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Archive for the ‘Joan Allen: screen and acting goddess’ Category

Room

07 Nov

Room directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Drama. 117 minutes. Color. 2015

★★★★

The Story: A mother and her young son live in a room; the world is also a room.

~

If you don’t know what this movie is about before you go, well then, neither did I, so I am not going to tell you now. I am going to say: see it.

The first half of the film is an extraordinary piece of movie writing and making and acting, almost entirely confined to scenes between Brie Larson the young mother of a boy Jack just turned 5.

Larson plays her part as a woman with a high morale, which is to say she does two things: she plays against her character’s circumstances, which is essential considering the circumstances, and she plays it dry-eyed. Modern actresses have the tendency to turn themselves into aquariums. This is both unprofessional, inartistic, and counter productive in high dramatic roles — indeed, in any roles.

She is met gesture for gesture by the performance of one Jacob Tremblay as the 5 year-old son. His is one of the most remarkable child performances I have ever seen in my life. The script gives him a big range and he seizes it without compunction. You must see him.

The second half of the film is less well written. It concerns the response of people, even family, who must engage with those who have come from a set of circumstances so odd that no conversational routine will breach them. People don’t know how to behave at these times. It’s understandable. There’s no language for it. But it also presents a problem for the writer, which here has not been met, and certainly not on the level of the first half.

So in part two we get B-Grade TV-writing – a digressive scene, for instance, with the press, and a finale with big fat music tying up the package with a big fat ribbon, and, of course, a dog.

This second half introduces a very interesting character played by William H. Macy, the grandfather of the boy. His prejudice against the boy should be the subject of the second half, instead of which Macy is banished, and we get a cheap and easy recovery, which, considering where we have been, is insulting.

However, the boy’s grandmother is played by Joan Allen, an actress of impeccable discretion and power. Her presence in a picture makes it always worth seeing. Watch her in her early scenes – how dumb the situation would make any human being. Not noble: dumb. A wise choice for an actress, because true.

Taking into account what I have said, consider it recommended highly. Go.

 

Off The Map

05 Jul

Off The Map – directed by Campbell Scott. Family Drama. 108 minutes Color 2003.

★★★★★

The Story: The difficulties of a family living on the edge at the edge are exacerbated by the arrival of a tax man from the IRS.

~

One of the great actors of my heart is here, and what puts her there and here?

Unforced excellence.

Vladimir Horowitz: forced excellence. Artur Rubenstein: unforced excellence.

Glenn Close: forced excellence. Joan Allen: unforced excellence.

Here she allies with a good script, an unusual story, fine direction, art direction, cast, costuming, filming, and the landscape of northern New Mexico, all of which she fits into with an ease that seems long-standing.

New Mexico is not part of the United States, of course, so who should enter into the world Joan Allen’s character inhabits but the IRS. That world is one she and her husband have forged in a high desert wilderness to live self-sufficiently: no phone, plumbing, electricity, money. They live from barter, cunning, and what they find at the town dump.

They live in a house of their own construction. They live clean and they do just fine.

Outwardly. But inwardly tensions hum – not because of lack of love or the want of an indoor toilet. Their 12 year daughter is itching to split. Their best friend is going to buzz off and get hitched. The father and husband languishes in a six month’s catatonic depression.

Have I told you enough to lure you? A little more may help: the best friend is played by the redoubtable J.K. Simmons, the husband by Sam Elliott, the annoying and resourceful daughter by Valentina de Angelis , and the IRS man by Jim True-Frost, to see whom is to love whom.

True-Frost plays the teacher/cop in The Wire, and it was great to see him play this major and pivotal character who treks in on foot to this remote holding. Of course, the focal character is the mother played by an actress of such genius you don’t even realize she is one.

Her simplicity of detail. Her ability to pay attention without drawing attention to the fact she is doing so. Her bearing inside her personal space, which lends conviction to operating in a way of life her character would be long accustomed to. I list no more. You can find her virtues for yourself as you watch what is, in fact, an ensemble piece.

In aid of which I have to stop here, lest I go on to praise and thus give away the unfolding and nature of this generous and unpredictable story, the aptness of the writing, the understanding of the direction by Campbell Scott, and the enchantment of New Mexico.

Find it. See it. Enjoy the dickens out of it. Let me know how you liked it.

 

Death Race

24 Jun

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

* * * * *

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

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Mad Love

28 Mar

Mad Love –– directed by Antonia Bird –– a young man falls for a nutcase –– 96 minutes 1995.

**

You cannot pick the lice of this picture fast enough to outrace their replacements. The script is the first louse in that it depicts what no human would do or get away with doing under the circumstances. The second louse is that the script gives us no characters, only premises conterfeiting characters: the girl is mad and the boy falls madly in love with her: this does not constitute character. For the third louse, we have lines no human would say. For the fourth, we have direction aimed to slant us to forgiving what is unforgivable and to find dear what is reprhensible. We also have a director who allows the principal actors to fake it. Which brings us to the fifth and sixth louse, neither of whom have enough substance as humans to hold our interest. Chris O’Donnell is not a bad actor at all, but he stands with Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey as unwatchable because the corners of his mouth naturally turn up in a constant smug self-satisfied smile. It’s not his fault, but I can’t bear to look at him. Finally, we come to the sixth louse, Drew Barrymore who gives a performance which she will live to be ashamed of if she lives to be as old as her grand-aunt, whose jaw line and chin she inherited, along with the high bridge of the Barrymore nose, and the family toleration for hackwork. Her performance here is infested with cheap choices, for she loads every scene she plays with a pitch for our sympathy. She was 20 when this was done, and her behavior is cute beyond recognition. Her miscalculation is to play innocence and pain, which, of course, must come across as self-pity, whereas she would have been smarter to play out-and-out fury, which would have produced sympathy. This brings us to the un-lice, Joan Allen as the mother. She has but one tiny acting scene, in a school psychologist’s office, with her husband, well-played by Robert Nadir. Allen gives him a look in which an entire family history is lodged. But this is but a great actress, calm and untouched amid a plague of lice.

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The Room Upstairs

25 Mar

The Room Upstairs –– directed by Stuart Margolin –– Hallmark Hall Of Fame comedy-drama in which a school teacher decides to start a boardinghouse in her family home –– 79 minutes color 1987.

*

Oi-vey. The most talented actors in America are subject to a badly written script whose lies are generally given to Stockard Channing and Linda Hunt to deliver –– in the phony relations of Channing to “getting through to” the dreadful teenagers Hunt’s agency cares for. Sam Waterston cleverly holds his own in this story, but neither he nor anyone else has the lines to justify our interest or respect. No actor, no matter how good, can survive such tripe proudly. However, one actor does fare well –– and, of course, it is the extraordinary Joan Allen, playing an Irish wife to a philandering bum. Her playing here, as it so often is elsewhere, is riveting. How she does it I don’t know, and maybe she doesn’t either, but boy is she worth watching. If you’re a Joan Allen fan, send for it. In her, at least, you will not be disappointed.

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Mad Love

19 Nov

Mad Love –– directed by Antonia Bird –– a young man falls for a nutcase –– 96 minutes 1995.

**

You cannot pick the lice of this picture fast enough to outstrip their replacements. The script is the first louse in that it depicts what no human would do under the circumstances. The second louse is that the script gives us no characters, only premises conterfeiting characters: the girl is mad and the boy falls madly in love: this does not constitute character. For the third louse, we have lines no human would say. For the fourth, we have direction aimed to slant us to forgiving what is unforgivable and to finding dear what is reprehensible. We also have a director who allows the principal actor to fake it. Which brings us to the fifth and sixth louse, Chris O’Donnell and Drew Barrymore, neither of whom have enough substance as humans to hold our interest. Chris O’Donnell is not a bad actor, but he stands with Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey as unwatchable because the corners of his mouth naturally turn up in a perpetual smug self-satisfied smirk. It’s not his fault, but I can’t bear to look at him. Finally, we come back to the sixth louse, Drew Barrymore who gives a performance which she will live to be ashamed of if she lives to be as old as her grand-aunt, whose jaw line and chin she inherited, along with the high bridge of the Barrymore nose, and the family toleration for hackwork. Her performance here is infested with cheap choices, for she loads every scene she plays with a pitch for our sympathy. She was 20, and her behavior is cute beyond human recognition. Her miscalculation is to play pained innocence, which, of course, must come across as self-pity, whereas she would have been smarter to play ugly out-and-out fury, which would have produced sympathy. She has become a better actor since. This brings us to the un-lice, Joan Allen as the mother. She has but one tiny acting scene, in a school psychologist’s office, with her husband, well-played by Robert Nadir. Allen gives him a look in which an entire family history is lodged. But this is but a great actress, untouched amid an infestation.

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Georgia O’Keeffe

19 Nov

Georgia O’Keeffe–– directed by Bob Balaban–– the tortuous relations between a painter and her artist/promoter husband –– 89 minutes color 2009.

* * *

Joan Allen –– is she not the premier actress in America film today? So you wonder why she would subject her gifts to the script presented here. She and Jeremy Irons can each carry a film to the moon and back, and yet there must be something to carry. Allen has the thin-lipped pinched, pioneer, poverty face (although O’Keeffe’s is a man’s face), so she can look the part. But that’s as much as she can do. The problem lies in the screenplay, drawn between documentary accuracy and the underlying taffy-pull of the love relations. So the script falls a-clunk between those two stools, and the actors are given no foundation. On one side, the documentation is inconsequential to anyone but O’Keeffe (the film does not get New Mexico light right), and, on the other, the love-relations do not develop, but decline into a stasis. Drama cannot breathe in what does not change. The film also falls flat because it falls in love with O’Keeffe in her every aspect. O’Keeffe has become a statue of liberty for the feminism of the 20th Century, but it is not possible to estimate the artistic merit of A Statue Of Liberty. She herself knew she was not a first class painter. Indeed she is barely a third class painter. This would have been an interesting premise for a film. We know O’Keeffe was cold, ruthless, and that she never thoroughly learned her craft is the first thing obvious about her work. Steiglitz was, on the other hand, a photographer of the first rank. He was also a lover of painting, and, as such, he promoted her. The film makers think of him as an impresario, like Diaghilev or P.T. Barnum, but he was closer to Sol Hurok, simply a presenter of art works in the right place. He was essentially a promoter – not because he was a flimflam man but because he loved other people’s work. Irons’ character is written to be always wrong, and Irons’ performance keeps falling to pieces trying to honor the mallet of this unactable opinion. O’Keeffe is made out to be right all the time, and Allen has the devil’s own job of negotiating this horror. Yet it is an exercise of our admiration to watch her do it. The collision of their characters would have been far more interesting minimilizing its data and maximizing the way she used him. A woman without conscience, who falls in with a man who is all about love, not knowing whether he loves her or the her in her work or her work as a work of her. A film can only tell one story. The story of the relations of Holmes to Moriarity and Watson is one story, not two. There are never two stories. Because, if you think there are, you can only create two hackney coaches which you cannot set off in the same direction at the same time.

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Blessed Is The Match

17 Nov

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

* * * * *

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

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Searching For Bobby Fischer

08 Nov

Searching For Bobby Fischer –– directed by Steven Zaillian –– family drama about a boy turned into a chess champion –– 109 minutes color 1993.

* * * * *

A fine picture, beautifully acted and filmed, with a story that skirts all the sentimental pitfalls and ends up full of authentic feeling. The boy Max Pomeranc is wonderful. He makes the whole thing happen. Its putative subject, chess, which put me off when I first heard of it, I found to be by no means a barrier to its interest. Joe Mantegna plays the father who pushes the boy forward. Lawrence Fishburne is the chess master who takes him on. Joan Allen is the mother, and very good indeed, as are Ben Kingsley, William H. Macy, and Laura Linney. I highly recommend it.

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YES

14 Oct

Yes — directed by Sally Potter —  drama — An Irish professional woman in a worn- out marriage to a British politician meets her comeuppance and destiny in the love for a lebanese doctor working in a London Kitchen.

* * * * * and beyond to all the stars in heaven…

This picture changed my world, and I have never said this of a film before. It is beautifully told, and its writing allows huge issues to engage, for it is in rhymed verse. Because of this, the picture enters the widest breadth possible to drama. Beautifully directed and filmed in London, Beirut, and Havana, aside from that the grounding for its power lies in two factors: the first is that it is the most erotic and sensually charged picture I have ever seen. And the second is the genius of the two performers of it, Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian. It cut through my personal ignorance like a hatchet. That is to say, I was so ignorant, I didn’t even know I was ignorant.  2005-09-10

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