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Archive for the ‘Frances McDormand: acting goddess’ Category

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

 

Hail, Caesar!

18 Feb

Hail, Caesar! – written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Comedy. 106 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Scandals that flare up must be doused by the studio fixer.

~

What do I make, one asks at first glimpse, of this Jollywood piece?

It opens in a confessional with Josh Brolin disgorging petty sins with wracked soul. When the priest asks him how long since has been to confession he says something like 27 hours, and is fobbed off with the penance of a few hail maries. We know at once by the solemnity of Brolin that we are in Jollywood land, that is to say we are in the selfsame satire-land as Singing In The Rain, dealing with the same object, and at just about the time Singing In The Rain was shot; that is, we are in the dread early ‘50s and we shall, therefore, now gorge on a full blown and deftly played Jollywood satire.

Jollywood? A comedy actually making fun of Hollywood.

And what pleasures there are, to be sure!

We have Tilda Swinton as vicious identical twin sisters, as antipathetic to one another as de Havilland and Fontaine. Swinton does the spitting cobra better than anyone around. Then we also have Scarlett Johansson in a major impersonation of Esther Williams in full fishtail and from the Bronx.

With this sort of acting, the actors do not have to do anything but – as Jack Nicholson has told us – “act accordingly,” which means that all Johansson has to do is inquire about the strength it must take for a legal clerk to stamp a page, and all Jonah Hill has to do it raise his big clerk’s to say “It’s my job” and let them fall on the first woman who has ever flirted with him in his life – and you know, no further word said, that something hysterically unlikely is to happen.

How do actors do that?

The words are not nothing, but the fleeting attitude of the actor seals it.

And here every actor is in sync with a subtlety of style which the Coen Brothers command from every side. It’s called making fun of something without using a pig bladder.

Brolin, a marvelous actor, once again carries the film. He plays the role of the fixer, Eddie Mannix from MGM days (although Capitol Films is what the present firm is named), and he goes about putting out fires that might incinerate reputations.

The main of these is the kidnapping of superstar George Clooney, almost through filming a film of the bloated Quo Vadis ilk, but snatched off by a covey of commies who claim blackmail from Brolin. Clooney is the most deft of light comedians, but his funniest scene in the film is his most serious: I shall not tell you; you’ll know it when it comes.

As side dishes we have Frances McDormand as an overdressed obsessive film editor, Ralph Fiennes as an Edmund Goulding type director, and Channing Tatum superbly dancing a big Gene Kelly sailor-on-leave production number. Each one hits the comic nail delicately on the thumb.

But the performance that seals the film and steals it too is by the darling Alden Ehrenreich – at least he plays a darling – as a young singing cowboy thrust into a drawing room comedy. He’s great at rope tricks and fancy bronc riding, but he can’t seem to get his lips around a word beyond “Tarnation!” He’s a wonderful actor and fresh as a daisy. You must delight yourself with this performance. Don’t miss him.

The film is pure entertainment.

Pure?

Sheer entertainment. That is, it is transparent. You think maybe that the values of the ‘50s Hollywood are dead and gone? Think it at your peril. The ‘50s are gone, but the values are in full force in 2016. How could it be otherwise?

The Coen Brother are, after all, masters of the hollow.

 

 

 

 

 

Mississippi Burning

21 May

Mississippi Burning –– directed by Alan Parker. Drama. Two FBI agents search a small Southern town for the murderers of three young civil rights workers. 128 minutes Color 1988.

★★★★★

It hasn’t dated one day.

Two widely divergent investigative styles cross their purposes in this recounting of the actual murders. And in this the film has its only flaw, which is the casting of Wilhem Dafoe as the conservative by-the-books young Turk agent whose methods overwhelm the investigation. He is either miscast or not a good enough actor to play the role unconventionally. Instead we get the conventions: the glasses and the stuffy manner. We get the primness and the stiff necked pride. The problem is as soon as the role is played that way the audience dismisses the character as known.

It needed to be played with easy physical flexibility and charm. The character would still have to say the same lines, it’s just that you would never be able to expect what was coming. It needed an actor much more temperamentally lithe than Dafoe – Robert Downey Junior, say – an actor with whom you never know what’s coming, an actor who can play against the script and still reveal it.

Particularly as opposite him, Gene Hackman, as the second string agent, gives what may be his finest screen performance, in a character so fluid and variable that he can infiltrate a den of snakes and out-writhe them. Every choice is subtle and pertinent. His scenes opposite that great actress Frances McDormand, as the modest wife of the criminal deputy are exquisite.

The film uses Southern negro townsfolk, and their wonderful faces and beings illuminate the screen with telling force. The same is true of the sets and set decoration, which is first class (I know those Southern bungalows) and the locations, most of which were taken in the deep South. These lend an astonishing veracity to the poverty and down-troddenness of the black folk, and the brain-damage of the white folk whose blind bigotry strong-arms and gentles the negroes into the shanty mind of second class citizens in a free nation. Which changes with glacial rapidity. Not even that.

Yet it happened, and they caught those rats.

I was moved by the story and impressed by the authenticity of everything I saw in Mississippi Burning. All of it still pertains.

 

Promised Land

14 Jan

Promised Land – directed by Gus Van Sant. Drama. Two oil salespeople interlope a Pennsylvania farm town to sign it up for oil fracking, and come up against an informed populace and a charming environmentalist. 106 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★
Everything else is decor. There are three elements in a movie. The acting, the story, the narration. And here’s a film you really want to root for.

The acting is impeccable. Matt Damon is one of the few actors who can actually mull on camera. He can transfer from a likeable hero to a likeable wretch in the same role and you go with for the ride. He is the most useful actor in films today. Frances McDormand, belovèd of all, has an inner humor and heart that is staunch in all dire straights. John Krasinsky is masterfully fluid and appealing here, and if I have never seen him before, I would be interested to see him again. We have Hal Holbrook – when has he ever wronged us? – while Rosemarie DeWitt upgrades every scene she is in.

Gus Van Sant’s direction of all this is balanced, easy on the eyes, sure. His sense of place gives us town and farm scenes that make us confident that we are there.

And the story? Ah, the story. It is like Frank Capra’s State Of The Union with Matt Damon playing Spencer Tracy. It’s the story of a man setting out on a worthy course, only to be seduced by his own rhetoric. And it would work – but it has a trick ending, and trick endings o’erset everything as a rule, including the audience’s faith in what they have just committed their trust to.

The issue of every story is: How do you get out of this predicament? But the problem here is divided predicament. Is the predicament how inconscionable large corporations are? That is to say, will Matt Damon realize he mustn’t continue in his career because corporations are wicked and manipulative?

Or is the predicament, how can he be gotten to see that fracking is poisonous and that he should not embrace a career that promotes it?

The answer to the second is that the Matt Damon character should already know that fracking kills water tables, long before he gets to Pennsylvania; he is 38, after all. Or is he a dope? – which is not the way he is presented. As to the corporations, the trick ending leaves us in no uncertainty about that. But that is a trick to cover a defect of focus. The trick ending shatters our credulity, and in our betrayal such questions snap to the surface, where they should never arise at all.

Damon and Kasinsky produced the picture as well as wrote it and stared in it, so there was no way such questions could snap to the surface of them. They lost us because they were lost. The film would have been far more successful had it been much less pat, more at loose ends. Does Matt really regain his manhood just so that he can walk into the arms of Rosemarie DeWitt at the end? Is that all there is: a hardon? What does he do then? Raise chickens? Children? Cain? Well, that too is unanswerable. As to the film? Well, I liked it, but, obviously, oh, I wish I had liked it better.

 

Laurel Canyon

10 Jan

Laurel Canyon – directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Sex Drama. Conflict arises when an uptight young doctor and his fiancé move into the house of his libertine mother. 104 minutes Color 2002.
★★★★
“Do I have to review this film?” I whine. “I only watched it because of Frances McDormand. If I write it, I’ll have to pigeon all over Christian Bale, and I don’t want to pigeon all over anybody. What’s wrong in this actor?”

It has been pointed out that he has no sense of humor of any kind, and that certainly seems to be the case. But perhaps it is also true that, an Englishman, he should not be playing Americans. Or at least it seems so, since this particular character looks like he learned his personality from watching TV acting. Did the character do that or did the actor do that?

The problem, for me, is that there seems to be that within Christian Bale that cannot play a character who can be trusted.

He is brilliant, powerful, and adept, but this so dominates his energy that it supervenes all other character needs, such as being affectionate, loving one’s mother, or one’s brother – which is why he was so perfectly cast in The Fighter for which he rightly won a supporting Oscar. He cannot be trusted. All the more so, since Bale’s humorless solemnity and self-seriousness seems not that of the character he is playing, but a form of artistic arrogance. Watching him, we feel always up against the ingrown vanity of his craft. He seems always self-tragic. I find it sickening. I also question it as true. True as an introvert.

For is this character an uptight introvert? Or is not his fiancée the uptight introvert? Yes, she is. And what seems obvious in his playing his character as an introvert is that he actually is not one at all when, at a certain point, he flies into full blown rage against his mother, played by Frances McDormand. This outburst looks far more natural. Otherwise he sits there responding by twitching his mouth and making-the-masculine. For Bale is brilliant in extrovert scenes – although the power of their acting this one with McDormand is lost by being shot with them moving down hotel stairs, and by a failure of the writing to let them really face off.

McDormand is an astonishing actress and more than holds her own against Bale’s real power. She brings fully integrated character forth for us, an L.A. record producer, doing dope and screwing and running a band’s recording sessions as an accomplished executive, biting and hospitable, smiling and baffled. She is completely convincing and funny as can be. The film succeeds largely because of her.

But the film fails in terms of the sexual values the script exposes. For it assumes these values are up for whim or will. But they are not; sexual values are not learned; they are inherent. Men don’t learn their sexual code from Cosmo or from other males. They are born with it, like any other genetic code, so the idea that Bale could have a flutter with the Israeli doctor, played beautifully by Natascha McElhone, who rolls her gorgeous eyes at him, is nonsense. It is a non-starter as a dramatic premise. Other different codes display themselves, McDormand’s and that of her singer boyfriend, beautifully played by Alessandro Nivola. And they too are inherent.

But the real problem with the script is that the conflict between the mother and the son is never run to a thorough battle and thus to a convincing truce. Indeed we are falsely forced in another direction entirely. Because of the overture of his eating out his girlfriend which, for some reasons, precedes the credits, we are forced to know that Bale is sexually competent, which makes no sense, since he finds his mother’s nature and her way of life intrusive. She does not intrude but to him her very existence intrudes. This matter is not settled by her shy admission at the end that she loves him. It works no better than his intern scenes in the hospital, for one would no more trust Christian Bale as one’s therapist than one could trust his Bruce Wayne to lurch toward honor and social restitution as a character the only properly cast quality of the actor being those fang-pointed wings.

 

Almost Famous

26 Jun

Almost Famous – directed by Cameron Crowe. Music Drama. A teenager becomes a stringer for Rolling Stone Magazine to cover the disintegration or rebirth of a famed Rock and Roll band. 124 minutes Color 2000.

★★★★★

Well, Frances McDormand is the best actress ever. Here she plays the pestering mom of the boy journalist, and each time she appears she is both dead on true and dead on funny. The boy is a gawky pubescent chap adopted by his journalist mentor played brilliantly, of course, by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a master of eccentric timing to allow a real life character to spring up through the cracks of his lines, as it were. The whole story is a dear adventure, based on the director’s actual experience as a fifteen year old kid sliding into the world of the big Rock stars, participating in their tours, being taken as an experienced journalist, and eventually filing the story. Crowe manages the mise-en-scene immaculately. He lived the boy’s story when young, and he brings it to life with relish and a loving eye. Billy Crudup is the target of the young journalist’s particular aim for a scoop, so we see a good deal of him. Crudup does not quite nail the inner life of the character, but depends on the story to do his work. In the crucial scene, when an apology is due from him to the boy, his failure to make it goes unregistered by the actor. But still, it is always a pleasure to see this fine actor, very beautiful twelve years ago, and in fine form as a Rock star, first deranged by modesty, then by drugs. Kate Hudson is the band-aide 15 Year old sex object of both the boy and Crudup, and she plays it out with remarkable presence. Anna Paquin is in it, but for some reason is not used properly. But Jason Lee is dynamite as the less-talented leader of the band, too full of himself to face the fact. It’s a good movie, even if you don’t, like me, care about Rock and Roll. A sort of open-heart surgery on the music world of that time, but the heart, while stricken, is sweet.

 

Miss Pettigrew Lives ForA Day

15 Oct

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day — directed by Bharat Nalluri  Period romantic comedy in which a ditzy 1930s chanteuse is rounded by up an imposter housekeeper who heads them both for romance. 92 minutes color 2008.

* * * * *

Yes, for the presence of the great Lee Pace. He seems to be unrecognizable from role to role — from the transgender Calpurnia in Soldier’s Girl, to Dick Hickock the Clutter murderer in Infamous, to this forthright male in love with a woman he will sacrifice not one iota of his lyrical being to gain. At 22 as Calpurnia, the arch-archer of feminity, to the male of males now, here at 28, and at the peak of his masculinity. Pettigrew was the first picture I noticed him in, and now I make a rewarding investigation of his contributions to the art. What a great actor! As to the picture itself, I liked it. It’s poorly directed visually and narratively, but there are wonderful actors in it, among whom is the manly Ciaran Hinds and that devious little minx Shirley Henderson, and they are tip top. Our beloved Frances McDormand as the housekeeper whacked-out on ethics, and Amy Adams as the Spring Byington-in-the-making, scatter-brained object of Pace’s perfect love. Pace and Adams play a night club duo, and both sing superbly. I saw it with an older crowd in the theatre, and they applauded, and I can understand why. I applaud here. It’s not for the puerile.

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