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Archive for the ‘CRIME’ Category

Nocturnal Animals

03 Jan

Nocturnal Animals – written and directed by Tom Ford. Melodrama. 116 minutes Color 2106.

★★★★

The Story:  The jaded owner of a chichi art gallery on the rocks, as is her marriage, reads a novel by her first husband which proves he loved her.

~

It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. It is a kind of revenge story that makes Venetians lick their chops.

Amy Adams plays the remarried wife reading her first husband’s novel, and we see the novel enacted by the author of it. Three hoods attack its main character and his wife and teen-aged daughter on a lonely road. He is helpless to help them. They rape and murder the women, and would kill him if he had not escaped into the desert. Then he meets a local policeman ardent to do the attackers in.

What’s important in noir is to keep all the scenes tight-lipped, and this the writer, who is also the director, fails to do. The big scenes over-last their stay. The result is that they cascade from the cliff of drama into the puddle of melodrama.

But the film does provide Amy Adams with another selfish woman to play, and as usual she does this well. She doesn’t grip me as a leading woman, however. As a character lead, yes, but she lacks the general gusto great leading ladies possess.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the fictional husband and the real husband. He fudges his big scene in which the three hoods take over his family and his car partly because it goes on too long, as does the finale where he gives the slayer his due. Opposite him is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the killer, played in full snicker Richard Widmark manner. Both scenes end up in coyness as their thread is unreeled too long to sustain. But he also has great big dolloping scenes, just the kind an actor in his thirties loves to play. It is a performance bound to justify the large size of his following.

The performance that holds one, however, is Michael Shannon as the detective. He plays it so close to the vest, you think he’s going to burst out laughing at any moment. It’s a wonderful construction, filling the screen with our attention every time he appears.

If the director were as ruthless as the characters I would have liked it more. I like to like things more. But I can also like to like things not so much, as here. Don’t be put off on my account, though. Check it out. See for yourself.

 

Absence Of Malice

04 Jan

Absence Of Malice – directed by Sydney Pollack. Newsroom Drama. 116 minutes Color 1981.

★★★★★

The Story: The son of a former gangster is exposed in a Miami newspaper as under criminal investigation and tries to learn the truth from the female reporter who printed it.

~

When Mildred Dunnock came home from working with Paul Newman in Sweet Bird Of Youth, she told me “He’s always acting.” I didn’t ask her what she meant by this, though I knew she liked it, but I am going to report what I assumed she meant.

He is always generating.

What that means is that the character he is playing and the scene he is playing and the words he is saying and the attitudes he assumes all arise from a ground of chosen acting energy that you can’t notice, because if you did it would looked acted.

It certainly is true here. Newman’s task as an actor is to create a character who is competent. To do this he hauls liquor cartons, deals with strike breakers, opens fine wine, takes care of a 1943 yacht, serves a picnic on it, and reserves himself sexually by courting. He is always shown in competence-requiring actions. Ordinary everyday competence is the characteristic he must establish, because the finale of the film depends upon unobtrusive competence. You’re never to notice it; that’s how he gets away with it. It is his main character decision in the part, and he is right. Everything I said he does, he does. And as he does them he does them without effort or fear – slowly, carefully, as though he had done them many times before. He never “acts” them. The part of him that acts is another part entirely, and you can’t see it.

For to create this competence, it must spring from a center second nature to him: the thing he gets around in: the inner limousine of the Actor. Which you never see.

Newman’s habit of generating this conscious and constant energy is that of a race driver holding the car in neutral. The problem for Newman is that this tends to slow down momentum and get dull. You can see him practically fall asleep in Buffalo Bill And The Indians and Quintet. (They were Altman films and everyone smoked dope like mad; perhaps that’s what it was.)

Newman is 54 here admitting to 47, and he looks good. He entered films when he was 30, so he always looked younger, and, of course, to the day he left the screen he kept his figure and looked good. I notice when talking to him over the phone that he had most beautiful speaking voice. People talk about his looks, figure, blue eyes, but an actor’s best tool is his voice, and he had a great one. Check it out.

The ever-fretful Sally Field, a top notch actor, plays the reporter, who takes upon herself to write stories that cause a great deal of harm. To me it seemed the character was not authorized to write any of them, but the story has them meanly instigated by an assistant D.A., beautifully played by Bob Balaban. Wilford Brimley enters in to wrap-up the story and rap knuckles. It’s good to see Luther Adler as a Godfather in his last film role. Melinda Dillon plays the unbalanced friend of Newman so well that you think Dillon herself is unbalanced. But the film is not about acting but about an ethical crime.

I liked the film. I went with its pace, as it took its time to move through the examination of its subject dramatically, carefully, and fairly. Journalism put on the hot seat. Good.

 
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Posted in Bob Balaban, DIRECTED BY: Sydney Pollack, Paul Scofield, PERSONAL DRAMA, Sally Field

 

Song Of The Thin Man

15 Jun

Song Of The Thin Man – directed by Edward Buzzell. Comedy WhoDunIt. A nightclub owner elopes with an heiress, and someone is killed on a gambling boat who shouldn’t be, and a clarinetist goes nuts, and the Charles’ little boy is kidnaped, and …oh, to heck with it. Asta solves the crime as usual. 86 minutes Black and White 1947.
★★★★★
A jolly picture, indeed.

There’s a lot of forced jive talk, much of it executed by Keenan Wynn. And Gloria Graham sings a number in a gold gown that you must not deny yourself a gander at. Patricia Morrison is the lady of Leon Ames (never without a smoke in his chops), Don Taylor as the demented dypso, Ralph Morgan as a tycoon, Jayne Meadows as the society bitch, Marie Windsor as a gangster’s tomato. Connie Gilchrist is the maid once more. Esther Howard has a neat moment as a counter woman. That best of all child actors, Dean Stockwell is Nick Junior, and Asta Junior plays Asta, since this of 1947 was the last of the Thin Man Movies and the first was in 1934.

Myrna Loy said she felt the movie did not work, because their favorite director had died, but in fact it works as well as any of them, and in exactly the same way as they all do. For as Loy also said, what she felt the public liked was that they seem to be included in an amusing conversation between two smart and affectionate married people.

William Powell is all that deftness might define. And Loy assumes her position of proud and knowing spouse, never to appear in less than radiant costume, by Irene, her gorgeous hair-dos by Sydney Guilaroff. We just want to love her.

The badinage and banter is from a previous era, true but we do not mind now, and they did not mind then, because nobody ever really talked like that, but everybody wished they did.  The picture was a big hit.

And the plot when it unravels is completely incomprehensible, as usual. This was the era of Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep where no one ever could figure out what had really happened, and, it all went by so fast, no one had the chance to. Same thing here with Dashiell Hammett. But that it is a price we rejoice to pay since that is not why we watched the movie to begin with. We watched it to partake of the highball of all highballs, as though we were sophisticates too.

We’re still that way.

 

The Street With No Name

20 May

The Street With No Name –­– directed by William Keighley. Police Procedural. An FBI agent imbeds himself in a bank robber gang and almost doesn’t make it. 91 minutes Black and White 1948.

★★★★★

This good film is listed as a Noir, which it is not. It is not, because in Noir the protagonist much have something wrong with them, and there is nothing wrong with Mark Stevens at all. He is a good-looking honest-John male period.

The person who has something wrong with him is Richard Widmark who once again plays the psycho thug, which he began his career with by pushing Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs in Kiss Of Death while snickering. He did this sort of thing in a number of pictures in the ‘40s until he put his cloven-hoof down – but, in fact, he is much better as psychopaths than as a leading man. Here, thank goodness, he is a violent closeted homosexual.

Mark Stevens plays the agent who infiltrates Widmark’s gang, and to say he is too straight to be the hero of a Noir is not to diminish his gifts, for his playing is smart. He makes the character blithe, as though he didn’t have a care or worry in the world. He flirts with Widmark and sails into the harbor of the gang without a glance to the left or right. It’s a shrewd acting move, and Stevens is good at it. He laughs his way through peril. At least that is what he does while others are around and until the thrills start.

A word about such actors. Nice-guy actors form a blank which audiences fill in with themselves. The actor just stands there in his masculinity and his decency, and you do the rest. You find this all the way through literature, from Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince Of Tyre to Dickens’ David Copperfield to almost everything Gregory Peck ever did. These good-guy actors sometimes seem to almost have no temperament as actors, no human imagination, although lots of moral imagination, which is why they crowd together as leading players in Westerns. There are too many of them to list. They provide an empty upright outline which it is the audience’s mission to flesh and fill, a job the audience readily adopts because such actors are always in heroic roles.

A word about Noir style. It’s easy to mistake such a picture as this as Noir because of the way it looks. This one looks terrific, and that is because it was filmed by Joe MacDonald, a master of city streets at night. He would film Sam Fuller’s remake of it, House Of Bamboo, and Kazan’s Panic In The Streets. You might say that the story is really told by the way Joe MacDonald lights and films and moves it, that the narration is really in his hands, rather than the director’s, although the direction is good. The astonishing shoot-out in the immense factory at the end is an example of Joe MacDonald’s extraordinary ability to make a story happen. Someone should fo a study about the narrative power of such photographers as William Daniels, Ernest Haller, Joe MacDonald and other master photographers – although it’s probably already been written, ignoramus as I am.

The film is an A level crime film, with Lloyd Nolan, John McIntyre, and a teen-age Barbara Lawrence, in a gorgeous performance as Widmark’s beard-wife.

 

Dead Ringer

20 Nov

Dead Ringer – – directed by Paul Henreid. Murder Melodrama. Twin sisters have at one another in an impersonation slay-fest. 118 minutes Black and White 1964.
★★
The Bette Davis’ pictures still worth seeing all have a good story, a good cinemaphotographer, a good cast, a good director, and a part she was meant to play. They would include All About Eve, The Little Foxes, In This Our Life, and The Letter. But even when the entire crew is on board, Bette Davis can still steer the vessel in direction it was never intended to go. This she does here.

In the case of Dead Ringer, she also does not have a good director.

In a movie the key ingredient is the story, and the director’s job is to tell the story, and just as Faulkner does not tell a story the same way as Erskine Caldwell does, John Huston does not tell a story the same way as George Stevens does, for each director has a way of releasing the material to the eye that is a force in itself, a style in itself, a value in itself. The job also is to bring out what is best and right in the actor. In the case of Dead Ringer, Davis has her old friend Paul Henreid, but he is not a director of merit in these matters.

So you will see, for instance, that the power and influence of the great Doheny Mansion is never used as a narrative character. Its interiors are simply filmed well, but they never tell a story, because the director does not have a narrative imagination, and this exhausts the audience. Nor does he have the ability to bring out what is best and right in the actor.

The great Ernest Haller films her (as he had many times before) one final time before he died, and the movie even has a fine score by André Previn. It has the great Jean Hagen (her last film), Estelle Winwood, and George Macready. It has Karl Malden as a love interest, and an exquisite performance by Cyril Delevanti as the butler. But Davis is allowed to perform these sisters in a way that discourages her best work with them, and that is because of her makeup.

She uses star-persona makeup for both characters and in all situations. To youthen herself (she’s 56), she masks both faces almost in clown white, the neck a quite different tone. She uses heavy false eyelashes for both sisters, with too much upper lid mascara, curling the corners with it, so that, when her eyes are fully open, she is a Cupie Doll. Her mouth is painted a down-turned bow in a rictus of contempt and distaste. The corners extend slightly and the dip in the middle of the upper lip is painted over to make the arc of the bow unbroken — a mouth meant to emit arrows of vitriol — a demolition mouth. None of this makeup has anything to do with either character. It has only to do with the star who is playing either character. The result is that she very much resembles Joan Crawford and never resembles either character one bit.

So, whether she can actually play either character we never really know. She can wear different hairdos and costumes, but that’s it. There she stands, a tiny woman barely over five feet tall, Niagara Falls in a teacup. And from All About Eve on, this makeup is what she called acting. It is touching because it is so lost.

A star is someone who, once called that, is never able to act again?

 

Slightly Scarlet

21 Apr

Slightly Scarlet — Directed by Allan Dwan. Gangster Crime In High Places. A free lance photograqpher takes over a crime syndicate. 99 minutes Color 1956.

**

The great Robert Alton filmed this for RKO in colors that on the small screen smear. (Alton filmed the big ballet sequence of An American In Paris, so you know what he can do.) This film is sold as a noir, but it is not; it is a crime story, and, since it is not in black and white, how could it be noir? The presence of two redheads, Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl, commanded color, one supposes, but the story is ridiculous in color. And to prove it, the two women never seem to get out of cocktail dresses worn as street clothes at all times of the day. The garishness is without the strength you might find in a Fox musical, say, and the three leads, John Payne, Dahl, and Fleming were never stars; they were leading man and women; they were never asked to carry a picture, but just to throw their sex appeal in the direction of the stars who did carry it. Here, even the three of them together cannot carry the picture. Fleming is of the petrified wood school of acting whose doyenne was Marlene Deitrich. Her brassiere is, like her face, a stony sierra. Never have such peaks been scaled so perilously; they span continents. Arlene Dahl throws herself about like a frisbee seeking a catcher in the part of the mad sister. John Payne is handsome, sexy, dimpled, and lends his stalwart sensuality to a role for which none of those attributes are required. I thought I would never say these words, but where is Richard Widmark when we need him? Alan Dwan, who started directing films in 1911, briskly drove this ambulance to the ER. We forgive you, Allan; nothing could be done to save it; the patient was dead on arrival.

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The Valley Of The Hearts Delight

12 Apr

The Valley Of The Hearts Delight — Directed by Tim Boxell. Historical Drama. A reporter becomes imperiled when he tries to solve the kidnapping of his lover’s brother. 97 minutes Color 2006.

* * *

Fury was the title of it when it was made by Fritz Lang with Sylvia Sidney and Spencer Tracy back closer to the day when its actual events changed the name of The Valley of The Hearts Delight in California to Silicon Valley. To avenge a kidnapping, a mob seeks to string up two innocent men. But also the Valley newspaper owner played by Pete Postlethwaite and certain local politicians want this also, in order to whitewash the Valley’s glorious name as quickly as can be. Bruce McGill plays the father of the young man — about whom the writers have cast an unnecessary shroud, since it is clear that he is gay, and that he picked up the kidnapper thinking it was a chance for sex. It all happened at the time, as the saying goes, and I will not confuse you further by telling you what actually did happen. A feeling of amateurishness pervades the direction of the piece. To recommend it, let us point to the presence in it of a beautiful 1933 Studebaker convertible. Gabriel Mann is a lovely actor, although a little too razor pressed for a small town reporter on the make. Still, the costumes are period and smile all the way through. I smiled too, but not always with unveering delight in its valley.

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The Bravados

25 Mar

The Bravados – directed by Henry King – a western in which three loathsome bank robbers and their guide are pursued by a man bent on revenge – 98 minutes color 1958.

* * * *

This western looks like one of those movies aging movie stars engage in to prop up their work. But Gregory Peck was always an aging movie star. His chosen gravity caused no public alarm – but it also conveyed no mystery. So we have the case of a man of persistent and unvarying solemn righteousness tracking down three killers, led by a man far more fascinating than himself, the lusciously talented Stephen Boyd. Boyd was my reason to rent this film, and doing so was worth every scene he appears in. The direction is made one step past competent by the filming of the remarkable landscapes through which the pursuit ranges. These pictorial delights keep us away from the common face of Joan Collins, who is present as the old flame from New Orleans, although one cannot imagine Gregory Peck ever having lit a flame of his own sufficient to ignite her ever-ready tinder or having ever drifted into New Orleans to do it. She has all the aura of a not-quite-first-class call girl, and so one wonders at the possibility of His Righteousness getting down with her at the end. She is the sort of girl one does not bring home to meet your mother for fear your father would drag her up into the attic, and that she would prefer to go. She isn’t even pretty; merely beautiful, so beautiful she is grotesque: her eyes are more wide-spaced than her ears. No. Best look rather at the witty visage of Stephen Boyd whose gifts hold the screen like nobody’s business. He has a truly lecherous eye and a nastiness meant to lead even stiffs like Charlton Heston into hot water. What fun! What an actor! But, to turn back to Peck. His acting choice to be unvarying in his relentlessness is unabated by any inner doubt or struggle. So the entire conflict of the piece comes at the last moment, which he performs well, mind you, but, until then we have no outer or inner back-and-forth, and, worse, no humor in him, so the movie holds our interest but he does not. Imagine what Spencer Tracy would have done with this situation, and you’ll see what I mean. Peck looks to be one of those great big dismissible stars riding out their careers on the donkey of a chosen persona – like Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas. However! There was an actor inside Peck, and maybe even a great one, and it is visible once and once only, so far as I know, in and as the remarkable Old Gringo. Here Peck’s dull mania for justice is finally abandoned. Here he is willing to be no longer popular. It is the greatest swan song any major actor ever performed, and so, after all these years of respectability, one finally has to respect him.

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Gone Dark

24 Mar

Gone Dark (aka The Limit) — directed by Lewin Webb — Crime Drama. An elderly woman is suspected by a drug-addicted policewoman of stashing a fortune in drugs and holds her at bay to find it. 83 minutes Color 2004.

**

Claire Forlani makes a disastrous mis-strategy in playing this part. It is a two-fold error. The first and dominant error is to play her as self-pitying, which means that, since she is always whiningly sorry for herself, one cannot pity her, and so one can never get behind her or exercise any patience on her behalf. Forlani is English, and the second error is to use a Lower East Side Italian accent for her, but never once to get behind the person behind the accent. This reduces her to grimacing and “using” her extraordinarily supple and sensual mouth for effect. Even had this error not been made by the principal actress, the film’s story is improbable in its execution, a fault that might have been remedied by strong narrative editing, but the editing is flaccid. As is the direction by a director who does not seem to know how to rehearse actors at all. We have the great Pete Postlethwaite great in all his scenes, yes, and we have superstar Lauren Bacall, who uses her Virgo cool to play a lady who does not suffer fools gladly, but who does suffer pistols gladly. She chooses to play her character Mae as a lady who sits back and contemplates how things shall unravel, which works, but the director might have given her an alternate or two. The film is entirely lacking in tension and conviction. Forlani describes it as a slice of life, but such a film cannot be that; it can only a highly charged artifact, made entertaining by its suspense, an ingredient the lack of which herein makes the cake fall flat.

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Animal Kingdom

11 Mar

Animal Kingdom – directed by David Michod – Gangster Drama. A family of bank robbers and their mother welcome their nephew into the den. 113 minutes Color 2010.

* * * *

The inexcusably bumbling director on the Extra Features explains that this picture was meant to be large in scope and also austere. I could crown him. If the film were as phony as he is, I would, but the picture holds one’s attention because it does not spell out what it can let the audience gather on its own, and because of the Michod’s excellent writing and direction and because of the players who support the lead. Alas, the lead is played by an actor histrionically inert. He is means to be a David Copperfield character, a fill-in-the-blank person whom we are supposed to supply with ourselves. But the actor is too sleepy, too withdrawn, too dull for us to be or to want to be in the character’s shoes at any time. But this does gives one a chance to observe the various levels of performance around him, which range as they range in experience, the more experienced being the more telling. Every level is a high: level 1: Ben Mendelsohn, Sullivan Stapleton, Joel Edgerton as the gangsters. Level 2: Jacki Weaver as the Ma Barker of this group. Level 3: Guy Pearce. All Guy Pearce has to do is to quietly appear on screen for the entire artistic purpose of the film to take shape before one’s eyes. Here he has a scruffy and therefore un-menacing moustache in the role of the detective, which is a role within a role, since the profession of detective requires one already to play a role. Pearce’s task is largely one of inquiry, and nothing more needs be said about his performance but the fact, clear and simple, that as you watch him ask questions you can see that the character does not know the answers to them even though the actor does. This draws one into the situation, it produces suspense, it provides story. We, the audience, know the answers and the truth. And so we must wait out the issue of all of this until the end. This is an example of the enormous contribution this actor makes in movies in which he appears. The opening scenes of The Hurt Locker are a prime example of it. The rest of that film could not take place if he had not played those scenes the way he does. Fascinating.

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3:10 To Yuma

01 Mar

3:10 to Yuma  — directed by Delmer Daves – Western. A reluctant farmer chaperones a desperado to jail. 92 minutes black and white 1957.

* * * * *

“Safe! Who knows what’s safe? I knew a man dropped dead from lookin’ at his wife. My own grandmother fought the Indians for sixty years…then choked to death on lemon pie. Do I have two volunteers?” So we have a style of telling dialogue that leads me to suppose that a lot of it was lifted wholesale from the novel by Elmore Leonard from which it comes. For the Leonard brilliance influences everything, and certainly directs the actors’ talent, particularly in the case of Glenn Ford, who gives one of the finest performances of his career as a character lead, a list that includes Teahouse of the August Moon and Gilda. He is fascinating to watch in his civility, calm, and assurance as the gang leader, caught because he lingers to chat with a pretty bartender, played by Felicia Farr. The delightful thing about this interlude is that he is not just using her for a quick lay, but instead really likes women, and really likes this particular one. Ford’s choice in this brings his character to a level of interest which sustains the entire film. He is perfectly cast, unlike Russell Crowe in the remake of recent non-memory, for Ford brings his puppy past to the part, whereas Crowe brings a violent mayhem-maker. Van Heflin plays the rancher in need of the $200 to save his place, and it’s interesting to hear how in some cases a certain actor’s natural speaking voice, because of its very timbre, lends authenticity everything he says. The piece is very well cast, directed, filmed (Charles Lawton) and edited (Al Clark). The plump Robert Emhardt beautifully plays the worthy who is backing Ford’s arrest, and Henry Jones plays the key role of the town drunk who stands by to the very end. Leora Dana plays Heflin’s wife, in a thanklessly written role, but her acting, such as it is, is betrayed by her makeup, for she wears full lipstick. Felicia Farr plays the bartender who, in a brief interlude, sleeps with Ford, and then no more is seen of her, even though she has star billing in the briefer of the two female roles. Ford goes on to seduce Heflin, and almost succeeds. The tension is palpable. It’s a tiptop story, along the lines of High Noon, the Last Detail, They Came To Cordura, but better than any of them. The acting style is the old one of Pick Up Your Cues. It works like all get out.

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The Tourist

06 Jan

The Tourist – directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – an international thriller in which two casual acquaintances must elude their assassins together. 103 minutes color 2010.

* * * * *

An Angelina Jolie picture guarantees luxe. Creamy photography, svelte closeups, and the promise of ineffable lips. And so it proves here. This is not a picture such as Changeling, where she is required to create a character. No indeedy, that is not in her gift. What we get is Angelina Jolie once more in one of her power-beauty roles, and boy is she good at it. We see her walk down the street in a fabulous dress, and everyone makes way for her to the right and the left and everywhere else in the picture — which is an international intrigue show. She sits at a cafe table — and the entire film rotates around her, spies, detectives, gangsters. For what more could one ask? The film really delivers your money’s worth in the realm of elegant mystery suspense along the lines of To Catch A Thief– and set in Technicolor Venice, to boot! Grand Canal, grand palace, grand hotel – wow! Johnny Depp plays the stranger she meets on a train, and it’s good to see him play such a gormless chap, a Midwestern, community college math teacher. She comes on to him, and he doesn’t know what to do with himself, and which of us would? Depp doesn’t miss a trick in playing this part. This is high praise for an actor who has seemed to become over-exposed of late, and given to performances which have not been worked through properly beforehand or mistakenly accepted, such as the demon barber of Fleet Street. But here the whole film is a fancy latte. It cools off a bit at the end as it becomes under-edited. But never mind; that’s what happens with a latte. Until then, you sip slowly and in a civilized manner, and you don’t ask for anything more than to be beguiled by the tasty confection presented.

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Lady Of Burlesque

17 Dec

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

* * * * *

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

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Blow

15 Dec

Blow – directed by Ted Demme – a young man grows into a big time drug dealer, then withers. 2 hours color 2001.

* * * * *

Johnny Depp can carry a film all right all right. The trouble is, as the film goes on, the burden gets lighter and as the burden gets lighter the film is harder for him to carry, because there’s nothing left to carry, until he almost staggers under the exhausting weight of nothing. And this is noticeable here. The material is actually quite thin. Its first thinness is that it is about drugs to begin with, and not really about any conflict or irresolution between the characters or even in the characters. For years Depp has played noble crooks and cranks doomed to betrayal by life and love and oh so many octopi. And he had made other films about drugs, but films about drugs, stories about drugs, always end up collapsed partly because drugs are not human and partly because drugs are a power larger than any human, no matter how successful one might be in doing business with them. So the final thinness is that all films about drugs become enfeebled by the foregone conclusion that they will not end well. Ray Liotto and Rachel Griffiths are especially good as Depp’s parents, and Griffiths, who is younger than Depp and Australian, nails her New England accent and character with one blow. This is a very well made, beautifully shot and written and filmed piece. The wigs are dreadful and in them Depp and Penelope Cruz look like … well, they look like they’re wearing wigs. As Elia Kazan said, “No wigs. Wigs always look like wigs.” And he was right. So there is never a single moment when the wigs here give character registration. All they give is: “Why is Johnny Depp wearing another peculiar wig?” Depp, of course, we root for, not because of his performance, but because it is inherent to his nature that we do so. Will It Work? is our suspense. Will He Get Away With It? How Will it Turn Out? Yes. Yes. And Badly.

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Baby Doll

04 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Plan B

22 Nov

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

* * * * *

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

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Silver Streak

08 Nov

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

* * * * *

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

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La Vie Promise

08 Nov

La Vie Promise –– directed by Olivier Dahan –– drama of a prostitute and her estranged daughter on the lam –– 93 minutes 2002

* * * *

This is a beautifully cast and directed piece – though neither well photographed nor well edited. However, the content of the story is strong, convincing, well worked out, true, and inspiring. At the center of it is the character played by Isabelle Huppert, an actress of incomparable femininity, who understands herself as a woman and an actress on screen to the full. Her performance, and the performances of all the actors, adhere to the French school, which spurns virtuosoism and big effects, for un-actorish stillness and smallness of detail. Remember, when watching it, that French wines tend to be dry. The result is a sense of reality completely at odds with the TV-acting so frequently to be seen nowadays, a skirting of emotionalism that in terms of expected histrionics might seem unreal, but in terms of the material and the story at hand is realism incarnate.  It’s an acquired taste; you have to get used to it a bit. Huppert embodies this school, and she is in all ways wonderful. I won’t even describe the scenes where she achieves great things, because I don’t want to give anything away. She is touching, and so is everyone in it, and so is the picture. The subtitles are good –– and , since the dialogue is leisurely, they are easy to read. This is not a run-of-the-mill piece.

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Batman Forever

07 Nov

Batman Forever –– directed by Joel Schumacher –– the caped superhero is beset on all sides, of course. ––122 minutes color 1995.

* * * * *

“Was that over-the-top? I can’t tell,” utters Jim Carrey, and one wonders at the question. Has Jim Carrey ever been under over-the-top? Certainly not in this film. He is clearly a great film creature, and give him a gilded cane and stand back. The picture itself is overloaded with focal possibilities. First we have Tommy Lee Jones miscast as someone who is not a genius and therefore cannot be played by him. All Jones can do is howl with gruesome laughter. He plays a petty thief running a covey of red capped robbers, but he is at once supplanted by Nicole Kidman, whose blond hair brings the only daylight into the night-owl doings of the Batman milieu. God helps anyone who commits a 9-5 crime in Gotham; Batman only saves the night, never the day. Kidman, no matter how ever-glorious, is soon supplanted by Jim Carrey as a sedulous inventor employee of Bruce Wayne. Carrey consumes every scene he is in, with his brilliant physical comedy and hyperbolic acting style and range of invention. He’s wonderful of course. But his Niagara turns everyone around him into a trickle. He is followed but not supplanted by Chris O’Donnell who enters as a fledging Robin. The whole film is all quite lovely, and gives full satisfaction to one’s longing for midnight draughts. Val Kilmer is Bruce Wayne, and why not? The part is cast for the mouth showing under the mask. He is a very good actor and perfectly at ease in the role of the adult orphan. Complaints are irrelevant. So is praise. Who could critique a mud bath at a spa or champagne fountain at a wedding? Not I. Over-indulgence is at times the only proper rule of law. All I can say is that Jim Carrey fifteen years ago was at the perfect age to have played Hamlet, and should have done so. He had the antic temperament, the innocence of eye, and the pain.

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The Town

27 Oct

The Town –– directed by Ben Affleck –– a gangster crime-flick: a bank robber falls in love, which sorely threatens his career. Color 1020.

* * * * *

Boy is Ben Affleck a good actor. And a good director. And a good writer too. Given the grace of a regional accent to execute, he comes alive like nobody’s business. It’s really not possible not to watch him while he’s on camera, and, unlike most actor-directors, he wisely does not hesitate to give himself proper screen time –– wise, because the internal life he endures is what molds the plot, and we need to be privy to it at all times. The picture is a bank-heist piece, with three, count them, three robberies, all done in costume, and all executed with charming finesse. Jeremy Renner plays the Joe Pesci part, a man addicted to his profession, just as he was in The Hurt Locker. Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite come in as ruthless old geezers, and Postlethwaite’s final scene is something to write home about. Actors, come and rejoice! Pete’s a treat. You completely believe in his power to intimidate. It’s never played for evil. Nope. The romantic lead is Rebecca Hall, and I find it hard to take an interest in her much, but the character is very well written. The whole picture has the virtue of its sources in the gangster films of the 30s with Lawrence Tierney and Pat O’Brien and James Cagney and Edward G Robinson, and it’s fun to think back on those movies and how simple they were in telling the same story. I like the relentlessness of that simplicity. And I like the searing spectacle of such modern elaborations as this. And I particularly light the sight of The Town of Boston, in which the director feels fully at home and alive.

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