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Archive for the ‘COMEDY OF CHARACTER’ Category

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.

 

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 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!

 

 

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.

 

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!

 

 

George Stevens Seminar — The More The Merrier

21 Jun

By the early 40s Stevens could write his own ticket. Harry Cohn begged him to come to Columbia, saying he would never bother him, he would never even speak to him, if he would only come there and work. But Stevens said that he would value Cohn’s experience and point of view, and Stevens did go, and Cohn did not bother him.

He was to make three pictures there with Cary Grant, Penny Serenade, The Talk Of The Town. and The More The Merrier. The last of these, however, did not have Grant in it, thank goodness, for he was not available, and it really needed a middle-class regular American Joe to play Joe. (Could Grant ever play a character called Joe?) Instead it had Joel McCrea, who Katharine Hepburn said was in the same category as an actor as Bogart and Tracy, and so he was.

Jean Arthur made three pictures with Stevens, The Talk Of The Town, The More The Merrier, and her last picture, Shane. She  was tiny, but unlike most tiny women actually looked good in clothes. Like Margaret Sullavan and Kay Francis, she had a catch in her voice, but that wasn’t all that was appealing about her, for she was naturally endearing and a highly susceptible comedienne.

Stevens was eager to get into WWII, for this was 1942. He left for service before The More The Merrier opened at Radio City Music Hall, as had his other two Columbia Pictures. Like them, it was an enormous critical and popular success.

WWII took Stevens into North Africa, into the Normandy Landing, and eventually to Dachau when it was first liberated.He took color movies of it, which we have to this day. The only color movies of it.

When the War was over, he came back to Hollywood and scheduled a comedy with Ingrid Bergman. He couldn’t bring himself to make it. Katharine Hepburn always scolded him for not making comedies, for which he had such a gift.

The War had changed him.

The More The Merrier is the last comedy he ever made – and one of the best.

It’s a model for study, for camera arrangement and for directorial latitude to allow natural human comedy to arise between and on the faces and in the bodies of performers. The director has to have tremendous strength, patience, and the ability to watch in order for this rare and essential relation to arise. Perhaps no one has ever done it better than George Stevens.

 

The More The Merrier

21 Jun

The More The Merrier – produced and directed by George Stevens. Farce. To ease the housing shortage in wartime Washington, a young lady rents out her spare room – but finds herself with an unexpected roommate. 104 minutes Black and White 1943.

★★★★★

That  Peony Of An Actor, Charles Coburn is granted a full George Stevens’ close-up on his fabulous face right early in the picture, so that we may know how close to our hearts are meant to be to him. Later Stevens grants Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea similar close-ups. Stevens was sparing of and famous for these full-face close-ups. He granted Joan Fontaine and Douglas Fairbanks Jr them in Gunga Din and the most famous close-ups ever shot, those of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place In The Sun. On the opposite side, Stevens is also fond of shooting from outside through windows, which, though distant, has the effect of making us eavesdropper-voyeurs and therefore also intimate.

Coburn, an infallible actor, plays Dan Cupid to Arthur and McCrea, which is all we need to know to allow ourselves sit back and enjoy one of the most delightful comedies ever made. But what sort of comedy is it?

Yes, it’s verbally witty and it certainly has broad situations, but it’s not low comedy and it’s not high comedy. Actors never invest their lines with anything but normal human readings. No one wrings a line for all it’s worth. The actors don’t seem to realize that they are doing anything funny.

I’ll clue you in if I may. George Stevens filmed and directed the first movies of Laurel and Hardy. Now the comedy of these two did not fall into any previous movie category. They were not fast-moving like Langdon, Keaton, Chaplin and The Keystone Cops; they did not fall into the category of circus clowns. They were new and they were  inventing a different comedy, a slow-moving comedy. Stevens discovered a camera lens that could film Laurel’s pale eyes, and Stevens further opened up his lens to let these two work things out before the camera, as though the camera were not there. And that is the remarkable impression The More The Merrier provides, although, of course, for that very reason, you don’t realize it – unless like me you saw it when it first came out and several subsequent times since. It’s a Laurel and Hardy comedy without Laurel and Hardy.

McCrea is one of the glories of 40s films: this and Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story and other pictures of that era, ensure our continued enjoyment of him. He is tall, good looking, modest in his craft, and absolutely true in it, But, most important, his sexual energy is available to him, as is Jean Arthur’s to her. This means we have two of the sexiest comedy seduction scenes ever filmed – the scene on the stoup and the scene with the suitcase. The attraction simply works itself out before our eyes easily, naturally, as though we were not watching all the while. The two of them are so infatuated with one another they appear to be drunk. The sexual tension between them is as dear as it is exquisite. And it is hilarious.

Treat yourself to The More The Merrier. And invite anyone you know — after all, the more the merrier. It’s a family film about setting out for war. Garson Kanin wrote it. Stevens and the film were nominated for Oscars. Coburn won it for best supporting player. Stevens won the 1943 New York Film Critics Award for Best Director for it. Immediately upon editing it, he left for the North Africa Campaign – just as McCrea does in the film. Those were the times. And The More The Merrier provided the tincture of human joy that made them bearable.

 

 

Emma

18 May

Emma – written and directed by Douglas McGrath. High Comedy. A young woman tries her pretty hand at match-making, with unexpected comical results. 121 minutes Color 1996.

★★★★★

Yes, a timeless comedy. And in a rare version of it, the director/writer of Emma has reduced a novel of over 600 pages in which nothing happens at all, which has no plot, no story, and which all we are concerned with is who is visiting whom next – and which, once taken up, it is impossible to put down.

For here we have, in Jane Austin’s hand, the creation of a character in Emma of Shakespearean veracity.

You read along, and you cannot help but love her, because she always means well and she is always absolutely wrong. From the point of view of character creation, Emma is a masterpiece of human life, someone who simply stands apart from the novel and walks around through its pages as though she wrote them herself, foibles and all. Like Falstaff, Emma has a life of her own.

Two exceptions worth making to this highly entertaining film.

Ewan McGregor is not only badly miscast; he also, one after another, looks terrible in his costumes And he also cannot play the part. The part of Frank Churchill is the best looking male in the story: he is devastating to women; he is high-spirited, he is dark, he is slender; he is beautifully turned out, he cuts a wonderful figure; he is lots of fun. But McGregor is accoutered in a hideous blond wig, his clothes are dowdy and don’t fit through the shoulders, he is frumpy of temperament, wants joi de vivre, wants mystery, and, in short, is so clunky no woman would look twice at him nor any man envy him.

The second exception is that the story does depend upon Emma’s falling for Churchill, sign of which gives her true love long pause. This movement is omitted, and so when Jeremy Northam must question it we have no idea what he could mean.

Otherwise the film is a gem. Otherwise if there is anything to forgive it is not worth noticing. We have Phyllida Law, a study as old Mrs Bates, Polly Walker perfect as the reserved and beauteous Jane Fairfax, Juliet Stephenson hilarious as the society-bitch Mrs Elton, Sophie Thompson as the impossibly voluble Miss Bates, Greta Sacchi kindness itself as Mrs Weston (née Taylor), Alan Cumming as the worry-wart health-nut Mr, Woodhouse, Emma’s father, whom she so much resembles. And Toni Colette, an actress who probably can do no wrong, as the gullible teenager Harriet Smith.

But the jewel in this jewel, the heart of its heart, is the big-hearted Gwyneth Paltrow, perfect.

Until Gwyneth Paltrow, no true ingénue has appeared in film since Audrey Hepburn.  Until she retired, Hepburn played with the energy of it , even in dramatic roles, such as The Nun’s Story, for she was never a dramatic actress. But Gwyneth Paltrow finally, also, had the perfect collection of ingénue attributes, yet, after her two wonderful comedies – and ingénues must be introduced in comedy – Paltrow embarked on serious dramatic roles much more demanding that those which Audrey Hepburn took on after Sabrina and Roman Holiday. Paltrow’s two comedies were this and Shakespeare In Love, both high style costume pieces, and both requiring an upper class English accent.

But what are the qualities of the ingénue?

Many actresses have played ingénue roles without being true ingénues: Helena Bonham-Carter, Susannah York come to mind.  For someone has to play them. The ingénue is most often the second female lead, playing opposite the juvenile or jeune premier, both just under the leading lady and leading man. Thus: Hero in Much Ado About Nothing and Bianca in The Taming Of The Shrew.

But what does the true ingénue, Audrey Hepburn and Gwyneth Paltrow, have in common that  the others do not have?  What makes them true ingénues?

Well, both are tall, slender, and have long necks, and are elegant of mein. Both in private are clothes horses and on screen wear clothes well. That’s  nice, but they alone do not do it.

Both have charming, well-placed, cultivated speaking voices. Both are bright. Both are sexually innocent. Both are pretty in a way no one else is.

In both instances, they have radiant smiles.

And both are under or appear to be always 21.

But, most important, both are fresh.

And both have real big hearts.

They do not play second leads. They play leading roles because they are rare.

They are absolutely for some reason adorable, for, as soon as you see them, you fall in love with them as you would with an enchanting child.

This is the reason to see Emma. To see a magical young girl whom you have no will to resist being charmed by.

What a treat for you.

Gwyneth Paltrow this year was voted the most beautiful woman in the world. She is now 41. That freshness still remains. And – the most beautiful woman in the world because so endearing for having – its so obvious – the biggest heart you ever saw.

 

Quartet

08 Feb

Quartet –directed by Dustin Hoffman. Musical Drama. Into a retirement home for English musicians comes the greatest diva of her day, who refuses to sing along with the others. 98 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
Well, go and see it at once. You may expect, as I did, for it to be a sentimental bouquet to the old, but it is not. It is ripe and searching. It is funny. It is beautifully directed and filmed. You couldn’t really ask for a smarter and more gratifying entertainment.

That is to say, until the end. For it is important for me to spoil it for you before it spoils itself for you. There is no ending.

That said, there is a great leading up to it. The foibles and vanities of old age are released to our eyes without embarrassment – and why not? The locale is a beautiful old English mansion, and the musicians –Tom Courtney, Pauline Collins, and Billy Connolly – who support the diva are supported in turn by senior musicians who play their instruments and sing their songs with gusto and skill.

The diva is Maggie Smith, and once again she is really something. She is moving and funny, endearing and true. She is asked to join the other three to sing at a gala in the quartet from Rigoletto, but she won’t. Moreover, it turns out she has once been married to one of the members of the quartet. Oh dear.

I think no more needs be said. Safe to say, these wonderful actors have great big dolloping parts, assisted by Michael Gambon as the in-house director of the gala.

This is the sort of movie that gives us a reason to go to the movies at all.

 

A Private Function

19 Dec

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~ ~ ~

A Private Function – Malcolm Mobray. Comedy Of Character. England on very short rations after The War and everyone wants a pig to call their own. 94 minutes Color 1984.
★★★★★
Not farce, not situation comedy, not joke comedy – but that rare thing: comedy of character. That is to say that comedy which produces in one the barely noticeable glow.

Alan Bennett, a master of this sort of thing (The History Boys, et al.), gathers his cohorts, such as Michael Palin and Richard Griffiths, and the incomparable comedienne Maggie Smith, along with Denholm Elliott as the selfish officious mayor, and Pete Postlethwaite as the cold-eyed butcher, to chase around a small English village the person of a pignapped porker everyone wants for their very own oven.

I lived in England near to the period of 1947, and I ate my ration of one egg a week, too, so I understand what Bennett is after in creating the socially pretentious wife of the new chiropodist in town that Maggie Smith plays. We are like her or we are nothing. We deserve the flourishes of life. We deserve the dainty extras. We deserve excess in excess. Not just beans on toast, but life glazed to a turn with an apple in its mouth, and this is what Maggie Smith is given to give us. We feed on finery or we starve.

Bennett has written a Chekhovian comedy, not one of those wonderful long tragedies he called comedies, but one of his short wonderful plays, such as The Proposal. All we have is human response to the universal need for a pig. What could be funnier!

Oh, yes, funnier in a different way. But not funnier in this particularly human way. Comedy Of Character. Don’t starve yourself. Rationing is over. See it.

 
 
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