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Archive for the ‘Farce’ 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 General

02 May

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will that do it? If not, shoot me.

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

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

 

L’Age d’Or

05 Feb

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

★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give me Jean Renoir.

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

 

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

 

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.

 

Pink Flamingos

06 Dec

Pink Flamingos – directed by John Waters. Farce. Competition for the title of Filthiest In The World leads to crimes and misdemeanors. 93 minutes Color 1979.

★★★★★

Faultless fault – that is the Waters style, here and elsewhere. The professionalism of his pictures establishes its rock-hard foundation on the amateurism which Waters insists upon and which determines their tone, style, execution.

Since amateurism never changes from age to age, since from the beginning of time to the end of the world, it is always the same, his pictures partake of a perfect human eternality. Humans being amateurs always look like this, do this, give this impression. This is not to say his films are deathless, for they die the deaths of a thousand embarrassments, humiliations, and shames as they stumble through to their denouements, but they do partake of a certain immortality – if immortality can be in any way defined by the term “a certain”, which suggests that their immortality is not absolute – when the one thing immortality always is is absolute, since in dying it never dies. So let us say it: John Wates Pink Flamingos is immortal – as immortal as a tomb mistaken as a sanctuary.

This deliberate amateurism places his films beyond defamation and beyond criticism. For they are themselves defamatory.  Defamation breathes in them. And as to criticism, who would rise to the bait? Five stars are always to be scattered upon their prone forms. The acting style is as follows: every actor shouts his lines at every other actor always and always on the same identical level of SHOUT. One cannot criticize this. There is no performance level to address. One can merely report.

In the sense that the individual speeches go on too long and repeat, all one can say is that the actors and the writer are supposed neither to know any better nor do any better. That is the treatment.

As to Divine, criticism – in the sense of particular sensitivity to the rubric of acting on the part of a critic to the part the actor plays – this would be senseless. For Divine has stepped aside from gender. Divine is a creature of no gender at all, neither male nor female, and so is responsible to no particular sexual style or urge. She is Liberty Hall. She is human in every particular, because in none. There is nothing to be said in her favor; there is nothing to be said against her. Indeed, the only thing to be said about her is to notice the only trait which seems natural to her, amid so many that are not– her eye make-up, her flamboyancy – natural to anyone – is her human kindness. She is Pleasure Island. But the trip she is does not turn her into a braying jackass. Indeed, her kindness is so generous, so forceful, so unavoidable, that it seems to make her a star.

“Seems to?”

No.

Does make her a star, and a deserving one she is, too.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: MUSICAL COMEDY MANNERED, Farce, PENIS COMEDY

 

A Dirty Shame

16 Nov

A Dirty Shame – directed by John Waters. Farce. The prudes against the profligates in a war of the sexing. 89 minutes. Color 2004.

★★

And so it is!

For if you are not, as I am not, familiar with the works of John Waters on film (I much admire his writings and his interviews), you would have to scratch your head in dumb wonderment as to how this galumfrey might have issued from his rare mind.

What it looks like is a beautifully paced picture with no consistency of style, which is all right, but its also shows no consistency in the quality of the performing of it.

The main thrust is camp. Or supposed camp – camp being the mockery of emotion by the person to whom it is at that moment happening. Chris Isaak as the priapan Pan does well with the style, as do Selma Blair and Johnny Knoxville.

However, Susan Shepherd and Mink Stole, as raging, raving puritans, play in a vein of positive realism, and are a little bit better at it than are the others are at camp – camp, which takes the physical finesse of a Betty Grable. So that’s two styles.

The third style is that of Tracey Ullman, who is the focal figure of this farce, but who seems to be playing in the vein of silent film gesticulation. She throws herself around. She is never as a loss for a grimace. At this she is not very good. She never seems lodged in either her prude or her profligate. She mugs like a chimpanzee but, oh, I wish she were as funny as a chimpanzee. It’s a case of an actor dancing Swan Lake on one roller skate. It’s too outlandish at bottom to be enjoyable. Your sense of humor is swallowed by your pity for the performer and terror at her failing of invention.

We do have in this piece a custard pie in the face for SAA and other sexual recovery groups. We do have everyone in town running around screwing, but no sense that anyone actually does screw. It is as though the entire film, in its desire to deride and overthrow priggishness, is more sexually repressed than the icecap. To laugh at sex addiction as a treatable condition is, after all, a sacrilege against the robust sexual health 12 Step Sexual Recovery Programs strive for.

One senses a certain monkishness in the director, no?

For the corollary of sex for everyone is sex for no one. Sex meaning in these frames the same as going to the bathroom in any toilet you find. As though sexual need were impartial. If it is, it is therefore zero.

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

To Rome, With Love

04 Jul

To Rome, With Love –– written and directed by Woody Allen. Farce. Four groups of people find themselves out of their depths in the Eternal City. 102 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

As the fingers of two hands folded together mesh but do not meld together, these four adventures interlace in the narrative of this film, but never coincide, except in the satisfaction their juxtaposition affords, which is the same natural satisfaction that folded hands afford. It’s farce: speed is everything, and so are doors. As each door slams on one group it breezes open unapologetically on another. The young American girl and the young Roman lawyer, engaged to be married, meet her parents, Woody Allen and Judy Davis, and their parents meet his parents, and before you know it, bingo, the father of the one is rushing the father of the other, a mortician, into a major operatic career, although the poor man is only able to sing in the shower. Jesse Eisenberg and his live-in host her trivial titillating best friend, Ellen Page, and he tumbles for the minx, although she is clearly out his class.  A young married couple arrive from the country for his interview for a big-city job, and fall foul of a lady of the afternoon, Penélope Cruz, who through force of circumstance must double as his wife at an interview with his future bosses, every one of whom is her client. All this while the young man’s wife falls into the toils of a plump movie star who offers her once-in-a-lifetime sexual possibilities. She succumbs, I am glad to say, and husband and wife come out of their escapades with useful sexual educations. A nonentity clerk, Roberto Benigni is extracted from his little family into inexplicable notoriety, which he at first resists, then embraces wildly. These four cards are played for our amusement by Allen who plays them as playful playthings. Cruz is, of course, once again hilarious in the Sophia Loren role. The movie star, played by Antonio Albanese is superbly funny as the stout sex symbol matinee idol. Ellen Page is Jim Dandy as the girl who comes to dinner and eats the host. But the entire film is stolen by Her Greatness Judy Davis from whom one cannot wrench one’s eyes. She is the actress of actresses, and Allen wisely keeps her on camera in every scene with him that he can. Her role is purely responsive to him, but you never watch him for a minute while she is there, because in never attempting to steal a scene she steals all of them, and because she is the real thing and, of course, Allen isn’t. What he is is a cartoon. Sadsack is the name of the cartoon. As an actor Allen does what he has always done, be hapless and paranoid, and he is very funny, but he is also annoying and never appealing ever, and she is. He is always appealing and so he is never appealing. His comedy as a director is not visual, but verbal and histrionic. Which means he cannot tell a story with a camera. But when a camera is on, the sound track records some very good jokes and some very telling human behavior. And that is enough for us and all we need to deserve as an audience very used to this national monument with its pigeon droppings, Woody Allen. Alec Baldwin appears as the useless sexual wisdom of the future and the past, playing Jiminy Cricket to Eisenberg’s sexual Pinocchio. He and Judy Davis define the difference between humor and Woody Allen who defines comedy. A movie can satisfy without a belly laugh because it has humor. But a comedy, with all its belly laughs, cannot satisfy if it does not have humor. To Rome, With Love has both. When it was over, we all applauded. I would send Woody Allen one perfect rose, except I think it more proper to send him a huge cellophane-wrapped basket of fresh fruit as a bon voyage gratitude to his continued voyage before us.

 

 

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.

 

It’s Complicated

08 Nov

It’s Complicated — Directed and Written by Nancy Meyers. Sex Farce. A divorced couple gets it on. 120 minutes Color 2009

* * *

Meryl Streep is a great actress, but she is not a Leading Lady. What she is is a Character Lead. Cast as a Leading Lady, as she sometimes is and as she is here, she cannot carry a film. She gives all that smiles and laughter have to offer to the part she plays here, but the soul of her gift is not in it. To be a leading lady one has to have a certain material substance, even a quirk of voice will do, such as Jean Arthur had, such as Katherine Hepburn had. One has to be a personality actress such as Diane Keaton or Goldie Hawn are. Meryl Streep’s affect is milky, wanting in strength, she has no defining attributes. So when she plays a Leading Lady character she is playing something close to her own everyday voice, and it lacks interest, bite, depth, intensity, and color. She’s just not that sort of actor, no fault of her own. Very few actors can do both sorts of things. Leonardo de Caprio is another example of this same problem. Cast him in Blood Diamond or Celebrity and you really have something. Cast him in Aviator and you have nothing. The problem of the picture, however, does not lie solely with Meryl Streep. The piece begins as a sophisticated, witty, sex farce, a la Ernst Lubitsch, well-written and well set up. But as soon as the children appear prominent it collapses. It is not the actors’ fault. They are simply not needed as story elements, and the writing of their parts is feeble, causing the playing of the parts to be also feeble. The more they are given in the film the less the film becomes. This is partly because the writer conceives them as TV sitcom children, and partly because she flushes the story down with them in an excrement of sentimentality. Alex Baldwin, as Meryl Streep observes, commandeers the film away from Steve Martin, but that is a directorial and writing error. Baldwin is very funny as the ex-husband, but once it becomes obvious that he is grossly, if endearingly, self-involved the writing of his part becomes repetitious and Streep’s becomes improbable, since her character does not act on the obvious. The writing of the Steve Martin character is flaccid; since he is supposed to be the good, sensitive guy, the part is stripped of wit, and Martin is reduced to clowning in the shadows. As the film declines in interest, what with the improbable behavior of the children and the lack of competitive edge for Martin, it also collapses on the interesting matter of this post-marital affair, reducing the escapade into exploring rationales for it. Streep is not enlarged by the affair once it is over. She is deflated by it. It is an error in judgment all around. The problem is not with the direction or filming here, which is frequently interesting. The problem is that the director needed a co-writer as a corrective to keep what begins in generating our delight from ending up generating our disgust.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

The Marriage Circle

09 May

The Marriage Circle  — Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Farce. Her husband doesn’t love her so she sets her sights on her best friend’s. 85 minutes Silent Black and White 1924.

* * * *

In 1931 Samson Raphaelson was to write the remake of this shaky farce into Lubitsch’s enchanting musical with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald , and in 1950 Max Ophuls was to perpetuate his Lubitsch style of Viennese sex farce in La Ronde. Here the style is not quite mature because the film is silent and silence lends seriousness in a sex comedy to what it is important to understand is meant to be silly. Or perhaps his leading lady, the beauteous Florence Vidor, had insufficient self-security to have room for a sense of humor. No, that’s not fair: she plays the part perfectly and is perfectly cast as a lady. Or perhaps his leading man Monte Blue was too much of a rube to be fooling around in a tuxedo among the haute bourgeoisie. Certainly Blue is an odd piece of casting for a leading man. He has a face like a ram’s bottom and a talent for falling into violent giggles which, while endearing, is always out of place, as though it were an acting trick ordered in like a performing seal dragged into a wedding. No, that’s not fair either. The part is that of a feckless jackass; you can’t blame him; that’s what it is, and that’s the way he plays it. For the real problem lies with the script, which does not hold the water of probability sufficiently to retain our patience through all the shenanigans. On the other hand we have Marie Prevost as the calculating hussy whose machinations are cause of all the plot, the sub plot, the counter plot, the family plot, and the burial plot. She twists her slinky lips so, that it is no wonder no one wants to kiss them. But she’s a good actress too. She brings a sexual daring to the part that drives the whole thing along right smartly. Her husband is, however, the only one of the principals who belongs in this sort of material and, unlike the others, in no place else, the great Adolph Menjou, an actor of rare sophistication and a talent for wearing evening clothes that is incomparable. He is the only actor of the bunch who survived into talking pictures, in which he played principal parts for years, consummated as his turn in Man On A Tightrope in which Elia Kazan causes this actor, many times voted The Best Dressed Man In America, to lie on a couch calculating destruction and covered with the ash of the cigarette he is smoking. Here his playing the confrontation scene with Blue is priceless. He works with a hat, a cigarette, gloves, and cane, and, aged 34, eyes that know everything. It’s worth the price of admission; it’s worth a lot more than that, in fact. It’s a scene which every young actor in the world might observe and learn from.

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The Merry Wives Of Windsor

01 Mar

The Merry Wives Of Windsor – Directed by David Hugh Jones – Low Oomedy. A fat old reprobate tries to seduce two wealthy wives. 120 minutes Color 1982

* * * * *

Here we have one of the greatest recordings of a Shakespeare play ever set down. And yet it is of one of WS’s thorniest scripts. Like Henry V it is tortured with a melange of voices in Latin, French, Welsh, and German, making the script monstrously hard to parse! But it wasn’t written to be read, but to be acted, and WS understood the rubric of acting like no one else, so that in the bodies of the actors it comes alive here, understandable here, priceless here. The sixteen shifts of mood in one character’s speech on the page are gibberish, but in the craft of the great Elizabeth Spriggs as Mistress Quickly, we have a masterpiece of human truth and humor, a performance of genius. Each minor character here is enacted, embodied, played to full measure. They are characters with no history, for their history lives in the exact present entirely. The piece is a proving ground for its players, led by Judy Davis’ Mistress Ford and Ben Kingsley as her frenetically jealous hubby Frank Ford. Prunella Scales’ performance as Mistress Page gets lost and monotonized behind its regionalism, but its energy is right on the money. Richard Griffiths we have recently seen in The History Boys plays Falstaff. Now this was made 25 years ago, so our actors are in their twenties (i.e. Alan Bennett) , and perhaps Griffiths is too young for the part in the sense that he wants merriment. TMMOW is a play, unlike Henry IV 1 & 2. In those plays Falstaff is driven by a lust for zest; here he is driven by a lust for money through lust, and it’s not that he is just too old and too fat, which he is, he is also just too ridiculous to score. This complicates the part, and Griffiths makes him a little more downbeat than one wants him to be. A little less of an unmoored balloon. A little less of a roguish liar. Still, when he thinks he has finally achieved the bosom of Mistress Ford, and utters the jubilant line, “Let the sky rain potatoes!” we are in a world of comedy unparalleled. The odd attic setting and the inn and the house of Ford and Caius and all the costumes and wigs and make-up are fabulous. If you love Shakespeare or want to learn to love Shakespeare, dive in.

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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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Roxy Hart

04 Feb

Roxy Hart – Directed by WIlliamWellman – Comedy. A cunning, dim-brained doxy tries to get away with murder while everyone else in the country is getting away with murder. 75 minutes black and white 1942.

* * * * *

One of the funniest movies I have ever seen: an out-and-out American farce on American promotion, it’s 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, Spring Byington, Sarah Algood, William Frawley, and George Montgomery. The piece is so well-written 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’s well aided in the editing to tell the story smartly. As to the actors, nobody misses a trick, either. 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 a musical called Chicago, which can be credited for its big energy and color, plus the sacred bosom of Queen Latifa singing “You Gotta See Momma Every Night Or You Can’t See Momma At All”, but the delights of Roxy Hart itself, 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. They’re getting away with it — the Civic Conscience reduced to a political cartoon in the papers. So here — except the cartoon goes on for over an hour. Rent it. Sit back in your seat. Ya gotta love it. Ya just gotta!

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Pushing Daisies

03 Feb

Pushing Daisies – Comedy Detective Fantasy TV series about a pie-maker who has the ability to brings dead things back to life with his touch, a talent not without its drawbacks. Color 2007 – 2009

Nominated for 57 awards and winning 18 of them, including 7 Emmys, it establishes itself brilliant in all departments at once. Set up as amusingly symmetrical as an 18th Century royal French garden it plays itself out in the form of a 16th Century English royal garden maze. The coloration of sets and costumes alone is worth a statue or at least a Red Garter; the perfection of reds vanishing into reds, and greens into greens; the idea of everyone at a cocktail party wearing the same color dress of the same material; the flabbergastering shirts of the males; the decor of the four square two dimensionality of the pie shop; the dead centering of characters on camera. Enough of that. Passing from all that rose-petal scattering of kudos on to those petals to be tossed at the writers whose skill knows no end, as they give us a feast of red herrings every time, mysteries not for the watcher to solve, but to giggle at, dialogue that demands the most fluid and rigorous of stylization of performance. The splendour of the production which looks like it cost billions in its super attention to details, such that, like Pinocchio, one could go back and discover them more and more at each viewing, and with more relish each time. The bountifully gifted Swoosie Kurtz as the swilling sister with the bling eye patch, and the inestimable Ellen Greene as her romantical sister; the stupendous Chi McBride as Cod; the superlatively gifted Kristin Chenoweth as the miniature Olive, gaga and at once pert; the appealing Anna Friel as the open-faced love interest of His Greatness Lee Pace who plays the pie maker to die for. And roses roses all the way to whomever established the style for all this. Well, let praise have no end, and so ******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

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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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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 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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The Silencers

06 Dec

The Silencers – directed by Phil Carlson – a parody of Bond. — 102 minutes color 1968

* *

Do you find garage doors fascinating? Like them this film is a gadget, not without its grumbling use and occasional comical breakdown. And it itself is full of gadgets, huger doors, fatter death-rays, wilder amo. If you fire this revolver it will shoot you in the chest, if you press that button you will find a naked tomato in your bathtub. Of course, the hugest garage doors are the false eyelashes of the babes. They come crashing down, dislodging civilizations. Step back from them. Dean Martin certainly does. He is wise and unperturbed by the sexual affront they present and the cavernous décolletage they awn. Ah, for the peace of refusal which seems to be his, as he plays in this, the first of the Matt Helm mock-Bond series. Nowadays we don’t have leading ladies such as Stella Stevens whose hair is dyed Irish Setter and held in place with Gorilla Glue. She’s Helm’s fumbling side-kick, called that, I suppose, because she keeps kicking him in the side. Martin is some kind of easy dish, like spaghetti, pleasant and not without nourishment, easy to take. He never asks to be liked and so is likeable for it. He strolls through bullet-hails with benificent nonchalance. Daliah Lavi presents hair piled on the back of her head as though concealing a rocket launcher. Dozens of ladies, equally coiffed and lashed throw themselves at Martin’s head, but he retains his incredulity as to the animal fervor they advertise, as any normal intact male would. Their ferocious armamentarium promises pornography, that is to say, unearned nudity. And, since the film begins with a series of strip-teases, we are able to sustain no virginal delusions about what is to follow. Even when the miraculous Cyd Charisse performs. Two numbers are given her, miserably choreographed, vilely costumed, but her dignity, her alacritous genius, and the natural placement of her hip-bones conquer the drooling mess.

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A Yank In The RAF

24 Oct

A Yank In The RAF – directed by Henry King – a WW II romantic adventure story in which an American joins up in England, competes for a pretty dame, and saves the day on a bombing mission in Europe. 98 minutes black and white 1941.

* * * *

The power of the personalities of Betty Grable and Tyrone Power makes for romantic suspense and super entertainment. He plays a rogue with a roving eye, and she plays, as she often did in films, the lady of talent who is a sucker for a cad. They’re both up against Bruce Cabot the actor whose eyes are as evil as his moustaches. Because it was made during the war and is a bit of a hodgepodge, the picture is endearing and fun. Betty Grable was the star I most identified with at the time. Like me, she was open, blond, big hearted, hard working, and not loved as much as she deserved. Power is especially fine as the gum-chewing flirt, a different take for the actor who in that era was the most beautiful male in films. Here he’s a rascal who never takes it back. Usually cast in romance, action-adventure, or drama, he’s up for the necessary finesses and impenitence of light comedy. I wish he had done more of them.

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RED

23 Oct

RED –– directed by Robert Schwentke–– an action spy comedy adventure in which a bouquet of experienced old-time CIA assassins come out of retirement when a past score starts to be settled against them. Color 2010

* * * * *

Ernest Borgnine at 94 is in fine form here as the keeper of the very most secret of all the files in the world. And our acting staff is all over 50, or is it 60? ––  and, like him, at the top of their game. Bruce Willis, always an excellent actor in the right roll, is particularly droll in registering the humor of the situation. Morgan Freeman plays the old reliable, and Helen Mirren and Brian Cox play former lovers rekindling their oomph amid the flames and firestorms of the genre. What makes the piece worth seeing is its unfolding until those firestorms start, at which time the wit stops, for it is impossible to be quite jolly and lighthearted while the Uzis fire. Or whatever that weaponry is. And besides the story then departs the arena of the possible and dashes into the arena of the improbable, and from that quickly seethes into the arena of the impossible, when Richard Dryfuss enters the picture and introduces the Vice-President of the United States as the man behind the man behind the man behind the woman, whom Rebecca Pidgeon plays with her usually chilling affect. It’s more than the comedy will bear. For the film is one step away in its fine early stages from an Abbott and Costello film, with Freeman, Willis, and Mirren all playing Costello and John Malkovich playing Abbott, the only serious lunatic in the bunch. Mary-Louse Parker is particular responsive and funny in the Dorothy Lamour role –– or is that from another series entirely? Oh, yes. But what then? She could have been in an Abbott and Costello film, couldn’t she? The piece is well written in its early stages of the preposterous, by which I mean in terms of narrative and dialogue and editing, and very well told by the director. It is when it devolves into the preposterously preposterous that expectations drop. But, never mind. Just expect them to.

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Scared Stiff

29 Jul
Scared Stiff — directed by George Marshall — an heiress to a haunted Cuban castle is threatened on all sides and warned to stay away. Martin and Lewis ride to her rescue — black and white 1953
* * *
A remake of Ghost Breakers of 1940, and directed by the same director, and evidently using the same great sets for the castle, and some of the original takes, this Martin and Lewis version takes a great deal more effort, because, in the original, Bob Hope played both parts  —  and so the film took a good deal less time. In this version there is too much horsing around en route to Cuba. And in the original, we had that game and merry minx Paulette Goddard braving all, whereas here we have Lizabeth Scott left over from a passing noir, and she wants pep. It’s not her fault. She was wired slow. Goodness knows she throws herself into it, and does not shame herself, but it is interesting to see how different a script is required with such a change of leading lady. Goddard strips to a bra and panties at one point, and it’s choice, whereas, while Scott is beautifully appareled by Edith Head, Scott does not show her, actually excellent, figure until the swimming scene — the one where Paulette held her clothes above the water while she side-stroked to the deadly castle. Anyhow, Lewis wears on one. He plays his usual frenetic baby, and. while he is inventive and adept and agile in his awkwardness, we see is range of responses is limited because of the number of times he is asked to repeat them. We have wonderful cobwebs, though, and numerous spooks and suspects. We lack the devastatingly dangerous young Anthony Quinn as the twins — and the presence of Martin and Lewis routines, log-jammed with the already frenetic Carmen Miranda, do not supply the deficiency, despite all we hoped for Lewis’s imitation of her in CM costume. Dean Martin remains a mensch, throughout — easy, attractive, and kind. A great draw.

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