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Archive for the ‘COMEDY’ Category

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.

 

Tangerine

13 May

Tangerine – directed by Sean Baker – comedy – 28 minutes Color 2015.
★★★★★
The Story: A hooker, fresh from the pokey, learns from her best friend that her pimp has two-timed her, so the two of them set forth into mayhem.
~

Tangerine is The Importance Of Being Earnest set in the land of trans-gender prostitution the the streets of L.A. That is to say, it is as witty as Oscar Wilde’s play and has the same subject – which ought to be enough for anyone to leap toward and watch it.

The subject is: Which of us do you love more, her or me?

This mortal matter is pursued by the Cicely and Gwendolyn characters, Sin-Dee and Alexandra, beautifully played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.

To cut through other praises to the one that interests me most, let’s turn to the double-pluses of the camera-acting combo, the one dependent upon the other, so I believe.

The camera is an IPhone. This palm-held camera rids us of the patient awkwardness of a 35mm camera. Less waiting when shooting. Grab performance when it’s hot. The result is brilliant acting, some of which is improvised.

I, who deplore improvisation as a rule, stand corrected before the ability of the director, Sean Baker, to inspire and to capture performance – performance-capture – the denominator common to all great directors, which you find scattered through their films but seldom see pervasive throughout one. But it’s pervasive here.

The IPhone is held by Baker and Radium Cheung. I know nothing of the other work of these two, but I bow before them, palms-down. Scene after scene comes alive, fresh, real, and funny.

The cast is of varying degrees of experience, but it doesn’t matter: the value that holds is authenticity, and it is met by all. For instance, when the Lady Bracknell character – out To Save Society – appears on the screen in the form of the great Armenian actress Alla Tumanian, you immediately sense you are in the presence of someone experienced beyond the ordinary, but you also observe that she is playing in the style common to all the others. She does not stand apart; she simply adds to the brilliance before us. Sean Baker directed the acting, and, as editor, chose it. Good for him.

What lasts?

Story lasts. Yes, even more than performance. Two things matter, but story makes a film lasting, which Tangerine has become. Lasts because a human truth is unfolded along its path. That means that the theme is not merely present but honored through its quirks and faults and splendors. Such is the case here.

The theme is friendship, a great one. Don’t miss Tangerine. It’s funny and true and dear.

 

Smart Money

20 Apr

Smart Money – directed by Alfred E. Green. Crime Comedy. 81 minutes Black And White 1931.
★★★★★
The Story: A small-town barber with a lucky streak heads for the big-time and succeeds in all his dreams but that of a lady to kiss.
~
He is my favorite actor. Edward G. Robinson. I love to watch him. I never tire – even though his effects linger from film to film. Richard Burton said of him that if he were on the screen with the most beautiful man alive, you would not watch that man, you would watch Robinson.

More alive as an actor than any other!

James Cagney made seven films in 1931, and The Public Enemy hadn’t come out yet, and Robinson, after Little Caesar, has the lead. They both started in New York Yiddish theater, and were friends, but this was their only film together.

It’s fun to see that Cagney could just as easily have played the part, or at least part of the part. The difference between them is this.

Robinson’s acts a character who is full of himself. But Cagney never played a character who was not full of himself. Robinson had to act it. But for Cagney being full of himself was the basis of his craft. It made him the schoolyard bully his entire career. It was not the basis of Robinson’s craft. Robinson has to summon hubris into the role. So Robinson is more appealing in the part than Cagney would have been. And the role has another part to it: Robinson is big-time, he is generous, kind, gallant, but no woman loves him. What would Cagney have done with that!

Perfect part for Robinson, and he played it more than once. Rather than romantic leads, who got the girl, Robinson often played professionals – such as the detectives he played in Orson Welles’ The Stranger or Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Absolute authority of attack is his genius. And, boy oh boy, does he know his lines!

The film was directed by a studio work-horse, Alfred E. Green. Green, an admirable director, knows exactly how to tell a story with a camera, exactly where to put the camera to do it, exactly what value to give a scene. He directed more Bette Davis films than another director. She learned her craft under him. I always welcome his name on the credits and know I am in good hands..

I have never before seen Evalyn Knapp, marvelous as the most important of the many blondes Robinson is drawn to. She is touching and real from the time she first appears till the time she withdraws. Not much of a career; one wonders why. Still, she is lovely. And all the blondes are lovely and good in their parts. Robinsons’ tremendous ebullience and bonhomie carry the film, which dates no more than anything well-made dates, which is to say no further than our affection for a bygone era.

 

Paddington 2

03 Feb

Paddington 2 – directed by Paul King. Children’s/Grownups/live/animation. 103 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: A young bear, adopted by a London family, has adventures and misadventures as he seeks to stop a wicked theft.
~
Paddington, came after my time and came after my daughter’s time, so I missed Paddington 1, and if you count the book, I also missed Paddington 0.

What sin of omission I have committed to be omitted from the treat of this personable orso I cannot imagine, but I must be a good boy now, because now I am given him, and I take him to me and everything that brings him to me.

These include the greats Joanna Lumley, Julie Walters, Sally Hawkins, Brian Geeson, Imelda Staunton, Eileen Atkins, Tom Conti, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Bonneville – and, as the villain of the piece as a divo actor, that scalawag Hugh Grant.

They delight me, and they all know how to act with a little bear who, of course, is added after or before or at some other time – a little bear who looks not like a bearbear and not like a teddybear but a movie bear – and in so looking looks like all those actors aforementioned look. What a charming miracle!

What delighted me was the wit of the problems set and the wit of the solutions offered for Paddington’s predicaments. The wicked actor Grant plays is broke and looking to replenish his purse with swag whose whereabouts were coded in an old popup book. He fails, naturally, but the contortions offered in his wickedness and Paddington’s escape from them are fun and more fun.

If this all seems dated and preposterous, well, just watch the jests as they unravel — and how they all knit together as things move on. The message of the picture is that there is no plight that people, if they have big hearts, cannot get one another out of, provided they pull together and have a seaplane.

What a delight are the sets and places and the power of animation to outrival Special Effects or spectacle in engaging me, and out of the preposterous create in me the believable! I smile as I write this. It’s a film to love watching. Watch it.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH COMEDIC, COMEDY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Imelda Staunton

 

The Greatest Showman

09 Jan

The Greatest Showman – directed by Michael Gracey. Musical. 105 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★
The Story: An orphan boy, spurned by his betters, rises to prominence, wealth, and expression through an ability to amaze the public with the odd, the daring, the questionable, and the spectacular.
~
Hugh Jackman is an actor very hard to miscast. Tall, lithe, handsome as the day is long, geared to acting with a winning zest, he plays villains and rotters with the same dispatch as he played Curly in Oklahoma! He is the only principal actor in the world with the talent, background,and range to play the lead in a major film musical. He is the springboard of this film and he’s adept in all departments.

The problem is that some of the departments are not adept. You listen for a song in the songs that are sung and they sound just like other songs in other musicals that others have sung in just the same way, which is to say without distinction. Song, but no melody, song no one can hum, song that does not support the wit of the lyric.

And if the lyric has wit, you cannot tell because the sound recording of modern film musicals is atrocious. It’s partly mic-ing the actors. It’s partly the fault of melodies which do not support lyrics. When Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds dance together, you hear every word and every word connects with every note and every note tells the story required at that moment.

But here you cannot make out the words. All you are perhaps meant to get is a smear of the thing the characters are supposed to be feeling. Rushes of energy and sweeps of frenzy are meant to convey what? – enthusiasm? hope? a change of heart?

What a shame! Because a great deal of wit is evident in this show. Marvelous costumes, raves of choreography. Surprises and entertainment at every turn.

One of the difficulties with the Phineas T. Barnum story is that Jackman is too old to play Barnum when young. He is paired with Michelle Williams in the stereotypical role of the society girl (Alexis Smith) who marries hypogamicly below her class, but marries talent. Williams is an actor of sterling resources. Give her a scene with mundane demands, she always brings something from those resources that capture us with its counterpoint. But she is also too old.

To youthen things up the screenplay supplies us with handsome young Zac Efron as Barnum’s partner (in real life Bailey but here Carlyle, for some reason) and a mulatto trapeze artiste girlfriend played by Zendaya. Will Carlyle cross the color-line? It’s a cheap trick and an unworthy one, considering Barnum’s own bigotry.

All this detours our attention from Barnum himself and his wonder-working and leaves the film unfocussed. Miscegenation is touched on. Barnum’s snobbery is touched on. His workaholism is touched on. His fraudulence is touched on. Mob violence is touched on. Prejudice against the physically challenged is touched on. And the musical touches down on all this like a mechanical firefly, putting in cameo appearances of its own themes.

And yet you want the whole thing to succeed as well as the energy, color, vibrancy, magic, fun, and superabundant talent succeed in bedazzling us.

But the whole shebang is simply manufactured. Jackman and the director introduce the film by congratulating the audience for being in a movie theatre to watch it, and at the end we are told that 15,000 were given jobs in the making of it – dull remarks which P.T. Barnum would have exploited more vivaciously.

We’ve all seen spectacles about Barnum’ accomplishments – Rogers and Hart’s musical Jumbo, and de Mille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. And I have been to the Barnum and Bailey Ringling Brothers’ Circus in the ’40’s when the freak show which made Barnum’s name (Tom Thumb, Jumbo the elephant, and The Siamese Twins) still included a magical juggler of boxes, a fat lady, a thin man, a sword swallower, a tattoed man, a bearded lady, and Gargantua and Toto, gorillas who glowered. (That’s all they did but it was plenty.)

This was in the heyday of three-ring acrobats, aerialists, tight-rope walkers, the Wallendas, clowns including Emmett Kelley, dog acts, dancing elephants, and prancing horses, a tamer of lions, and a flight of hundred white doves released en mass to swarm through air of the Madison Square Garden and back again to the woman whose arms had a minute ago released them.

Showmanship!

Animal acts gone, side-shows gone, and Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus gone. Not forgotten.

But, like this film, soon to be.

 
 

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.

 

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

 

Picture Snatcher

10 Aug

Picture Snatcher – directed by Lloyd Bacon. Newsroom Comedy. 87 minutes Black And White 1933.
★★★★★
The Story: A crime lord goes straight to a newspaper to go straight, leading to his becoming an ambulance chaser-photographer which is almost as bad as being a crime lord.
~
Picture Snatcher is the key to Cagney. If it is not the best performance he ever gave in movies, I haven’t seen a better.

It’s perfectly directed by Bacon and shot by Sol Polito and edited by Bill Holmes. top craftsmen at Warners. Warners made pictures about low-life, and this is one, but that didn’t mean those films didn’t get Waldorf-Astoria treatment.

You’ve got to see the film, because Cagney is just so good. I didn’t like him as a kid. It felt like I was growing up with a bully. And there is that element in him. But essentially, Cagney’s technique is grounded in fear, by which I mean the automatic defensiveness of the little man with a Thompson Machine Gun personality. You can see it melt from time to time as he meets up with this or that honey or hitch.

Cagney’s fear gave him technical confidence, and from that springs his awareness to improvise physically – so you never know what he is going to do next! This makes him interestingly dangerous. It also makes his technique reliable and at the same time fresh. For instance, watch for the moment when he dashes into a telephone booth to call his girl. The instant before he dials, he scoops the coin return to scarf a forgotten dime. Only Geraldine Page had this capacity for detail in running performance.

Cagney’s musical theater technique, which was the ground for what he did in films, may have originally been learned on the streets of New York. It was so installed in him that it prevented him from playing his parts in any other way. He had only this explosive technique to stand on. Playing a priest, you could always sense the Tommy Gun under the aub. I feel it’s rather tragic, because he wanted to play different roles. He could not do it. He couldn’t play them differently.

Certain artists can do practically anything: Schubert and Mozart. Other artists find their niche and mine it. Chopin, for instance or Piazzolla. Nothing wrong with it. Wonderful, in fact. Cagney: in his vein. See him here at his best in it.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Extasis

15 Nov

Éxtasis – directed by Mariano Barroso. Comedy. 93 minutes Color 1996.

★★★★★

Four seedy small time crooks topple into the big time when a famous director adopts one of them as his son.

~

He is full of the juice of life, good to look at, and talented as all get out. Javier Barden at 26.

It’s remarkable to see him as an actor even early on his career making up a full-blown character, here one taken right off the streets of Madrid. Take a look at the walk he has given this bloke. Take a look at the quirky personality he has ascribed to him. He seems to have started out as one of the most serious yet entertaining actors on the screen and twenty years later still is.

Playing the leader of the gang at full throttle, the story takes him into the lair of a multimillionaire director where he presents himself as his son. The real son is one of Barden’s gang, but the father has never seen that son. Complications arise when the director decides to make the Barden a stage super-star. Complications exponential themselves when Barden decides to really be that son and also to be that star.

Moreover, the play he is to appear in is the Calderon masterwork, Life Is A Dream, which deals – in a Pirandellian dance – with just such switches.

It’s a delightful comedy, whose twists I decline to discomplicate for you here, for they are all up to you to enjoy when you see it.

And Barden, if you like him, and which of us does not, is a treat to behold in his early manhood. Gifted beyond measure, handsome beyond measure, big-hearted beyond measure.

Go look.

 

Departures

02 Nov

Departures – directed by Tojiro Takita. Dramedy. 130 minutes Color 2006.

★★★★★

The Story: A young married man answers an employment ad and finds himself involved in a career of which no one in his family or nation approves.

~

I start this review by telling you that this film won the 2006 Oscar for The Best Foreign Film to captivate you into leaping into ordering it from your library or Netflix or Amazon or Santa Claus.

I have this terrible habit of criticizing films. Of course, one does this because one is addicted to the word “Halleluiah!” One wants to tell the glad tidings and bear the good news. It’s a foolish habit. But such a film as this makes it imperative to my soul, and I forgive myself for it – and for everything else besides.

This film was originally designed by the actor who plays the leading role, and he certainly is a great star. He has all the eccentricity and immediacy of a great star. And the looks. No film company wanted to make it. He held out. When it was made, everyone on Earth went to it.

Masahiro Matoki plays opposite the most charming actress in the world, Ryoko Hirosue, she who adores him, fosters him, and puts her foot down hard on his when she finds out what he does for a living.

Kimiko Yo plays the Gal Friday of the firm, and she has been around several blocks, you can tell. The formidable Tsutomu Yamazaki is the boss of both of them, never predicable, always rigorous. A great actor at work.

The film is shot in a plain manner that makes things surprising when they appear before one.

The direction devotes itself to a simplicity which encourages the comedy into our eyes without blistering them.

I don’t want to talk much about this film, except to say it is engrossing, expressive, different, and dear. I don’t describe it because to do so would be to betray its surprises and preempt its beauty and its fun. Let’s just say it’s just what film is for! I know you will enjoy it as much as I did. That’s my rash hope. But then hope is always rash, is it not?

I say no more. Except watch it. Watch it. Watch it.

 

 

Hello, My Name Is Doris

30 Apr

Hello, My Name Is Doris – written and directed by Michael Showalter. Screwball Comedy. 90 minutes Color 2016.

★★★

The Story: A spinster forgotten in the accounting department of a modern firm imagines herself the mate of the handsome new executive.

~

All three stars go to Sally Field and Tyne Daly her confessor in a mating dance Field does at work which she should not do there or any place else. But comedy consists of what one ought not to do, does it not?

Field is 70 and still at the top of her game. What blooms from Sally Field is hope, doubt, and resolution. What does not bloom from her is sexual repression and self denial. She does not suffer long an inability to speak her mind.

These, however, are the background of her character, for she has just been released by her mother’s death in Staten Island, where Field had looked after her for a thousand years. Suddenly there’s this guy in the elevator.

Good.

What is odd about the character is the way she dresses. And here the problem starts.

For why has no one particularly until now noticed that Doris dresses like a rummage sale. That’s why nobody notices her.

And yet, now, all at once, she is considered hip because of her clothes. She goes to the theatre and is taken up. She goes to a disco and she is taken up. She is photographed for a fashion magazine. Maybe the guy is taking her up too.

The problem in all this that the clothes the costumer has put her in and that Field herself has culled from wardrobe look calculatedly bold, deliberately outré. They become more funny than the actress who wears them.

This character, Doris, would have dressed herself in whatever came to hand, cheaply, in hand-me-downs, and color-blind cardigans. Technicolor emblazons the costumes. They seem deliberate instead of unconscious.

Sally Field’s performance cuts through this difficulty as though it did not exist. She is one of our most welcome and wonderful actors. She has won two leading actor Oscars and has not had a leading role in a film for 20 years. You will take to her, as always, and admire her skill. She has one of the great qualities of politicians and actors: likability. Catch up to her and enjoy.

 
 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Devil And Miss Jones

15 Feb

The Devil And Miss Jones – directed by Sam Wood. Proletarian Comedy. 92 minutes Black And White 1941.

★★★★★

The Story: A group of department store employees, protesting for a union, unwittingly take into their fold the owner of the store.

~

Gee whiz, what are you waiting for! Get on your pony and order up this proletarian comedy with Charles Coburn as the millionaire who spies on his employees, and Jean Arthur, the store clerk who unwittingly befriends him.

This kind of story was a staple of the age of The Golden Age: My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, most Frank Capra Comedies of the era, and any story where some penniless person gets to be the spouse of the boss’s favorite child: You Can’t Take It With You, The Bride Came C.O.D., It Happened One Night, Vivacious Lady, and a spate of screwball comedies from the era.

It was a great age for comedy, and, boy, do they still satisfy. They hold true now more than comedies made now, because the difference between the rich and the poor, the plutocrat and the working stiff are, once again, as marked now as then.

Charles Coburn can really play anything. He never shortchanges a role. He is never without resources. His person exudes a comic potential with every breath. He doesn’t need a situation; he is a situation. Watch him, as the children’s shoe clerk, fumble right and left, the look on him of dignity lost in the face of the preposterous. He is one of the great film character stars of the era; he can carry a film, as he does here; he can steal a film, as he does here.

But check Jean Arthur out as she creates three different ways, to clobber him over the head with the heel of a work boot. Everything she does is open, intentional, and sparse. She is incapable of a false move. Or an unappealing one.

Robert Cummings’s forte was light comedy, and he is at his best moment in his acting life as the rabble-rousing love interest of Jean Arthur. Watch his scenes on the beach and in the courtroom. Everything he says uses the forward energy which was his milk.

All these actors are at the top of their game. They don’t mug; they don’t gesticulate or exaggerate; they don’t reach for laughs or wring them to death. This kind of acting is called comedy of character and is played with the bodies of the performers as personalities, not clown bodies or situation comedy bodies. It’s not entertainment of gag or guffaw. It requires the great fluidity of perfect willingness. Master acting is required. Coburn was nominated for an Oscar and was to win one not long after for The More The Merrier.

The picture moves forward on roller skates. The camera is held by the great Harry Stradling Sr. And the writing is brilliant, surprising, and real: Norman Krasna. Treat yourself. Indulge yourself. Let yourself go. Place The Devil And Miss Jones before you.

 

Pushing Tin

03 Oct

Pushing Tin – directed by Mike Newell. Comedy. 124 minutes Color 1999.

★★★★★

The Story: Complications arise in a group of air traffic controllers when an out-of-town expert arrives.

~

Here is a near masterpiece.

The farther you get into it the more a masterpiece it remains until it nears the end and blows apart with an exaggeration so blatant the plot thereafter sticks out like a compound fracture, and it becomes another picture altogether.

And you can’t have that because the story is not driven by plot but by the nature and interior operations of the two male protagonists.

The first of these is John Cusack who is at the top of his very high form here. Everything he does is right, telling, interesting. Everything he does throws you into the character. And when that happens you know that the story must resolve itself through the machinations of what he is and may become.

The second protagonist is played by Billy Bob Thornton.

Now when you are dealing with Billy Bob Thornton, you are dealing with Vesuvius. He is therefore an actor of preternatural calm. This makes him dangerous. It also makes him attentive, which also makes him dangerous. Flat of voice, which also does. Of unmatchable screen presence, which does not detract from his danger. Volatile. Rash. Impatient. Devoid of sentiment. Sardonic. Patient. Rash. Ruthless. All of which make him dangerous and add up to an aura of Mastery. Beware of actors with three names: if you closed your eyes, he is Tommy Lee Jones.

The comedy is set in the flight control conning tower of the Newark Airport, where 7,000 airplanes a day must be herded without barging into one another. These two characters are on a collision course, because Cusack conceives himself as king of the mountain and in competition with Thornton even before Thornton arrives on site.

Each round of the competition escalates to the next, starting with shooting hoops, progressing to the sexual conquest of each other’s wives, and once this level is reached, the forces of morality and morale collide inside Cusack, as the last competition leaves the two men in the emergency of handling the entire air over Newark alone.

But this takes place under a bomb threat which clears the conning tower of all personnel. That is to say, it is run by an external force. It needed instead to run by an internal force. It needed to be set in the mechanical breakdown of all flight control stations but two. It needed to be played with the other controllers rooting for them, betting on them, and distracting them as the two save all the planes coming in.

Up until that point the film is a brilliant comedy of human nature, all of which is played out by our witnessing the inner workings of Cusack who is marvelous at realizing them for us.

He is matched by all the supporting players, who are perfectly cast and a lot of fun. Their presence and behavior establish the film as a comedy. As does the style of presentation, which is Restoration farce. I don’t know if the superb writing of the script derives from the novel on which it is based, but you deserve to enjoy it. Newell’s direction is at top form. The setting alone of the scene where Cusack hesitates outside Thornton’s house before going inside to sleep with his wife is a model of moral defeat we all will recognize.

Cusack’s wife is played by Cate Blanchett who gets the Jersey girl down pat, although perhaps a touch too dense. Thornton’s wife is played by Angelina Jolie aged 23 and a power-beauty already. She astonishes with her reserve, timing, and humor. Her wonderful breasts lie naked before our eyes. So does her capacious nature.

The force field of the ego is the ground of this comedy. Its course is almost realized. But staying the course until then brings delight, truth, laughter. One man has an ego, which is the mind thinking it is God. The other man actually is God. What a battle! What a jest! Catch the next plane to Newark!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted in Angelina Jolie, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, John Cusack, ROMANTIC COMEDY

 

Grandma

26 Sep

Grandma – directed by Paul Weitz. Dramedy. 78 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★

The Story: a young woman and her grandmother scour the city to raise funds for the young woman’s abortion.

~

One is down on one’s knees morning and evening that the part of the cranky grandmother was not cast with Shirley Maclaine. Instead as surprising absolution for our sins we are given the caustic highball of Lily Tomlin, for those who like their drinks best with bitters.

There she is aged 76 with her suspicious gorilla eyes and smile wider than generosity. This is why we go to the movies: simply to watch such people. To learn the answer, watch the posture she assumes as she tracks down Sam Neill.

The picture is a saga of Tomlin and her granddaughter traipsing from door to door of old lovers and acquaintances and debtors with hands held out. It’s a good story, satisfactorily told.

The difficulty is that the way it is directed eliminates the actual experience of the development of the relationship between the grandmother and her granddaughter to take place, for it relies on cross cuts – which is the method of focusing on one character as she speaks, and then focusing on the second character while that character speaks. What you get is a series of monologues, however brief, rather than the constant underlying potential of mutual energy actually moving between the two.

One problem may be that their dialogues are in cars, side by side. Another may be that the granddaughter is written, cast, and played uninterestingly. The result is that you feel nothing ever happens between them. The story rolls along without inner human development, although this shifts when late in the day the girl’s mother played by Marcia Gay Harden turns up to cauterize the scene.

It is also perhaps the fault of the writing in making Tomlin’s character alienating. She’s acerbic. She’s testy. She has her opinions and is outspoken with them. All of this presents a hard surface which does not allow penetration either in or out. As a feisty lesbian, we have a character hard to put up with.

But we also have it played out by Lily Tomlin, whose nature it is to express the tonic truth. This exists as a ground of being with Tomlin rather than a character choice. And we count on her for it. And she does not disappoint. The ruthless reversals of the expected are the response to life that fall from her. We wish nothing better for ourselves at all.

 

Quality Street

13 Aug

Quality Street – directed by George Stevens. Costume Drama. 83 minutes Black And White 1937.

★★

The Story: In 1805, a young woman hopes for a proposal from the local doctor, but instead he leaves for The Napoleonic Wars and comes back 10 years later, when, in revenge for his rebuff, she pretends to be her own 20-year-old madcap niece.

~

One wonders why Katharine Hepburn chose to drink this flagon of box office poison, after three flops in a row. Was it because George Stevens was to direct it? He had directed Alice Adams, a hit, and they had had an affair then.

It’s J.M. Barrie, and Maud Adams, Of Peter Pan fame, had starred in it on Broadway in 63 performances. It hardly offers Hepburn room for her trump suit of self-possessed, willful, smart, game women such as she would play in Stevens, Woman Of The Year.

Perhaps Hepburn thought the double roles of Phoebe and Livy would be an acting showcase. But neither female is particularly interesting or true in her hands. Hepburn’s faults as an actress are in full display with them: she puts on airs, she is arch, she is coy. She possessed the terrible trick to summon tears in a second and even control which eye would flow. Her performances all her life tend to be lachrymose, therefore, when only the audience should be.

Of course, there is still plenty in evidence of what we love her for: her remarkable face, her unflinching delivery, her ability to play an upper middle class female, and her ability to get her mouth around such lines as: ‘O, sir, this dictates of my heart enjoin me to accept your offer.’ According to her lights Hepburn snaps the script up like a macaroon. Good for her. Reluctance would have been awful.

The setting is Jane Austen land, and the genre is A Woman’s Film. The women are all in a tizzy about any man who passes who looks dashing. Eric Blore, he of the interminable grimace, as a sergeant is not dashing of course and ends up with the movie’s only authentically human character, the lusty, busty housekeeper, adeptly played by Cora Witherspoon. Estelle Winwood plays the gossip. The exquisite Fay Bainter plays Hepburn’s colluding sister. Franchot Tone plays the doctor beautifully, and looks beautiful doing it.

Maybe RKO thought the Barrie play would show class and tone. She had already played The Little Minister. But the period style stiffens into a pose. A greeting card has more weight. George Stevens, usually a master of screen treatment, films the whole thing as the stage play it is, four square, as fully lit as a cameo. Walter Plunkett’s costumes are frocks from fashion plates, women cradling shawls in the crook of their elbows when no sensible woman would have done so. Actually, Hepburn’s modern American manner is quite out of place in costume pieces, save in Little Women, which requires a hoyden in a long dress. Jo’s an A-level Hepburn character; Phoebe/Livy aint. Quality Street? A curiosity piece.

 

Irrational Man

09 Aug

Irrational Man – written and directed by Woody Allen. Perfect Crime Comedy. 96 minutes Color 2015.

★★

The Story: While deciding on an affair with a student, a philosophy professor decides instead to better humanity by killing someone.

~

The story does not work because the main character, the professor, is stunningly miscast.

Joaquin Phoenix cannot articulate the role at all. That is to say, he cannot get his mouth around the words he is asked to say.

One wonders what Woody Allen had in mind in hiring him. Phoenix is a great actor, but devoid of imagination for any style that does not correspond to his own intestinal depths. In brain-damaged roles, those depths are wonderful, but he is an actor incapable of a thought. He cannot imagine how to play an intellectual, because his acting instrument is not tuned for it: a respected, highly accomplished, well published full philosophy professor working at a New England college such as Bard.

Phoenix is a master-musician of the crude but sensitive soul. But Allen should not ask him to dally in a realm perfect for Jeremy Irons blindfolded. In his mouth every line Allen has given him sounds ill-written, phony, off-key. He cannot act them, that is to say, he cannot get his nature around the expression of a character whose life is of the mind.

So, unwittingly, he turns into a platitude what might, for Allen, have been an interesting excursion into rash land. Phoenix doesn’t mean to, of course; he’s not mean spirited or doctrinaire; he’s just not bright in the way required. For in his life he has chosen an engine for acting which forbids his operating in any other style save the one he has already installed. He runs on diesel, not gas.

He is not helped much by Emma Stone who appears to be a rather ordinary young actress playing a rather ordinary young woman. She’s a good actor, but her efforts batter against the brick wall of Phoenix’s technique like custard pies hurled at a Richard Serra wall.

The film is beautifully mounted by Santo Loquasto as usual. The music is tops. The costuming is questionable, since, in class, it keeps Phoenix in the same dull shirt for weeks, and it keeps Stone in skirts so short she looks like a toddler in didies. When she gains wisdom, the designer covers her legs, duh, in slacks.

The supporting people are darling. We even have Parker Posey, who almost turns her character into a substitute for the main interest– a stand-in waiting to go on. None of this salvages the film. You cannot mount a Perfect Crime Movie with the perpetrator played by Goofy.

 

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.

 

Ted 2

27 Jun

Ted 2 – directed by Seth MacFarlane. Lowbrow Comedy. 115 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A living Teddy Bear denied his human rights, takes it to the law of the land.

~

This is perfect material for Mark Wahlberg. It’s a home-town lower-class Boston bachelor–buddy comedy. In this one, one of the bachelors is a foul-mouthed Teddy bear.

So it’s a Buddy Movie, and the premise of the film is that the Teddy Bear is deemed not a person but a property. This leads to convolutions which it is not my place as a sober person to relate to you. But the real fun lies in passing moves of charm and energy and dim wit, and the playing of Mark Wahlberg, an actor whose work I never tire of seeing.

He plays a character who must be ready for anything, and he is never off base, never overstates, never sucks a scene dry, never falters. He is right there in each of the zillion ways his moments require. It is interesting to see an actor at work in a comedy who is himself not funny, but can so fully invest himself in having a good time; it is even better.

The picture opens today, the very day The Supreme Court finds in favor of same-sex marriage, and it is on the instant. For the case before the courts here is exactly the same as that before the courts in Ted. The question is not whether the Teddy Bear can have sex and conceive children. He cannot. He is married to a mortal, however– although at a crucial point his marriage is judged unlawful. The question is, despite his appearance and label, is he a human being?

The very lawyer to argue his case is, of course, played by Morgan Freeman, the least lower-class person you know.

But on the way to this denouement we have many a jest and jape and gaucherie. The funniest of these consists of Liam Neeson at Ted’s supermarket checkout counter purchasing a Box of Trix Breakfast Cereal. For once, Ted is straightman. Neeson, playing A Man Of International Intrigue, grills Ted in whispers about the propriety and legality of himself buying a cereal designated for Kids. Neeson creates a delicious moment of high tension as he knows so well how to do. Every line he says is funny.

Another delight is the law library ballet, and a third is Astaire takeoff on “Stepping Out with My Baby,” a delirious production number that reassures one that Hollywood can still make a musical ­– which this is not, save for a sweet ballad sung half-way through.

I like low comedy. But there are so many of them, I simply miss them all. I didn’t go expecting beefsteak. I expected a frank and beans, and that’s what I got.

 

 

 
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Posted in BROAD COMEDY, Dance & Dancing, John Slattery, Mark Wahlberg

 

Inside Out

21 Jun

Inside Out – director Peter Docter. Animated Feature. 102 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★

The Story: The inside of an eleven-year-old girl’s mind in crisis.

~

Even in 3-D the most noticeable aspect before us is not birds flying into our eyes, but the greater interest lying in the witty veracity of responses of the main characters to what confronts them. In this, all human comedy consists, and we are treated with an untiring and untiresome display of it, even when the film sinks beneath its own spectacle, as it is bound to do, because nowadays each film released must exceed the one before in vulgar excess, or the audience, it is imagined, will be failed and fail it.

For I long to dwell upon a detail. Won’t they allow me that, even once? Inside the little girl’s head we have such Castles In The Air as FAMILY, HONESTY, HOME, GOOFBALL, each one set up as elaborate Pleasure Islands Of Nostalgia And Habit. Oh, I want to examine one of those, see what it contains! Please! But no, we are whisked away to the next loom of catastrophe quicker than two eyes can blink or even one.

The trouble with catastrophe is that it soon becomes labored and ho-hum. Still, there is pleasing suspense in just how the two heroines will be reunited. For OUTSIDE is the girl Riley, whose thumbnail bio we are given from birth to introduce the human qualities she was born with and contains INSIDE.

INSIDE, from her first glimpse of air, Riley is possessed of and is possessed by a quintet of forces and tendencies, Grief, Rage, Paranoia, Revulsion, and Joy. Joy alone is female. Joy is Riley’s default position, and so Joy womans the controls.

But something goes wrong, and she and Grief are zoomed into a region separated from those controls and, to save the day for Riley, must get back to where they belong, a journey more picaresque and fraught than any one ever had getting back to Tara or There’s No Place Like Home.

On their way they enter many a curious station, The Warehouse Of Memory, The Palace Of Imagination, The Compost Bin Of Experience. They meet up with Riley’s imaginary childhood friend, Bing-Bong, with whom they try to jump The Train Of Thought. He’s a lot of fun, too.

I say no more, save that, as in Frozen, it was good to see two female heroes before us, and no romance. The idea of animation entering the mind was overdue, although it has always been present in Bugs Bunny without saying so. Best of all I liked the wit of the drawing and the script. If the film confuses movement for zest, that is the temptation of all cartoon.

So much was included it was hard to note what was missing, which was the presiding character of Attention – that which discerns the INSIDE with the OUTSIDE. But perhaps that was left in the hands of the audience for a job, which, with no applause, we all did accurately and with care.

 
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Posted in COMIC ACTION ADVENTURE, DRAMEDY, FANTASY, PERSONAL DRAMA, SUSPENSE

 

Results

12 Jun

Results – directed by Andrew Bujalski. Oddball Comedy. 105 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A colliding romantic trio circles around a physical fitness gym, until two of them bump the other one off and realize the inevitable.

~

Four great actors working today give me the cue for adoration. They are Allison Janney, Lee Pace, Joan Allen, and Guy Pearce. I eagerly trace them to their latest. I am predisposed to rave them. I am prepared to sit back and allow them to prove me happy.

Guy Pearce is the most essential of these, in the sense that his presence in supporting roles always turns the key to the dynamic of the story. What he brings that no one else can bring is a conservation of energy through which the role as written can make its mark on the story for the audience. But sometimes he is give a great big dolloping leading role, and such a role we have here, and I pray you do not miss it.

He plays the completely brain-empty proprietor of a physical fitness gym. He spouts nothing but the most steadfast clichés. It is quite wonderful to hear him vocalize the human potential babble which is the vision of his firm. As an actor he never relents. He never falls back on a roll of the eyes or a pitch for empathy. He is ruthlessly the character itself.

Backed by three wonderful actors I have never heard of, we get Pearce in full force of his gift for give and take. It is an actors’ jubilee.

Cobie Smulders plays his star trainer and sometime squeeze. She is absolutely marvelous. And so is Kevin Corrigan as an orphaned nouveau riche, and Giovanni Ribisi as the slime bag lawyer. They are all backed by a fully written script with characters so fleshed out you simply never know what they are going to do or say next.

The writer staged and directed them, and while it is my usual caveat to speak against the possible success of such a pairing, here it works like gangbusters. The direction and filming and color and cutting look patchwork – but that is the basic ground of alliance for these characters. None of them fit together. As romantic couples you could not possibly suppose any of them would get along for two minutes.

But the richness is: what the hell are most married couples doing together anyhow? Can you really understand why two people are so joined? What do they possibly have in common? What keeps them together all these years?

You’ll sort it out for yourself in the coffee shop afterwards. I so enjoyed it. I wish I could be there to hear you did too.

 

Wild Tales

13 May

Wild Tales – written and directed by Damiàn Szifron. Black Comedy. 122 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: Six tales of vengeance.

~

Wild Tales is an anthology of the most sumptuous violence one has ever witnessed this side of Catastrophe. But actually it’s funny.

It’s funny because it is a black satire in the form of six screwball comedies on vengeance in human affairs.

You have never seen such a record of complete all-out vendettas. In this film, though, revenge is not a dish served cold. It is bubbling hot. It steams and sizzles and boils over.

The first story is …no, I won’t tell you. It takes place in an airplane among a load of unwitting voyagers.

The second story is …no, I won’t tell you. It takes place in a roadside joint where the man you love to hate turns up for chow.

The third story is … no, I won’t tell you. But it takes place on the superhighway of road rage.

The fourth story is … no, I won’t tell you. But it will satisfy every fury you ever felt over a parking ticket.

The fifth story is …. no, I won’t tell you. But it glees you with comeuppance for every lawyer who ever fleeced you.

The sixth story is … no, I won’t tell you. But it quite restores reality to the rites of the wedding day.

I say no more. I am mum.

I do have to say that these pieces are perfectly cast and played, and the director who forged them deserves olés all around.

If you like this film, good. Tell someone. Tell every terrorist you know. It may laugh them out of it.

If you don’t like it, it’s not because I said you should go. You didn’t ask me, and if you had, I’d once more have said, “No, I won’t tell you.”

 
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Posted in BLACK COMEDY, FILMED IN ARGENTINA WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES

 

Rough Magic

07 May

Rough Magic – written and directed by Clare Peploe. Screwball Comedy. 104 minutes. 1997.

★★★★★

The Story: A magician’s assistant flees the claws of a billionaire who wants to marry her.

~

Have you missed this marvel?

Don’t continue in that error one day more.

Not being a fan of Russell Crowe, I approach the endeavor warily. But this is made at the moment of L.A. Confidential and he is 30 and has ripened up just fine. It’s interesting to observe his acting instrument, the spread of energy natural to him that enables him to consume the screen – indeed to the exclusion of any other star equal to him. Two suns side by side often don’t work. Here he must play the suing lover, which means he is a bottom; he must play in subordination to the woman. It works for him. And it brings up a side of him that I prefer. Gladiator go home.

But let us set that aside for even better things.

First of all this is a movie made by a woman about a woman. Clare Peploe is the writer-director, and the film reflects her values which I like, and which take us into the land of magic both fundamental and false. Screwball comedy is the genre, if you like. And the rendering of it is blunt, various, saucy, always fun.

Playing the leading role is Briget Fonda, and is she good! She fits right into the bold outlines of the character, and you believe right off in her daring, aplomb, wit, and suffering. She is a lovely actor and I wish she were before us more.

The great Jim Broadbent makes up the trio, and he is at his simply-marvelous best. It’s a great big dolloping part – just what we want him to have. He plays an inept sidewalk pharmacist, con man, and raider of ancient civilizations. He is accompanied by a dog.

I love comedy, and this one has the bright notion to shift its locale to Mexico in pursuit of a rare potion which makes those who imbibe into true magicians. Or perhaps it is better to say, it makes them truly what they are.

So we have Cliff Wyatt as the insufferable billionaire of D.W. Moffett. It’s lovely to see in him what good actors we have in ourAmerican pantry. We have our favorite Richard Schiff as his flunky waiting in the wings all this time. We have Kenneth Mars launching his big style into the role of the stage magician and master hand. We have lovely Mexican actors carrying through their parts like champions.

I love this film. I love its color. I love the way it was done, and how. How it was done was what it said. And for me that makes for the most intimate of entertainments. How about you?

 

 

 
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Posted in Briget Fonda, Jim Broadbent, Richard Schiff, Russell Crowe, SCREWBALL COMEDY

 

And So It Goes …

04 Apr

And So It Goes… directed by Lasse Halström. Comedy. 94 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: a sardonic widower lives next to a lugubrious widow, and they become entangled in one another’s doings.

~

I rented it to see Diane Keaton’s smile – always a tonic to me, and to enjoy her ruthless spontaneity. What surprised me was Michael Douglas as the guy next door. So what appears to be and is a conventional happy-ending-modern-comedy whose outcome one inhales as it first draws breath, turns out to be a top notch comedy of character. 

Comedy of character. A rare thing. And both these entertainers are pushing 70! So they don’t have a moment to lose. 

Diane Keaton sings a number of songs as a lounge singer starting out. I wish she had been allowed to do one all the way through. But she’s a great singer, is our Diane. And Douglas is a real estate salesman who keep his foot in his mouth throughout. 

The surprise in this picture is Douglas’s performance as an idiot coot. He actually is able to create a character!!!! This is wonderful to see. His character is cranky and foolish and completely lacking in polish. But all this is a the gift of a script which is unexpectedly rich and which he rewards with a character study of the sort you never for a moment thought he was capable of. 

The story is ordinary, but the dialogue and acting isn’t. 

We have the admixture of Keaton’s storied technique, which is entirely welcome always, in an admixed with Douglas’s extreme acting, and it works just dandy. You’ll be surprised. 

It’s a popcorn movie. But still an unusual treat.

 

 

 

 
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Posted in Diane Keaton: acting goddess, Melvyn Douglas, ROMANTIC COMEDY

 

Nightcrawler

23 Mar

Nightcrawler – written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Crime Satire. 117 minutes Color 2014

★★★★★

The Story: A petty thief steals his way into The Profession Of Paparazzi Of Gore.

~

The two best male performances I saw for 2014, and in perhaps the two best films, were Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler and Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler.

For once the writer of the screenplay has not botched the direction of the picture by forgetting to leave all that stuff out or by not having listened to someone who cast a cold eye beforehand, as Zanuck used to do. For the screenplay is masterful. And the direction is masterful. And the music is particularly masterful. And the casting is masterful. And the filming is masterful. And the playing is masterful.

Why would you possibly deprive yourself of this? Is it because it deals with ambulance-chasing video-vampires who sell their spectacular footage to the TV stations every night? Is it because it is a satire with no laughs? An exposé of how we drool over roadside kill and the crimson-dripping misfortunes of others? How the front pages fix their starshine on murder, misery, rape, crime, and sexual exploitation? If it bleeds it leads.

This is the motto of the studio head played by Rene Russo, so well cast by the director, who happens to be her husband. It is good to see Miss Russo back in business on the blockbuster screen. She plays this well-written part with all the humor, reserve, and savvy in the world. Boy, is she good!

The movie is, however, entirely the province of Jake Gyllenhaal who plays the smarmy but effective video-cameraman. He has lost 20 pounds to play the part of a sort of Zen master juggernaut of the night. Lithe, quick, unreadable, he has made of this character a stern robot, mouthing maxims from career manuals and community college TV management courses. He never speaks ordinary English. He is always a quote. It is an astonishing tour de force for an actor, for even when he breaks out of this humorless, manipulative mummery, he is, behind it, nothing less than insane. This we know.

So the suspense is: what will become of this nut? Will his sidekick, well played by Riz Ahmed, get shafted? Yes, but how? Will Russo outlast our Jake?

Gyllenhaal’s face is sculpted to a skin and a bone. With a little queue on his head, he is an ascetic of slime. If he is not human, it is not because he is insane, not because he is relentless, but because he is without fear. It is an emotion unknown to him, and his being without it gives us ourselves in our ghoulish eye which would gaze on death without horror. As though we were training ourselves for a genocide. A sweet immolation of everything and everyone. An eager 42-caliber finale served up as a free sample at any supermarket you go to at all.

Worth seeing, my dears.

 
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Posted in CRIME DRAMA, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Jake Gyllenhaal, René Russo, SATIRE

 

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

15 Mar

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — directed by John Madden. Screwball Comedy. 82 minutes Color 2015

★★★★★

The Story: The lively young owner of a hotel in India wants to expand his operation and get married at the same time and also continue to adore and serve and praise his elderly clientele and also….

~

What are doing sitting here reading this! You should jump up at once and grab your family and friends or just yourself and go see this inspiriting comedy of mismanagement.

It is fueled by the effervescent and insatiably charming Dev Patel, who performed the same services for us at the First Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a season or so back. He gambols through the piece like a gazelle. What an actor! What a silver-footed turn-on-a-dime comedian! What a sunburst of delight! I’m going to see it again.

So to save myself time in order to rush to do that, and to save you time too, I shall shorten this review by saying only that, like the first, the second film is a tonic!

Patel operates in the foreground of the fidelities, infidelities, careers, and Brittle British exchanges of a witty script fortified by the playing of Maggie Smith as a lower caste Scottish accountant, Bill Nighy as a duffer of frail memory who must fill his purse with lectures of tourist sites whose details escape him, Judi Dench who adores him from afar and then nearer and nearer, Diana Hardcastle as the bewitching straying wife of Ronald Pickup.

Celia Imre is the lascivious lady wooed by two maharajas, David Strathairn is the deciding executive of the deal, Tina Desai is the delicious almost forgotten bride-to-be, Shazad Larif is the stiff competition. Richard Gere, with his low class accent and high class wardrobe, is the dupe who dupes the dopes.

It all ends as comedy always should with a wedding and a dance.

All this in the flaming color of India!

Hasten my dears. You can’t do better for a comedy just now.

And when you come back, tell me you adore me!

 

The Duff

13 Mar

The Duff – directed by Ari Sandel. Comedy. 101 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: The cutest boy in high school tutors the most unlikely girl to stop being a Designated Ugly Fat Friend.

~

Wow! It’s good to see people new to me up there, so skilled and entertaining and likable.

Mae Whiteman is the Designated Ugly Fat Friend of two dream-chicks in high school. Robbie Amell plays her dream-boat boy-next-door pal who tutors her to be a glamorpuss, Ken Jeong is uproarious as the faculty adviser on the school paper. And we have the incomparable Allison Janney as the jilted mother who finds Her True Calling.

I sat back and loved this comedy. Yes, it has to do with teenagers. But, oh yes, it is brilliantly played by these actors. So funny. So quick. So smart in their craft. So willing to entertain.

You know by now that I love the comedies of The Golden Age. They still entertain 60 years later – some of them – and, while it is as true that The Duff is played with the humor of the age we live in just as the comedies of The Golden Age Of Film were played in the humor of that time and world-set, so The Duff too will amuse our human understanding and settle our desire for entertainment 60 years hence too, I do suspect.

I went to see it for Allison Janney, of course. I cannot do without her. She is necessary to me as fresh water. And no more than fresh water does she disappoint.

For Allison Janney is the champagne of fresh water!

 

 

Mortdecai

04 Feb

Mortdecai – directed by David Keopp. Action/Farce. 107 minutes Color 2015

★★★★★

The Story: A highborn British scoundrel and his delicious wife deploy their expertise in pirating a stolen Goya.

~

Oh, oh, oh. Go, go, go!

For I shall go three times myself. For – oh, my dears – it is the funniest film you have ever seen or listened to. At least this year. At least don’t bother hoping for anything better. At least this year. Unless they make a sequel. At least this year.

The screenplay is witty beyond measure. The language positively rejoices one! If you want dandy lines, don’t despair, come here! If you want your attention alerted, don’t weep for sorrow, let your brains be restored! Here lies succor. If you want to experience the full range of comedy, high, medium, and low in one costly banquet, pray step this way.

If you enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, and thought you would never meet its match again, well you were wrong! For this director knows, as Anderson knows, and I have no telling how they both doth know, how to fashion fine film farce. The speed of it! The connivance with the audience of it! The exploding of disbelief of it! The snippety snap of the editing of it! Where are you going to go for such fine fare save to this Dorchester of comedies, Mortdecai!

Now you may have lost faith in Johnny Depp by now. I know I had. I had never thought to see him do a piece of good work again. But – a-ha! – not so. For here he is in full actor fig! From the moment he wiggles that calamitous moustache I am rising from the floor from laughter to witness the next twitch.

This nasal vestment is the principal plot factor between himself and his much smarter wife, played by – oh, pray before you say those words – that church of charm, Gwyneth Paltrow. She is gorgeous, self-possessed, full of heart, and she loves our Johnny madly but not too well – for she cannot endure or overlook the moustache.

Which sits on his chops like a venomous beast from the bottom of the sea. Their escapades together and separate have to do with some masterpiece or other, for they are in the stolen-art-game. Gwyneth is there to outflank him and save the whole day, while Johnny is there to get into trouble with Those Of Overweening Greed, such as Jeff Goldblum and his nymphomaniacal daughter who want the Goya for themselves and who are willing to do mortal harm to our Johnny.

Fortunately our Johnny is a pusillanimous ninny (pusillanimous is a word which is applied never to low-born, only to high-born cowards), soooo, he is likely to oft come near mortal harm, but bound to be saved from it by his body-guard played by Paul Bettany. They are the Jeeves and Bertie of action/adventure comedy. Paul has so many notches on his belt, women tear off his britches on sight.

We have before us Depp’s best work since Jack Sparrow, and just as funny, original, and rash. Depp dares the camera to miss a single detail. The lowering of an eyelid. The raising of an eyelid. The lowering of an eyelid.

He has made a rare caricature of this plummy Englishman, a first drawing of a type now given the breath of its first public spanking, yet recognizable to us from all we dared not say or think.

The trick in it is to arrange a parity between this cartoon and Paltrow, who is not a cartoon. How do Depp and Paltrow go about – from such disparate technical poles – making the love story hold? It’s mainly Paltrow’s job, and while I don’t know how she does it, the movie does depend on her in the matter.

Oh, my dears, my darlings, my beloveds, do go and delight yourselves. What more can I tell you? What more pipe you to it? Don’t wait for Johnny and Gwyneth. Lace up your boots! Be quick! Be nimble! Be beguiled!

 

Vivacious Lady

25 Jan

Vivacious Lady – directed by George Stevens. Comedy. 90 minutes Black And White 1938.

★★★★★

Charlie Chaplin said A Place In The Sun was the best American movie he had ever seen.

What was it that made George Stevens’ films so mesmerizing, so engrossing?

Those closeups of Elizabeth Taylor over the shoulder of Montgomery Clift? Yes, but you saw not just the beautiful eyes of a beautiful seventeen year old girl, you also saw she was in love.

You see the same in closeups of Joan Fontaine and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Gunga Din.

And you see the same thing here in Jimmy Stewart looking at Ginger Rogers for the first time in Vivacious Lady. Jimmy Stewart told us that he lost his virginity to Ginger Rogers. She would have been 27 and he 30 at the time the film was made. And is that what we’re seeing in his agog eyes? Gratitude? First love? Surrender? It looks so real and dear.

It may just be that Jimmy Stewart was a marvelous actor. For certainly the love-scenes are delicious between them – funny, apt, sincere, clumsy. You just don’t want them to end.

George Stevens directed great comic love scenes. Tender and true. Or did he? When you look at The More The Merrier and you come upon the seduction scene on the stoop, if your heart isn’t filled with the humor of those passes and spurns, you must go back again to be born. How did Stevens do it? Was it luck?

I don’t know what George Stevens had for actors. As a film–maker of comedy before The War he is unrivalled in his visual grasp – he made no comedies after The War because he was the first to see Dachau and film it and the sight of is changed him permanently. His embrace of the actor is like no other, before or after The War. But before the war we have his trove of Americana comedy. Vivacious Lady is Stevens’ gift to us of ourselves.

Charles Coburn was an actor any director would thrill to have. (He won an Oscar later for The More The Merrier.) Coburn plays the heavy father of Stewart. He gives full value and a balance learned from playing many Shakespearean heavy fathers, which require comic high-horse just short of meanness. Beulah Bondi is lovely as his put-upon but shrewd wife. Ginger Rogers is as always willing to play the fool and give us an upside-down game when needed. And it’s great to see Jimmy Stewart deliver a full-on dressing down when the time comes. When someone like that gets angry, watch out!

Like the routine at the end of Woman Of The Year, the Vivacious Lady closing comes too long and too late. But never mind. Just enjoy yourself. When you’ve seen it once, watch how he films it. When you’ve seen it twice, watch how he lights it. When you’ve seen it thrice, watch how he details it. When you’ve seen it never before … just watch.

 

Top Five

01 Jan

Top Five – written and directed by Chris Rock. Comedy/Drama. 112 minutes Color 2104

★★★★★

The Story: As he walks around the city a top comedian with a serious movie coming out is interviewed by a woman from The Times.

~

I had never seen Chris Rock before, save MCing the Oscars. He was fine, but I saw that he was a cute, black guy who told jokes, and none of those things interested me enough to see him again. Then I read a review of Top Five, saying the movie was really funny. So I went.

The movie is not really funny, and once I got over my expectation that it was supposed to be, I found it really entertaining and humorous. I loved it.

He walks around town on his professional errands being queried by Rosario Dawson, and they bring out the best in each other, by which I mean they bring out what is human and real. I was delighted to watch them.

Their adventures take them into a scene with his family members in the Projects, and it all looks wild and improvised and a whole lot of fun. However, it must also have been carefully written and well rehearsed and skillfully shot for it to work as well it does. I don’t get inside black folks homes when in family; I surprised myself being invited there.

Rock also has big scenes with Cedric The Entertainer who takes over Rock and the screen and the whole state of Texas and two ladies of the night all in one day or night. I could scarcely understand a word he said, but I didn’t mind one bit, his attitude told all. He also has a bodyguard mentor beautifully played by  J.V. Smoove.

With Dawson he has a quickie in a low down T-room that’s rich and witty. She accompanies him on interviews and at last to a bachelor party, for the film hangs between two clothes hooks. The line on which it is all hung is that both of them are former addicts.

One hook is his approaching, arranged marriage to a Reality TV actress with nothing to her name but her celebrity. The other hook is the opening of his film on the Haitian slave revolution – which no one wants to see. Action/adventure is not his speed.

What is his speed is that he is a wonderful, natural screen actor. One wants to watch him. One wants to see his response to life and to Dawson, and the same is true of Dawson. He is open and easy and apt. He is also smart, which makes me smart too.

And what’s even better he is shown in long, extended scenes that develop and expand and require human speech. One is allowed in. The film is a grown-up movie. One is permitted to have an experience, not one shoved down one’s throat. The lovely thing about it for me is how old fashioned and friendly to its audience it is, and how much it asks from us. I dove right in and did my part and enjoyed myself no end.

 

 

Mame

04 Nov

Mame — directed by Gene Saks. Musical.  132 minutes Color 1974.

★★

The Story: A free-thinking New York sophisticate suddenly becomes the guardian of her eight year old nephew.

~

This is the musical version of Auntie Mame, a play which Rosalind Russell made her own and which she was too ill to make the musical of. A shame. Because Lucille Ball plays it here, and she is importantly miscast. Rosalind Russell had hidden weapons. Lucy’s weapons are pasted all over her. Auntie Mame is a highball. Lucille Ball is beer.

Lucille Ball is in her early sixties when she does this, which would have been all right, but, because she desired not to look what she is, she is horrible to behold! The plastic surgeons have mummified her. The wigmakers have stretched her skull skin up into a ponytail. The spectacle of her face, a puss which we have all found endearing, and which has been the chief tool of her outer clown, has resulted in Lucille Ball playing the entire part in a Lucille Ball mask. It’s so sad. It’s so unnecessary. And it is unwatchable.

When you look away from the star, which is the only sane counsel, you may notice Bea Arthur playing a sort of Tallulah Bankhead, as Mame’s best friend. But she isn’t given enough camera time, and when she is, the writing is too broad and the direction broader. The last part of the story doesn’t work. It never did work. It was too bad mannered.

It is pleasant to see Bruce Davidson as the boy grown up, and John McGiver as the stuffy guardian (we actually tend to sympathize with). And eventually the proceedings are given a shot in the arm by the zest of Robert Preston who sings and dances and steals the show, right and left. What investment he had, what wit, what genuine virility. He departs midway.

The songs are good but they are laid waste by over production, as are the sets and costumes. Beekman Place apartments never looked anything like Mame’s. They are much more interesting, and, had one of them been approximated, its confines would have lent pressure and force to the songs, which are pretty good. Beekman Place had taste. And a certain kind of taste, for it was and is a co-op for millionaires. Built in 1929 Beekman Place refers to this structure, rather than the neighborhood around it. The Rockefellers, Aly Kahn, and Huntington Hartford lived there. And, it was built after The Crash which takes place in all versions of Mame, the first of many anomalies, good taste being the first, from which the sets are eon light years away.

But never mind that. Never mind the movie either. I wish its composer had been better served. I wish we all had been better served. With a Manhattan, which was what was on order, instead of Blatz.

 

 

The Oyster Princess

21 Oct

The Oyster Princess and I Don’t Want To Be A Man — written and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Comedy. Silent Black And White 1919/1920.

★★★★★

The Stories: A petulant rich girl defies custom and finds a mate.

~

The Lubitsch Touch is the external expression of the sense internal in what he does that sex and marriage and love are random, arbitrary, and capricious. That they are not so much a form of love as a form of greed, and as such somewhat ludicrous. Indeed, they are not even sexually oriented, for here we have the short film I Don’t Want To Be A Man in which the heroine, to have a good time, dresses up as a male and goes out on the town, where she meets her guardian, who kisses her rapturously and repeatedly as a male. Of course, he is tipsy, but that only means that liquor is a permissive for what is more easily inherent. When the truth is out, they kiss again as girl and boy, and she marries him without a qualm. “Without a qualm” is the secret. The fixed masculinity of certain males is the determined safeguard against what inwardly all males know: that the sexual machinery has no particular gender necessarily in mind. It just wants sex. It just wants an outlet.

All of this is a great tonic. It helps. The Lubitsch touch is a touch on the body that, as we watch, the body recognizes without being actually touched at all. The touch is freeing. And sex is light, fun, and forgivable. Indeed it is never to be blamed to begin with.

The Oyster Princess was one of Lubitsch’s big hits, and rightly so. It involves a spoiled brat rich girl who smashes everything in the house because she is not married. This is played by the same actress of I Don’t Want To Be A Man, a role which would be brought to perfection in time by Carole Lombard, indeed finally in Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be. To say the present actress is a little crude would be an exaggeration, for she is very crude, so she’s a bit hard to take. Things don’t really smile up until the impoverished prince and his adjutant appear in the picture. Then we see Lubitsch seize the screen. He enjoys the two-dimensional symmetry of silents, and the joy of preposterous excess, which sex promises and sometimes delivers. I keep wanting him to make comic use of all those spectacular stairs, but he goes from crazy balls to insane banquets to ridiculous drunk scenes, instead. How does he do it? Easily.

How does he let off all those drunks with a light sentence? Watch him park them.

How does he let off this idiot adjutant? Watch him let him slip the knot.

How does he deal with that massive father? You’ll be impressed.

Anyhow, the comedy of silent films is the most fundamental human comedy, because it is based on the music of the human body admitting everything, including the mute effect of speech on our depth of grasp. And we do have the inter-titles, for sometimes the human body needs to be spoken to to know the truth. And accompanying us in this romp, a jolly musical score on the piano right in our livingroom.

 

 

Seven Chances, The Balloonatic, Neighbors

12 Oct

Seven Chances, The Balloonatic, Neighbors – directed by Buster Keaton. Color and Black And White, 1920 and before.

★★★★★

The Story: A young man will inherit seven million dollars if he gets married by 7 that day.

~

Do you want to owe a debt of gratitude? Do you want to thank God on your deathbed that you used your time well, in one respect at least? Do you want to be the happiest you’ve ever been at a movie?

Buster Keaton is Circle du Soleil all rolled up into one. He was, he remains, the greatest humorist ever to appear in motion pictures. He is the paramount physical comedian to have appeared before the public. He is the muscularly strongest person ever to have acted before cameras.

You will see feats that will astonish you. You will not be able to believe your eyes. You will certainly not believe that one person could do all this without stand-ins, stunt men, or special effects. You will laugh yourself sane.

Keaton understood the wit inherent in the two-dimensionality of film, how what comes on from the left goes off from the right, and in between these two events takes place farce. The going, the action, the leaving constitute farce. The thousand deaths of farce are hilarious. For the flatness is death. And it deserves and wins our triumphant laughter at his triumphs.

We face the flat surface of the screen. This is a comedy which is funny because it reflects that part of life which is without dimension. This is comedy without depth. That is its depth. You do not reach into it. It reaches out at you at all times. If you want depth, wait, at some point or other you will see into Buster Keaton’s eyes.

Here he must run around and find a bride before dark. He asks seven. Then seven hundred ask him. What more does one need to tell of such a merriment?

Attached to this full length film are two two-reelers, The Balloonatic in which he goes up on the top of one. And Neighbors all shot on two sides of a tenement backyard fence that splits the screen.

And who will benefit from your watching these gems? Your entire family will. You will. You will be happy and you will die happy for having been so. And I?

It is to me you will owe the debt of gratitude, along with Buster Keaton, for having participated in your dying of laughter.

 

RECKLESS

05 Oct

Reckless – directed by Victor Fleming. Dramedy. 97 minutes Black And White 1935.

★★★★

The Story: A Broadway musical comedy star is in love with her producer who is too above it all to propose, and tragedy ensues.

~

This was the product of David O Selznick during his brief stint at MGM while Irving Thalberg was recuperating from a heart attack in Europe, and it reveals two things plainly. One is how well-produced the film is, and Two is how ungainly his story ideas were. For the screenwriter is actually an alias for Selznick himself, and the story falls into traps which are fascinating to behold the actors climb out of or fail to climb out of. It’s worth seeing in all respects.

Selznick was L.B. Mayer’s son-in-law, and Thalberg had not been told of his replacement, so there is a certain shame before us here. The plot also hinges on a matter unspoken. Selznick resigned before long; he went into independent production, produced Gone With The Wind, using Victor Fleming to direct it; Thalberg returned to MGM and never trusted Mayer again.

What we have is a handful of terrific actors playing out a sophisticated backstage comedy, which turns violent. It was based on the Libby Holman scandal. And it starts with William Powell, that master of insouciance, playing a gambler with Damon Runyan sidekicks. He has backed the career of Jean Harlow as the actress. In a superb proposal scene you see Powell at his comic best; in a too-long drunk scene you see him ill served.

From the start, everything depends upon the skill of the playing of every actor before us. As a substitute for the absence of reality in the story, each must perform at the pitch of their talents, and they do.

Harlow is exuberant, convinced, lithe, and on target. Her grandmother is played by May Robson, and fortunately given a lot to do. Franchot Tone as the millionaire playboy is almost too good in the role. If he had been a bad actor the film might be better, but he isn’t. His is a portrait of a balloon bursting. Henry Stephenson as his father is a mystery of probity; is he kind; is he cruel? Rosalind Russell plays the jilted fiancée with a nobility so humorous you cannot but root for her. And Mickey Rooney as a child is so alive on the screen, you don’t wonder Spencer Tracy called him the best actor in Hollywood.

None of these players can extract the rotten tooth inflaming this material, which is a front-page story of the sort Warners did better. Fleming is a dynamic director; he never shows too much when he can help it. But you can just hear Selznick whispering those logorrheac memos over his shoulder. Still, Harlow triumphs in a closing closeup. Her voice is badly placed but her energy is winning. There is a wonderful moment she has picking up a hat and tossing it back. Watch for it. Audiences loved her not because she was sexy and didn’t wear underwear, but because she was so alive! She still is.

 

Frank

23 Aug

Frank— directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Serious Satire. 95 minutes Color 2014

★★★★

The Story: A gormeless wannabe songwriter is accepted into a band so far out they’re out to lunch.

~

I love the way this story was told. I felt I was in good hands with the director, that I was given no more and no less than I need. My curiosity was sustained.

It wasn’t sustained because of the young man. For the young wannabe is entirely without talent, and he always will be. So there is nothing in him to latch onto. He’s just a slice of bread. He could be anyone. But still one wants to see where this poor sap will end up.

The overall thrust of the movie, which is a satire without laughs, is a take on the solemnity of musicians who wish to express a music so rare it must only be played to the corner wallpaper. It would be sullied if anyone heard it, much less sounded its content. For behind this itch to musicalize is a bent that has nothing to do with music at all. It is agoraphobia, which is the refusal to be seen in the marketplace.

Consequently Frank (Michael Fassbender) — the leader of the troupe and the being to whom all its members have mesmerized themselves because none of them are interested in communicating either — this very Frank has ensconced himself in a huge round Keane-eyed false head.

He is never not in it. He never takes it off. He even puts Band-aides on it as though he were nicking himself shaving it. As a sort of Amazon guarding this leader, the inestimable Maggie Gyllenhall makes of her role a masterwork of sustained contempt. For her a dime in a tin cup would be selling out. Even the tin cup without a dime would be.

A female drummer groomed like the bride of Dracula and a guitarist who never deigns to learn English make up the quintet. The music they make insults the word banal.

The thing about artists is simple. They sit down and they throw their pots, which they love to do, and some of them just naturally make things folks find fetching. There is no mystery to it. It’s called a calling. There is mastery to it, of course, but that is called craft, and there the mystery lies — an entirely different matter.

The world is full of saloons with microphones in them, oh, so that must mean one is a musician! This movie is about such people making music for the deaf who are never present, or not listening if they are, and about their insanity of refusing to entertain to begin with. Particularly when there is no soul in them that can entertain anyone anyhow, at least with music. One learns from this film that the thing to do when people say, “I want to be a musician,” is to walk the other way just as soon as one can.

I liked the movie. I thought it was sweet. I thought it was just right. I was entertained. Let me know.

 
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Posted in Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender, SATIRE

 

The Two Of Us

18 Jun

The Two Of Us – directed by Claude Berri. Family Film. 87 minutes Black And White 1967.

★★★★★

The Story: In occupied Paris, a little Jewish boy endangers his family’s safety by his antics and must be farmed out to a rural family whose grandfather is virulently anti-semetic.

~

It’s hard to say anything more about this enchanting film. One doesn’t want to give away any of the events, for to preview any one of them would be to spoil the surprise of it.

One can say that the great Michel Simon, that beautiful actor and beautiful human and beautiful man won well deserved awards for this performance. It’s a flower in his buttonhole.

And the youngster is a grand master of impishness and cleverness. If you don’t love him, you don’t love anything, and you must stand in the corner until you do.

I would love to tell you how he was discovered, but that is the right of the director, who narrates it in the Extra Features. It is Berri’s first feature, and a little masterpiece.

I call it a family film, because it is about a family. Indeed it is about the real meaning of the word “family,” and let me know if you don’t think so.

It illustrates the truth of art that the cutting of a gem is entirely dependent on what is left out.

Enjoy yourself. See it in company. It’ll make a family of the whole bunch of you.

 

 

 

My Cousin Vinnie

13 May

My Cousin Vinny – directed by Jonathan Lynn. Screwball Courtroom Comedy. 120 minutes Color 1992

★★★★★

The Story: Two 18 year-old college boys are falsely arrested for murder in an Alabama town, and their cousin Vinny and his girl friend from Brooklyn act as an inexperienced legal defense.

~

We are in the land of grown-up comedy of character here, that now rare American concoction.

What comedy of character means is that the actors do not have to have huge funny mouths  and they do not have to make jokes. What is funny is the characters’ response to the situation at hand. Comedy of character depends upon scenes that do not promote the line of the story. Decoration is where God tells the truth in comedy of character.

We have such scenes here, and they are all famous – in which Marisa Tomei takes the part of a hunted deer, in which Mitchell Whitfield imagines he is about to be buggered, in which Tomei and Pesci get turned on over automotive statistics, in which Fred Gwynne checks on Joe Pesci’s pronunciation – and so forth. The story is How Can These Innocent Boys Escape Death When Their Lawyer Is Such A Dope? The suspense lies in that, but the comedy does not. The comedy lies in the periphery of glances, gestures, stances, and spontaneous responses. The comedy lies in the unnecessary, the parenthetical, the lace.

What actors do have to have is what Fred Gwynne has as the judge, which is a grasp of how droll being dead serious can be, and how to lavish a really-O-truly-O Georgia accent upon it. His orotundity is a dish of caramel pudding. You may not laugh out loud at what he does, but you sure appreciate the humor of it.

I was interested to watch Ralph Macchio as the captured cousin and the cuter of the two boys. His is almost a thankless role, and he does not try to blow it up, but plays it for real, always internally, always responsively. It is an affecting because right-sized performance.

Pesci and Tomei are masters of the beings they play, and they bring to us their natural irresistability. Pesci is appealing in spite of himself. Tomei is downright lovable. He jumps around the court, and she outlines her female righteousness with her red-nailed hands. You want to kiss them both.

Joe Pesci won the supporting actor Oscar for Goodfellows while My Cousin Vinny was shot, and Marisa Tomei won the supporting Oscar for My Cousin Vinny after it was shot.

The story shudders, shakes, and trembles with improbabilities, but never mind, the playing keeps it erect. Have fun. See it.

 

Rain Or Shine

07 May

Rain or Shine – directed by Frank Capra. Backstage Comedy. 88 minutes Black And White 1930.

The Story: A madcap, double-talking circus manager is caught between his love for the pretty circus owner and his love for the circus which needs saving.

★★★★★

~

There is an elephant here. Here and there is an elephant. Here, there, and everywhere there is an elephant. The elephant is the circus itself, which needs an elephant to move it around and to provide comic weight. Very Funny.

Because  — also very funny — the light comic weight is carried by one Joe Cook whom no one has ever heard of, but who was the star of the Broadway musical of the same name.

Capra threw out all the music and focused on Cook, who is certainly worth the camera. He is a master of circus double-talk and con, and his sequences with his stooge Tom Howard are on a The Marx Brothers plane for pataphysical loonyness. They are doubly funny because you have never seen these characters before.

Capra was a master of crowd scenes like none since, so the handling of the material seems completely up to date, as does that of cinemaphotographer Joe Walker – particularly when Cook, to save the circus, embarks upon a series of acrobatic acts that make one’s jaw drop with delight and incredulity. Cook is a Cirque du Soleil all rolled up in one. Wow!

What makes Capra still modern? Still admirable? Still funny?

His narrative foreshortening, for one. He moves things along with an intelligence which trusts ours intelligence to catch up, and we are flattered and join in. Also Capra’s care for The Actor: everything Capra devised was meant so the audience could enjoy The Actor. And so two-scenes are kept in play instead of the folly of back and forth closeups, and you really get to understand what is going on in people. Capra had a steady crew of cronies who worked with him, and you see their credits and welcome the smartness of screenwriter Jo Swerling again, just as you see a drenching rain scene in every film and wonder how he will get his players out of it once more. Also Capra’s big heart, which shades and colors everything.

Is that enough?

It’s enough for me.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a masterwork of this director of great Americanness. Rain Or Shine’s an early one. Underlying honesty is our forte, a beckoning to the truth of the matter, a condition discovered when justice is balanced between folks. To righten the scales, Joe Cook performs an act of comic sabotage. It is nothing to the one Capra himself inflicts as he let’s loose a stupendous grand finale. How would anyone dare! Although anything less entertaining in the end would be unthinkable, un-Capra-like, unfinished.

 

The General

02 May

The General – directed by Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman. Farce. 107 minutes. Black and White Silent 1926.

★★★★★

The Story: A railroad engineer, turned down by his lady friend after failing to be taken into the rebel army, thwarts the Yankee takeover of a key railroad engine. 

~

I balk at writing about this picture because the word praise is insufficient to it.

If you enjoyed Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel you will see where it comes from and what is to be learned from The General at the same time as being entertained by it.

Full frontal exposure is how film farce must work, and Keaton knew this. He grasped the two-dimensionality of the motion picture screen and reveled in it. So when something comes from the right, it must flee from the left. The actors’ responses must  play into the camera and out to the audience as though the audience knew all along.

It’s the greatest chase film ever made. He employs masses of extras as armies and stages the most expensive special effect to that date: a train falls through a bridge. Except, it’s not a special effect. It’s actually done.

And Buster Keaton is clearly performing the daredevil, life-on-your-line stunts, one after another. He was the king of the pratfall; no one has ever approached him in this.

Farce is sudden, bold, mechanical. It works like a choochoo train, and the picture takes place in, on, and around a famous engine, The General. A great deal of farce depends upon our seeing what the main character does not see, and Keaton is a master of this gag. For while he sustains super human exploits and athletic feats of derring-do, he is also a sacred innocent. He is caught up in the folly of circumstances and responds to them humbly. It makes him one of our greatest screen actors. He has the Great Stone Face, but it is a stone curiously sensitive and readable. You always know what he is feeling, despite the rigor of his visage. For his eyes are large, beautiful, and subtle.

You see how Keaton makes me babble. I have no hallelujah large enough for him.

I suppose he is the greatest performer/entertainer ever to appear in film.

Will that do it? If not, shoot me.

No, no, not in the foot, you fool, you’re supped to misfire, over there, where that man with the fat ass stands. So he can fall on Buster. And Buster can skitter out from under, just as fatso is about to land on him.

My version had a second disc of extra features, all of which are fascinating, particularly a reel of Buster Keaton’s many dealings with railroad engines, streetcars, buses, and autos. A gem dangling from a diamond.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

31 Mar

The Grand Budapest Hotel – directed by Wes Anderson. Farce. 99 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story:  A fancy hotel manager and his apprentice chase and are chased around mittel-Europe after and because of their love-lives with their lady friends.

~

Wes Anderson knows the first rule of farce: face directly forward and deliver it all full-front to the audience.

He also knows the second rule: symmetry. And it’s shadow twin: asymmetry.

The third rule he does not know. Which is that the third act must not pause even for a joke. The not-pausing is the joke.

So go to this picture, and expect that something pneumatic will leave as its third act halts along. Watch it stall when Edward Norton appears. He pops in like a jack-in-a-box, which is fun, but he lacks farce-style, which is crisp, innocent, and depends upon the fixed position of the character – a position often made clear by a mustache – all actions unmotivated and revealed as physicalizations almost mechanical. Then, the scene after the prison escape dwells on itself too long. Then, the gunfight is not handled wittily. Then, does the story need that fourth prisoner to die? And how did she fall out that window anyhow?

Still, the director does understand how to transfer stage farce into film farce. He turns the camera into all the doors farce requires. His lens opens and slams shut with perfect timing. The joke lies less in what the characters are saying or doing than how and when they appear and disappear before us. The show is directed right out to us. And all the tricks are droll and appreciate our wit in enjoying them.

So go: relax and enjoy the pastry of great film farce. Jeff Goldblum as the trustee of the will, Adrien Brody as the dagger villain, Tilda Swinton as his 85 year-old aunt, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Bob Balaban as concierges, Willem Dafoe as the grim hit-man, Tom Wilkinson as the author old, the impeccable Harvey Keitel as a thug. The central story is introduced and framed by F. Murray Abramson and Jude Law, and the  inner and main story is carried by Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, who are first-class. The settings are rich, unusual, and flabbergasteringly funny.

I don’t know what you think you are doing with your lives, but you shouldn’t be going to any other film right now but this one.

 

Then She Found Me

15 Feb

Then She Found Me – directed by Helen Hunt. Dramedy. 100 minutes Color 2008

★★★★★

The Story: A woman on the lea-side of 40 wants to have a baby, but she doesn’t want to adopt, especially when her own long-lost birth mother turns up to drive her nuts.

~ ~ ~

Here’s an interesting film you haven’t seen and haven’t even heard of.

Is that true?

It’s true that it’s interesting. And what is more interesting still is how Helen Hunt worked on it for years as a writer and producer before she could get it made. She directed it and stars in it. She describes this whole process with unusual candor in the Extra Features, and you will like how smart she is and how honest, gifted, and determined.

And I think you will like her playing of the main character. As you will Bette Midler as the birth mother, Matthew Broderick as her husband, and Colin Firth as the attractive but erratic divorcé she takes up with.

The movie has a dumb title. It really should be called The Comedy Of Betrayal, because that is the subject driving both Hunt and the story. What place does betrayal play in a relationship? Is it necessary? Perhaps. Is it inevitable? Probably. How do you mine its riches?

The picture is shot in Brooklyn, from what I can tell, and it has a playful, searching script, made marvelously and justly funny by Midler, whom you want to strangle and love all at the same time, and by Matthew Broderick as the gormeless hubby.

It’s a perfect movie for home viewing with a bright mate. Check it out. There’s a lot to see and a lot to surprise you here. And a lot to talk about afterwards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frozen

14 Feb

Frozen – Disney Cartoon Fairy Tale. 102 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

The Story: A crown princess’s hands emit destructive cold that nearly kills her sister, who is quarantined from her, until both are released at great peril and cost.

~ ~ ~

I seldom see cartoons. I loved the old ones, Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, but the drawing went off and the music declined, and, although there were always a few interesting monsters, I stopped being interested. Except as a dutiful father, I seldom went. But people said I should see this one.

I can’t say that you should see it. Mind you, it certainly has remarkable sequences, which I shall forebear from describing lest I spoil them for you. But animation does many things superbly. It can conjure like nobody’s business, and it can produce spectacles of three dimensional perspective that ordinary film cannot touch.

What is remarkable about this film is its fidelity to its theme. And its surprise ending. (Although I shouldn’t tell you there is one. For then there will not be such a surprise.) It keeps the cold coming in icy displays of imagination. It never warms up. And we like it that way. In fact, it gets colder and colder.

Like most such full-length cartoons it is a bring-em-back-alive story, a most satisfying genre. And it has parties of minor characters that certainly give full value for a cuteness you would not abide in a regular film. It has a delightful mascot snowman. It has a comic Norwegian shopkeeper and a gaggle of gnomes, an endearing reindeer, and a Nordic setting full of curious detail including a castle of dreams and a palace of gelid power. The songs are undistinguished.  But all the parts are well written and acted especially by the younger princess who is quite brilliant and real. Moreover, it is a story in which two young women take the leads, so what it lacks in innocence it makes up in drive.

The facial animation is shockingly real. It is an amazement to behold. The mouth and the cheeks operate in character all the time. The only difficulty is the eyes, which are like Keane portrait eyes, pop-eyed with the pitiable. Why this decision was made, I cannot tell. It is so grotesque and off-putting to me that I fear to recommend the film for fear you will come over here and punish me as much as I was punished by it.

However, if you are curious about what animation is up to these days, you will be entertained and informed while you are both.

 

 

 

 
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Posted in COMIC FANTASY, COSTUME DRAMA, PERSONAL DRAMA, SERIOUS FAIRY TALE

 

Good Bye, Lenin!

08 Feb

Good Bye, Lenin! – directed by Wolfgang Becker. Comedy/Drama. 123 minutes Color 2003

★★★★★

THE STORY: Just before and after the end of the Berlin Wall, a young couple conspire to prevent their PTSD mother from learning the perhaps fatal truth.

~ ~ ~

This movie goes on for a good while, and a good job too! Because it needs to evolve through its complications at its own pace, and to force us to wait respectfully for the working out of its theme — which is the uses of lying.

Here we have a mother lying to her children in a far more profound way than they lie to her, and yet, without their knowing her truth, they lie to save her from her own mortality.

The film is neither moral nor political in any way. Its playing is made superb by the actors, particularly Katrin Sass as the mother, an actress who puts me much in mind of Joan Allen. She has the same inner eye.

So here is story-telling well-paced and a story quite unusual. We lie to protect those we love. Nothing new in that, save that I do not know of so interesting and just an examination of the matter. Acting is the art of living-it-out.  But film is a two dimensional medium, so it is very hard to find characters in a movie one can actually walk around completely to see all sides of.

Of course the great master of this is the director Jean Renoir. (The Rules of the Game, French CanCan, et al.) I won’t say the director achieves that here, but I sink with wonder that actors can do as much as they do to make the story “move” — that they walk in and out of buildings and fry eggs — as though only I were watching them, and no camera at all, and no crew around. What a remarkable feat!

Just watch, if you will, the recognition scene between the father and son, how right the older actor is in that passage! How right the girlfriend is in every scene! How right the neighbor with the pile of blond hair downstairs is! Praise be to all actors of all nations. That the piece is in German is no barrier to the craft they execute so daringly and so simply before us.

 

L’Age d’Or

05 Feb

L’Age d’Or – directed by Luis Bunuel. Farce. 63 minutes Black and White 1930.

★★

The Story: A sexual predator pursues a young woman through the ages, just as she wants him to.

The account of the making and history of this film on Wikipedia might be more interesting for you to peruse than the film itself, which seems amateur, cold, and jejune. Originally it was deemed scandalous. It was banned. It was a cause celebre. It was scorned by entire national governments and whole religions. Its producer removed it from circulation almost at once, and it was not shown for over 40 years, except at The Museum Of Modern Art, which somehow acquired a print. Now it can be seen. It is worth it to?

Everyone in gowns and tuxedos at a high–tone cocktail party in a palace; enter a huge oxcart manned by drunken peasants; the cocktailers do not notice them. Five popes pray on a seaside cliff; five starving peons crawl out to kill them; none of them make it; next shot, a hundred years later, the popes’ skeletons and skulls in their robes remain on the cliff. In the middle of performing Tristan and Yseult, the white bearded conductor charges off the stage and finds a young woman making out with another man and takes her in her arms and they kiss, badly. So you see, it wears all the medals of the pataphysicians, the Dadaists, the surrealists. Or all their counterfeits. There is other stuff, but I won’t say more, because it is clear that the movie has been set up to house one joke after another. It’s a flip-book.

Moreover, I found it hard to engage with the success or failure of the couple to consummate their romance, because the man is quite mad and crazy-violent, and because the female is not appealing.

It’s not my dish of tea. But then, Bunuel is not my dish of tea. What is it I do not like about him? His want of a sense of humor. His meanness. His puritanism. His want of lushness, growing things, eccentricity, foible. His conservatism. His clericalism, for he is not anti-church; the church is in everything I have seen him do. His lack of human warmth. Dali, whose name is on it, disowned it.

Take away from me that gelid  social fundamentalist. That Jesuit.. That Robespierre of film.

Give me Jean Renoir.

And we may hope again for a world safe for Democracy.

 

 
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Posted in Directed by Luis Bunuel, Farce, Filmed in France

 

Nebraska

01 Feb

Nebraska – directed by Alexander Payne. Classic Comedy. 110 minutes Black and White 2013.

★★★★★

The Story: an old man sets out to walk from Montana to Nebraska to collect a million dollars, while his son and whole family do all they can to thwart him.

Isn’t it terrific!

What?

You mean you haven’t seen it!

Well hie yourself down to the picture show and do so.

And when you do, be prepared to sink into this picture as into a somewhat worn, even threadbare easy chair which you’ve known all your life and has become your favorite.

It is very very funny — a classic comedy in the same way that one by Moliere is — The Miser, say — or Jonson’s Volpone — or better yet, Frank Capra’s comedy It Happened One Night. It has the same story. That is, one person wants to run away; another person wants to bring the first person home. Both of them are very stubborn. No one really wants to dance with the runaway, although some want to dance with his money. 

The pace of the picture looks anti-comedic, but is as it should be and should be no other way. The casting of the picture is as it should be, and everyone is just lovely. The music, editing, direction are ideal. It’s good to see it in a big old movie house because of the spaciousness of the land of Nebraska, which beckons and forbids by dint of its immeasurable latitudes. Cinemascope was invented for this.

Some of the folks you will encounter are June Squibb as his naggy bag of a wife – who grows on you. Stacy Keach as the old man’s mendacious former business partner. And Will Forte who has the essential and pivotal role of the old man’s son, in a lovely performance entirely.

And the geezer, played by Bruce Dern, always an actor of great resources, in the central role. Hobbling along in a profound stoop abetted by unlaced clodhoppers, padded torso, white hair learing about his head, the blowing desert of an unshorn beard on his face, and wearing specs – the actor has done everything to create and enhance the impenetrability of the character, the characteristic upon which the entire story depends. Dern makes him very taciturn, very slow to speak and very slow of speech. And gathering all this to him, Dern gives the wittiest performance in the world. It is the canniest piece of acting I’ve seen this year. You will so appreciate him, and the passage you will move through in yourself as you become acquainted with him you shall indeed be grateful for.

It’s a lovely suspense adventure. You don’t know how it will end. You know it has to. But you don’t want it to. It is the best written screenplay I have seen this year.

Make sure to go with your friends. They’ll hug you for it. After they stop applauding, as everyone in the audience I saw it with did.

Because – isn’t it terrific!

 

 

Tyler Perry’s A Medea Christmas

09 Jan

Tyler  Perry’s A Medea Christmas – written, produced, and directed by Tyler Perry. Low Comedy. 100 minutes Color 2013. ★★★★★

The Story: Medea’s bustin’-out-all-over extended whatever gathers at a farm to open the gift nobody wants: The Truth!

I like Tyler Perry’s Medea pieces, because they are like the old Abbot and Costello movies: you know the style of the story will not tax you and will not fail you. The stories are as obvious as a limerick. And as humanly humorous. This is not Cartier’s. This is the Five and Ten Cent Store, and I respect its treats and decorums.

Medea is played by the director, of course, with an unconquerable bosom and the quack of a drake dressed up as a duck. The free-floating mouth of this matron is met fully by the wonderful playing of the domineering mother of the bride of Anna Marie Horsford and by Kathy Najimy as the mother of the groom who takes her on in a brilliant turn. Najimy is a performer not seen often enough in principal roles in principal films. So grab your chance while you can, and catch her here.

But, of course, the great treat is anticipating the mercurially volatile Media’s opening her mouth to blurt out another outrageousness. Perry has a true talent with this character, a human being who knows no bound of race or age or religion or type. She is one of the rare free sprits around.

So his films are not just for black audiences at all.

Go and check it out for yourself, and when you come back I’ll say: “See, I told you so.”

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Kathy Najimy, Low Comedy, Tyler Perry

 

The Wolf Of Wall Street

03 Jan

The Wolf Of Wall Street – directed by Martin Scorsese. BioPic Black Comedy. 189 minutes, Color 2013.

The Story: The rise and rise and rise of a sharpie-broker to the heights of wealth and disorder, and the outcome in ultimate wealth and disorder and gullibility for all.

★★★★★

I was disappointed to read in the credits that The Wolf Of Wall Street was based on someone’s life, for it is such an imaginative movie, I expected it to be as made up on the spot as the many dodges it chronicles. It is the wittiest movie I have seen in ten years.

It starts with a 26 year old Leonardo DiCaprio being put in a trance by Matthew McConaughey, a trance in which he remains for the duration, and in that trance enacts the dance of greed and more greed (in the word “greed” the “more” is silent), until at the end we are shown the whole world to be in an obsessive trance, too.

McConaughey’s fugazi-cadenza of the fairy dust of Wall Street opens the piece with a The Gambler’s Creed. It shows that capitalism, meaning brokerage investment (meaning stock and bonds), is silly. For it is based on a cheap thrill. To which one and all must be addicted. Meaning entranced. Get Rich Quick is the silly thrill.

The film is a must. For the writing. For the mastery of execution of the director. For the performances of the McConaughey, along with Rob Reiner as Belfort’s irascible father, Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife, the beauteous Joanna Lumley as her aunt, and everyone involved, small part to major. Jonah Hill is the co-star, and his scenes put one in mind of the early work of Scorsese in Raging Bull, as does the acting work throughout, with its ruthless improvisations and trash talk at will.

Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor of deep shallowness as a leading man, brings his thin-sliced white bread and slather of profound character-acting talent to bear on the part of the cavalier investment broker on the make, and gets up on his hind legs, and his abilities shimmer throughout the picture and hold our interest at a fascinated distance, as he continues his compulsion to trick the customers into speculations from over-the-counter penny stocks, which no one may profit by but him. He gives us a deal of rash playing. The entire performance is flavored into reality by the fragrance of a Bronx accent.

The law bears down. This does not dissuade him from drugs, sex, and high-rolling.

But why go on? Why spill the beans, when it is such a pleasure for you to see them topple out on your own? It is because of Scorsese’s dab hand with this material that you must  attend, and for DiCaprio’s in playing it out with him.

Is it the best film Scorsese has ever made? Could be.

You tell me.

 

Polyester

19 Dec

Polyester – directed by John Waters. Mock Melodrama. 86 minutes Color 1981. ★★★★

The Story: A middle-class American housewife’s husband takes up with his secretary and she takes up with a handsome stranger.

I owe an apology.  I have been reviewing John Waters’ pictures for a time now, and I do not find them funny, appealing, or entertaining. But it is my own fault. For I now realize that is because I have been watching them in my own livingroom, and it is probably true that John Waters films do not belong in anyone’s livingroom.

That, indeed, where they do belong is a movie theatre or drive-in, for they are made with those places in mind. The style of them is the style of masses.

And they probably would work for me if I saw them with a mass of other people. For John Waters’ films do not slap individuals with surprise, humor, and fractiousness, they slap whole crowds. He is writing about crowds. They are made by the same collection of people about a collection of people for a collection of people.

Individuals play the parts, but the individuals who play them play them in the amateur style which is Waters’ earmark and which generalizes them. Amateurism is never specific to the material. After all, there is no such individual as Divine’s Mrs. Francine Fishpaw – for Divine is never real. But there is a “type” of Mrs. Fishpaw, and that is what we are watching. Waters is sending up a whole demographic: The Put-Upon Housewives Of America! And that is why one needs to see them in a crowd of people willing to see such films with other people, that is to say with a demographic.

Here Waters has gathered certain professional actors to his comic mission. But none of them play quieter than a yell, which is the same volume which Joni Ruth White lends to her astonishingly announcement-like line readings. Tab Hunter, a good actor after all, plays the devastatingly handsome stranger, and he alone plays in a natural comic vein. He actually is somebody. And he is just wonderful. But nobody else is anybody. Every single actor in it is a multitude. It is a play performed by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Balloons.

My error was born in on me when I listened to John Waters’ commentary on the film. He is wonderful, simple, real, and quite funny. He is endearing. He finds things funny. How nice. And so he makes movies about those things. I have read one of his books and one about him, and everything that he says belongs in my livingroom. But not one of his films do.

So go and see them at your local revival house. You will be heartened and capacitated by the collaboration of others in the laughter, I am sure. Or, baring that, just rent the film, but don’t watch it – just watch John Waters commentary about it.

 
 
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