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Archive for the ‘ACTORS FEMALE’ Category

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.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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.
~ ~ ~

 
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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.

 

 
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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nocturnal Animals

03 Jan

Nocturnal Animals – written and directed by Tom Ford. Melodrama. 116 minutes Color 2106.

★★★★

The Story:  The jaded owner of a chichi art gallery on the rocks, as is her marriage, reads a novel by her first husband which proves he loved her.

~

It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. It is a kind of revenge story that makes Venetians lick their chops.

Amy Adams plays the remarried wife reading her first husband’s novel, and we see the novel enacted by the author of it. Three hoods attack its main character and his wife and teen-aged daughter on a lonely road. He is helpless to help them. They rape and murder the women, and would kill him if he had not escaped into the desert. Then he meets a local policeman ardent to do the attackers in.

What’s important in noir is to keep all the scenes tight-lipped, and this the writer, who is also the director, fails to do. The big scenes over-last their stay. The result is that they cascade from the cliff of drama into the puddle of melodrama.

But the film does provide Amy Adams with another selfish woman to play, and as usual she does this well. She doesn’t grip me as a leading woman, however. As a character lead, yes, but she lacks the general gusto great leading ladies possess.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the fictional husband and the real husband. He fudges his big scene in which the three hoods take over his family and his car partly because it goes on too long, as does the finale where he gives the slayer his due. Opposite him is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the killer, played in full snicker Richard Widmark manner. Both scenes end up in coyness as their thread is unreeled too long to sustain. But he also has great big dolloping scenes, just the kind an actor in his thirties loves to play. It is a performance bound to justify the large size of his following.

The performance that holds one, however, is Michael Shannon as the detective. He plays it so close to the vest, you think he’s going to burst out laughing at any moment. It’s a wonderful construction, filling the screen with our attention every time he appears.

If the director were as ruthless as the characters I would have liked it more. I like to like things more. But I can also like to like things not so much, as here. Don’t be put off on my account, though. Check it out. See for yourself.

 

Lion or Far Away From Home

02 Jan

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

★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never miss him.

 
 

Fences

27 Dec

Fences – directed by Denzel Washington. Drama. 2 hours 18 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story:  The lives of a family swirl around the big personality of the pater familias who rules the roost with his ebullience and pigheadedness.

~

The movie is written by the now deceased playwright August Wilson. He is one of the great American playwrights, and I contrive to see any professional production of his plays that I can. His scheme was to write one play involving black lives for each decade of the 20th Century. Fences is set in the ‘50s.

August Wilson never went to plays or read them. So you can see, what he could not, the big flaw in this one, which is its failure, early enough, to dramatize the life-long frustration of the wife, which Viola Davis plays. It could have been remedied by the offstage children. And the frustration of the father needed to be established sooner also. He never seems frustrated. Instead what we get from him is a round and stunning display of vim and vitality.

But you take these in stride, and your stride must be long. For Wilson is the opposite of Harold Pinter. When you sit down to a play by August Wilson you sit down from soup to nuts. You get up from the feast stuffed. The danger with such a method for a playwright is that he may fall into the banal. He must always surprise you, and this the playwright does speech by speech and scene by scene.

James Earl Jones played it originally on Broadway, and he, of course, is, an actor of greater amplitude than Denzel Washington, but Washington gives the performance of his lifetime. He holds us still in his character’s terrible self-regarding silences and certainly holds us in the great arias Wilson has required of him. You watch him and you listen to him as mesmerized as his family is surrounding him.

His character, like at least one character in each of Wilson’s plays, has a big rhetoric. He talks a lot but he’s fun, he’s entertaining, he’s outrageous. He’s also full of himself.

This means his inability to see someone else’s point of view is his tragic flaw. His action in the play creates a fissure in him, and you can see it form. It creates a fissure in all the characters around him. Washington does that rare thing in movie actor performance: he lets you into his eyes. He  gives a performance which is sterling in its formation, for he performed it on Broadway, and has brought members of the Broadway cast into the picture Viola Davis plays the wife. The impeccable Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the chum Bono: every time he’s on the set you want the camera to be on him.

The play won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards for best play, Best Actor and Best Actress Tony Awards for Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Also a Tony for Best revival.

This sort of acting is very seldom to be seen in movies, where character-story ends to reside in subtext and the oblique. Here the performance is a full-blown stage performance. And, in fact, nothing less will do.

I love movies with a lot of speeches. Where characters say it. As Coco Pekelis once said, Taciturnity is not more profound than self-expression. I like the glory and daring of our language. And when you see Fences, you will face it at once. It will take a moment to accustom yourself. After that you will lean forward in your seat, not wanting to miss a word.

 

 

 

 

 

La La Land

17 Dec

La La Land – directed and written by Damien Chazelle. Musical Dramedy 128 minutes Color 2016

★★★★★

The Story: A to-be actress and a to-be jazz pianist strive for their callings and their love for one another, both in the big-time.

~

How joyful it is to have a good old fashioned Hollywood musical to top off the Holidays, not the cherry on the sundae, but the sundae itself!

It may be observed that Ryan Gosling is more of a dancer than Emma Stone is and that Emma Stone is more of a singer than Ryan Gosling is, but put them both together and they spell why bother. They’re easy, they’re difficult, we want them to work it out. And will they?

As they go about their business in Los Angeles, where she is a barista on the Warner’s lot, and he is tinkling out dread pop tunes under the baleful gaze of J.T. Simmons, the piano bar restaurant owner, we are treated to massed production numbers played out around swimming pools and on the tops of stalled rush hour cars.

But there are two greater treats in the picture – three if you count Ryan Gosling ‘s miraculous spectator shoes – which he never takes off as the years roll by – and the first of these is a hill-top dance duet which is a masterpiece of simple choreography in concert with two performers caused to be willing to be in such concert that you leave knowing the story has told us, if they don’t quite know it themselves, that they are in love.

The second of these greater treats is a monologue Emma Stone does as an acting audition for a film. I say not one word more about any of this or these.

The film resembles New York, New York, with Emma Stone in the Lisa Minnelli part and Ryan Gosling in the Robert De Niro part, except that Gosling is more convincing as a musician, and, of course, De Niro is never convincing as A New York Jew, either there or in The Last Tycoon. He was and has remained a New York Lower East Side, Little Italy Italian. So, on the level of acting La La Land is the more satisfying picture.

Ryan Gosling is a cold actor. And I like him for it. It suits the cool, hip flat affect of a jazz person, because they’re a lot of them like that. But I like that quality in him anyhow. It reveals a certain ruthlessness of temperament which does not seek approval. Not too many actors get far as cold actors, but some do, and there are some I like a good deal. Barbara Stanwyck was one. Gosling’s face is a mask that reveals everything. Everything that belongs to his part, and nothing besides. I honor him for it every time.

So, do go to see La La Land. Waiting for the show to start, I nipped in to catch the end of Jackie. Six people were in the multiplex. All I can say of what I saw is that Natalie Portman has misconstrued the role and is not talented enough to play it even had she not misconstrued it, that the authors have misconstrued the picture, and that Billy Crudup is a top-flight talent no matter what. La La Land was mostly full and ended up, having gone through some interesting, and difficult passages, with an audience satisfied.

 

 

 

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp

14 Dec

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp – written, directed, produced by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Comedy. 2 hours 43 minutes. Color 1943.

★★★★

The Story: Sixty Years of advancing pig-headedness in the life of a British military professional and his loyalty to love of every kind.

~

How privileged I am to watch another super-duper movie in a row. This Pressburg/Powell offering was controversial in its day because it envisioned a friendship with a German military officer while WW II was being waged at the same time as it showed an old-fashioned British military professional who had a hard time adapting to modern warfare who was friends with him.

The Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger Siamese Twins wrote, produced and directed collectively The Red Shoes, The 49th Parallel, Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus, I Know Where I’m Going, and a number of other remarkably watchable pictures. This was Emeric Pressburger’s favorite and is among their best. It has on some lists been called the best English film ever made.

Martin Scorsese, whose style was influenced and informed by Michael Powell’s style, introduces the film and appears in the documentary on Powell. Powell’s wife became and remains his editor. Every director in the world has learned from P/P.

Scorsese says Roger Livesey is his favorite actor and Anton Walbrook is his next favorite. My favorite is Anton Walbrook and my next favorite is Roger Livesey. And every actor in the world has learned from these two.

Livesey plays a young, virile, rash officer whose adventurous spirit takes him to Germany, where he meets the love of his life, played by Deborah Kerr, aged 22.

He also meets his future best friend, a German Officer played by Anton Walbrook.

If you want to know anything at all about acting and how it is done, watch Walbrook here deliver a long monologue in one shot, no interruptions, no outside dialogue. Simple, internal, and both slow and quick simultaneously. He does not milk it. He exists inside the shell of a hopeless situation, which nothing he can do or say can change. Pressburger wrote it just like that. And just like that Walbrook delivers it. I watch it nearly falling off my chair for fear Walbrook will not be able to negotiate it. And in that complete him and become him.

Roger Livesey is lovely as the Colonel Blimp character, an old duffer in his nonage, a romantic husband in his middle age, and a bashful fool in his youth.

The cameraman on the picture was the great Jack Cardiff, the Michelangelo of Technicolor, so you are ravished by eye. The script remains consistently witty and endearing. And, despite the title, Colonel Blimp never dies. Thank goodness!

I don’t tell plots or stories of film because it spoils the surprise. Be prepared for this one to go on a bit after you thought it would end, and then go on some more. But its length turns out always to be agreeable, sufficient, and necessary. Don’t miss it, my dears.

The extras that go with it are tops.

 

A Passage To India

10 Dec

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Manchester By The Sea

28 Nov

Manchester By The Sea – directed by Kenneth Lonergan. 137 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Trapped, can this man get out of the trap, is there any thing, condition, person, breakthrough that can liberate him?

~

Well, a Hollywood movie this good, to my knowledge, never before came before my eyes. It is a Hollywood movie minus Hollywood. Unique. A top-notch cast leads it and balances it, and, for once, the person, who superbly wrote it, superbly directs it.

Its first distinguishing feature is that its characters are undistinguished. They are ordinary, their lives are ordinary, the circumstances that beset them and their responses to them are ordinary. This is what is extraordinary about them, and why I feel privileged to be with them. For I wouldn’t be allowed to ordinarily.

Casey Affleck plays a live-in handyman of Boston apartment houses, and one wonders how come. Not that he is special in any way, but that his current life and his testy personality seem a hermitage from something. The story is his, and our focus is on the mystery his difficulty with life seems bent to retain. He has a former wife, three young children, a brother and nephew, and a town, where he once lived, Manchester By the Sea, where he was reared and where everyone still knows him. His story outwardly concerns the death of this brother and the benefactions bestowed.

Casey Affleck is an actor I have in the past avoided like a left hand turn into moving traffic. When I first saw him ten years ago as Robert Ford in the Jesse James movie, the placement of his voice, a high, pleading whine, grated so I could not imagine he would ever have an acting career. He was thirty-one then; because of his voice, I took his character to not have gone through adolescence. Why didn’t this actor go to a speech therapist? Spare me his presence again.

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker said what I have never known him to say of a film, that he loved it, and a good friend suggested it, and I went. There I discovered that Affleck, now forty-one, has matured as a male, such that his voice, still oddly placed, has a weight no longer adolescent. His is a great performance because it is a great role, and a great role, because it is a greatly written role.

No nonsense. You will be taken through the wringer and grateful every moment that finally here is a film good enough to inspire that capacity in you. The film plays with the spaciousness and weight and variety of developed characters of a very good novel.

It is set in a Massachusetts town among lower working-class folks, every one of whom voted for Trump. So you’ll see how it is they did so. For these folks live only on a certain kind of emotional level, and emotion is their fight, their gauge and their ruin.

Of the major performances, Michele Williams, as Affleck’s wife, makes a lower-class woman completely alive and particular. The great scene with her nursing a cold in their bedroom is one of the best-written and directed scenes I have ever seen. It is exactly how things are, nothing forced, nothing manufactured, nothing left out. And the second scene, when she encounters him on the street, is excruciating in the attempt she makes to reach him and the just imperative in him that forbids it.

The second great piece of supporting work is Lucas Hodges as his nephew, the character whose resilience  drives the  story. Again brilliantly written from the credits on, when he is shown as a quick-witted nine-year old, as a sixteen-year old his character still does not miss a trick. There is nothing you can put over on him. And this skill in the character and the actor playing him provide the wall against which all the other characters are forced to play.

The film is a triumph of editing, costuming, filming. Its structure keeps one engaged in suspense from start to finish. You keep expecting something cheap to happen, and it doesn’t. Which means that, since you have read this review this far, you owe yourself the riches you deserve and will go to Manchester By The Sea.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

The Hundred Foot Journey

18 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Mayor Of Hell

03 Nov

The Mayor Of Hell – directed by Archie Mayo. Prisonflick. 90 minutes Black And White 1933

★★★★★

The Story: A tough ward boss, as a reward for delivering votes, is given supervision of a boys’ reformatory, and it gets to him.

~

The trashy title should not put you off from one of the best movies of its era and one of James Cagney’s most brilliant films. Of course, being Cagney, it’s a gutter drama, but what a drama! What a story!

Cagney himself is in top display as an actor – fluid, immediate, and interesting. Of all the great stars, he was the most tragic artistically because his acting depended upon a manner, and the manner was so fixed that he could never play a part opposite to it, try as he might. Highly volatile, perched always on the balls of his feet (because of lifts?), his oddly made-up, glancing Lawrence Olivier eyes, he presents a constant perturbation. Off camera he was a honey, a gent, and a man of some cultivation. But he wanted to but could not play gentler parts because his technique had become fixed – probably by his many years on Broadway before he even got to Hollywood – as a live wire. He could only act one way.

Allen Jenkins, his old roommate from their chorus boy days, plays the dumb Damon Runyon sidekick. And he is but one in a cast that is top-heavy in every role no matter how small.

The beautiful Madge Evans plays the nurse at the reformatory. Watch her. She had been acting in movies all her young life, and everything she does is alive, fresh, apt, and necessary. She was brought over from MGM to soften the atmosphere. She’s so lovely. She’d such a fine actor.

Broadway star, Dudley Digges plays the mean reformatory head, and he will make you want to kill him. It is a thoroughgoing performance of a man ruled by terror and terrorizing everyone around him.

The leader of the reformatory boys is Frankie Darro, a tiny toughie. He plays in concert with 200 boys, each one particular, each one creative and vivid in the many scenes in which they appear, both regimented and in mobs.

Archie Mayo knows how to make the whole thing work and move and capture the truth and the comedy and the sentiment of Edward Chodorov’s fine screenplay. The Special Features commentary is tip-top. If your parents ever threatened to send you to the reformatory, you were right to be scared, because this is what they had in mind.

 

Body And Soul

01 Nov

Body and Soul – directed by Robert Rossen. Sports Drama. 104 minutes Black and White 1947.

★★★★★

The Story: A poor young man, to be a boxing champion, risks his soul and almost his body in the attempt.

~

The earliest great boxing film, it is a good picture raised to a masterwork by the genius of James Wong Howe: he took a hand-held camera into the ring and followed the grand-finale fight on roller skates. The film has a gritty, realistic, newsreel-in-the-streets quality, which creates a world, the Bronx, from which the fighter fled by means of one seedier, the ring.

At first one wonders what the German actress Lili Palmer is doing in it as the good woman, except soon it is plain that she really is a good woman and a voluptuous one too. On the opposite side of the fighter stands his mother, Anne Revere, with her stoic, modest probity. And Art Smith as his kindly dad.

All around the fighter hover a swarm of trainers and promoters and pals, men and women of mixed motives. Williams Conrad plays his guilt-ridden trainer, Joseph Pevney plays his chum, and Canada Lee the boxer he defeats and then befriends. Lee, himself a boxer, executes his final scene in a flare of intensity.

Behind these ignorant, greedy, devoted souls stands the chill person of the American powerbroker, played with ruthless élan by Lloyd Gough.

The film was a huge hit in its day, but its day was the same day as the HUAC. When you look at the film today, you can see that it presents a perfect model of capitalism at its most ruthless, thoughtless, and cruel. The boxer is thrice a commodity. He is worker, product, and buyer. All are a commodity – never human – each a thing to be manipulated into great profit. The boxer himself does this. He is the worker who transforms himself into a moneymaking machine and he buys into himself as popular merchandise. It is a powerful dramatic construction, and one never surpassed in film to my knowledge.

Whether or not this was understood by the Un-American Activities Committee, it dragged in John Garfield, who plays the boxer and produced the film, as a Communist. He was not one, but he was forever blacklisted from work. So were Anne Revere, Lloyd Gough and his wife, Art Smith, Robert Rossen, and scenarist Abraham Polonsky. Their careers were destroyed; they were impoverished and publicly shamed. Canada Lee, the greatest of all Negro Rights Activists, was hounded to his death by it at the age of 45. He was not a communist either.

Nor is the film Communist. Just because it is not Capitalist, does not mean that it is Communist. It is not a polemic either, so advise yourself to see it. As you would see any beautiful work of art. As you would see any picture filmed by James Wong Howe.

 

The Lady In The Van

28 Oct

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

★★★★

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

~

What is this a duet of?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Washington Square & Acting & Maggie Smith

27 Oct

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

★★★

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

~

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

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

Perhaps they make a mistake.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

What does that mean – classical nature?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does the Dowager get away with it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or a baglady in a van.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

The hard thing is find the right cast.

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

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

The question arises as to how to play Catherine Sloper.

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

But how does an actress do that?

For real.

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

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

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

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

For unloveability itself cannot be acted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Now there is something actable.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

It helps makes one more forgiving.

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

 

~ ~ ~

 

 
 

The 100-Foot Journey

24 Oct

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

Denial

17 Oct

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Dressmaker

01 Oct

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Snowden

22 Sep

Snowden – written and directed by Oliver Stone. Biopic. 142 minutes. Color 2016.

★★★★

The story: A brilliant young computer whiz mounts a high level career in US government agencies, learns the terrible truth, and breaks it to the press.

~

Any gross invasion of privacy would seem to be, for Edward Snowden, all the 7 deadly sins rolled into one. He is closed off, closed down, closed up. He doesn’t want to be pried-into. And one keeps thinking, thank God Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfectly cast as him. Why? Because this actor has the face of a man you know is keeping all his secrets. A gross invasion of privacy is what he is shown hating most. No wonder Snowden spilled the beans in the biggest invasion of privacy of all, the invasion of privacy of the US government’s secret invasion of the privacy of its citizens.

Never was such gorgeous use of the big screen. Never was a biopic told with such reliance on the intelligence of the audience to watch and weigh.

And all of that is interesting and consistently vivid, informative and narratively alive.

What is not alive is Stone’s rendering of Snowden’s romance with his girlfriend, which moves through its hackneyed tropes to arrive nowhere. For Stone is not interested in romance or sex or human relations. Stone is a civics teacher, and a darn good one. Besides, it is impossible to take sides with this woman, since Snowden is such a cold fish. His love life is not primarily important to him. Which is why he is such a cold fish.

Narratively, it’s a phony conflict. Snowden’s loyalty would not be between his girlfriend and his job, but rather the tug between his mastery as a computer virtuoso, systems inventor and innovator, smart as paint – and – what would jeopardize this true calling – the disclosure which would result in the loss of this job and this calling. Which is, in fact what happened. Stalled in Russia. In Russia all Russia is a Russian airport.

But Stone never sees this. Instead we get Stone’s canned approbation of Snowden – as though we couldn’t judge that for ourselves.

Still, the film, by Anthony Mantle, is beautiful to behold. We have wonderful actors at their best – Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage. And we have superb production values, Mantle’s stunning and convincing pictures, great editing by Alex Marquez and Lee Percy.

And best of all we have not the drama but the biography and background of Snowden well and clearly told, and it is worth the telling and the seeing.

 

Sully

16 Sep

Sully – directed by Clint Eastwood. Biopic. 96 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Forced gather to disprove the skill and heroism of the Captain of a passenger plane he landed in The Hudson River

~

Tom Hanks does not make a bad movie. Neither does Matt Damon. And for the same reason. They bring forward their middle class American foundation as foundation to their acting, and this is what I very much want to see. They are both lovely actors.

Tom Hanks has recently played a series of biopics, a sea captain whose grace under pressure saves the day; a lawyer brokering a spy exchange whose grace under pressure saves the day, and now a passenger airline pilot whose grace under pressure saves the day. All these parts require the authentic gravitas of life experience. He is the right age. He has the right look. He is ideally cast. He is always the same. Why should he endanger the part by forsaking his basic craft, type, and execution? It would be wrong. He is not playing characters; he is playing emblems. Offering emblems is one of the most important things films can do.

In Sully he plays the pilot of the airplane obliged to make a forced landing in the Hudson because both engines have failed. 155 persons aboard, all survived. The exploit was simple if you have 42 years of flight experience under your belt and a specialty in air safety as your sideline profession.

Laura Linney plays his wife – another expert actor – but in her case her exchanges are written conventionally, and there is nothing an actor can do with such lines except play them through. Besides, we do not care about the relations with the pilot and his wife, whether he will loose his job, whether their real estate will be foreclosed, whether he will be banished without a pension.

What we care about is whether justice will be done. For, the story unfolds as a trial staged by the aeronautics regulators to prove he could have made Teeterboro or La Guardia. So the film wrings us with suspense and anxiety and tension – which is just what we want such a film to do.

The staging of the landing on water, the conduct of the passengers as it happens, their rescue from the wings as the airplane settles in to sink is exciting and shown beautifully – twice! We root and worry for their lives on that deadly cold water. The whole outcome hangs in suspense, for eight years later everyone has forgotten the outcome of the investigation. Just because Tom Hanks is playing the captain and in our minds cannot be disgraced does not mean we do not sit on the edge of our seats until he is exonerated.

Aaron Eckhart, another lovely actor, plays his co-pilot and side-kick. Eckert sizes the part perfectly. Eastwood has directed it well and told its story in the right order.

Tom Hanks does not make a bad movie, which is not to say that he ever makes a great movie. Which is not to say Sully is routine or not worth seeing. It‘s real good. Hanks began with a splash. He’s still at it.

 

Florence Foster Jenkins

15 Aug

Florence Foster Jenkins – directed by Stephen Frears. Biopic. 110 minutes Color 2016

★★★

The Story: A New York Socialite devoted to classical music brings her collapsed singing to Carnegie Hall.

~

New York never looked like that then. I was alive in the 1940s and lived there. So the first falsity is in the costumes of the extras, the cars, the buildings, all of which are CGI and show it. Carnegie Hall and the other public interiors ring no truer than Lady Florence’s soprano. Is this treatment in conflict with or is it in support of the false basis of her talent in the ears of Francis Foster Jenkins herself? For the real question is, how come didn’t she know?

We never go deeply into it. And with Meryl Streep before us in the role, we could. The honest things about the piece are that Meryl Streep does her own singing and Simon Helberg does his own piano playing as her accompanist Cosmé McMoony. Otherwise all we get is the story of a flimsy delusion.

We do get that Francis Foster Jenkins was devoted to musical performance her whole life, and sacrificed a great fortune to pursue it when, as an 18 year old, her father refused to send her to conservatory and disinherited her when she left home and taught piano to continue.

The important element missing is that Francis Foster Jenkins actually made a recording of her voice – and she must have listened to it – and she must have known she was off pitch. So there is a disparity between her appreciation of Lily Pons in the ‘40s and Jenkins being knocked out by Pons’ singing. If we know Jenkins heard Pons, how come she couldn’t she hear herself?

Her vocal irregularities may have been a derangement brought on by tertiary syphilis. In which case we might sympathize with her as a human more deeply than we do, despite Streep’s success in making her a generous, charming and appealing individual, which in real life she may have been.

So one doesn’t know what to think of this film. It is certainly not the depiction of an egomaniac. Nor is it the depiction of someone whose God-given calling was to be a musical performer, although that was her God-given calling.

Hugh Grant plays her “husband” – actually her manager – one of several who fed her with flattery in exchange for the contents of her purse. He plays it well and is well cast, but it is a thankless role as written, because we never get a chance to explore him, except as a hardworking gigolo.

All this means that Streep is left with a narrow range in which to operate and operize. Still worth seeing, of course, more for Streep than Jenkins. And we humans should not deny ourselves. For, if Jenkins had done so, wherever would we be?

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, BioDrama, Hugh Grant, Meryl Streep: ACTING GODDESS

 
 
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