mother’s disapproval, an eighteen-year-old girl enters training to be a nun.
~
Divided of purpose, unlike its heroine, the film loses its attack on the subject through its casting. The great Melissa Leo? Miscast? Let’s see.

Fortified with an enormous technique, distinctive looks, and a particular and well-placed voice, Leo always offers someone definite. Good. She plays the Mother Superior as unnecessarily strict. The Mother has taken her very identity from the generations-old and rigorous disciplines of her order, and now Vatican II, with its slackening of ritual and custom, threatens that identity.

But the split in the story lies just here. For the Mother Superior’s obsession with her order precedes the introduction of Vatican II into the story and one might say has nothing to do with it.

“Are there any questions?” she asks the fresh novitiates. A hand is raised. “Go home,” she coldly says. “You must not question.” But the point is or ought to be that the obedience Mother Superior offers might be a value worth our attention, yet Leo’s cold playing throws our chance for that out the window along with the novitiate she has just discharged. Because Leo is draconian, we align ourselves against her and whatever she may stand for. The performance leaves no room for doubt in the novitiates or in us the audience, for, just as they do, we need the suspense of doubt to engage with their plight.

If the words had been said kindly, we would have had a chance to wonder about the values Reverend Mother offers. And to remember that, at times, unquestioning obedience is good for our souls. If the Mother Superior is played as a martinet, we are robbed of the drama of our own decision in the matter.

Perhaps the part appears to be written that way. Perhaps Leo was told to play it that way. But playing it that way dismisses the disciplines of nuns as the malpractices of sadists. Wasn’t there more and other to their practices than that?

We hear Leo lament that Vatican II declares nuns will no longer wear medieval wimples and indeed are now ordinary people. And when the film proper is over, we read that 90,000 nuns left the church. (I go on a yearly silent retreat at Santa Sabina, one such former priory.) Well, if the neighbors don’t look up to nuns as special, what is the use of remaining or becoming one. And if your spirituality in its delicacy cannot be part of and protected by walls and encouraged by the modest idolization of an order, how is a young woman to make a life’s work of devotion to God at all?

The story splits. If it were not already split by a lesbian explosion in the novitiate, Sister Cathleen, whose bone fides in a genuine spiritual calling prepare us in no way for this disruption. Margaret Qualley in the part holds our attention by remaining a complete mystery.

Leo is marvelous in all she does, but I wish the director had asked her to do something else. She holds us in our seats – but for the wrong reason.

The supporting people also hold us in our seats, particularly Julianne Nicholson as Sister Cathleen’s earthy mother, and Dennis O’Hare’s masterful fun delivering his ultimatums as an experienced and lets-get-down-to-business Archbishop.

The life of the celibate eremite is almost lost to Christian religion. The choice to withdraw forever into the gated cloister merits and requires protection, support, understanding and – why not? – respect. So where are these young people to go for the quiet, lifetime contemplation of God? Where? Many recent films have blared out the scandal of sexuality in The Church. Good. But will that stop it? Were those films meant to stop it?

Yes, they were. And in the process they seem to have damaged the structure for holy calling itself, as here, in The Novitiate. It’s a topic still worthy of a film worthy of it.

 

The Shop Around The Corner

03 Dec

The Shop Around The Corner – Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Romantic Comedy 1 hour 33 minutes Black And White 1940.

★★★★★

The Story: Much ado about two young folks who bicker but, unbeknownst to one another, are writing pen-pal love letters to one another all along.
~
It’s always been a great story, and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is but its extreme variant. Here we do not have nobility and rapiers and Dogberry. Instead, we have MittleEuropean pastry by its greatest chef, Ernst Lubitsch. If we are not in Vienna we are in Budapest, and if not there, at least in the high season of that Hollywood middle-class bliss, light comedy. With a truth all its own.

It’s a perfect Christmas movie. For it works itself toward snow and galoshers, and decorating the holiday shop window as a plot twist.

Margaret Sullivan has top billing because everyone in those days adored her; indeed Jimmy Stewart in his early acting days had a crush on her, but his friend Henry Fonda married her. Yet Lubitsch focuses his camera on Stewart, for as we all know to our joy he was one of the great comic actors of film.

Comic actor?

Yes, but not the Jerry Lewis sense. You might better say, or I might better say “an actor of comedy of character.” Which is to say he appears to be unwitting in his effects, although a master of them.

Well, he’s marvelous for actors to watch, and endearing to us all. In Stewart’s delivery, when he wants, there is something inherently humanly humorous. What is it, would you say?
His attack on the material is preceded by a resident forgiveness. It simply has not gone out of date. But why do we root for him? Of course, he’s an accessible type, but with the most sensual of mouths. Skinny. With a voice like the spring on an old screen door.

In all this, I must stop. I am raving. For he is is surrounded by tip-top actors. Joseph Schildkraut as the unctuous nephew of the boss played with hearty bluster by Frank Morgan and by that true-blue actor Felix Bressart as Stewart’s buddy in the shop.

The Shop Around The Corner is generally considered to be a perfect film. It is thought of as Lubitsch’s greatest comedy, one of the greatest comedies ever made.

Is it, though? Join the line and find out. Or find out again. I saw it when it first came out in 1940 and remember it fondly. I saw it again last week and, as you can see, remember it fondly.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

27 Nov

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

The effect is shock. Outwardly.

Inwardly the outward emphasis on shock forbids depth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Comments Off on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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

 

Battle Of The Sexes

22 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Comments Off on Battle Of The Sexes

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

 

In Name Only

06 Oct

In Name Only – directed by John Cromwell. Romantic Drama. 94 minutes Black And White 1939.
★★★★
The Story: Out fishing, a young woman finds herself attracted to a handsome man on a horse, but he’s married and his wife would rather kill him than release him.
~
Carole Lombard tended not to make “serious” films. She felt a responsibility to her studios to make money for them, and her comedies were perennial hits. She made George Stevens’ “Vigil In The Night” to get an Oscar and she’s darned good in it but she wasn’t even nominated. So you might think that a film with this title, particularly one with Cary Grant, would be a 30s comedy, but it aint.

It’s a serious romantic drama, and well worth seeing because everyone is good in it. Grant is an actor seamlessly adaptable to any genre. He is so victorious in tuxedo comedy that one supposes this film might turn into one, but it never does.

Kay Francis plays the calculating wife, and, in its way, she is the most interesting character – or almost. For what motivates a human being to trick someone she does not love into marriage and then clutch it to her forever? I don’t mean the outer motivations of money and place, I mean the inner motivation, the inner human contraption. Only an actor could truly display such a thing, and Kay Francis reveals glimpses of it.

But of course, Carole Lombard and Cary Grant have the focus of our hearts. And Grant is at his handsomest – although, oddly, his sports clothes are of the wrong material. Why is that? Was this before he brought his own clothes to his roles?

Lombard’s misery at being his mistress is completely convincing, as is the sexual energy between them. Lombard was an actor of clearly defined decisions. She always knew how to tell her story clearly, using a single small detail. The audiences of her day appreciated her for this.

She has that wonderful female quality of the comediennes of her era – and all of them had it – Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy – they were game. They were up for some fun. They were game dames. Women who were ready to take a chance. To throw themselves into it – whatever it was. It’s not a quality you find in modern film comediennes, good as some of them are.

 

Imitations Of Lives

30 Sep

Imitations Of Lives, 1934, 1959. directors John. M. Stall and Douglas Sirk. 108 minutes Black And White 1934. 124 minutes Color 1959.
★★★
The Story: A black woman and a white woman raise their daughters together, but one daughter wants to pass as white and the other wants her mother’s boyfriend.
~
The difficulty with the films’ material lies in that the attention given to the white story is greater than the attention given to its greater, unique, deeper title story, the story that actually would carry the film if it were handled honorably – that of the black business-partner/housekeeper and her daughter who wishes to pass as white.

The prosperity-story of the white woman’s rise to professional security is never in doubt because each lady is played by superstars Claudette Colbert and Lana Turner. When each has her success, each becomes a fashion plate. Even when poor, we never see them messy. We never see them seriously depressed. These things are touched on, but we are spared. Each ascends into fox furs by the hot air balloon of Hollywood narrative bunk.

Colbert has an advantage over Turner in that Colbert’s leading man, Warren William, is a more ambiguous charmer than Turner’s and possesses a masterful wit in lovemaking and dialogue, whereas Turner’s fella’s sense of humor is nowhere evident.

Colbert also has more natural presence and give as an actor than Lana Turner, is more humanly appealing, just as pretty, more instinctual, just the right age, and a lot of fun. She can also play on several levels. That is, she has the advantage of being more diverting. Being diverting was enormously important for a film actor of her era, for presence, charm, humor, and sheer character was necessary to divert us from the improbable routines of the stories.

Lana Turner is diverting, yes, for as long as you find an artificial flower to be diverting. For Turner has a hard time holding your attention surrounded, as she is, by her accoutrements of makeup, dress, and a hairdo as stiff as a mummy’s beard. In the 1959 remake, instead of rising to fortune on pancakes she rises to it as a Broadway actress, if you will. Saddled with a young daughter, a widowhood, and a cold-water flat, her costly, peroxide perm stretches our credulity way past Lana Turner’s girdle. For Turner is already a woman of a certain age, and what encumbers her even more is that her leading man, John Gavin, is younger and far more beautiful than she.

Jean-Louis coifs Lana Turner with his costumes. They stun and they are no more to be believed than her hairdos. Turner knows how to entice. And she has a moment or two as an actor, but she is left to her own devices by the director, and since she lacks taste and sensibility as an artist, her moments get lost in her performance decorations, one of which is her refuge to easy tears. We also come to understand why she never played in comedy, for she has no sense of humor.

And then enter My Lady Squeal, Sandra Dee – immediately at one with the vulgarity of the Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk treatment. For the screen smears us with the candy of technicolor general lighting – that favored Hollywood illumination of the ‘50s which cursed us with American Dream pastels and avocado kitchen appliances. It fattens the film as it fattened the age. The film is swinish.

In both versions their false-eyelash direction, acting, writing, lighting, sets forbid the black women’s story from being played authentically. Juanita Hall and Louise Beavers, actors of quality, cannot play the parts because they cannot play the parts realistically but only as written in the false styles of each film, styles dead to any human relationship that is not narrative in motivation.

The issue of the story is not that of wanting to pass, but why. We never see it.

So, neither Beavers nor Hall can play their parts of the mothers beyond a general expression of sweetness, forbearance, and pain – sometimes all at once. The writing allows them no particularity, idiosyncrasy, or detail. We have to swallow an indigestible self-sacrifice from each. To these actresses of this race no other choice is provided. It’s really a form of racial bigotry passing.

Both films do have grand black funerals — the Beavers’ one being particularly characteristic — the pallbearers’ itching their rears, the horses caparisoned with net. The Juanita Hall cortege imitates it, but, of course, it is less impressive in color. Mahalia Jackson sings the elegy, and even Lana Turner is allowed to show a line on her face.

Turner’s version is an imitation of the life of An Imitation Life which wasn’t even an imitation of life to begin with. It makes no sense to think of these films as Black Flicks That Matter, but does make sense to think how, for a long time, black flicks, even when they appeared to exist, didn’t matter because they really didn’t exist at all, except as tokens still content to shove blacks into the rear of the human bus.

 

Bardelys, The Magnificent

27 Sep

Bardelys The Magnificent – directed by King Vidor. Silent Swashbuckler. 90 minutes Color Filters 1926.
★★★★★
The Story: A philandering blade, on a Cymbeline-bet to marry a certain lady, falls for her on sight and is almost hung for his pains.
~
What we see here is John Gilbert as a quite good actor.

Good?

Really?

Watching Queen Christina, who would have guessed? There, he looks like a high-strung ham.

Here, however, everything he does is geared to bodice-ripper style but played in the lowest key. He simply lets the tinpot gesticulations of the plot zoom around him, while he stays real. Smart actor. Too much makeup on his eyebrows does give their whites a gluttonous glare of intensity, perhaps, but otherwise he is light and easy, convincing and fun.

He rescues himself at the end with a series of spectacular aerial acrobatic feats, ala Douglas Fairbanks, worth waiting for. In the meantime, he has the fair Eleanor Boardman, (soon to marry King Vidor, the director). She is lovely, real, unusual. Worth seeing her acting and her spirit.

In a different way, the same can be said for Roy D’Arcy. Now there’s a villain for you. The eye makeup astonishes. Covering his eyebrows with flesh-colored tape, he pastes tiny upward slanting brows and below them the suspect balcony of a moustache, and below that the poisoned stiletto of a goatee. In silents, even in late and technically advanced ones like this, actors sometimes still used stage-makeup. What terrifying teeth! What a loathsome smile he generates with them! What a captivating gift is his! Repulsive. Silent films were his onion. Don’t miss him.

The story, of course, is tosh. But it is wittily over-costumed, and the sets, which look like sets, are hyperbolic – just what this sort of material requires. Amid a flurry of unconvincing duels with sabers, the film contains a number of famous scenes. The love scene in the punt with the swans floating past the weeping willows is justly renown.

This is MGM at its most expensive. The great William Daniels, who photographed Garbo and right up to Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, lavishes the talent of his lighting on every scene.

Check it out for your revision of Gilbert’s gifts. Gilbert almost married Garbo. He married Ina Claire for fifteen minutes. Marlene Dietrich saved his life in her usual manner. Dead at thirty-eight, alas. His daughter by actress Leatrice Joy, whom he also married, talks about him movingly, and the extras include two well informed commentators.

It’s a King Vidor film, so it has the power of true sexual attraction in it. The film was thought lost until recently. Its discovery and reconstruction is a wonder and a treat.

 

The Big Sick

24 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Comments Off on The Big Sick

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

 

Ace In The Hole

29 Aug

Ace In The Hole – produced, written, and directed by Billy Wilder. Docudrama. 115 minutes Black And White 1951.
★★★★

The Story: To hot up the headlines, a sleazy reporter stretches out the rescue of a man trapped in a mine.
~
A remarkable film. In some ways. None of which count.

I saw it when it first came out and disliked it for a reason I now understand. It is over-written and over-acted, which is a form of waterboarding. Force everything down our throats and we have no room to respond. The movie failed in America.

Looking at Kirk Douglas chew every line to death with his many teeth, I wonder at him. Is this a human being at all? I have never found him so, save once, Lonely Are The Brave. Otherwise, I watch him force his lines and attitudinize, and I realize that the director must also have wanted this. But why? Douglas’s character becomes a crazy Hitler – an egomaniac who can manipulate events into a spectacle that will hypnotize a multitude. Billy Wilder was a Nazi-fled Austrian Jew, and I don’t think the film has anything much to do with America, a country, unlike Germany, geographically too large to give itself to a single morbid distraction.

For supporting players, the difficulty when the leading actor overacts is the requirement to play into his pitch and overact too. The only one who escapes this necessity is Porter Hall, the one character in the picture you believe.

What’s remarkable about the picture is its setting in New Mexico and the vast cast of extras which gathers to witness the rescue of the trapped prospector. The costumes by Edith Head are tip-top. But the main appeal of the film as a story lies in the way it is told by the camera, which is in the hands of (18 Oscar nominations) Charles Lang. He’s as much responsible for Paramount style as Claudette Colbert is. It is one of those films whose posthumous reputation can be credited more to him and the Paramount production team than by the temperament of its director.

Wilder always kept things simple. It’s a good rule. He had made Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Boulevard, and was to go on to make Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, most of which Charles Lang also filmed. But if you have a bastard for your leading role, he must first be human. Human first. Bastard second. In fact, human alone would probably suffice.

 

Miss Pinkerton

21 Jun

Miss Pinkerton – directed by Lloyd Bacon. Murder Mystery. 66 minutes Black And White 1932.
★★★★
The Story: A hospital nurse takes on a police case in a creepy mansion.
~
Joan Blondell is the face of the ‘30s. Big-eyes open to life, quick of tongue, game, pretty, and strong as an ox. Not Crawford or Shearer or Hepburn or Lombard or Arthur, but this lower-class tootsie, Joan Blondell, a little too susceptible to love, but up for any role, any case, any dance. She was the world’s greatest tonic for The Great depression. As lovable as she was skilled.

She played leading roles sometimes, such as Miss Pinkerton, but she was not a leading lady but a jolly soubrette.

Here she plays a bored-to-death hospital nurse who is assigned the care of an old woman in whose grisly mansion a shooting has occurred.

So many plot twists and angles and changes and characters interlope on her attention that you wonder how the makers of the picture are ever to solve the murder. I’m not sure they ever did.

The film is beautifully shot, and imaginatively directed by Lloyd Bacon. He keeps us guessing and off balance, yet leaning forward still into what is going on.

The picture is 1932, a year in which Blondell made nine films, and is advertised as pre-code. While it has nothing risqué in it that I could tell, it sure has a lot of love twisters. And more meaningful looks than a bathhouse. And it has the suavely smirking George Brent as the likeable detective assigned to crack the case. He has a voice like a cast iron radiator. Smooth-talker that he is, he soft-soaps her into his arms consistently and, of course, at last. She is eager.

This is Warner Brothers cheap entertainment, which does not mean it is bad entertainment. Not at all. Coney Island is good entertainment, because it is well done. So is this.

We passed the time with Blondell in many a movie in those days, and she went on acting (in over 100 pictures) right until the end.

She was sexy, funny, ripe, and vulnerable. A fast-talking dame, she could dish out the snappy dialogue with the best of them. To Cagney she delivered the renowned put-down: “You’re the biggest chiseler since Michelangelo!” He never recovered – in that movie anyhow.

We watch her in this one with complete sympathy, interest, approval, and concern. But she saves herself from doom every time. No one could scream on camera like Joan Blondell. No one was ever so simply likeable.

 

Army Of Shadows

11 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Sense Of An Ending

05 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Comments Off on The Sense Of An Ending

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

 

The Immortal Story

25 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is the most suicidal of all screen persons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

The Sense Of An Ending

28 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Comments Off on The Sense Of An Ending

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

 

Song To Song

27 Mar

Song To Song – directed by Terrence Malick. Romance. 129 minutes Color 2017.
★★★
The Story: Boy meets boy, boy meets boy’s girl, boy steals boy’s girl, girl leaves boy for girl, girl goes back to boy and boy, and then just boy.
~
Roony Mara is the Cleopatra of this fable, which feels like a personal story from the director’s life. Roony Mara? Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite monotony. She is the least mysterious, alluring, fatale of female creatures. Why any director casts this sphinx without a secret in major roles of sexual attention by everyone in the cast is not visible to the practiced eye. Or does lackluster have a luster all its own? She orphans everything she plays. A want of fire illuminates her.

She drifts as drift others through multiple and shifting plate-glass palaces and lowly cottages. Their interior furnishings are as empty as their interior lives. These settings wander as characters wander, with no fixed motive, no fixed affiliation, and no fixed income. How the hell are these people earning a living?

At the top of the heap stands a creepy billionaire record producer played by Michael Fassbender. He promises people careers in show-bizness, but he gives them the bizness. And he never unzips his fly for sex, so you know how dissolute he is.

A song-writer of ordinary talent is played by Ryan Gosling, Fassbender’s new best friend and first betrayed (The music business may be a stand-in for Hollywood.) Natalie Portman turns up as a gorgeous waitress also promised a rock-star role. And, in fact, there is Val Kilmer who once played a rock star again playing a rock star, this one in his stout fifties. Cate Blanchette plays Gosling’s rebound. Bérénice Marlohe plays the juicy lesbian. And somewhere lost in all of this is the great Holly Hunter.

Two things might be noticed about Malick’s method.

The first is that his is essentially a silent film method. You have to use an ear phone to hear what little dialogue there is, whereas, in silent film, lots of title cards tell you what it’s about. Here title cards take the form of voice-over.

Malick fell into the voice-over habit with his first film Days Of Heaven, when the little Bronx girl was coaxed into making the story clear by voice-overing it. Voice-over derives from the false notion that film is predominately not a spoken medium. With Song To Song, what you see is not a talkie.

Here we have “The Meaning Of It All” voiced-over, and it’s flaccid and tepid and vapid and vacant. However, unlike silent film, Malick’s words are devoid of humor. And in Song To Song there are no songs.

The second thing is that the acting is improvised. And this is always a mistake. When you make actors improvise a play, you make the actors write a play. Therefore, in an attempt to make things look natural, they look unnatural. In fact, they look hammy.

It’s a hamminess that is the reverse of over-acting. It is the hamminess of under-acting. Desultoriness and inertia emerge on the one hand, and on the other the actors’ choices look actorish. The actors’ choices look not what humans would do or what characters would do, but what actors would do.

Better leave them to act. Particularly with a director at once so icily controlling and lackadaisical as Malick. Indeed, at one dull spot, I noticed an actor listening intently while another actor spoke, and I realized it was Holly Hunter just doing her job.

Despite Malick’s elaborate narrative, Song To Song is rudely simple. He does get her in the end.

 

Love Is Colder Than Death

20 Mar

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

But – boy – does the director hold your attention!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I liked it. If liking is the word.

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

 

Edge Of The City & Sidney Poitier

25 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was Sidney Poitier!

The first great black actor?

Before him, nothing?

No.

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

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

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

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

As an acting instrument, what is he?

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

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

The determination allows his character to make a pronounced effect.

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

He exudes considerable charm when he chooses to exert it.

He keeps his figure into advanced age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was from the West Indies.

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

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

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

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

He is a fine craftsman and a great star.

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

 
Comments Off on Edge Of The City & Sidney Poitier

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

 

A Passage To India

08 Feb

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

20th Century Women

24 Jan

20th Century Womendirected by Mike Mills. Dramedy 119 minutes Color 2017

★★★★★

The Story: The mother of a teenage son enlists the help of her friends to rear him.

~

When we are teenagers we become secretive to our parents. If we are not secretive already, still we pull away into the unknown experiment called independence.

Annette Bening does not understand this about her son because she does not remember that she did the selfsame thing in adolescence. She does not remember and she is not aware that she does not remember.

This makes her character a gem to watch. Because it means we who watch it can fit into her ordinariness and her error. We can fit into it by means of seeing how disordered her hair often is and how unaware she is of that disorder. And how she, most of the time, is unconscious of any notion of being aware of it to begin with.

How we live our actual lives seldom gets to the screen. Movies are often about tying things up. From the very first reel they aim in that direction. And it is a fine direction to aim for, because wrap-up is one good way to end a story.

I liked the way the story unfolds. I liked the this-and-that of it. The foolishness of the endeavor. I liked what Bening found in this woman. I liked what the writer put in the woman to begin with. Such a woman allows us to forgive everyone we ever met, including our difficult mothers. Forgive them, and forgive ourselves, for they, like us, lived their hours and days in untidy life. Not silly. Not without purport. Not without accomplishment. But not camera-ready.

I tend to adore Annette Bening.

 

 
Comments Off on 20th Century Women

Posted in ACTING STYLE, Annette Bening: ACTING GODDESS, Billy Crudup, DRAMEDY, Elle Fanning, FAMILY DRAMA

 

Arrival

04 Jan

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
Rss Feed Tweeter button Facebook button Technorati button Reddit button Myspace button Linkedin button Webonews button Delicious button Digg button Flickr button Stumbleupon button Newsvine button