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Archive for the ‘BROAD COMEDY’ Category

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

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Bruce Almighty

03 Oct

Bruce Almighty – directed by Tom Shadyak. Comedy. A local small-time newscaster yearns for advancement and sells his soul to God to get it. 101 minutes Color 2003.

★★★★★

I always thought Jim Carrey should play Hamlet. With those eyes. So handsome. So slender. So essentially romantic.

Imagine all that attack held in check. “To be … or not to be!” Imagine him entering the “not-to-be” of that speech, the demoting ratiocination of it, the reduction, the sin of that repression. For if ever an actor was gifted with the To Be it is this one.

This picture is a comic Faust, the tale of a man given supernatural powers, and then having to live up to them imaginatively and compassionately.

Of course, Carrey is very funny when he is not doing that, and the script helps him bountifully.

Jennifer Aniston is present with all her skill as a light comedienne, a skill equaled by no other actor of our time. We have the great Phillip Baker Hall as the boss. We have Steve Carrell playing a nasty, a part which suits him to a T. And we have Morgan Freeman playing God. Or perhaps we should say we have God cast as Morgan Freeman.

Well, the film is full of sight gags, gags which are very witty, and amusement reigns throughout.

What is the reverse of a sight gag?

Hamlet is the reverse of a sight gag.

Jim Carrey is a sight gag. He, like Hamlet, is also a genius.

 

I’m So Excited

09 Aug

I’m So Excited –– directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Disaster Farce. A big airplane full of passengers loses its landing gear. 90 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★

The trouble with it is that you never believe for a moment that plane is in any danger of crashing. Without this, there is no tension to be played, played against, and relieved. Perhaps because the director supposes we all know such films end with all on board safe and sound. Which makes the whole enterprise feel a little used, and I, as an audience, a little used too.

The other trouble is that the entire film is taken up with the homosexual shenanigans of five of the male crew members, and the film, crowds itself out of attention because the three flight attendants are your usual pouffes, which means that they are able to evince nothing else and nothing deeper and nothing funnier than bitchy dissatisfaction. So our attention is exhausted by their monotony, our capacity for character investment and surprise is wrecked by their type casting in the writing.

The captain and the co-pilot embark upon homosexual relations with two of these attendants, which would be hunky-dory save that, although both are married with families, they embrace the sexual pleasures of cock-sucking without a pang. Without a sideward glance. Although the sidewards glances of Hugo Silva as Benito the co-pilot are so full of fun , it is what we might like to believe should happen, but do not believe does happen, and without a foundation in credibility the outrages of farce do not tell.

What’s great about the film is the ability of the director to surprise with his gaudy color scheme and narrative manner. One deft move after another provides delight. The actual crash of the plane is a masterstroke of editing. And his introduction of Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas as ground crew in the opening scene gives us a favorable expectation as to the level of acting we shall be treated to, which is of a high order indeed.

For the final greatness of Almodóvar’s film is that each character is fully realized. Each is given in the round. If you don’t care whether they live or die, that is the writer/director’s fault, not theirs.

I look forward to his next play session with us. I shall not look back on this one. Forward only!

 

 

 

Tell It To The Judge

06 Jul

Tell It To The Judge –­– directed by Norman Foster. Romantic Comedy. A to-be judge tries to escape from her embarrassing husband who adores her. 87 minutes Black and White 1949.

★★★

Did this lame comedy even look good on paper? You have three of the most consummate high comedians of our era, Rosalind Russell, Gig Young, and Robert Cummings, all asked to rise to the high humor of hitting their heads repeatedly on beams. They do all they can, but they are gravely miscast. Proper casting? Moe, Larry, and Curly. How could they have missed this opportunity!

So it’s interesting to see how actors this skilled can use their big gifts to serve such small potatoes. Russell does her usual haughty lady, and we love her for it, because of the humor lying in wait like a panda to spring. She is gowned by Jean Louis and the truth is she looks a lot better than she ought, although it’s wonderful to see her in such capes, such furs, such evening clothes, out of which she is never, even upon rising. Russell was once a fashion model, has a superb figure, and knows how to go about things.

Gig Young plays the louche roué of dubious provenance, as usual, and he is funny, quick, and sexy. You can see how skilled the actors are when they mix it up with ancient Harry Davenport whose up to the good old actor rapid fire monkey-shines, equal to Russell and Cummings, no quicker draws in all the West.

Robert Cummings is exactly in his right milieu, light comedy, and his usually sissy affect is nowhere in view here, for his playing is strong, real, and imaginative.

Werner R. Heymann wrote the musical score and it is far better than the movie. It lends punch and charm to a film which needs it like an oasis. It bounces and comments and tickles and burbles, and is a perfect example of a score telling you what to feel and being absolutely right to do so. It is a model for film composers, at least for films of this order.

Joe Walker, who had filmed many top films (The Lady From Shanghai, It Happened One Night, Born Yesterday), was Frank Capra’s favorite photographer, and had filmed many of Russell’s films, is in sad demerit because of the awkward way the film is directed. Directorially nothing works. Crispness fizzles. Mots fall flat.

Loved them; hated it. The story is awkward. It takes improbability off new heights of cliff. Nothing works, nothing is funny, except that (given the talent) nothing is funny.

 

 

 

 

 

Parental Guidance

29 Jan

Parental Guidance – directed by Andy Fickman. Family Comedy. The grandparents babysit the weekend while the children’s parents travel to Miami, and things become raucous. 104 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
Bette Midler is a national treasure.

Is she Yellowstone? Or, I know, she’s Mount Rushmore! (She certainly isn’t Grant’s Tomb.) Would it be too much to say that she is The Smithsonian? Yes, it would.

And Billy Crystal is up there with her. For never have two such big-hearted comedians been so paired so rightly. I hope they make many more films together, for neither one has made many movies, and Our National Health does require that we see them more often. I believe we have constitutional amendment going forward on the matter.

In any case, here they are abetted by the entrancing Marisa Tomei. She’s so good. She’s so appealing. She is never wrong. So you see, we have three reasons to go to this picture.

As a comedy it is made up of the usual clumsy Hollywood plastic. Which means that audience participation in the proceedings is cut off by the failure to admit by the writers that what we are witnessing is not real. The seduction of the unreal is everything. Extreme situations and the implausible are all right, but they don’t, in and of themselves, seduce. Cling-wrap is not a crystal mirror.

Where do we fit in?

I’ll tell you where we fit in: on the only island there is: the persons and playing of Tomei, Crystal, and Midler with all this, their response to it, and their talent with dialogue.

Crystal plays a baseball announcer from a provincial California city who wants to announce for The San Francisco Giants, and his riffs are really wonderful as he does his announcer’s shtick. Tomei is the rather uptight modern mother raising her kids on the strict leash of leashlessness. When the grandparents show up, a conflict of parenting styles arises, and Midler particularly shows a robust leashlessness of a quite different order.

I had a great time with the three of them. I hope you will too. I wish they never part. They could be the Rogers and Astaire of Twenty First Century comedy.

 

Diary Of A Mad Black Woman

07 Dec

Diary Of A Mad Black Woman – directed by Darren Grant. Broad Comedy. Expelled from her home by her wealthy husband on her wedding anniversary, a beautiful young woman, with the aid of her family, wreaks revenge and reconciliation, once she finds her juju. 118 minutes Color 2005.
★★★★★
I had never heard of Tyler Perry’s works and days until recently. I had always assumed it was something not for me – low Hollywood comedy – but it isn’t. It isn’t if Jonathan Winters is low Hollywood Comedy, for this is what the range of invention and useful madness the actor Perry grants us. It is excruciatingly funny. It is low comedy all right, but not low Hollywood comedy, for Perry is the playwright as well as the actor, and his work rises from another source than Hollywood and another place within him.

He plays various roles, obviously, for he is not an actor of rich distinctions – but boy are his characters installed! They erupt from him like geysers. To prove it, two things to note. One: Just watch his playing a cut courtroom scene on the out-takes in the extras. It is a mad brilliant improvisation. Two: just watch how good other actors are with him, and watch the cut scene with Cicely Tyson, to see how responsive an actor can still be with this great big crayon character Perry is putting forth.

Yes, the exquisite Cicely Tyson is here and she plays her scenes to perfection. She is the link to spirit which brings the piece to its heartful resolution. A resolution that made me happy.

The script is very well formulated and balanced, by Perry, and cast and directed and filmed beautifully. It’s principal time is given to the getting some gumption of the mad black woman, well played by Kimberly Elise. Steve Harris is terrifying as her husband. But the find of the film is Shemar Moore.

He has the best part in the piece, really, or he makes us believe he has. He plays a man in love with the mad black woman, and he plays it completely open, which is what the character is. He’s physically a great beauty, but as a leading man he is consummate. He reminds me of that remarkable actor Guy Pearce. He has the same lower eyelids, the same upper lip, the same carriage of his head on his neck, and the same display of masculinity. He couldn’t ask for a higher credit.

His playing of every scene is sweet, lyrical, real. He is the one you care about. You don’t care about the mad black woman, because she whimpers. She has no spine. And the actress, although good in the key scenes when she is mean to her helpless husband, still remains divided, and for no good reason that we can believe in. It should go: “Charles, you ever heard of nurse Ratchett? She did her job. But she loved doing her job more than I love mine taking care of you. I’ll do it until my conscience is clear, or until I realize it will never be clear. You understand what I am saying, Charles?” Helping him should threaten to make her a worse person, were it not that ruthlessness is a higher state than whimpering or indecision.

Fortunately Moore tells her off. But it’s not quite enough to win her to us. It’s a fault in the writing, which by and large, is bold, economical and true. I recommend the picture highly. I laughed myself silly. In my books, belly laughing is a very high state of being.

 

High Anxiety

25 Oct

High Anxiety – written and directed by Mel Brooks. Parody. A psychotherapist finds himself at the head of a clinic whose staff wants to murder him. 94 minutes Color 1977.
★★★★
Some people are inherently funny. Some people can do funny things. Some people can conceive of funny things to do. Cloris Leachman and Madeline Kahn fall into the first and greatest of these categories. There is something in them which, called upon, embodies, with all due and necessary exaggeration, human nature at its most deeply cartoonish. Harvey Korman falls into the second category: he can do funny things, so he can support those who are inherently funny. While Mel Brooks is neither inherently funny nor can he do funny things, what he can do is conceive funny things to do – which makes him a writer and a director. But, while his conceptions may look funny on paper, when performed, they are often not funny at all, because either they or his capacity to act them and to direct them are inadequate. Here, for instance, in a series of parodies of Hitchcock, he finds himself in a park being shit on by a thousand birds. What would Charlie Chaplin have done? I don’t know, but the situation requires great delicacy of response from the actor, and Chaplin (who falls into all three categories) would have found great and hilarious daintiness in being shit on by a thousand birds. All Brooks can do is run away. It is not a comic solution, is it? It is crude. Think what a vaudevillian, who cannot run away because he is on the stage, would have done with this. What saves Brooks is that he has an abundance of ideas and he has talented people executing them. And that he is having a good time and he has a big heart. The film as whole works well as a collection of skits on Hitchcock. We have The Birds; we have The Wrong Man with two men wrongfully accused; we have Foreign Agent and the windmill; we have Vertigo, San Francisco, and fear of heights; we have Mel Brooks being stabbed to death in the shower by a psycho bellboy; we have Brooks meeting Kahn at the northwest corner of Golden Gate Park; we have the Hitchcock blond in the form of Kahn’s Niagara wig; we even have Michael Chekov from Spellbound as Brooks’ old professor. Low comedy should make us guffaw and fall off our chairs laughing. Brooks may not be to my taste, but I love to guffaw and fall off my chair laughing. Still, this is an amiable nonsense, and one could do worse than watch it – which is to paint with damn phrase.

 

Marley And Me

20 Jun

Marley And Me – directed by David Frankel. Low Comedy. A journalist finds his true calling when he starts writing about his rambunctious dog. 114 minutes Color 2008. ★★★★

I don’t know why light comedians are not regarded as serious practitioners of their craft, but it is so. They give pleasure and entertainment for years and to multitudes, but Cary Grant is nominated only twice for an Oscar and never won. Solemnity magnetizes Oscars. Here we have before us two treasures of comic skill: Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. I look at them and am filled with wonder and admiration for their craft, which in Aniston’s case is practiced with delicacy and truth. There is no one now acting who can do light drama and light comedy with the finesse of this actor. To me the skill of such an actor is unfathomable, almost unreadable. Owen Wilson is a different sort of actor, but one who operates perfectly on the same plane as Aniston and makes a good partner with her. He is much more preset in his choices and possibilities. He pitches his voice in a juvenile whine and plays a strong suit in innocence, which may annoy, but what cannot annoy is the bigness of heart that is evident in everything he does. There’s a sort of idiotic juiciness to him, too, which amounts to the sex appeal of a male whose sexuality is still to be awoken. Of course, what you can say against them both is what you can say against almost all young actors of their time, which is that they are not grown-up. He is not a man and she is not a woman. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne were always grownup, and so were the rest of the actors of their time, from 1930 to 1950. Even when young, the actress was a woman and the actor was a man. Here, Aniston is what she has always been, a gal, a million dollar baby in a five and ten cent store. And Wilson is not a man but a boy, Peck’s bad boy. They have formulated themselves this way. They have lived out their youths doing this. It’s a killer course for them when they get to be over forty. And a terrible one, for actors love to act – and so they should – it’s a wonderful calling – but how will they ever play anyone who is mature? The actors of the ‘30s and ‘40s didn’t retire when they hit age 40 or 50; they didn’t have to, because they were already adults. But Aniston and Wilson, so gifted and so formulaic in their decision as to how to use their gifts and in what – they are doomed to their job. Families and marriages would be in defiance of the immaturity upon which their income depends. I wonder about them. I worry about them. And what I have to say about this picture, finally, is that Alan Arkin is very funny in it and the dog isn’t funny at all.

 

Big Brown Eyes

20 Apr

Big Brown Eyes — directed by Raoul Walsh. Comedy. A NYC cop and a manicurist turned reporter foil a Chopin-playing jewel fence. 77 minutes Black and White 1936.

★★★★

You like fast-talking dames? Check out Joan Bennett as the gum snapping, dialogue snapping manicurist that Cary Grant can’t stop chasing. She can’t stop mistrusting him, and it’s no wonder: Cary Grant as a New York City flatfoot? – never! He is both very good in the part and also quite unbelievable. Why? I don’t know. It’s not his accent, which is maybe lower class Bristol and maybe not, and at least is he is never in uniform. In fact, he is a plainclothesman, in really beautiful suits in which his figure looks great. No, it’s hard to pinpoint it, except there is that about Cary Grant which suggests a man who even when taking a bath wears a tuxedo. The dialogue is rich with comebacks, wise-cracks, and quick-draw ripostes – very much in the style of the 30s, and is really a style that has gone out of style, but in its heyday, here is a great example of its fun. They spray the picture faster than a tommy gun. If you like smart talk, alà His Gal Friday, take a gander at this gander and his goose. Bennett is terrific as a classic Walsh heroine, testy and full of personal ability and wit. Walter Pidgeon plays the smarmy sophisticated fence, and he is just wonderful. Unequalled in savoire faire, Pidgeon was released here and in Dark Command to play villains, not what we remember him for, but here he is just grand. Lloyd Nolan is a gun-crazy henchman devoted to cut flowers, and Walsh’s scene with him in a luxe bathroom arranging American Beauty Roses as he gets murdered is heaven-sent. But I say too much. If I don’t watch my lip, Nolan will come alive and gun me down too. But I aint no squelch, I ain’t I tell ya, I’d never rat on nobody. Don’t shoot, I didn’t mean it. Bang. Argh. Crash. I’m under da daisies. And if you watch Lloyd Nolan closely, so is he.

 

 

Up The River

11 Mar

Up The River — directed by John Ford. Farce. A swaggering con and his moron sidekick bust out of the slammer to help a pal with his goil. 92 minutes Black and White 1930.

★★★

Fox had to make a gangster picture fast, so they sent John Ford to look for a new face in New York, giving him tickets to five Broadway plays. The first one he saw was The Last Mile, and instead of going to the other four, he went back four times to see Spencer Tracy who was the star of it. Ford caught a matinee of another play while he was there, and found his supporting player. So both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart make their screen debuts in this film — which is not a gangster film at all but a comedy set in and out of a Utopian prison, where all the inmates are gutter roses and weep when reminded of their mothers and whence Spencer Tracy may make a break whenever he likes. The problem with the film is that its director celebrates what is dumb – and this seems to be the basis of Ford’s popularity. Ward Bond, uncredited turns up as a dummy bully, and all the prisoners are witless. Tracy’s sidekick, Dannemora Dan, played by Warren Hymer, is so stupid that when he comes out of an IQ test listed as “moron,” he is proud of the denomination, and we are supposed to think this is funny. This prison has females in it, and one of them falls for Bogie, who is a society boy who accidentally got on the wrong side of the law. Actually Bogie was a society boy, and it’s also interesting to see three other things one was not often to see from him again. One was how tiny he was, short and slight. This feature was adjusted by not shooting him in full in future films, or not shooting him in contrast with much taller people and things. He makes the mistake of chewing gum in his opening scene, but stops it soon. And he walks with that bowed-arms stride of his already. And when he is angry he is really frightening, Duke Mantee in the making. The second thing is that his basket shows, as does that of Hymer. Well, these are pre-code films and the guys hung loose, I guess. The third thing is his sunny smile. It’s radiant – who’d a thunk it? Tracy plays the know-in-all BMOC, smug and deceptive, and honest to his marrow. It fit right in with Ford’s Irishness in all things. Ford talked down to all his characters and to his audiences, just as much as those do-gooder society matrons distributing the benison of their contempt do. Everyone in Ford films is treated as dumb. The least common denominator is Ford’s whole orchestra, both on the screen and in his audience. I am not fooled: I do not mistake it for the common touch. Everything Ford does is backed by the inherent bully in him. The film was a big hit, and Fox signed Tracy to five-year contract, and he was on his way.

 

 

When Willie Comes Marching Home

10 Mar

When Willie Comes Marching Home — directed by John Ford. Farce. A patriotic soldier longs to get into the WW II action and then does so. 82 minutes Black and White 1950

★★

It seems incredible that this World War II comedy was made in the year it was, five years after the War itself was over, but there it is, gawky and out of place, and too old for its own mental short pants – as is its star, Dan Dailey, who is clearly 35 when he plays Willie, the boy who wants to go to war. Dailey was one of show business’s most valiant performers, and he brings to the tale his huge ingratiating smile and his mastery of physical comedy time and time again, as he falls, faints, collapses, and dances about to escape the nips of a nasty dog. He has the lanky agility of Ray Bolger, and it almost saves the film. For the problem with the picture lies in how many areas? Aside from being out of date, the story is clearly a bad imitation of Preston Sturges’ masterpiece, Hail The Conquering Hero, of five years before. That might work – save for the treatment by the director. For, while the story is droll, what John Ford thinks is funny, aint. Or at least I am too hoity-toity to find it so. Ford finds patriotism funny. Ford finds drunkenness funny. He finds brawls funny. And he finds stupidity funny. And maybe they are – but Ford’s touch is ham-handed. His wit is on the level of The Three Stooges, not Preston Sturges, for Ford is beer-brained and out to please the lower orders – only. In fact, he is a dreadful snob. Five years later, he was to submit Mr. Roberts to the same wrecking ball of this sort of wit, until Henry Fonda put his foot down and Ford was taken off the film and replaced by Mervyn LeRoy. As soon as Ford enters a room, the mental climate lowers. You find this over and over again in his pictures. There is a terrible disconnect in him between what he thought entertainment was and what people are. Like all artists he saw entertainment as an idealization. But, lying behind that there’s got to be the guts of reality, and where they should be in Ford I find delusion and cowardice. I think of Stagecoach as one of the greatest films I have ever seen. And among its virtues is one that When Willie Comes Marching Home also possesses – pace. Ford knew how to move things forward, he knew where a camera should be placed in a scene to make it simple and clear and arresting, and he has a sense of broad spectacle. These are no small gifts. Ford started way back in the silents. But talkies changed film radically, no more so than with comedy. Drama changed somewhat, but comedy changed completely – from physical wit to verbal. This is why silent comedy is still watchable. But Ford didn’t change with it. He is a bum making films about bums and talking down to them all the while he does it. I feel in him a very gifted, hard-working hypocrite and bully. And I don’t like him.

 

The Artist

22 Feb

The Artist — written and directed by Michael Hazanavicius. Romantic Comedy. A silent film star falls on evil days when sound comes in, but can a rising female star rescue him? 100 minutes Black And White Silent 2011.

★★★★★

Look around you. Why are there no birds in the trees? Why, it’s because The Artist has charmed all of them off, hasn’t it. And you won’t even notice this as you watch this film because you have been charmed and can do nothing else but continue to watch it. As everyone has already whispered to you, the film is both black and white and silent, and partly because of this it takes us on a ride we were skeptical of enjoying when we started and are thus all the more susceptible to when we find ourselves helplessly in midstream of it. George Valentin is a silent film star along the lines, not of John Gilbert, but of Douglas Fairbanks, whom you would never dream of casting opposite Garbo either. That is to say, George is not a romantic matinee actor but a restless, dancing, chandelier-swinging one, capable of stunning athletic and gymnastic feats, and can toss his head back in laughter of fiery derision at every turn and even oftener. Like Fairbanks, when talkies came in George lost his calling. Fairbanks made a few desultory films, and our George makes a silent jungle epic and it sinks. Fairbanks never drank, but our George does and he goes downhill fast. He ends up with a face like a defeated amusement park. Partnered by his loyal dog, played impeccably by Uggie, and by his loyal chauffeur played by James Cromwell who drives a Packard that will make you swoon with desire, and by the young rising star, Bérénice Béjo, who wants to help him, but a man has his pride. Well, a man does. But is that why won’t he make talking films? Ah, that is the conundrum the film reveals but I won’t. Béjo has wonderful eyes, full of the reality of the power of youth and the reality of the power of flirtation. But it is Jean Dujardin who is our focus, and he has all the ingredients of the matinée idol. Lacquered hair, a handsome head, a long powerful nose, a chin noble in profile, flexible eyebrows, the mustache of a merry cad, flashing eyes, a smile that could convince a cobra to simper, the most beautiful mouth you have ever seen, and a personality so full of itself you have to stand back six rows and let it. Both he and Béjo play in the style of the era, parodying it without mocking it. And because they do the film takes fire as film because film is huge, it is already exaggerated, it is up there on the screen, after all. And we do honor to its capacities by enjoying ourselves no end with them, so generously revealed to us here. When it’s over, sigh with satisfaction, then look about and ask yourself if you can remember to: Are the birds back on the trees yet?

 

 

Twentieth Century

06 Nov

Twentieth Century — Directed by Howard Hawks. Slapstick Screwball Comedy. A theatre director divo spellbinds an actress until she can take no more. 91 minutes Black and White 1934.

* * *

Certain qualities can make an actor popular and even lovable, without their ever being a good actor. Such certainly was the case with Gary Cooper, and such was also the case with Carole Lombard. She was pretty, she had a good figure, and she was spirited, but it is only the last of these qualities which cinched her stardom. Watching her playing Lily Garland, the “discovery” of the manic Broadway Director Oscar Jaffe (based on Jed Harris and others), the most obvious defect of her technique is vocal. Even in repose, she always seems to be screaming, always in her upper passagio. She was Howard Hawks’ first discovery as the Hawksian woman who could stand up to men and compete in their world. He would find it later in Ann Sheridan, Rosalind Russell, and Lauren Bacall – but all of them had low, well-placed voices, and if they had not he would send them into a back room for a couple of weeks and train them to replace them with lower ones, but  Hawks hadn’t gotten around to it yet with Lombard. As it is, Lombard’s inability to modulate her voice and her spirit ends up being almost as annoying as John Barrymore’s inability to modulate his own performance into making at least a few local stops into reality. (Carole Lombard’s recently divorced husband, William, Powell, would have been better in the part.) For is Barrymore a ham playing a ham, or is he an actor playing a ham, or is he an actor who has become a ham playing a ham? If you have to ask the question, you already know the answer. Barrymore also had one of those badly placed voices, a high grating tenor. And the film is such a mélange of frenzy in the dog-and-cat fight of its episodes, that it becomes monotonous in its yowling and in its pace that breaks the neck of any audience. Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht wrote it from a hit play of their own, and there are lots of funny lines. Most them are delivered by Roscoe Karns as the drunken press agent. (These were the days when alcoholism was considered droll.) And the movie is worth seeing just to witness the wit style of the era of which Macarthur and Hecht were the masters. But the film as whole I found trying. It feels labored and forced. It demonstrates a complete failure of directorial tone. The famed cameraman Joe August shot it, and I think not well, especially in the theatre scenes, all of which were taken first in the shoot. As per Hawks films, there are almost no close-ups, so that when Lombard appears in one it’s a stylistic shock. If you want to see if Barrymore could act, don’t listen to his Hamlet, see Don Juan or see William Wyler’s Counselor At Law of the year before. And if you want Lombard at her best, see her in the last film she made, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not Be. Twentieth Century started her off in Screwball Comedy. It was not a successful film at the time. It still isn’t.

 

 

Hatari

10 Oct

Hatari – Directed by Howard Hawks. Wild Animal Action Adventure. A company of animal collectors snares big game in Africa. 156 minutes Color 1962.

* * * *

Howard Hawks had no signature visual style, even when he used the same photographer. Nor was he much of a director of actors. His films are plainly shot in simple setups. What he had was a freewheeling attitude about scripts which in the morning he would make up among the actors or who ever passed through the shooting, and then film it later in the day. This openness and casualness produced a big permission for actors, so sometimes wonderful performances arrived. John Wayne’s, for instance. He is an actor who often chooses to “come from strength”, but here he pretty much lets that slide, and what comes to the fore is his wisdom, forgiveness, and rueful wit. He does not have any other actors in the picture who are on his level of artistry or humor, save Red Buttons, which is a shame, because that and their variety of foreign languages slows things down to the level of competence, which is a local train not a superchief; John Wayne is a superchief. However, what results here is a very amiable party indeed, casual, agreeable, and fun. This is not a movie you intently watch; it is a movie you hang out with. The story line is flimsy and contrived, and it all takes place indoors on Paramount sound stages, and looks it, as do the actors slathered in thick tan pancake. The story involves, if that is the right word, a couple of unconvincing romances, one of them between Wayne and the Italian actress Elsa Martinelli who is of all things called Dallas, the name Claire Trevor had in Stagecoach. (One must cover one’s eyes when John Wayne kisses anybody.) But, in the long and beautiful African scenes, Elsa Martinelli has such a terrific rapport with wild animals that I took her to be a professional trainer. She is remarkable with three baby elephants, and seems to harbor a leopard as a watchdog. The episode with the monkey tree is fascinating – evidently all the actors did the animal work in the picture – and wildebeest and rhinos and cheetahs and ostriches are caught in long and very exciting sequences. The chasing down and capturing of the wild animals feels authentic and was the raison d’etre for the film. These are interspersed with drunk scenes, which are not funny (at what moment in history did drunk scenes in Hollywood cease to be funny) and with sophomoric hijinks, which are not funny either. Hatari means danger in Swahili and the relaxed and genial nature of the story with its foolish excesses is just a necessary relaxation from the real and intense excitement of the hunts. Henry Mancini has written a brilliant score.

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Never On Sunday

23 Sep

Never On Sunday – Directed by Jules Dassin. Comedy. A stupid American intellectual aims to elevate a willful prostitute to intellectual lofts. 91 minutes Black and White 1960.

* * * * *

A perfect movie, except, of course, that Jules Dassin who wrote and directed it also plays the lead, and is not an actor and cannot act. He probably had hired someone who dropped out and had to take the part himself – that’s my hunch – but one does not care very much even when Dassin is placed opposite actors who inherently are actors, because the film has Dassin’s directorial urge, energy and heart. And because he, as the American, is clearly headed for a fall. But so what! Melina Mercouri won The Cannes Prize for Best Actress for this role, and you can see why it is inevitable, for she is a force, indeed a freak of nature. Like so many actors, the only places you could put them would be in a theatre or a madhouse or a zoo. Mercouri, with her leopard’s eyes, would be in zoo. (Indeed, she eventually entered Greek politics quite successfully.) She is one of those females who is so female she is male. Like Katina Paxinou or Anna Magnani, she has the ability and the appetite to eat men alive. And they love it, at least, here they do. They throng around her and worship her for her independence, wit, beauty, sexuality, reality, basso profundo voice, and sense of fun. She’s a whore who chooses her clients; not they her. With a toss of her mane of hair, she is off with a sailor while spurning a millionaire. Dassin was exiled in Europe by blacklist, and made this and Rififi and Topkapi and other films with greater success and éclat than he had ever had in the US. He’s a delightful director and a quite lovable man. This is one of his Greek gems. You must have already seen it, but see it again, and see it often. [ad#300×250]

 

Suds

21 Sep

Suds – Directed by John Francis Dillon. Comic Melodrama. A scrubgirl rides a magic horse to true love and salvation. 65 minutes Black And White Silent 1920.

* * *

Pickford’s Amanda Afflick is a reprise of a character from Stella Maris, but without the deformed shoulder. The face is a grimace, the mouth flattened, the eyebrows thickened. You would not recognize her as Amanda until the princess scenes, where she appears as the Mary Pickford we know. The real difference, however, is in the interior of the Stella Maris character which is another person entirely from Stella Maris herself. Here, in Suds, the actress instead gives herself over to large gestures and cartoon faces, even broader in the princess scenes, which is strange because Pickford was renowned for inventing screen acting as we know it today, a craft of interior and subtle registration. She also miscalculates the performance by crying, weeping, bawling, wailing at every slight and abuse. She leaves no room for us to participate in her situation. (See Judy Garland make the same mistake in A Star Is Born.) What does work is her execution of the physical comedy, which is imaginative and robust. The Extras include the three endings the film had, and a documentary on Pickford’s immense film career.

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These Old Broads

21 Sep

These Old Broads – Directed by Matthew Diamond. Show Biz Comedy. A singing trio of the 60s is urged to make a comeback. 89 minutes Color 2001.

* * * *

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you The Sunshine Girls! They fight, they throw hissy fits at one another, they stalk out, they tear off one another’s wigs, and they make some very witty wisecracks. It holds one’s attention because it moves along licketty-split and because no pretense is made to turn it into The Bandwagon, and because the three stars are accomplished entertainers and know what they are about. Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins, and Debbie Reynolds are the ladies in question. They are well supported by Hinton Battle as the choreographer, Jonathan Silverman as the 40-year-old orphan, and by Nestor Carbonell as the slay-tongued producer. The performances of the last two with one another are worth the price of admission, just to see two actors play it for all its worth, even if the three stars weren’t doing the same, and even if Elizabeth Taylor were not really quite out front as a bullying Jewish agent. She describes herself as “big as a bungalow”. (The Jewels she wears, which are also big as bungalows, are being auctioned off at Christie’s now.) You will enjoy some very funny lines and the same pained nostalgia for those ladies in the days of their youth and glory as I felt too. Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor even have a scene about a husband the Elizabeth Taylor character stole from the Debbie Reynolds character all those years ago. Boy! You will do no harm to life and limb to sit back and enjoy it.

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God’s Little Acre

01 Jul

God’s Little Acre – Directed by Anthony Mann. Tragicomic rural drama. A farmer spends fifteen years digging for gold on his farm instead of farming while all his children go to pot and pieces around him. 118 minutes Black And White 1958.

* * * * *

Celeste Holm had seen The Misfits the day before at the Roxy. “You coulda shot moose in there,” she said to me. (Gable and Monroe were dead before it opened; no one wanted to face the ghosts of gods.) “She can’t act,” said Celeste Holm. If you wonder what she meant (she had been in All About Eve with her) take a look at Monroe in the clip in Roy London’s film where it is obvious that what she brings to a simple scene of buying a train ticket has nothing to do with acting but everything to with being. Listen to what London says. She brings something enormous onto the screen, but, no, she cannot act. Robert Ryan really falls into the same category, and one can see why he was cast, in place of Walter Brennan, a much greater actor. Aside from Ryan’s good looks and his ability to foist a certain eccentricity off on us, one sees an actor always pushing his effects, sometimes slightly, sometimes hugely – but one also sees something awkward and helpless in him. Something touching, just as there was in Monroe, and such a quality can carry an entire film, and this Ryan does, whereas Walter Brennan (three-time Oscar winner) might not have been able to. As to the material, Erskine Caldwell is the greatest short story writer this country has ever produced, and Faulkner and Hemingway and Dos Passos, all name him the great novelist. Commercially more successful than all of them combined, his work, scandalous in his day, is not much read nowadays, but modern Southern literature is unthinkable without it. It ought to be read: it’s very very funny. It’s the ashcan school of writing, the Southern poor – and, boy, are they comical sticking their tousled heads out of those ashcans and pursuing their comic obsessions to and beyond the limit! I would never have dreamed of casting Buddy Hackett as Plato, the man-who-would-be sheriff, but he is superb. Aldo Ray, going to fat and perfectly cast as the going-to-fat lecher for Ryan’s tasty daughter, brings lust to the point of tragedy. The scenes between him and Tina Louise are inconsolably sexual and steamy. But Aldo Ray is really lower class; Ryan isn’t. He’s best as a criminal in a business suit. So the whole enterprise would be just slightly off if it were not directed by Anthony Mann (director of Jimmy Stewart’s fine Pie Westerns) and beautifully filmed by Ernest Haller (Mildred Pierce, Gone With The Wind, Rebel Without A Cause), and scored by Elmer Bernstein. And so instead, we have a masterpiece of cotton gin art, one to be seen and, surely Ty Ty, heard!

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Roxie Hart

11 Jun

Roxie Hart – Directed by William Wellman. Comedy Satire. A gum snapping wannabe dancer is put on trial for murdering or not her wannabe producer in the 1920’s. 74 Minutes Black and White 1942

* * * * *

One of the funniest movies I have ever seen, and one of Ginger Rogers’ three great comedic film performances.  It’s an out-and-out American farce on American promotion, its relation to American justice, and the relation of both of them to American sex appeal. Adolph Menjou and Ginger Rogers head a cast of brilliant supporting performers, among whom we have Lynn Overman, Nigel Bruce, Spring Byington, Sarah Algood, William Frawley, Phill Silvers, and George Montgomery. The piece is so well-written, by Nunnally Johnson, that all Sarah Algood has to do is stare fixedly at a newspaper and say the word “Children” for me to fall off my chair laughing. William Wellman directed it, whom one does not mainly associate with comedy, but, boy, he didn’t miss a trick here. (He also, of course, begins it in the rain.) As to the actors, nobody misses a trick. Watch Ginger prepare to faint by hoisting up her skirt over her knees. It is based on a stage played called Chicago, and it eventually became the musical called Chicago, but the delights of this piece, which is actually filmed closer in time to the Roaring Twenties, bring forward all the gum-snapping smart-alecky attitude of that era and also of the times we live in now, with its easy remorselessness and eye-rolling acceptance of Madoff and The Money Boys. Wall Street today is so crass and unregenerate you gotta laugh – ‘cause they’re getting away with it — Civic Conscience reduced to a political cartoon. Here, even innocent clean cut George Montgomery ends up tossing them back and cynical. Rent it. Sit back in your seat. Ya gotta love it. Ya just gotta!

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Mrs. Doubtfire

17 May

Mrs Doubtfire.  Directed by Chris Columbus. Farce. An irresponsible ex-husband turns himself into a responsible female Scottish housekeeper for his ex-wife and children. 125 minutes Color 1993.

* * * * *

I have a hard time swallowing Robin Williams as an actor. Performance art is different internally from the art of acting, and as we all know Robin Williams is one of the great performance artists of our time. Bob Hope always groused at Oscar time that he never won one. The joke was he knew he should not have.  Very few comics have both crafts in them. Jackie Gleason. Milton Berle. I once saw it in Jerry Lewis. Performance artists have the ambition to entertain, and that’s the problem with Williams, and many another. They tend to get teary and sentimental, which they take to be acting when it isn’t. Things come out ever so slightly exaggerated when comedians take on serious parts. Their desire to entertain pushes through like a blister. But Williams is not bad in this piece. In fact, he is better at being the old lady than he is at his occasional riffs, one with dinosaurs, for instance, which is feeble. His confrontation scenes at the end are very well played. He’s a naturally likeable entity, which has a lot of carrying power, and, since his comic genius is entirely verbal, his quick wittedness accomplishes a lot playing a character whose diction accounts for everything funny that happens. For the written words of the script are funny. When it asks him to break character, or enter into physical comedy, it and he flop. But he has a marvelous actor opposite him, our beloved Sally Field. She is an actor of the great power of daring. Watch how good Williams becomes as, when opposite her, they play an outright hateful argument. Pierce Brosnan, as pretty of piece of flesh as ever graced a bathing suit, strikes just the right balance as the attractive suitor. Harvey Fierstein plays Williams inventive brother in the gigantic manner we all now wait for and enjoy. The film has the most damaging musical score I have ever heard. Cut off one of your ears when watching this picture. Or hope that your laughter will drown it out. It sounds like it is trying to prop up a structure that needs no props, like flying buttresses around a pyramid. Don’t believe it for a minute. The picture holds up quite well indeed.

 

Monkey Business

08 Mar

Monkey Business  — Directed by Howard Hawke — Low Comedy. A college chemistry professor invents the soda fountain of youth, and the wrong people start to drink it.  97 minutes Black and White 1952

* * *

If I had to choose films to be stranded on a desert island with, I would say, Gimme pictures with Edward G. Robinson or Charles Coburn in them. Both men were stout, both were brilliant, and both smoked cigars at birth. Robinson played the heavier roles usually, Coburn the lighter. Hearken to Coburn’s delivery of the line regarding Marilyn Monroe’s secretarial skills: “Anyone can type.” He was to salivate over her again in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, also a Howard Hawks film. Hawks was not a fancy director, and he was best at male/female contention, as in I Was a Male War Bride, To Have and To Have Not, Bringing Up Baby. So here. The opening sequence is the best in the film, a gentle contention between the expert Ginger Rogers and the expert Cary Grant. The film would have been better had this level been sustained, but it falls into crude slapstick. I love crude slapstick, but it’s got to work better than here. Giving Cary Grant a gaudy sports coat and a crew cut is not funny in itself. He just looks terrific in them in a different way. Ginger Rogers as a three-year-old brat is quite cunning.Rogers was quite good at mad impersonations (and to see her in a brilliant performance of them in a brilliant film, see Roxy Hart). Monroe is good in all her scenes, but, although she is starred, her part is only as big as it could be. The monkey, though! Ah, the monkey is worth the price of admission. Never have I seen so clever and risible a monkey in my life!

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We’re Not Married

26 Feb

We’re Not Married — Directed by Edmund Goulding — Low Comedy. Multiple miscarriages of marriage. 86 minutes Black and White 1952.

* * *

Oh, dear, and what a good idea, too. A letter of the law has not been followed, and five couple find they are not wed after all. It’s essentially five playlets for two actors each. The problem lies in the writing and directing, for the exposition of each of them goes on far too long, and the resolutions of all but the ones with Louis Calhern and Zsa Zsa Gabor and Eddie Bracken’s with Mitzie Gaynor, are left unexplained. Why do Eve Arden and Paul Douglas remarry, when Douglas has torn up the marriage-canceling letter in the throes of a sexual fantasy about an orgy of future babes? The soda-fountain mentality of Hollywood in the 50s is perfectly arrayed here in the flatness and thinness of the set design, the banality of the world Hollywood wanted us to swallow, and which we didn’t swallow thanks to Marlon Brando. None of the actors are well served: the great Louis Calhern is filmed all wrong, Eddie Bracken is asked to perform bedroom farce on a back-lot small town street, opposite the vexing Mitzie Gaynor, who throve only in musicals, as far as I know. Ginger Rogers, as expert a natural comedienne of light bite as ever drew breath, has to play exposition scenes of interminable length with radio star Fred Allen. Marilyn Monroe is in fine figure and good fun as a beauty queen, and David Wayne does a good job as her house-husband. It’s an ice-cream sundae with powdered milk ice-cream. But, to watch Ginger Rogers as an actress work the material with full natural ease and responsiveness is a treat. The adaptation was done by Dwight Taylor, the son of the great Laurette Taylor; he wrote some of the Rogers and Astaire musicals, and it would have been better had he written the script itself. Sorry to be sour here. I was open when it opened and slowly closed up as it went along.

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Charley’s Aunt

21 Feb

Charley’s Aunt –– directed by Archie Mayo –– an 1892 comedy in which two Oxonians inveigle a pal to impersonate their aunt as chaperone for a visit from their girlfriends. 80 minutes black and white 1941.

* * * * *

Randy Skretvedt on the Special Features gives a nifty rundown of the lives and careers of every single person in the cast and crew. From this we learn oodles about Jack Benny, Kay Francis, Edmund Gwenn (whose deathbed words were, “Comedy is hardest”), Anne Baxter, Reginald Owen, Alfred Newman who did the music, Archie Mayo who directed it, and George Seaton who brilliantly adapted it for the screen. We are give such tidbit-info as that Laird Cregar was 24 when he played Sir Francis Chesney, the father of one of the 30 year old Oxonians. Cregar came on the set and announced to one and all, “To dispel any question about my preferences, yes, I am homosexual!” This in 1941; pretty good wouldn’t you say? I once played the part and I wish I had thought of his business with the cane. Watch for it. The play is unfailingly funny. It is the most popular English comedy ever written, and justly so. Jack Benny skedaddles around as the aunt, and his performance is on the level of Robin Williams as Mrs Doubtfire or Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie; that is to say nobody would be convinced that this is a female for one instant –– which in this case, unlike theirs, is part of the fun, since here everyone’s life depends on being convinced of it. Mayo’s direction is tip-top as he keeps things moving from brisk scene to scene, and Peverell Marly has filmed it exactly right to glamorize the women and deglamorize the men. Among the Special Features is a promotional short worth seeing, with Tyrone Power, just brilliant, coming on to have lunch with Benny, joined by a highly energized Randolph Scott (two of the most notable bisexual actors of  film). We’ve all seen Charley’s Aunt in the theatre, and we can now see it over again in our parlour, and over and over again. Good family fun, I should say, wot?

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Muriel’s Wedding

02 Feb

Muriel’s Wedding — directed by P.J. Hogan — a dumb Dora wants to be in the in-group, to which end she strives to be married, but she is such a mome no one will date her. She lies, cheats, and steals to achieve her goal. Good for her!  106 minutes Color 1994.

* * * * *

An Australian Georgie Girl, this ruthless satire on money, men, marriage, and mammaries brings into our welcoming sight the gifts of Toni Colette, as its forebear once did those of Lynn Redgrave. Colette brings to bear her wonderful bovine eyes and cowed head to play this moronic phony to the nines. She never lets up not getting it. Her cries of dismay are the dismay of the world and her cries of delight the delight of the world. So this is a really big conception for an actor. It’s a conception by an actor with nothing to lose and Toni Colette risks everything. For the difference with this ugly duckling is that in this version she is crowded out and nearly drowned by the other ducks. Colette makes her such an oaf that the brow-beatings bend her face to the mud but do not break her. Watch Colette “take it”, and come back for more. Into this concentration camp of cruelty rides Rachel Griffiths in rare form as a high-riding tomato, and it’s good to see her in one of her less nefarious sex-killer roles, for no actor male or female can threaten like Rachel Griffiths. This vengeful resentment is in play only later, as the story switches hands over and over. But until then, she displays a zest for fun and comedy and play that is a delight to see, and into it Colette dives with her, her character almost convinced that this fairy godmother’s rescue is real. See it, oh, see it!

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Impostors

02 Feb

Impostors — directed by Stanley Tucci — A 30s-style  farce aboard an ocean liner, in which two bad actors imposturing as good actors fall afoul of a bevvy of impostors —

* * * *

Farce is the hardest dramatic form of all — because it is the hardest to sustain. And Stanley Tucci, who wrote and directed this piece, illustrates the point. It is also true that stage farce works better than film farce because stage farce is best played broad, whereas film farce requires something to quiet it down. The bigger the screen the subtler it must be. If not, it splatters like a custard pie, right in the viewers face. Farce also requires fixed settings,which the stage provides and the movie camera forbids. Of course, here we have wonderful players, but all of them fall into the trap of playing over-broad. The watchword for film farce is Buster Keaton, whose dead-pan took the leaven out of his insane physical comedy such that one could watch it with a kind of rollicking amazement. Here, instead, we have a series of custard pie actors, imagining that we are having as much fun as themselves. This does not destroy all the fun, but it does leave the actors exhausted in their invention before the piece is over. Isabella Rosselini is so bent on pretending to hide that she is A Queen In Exile that she is virtually invisible. Alfred Molina playing a ham Hamlet throughout not only chews the scenery but digests and excretes it. Of course, Molina is an adorable actor as are Tony Schaloub as the resident terrorist and the great Allison Janney as a slinky faux Frenchwoman. Oliver Platt and Stanley Tucci are heavenly actors. They all are, but the only ones who survive the artistic exhaustion are Lili Taylor who plays it straight as the ingenue and Campbell Scott as a mean German staff captain. He stays rigorously within the tight confines he has set himself, and so he is always welcome to our view. So, instead of bunch of actors putting on a show for us, we have a bunch of actors putting on a show for themselves. With such gifted people there are still considerable rewards. Stanley Tucci is a director whose invention does not flag even after his energy has. I liked this film. And I like his films and I want to see more.

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Harry Langdon: The Forgotten Clown

28 Jan

Harry Langdon: The Forgotten Clown —  directed by Frank Captra and Harry Edwards. Three broad comedies: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp; The Strong Man; Long Pants.   193 minutes blck and white 1922 and later.

* * * * *

Harry Langdon was tapioca pudding buttoned up in a tight little jacket. Wry bee-stung lips, white makeup, wide-spaced eyes beady and alert as a chipmunk. He was a child-size man with a child’s responsiveness to life, a responsiveness physically and emotionally more subtle than Chaplin’s. The entire body is always engaged differently, unlike Chaplin’s which as the little tramp was broadly kinetic and always the same. Tiny men both of them, Langdon seems smaller, a pipsqueak, and like Chaplin and Keaton, heroic. I find him very very funny. And always surprising. See him in this Strong Man picture defend his honor from a female rapist! See his scene in the bus with a cold. See the little bows he takes as the strong man at the end.  Watch his eyes. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the second feature puts him in a crosscountry walking race. See the cyclone scene!  See the cliff hanger scene!  See the scene in the bassinet!  I fell off my chair laughing. Watch his contortions when he first lays eye on his dream girl, the ever-gauche Joan Crawford (age 23). The picture is set up in long sequences, and they’re wonderful, and only in pictures and only in silent pictures would they work. The third piece, Long Pants, I found less amusing, but still… See him, he’s a find: the Pierrot of silent film, The Great White Clown. A master.

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Amarilly Of Clothes-Line Alley & The Dream

25 Jan

Amarilly Of Clothes-Line Alley & The Dream – Broad Comedy. In the first, a laundress and her family is invited into the parlor of the upper-crust. In the second, a devoted housewife is mistaken for a raving tart by her drunkard husband. 67 minutes. black and white, silent.1918 & 1911.

* * * * *

She was a charming actress, understated, quick, responsive, and not so pretty as a picture as to give offense. America’s Sweetheart was not readily cast as a vamp, but in the second of these two films, the 10 minute The Dream, she turns from the dutiful wife to the flagrant babe, kicking over the traces. Amarilly is a story that remained with us right through Pretty Woman, and was played out by Laurette Taylor, Joan Crawford, Jean Arthur, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, and any actress who could convey the lower classes moving into the upper classes. These stories always have an immigrant settling, for they were made in the day when many Americans were just arrived or first generation. Nowadays, for the most part, we no longer have that background. This one is Irish-American, and it’s a comedy played in broad strokes. It is interesting to see how the acting style resulted from the fact that the camera did not move and the action was played against a single set. This seduced the actors to move a lot, as in The Dream. Pickford wisely remains restrained. It also drove the actors into necessary improvisation, and they were very good at it. I admire their gusto and willingness. I think you will too. Just don’t judge it by today’s standards — except for Pickford, who is as modern an actress as one could hope for. Don’t confuse the role with the actress. See her. It’s likable to like someone as likeable as Pickford, and you’ll like yourself for it. It’s the secret of her vast and still valid success.

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Start The Revolution WIthout Me

14 Jan

Start The Revolution Without Me – directed by Bud Yorkin – a farce in which two sets of identical twins plot to cut off The Terror at the pass. 1 hour 31 minutes color 1970

* * * * *

Farce requires the stage. It requires a static set, back and forth through whose doors characters race. Physical dexterity is its sine qua non. Motion pictures move. In film, the set is never static because the camera isn’t. Therefore the necessary contrast is lost. But given this limitation, farce on film can work, not through physical comedy, but through verbal comedy, through situation, and through what passes across the characters’ faces. Thus we have Hugh Griffith, whose loony visage always promises the embarrassing human folly of dirty underwear even when he is dressed with monumentally glittering daft royalty as King Louis XVI. The film is vaguely a parody of The Corsican Brothers or some Ronald Colman swashbuckler or other, it doesn’t matter which, because the film is a parody of films like that, and as such it works like gang-busters. Everything is fabulous here. The whole piece was made in France, in real French Chateaus, in their real interiors, with real French extras, and a real English cast to lend authenticity to France and to two real North American actors who play the four French leads. The settings are breath-taking, and the costumes, by Alan Barrett, are the finest funny period costumes you will ever see, all run up for a nickel, the Special Features tell us. Gene Wilder plays one set of separated twins, and, as he admits in the Special Features, while he thought he would be wonderful as the peasant, he is far better as the crazy, vicious, sadistic, me-first noble. Donald Sutherland has the cunning to make both the peasant and the noble similar, which they would have been in real life, one slightly out-to-lunch and the other above-it-all. He is delightful to watch. His hauteur is preposterous because he is already so tall. In film, all farce is farce of the face, and the only movement is that of the audience’s eyes to the next visage treat. When people start running about, film farce tends to slow down. You can’t make motion out of what is already motion, only what is not. As Orson Welles remarks in it, this is a film in which he does not appear, so we know from the start that we are in the sacred land of irreverence, impudence, and idiocy, and can take out our Monty Python Toby-mug, fill it up with ale, sit back in our armchairs, and chuckle.

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S.O.B.

14 Jan

S.O.B. – directed + by Blake Edwards – lowbrow comedy about a Hollywood director frantic to revive his career – 121 minutes color 1981

**

Vulgarity is wonderful – if enforced by the gusto of a grand internal energy – Wallace Beery as Falstaff. But if the internal energy is flaccid, as it is with Blake Edwards, we are served mere coarseness, which is what this director dishes up. Vulgarity without the sauce. This extends to the director in the film asking his wife, a goody-two-shoes superstar like Julie Andrews to expose her bubbies for the camera. In this case, the actual star is Julie Andrews, and the actual director Blake Edwards is her actual husband, and the bubbies are actually hers,  and in the film she actually does deliver them to us, and actually very nice bubbies they are too. The film is meant to be a mockery of Hollywood behind-the-scenes, but it is technically impossible to mock that which is already a mockery, which is to freshen a heifer already with calf. The thing cannot be done. A redundancy so perfect it is indistinguishable from the original and impotent. What Edwards does have to back him up is the very real energy of very real talents – Robert Webber as the franticly fearful press agent, Loretta Swit as an egomaniacal gossip columnist, and the mighty Robert Preston as a feel-good doctor needling everybody in the rump. The picture would have been much better with him in the leading role, for he is splendid, is he not, as a sort of Ur-male, like Burt Lancaster which only the movies could body forth without wrecking every car on the highway. As to the rest: lift up your nose, pinch it, and turn away.

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The Little Fockers

11 Jan

The Little Fockers – directed by Paul Weitz – low comedy in which an Irish don hands over his mission in life to his Jewish son-in-law.   120 minutes color 2010.

* * * *

This is Abey’s Irish Rose as a movie. That most long running and now long forgotten of all plays and radio shows was about the Jewish boy who married a Colleen. Same here. In those days, back in the 30s and 40s, the conflict was based on immigrant wars, the Kikes against the Micks, the stubbornness of the territorial and cultural and religious protectorates of the tribes who had just or almost just come here – and intermarried. West Side Story is musical version of it. But here we have as befits the theme a series. This is the third, and there is nothing wrong with it at all. You have a fine cast. Barbra Streisand plays her usual self-pushing self. Laura Dern does the chilling principal of a fancy modern school. Owen Wilson is the clueless sybarite best friend. Dustin Hoffman is the fool Jewish father. Harvey Keitel is a the bellicose earth-mover. Blythe Danner is the elegant mother of the Irish don. What brings the movie down is that Robert de Niro is no more an Irish don than a plate of spaghetti is. He takes off the shelf his generic technique and mugs and moues throughout the piece. And there is some cause, it is true, for we are looking at low comedy here. But it is Ben Stiller who carries the piece. What a marvelous player of comedy he is. Has anyone noticed that yet? How subtle he is? How intricate in his response? How real? Check out the moment when he accepts the honor from de Niro; he has taken on the hero’s fullness; he simply asks his son to eat his food; the child vomits on him. But the vomit is not what’s funny. What’s funny is Stiller’s barely discernible inflation. The piece ends in a branagan at a child’s birthday party, a fight which is unconvincing, since no one seems to notice it, but that is the fault of the crudeness of the script, a script which is sometimes quite witty. I enjoyed myself. But then, in asking for so much, I accept so little.

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The Oyster King — I Don’t Want To Be A Man

31 Dec

The Oyster King  [1919] & I Don’t Want To Be A Man [1921] — directed by Ernst Lubitsch — Two comedy black and white silent features by the great master of film comedy. In the first, a tycoon’s spoiled daughter makes her father find her a prince for a husband. In the second a spoiled young lady dresses in men’s evening clothes and ends up having an adventure with her guardian.

* * * * *

The Oyster King is radiantly funny. Lubitsch calls it a grotesque farce, which it is, in the Ionesco sense of farce. The story moves along lickety-split from one spectacularly funny development to the next. Ossi Oswald is the young lady in both films. She’s a comedienne from the Betty Hutton School Of Acting — but then, in those days, they all were, weren’t they? She’s a stocky little soubrette and fully engaged in all and everything, so the film is carried forward by her and by Lubitsch’s master hand at movie-making. He has the ability to engage the audience in the scene and participate as a teller of the story. That is, Lubitsch gives the audience full credit for intelligence and willingness for fun. I, for one, delight in his confidence in me. The Oyster Princess was a famously successful picture in its day, and, seeing it now, I do not wonder why. I laughed myself silly. I Don’t Want To Be A man is played by the same actress, Ossi Oswald (who is called that in both films). Once again she plays the spoiled society girl. Whereas the first film is a satire on American money, this one is more European in the aim of its comedy, with considerable footage given over to a man kissing another man — who is actually a woman in disguise. Well, you see what you are in for here. The astonishing sets by Richter spell vulgar luxe in hilariously large letters. The music accompanying the films is very deft and funny as well and so are the titles. They are both a great lesson in visual comedy, not pantomime, as in Chaplin, but something else. Later he was to direct Trouble In Paradise, Ninotchka, and To Be Or Not To Be — two of the funniest films of the prewar era. End that old depression: rent ’em and rent this.

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Lady Of Burlesque

17 Dec

Lady Of Burlesque – directed by William Wellman – a backstage mystery comedy about a hooch dancer and a couple of murdered canaries. 91 minutes black and white 1943.

* * * * *

Every student of film and every person fascinated by its craft could not do better than to watch William Wellman’s management of crowd movement in this back-stage whodunit. The set is spectacularly real in terms of its seediness, dusty props, crumby dressing rooms, and crowdedness. The film is alive with imaginative motion. Which stops dead when the inspector calls to examine the personnel and everyone has to gather in a dressing room that allows of scarcely any motion at all. So the movie lurches effectively between the hurly burly and hustle of the shows and the standstill of these scenes. Michael O’Shea plays the two-bit fool who woes the heroine and he is perfectly cast because he is lower-class at heart and so is Barbara Stanwyck, a Brooklyn girl from way back. She is not physically convincing as a Burlesque Queen; she does not have the aplomb or the powerful double-entendre of a Gypsy Rose Lee who wrote the story, but otherwise she is marvelous, for two reasons. She is a person of determination: her walk is like a naval destroyer moving across a duck pond. And she had the common touch. The burley-que life on stage was coarser than what we see here, but the casting of the girls with their snappy slang brings out the necessary, as do the costumes organized around their bodies not to reveal their sexuality but to astound by exaggerating it symbolically. A g-string tells less than a three foot hat!

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Baby Doll

04 Dec

Baby Doll — directed by Elia Kazan — a comedy about a nubile teen age girl, her drooling husband, and the cotton gin of a rival. 114 minutes black and white 1956.
★★★★★
Of the six great Kazan films, all made around the same time: A Streetcar Named Desire, Panic In The Streets, Viva Zapata, On The Waterfront, East Of Eden, it is the last.

Baby Doll is one of the funniest American comedies ever made, and it certainly is the most unusual – because it resembles the low comedy of comedia del arte and certain films of Da Sica and Fellini.

Completely the opposite of the starched and laundered comedies of Doris Day, those tense technicolor sundaes of that era, Baby Doll is a comedy based in actual humor, and comes from the pen of the finest ear in the English language since Congreve.

When Caroll Baker, asserts to Eli Wallach that she is not a moron by saying: “I am a måagazine-reader!” we are in the land of comic plenty.

And when the great Mildred Dunnock as the half-cocked Aunt Rose Comfort, picking bedraggled weeds in the unkempt garden, calls them “Poems of Nature” we are in poetry heaven.

Mildred Dunnock was nominated for an Academy Award for this performance, and she and the luscious Carroll Baker and the foxy Eli Wallach and the profusely sweating Karl Malden make the most of all that Kazan and the Deep South location and Tennessee Williams’ script and The Method can offer.

This is a movie to see over and over, over the years, and I have. An American classic!

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Plan B

22 Nov

Plan B –– directed by Greg Vaitanes –– broad gangster-comedy in which an ordinary woman is forced to be a mob assassin –– 96 minutes color 2002.

* * * * *

A good example of an actress destroying a film. First, Diane Keaton should never be allowed to choose her own wardrobe for a movie. In this one she starts as awoman roped into being a hit-lady, and her clothes are fairly nondescript. But Keaton refuses to play a drab woman –– ever –– and it’s a mistake, for she is essentially a master of her craft and a great comedienne. So presently she tosses on an Annie Hall rig that Chaplinifies the part on the one hand, that has nothing to do with the character on the other hand, and, on the third hand, disguises a third of her face and often her eyes with the brim of a bowler and various glasses. The wreckage of her attempt to make her quirky and endearing might be corrected had her performance been gauged to fit the story, but she allows her character to become broader, less confident, and more physically improbable as she gains experience with her new job, instead of less foolish, less frantic, and more contained as she gained experience with her various hand guns. Thus the comedy of character, which this performance needed to be, might have emerged from her nervous realization that she was becoming more like the mobster she was being asked to be. Very well written by Lisa Lutz, beautifully filmed by John Peters, with a superb sound track by Brian Tyler, and great set decoration by Debbie de Villa, and, for the most part, directed with such perfect visual pitch by Greg Vaitanes that at times we seem to be looking at Danny Kaye comedy directed by Kurosawa. A magnificent supporting cast carries the comic load of this film —  whose first third is top drawer until Keaton dresses up in male clothing –– Paul Sorvino, Bob Balaban, Maury Chaykin, Burt Young, John Ventimiglia, Nick Sandow, Natasha Lyonne, and an Oscar to Anthony de Sando, as the Jerry Lewis-moronic thug, who supplies invention upon invention always in character and always funny — a great actor and a jewel of a performance.

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Silver Streak

08 Nov

Silver Streak –– directed by Arthur Hiller –– romantic adventure comedy in which nefarious doings get let loose on a speeding train. 113 minutes color 1976.

* * * * *

Gene Wilder’s eyes are of such a pellucid teacup blue that you know their innocence must be polluted before long. And so it comes to pass. I wouldn’t call the great Jill Clayburg pollution, but she does seduce him with an ease smoother than finesse and swifter than the swift at dawn. Ned Beatty a great actor who must have won three dozen Oscars by now, or none, plays, as usual, a person who wandered out of a Sinclair Lewis novel. Presently, the skullduggery starts to boil up, guided suavely by the person of Patrick McGoohan. Into the train wreck he plans for these person’s lives, zooms Richard Pryor, and the bullets start to fly to the right and to the left, but never, O never, to the heart of our hero which is preserved by his ironclad devotion to our Jill. The film starts as a leaden streak until Mr. Pryor’s arrival, but watch his invention, his imagination, his beautiful, restless, and exquisitely beggarly dissatisfaction driving every scene to glory. Have there ever been any more than five elegant leading women to appear in American film? Was Kay Francis one? Gwyneth Paltrow is certainly one. Jill Clayburgh is absolutely one, and it is a treat to know it as a rare fact right here in this amusing escape by train.

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Lovers And Other Strangers

05 Nov

Lovers And Other Strangers –– directed by Cy Howard –– broad comedy in which marriage itself is put on the barbeque as a young couple prepares their wedding. 104 minutes Color 1970.

* * * * *

Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna wrote the play and with David Zelag Goodman adapted it very successfully for the screen. It holds up real well because the script’s gags are inherent to the material and reveal its subject, which is the unromantic structure of mating itself, lustfully sexual on one side and tedious beyond belief on the other. And everyone is superb in playing it. No one steps out of the script to roll their eyes and comment, but goes for it as is. So its lines and situations, which are sketch-like, are very funny and surprising as they arise and mature and vanish. Harry Guardino and Anne Meara are horrifyingly daring as the married couple gone dead in the bed. Gig Young is wonderful as the man who must have it every uncommitted way there is. Bea Arthur and Richard S. Castellano are super as the parents of the groom, doomed to one another and adapting to it. Bob Dishy as the masher who no one wants is marvelous, blowing ridiculously on girls’ hair, arms, ears in an attempt to arouse them. The truth of love and marriage and courting and divorce is struck over and over, winningly, movingly, if with all the subtlety of a cartoon mallet. We even have a young Diane Keaton as the to-be-ex. She is pre-emergent as an actor. But she fiddles with Arthur’s dress while Arthur lectures her; she learns her craft. Almost unrecognizable without her dazzling smile, we wait 40 years for her to come forth, as she still does. Keaton has never played a dowdy woman. Jill Clayburg has. Sartorial finesse is a dark cloak which reveals Keaton. Without it she would be framed and bound. With it, she explores freedom. Curious, no?

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