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Archive for the ‘ROMANTIC COMEDY’ Category

The Book Club

03 Jun

The Book Club – directed by Bill Holderman. Romantic Comedy. 144 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: Four older ladies decide to reinvent their sex lives.
~
I loved fucking in the days when I did it, and it loved me. But this movie is not about men fucking, but about women not fucking and wishing they were and doing something about it. The jokes are vaginal and good and ready. The four actresses who deliver them are good at that and very funny – or they would not be good at at that. All of them miss the hardon no longer inside them. None of them miss love.

The women seek fucking. They find men. But the men seek love. And each lady makes her way by meeting up with what she did not dare to expect or risk if she came upon it: The Palace Of Perils Of Love.

With The Amusement Park Of Fornication thrown in.

They all start on their adventure by reading a book called Fifty Shades Of Grey. I have not read it, but evidently it bestirs these ladies to revisit their sex lives.

They are played by actresses whose ages vary from Jane Fonda aged 80, Candice Bergen and Diane Keaton aged 72, and Mary Steenburgen aged 65. But they are all presented as ageless beauties of that uncertain age called “contemporaries.”

Although we are not told that, the men they meet are younger — and, unlike the actresses, are unrecognizable, for, while all of the actresses have been before us on the silver screen in leading roles in recent movies, none of the men have – so I see the men as strangers – as does each woman as she meets him.

Andy Garcia plays a multimillionaire pilot whom recent widow Diane Keaton must fly from in order not to offend her grown children. Don Johnson, who has no known income (as befits his established screen persona), woes ice-queen Jane Fonda. And Federal Court Judge Candice Bergen assumes nothing good will come of her dinner date with the accountant played by the diminutive Richard Dreyfus.

The recipe is for a Hollywood Romantic Comedy. It is the sort of film that, pre-Doris Day, did not exist, nor did it exist in the ‘30s and would never have been made with older actresses. Nor did it exist when these four actresses themselves were young. But these four have aged before us through middle age and now into antiquity in major roles such as none of the male stars opposite them have been able to do. With the pleasing result that Jane Fonda aged 80 mates with Don Johnson aged 68, a fox devouring a wolf.

Such a film must stick to the Hollywood Romantic Comedy recipe laid down for our guidance. Which means, for the story to end happily, which it must do, its incidents must surprise our expectation into suspense.

It also must have witty dialogue.

And it must have comic genius in the playing.

It does not have to be true to life in any of this. Verisimilitude is not an ingredient in the recipe for Hollywood Romantic Comedy, ever. And crassness and coarseness are incensorable.

How does The Book Club rank as Hollywood Romantic Comedy?

Its plot twists are often fun enough to be adorable.

The wit of its dialogue is particularly fetching when the four ladies gather together to express it.

And the comic genius of the four actresses is at a peak.

Mary Steenburgen is endearing. Her genius is simplest: her comedy depends upon her being always The Foolish Virgin.

Jane Fonda’s comedy depends not upon her sense of humor (she perhaps has none) but upon the ability of her acerbic tongue to wring the most bite from her lines. Her persona on screen is, as usual, She Who Stands Alone.

The only actress of the four who actually has a sense of humor is Candice Bergen. Which means her sense of humor comes from including herself in every joke she makes. She’s the funniest of all of them. And she is given the right lines to say and the right things to do. (Check her out with the ice cream.) She is marvelous. Her underlying screen persona is her tried-and-true I Cannot Believe I Ended Up Here.

Diane Keaton’s comedy does not depend on a sense of humor, does not depend on what she is as a human in a chair, as does Candice Bergen’s, but on what she in motion does. She is a sort of Garbo of physical comedy, and, like Garbo’s, her acting depends upon a display of inner volatility refreshing muscular and emotional movement. As an actress, she is highly technical, perfectly planned, a through-instrument. Her comedy-central mind probably lies somewhere near her sacroiliac. Her persona is, as before, Paranoid. Her paranoia makes her readable. Without it, as an actress, she is opaque.

But she is not so here. And one of the great acting passages in film history is achieved in The Book Club by Diane Keaton in a scene I shall not destroy by preparing you for it.

Safeway sheet-cakes have certain virtues, one of which is that they sometimes taste better than they look. The Hollywood Romantic Comedy invariably calls for too much icing – you just have to swallow that. But the costumes of The Book Club by Shay Cunliffe are rare in their discretion and aptness. The director, Bill Holderman, co-wrote and co-produced The Book Club, and I can see no fault in his execution of the form.

Hollywood Romantic Comedy I generally spurn. But I love these four ladies. I’ve loved them for years. I’m glad they’re working. And comedy is where all four of them belong! I’m glad to be in front of them, still watching, still receiving such pleasure watching.

 

The Big Sick

24 Sep

The Big Sick – directed by Michael Showalter. Romantic Comedy. 124 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: A couple fall into bed and in love, but to move love forward challenges ancient family, racial, religious, national, and medical customs.
~
I turned away from it. The great American actress Holly Hunter was in it, but its mis-title, The Big sick, repelled me, and I forgot to go. Still, it stayed at a local picture palaces month after month. And friends kept whispering The Big Sick in my secret ear. I went.

The word romance denotes, between hero and heroine, a distance – impossible to best – swim, plumb, sail, or drain – a distance the size of an ocean. Pornography does not even connote the distance of a dewdrop; no difficulty obtrudes for one member to attain the other, which is why pornography is never dramatic.

In this case, the ocean is unimaginably huge. It is the distance between the mating of a Pakistani man with a woman who is not Pakistani, a distance forced upon him by the man’s mother, who insists he make an arranged marriage and to a Muslim, and to this end she invites beautiful Pakistani maidens to family dinners to meet him.

Not only is he not interested in an arranged marriage or being a Muslim, he is in love with a blond. And not only that, he is a standup comedian making small coin in small bôites and uber-driving for rent.

The rose quivering at the difficult-to-attain center of Romance is conjugal bliss. A thousand hedges surround this rose – hedges of thorn, hedges unleapable, too thick to shear, too complex to un-maze. In this romance, no hedges: they sack-out at once.

What makes this different from porn or a bachelor flick is that both lovers are different from anyone else and matched in their wits. He is a droll chap; she is a kooky blond. The calm with which they speak unexpected truth to one another forms the basis for the comedy style of their romance, and one sits with them amused and charmed by their candor, authenticity, and valor. As each of these arise in them as natural as roses, we know in our hearts it’s because they each give rise to each in each other.

The young woman falls ill. Enter Holly Hunter – all mother – and her father, a lug played by Ray Romano, a character the actor unfolds and unfolds as the story progresses. Zoe Kazan plays the kooky blond, perfectly cast. And so is everyone else. And you know this because the level of the writing is so particular to each of them in scenes never hackneyed, even in scenes required.

The hero is played by Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistani stand-up comedian to whom it actually happened, and written by him too and by his wife Emily V. Gordon, to whom it also happened.

Nanjiani’s energy as an actor is low key; he never laughs at his own jokes; even appears not to know he is making them so natural to him is their source. This steadiness leaves him open to his human responses, and we witness his character, not so much as a good stand-up comedian’s creation as a good actor’s.

This balance between steady and volatile energy in mated couples is customary in casting actors. The volatile Kazan opposite the steady Nanjiani. The volatile Hunter opposite the steady Romano.

My particular pleasure was to watch the great Holly Hunter in full spate. She’s an actress of rash, but choice choices. Watch her make an entrance into an apartment, you don’t know whose. Hunter grabs a black overcoat coat to sniff. That tells us she recognizes it as her daughter’s. Because she prizes her child, we immediately know we are in her daughter’s apartment and that she does prize her child – all, in a split second.

She is an actress who never stops acting. Nothing goes unrealized. Her responses are never store-bought. They are always tailored to the moment as she lives it. Watch her eyes. She has mother-eyes. She registers as a mother, not as an actor looking to impress with “feeling,” but as someone who knows what a mother knows. She arrives into the movie with that mother-reserve already alive within her. Perfectly cast: volatile mother of a volatile daughter.

I wish people would write more movies for her. I wish she had parts as good as this one to play. I wish the same for every actor in this film. But, since I doubt that will happen to any of them, be sure to see them in these roles while the opportunity presents.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Holly Hunter, ROMANTIC COMEDY

 

The Hundred Foot Journey

18 Nov

The Hundred-Foot Journey – directed by Lasse Halleström. Gastronomical Romance. 122 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: The melding of classic French and classic East Indian cultures and cuisines unites four lovers of food and one another.

~

Do not waste the 35 seconds it takes to read the following.

The personalities of a French country restaurant serving classic cuisine do battle with the spices and innovation that waft over from across the street.

Helen Mirren has created one of her not infrequent masterpieces of human character in Madam Mallory, the restauranteuse. She can’t stand that her Michelin star is 100 feet across the road where an Indian family has moved to a village in France to open their Indian restaurant there. The young master-chef is played by handsome dish Manish Dayal. The luminous light of India shines from beneath his rich, honest brows. Om Puri is the paterfamilias of the six young Indians who build the restaurant from scratch. He is an actor of triple subtexts, delicious to watch and enjoy. And the sou-chef from Mirren’s kitchen who helps and falls in love with Manish Dayal is played by the angel-food actress Charlotte Le Bon.

Do not read farther. You have been forbidden. Your job is mouth watering. Your job is appreciation of your own good taste. Your job is to draw up your chair and feast on this movie.

If Helen Mirren at her best were not enough, the heart-warming story would be. And if that were not enough, the Steven Spielberg production would be.

And if you know how it will end from the very beginning, so what? The virtue of a ritual lies not in the novelty of its form but in the freshness of the truth it contains.

What are you sitting there for? Get to your Netflix, nip down to your library and take out the DVD. It’s less than a 100-foot journey to your own delight.

 

 

 

 

Hello, My Name Is Doris

30 Apr

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

★★★

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

~

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

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

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

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

Pushing Tin

03 Oct

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

★★★★★

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

~

Here is a near masterpiece.

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

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

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

The second protagonist is played by Billy Bob Thornton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

And So It Goes …

04 Apr

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

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!

 

 

Vivacious Lady

25 Jan

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

31 Mar

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Strawberry Blond

21 Nov

Strawberry Blond – directed by Raoul Walsh. Period Comedy. A bad-tempered dentist falls afoul of a beautiful woman and a con man. 97 minutes Black and White 1941.

★★★★★

A Whitman’s Sampler of 1910: beer halls, high button shoes, brass bands, barber shop quartets, and Irish wildness.

Perc Westmore did Rita Hayworth’s makeup and discovered that her hair was so abundant that she could never wear a wig. But he dyed it to make her the title character, which she carries off beautifully. This is her second A-film, having just made Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings. She is very young. She is flabbergasteringly beautiful. She is perfect as the phony flirt and even better as the rolling-pin wife of Jack Carson.

James Wong Howe upgraded every film he filmed, and you can see it in this one, which otherwise might have been a Fox Betty Grable musical. He colors scenes with shadow, the play of leaves across a face, and this gives them a romantic importance which they actually inherently possess and need.

For as with all of Raoul Walsh’s films, the love story grounds the project. Walsh tells the story imaginatively and crisply, as usual, and his actors are on the mark – free and liberal in their choices. It is entirely without the crass Irish sentimentality you find in Ford and McCrary. Walsh was great with actors. He did not watch their scenes; he only listened to them off-stage. The great stage director George S. Kaufman did the same. If the truth was heard, it would be seen. The result is the actors shine. And this is Walsh’s favorite picture.

It is James Cagney’s film, and he abounds; scarcely a scene he does not appear in. He was after a change of pace, and balked fiercely about doing this, until Hal Wallis and Jack Warner offered him 10% of the profits and brought in the Epstein brothers to rewrite it. It had been a stage play and then Gary Cooper’s only flop. They switched the milieu from the Midwest to New York City, where, of course, Cagney belonged.

Cagney is a curious actor. He acting personality is one who wants to be ahead of the game. This means that he is not actually a responsive actor, since he always has his fear for the possible in mind. His definition of acting was: “Look ‘em in the eye and tell the truth” – which is fine if you are a machine gun. So I find it hard to acknowledge his talent; I do but I find it hard to. His headlong “personality” worked well here, since he plays a man consistently duped. He was high-waisted, long legged, and short, and carried himself  step-dancing tall at all times, which is nice. His scenes with Alan Hale as his Irish blarney drunk father are scrumptious. Hale is just terrific in the part, and Cagney plays along with him almost bursting out laughing at Hale’s inventiveness.

But it is Olivia de Havilland who carries the film. She is full of mischief, sweet, pretty, and real. Raoul Walsh’s acknowledgement of the truth of her love is the waking moment always. James Wong Howe films her like the bonbon she is, full of flavor, rich, molded to a shape, and toothsome. The passage of feeling across her face validates this charming comedy, and carries its value as an entertainment right to this day.

 

Love Affair

18 Nov

Love Affair – directed by Leo McCarey. High Comedy. A career woman and a philanderer meet on an ocean liner and agree to meet again in 6 months time, but their plan is run over by a motorcar. 88 minutes Black and White 1939.

★★★★★

Charles Boyer was a lush screen lover. He had wonderful drooping eyelids – bedroom eyes they were called in those days – a sensual mouth, and a deep French accent. Yum! Monsieur Boyer was also a marvelous actor, and you can see behind the surface charms lie even greater charms – innocence, affection, loyalty, and the tact of true fun.

Irene Dunne comes to this from success as the ingénue Magnolia in Showboat, which she had done on the stage, and which she had just completed aged 38. Here she is 41. She is fabulous, and sings Plaisir d’amour and Wishing. She never loses her glad eye. She never forgives because she never blames.

And here we see something the old Hollywood could do nowhere better, which was to star actors of a certain age as though they had no age at all.

So these two over 40 stars come together in a story which will subsequently be re-made, also by McCarey, with Deborah Kerr, aged 36, and Cary Grant, aged 53. And again with Warren Beatty, aged 57, and Annette Bening, aged 36. Each version is worse than the one before, indeed, each one is atrocious, but the first one, this one, which is first class, perhaps because it was written by Donald Ogden Stewart and perhaps, if what David Thomson says is so, because McCarey allowed the two stars to improvise their scenes.

Boyer didn’t like it, but fell in with it. Dunne was excellent at it, and it is her performance which carries the film once it turns solemn, for she does what Cary Grant later did, she plays the entire predicament of her injury as further grace for light comedy. She resists pathos like the plague. Boyer on the other hand has one of the great screen moments when he realizes what has happened to her. Watch for it; watch it happen to him.

This is comedy of faces. This is high comedy. This is comedy of the most life-loving fun. You may call it sophisticated, but it is also the comedy of two people experienced enough to suppose they would neither of them find anyone to be married with, which accounts for the real background of the story and the justification for their age, which Rudolph Maté films understandingly.

The dread, minute Maria Ouspenskaya plays the part of the grandmother, and she is not bad for once. It was finally played by Katharine Hepburn in her last film role. But the grandmother of them all is Catharine Nesbitt in the Grant/Kerr version.

McCarey’s drunken sentimentality over those singing children may give you the dry gripes, but isn’t it strange that material that, in its remakes, would disgust you, you should find in this, its first and original version, such charm, such delight, such perfection.

It’s the actors, of course. Boyer and Dunne. Don’t miss it.

 

 

Enough Said

29 Sep

Enough Said – directed by Nicole Holofcener. Romance. Their children about to start college, two middle aged folks try to make a match of themselves, but complications attack. 92 minutes Color 2013.

★★★

This is not a chick-flick. It is a hen-flick. It is a movie for an audience of the-past-middle-age. Indeed, the matinée audience I saw it with was packed, and they were all seniors or approaching that without-hope-of-sex moment or past it.

Why was it packed? Perhaps they were a senior club on an outing, I should have asked. Perhaps because Julia Louis-Dryfus had such a hold over a loyal public as a TV actor for so many years? Or because of her combination with James Gandolfini, who also held sway on the tube? Did it get good reviews? I never read its reviews. I am ignorant. I don’t have an answer.

Certainly the script is no higher than Situation Romance. People say things they would never say and behave as they never would. And then, to look human, wear the wrong clothes for a scene or two. The writing is moribund.

Certainly Julia Louis-Dreyfus is frozen in TV acting technique, and, as it is her story, we see a lot of her, and, of course, she’s very nice, and her toothy smile is ever-present, and she can act, in that debased mode more than adequately, but who wants to see it, really? Everything she is asked to do we are asked to find funny, even before it happens. No actress worth her salt, and Dryfus is worth more than a few shakers full, can survive such prefabrication in a full-length motion picture.

James Gandolfini, a lovely actor, is limited or limits himself to being the big hearted stout fellow. But then it is not his story. Nor is it the story of the invaluable Toni Colette, the best friend and confidante, married to a husband who is looked down upon and a housemaid who is also looked down upon, both without cause. Nor the story of Catherine Keener as the first wife, whose fine house has no real bearing on the story and who offers to strike up a friendship with Louis-Dryfus that is without foundation in nature.

I would say it is not well-directed did I not feel that its heart was in the wrong place and that no direction of any kind could have resuscitated it into breath. It is the story of mistaken identity eluding itself. When I imagine what George Stevens and Jean Arthur would have made of these possibilities, I turn myself away from this in shame, enough said.

 

Sylvia Scarlett

16 Jul

Sylvia Scarlett – directed by George Cukor. Grifter Romance. Unruly disguises rule. 90 minutes Black and White 1935.

★★★★★

I like all grifter dramas, stories about people gulling other people out of their eyeteeth. Here Cary Grant is the principal con-man, and of course he is first-class at it, and has a lot of fun bringing his good old English carnival shill energy into it.

He is aided and abetted by the great Joe August who filmed it and by the brilliant trick-writer John Collier who was one of the three adapters of Compton MacKenzie’s novel, and it runs well as we hook into Edmund Gwenn and his daughter disguised as his son, as escapees from consequences in France to the luckier shores of England where they fall under the tricky Grant and the dubious spell of a musical hall chanteuse sexpot Dennie Moore. To earn a quick buck they become travelling vaudevillians. Then Brian Aherne turns up to derail the scams by becoming the object of the love interest of Katharine Hepburn, who up until this time is disguised as a boy. Her competition with Aherne is played by The Countess Natalia Pavlovna Von Hohenfelsen (whose biography would make your hair curl or uncurl, depending.)

Well!!! – as Jack Benny so eloquently put it.

The conglomeration travels on unexpected tracks at the start, and this is welcome – but, when romance insists on elbowing in, the movie looses it fascination, energy, imagination, and fun, and turns routine.

What is not routine is Katharine Hepburn as a hobbledehoy! For as a boy she is quite different than what she appears to be as a girl. As a boy she is quite convincing. As a girl she is quite unconvincing. As a boy she is swift, daring, direct, and true. And you really believe she is a boy. As a girl she is arch, sentimental, coy, extravagant, and meretriciously phony. You never believe in her at all. As a boy uninterested in romance, you swallow her whole. As a girl making goo-goo eyes she is a wretched fraud.

So when is she acting?

And when is she just playacting?

And why?

As a boy, Sylvester Scarlett, she delivers one of the greatest acting performances ever laid down on screen.

As a girl, Sylvia Scarlett, she gives one of the worst.

Don’t miss it. Hepburn was one of the great personalities of The Twentieth Century and one of the great things. The movie has a bunch of rewards and the biggest one is Hepburn acting more naturally as a male than any other male in the movie.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Together Again

11 Feb

Together Again – directed by Charles Vidor. Romantic Comedy. The square mayor of a small town falls apart over the sculptor she hires to make a statue of her former husband. 93 minutes. Black and White. 1944.
★★★

Irene Dunne is 46 when she makes this, and Charles Boyer is 45. Those were the days! They had grown-ups in movies.

The title is a publicity scheme to announce the re-mating of the stars of the big women’s weeper Love Story. However, there is a curious lack of oomph between them here. Boyer looks middle-aged, but he is an actor who can rise to any occasion, and he is more acceptable than Dunne, who looks great but lacks the inner-madcap for the role. Charles Coburn is far sexier as the stout cupid leading them on. But then Coburn was one of the great film actors, a performer of admirable technical certainty, natural appeal, and lots of juice.

To play comedy you don’t have to do funny things – Betty Hutton had this. You don’t have to be inherently funny either – Rosalind Russell had this. Although both things are nice, what you have got to have is the inner permission for things to be funny around you – Claudette Colbert had this; so does Clint Eastwood. And Irene Dunne does not. Cary Grant said she was delightfully funny on the set, but on film she seems to be a prig who would really rather be a lady than a woman, a feature we see in Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr.

Irene Dunne (who added an “e” to her last name, perhaps as touch of antique Royalty) was a performer whom the studios thought added “tone” to a picture. But “tone” is at variance with Dunne’s role, which is that of a high profile politician longing to cut up. What you get instead is Helen Hokenson, so there is no possible way an actor opposite her could play sexual attraction in her direction.

She does sing a bit, and Dunne was a true singer and is best when singing, because most honest and simple, for she does care about music, and music is never respectable. Her “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in Roberta is just lovely. See her in Anna And The King Of Siam. Or see her in George Stevens’ I Remember Mama or his Penny Serenade. In a certain kind of role, she is a seriously dedicated actress and very worthwhile.

The film is beautifully mounted and well constructed, and simply and clearly directed. If you like the old studio, A-movie production values, there is much to enjoy here, for they, more in black and white movies than in color movies, tell the story as much as the script tells it.

Why is that?

Because black and white engages one’s narrative imagination and color supplants it.

 

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.

 

Desk Set

28 Aug

Desk Set – directed by Walter Lang. Romantic Comedy. The research department of a broadcasting company feels threatened by the introduction of a computer and its inventor. 103 minutes. Color 1957.

★★★★★

Katharine Hepburn was not a great actress, but she was such a great high-comedy actress you might think she was. She is usually better in the first half of a film than in the last, and she is usually better with Spencer Tracy in comedy than in drama. They made nine films together, and if you omit the dramas you will find the cream on the top to be whipped. So, see Woman Of The Year, Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, and Desk Set. Hepburn is 50 when she does this, so there are no close-ups, and there do not have to be. Her fearless full-body physical confidence in movement has tremendous carrying power, and few actors could handle props with her ease and dispatch. Chewing on a paper cup while asking a leading question, watch her. Watch her open that financial report and start to work; you absolutely believe she understands its contents and knows what to look for. Hepburn was an actress who chose only noble roles, roles which called upon her strengths: fairness, poise, and willingness to level with you. With Tracy, her certainty in all matters is balanced out at the end to make a compatibility. This is not true with Cary Grant; with Grant you are left with the dizzy challenge of their incompatibility. In some things Hepburn is no good. In love she plays the giddy schoolgirl or the lorn one, which is undignified and false (in real life, Hepburn was never alone and not interested in romance). In serious scenes she tends to emotionalize and tear-up, which is cheap and easy. But catch her in the free-wheeling exposition of the opening scenes of a comedy, and there is no one better in the world for beguiling you – with her accuracy of attack, democracy of eye, physical fluidity, and absolute generosity before the camera. We love Hepburn for her spirit, yes, and for her nobleness, for that is what she intended to leave us as a vision, and it’s not a bad one. Her wonderful smile and vulnerability to what is happening in a given scene make us take her at her word. She wanted to be fascinating, and she did it by being fascinating to herself – by enjoying herself in a part, by surprising herself in a part. Desk Set was done on Broadway with Shirley Booth, and the Mexington Avenue scene was the most delicious comedy scene I have ever seen on the stage. The two women find it irresistibly funny and cannot stop laughing and the audience cannot stop laughing with them. Hepburn does not play it this way and is not quite convincing as inebriated. Instead, she snorts and throws her head back; Hepburn was not a laugher; she was a smiler. Never mind: Desk Set is particularly fortunate for her because you see her in her preferred milieu which is among women, so her ease of command and kind smartness and high morale are never shown better. And her early scenes with Tracy are light comedy at its best, particularly the tip-top trio scene with Gig Young as the smarmy exec BF on his way up. Three masters. Watch how Hepburn eats a sandwich and freezes from the winter cold on a roof patio while answering hard questions from Tracy. She’s brilliant at it and she keeps the character modest. Perfectly cast as a know-it-all, as she was in Woman Of The Year, we love her for it. The camera is on her and she rejoices you with her mastery before it. What is special in the spirit in each human individual? With her peculiar vocal timbre, particular pronunciation, automatic-rifle attack, slim, athletic figure, unusual and beautiful mouth and always engaged eyes she is a reminder of what the unique spirit in each of us actually looks like in free play. Being like no one else, she is emblem of all. Yes, she is not a great actress, but she is a Great Actress.

 

 

The Countess From Hong Kong

29 Dec

The Countess From Hong Kong. Written and Directed by Charles Chaplin. High Comedy. A Prostitute stows away in the stateroom of high-ranking diplomatist who tries valiantly to avoid detection. 120 minutes Color 1967.

* * *

We all know about how Chaplin caused this film to fail through acting all the parts for the actors, through the unimaginative casting of the supporting players, through surrounding Brando with too many male business associates, and through the mistaken introduction of the fact the Brando character was married, a development which should neither have come late nor at all. The first part is a farce built upon five doors to an ocean liner stateroom, and works pretty well, and the whole thing would work well, were its moves executed in other modes of the silent screen, but it isn’t.  So let us set the film aside as the failure it famously is and cast our eyes on the pleasant prospect of Sophia Loren in the title role as we contemplate such splendours of person as she possesses: a small head set upon a sumptuous body upon the lavish invitation of whose bosom one longs to either lay one’s head or an array of emeralds, awesome auburn hair, a deft cleft chin, that peaked upper lip, that droll rolled lower lip, her clownish smile, her perfect peasant nose, her wide and tilted eyes, the scimitar of her jaw. She’s not the usual beauty, but a new type, a type which made Paz Vega and Penelope Cruze eventually possible. Leaving out her slender legs and sashay hips, and setting aside her slim feet for other volumes, it is obvious that she might easily have been discarded as just another tomato on the vine, except for two things she possesses which placed her right where she belonged: prominently. First, she is a really good actress. For watch her play her scenes here, see how responsive she is, first of all, and how in tune with the sort of comedy this is, which is not really Chaplin comedy but Lubitsch comedy, that is to say, high sex comedy, a fact she understands even better than Brando, who usually had a good instinct for such things. The part provides her with a lot more opportunities than the director does, and she feasts on them. She is playful, witty, quick, and game. Like the good Virgo that she is, she has the hauteur of an Empress and the capacity to be perfectly ridiculous.  All of this is executed with one of her principal assets, that she has a most melodious speaking voice. It’s in inherent in her, so it is never forced or put on. It’s not a Hollywood voice, like Joan Crawford’s. It’s so right you scarcely notice it. A good speaking voice is one of the great tools an actor can have, and she had it. But the second thing she has, and it is one of the qualities even of stars who are, like Humphrey Bogart not particularly good actors, and that is an inner presence which is always unaffraidly available to us. Watch her as you watch this film. You will never see it in Olivier. But you will see it in Rosalind Russell and in Walter Huston and in Audrey Hepburn, in Ann Sheridan and James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and Clark Gable.  It is probably the quality that makes us really identify with a star, deficiencies of craft be damned. Because it is there that we feel we know them and like them. The gift of presence is probably God-given. Sophia Loren had it and still has it. Two things: she’s a darn good actress and she is a person we can actually see. And, oh that look of fun in her eyes. Oh, that Neapolitan cheek. She was and she remains an acknowledged International Treasure.

 

 

Man’s Favorite Sport

25 Nov

Man’s Favorite Sport — Directed by Howard Hawks. Romantic Comedy. A world-renowned expert on angling has never fished until goaded into a competition by a PR lady. 120 minutes Color 1964.

* * *

Paula Prentiss! – Wow!  I had never seen her before, because at the time she was always in the sort of movies I avoided – but she is clearly one of the greatest light comediennes in film. What a gift! She’s bright, quick on the uptake, pretty, has a nifty figure. Her voice is low and well-placed, just like Hawks liked, and with lots of variety in the intonation, and she even has a Southern accent. (I got some catching up to do.) She plays a part perfectly suited to Katharine Hepburn thirty years prior, the usual Hawks comic lead, a fast-talking intruder into the life of a duller mate, and she is superb in it. And so, fellow citizens, we now wrench our fascinated gaze from her towards the Wonder Bread of Rock Hudson. Now, to give him his due, the movie is unevenly written, and Paula Prentiss seems to have all the lines, and the man does his manful honest best. But it is a part perfectly suited to Cary Grant thirty years before, and Rock Hudson does not have a funny bone in his body. When you consider Rock Hudson comedies, you will notice that the leading role is bifurcated, the other half of it being played by someone who is funny, namely Tony Randall. Cary Grant never needed a Tony Randall to be funny. Fred Astaire was usually given Edward Everett Horton, and James Garner was given no one, for it is this actor that this role cries out for. Hudson had a beautiful speaking voice, is tall, dark, and handsome in a not very interesting way, and acted in a very well worked out one-dimension. And so all he can do is be put-upon by the person of the infuriating Prentiss, rather than by the female exasperator in her. The film is padded with physical comedy which I am not sure even Cary Grant could have rendered droll, but Hudson, who is not like Grant an acrobat, nonetheless does them all thoroughgoingly, ya gotta give him credit. Cary Grant and James Garner are exactly the same physical type of leading man as Hudson, and both are master light comedians. Why are they that and Hudson not? It’s gift of god, as everyone knows who sees this picture and watches only Prentiss while Hudson and she are on the screen together.

 

 

It Started In Naples

05 Oct

It Started In Naples – Directed by Melville Shavelson. Comedy Romance. A grumpy American lawyer comes to Italy to settle his deceased brother’s affairs and discovers he has a nephew with a nightclub-singer nanny. 103 minutes Color 1960.

* * * *

I had never been to Naples, but this film is not set in Naples, so the first whacky thing about it is its title. Instead it’s all set in Capri, which was just grand to see. (I have no idea how they managed to film all those crowd scenes; but, then, I never do.) At the center of the story is an American puritan played perfectly by an over-stuffed Clark Gable who is a very good actor and who comes on and delivers his lines like the lawyer he plays. Around him swirls a world of impetuous nonsense that really delighted me and that kept me in suspense awaiting the next surprise. Sophia Loren, as the boy’s aunt, tosses it around with a brio that is beyond confidence. Her smile is a panorama of Virgo glee. Of course, I knew how it would all turn out, and so will you, but what matter? Gable is still a mountain of masculinity and sexual assurance, and still willing to look the fool for love. Vittorio De Sica has a super bit as an Italian attorney/mountebank holding forth in court. The little boy is hot stuff as the urchin. From Hollywood comedies of this period one expects white bread slathered with margarine – but here not so. White bread, yes, but slathered with olive oil and diced mushrooms and tomatoes and olives and oregano and basil. Tangy! [ad#300×250]

 

Day-Time Wife

05 Aug

Day-Time Wife – Directed by Gregory Ratoff. Romantic Comedy. The wife of a two-timing husband takes a job as the secretary of her husband’s client. 72 minutes Black and White 1939.

* * *

The difference between a silly movie and a stupid movie is the stupid movie takes the audience to be stupid. Such is the case here. At once one senses there are two things wrong. The script is unswallowable; that remains constant as far as the female characters go. The second is the question: isn’t Linda Darnell somehow far too inexperienced to be playing the sophisticated wife of a highly successful New York skyscraper contractor?  Research reveals that at the time she is 16 years old! The man she hires herself out to, however, is a merry and impenitent philander, played to the hilt by that crafty actor Warren William. He is absolutely marvelous, and if you parse out the lines he has to give, you appreciate what a nervy talent he had. He’s worth the price of admission and an example for young supporting actors of how to invest yourself in a role. Investment alone is funny. The scenes between him and Darnell are better written, and Darnell actually performs them with admirable artistic confidence. Here her looks are not quite formed up; there’s that lantern jaw; they don’t have her hairline right yet; her mouth has the wrong makeup. But she will develop as an actress beautifully with time, although by the time she peaks with Forever Amber she looks older than she is, which is only 24. Alcoholism has performed its task well, poor thing. Here, you can’t blame her, for oh the situations she is thrust into! – Zanuck was supposed to have had a better story sense. In its day, the reason to see it was to watch the beauteous and gifted Tyrone Power. As an actor he is never wrong. Almost never, for here his honesty sometimes fails him. Anyhow, aged 25 he is a huge star, and it’s justified by all his gifts, his fine voice, his ability to move naturally and swiftly, his looks, his grasp of situation, his refusal to milk a scene, his dedication to the other actors in it. Power was the best super-star actor in the world at that time. Perhaps only Clark Gable was so willing to look foolish in a movie. William Powell in the great fishing scene, yes, but Powell always returns to his habitual aplomb. Powell and Gable always are changed. Watch him. No one was more willing. It’s a treat to see this in him.

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That Wonderful Urge

29 Jul

That Wonderful Urge – Directed by Robert B. Sinclair. Romantic Comedy. An heiress double-crosses a feisty reporter who has double-crossed her. 82 minutes Black and white. 1948.

**

The abuse and misuse of Tyrone Power by Fox is perfectly demonstrated by this 1948 remake of Love Is News which Power had made ten years before, in 1937. But World War II has intervened, which Power served in honorably as a marine private, and it left its mark on him. He was delightful at 23 in insouciant light comedy with Loretta Young, where he is full of mischief and imagination and fun. They really clicked as a comedy team. Here at 34 a weight hangs on Power. And it’s partly the weight of Gene Tierney who simply had no business playing light comedy at all. She didn’t have the instrument for it. She chews her lines with her overbite. She had also played with Power in Son Of Fury ten years before, and they were lovely together, but there they were a romantic duo not a comic duo. This version of the story, which is essentially It Happened One Night, made-in-Japan, is poorly produced. You never believe a thing you’re seeing, not a single location, not a single background, not a single room, and not a single word, except for those Power speaks, for, as an actor, he is never wrong, he is always believable, he is always natural. Anyhow, the part of a reporter on the make is ridiculous for him at 34. Of course, Gene Tierney is older too, a handsome woman in her way, but here, ridiculously costumed by her husband Oleg Cassini. You can see her beauty did not fade over the years, but it also did not ripen; she never grew as an actress; she was always grand, condescending, and haughty. She always deigned. It was her default position as an actor, and one which ill-suited  the society dames she was most frequently called upon to play, for society folks do not turn their noses up. And that’s what she’s cast as here, as she is in The Razor’s Edge, where the ill-suitablility of  her with Power is of the nature of the story. Power wanted to be the thing he already was: a fine actor. He was never at a loss for a chance to prove it and always did prove it, but sometimes he was more at a loss than others. As here.

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Larry Crowne

09 Jul

Larry Crowne – Directed and written (also written by Nia Vardalos) by Tom Hanks. Romantic Comedy. A middle-aged man has to go to college and meets a beautiful mean teacher. 98 minutes Color 2011

* * * * *

Julie Roberts is married to a half-baked couch potato. Tom Hanks is married to his job, but looses it because he does not have a college degree. So he signs up for junior college and, taking a class in private speaking, meets Julia Roberts. Now Miss Roberts seems to have grown into a woman in the past few years, which now puts her in mind of the great stars of the 30s and 40s, all of whom were women. The female stars of Miss Roberts’ era were never women; they were gals, every one of them. And some of the best light comediennes among them have disappeared, Meg Ryan and that national treasure Goldie Hawn. But Julia Roberts has soldiered on, and with this part she occupies a new field of artistic enterprise. She reminds one of Joan Crawford in that her face is incapable of a subtlety, due to her broad features, but unlike Joan Crawford she can play comedy. She, like Crawford, can also play grim, and that is what we get a thought too much of in her performance in the beginning of this entertainment. But when things loosen up between Mr. Hanks and her, we are in the realm of master comedy actors at play at the top of their present game. Until that time the comedy is handled by Bryan Cranston in an Oscar-due performance as the potato and Gugu mBatha-Raw, playing a classmate of great talent, charm, and sex appeal who plays Hanks flirtatious make-over Svengali, and Rita Wilson who is excruciatingly on the money as a bank mortgage manager. Tom Hanks back on his funny bone again, has grown, as he should, into an actor who can absorb the comic possibilities of a situation without demonstrating about it all over the place. Watch his bemusement and reserve as he plays the gentleman on Julia Robert doorstep, when she is looped. He was always good, now he’s better. Larry Crowne is a good grown-up comedy for grown-ups, and it pleases, beguiles, and satisfies just that old natural appetite.

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The Major And The Minor

02 Jul

The Major And The Minor – Directed by Billy Wilder — Comedy. A military man meets a hometown girl posing, unbeknownst to him, as a twelve-year old, and takes her to the boys school where he teaches. 100 minutes Black and White 1942.

* * * *

Delightful improbability. Why do we accept it? Why don’t we just say, ‘Oh, it’s too improbable,” and turn it off? Why doesn’t delightful improbability turn us off? We accept Ginger Rogers at the railway station at the end, even though it would have taken her too long to get out of the previous rig, pack, make up, secure that hat on her head, and get to the platform. Because? Because delight sheds a smile’s light around the matter, and in that light the improbability is enjoyed as such. And that smile? It does not come from belly laughs. In this film there are none of them. Or from wit or from jokes. In this film there are few of them. It comes from the sense of humor of the director, and maybe one of the actors. In this case Billy Wilder, whose first Hollywood direction this was, and from Ray Milland, whose happy innocence spreads forgiveness for any possible flaw. He’s so lively and good and good looking. He has such a sunny smile. And he is completely convinced of the script as offered. Which is that he recognizes that Rogers is  11 years old. Rogers was at the peak of her powers at this time, and took Wilder aside for an hour to see if she believed he could direct this. She loved his and Charles Brackett’s script, and she was one of the few big stars in Hollywood who would agree to looking quite foolish on screen, so she is in Dorothy pigtails for a lot of it. And she’s an ace actress. She plays opposite Rita Johnson, so watch how Johnson throws a bucket of acid when she speaks when all she need do is flick a drop, while, in their confrontation scene after the ball, with Rogers a drop devastates. And take in the lighting and filming of that scene by Leo Tover. Beautiful. Take a look also at Rogers’ trim figure, so like those of the women actresses of her day, Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Wyman, Dorothy McGuire, Claudette Colbert. Joan Crawford, all narrow hipped and slender. The film endures its longeurs when our Ginger has to endure the dating of the cadets, but it comes alive whenever Diana Lynn is on screen with her, and also when that famous stage mother, Lela Rogers appears in this her first film, as Rogers’ mother. Built just like her daughter and looks like her too. A delightful improbability in a picture of delightful improbabilities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ceremony

24 Jun

Ceremony. Directed and written by Max Winkler. Chekhovian Comedy. A young fool tries to run off with a to-be bride just before the wedding. 89 Minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

How does Lee Pace, without stealing, steal every scene he is in? He is a master actor, but that’s not why. A young man from Oklahoma, he plays an upper class British millionaire naturalist/filmmaker/star, and the English accent comes right from his bones, but that’s not why. He is tall and beautiful and sexy and young, has a fine rich speaking voice, and remarkable eyebrows, but that’s not why. No, the reason is, is that he is inherently a star, someone gifted with an inner character of soul which is meant to be seen and basked in, the same way you would bask in that of Joan Crawford or Joel Macrea or George Clooney or Edward G. Robinson or Rita Hayworth. They must be watched. You wouldn’t want to do anything else with them. They are there to be on the screen and stared at wondrously. So what you do with a star like Lee Pace is to be gaga, a little blinded, a little dazed. A surrender like that is such a treat, and its one of the reasons we go to the movies. Another is to place ourselves in the doings of such a story as Max Winkler offers us, with its rare mad excursions into side-room scenes in the lives of its five principal characters, played with juicy finesse by Uma Thurman, Reece Thompson, Jake M. Johnson, and Michael Angarano who is the focal character around whom all the other four swirl. I found his performance vexing. His face works as though he is chewing gum all the time, but he never is. As an annoying gnome, his miniscule grimaces are particularly prevalent at the beginning of the story, but as the story develops, the obsessive, greedy liar he is playing succumbs to the constant onslaught of well-deserved cruel truth, and the character almost becomes a human being. In character, the actor is truly nonplussed. He is knocked out, but will he ever wake up? This is an interesting trial for an audience, and a worthwhile one, because it keeps the narrative in suspense – asking both what will happen to this brat and will I ever come to like him? He is driven to steal a woman who is older than he is, who is out of his league, whom he cannot support, and who would make him a terrible wife. The script by Max Winkler is superbly surprising at all turns and corners. I think he is putting the kibosh on grunge comedy once and for all (if only). He has written (Four Weddings And A Funeral keeps coming to mind) – a comedy with the wit to make people real – that is his humor – and to make them sad – that is also his humor. Sad in the sense that every one of them is a sad sack, and funny in that every one of them is bright as all get out. Don’t miss it.

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Reaching For The Moon

19 Jun

Reaching For The Moon — Directed by Edmund Goulding. Musical. An inconsiderate tycoon looses it all in the crash as he falls for a millionairess. 71 minutes Black and White 1931.

* * * *

A musical curiously truncated by the removal of all the music. Irving Berlin’s pieces, too. But judging by what was left in, they must have been stinkersoos. Bing Crosby sings one of the remains. And a beautiful actress, Bebe Daniels, sings another. Even these we might have been spared. Except that Bebe Daniels, who made 230 movies in her lifetime, is an enchanting actress, I am riveted by her ease of attack, fluidity, musicality of delivery. If she appeared in films today she would be entirely acceptable and desirable. Wonderful eyes. I am in love. The script is raised above the floor by the presence of Edward Everett Horton who plays the mentor butler hilariously. Risque too in those pre-code days. His Mr. is Douglas Fairbanks playing a bumptious billionaire. Laughing perpetually, he races around after Daniels, crawls up the walls, slides down the flagpole and in general inspires her derision, until… until he speaks his true heart. Now never let two things be said again: 1] that he was not an actor; 2] that he avoided love-scenes. For he is superb in this scene, and no wonder it wins her. Fairbanks they say was at the end of his career and downcrest and frantic; they say he was not interested in talkies and grieved the loss of the acrobatic spectacles he made his name with, but…he was too old. He’s in his late 40s. He had only two films left in him. Fairbanks doesn’t sing, but the sets by William Cameron Menzies do. If you’ve never seen a White Telephone Movie this one will boggle your eyes. Check out that ocean liner, check out that nightclub. And check out those evening gowns, boys and girls. Wow, did they ever know how to drape a lady’s derriere. Sweet were the times. The film ends abruptly at its climax. Like this.

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Mad Love

28 Mar

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

**

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

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Together Again

26 Mar

Together Again – Directed by Charles Vidor – Romantic Comedy. A widow tries to keep the flame but falls for the sexy sculptor of her late husband’s statue. 93 minutes Black and White 1944.

* * *

Irene Dunne is 46 when she makes this picture, and Charles Boyer is 45. There is a curious lack of sexual oomph between them. Charles Coburn is far sexier as the stout cupid leading them on. But then Coburn was one of the great film actors, a performer of admirable technical certainty and natural appeal. Boyer is given a final scene of great interest in a picture which is very well written as a comedy without guffaws. The trouble with it is that Dunne, while in a comedy, does not foster comedy around her and has no comic luster of her own To play comedy you don’t have to do funny things — Betty Hutton could do that. You don’t have to be inherently funny either. Although both things are nice, what you have got to have is the inner permission for things to be funny around you — Claudette Colbert had this. And Irene Dunne does not. The poor lady is a prig. She would really rather be a lady than a woman, a feature we often see later in Deborah Kerr. Here what we need is an actress to play the part of a woman with a high profile political position who inside is busting to cut-up. This would have been meat and potatoes for that mistress of the doppelganger, Ginger Rogers. Or perhaps that Queen Of Mischief Rosalind Russell. Or I’m-Trying-To-Do-My-Best Jean Arthur. Anyhow, Irene Dunne (who added an e to her last name — a touch of antique Royal Tone perhaps?) was, indeed, a performer whom the studios thought added “tone” to a picture. But what you get is a Helen Hokinson wannabe. There is no possible way any male actor opposite her could pitch sexual attraction in her direction. She does sing a bit in this film; indeed  Dunne was a professional singer, and is best when singing, because most honest and simple, for she does care about music, and music is never respectable. (Her “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in Roberta is just lovely.)  Boyer looks middle aged, but he is an actor who can rise to any occasion, and he is more acceptable than Dunne, who looks great but lacks the inner-madcap for the role. The film is beautifully mounted and well constructed and simply and clearly directed by Charles Vidor. An outline missing a content.

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