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Archive for the ‘DIRECTORS’ Category

The Bookshop

17 Sep

The Bookshop—directed by Isabel Coixet. Drama. 112 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: A WWII widow opens a bookshop in an English seaside town and finds herself the focus of intense drama for survival.
~
In The Bookshop two renowned actors, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson find the roles of a lifetime. They do not disappoint.

As the film passes, one wonders why the widow remains, but the film answers the question as it is being asked. The camera plays upon the rain, the shrubs, the view, the byways, the sea. And with these glimpses we know she stays because the town is so particularly beautiful.

Emily Mortimer plays her wide open. She moves into, through, and past the local bureaucracy and against all rumor and logic opens her store. She hires help. She becomes known to the townsfolk and to the matriarch of which who regards her ambition with sterling silver spite. Patricia Clarkson plays this British grand dame as to the manor born. It could not have been played as well by an English actor, for not one of those great ladies would have played her without the comment of a point of view, which always includes the humor of forgiveness.

Clarkson provides none, and in doing so reveals the underside of the character wholly. For, without the humor concurrent with a point of view to excuse her, we must witness the presence of the venom within the fang.

Our heroine’s side is taken by a seething recluse, played by Bill Nighy. You feel his intensity will make the film celluloid curl and ignite. His gazes burns towards the young widow with rays of repressive ice. She is, to herself as to him, out of bounds, so instead of sending him the latest edition of Jane Austen, she sends him wild-assed Ray Bradbury and wins his favor and allegiance.

The bookshop owner is played by Emily Mortimer, an actor new to me, and one of that breed of leading English actors, Colin Firth is another, whose eminence is due not to their particular talent, skills, or temperament but rather to their simple ability to stand before the movie audience and provide an outline into which it can place itself unwittingly. She is very good at this. She is an actor who offers no difficulty but the seduction of a pleasing neutrality.

The film is beautifully directed, edited, and written. And necessarily narrated by Julie Christie. Like Moonlight it will probably be the word-of-mouth picture of the year and end up with awards (which have already begun) that will surprise nobody and gratify all.

 

Tangerine

13 May

Tangerine – directed by Sean Baker – comedy – 28 minutes Color 2015.
★★★★★
The Story: A hooker, fresh from the pokey, learns from her best friend that her pimp has two-timed her, so the two of them set forth into mayhem.
~

Tangerine is The Importance Of Being Earnest set in the land of trans-gender prostitution the the streets of L.A. That is to say, it is as witty as Oscar Wilde’s play and has the same subject – which ought to be enough for anyone to leap toward and watch it.

The subject is: Which of us do you love more, her or me?

This mortal matter is pursued by the Cicely and Gwendolyn characters, Sin-Dee and Alexandra, beautifully played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.

To cut through other praises to the one that interests me most, let’s turn to the double-pluses of the camera-acting combo, the one dependent upon the other, so I believe.

The camera is an IPhone. This palm-held camera rids us of the patient awkwardness of a 35mm camera. Less waiting when shooting. Grab performance when it’s hot. The result is brilliant acting, some of which is improvised.

I, who deplore improvisation as a rule, stand corrected before the ability of the director, Sean Baker, to inspire and to capture performance – performance-capture – the denominator common to all great directors, which you find scattered through their films but seldom see pervasive throughout one. But it’s pervasive here.

The IPhone is held by Baker and Radium Cheung. I know nothing of the other work of these two, but I bow before them, palms-down. Scene after scene comes alive, fresh, real, and funny.

The cast is of varying degrees of experience, but it doesn’t matter: the value that holds is authenticity, and it is met by all. For instance, when the Lady Bracknell character – out To Save Society – appears on the screen in the form of the great Armenian actress Alla Tumanian, you immediately sense you are in the presence of someone experienced beyond the ordinary, but you also observe that she is playing in the style common to all the others. She does not stand apart; she simply adds to the brilliance before us. Sean Baker directed the acting, and, as editor, chose it. Good for him.

What lasts?

Story lasts. Yes, even more than performance. Two things matter, but story makes a film lasting, which Tangerine has become. Lasts because a human truth is unfolded along its path. That means that the theme is not merely present but honored through its quirks and faults and splendors. Such is the case here.

The theme is friendship, a great one. Don’t miss Tangerine. It’s funny and true and dear.

 

Nevada Smith

26 Apr

Nevada Smith – directed by Henry Hathaway. Western. 128 minutes Color 1966.
★★★
The Story: A young man lives his life to revenge the murder of his parents.
~
Steve McQueen aged 31 is asked to play a boy of 16. He is too beat up to do it, and it was not within his range as an actor anyhow. Otherwise the hole in his dirty shirt is the only actually authentic object in the picture and, you might say, his authenticity is a function of that. Indeed, McQueen plays here what he always played, a man without a code.

Does authenticity hold true for anyone else? The Indians are pristine in their feathers. So are the sluts. So is the excellent Brian Keith who plays McQueen’s mentor after two rough weeks on the trail with a shirt straight from the dry cleaners. Keith, Arthur Kennedy and Pat Hingle, Martin Landau, fine actors all, are Jim-dandy as McQueen’s challenges. But the costuming demotes everyone who appears, and the believability of the film suffers from it.

Of course, this is the way things were done in Westerns of this era. Perhaps McQueen started to question the sort of material he was appearing in. His interests were car collecting, motor cycles, and gang-bangs, McQueen always the first off with his britches. The film as a whole doesn’t ring true. Partly because McQueen is asked to play a man with a code, and his code does not extend beyond what promotes his already seductive masculinity.

This is too bad, because the material has merit. McQueen’s search takes him to various parts of the country, among which is a state prison in a swamp, a setting striking in its perils. Also too bad because Karl Malden plays the main object of his revenge, and Malden is wonderful, all the way through to the insane, surprising finale.

Henry Hathaway, a hardline, highly experienced director of male-oriented pictures, directed. Hathaway directed so many Westerns he may have become petrified in the production values that prevailed then. He was associated with huge male stars –Tyrone Power, John Wayne, Gary Cooper – and his stories display a high degree of testosterone, culminating in Richard Widmark’s Johnny Udo in Kiss Of Death shoving Mildred Dunnock in her wheelchair down a flight of stairs, and in the various rotters, here played by Hingle, Landau, Malden, and Kennedy. It’s a world blinded by its formulas to even the possibility of other stories, other resolutions, other energies.

One of the difficulties of Westerns in the 50s being filmed in color is in real life, they were lived out in sepia. Color in Westerns is good for the outdoors, not for close-ups, not interiors, to which it adds distracting interest, and certainly not to costumes which, particularly in females, delivers a gaudiness that adds nothing verifiable to their characters use in stories.

McQueen has an eventful face. With its folds, creases, muscles. Gable did too; so did James Dean. A lot could happen in such a face, and Gable had the ability to play comedy with it, which is to say, he was willing to look like a sap. McQueen is never willing to do that, is never funny, but, while serious to the point of solemnity, instead always seethes with sex. One always wants to take him under one’s wing and reform him, forgetting that his allure lies in his impenitent self-absorption.

The picture takes McQueen to various ages and various locales over 15 years – all the while holding revenge in mind. Malden would play the same target for it in One Eyed Jacks. But the most unusual locale involves Cajun girls who harvest the rice crop while the prisoners break rocks, and then come to the prisoners at night and everyone gets laid. Suzanne Pleshette plays the principal slut well, leading McQueen out of the swamp in a dugout, until she cops that he’s more interested in the dugout than in her.

McQueen was a crafty actor who stole scenes by underselling them. Watch him closely as he does this. He is able to draw all the energy in the room to himself, as James Dean did, by exuding and at the same time withholding a sensuality all the more tantalizing because it promised something that he would snicker you away from if you got serious. A number of actors of that era – Brad Davis, Alain Delon, Christopher Jones, Dean Stockwell – had this. It was very sellable.

Who has it now? Brad Pitt, who is a better actor than McQueen, with a wider range, and Pitt can be very very funny, a thing which McQueen was too full of himself to attempt.

Steven McQueen was a poor man’s poor man. He may get into a vest, tie, and Rolls for The Thomas Crown Affair, but he’s trailer-trash – which is his value to the silver screen – the underlying drama always being can his beauty surmount his origins?

Still I seek out McQueen’s movies. I have to admit it’s fun to see that rare someone for whom animal magnetism is so easy. A cute guy who could write his own ticket to Timbuktu and back. I watch out of envy and delight – and interest in his exercise of his small, fascinating, and undeniable talent.

 

Blackboard Jungle

21 Apr

Blackboard Jungle directed by Richard Brooks. Drama. 101 minutes Black and White. 1955.
★★★
The Story: A teacher just starting out in his profession faces a rude and dangerous classroom of delinquents and eventually wins their favor.
~
The idea is ridiculous. Students are not in class to bestow favor, as noblesse oblige. And teachers are not there to win favor. Swimming pools are for swimming and schools are for schooling, and everyone who goes to either place knows that. You don’t hold beer parties in church.

This is to say that the film is forced. And the part that’s forced is the cast playing the delinquents. Most of them are a bit old for the parts. But that doesn’t matter so much as that none of the actors see their characters from the characters point of view. This allows them to drift into caricature, and what we see is a bouquet of gutter roses, ala West Side Story.

Exception must be made for Vic Morrow who Methods his character into a maniac. He is never a gutter rose. He is always a stinker. This doesn’t mean one buys his interpretation as real.

Sidney Poitier aged 28 plays the one borderline kid who is 17. This one believes, partly because decency is inherent in Poitier, and partly because, unlike any of the others, he had already played leading roles in several films and knew certain pitfalls, and partly because of his confidence, and partly because his shoulder bones show under his t-shirts because he is so skinny.

He is the only kid whose performance one buys. Oh, it’s nice to see Rafael Campos, still a teenager; he’s lovely in his big scene. But the film belongs to Glenn Ford who apparently can act anything thrown at him. His commitment, balance, focus, and drive in each of the varied scenes casts aside the inauthenticity he is surrounded with. Fortunately he is virtually in every scene. The great Louis Calhern plays the most tired and cynical of these vocational high school teachers; one always sits back in one’s chair in confidence Calhern will give satisfaction, and he does.

Richard Brooks was not a director/writer of finesse, and this is as good an example of his work as any. When the picture came out it caused riots and a scandal, but that was because of the first rock-and-roll sound track in a film, and “Rock Around The Clock” became a million seller in its day. The film made a fortune.

The work of Poitier, Ford, and Calhern is not dated, but the film is long past its shelf-life. I wonder if a film has ever been made about difficult teenagers, as themselves, not as caused by environment or prejudice, but as themselves, as individuals. I have not heard of it. Such kids are called juvenile delinquents, but neither part of that term is helpful; it finishes them off. I’d like to see a film about their seed and core. Their action in their age.

 

Smart Money

20 Apr

Smart Money – directed by Alfred E. Green. Crime Comedy. 81 minutes Black And White 1931.
★★★★★
The Story: A small-town barber with a lucky streak heads for the big-time and succeeds in all his dreams but that of a lady to kiss.
~
He is my favorite actor. Edward G. Robinson. I love to watch him. I never tire – even though his effects linger from film to film. Richard Burton said of him that if he were on the screen with the most beautiful man alive, you would not watch that man, you would watch Robinson.

More alive as an actor than any other!

James Cagney made seven films in 1931, and The Public Enemy hadn’t come out yet, and Robinson, after Little Caesar, has the lead. They both started in New York Yiddish theater, and were friends, but this was their only film together.

It’s fun to see that Cagney could just as easily have played the part, or at least part of the part. The difference between them is this.

Robinson’s acts a character who is full of himself. But Cagney never played a character who was not full of himself. Robinson had to act it. But for Cagney being full of himself was the basis of his craft. It made him the schoolyard bully his entire career. It was not the basis of Robinson’s craft. Robinson has to summon hubris into the role. So Robinson is more appealing in the part than Cagney would have been. And the role has another part to it: Robinson is big-time, he is generous, kind, gallant, but no woman loves him. What would Cagney have done with that!

Perfect part for Robinson, and he played it more than once. Rather than romantic leads, who got the girl, Robinson often played professionals – such as the detectives he played in Orson Welles’ The Stranger or Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Absolute authority of attack is his genius. And, boy oh boy, does he know his lines!

The film was directed by a studio work-horse, Alfred E. Green. Green, an admirable director, knows exactly how to tell a story with a camera, exactly where to put the camera to do it, exactly what value to give a scene. He directed more Bette Davis films than another director. She learned her craft under him. I always welcome his name on the credits and know I am in good hands..

I have never before seen Evalyn Knapp, marvelous as the most important of the many blondes Robinson is drawn to. She is touching and real from the time she first appears till the time she withdraws. Not much of a career; one wonders why. Still, she is lovely. And all the blondes are lovely and good in their parts. Robinsons’ tremendous ebullience and bonhomie carry the film, which dates no more than anything well-made dates, which is to say no further than our affection for a bygone era.

 

The Shop Around The Corner

03 Dec

The Shop Around The Corner – Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Romantic Comedy 1 hour 33 minutes Black And White 1940.

★★★★★

The Story: Much ado about two young folks who bicker but, unbeknownst to one another, are writing pen-pal love letters to one another all along.
~
It’s always been a great story, and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is but its extreme variant. Here we do not have nobility and rapiers and Dogberry. Instead, we have MittleEuropean pastry by its greatest chef, Ernst Lubitsch. If we are not in Vienna we are in Budapest, and if not there, at least in the high season of that Hollywood middle-class bliss, light comedy. With a truth all its own.

It’s a perfect Christmas movie. For it works itself toward snow and galoshers, and decorating the holiday shop window as a plot twist.

Margaret Sullivan has top billing because everyone in those days adored her; indeed Jimmy Stewart in his early acting days had a crush on her, but his friend Henry Fonda married her. Yet Lubitsch focuses his camera on Stewart, for as we all know to our joy he was one of the great comic actors of film.

Comic actor?

Yes, but not the Jerry Lewis sense. You might better say, or I might better say “an actor of comedy of character.” Which is to say he appears to be unwitting in his effects, although a master of them.

Well, he’s marvelous for actors to watch, and endearing to us all. In Stewart’s delivery, when he wants, there is something inherently humanly humorous. What is it, would you say?
His attack on the material is preceded by a resident forgiveness. It simply has not gone out of date. But why do we root for him? Of course, he’s an accessible type, but with the most sensual of mouths. Skinny. With a voice like the spring on an old screen door.

In all this, I must stop. I am raving. For he is is surrounded by tip-top actors. Joseph Schildkraut as the unctuous nephew of the boss played with hearty bluster by Frank Morgan and by that true-blue actor Felix Bressart as Stewart’s buddy in the shop.

The Shop Around The Corner is generally considered to be a perfect film. It is thought of as Lubitsch’s greatest comedy, one of the greatest comedies ever made.

Is it, though? Join the line and find out. Or find out again. I saw it when it first came out in 1940 and remember it fondly. I saw it again last week and, as you can see, remember it fondly.

 

Bardelys, The Magnificent

27 Sep

Bardelys The Magnificent – directed by King Vidor. Silent Swashbuckler. 90 minutes Color Filters 1926.
★★★★★
The Story: A philandering blade, on a Cymbeline-bet to marry a certain lady, falls for her on sight and is almost hung for his pains.
~
What we see here is John Gilbert as a quite good actor.

Good?

Really?

Watching Queen Christina, who would have guessed? There, he looks like a high-strung ham.

Here, however, everything he does is geared to bodice-ripper style but played in the lowest key. He simply lets the tinpot gesticulations of the plot zoom around him, while he stays real. Smart actor. Too much makeup on his eyebrows does give their whites a gluttonous glare of intensity, perhaps, but otherwise he is light and easy, convincing and fun.

He rescues himself at the end with a series of spectacular aerial acrobatic feats, ala Douglas Fairbanks, worth waiting for. In the meantime, he has the fair Eleanor Boardman, (soon to marry King Vidor, the director). She is lovely, real, unusual. Worth seeing her acting and her spirit.

In a different way, the same can be said for Roy D’Arcy. Now there’s a villain for you. The eye makeup astonishes. Covering his eyebrows with flesh-colored tape, he pastes tiny upward slanting brows and below them the suspect balcony of a moustache, and below that the poisoned stiletto of a goatee. In silents, even in late and technically advanced ones like this, actors sometimes still used stage-makeup. What terrifying teeth! What a loathsome smile he generates with them! What a captivating gift is his! Repulsive. Silent films were his onion. Don’t miss him.

The story, of course, is tosh. But it is wittily over-costumed, and the sets, which look like sets, are hyperbolic – just what this sort of material requires. Amid a flurry of unconvincing duels with sabers, the film contains a number of famous scenes. The love scene in the punt with the swans floating past the weeping willows is justly renown.

This is MGM at its most expensive. The great William Daniels, who photographed Garbo and right up to Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, lavishes the talent of his lighting on every scene.

Check it out for your revision of Gilbert’s gifts. Gilbert almost married Garbo. He married Ina Claire for fifteen minutes. Marlene Dietrich saved his life in her usual manner. Dead at thirty-eight, alas. His daughter by actress Leatrice Joy, whom he also married, talks about him movingly, and the extras include two well informed commentators.

It’s a King Vidor film, so it has the power of true sexual attraction in it. The film was thought lost until recently. Its discovery and reconstruction is a wonder and a treat.

 

Ace In The Hole

29 Aug

Ace In The Hole – produced, written, and directed by Billy Wilder. Docudrama. 115 minutes Black And White 1951.
★★★★

The Story: To hot up the headlines, a sleazy reporter stretches out the rescue of a man trapped in a mine.
~
A remarkable film. In some ways. None of which count.

I saw it when it first came out and disliked it for a reason I now understand. It is over-written and over-acted, which is a form of waterboarding. Force everything down our throats and we have no room to respond. The movie failed in America.

Looking at Kirk Douglas chew every line to death with his many teeth, I wonder at him. Is this a human being at all? I have never found him so, save once, Lonely Are The Brave. Otherwise, I watch him force his lines and attitudinize, and I realize that the director must also have wanted this. But why? Douglas’s character becomes a crazy Hitler – an egomaniac who can manipulate events into a spectacle that will hypnotize a multitude. Billy Wilder was a Nazi-fled Austrian Jew, and I don’t think the film has anything much to do with America, a country, unlike Germany, geographically too large to give itself to a single morbid distraction.

For supporting players, the difficulty when the leading actor overacts is the requirement to play into his pitch and overact too. The only one who escapes this necessity is Porter Hall, the one character in the picture you believe.

What’s remarkable about the picture is its setting in New Mexico and the vast cast of extras which gathers to witness the rescue of the trapped prospector. The costumes by Edith Head are tip-top. But the main appeal of the film as a story lies in the way it is told by the camera, which is in the hands of (18 Oscar nominations) Charles Lang. He’s as much responsible for Paramount style as Claudette Colbert is. It is one of those films whose posthumous reputation can be credited more to him and the Paramount production team than by the temperament of its director.

Wilder always kept things simple. It’s a good rule. He had made Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Boulevard, and was to go on to make Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, most of which Charles Lang also filmed. But if you have a bastard for your leading role, he must first be human. Human first. Bastard second. In fact, human alone would probably suffice.

 

Picture Snatcher

10 Aug

Picture Snatcher – directed by Lloyd Bacon. Newsroom Comedy. 87 minutes Black And White 1933.
★★★★★
The Story: A crime lord goes straight to a newspaper to go straight, leading to his becoming an ambulance chaser-photographer which is almost as bad as being a crime lord.
~
Picture Snatcher is the key to Cagney. If it is not the best performance he ever gave in movies, I haven’t seen a better.

It’s perfectly directed by Bacon and shot by Sol Polito and edited by Bill Holmes. top craftsmen at Warners. Warners made pictures about low-life, and this is one, but that didn’t mean those films didn’t get Waldorf-Astoria treatment.

You’ve got to see the film, because Cagney is just so good. I didn’t like him as a kid. It felt like I was growing up with a bully. And there is that element in him. But essentially, Cagney’s technique is grounded in fear, by which I mean the automatic defensiveness of the little man with a Thompson Machine Gun personality. You can see it melt from time to time as he meets up with this or that honey or hitch.

Cagney’s fear gave him technical confidence, and from that springs his awareness to improvise physically – so you never know what he is going to do next! This makes him interestingly dangerous. It also makes his technique reliable and at the same time fresh. For instance, watch for the moment when he dashes into a telephone booth to call his girl. The instant before he dials, he scoops the coin return to scarf a forgotten dime. Only Geraldine Page had this capacity for detail in running performance.

Cagney’s musical theater technique, which was the ground for what he did in films, may have originally been learned on the streets of New York. It was so installed in him that it prevented him from playing his parts in any other way. He had only this explosive technique to stand on. Playing a priest, you could always sense the Tommy Gun under the aub. I feel it’s rather tragic, because he wanted to play different roles. He could not do it. He couldn’t play them differently.

Certain artists can do practically anything: Schubert and Mozart. Other artists find their niche and mine it. Chopin, for instance or Piazzolla. Nothing wrong with it. Wonderful, in fact. Cagney: in his vein. See him here at his best in it.

 

Padre Padrone

02 Aug

Padre Padrone – directed by Paolo & Vittorio Taviani. Drama. 114 minutes Color 1977.
★★★★★
The battle of a father to overlord his son to lifelong enslavement and ignorance against that son who hears a song from afar he recognizes as his own.
~
Ruthless.

I like films ruthless about what they show. As a corrective to the flaccid films that ruled the ‘50s of my youth, I required transgressors like Brando first was.

Now, late in life, I come upon one of the great films of that era, by brother-directors whose work I have never before seen.

How does an individual survive the abuse of a life? No. Not survive. But emerge, not with a white flag, but with a rag of his own devising, coloring, conception, and will? Waving on a crooked stick, he holds it aloft as he clambers out of the ditch.

This story takes place in the upper hills of Sardinia. Shepherd people live nearto rude survival. Their temperaments male and female are violent, cruel, unforgiving, unchanging. The mother tortures the boy, the father beats him almost to death. No escape across those stony hills is in view nor in view of anyone else around. No examples of dropping out, hitting road, or carving a future of one’s own.

This is Italian neo-realism at its most forceful and grainy. It, like the films of Robert Rossellini, is executed with care, predication, rigor. Nothing careless here. Nothing cheap or underdone. It is as consumate as a Freed Unit musical at MGM – but in style and treatment, of course, it is without gloss or relief. I feel I am there. I feel I am actually seeing it. I am walking through it, and it is walking through me. I cannot stop it or bring aid to it.

It won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. It won world-wide praise and attention. It is a relevant and immediate and gripping today as when it was made. Beautifully restored by the Coen Brothers.

Acted by masters. Costumed, set, lit, filmed, directed by masters. Entertain yourself with their power and their truth.

 

Yojimbo

23 Jul

Yojimbo – directed by Akira Kurosawa. Samurai Action. 110 minutes Black And White 1961.
★★★★★
The Story: A yojimbo, or strong-arm for-hire, exploits his employers in a small town at war with itself.
~
It is the perfect war movie: at the end, no one is left standing. The town is turned into debris and cadavers. The only ones alive are two old guys, the coffin maker and the barkeep. And the God of War, who movies on to the next battlefield.

Greed, lust, envy fuel the feud that drives the townsfolk to take sides. Commercial control starts it all. When it’s over, the only artist in town, a drummer, emerges beating his drum blindly and murders the last survivor, an act from which he reappears covered with blood and drumless. For, you see, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, the wife of Mars, does not survive war propaganda.

Toshiro Mifune plays the God of War, as a disreputable samurai of no renown who wanders into the embattled village. Once there, he sees his job as a strategy that everyone in town shall destroy everyone else, without his having to do the fighting. From the Olympian distance of a high tower or through the crack in a wall, he observes the mayhem he causes.

But he betrays his method by coming to Earth and saving the life of a young woman, her young husband, and their little boy. For this error he is beaten almost to death.

Finding recuperation in a temple, as a God should, he returns to the village and wreaks death all about, and leaves.

It is a film whose story is organized with a minimum of exposition and a maximum of movement. Mifune has scarcely a line to speak. But he is the focus of the mystery of what the outcome will be and how it will be. We wait. Suspense is our treat.

Mifune plays the character as an individual with a sense of humor unusual for a Mars figure. He does not present his warrior as a Gary Cooper character, but as a rapscallion who will lie, cheat, and steal to forward his plot and to assess its players. Resolute without being an absolutist, we never know what to expect as his fate, any more than we know what trick he will come up with to salt the wound of the next surprise. Clint Eastwood would take this story and this character and invest it throughout his career with gutter ethics. Mifune does not have to reach for that. His sense of humor is his six shooter.

Mifune and Kurosawa made 16 films. Is this the best? From the first twitch of his itchy shoulders to the last, Mifune is captured by the great camera of Kazuo Miyagawa and by Kurosawa’s ruthless sense of effects. The actors astonish. The guts of art have been equaled but never been surpassed.

 

Army Of Shadows

11 Jun

Army of Shadows – directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Spy Drama. 2 hours 25 minutes Color 1970/2009.
★★★★★
The Story: Hairbreadth escapes dog the ground commanders of the Maquis, the French Resistance in WWII.
~
Impeccable.

As I left the theater I heard someone surprisedly say, “The picture never shows what those in The Resistance actually do.” What is also true, however, is that the result of whatever they did was of high danger to the occupying Germans who pursued them ruthlessly and to the death for it.

It is also surprisingly true that virtually all of those shown as leaders of the French Resistance are middle aged-people you would never take to be important spies and renegades at all. This inspires bafflement. Where is young Harrison Ford? Where is ever-young Tom Cruise?

And an additional advantage is that the actors who play them are unknown to one –at least to an ignoramus like me. I’d never seen Paul Meurisse, Lino Ventura, Claude Mann, Christian Barbier, Paul Crauchet. That means that one has no preconception as to how the story of their characters will develop or end and no idea what to expect from them as one watches. They are perfect strangers one experiences for the first time and finds one’s way into.

In France, each of them was a prized star, as was Simone Signoret (a German/Polish/Jewish/French actor who during The War took her mother’s name, Signoret, to survive deportation). Signoret plays Mathilde, the mastermind on the ground, a great woman, although in real life the wife of just some shopkeeper. Signoret’s visage with its huge, wide-spaced eyes and flexible mouth is one of the most striking of movie faces, and here it is used in various disguises – the rich widow, the head nurse, the dull housefrau, the blowsy tart, as Mathilde wends her way through enemy lines. Signoret often played grande or petite coccottes. Where are her grande amoreuses; where her Léa de Lonvals of yesteryear?

All these unknowns add mystery, surprise, and wonder to watching this film, which depicts extreme actions but focusses on the responses of the characters to those actions and is executed with rare acuteness, economy, and choice.

Melville was a participator in The Resistance. It was a perilous calling. And his great first film, The Silence Of The Sea is a stunning account of the resistance on the ground. See it. See this too. Army Of Shadows is a rare treat. Miss it under peril of the scowl of the Cinema Gestapo!

 

The Immortal Story

25 Apr

The Immortal Story – written and directed by Orson Welles. TV Drama. 58 minutes Color 1968
★★★★★
The Story A multimillionaire pays for a man and a woman to enact a sailors’ age-old sexual fantasy.
~
This is said to be Welles’ last completed film, and a very good one it is. Of course, it contains Welles’ usual tropes, which reflect his hobby as a magician, in that his films are defter than the eye that watches them, and thus, always sinister – in that they are all left-handed, and contain a touch of evil – at least what he enjoyed to be evil.

So many books about Orson Welles. To plumb his mystery and to represent some or other aspect of his character or genius elsewhere dismissed or unobserved. Yet he was probably simpler than supposed. And probably thought of himself so too.

The thing about Welles is that he is essentially a virtuoso radio actor. By which I mean, he reigns by means of his voice. Virtuoso radio acting and with that voice supported his stage ambitions as a young man of an energy so superabundant and inventive that everyone stood aside for it and served it – there being nothing else to do with it except resent it. He retains that voice in film, life, and Lear which I once saw him perform in a whale chair.

The thing about Welles in all his doings and roles and life is that that he must be The Main Event or he is nothing. He will withhold his toys; he will not play.

From the time he was a child he had been treated as The Main Event. By his father, foster father, teachers, and because he had a retarded brother. His voice and remarkable appearance confirmed it. Adoration, adulation was his from the start and forever. So that his survival depended on everyone treating him as The Main Event, and he rewarded their expectations or prolonged their expectations to the point of death and after. Indeed, if he is not The Main Event, he is impotent. With his great height, weight, voice, reputation, and bearing, as soon as frustrated he becomes a huge baby – effrontuous, verbally violent, refractory. The problem of, with, and for Orson Welles is that he had to be The Main Event, and in movies he was not. In movies, the one who makes the movies is The Main Event. In movies, The Producer is the Main Event. Neither writer, director nor star, not, never Welles but The Producer.

His rudeness to producers is legendary. His inability to get good money from them is epic. His career cascaded from the moment he left the cutting of The Magnificent Ambersons to save South America from the Axis in WWII – an even bigger main event than Ambersons. He never recovered from that folly.

His life in film and his entire life depended upon producers and the money to be extracted from them – humiliation enough – and in his neurosis in realizing his dependency on them and in realizing their realizing that they, not he, were The Main Event, we see him squalling and peevish and recalcitrant toward them to a mortal degree.

He made his films under budget, but seldom in time for the producers who owned them to release them to theaters in time. He cut and he recut his films – for months, for years. He delayed to give them to the producers who owned them and whose money had enabled him to make them.

He is the most suicidal of all screen persons.

Caught in the machine of himself, he goes on and for years dies, at work on the next project and the one after that.

His life is a wonderful spectacle. As endearing and innovative as a child, each in turn, the brat and the baby emerge from within him, never at war with one another, but always at war with his life itself.

The Immortal Story is a beautiful film of a beautiful story beautifully told. Isaac Dinesen wrote it, and Welles was in and perhaps never out of his Dinesen adoration period.

In it, Welles, in full stage make-up, plays a cold, old millionaire living in 19th Century Macao. His secretary, cast and played perfectly by Roger Coggio, elicits the help of a local woman, Jeanne Moreau, to play the part of the wife. Welles himself hires the beautiful young sailor, Norman Eshley, who will sleep with her.

That is enough for you. For you must see it. See it for the object of beauty it is, with its incisive score by Eric Satie, its brilliant set decoration by André Piltant, and the miraculous camera work and lighting by Willy Kurant. Of course, since Welles is The Main Event always, much of this comes from his fecund imagination and restless hands. There he is stationing his massive edifice in vast chairs. Pontificating, prodding, prominent. A Main Event.

Welles is in all things The Manipulator. All his roles are like this– on camera, off camera, in reality, and in his dreams. He does not know how to be anything else but the manipulator. Magician and puppeteer of himself, he offers to the world his rich love of its riches one of which was, most certainly and to our undying gratitude, himself.

 

Song To Song

27 Mar

Song To Song – directed by Terrence Malick. Romance. 129 minutes Color 2017.
★★★
The Story: Boy meets boy, boy meets boy’s girl, boy steals boy’s girl, girl leaves boy for girl, girl goes back to boy and boy, and then just boy.
~
Roony Mara is the Cleopatra of this fable, which feels like a personal story from the director’s life. Roony Mara? Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite monotony. She is the least mysterious, alluring, fatale of female creatures. Why any director casts this sphinx without a secret in major roles of sexual attention by everyone in the cast is not visible to the practiced eye. Or does lackluster have a luster all its own? She orphans everything she plays. A want of fire illuminates her.

She drifts as drift others through multiple and shifting plate-glass palaces and lowly cottages. Their interior furnishings are as empty as their interior lives. These settings wander as characters wander, with no fixed motive, no fixed affiliation, and no fixed income. How the hell are these people earning a living?

At the top of the heap stands a creepy billionaire record producer played by Michael Fassbender. He promises people careers in show-bizness, but he gives them the bizness. And he never unzips his fly for sex, so you know how dissolute he is.

A song-writer of ordinary talent is played by Ryan Gosling, Fassbender’s new best friend and first betrayed (The music business may be a stand-in for Hollywood.) Natalie Portman turns up as a gorgeous waitress also promised a rock-star role. And, in fact, there is Val Kilmer who once played a rock star again playing a rock star, this one in his stout fifties. Cate Blanchette plays Gosling’s rebound. Bérénice Marlohe plays the juicy lesbian. And somewhere lost in all of this is the great Holly Hunter.

Two things might be noticed about Malick’s method.

The first is that his is essentially a silent film method. You have to use an ear phone to hear what little dialogue there is, whereas, in silent film, lots of title cards tell you what it’s about. Here title cards take the form of voice-over.

Malick fell into the voice-over habit with his first film Days Of Heaven, when the little Bronx girl was coaxed into making the story clear by voice-overing it. Voice-over derives from the false notion that film is predominately not a spoken medium. With Song To Song, what you see is not a talkie.

Here we have “The Meaning Of It All” voiced-over, and it’s flaccid and tepid and vapid and vacant. However, unlike silent film, Malick’s words are devoid of humor. And in Song To Song there are no songs.

The second thing is that the acting is improvised. And this is always a mistake. When you make actors improvise a play, you make the actors write a play. Therefore, in an attempt to make things look natural, they look unnatural. In fact, they look hammy.

It’s a hamminess that is the reverse of over-acting. It is the hamminess of under-acting. Desultoriness and inertia emerge on the one hand, and on the other the actors’ choices look actorish. The actors’ choices look not what humans would do or what characters would do, but what actors would do.

Better leave them to act. Particularly with a director at once so icily controlling and lackadaisical as Malick. Indeed, at one dull spot, I noticed an actor listening intently while another actor spoke, and I realized it was Holly Hunter just doing her job.

Despite Malick’s elaborate narrative, Song To Song is rudely simple. He does get her in the end.

 

Love Is Colder Than Death

20 Mar

Love Is Colder Than Death – Directed by Rainer Werner Fasssbinder. Gangster Drama 88 minutes Black And White 1969
★★★★
The Story: A gang syndicate invites a crook to join them, but he won’t, and then what?
~
No one feels anything. Emotional inertia is both the style and the subject. Characters stare off into space full front. A car tracks the wet city streets for five minutes looking for someone in a yellow dress. Much Significant Lighting Of Cigarettes. You care about none of these sorry folks or their doings, nor do you care about the law that seeks to keep them off the streets. So what whether any of them live or die.

But – boy – does the director hold your attention!

Why you can’t put it down, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because you want to see if any of their masks will betray a single human quirk.

This description may put you off, but I should be wicked to wish that to happen to you, for a master-hand is already at play here, even though this is Fassbinder’s first feature film.

He takes one of the three leading roles, and the other two are for the first time taken by actors he was to work with often in years to come, both of whom had big careers in German and international cinema.

Ulli Lommel plays the handsome, heartless hit-man. Hanna Schygulla plays Fassbinder’s girlfriend.

The title of the film is misleading, since Love is never at stake. The Fassbender character plays fast and loose with his girlfriend/whore, but no attraction is evinced between him and her, nor between her and him, nor between him and him. Such is not where the drama lies.

It lies in the audience, held in suspense to see if any of these people is worth anything at all, and they are not. But the film is. The experience of watching it is.

Oh, the ending is botched as well as the bank heist they plan. But by that time the film is over. A corpse.

I liked it. If liking is the word.

Held by it is the word. Held by the confidence of its energy. And by the insolence of its means.

 

Edge Of The City & Sidney Poitier

25 Feb

Edge Of The City – directed by Martin Ritt. Drama. 85 minutes Black And White 1957.
★★★★★
The Story: A black longshoreman befriends a white fugitive from justice on the loading docks.
~
In the ’50s, directors came over into movies from TV where they’d directed live dramas. Martin Ritt was one of them, and this is his first movie. Produced by TV producer David Susskind, its strengths are those of Roberto Rossellini. This means a newsreel look, carefully controlled in natural settings (in this case, The Bronx), with lower-class characters, and earthy acting.

John Cassavetes plays an-Army-deserter-and-maybe-killer working under a brutal, corrupt boss, played by Jack Warden. Warden invests the character with an unselfconscious crudeness – and this sort of extreme commitment to the acting in such films brings them alive. In its day this was called The Method, of which John Cassavetes was an adept.

However, as an actor, Cassavetes seems to play the outer requirements of the role, without actually creating a character who might have stumbled into those requirements. But Cassavetes had the lower-class sensibility, so we take him at his word. He is a macho male cast as an insecure male who must repeatedly reassert his manhood. He is particularly good in the final scene. This was his first major role in a major movie.

This is also almost Sidney Poitier’s first major role in a major movie. (In a shorter version, he had done it on television.) And it will surprise you to see Poitier in a merry mood, singing, dancing, married, and actively befriending a white male stranger. However, laughing a lot though he is, the set-up of the role is the same as in subsequent Poitier films: the nice black guy finally has his say.

The experience of seeing such a picture and such actors was one eagerly sought out by movie goers of the ’50s such as myself. Black And White TV had brought such earthy stories into the parlor; we were fed up with the Hollywood aesthetic and the technicolor mug of Doris Day.

We wanted guts. We may not have been able to express our own, so we wanted our actors to supply it. We went to such films as Edge Of The City, hungry. Such hungers are never slaked, but only keep seeking the sustenance of proof that sustenance exists. They don’t make you gutsy; they only show you who is.

The difficulty of such a film is that it supplied it. But, though Cassavetes’ strained sulk was no match for the Krakatoa of Marlon Brando, Cassavetes was good looking, brooding, and just plain sexy. And Poitier was a completely novelty — a black man volunteering friendship and hospitality to a white person.

What reaches one still about this film is the vibrancy of its setting in The Bronx, its workplace, playground, and streets. These are of a reality not pleasant and having nothing to do with Technicolor’s ice-cream sundaes. They reached us then and they reach us still.

And then there was Sidney Poitier!

The first great black actor?

Before him, nothing?

No.

Before him, marvelous black actors worked their craft, as devoted actors do, with diligence, humor, skill, and curiosity. They were given respect and commercial importance in their professions. Hattie McDaniel said, “At home, I am Hattie, but in the studio I am Miss McDaniel.”

Paul Robeson, Step ‘n’ Fetchit, Louise Beavers, Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, the Nicholas Brothers, Butterfly McQueen, Canada Lee, Ethel Waters were performers of high skill. We enjoy their work to this day. They still entertain. Their work still has carrying power.

But before Poitier, black roles were largely for singers and dancers, wily fools, and yessah-servants.

When Poitier appeared on the screen, something closed down and something opened up.

As an acting instrument, what is he?

His irises are centered in his eyes with fear and determination.

The fear allows him to act. Because it keeps him aware.

The determination allows his character to make a pronounced effect.

He delivers his lines with certainty of expression. He’s well spoken, soft spoken. Does not reach for words or stammer for cues. Never speaks in Ebonics.

He exudes considerable charm when he chooses to exert it.

He keeps his figure into advanced age.

He is an actor of marked discretion of attack. He never over-acts or miscalculates an effect. He knows when to make his move and makes it unmistakably.

He has a good carriage and holds himself tall. He perhaps understands the dramatic effect of his fine neck, for his response will often not be facial, but make use of his boyish, well-shaped head.

He is a handsome male and photogenic as all get out. He is at ease in a suit.

But most of all, what struck us was that he is a black male in a big leading role! And what didn’t strike us was that we granted him stardom no questions asked. Suddenly, in Edge Of The City, we were fascinated to discover a black actor — my God! — playing a part heretofore completely unknown to the movies — a gentleman! Sidney Poitier was playing, for the first time in pictures, a role that was not blackface-in-disguise!

From this time forward, we will see him mostly play dignified professionals: doctor, lawyer, detective, minister, Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall. His roles are middleclass or below. This limits his career to noble Henry Fonda parts, and this also limits him artistically, since his roles are constructed with him quietly receiving damage until the final reel, at which point he fires both guns with invariable verbal power. He also never plays a character with a psychological weakness. He never plays in romance. Seldom in comedy.

But Sidney Poitier cleared away the limitations for black actors like a prince on a snow plough.

As a result, new limitations arose and remain: guns, violence, corruption, drugs, and ghetto grunge occupy black films now and sidetrack us into the view that black folks are only worth regarding when degraded. The middle-class black story is not filmed. True, Tyler Perry does bring low black satire before us, thank goodness, but, Perry aside, the non-racial black story is rare.

One reason Poitier became a Hollywood star and changed the sort of role written for back actors is that Sidney Poitier was not American.

He was from the West Indies.

He was born in Miami to Bahaman parents on a short visit and was immediately returned to and reared in The Bahamas. He was not reared under the influence of an American ghetto and its argot. Indeed, once he came here, he had to rid himself of his West Indian accent to find acting work. The result is Poitier’s “way of speaking”. Not only The West Indies but also “The American Negro” is completely absent from it. His intonation is literally mid-Atlantic. Behind it, his merriment is West Indian and therefore, as non-American, seldom shown in films. It is why he did not do black American comedy and that, when he does so, as in Uptown Saturday Night, he is slightly off-key.

All of this screened him from playing ethnic, native American Negro types, for he wasn’t one. But “West Indian” was the invisible-man attached to him, and reserved him instead for the dignified, patient characters his career was built upon. He was sold as American, and America bought it, and for a very good reason. Behind the trick, as well as in front of it, was a recognizably understandable fine human.

Every actor has spaces of his craft it is his fate never to explore. When Poitier was young he was friends with Harry Belafonte. Belafonte wanted to be an actor, Poitier a singer. Poitier may have stayed in American too long to know what The Bahamas was, and if he was forced by the times to be the actor we know, still we do know him. And, because we do, we know something fine in ourselves too.

For Sidney Poitier’s existence in film halted America on one walk and started us on another. Because of him and after him, the world could now see unseen sides of the black soul. And America could relax, acknowledge, and admire a black person in a way we had all always wanted to.

He is a fine craftsman and a great star.

He may not have meant us to — but we Americans owe an enormous debt to Sidney Poitier.
~ ~ ~

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DIRECTED BY: Martin Ritt, Jack Warden, John Cassavetes, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier

 

A Passage To India

08 Feb

A Passage To India – written and directed and edited by David Lean. Colonial Drama. 244 minutes Color 1985.

★★★★

The Story: A young woman and her Aunt travel to India to visit, and India takes hold of them with a mortal attraction.

~

David Lean’s last film, now a DVD whose extras are as interesting as the film itself. For you would never imagine how it was made in India back in the day. So take a look at the second DVD.

A couple of problems with the picture sully the experience, and some have to do with Lean’s mishandling of the material, for the ending is badly edited and does not fadge with the bones of the story. I can’t remember how E.M. Forster actually ends the book, but it can’t be like this.

Other difficulties have to do with his handling of what happened in the cave. E.M. Forster never told what happened there. And the reason he didn’t is because he did not know. In any case, it is clear that Miss Quested has a brain wave of some kind, becomes unhinged, and proclaims that Doctor Aziz has molested her.

In fact we are shown Miss Quested with lust in her eyes wanting Dr. Aziz in the cave. He does not see her and looks into other caves for her. He never goes into her cave at all. But Lean does not have the psychological imagination to cinematically envision what goes on inside Miss Quested that produces the catastrophic result. Lust for Dr. Aziz? Shame when he doesn’t come in? Remorse? Flight? Embarrassment? Revenge? We get none of this. All we get is some cactus scratches on her from running away downhill. So what is supposed to hang over the story as a mystery, becomes a mere opacity.

Part of the trouble is that the preparation for the cave scene is inadequate. For the excursion Miss Quested makes beforehand, coming upon pornographic statues on a bike ride, does not show the male side of sex, and because we hardly see anything risqué, we are not shocked, so how can she be shocked, and how can we gauge the statues’ effect on her? Lean has no sense of such things.

Another trouble is that we have in Judy Davis an actor who may be miscast. For Judy Davis is a young female none of this would shock. She is not the swooning sort. She is not a foolish virgin. She is Australian-earthy, not a female given to fantasies, derangements, traumatic shames, or unhingings. Of course, it would be interesting were all this to happen to as strong a personality as Judy Davis’s – but Lean’s treatment as scenarist and director go nowhere near this. He doesn’t seem to know what he has in her. It is as though the film – which is a female story – does not understand the language when entering female territory.

In a way, Lean’s film, and all his films, are about the male characters. The character of Mrs Moore, for instance, is never fully realized. Peggy Ashcroft, in a yeowoman effort, drags Mrs Moore not into clarity but into light. Clarity is not to be had. She and Lean argued badly as to how to perform her. Ashcroft was right. Ashcroft won because she had the part and went ahead and did what was right, else nothing at all would have been there, and Ashcroft won the Oscar. Judy Davis also locked horns with Lean, and lost. Lean did not have a clue about women. He would not have been married six times if he had.

The picture is ravishing in its scape. We see an India whose immensity of effect is always present, always beguiling, always seething We see wild crowds, marshalled armies in parade array, markets, mountains, rivers, structures, distraught railway trains, and placid colonial dwellings. It almost gives us a balanced canvas of Indian and English characters and points of view.

And all the male characters are superbly realized and performed, save, of course for Alec Guinness. He’s as ridiculous here as he was in Lawrence Of Arabia. Why he hypnotized David Lean to cast him to pad around as a Hindu sage only a real Hindu sage would know. Crazy. It’s counter-productive to the balance the film strives to achieve.

The three other male actors do fine work. First, Nigel Havers as the potential fiancé of Judy Davis. He plays a young magistrate in the British Colonial judicial system, and he is the perfect young man, is he not? Havers gives a lovely, easy performance as Ronny, making us thankful for the thankless role. Ronny knows not what he does as a character, but Havers as an actor does.

James Fox as the local schoolmaster, friend to both sides of the ship, rules half the film largely because his acting of Fielding is so thorough that it engages our interest and bias from start to finish. Grand work.

The co-star of the picture is Victor Banerjee, making his character full of life and optimism and love and curiosity and good will. Again, terrible reports have come down about Lean’s treatment of him. Banerjee’s performance grounds the film in the fluidity of a wonderful madness when he takes Mrs Moore and Miss Quested on the trip to the Marabar caves.

The temperament of the movie is spectacle-as-narration. It contains no scene which is not visually telling, rewarding, or essential. Every detail frees the camera to our eye. Its direction retains great respect for our ability to tell a story through what we see, through the placement of character, and particularly to the painted elephant called India in whose howdah all visitors cannot help but be shaken back and forth. One of Lean’s wives was Indian, and he had lived there a good while. He had a strong sense of its place, style, and potential as a vivid film subject.

Hidden within this vast national impression is actually a closet drama, involving only five characters, Mrs Moore, Miss Quested, Doctor Aziz, Fielding, and Ronny. The opera Aida comes to mind, a closet drama surrounded by a huge military display and a vast dynasty. Many curious and unusual relationships venture into its spectacle. But the material of  A Passage To India is one thing and the direction is quite another. Even unrealized, the material is more interesting than the director’s execution of it. To witness them, A Passage To India is still worth seeing, or, in my case and maybe in yours, worth seeing again.

 

 

 

 

Lawrence Of Arabia

03 Feb

Lawrence Of Arabia – directed by David Lean. BioPic. 217 minutes Color 1962.

★★★★

The Story: An English cartographer, archeologist, and linguist sets out on a mission to free Arabia by inducing it to fight for the British their WWI Turkish enemy.

~

The impression of spectacle is awe. The desert of the Middle East in color delivers that impression, but it does not deliver anything more internal than awe, such as danger. The smooth systems of color deny the desert its peril. Color comes at you. It blinds, it beguiles, it pleases. All those are real in their way. But color also excises certain levels of engagement which black and white grants. The desert is pretty, even in its mazy peril. But as a wild animal it is never real. Only as a spectacle.

Thinking of color and spectacle, then, as possible narrative tools, we find that in Lawrence Of Arabia spectacle is never reserved for battle, but rather for the charges before battle, the marches to battle, the preparation for battle. David Lean was, at this time, not a maker of great films, but he was a great editor of long films. So the genocide of retreating troops is actually designed to illustrate to the audience the degradation of Lawrence rather than the awesome nature of manslaughter.

The story is so odd. Because T.E. Lawrence was odd. His and its oddity hold us to the story. Peter O’Toole as Lawrence does not stand in the way of the character, but he does not hold us.Peter O’Toole is so obvious. His acting is conventional theatrical, arch, unfelt. He doesn’t seem to have any body, muscle, blood under his djellaba. He seems barely able to walk or to hold up his arms. But we put up with all this and let it pass, because the story of Lawrence, as the film gives it us, is that of an extraordinary feat by a man extraordinary in another realm – as a radical idealist. You don’t see this sort of thing much in movies.

Peter O’Toole’s acting aesthetic was ham. Was then and, if we watched his work as he aged, to see if he got over that, we find evidence that he did. But here he is at the inattentive ignorance of a director who has no sense of the craft of acting at all. With actresses he was even worse. So, spectacle was Lean’s outlet for his addiction to directing films. He had to move away from his defects and into his attributes. Good for him.

Is anyone any good in this movie? Anthony Quinn plays the same dumb brute he played since La Strada and Viva Zapata and Streetcar. He has all the tropes for it in place and releases them all to our unsurprised eyes.

The great Claude Rains plays the British liaison with his usual attentive sophistication, and one waits for a great scene or moment, and it never comes because he is never given it.

José Ferrer brings his stunning enunciation and insect aspect to the role of the sadistic homosexual Turkish commander who violates, beats, and debases Lawrence. A small part for an overwhelming talent.

Alec Guinness plays Prince Faisal, a wily Arabian desert shark and is just silly. It’s a character manufactured out of studied convention, and you don’t believe in it for a moment.

Arthur Kennedy writes his own ticket playing the only American in the story, a photo-journalist based on Lowell Thomas. He’s really good, because his Americanness is out of place, his acting technique among the English is out of place, and his character itself, in The Middle East, is out of place. I love how he takes advantage of all this, and uses it to free himself to act.

Poor Anthony Quayle plays the military liaison officer with a regimented mind; I say poor, because his role need not have been so thankless as the author, Robert Bolt, wrote it. See him in The Tales Of Hoffman to see him at his best.

Jack Hawkins, as General Allenby the head of the British Army in The Middle East has the best part of all, that of a man who is always convincingly fair, and always spoken of as ruthlessly unfair. He brings riches of voice and masculinity to us, and a sense of vitality and power in reserve. What a pleasure to be with him!

Omar Sharif is quite bad. His readings and the script and the music by Maurice Jarre sound bastardized on a Maria Montez movie sired by Rimsky-Korsakov. It is a great part which he fails to stifle with his overacting. Because you can’t help but like Omar Sharif, he became a big star in Lean’s subsequent film, Doctor Zivago. But here he is at first. His moonlight madness eyes gleam. Ah, we had waited a long time for a Muslim to arrive as a matinée idol. A Muslim? Well, whatever he was, he certainly wasn’t a Presbyterian.

Lawrence was a man men intrigued themselves by. He was actually not intriguing, but enigmatic. George Bernard Shaw and his wife later adopted him, and he took Shaw’s name, and Shaw wrote a play about him, Too True To Be Good, which I saw on Broadway with Eileen Heckart, Lillian Gish, Robert Preston, Glynis Johns, Cedrick Hardwick, Cyril Richard, and David Wayne as Lawrence. That’s a lot of attention.

When he enlisted as a private in His Majesty’s service, thrice, Lawrence did so under pseudonym. He loved to play recordings of Delius. He wrote a beautifully written and printed book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom about his Arabian adventure and its failure. Then he hid out. Everyone in the world knew him, except himself.

 

 

Silence

20 Jan

Silence – directed and written by Martin Scorsese. Drama. 2 hours 41 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★

The Story: Two Jesuit priests strike out for 17th Century Japan to find a long-lost mentor.

~

They become considerably waylaid on their search, for by 1610 Japan has killed all Catholic priests and suppressed Japanese Christianity as a cultural pollution. So the Japanese the two priests find are rude fisherfolk with scarcely a sardine to their name. But they welcome these priests as a godsend and they dote on Confession. The priests must go into hiding as they move from place to place.

And so the story goes, until doubt arises in the viewer’s mind as the validity of the doctrine the priests recite. It’s memorized too well. Haven’t we heard this palaver before?

Yes, we have, in every Hollywood movie that crossed paths with religion.

First of all, the actors talk in measured tones, each word stepping out their mouths at funereal pace.

Added to this, all the actors emotionalize religion utterance as though that would give brainwashing guts, authenticity, and urgency. It doesn’t. It just sounds forced.

Finally, the writer has cribbed the dialogue from old Cecil B. DeMille movies. The characters talk in sentences no one in their right mind ever uttered.

The fault for all this lies at the door of the director Martin Scorsese, who has seen too many Hollywood priest movies and become hypnotized by their voicing.

These dialogue difficulties fall cruelly upon the actor playing the leading priest, Andrew Garfield. He is not an interesting actor perhaps, and he is playing a character with no sense of humor. Indeed, he is playing a religious fanatic. This means he has no mind of his own, no window for change, and no law but the authoritarian. All the actor can do is give a technical performance: suffer on cue, suffer on cue, suffer on cue.

All this makes it impossible for us to get behind the character, particularly in scenes with characters who entertain.

These are Adam Driver as his buddy/priest. Garfield is conventionally good looking, while Driver has a face you cannot forget, and his character has a lot going on inside himself.

The Grand Inquisitor, with full and fascinating over-bite, is played by Issei Ogataa a performer of great imagination and surprise. We long for his return when he is gone. And when he does return, we watch nothing else.

Then we have the reprobate played by Yôsuke Kubozuka, the in-house-Judas, a character of Shakespearean interest, always betraying, always pleading for forgiveness, certainly the only true Christian in the film.

And fourthly Liam Neeson, who is simply great as the priest sought for. Neeson brings balance and conviction to his well-written argument at the end. Neeson actually has decent lines, and if you want to see how to deliver such lines, watch him play against them, moment by moment, with a sorrow at the truths he must utter.

Probably the Part Andrew Garfield plays would have been better played by an actor of Scorsese’s own age, Martin Sheen, perhaps, someone whose mettle had already been tested, someone rich in wisdom, and, most important, someone with an authentic God-shine to him. Garfield has beautifully photogenic hair, a subject for Caravaggio perhaps, but not enough halo for film. Nor for that matter for Caravaggio.

You watch the film with admiration for Scorsese’s skill. The impeccable production, the fancy camera angles, the costumes, the editing. Wow! But one’s admiration is bridled by want of content and lack of a character to get behind. Garfield is at his best when he loses everything he values and falls still, doctrine silenced.

But, if the film were designed to display Catholicism in the end as claptrap, the stillness does not go on long enough to drown the preluding clichés.

 

 

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp

14 Dec

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp – written, directed, produced by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Comedy. 2 hours 43 minutes. Color 1943.

★★★★

The Story: Sixty Years of advancing pig-headedness in the life of a British military professional and his loyalty to love of every kind.

~

How privileged I am to watch another super-duper movie in a row. This Pressburg/Powell offering was controversial in its day because it envisioned a friendship with a German military officer while WW II was being waged at the same time as it showed an old-fashioned British military professional who had a hard time adapting to modern warfare who was friends with him.

The Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger Siamese Twins wrote, produced and directed collectively The Red Shoes, The 49th Parallel, Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus, I Know Where I’m Going, and a number of other remarkably watchable pictures. This was Emeric Pressburger’s favorite and is among their best. It has on some lists been called the best English film ever made.

Martin Scorsese, whose style was influenced and informed by Michael Powell’s style, introduces the film and appears in the documentary on Powell. Powell’s wife became and remains his editor. Every director in the world has learned from P/P.

Scorsese says Roger Livesey is his favorite actor and Anton Walbrook is his next favorite. My favorite is Anton Walbrook and my next favorite is Roger Livesey. And every actor in the world has learned from these two.

Livesey plays a young, virile, rash officer whose adventurous spirit takes him to Germany, where he meets the love of his life, played by Deborah Kerr, aged 22.

He also meets his future best friend, a German Officer played by Anton Walbrook.

If you want to know anything at all about acting and how it is done, watch Walbrook here deliver a long monologue in one shot, no interruptions, no outside dialogue. Simple, internal, and both slow and quick simultaneously. He does not milk it. He exists inside the shell of a hopeless situation, which nothing he can do or say can change. Pressburger wrote it just like that. And just like that Walbrook delivers it. I watch it nearly falling off my chair for fear Walbrook will not be able to negotiate it. And in that complete him and become him.

Roger Livesey is lovely as the Colonel Blimp character, an old duffer in his nonage, a romantic husband in his middle age, and a bashful fool in his youth.

The cameraman on the picture was the great Jack Cardiff, the Michelangelo of Technicolor, so you are ravished by eye. The script remains consistently witty and endearing. And, despite the title, Colonel Blimp never dies. Thank goodness!

I don’t tell plots or stories of film because it spoils the surprise. Be prepared for this one to go on a bit after you thought it would end, and then go on some more. But its length turns out always to be agreeable, sufficient, and necessary. Don’t miss it, my dears.

The extras that go with it are tops.

 

A Passage To India

10 Dec

A Passage To India – written and directed and edited by David Lean. Colonial Drama. 244 minutes Color 1985.

★★★★

The Story: A young woman and her Aunt travel to India to visit, and India takes hold of them with a mortal attraction.

~

David Lean’s last film, now a DVD whose extras are as interesting as the film itself. For you would never imagine how it was made in India back in the day. So take a look at the second DVD.

A couple of problems with the picture sully the experience, and some have to do with Lean’s mishandling of the material, for the ending does not match with the bones of the story. I can’t remember how E.M. Forster actually ends the book, but it can’t be like this.

Other difficulties have to do with his handling of what happened in the cave. E.M. Forster never told what happened there. And the reason he didn’t is because he did not know. In any case, in the film at least, it is clear that Miss Quested has a brain wave of some kind, becomes unhinged, and proclaims that Doctor Aziz has molested her.

In the film, we are shown Miss Quested with lust in her eyes wanting Dr. Aziz in the cave. He, looking for her, of course, looks into her cave, does not see her, and looks into other caves for her. But Lean does not have the psychological imagination to cinematically envision what goes on inside her that produces the catastrophic result. What would the ingredients be? Lust? Shame when he doesn’t come in? Remorse? Flight? Embarrassment? Revenge? We get none of this. All we get is some cactus scratches. So what is supposed to hang over the story as a mystery, becomes a mere opacity.

Part of the trouble is that the preparation for the cave scene is inadequate. For the excursion Miss Quested makes beforehand, accidentally coming upon pornographic statues in the wild, does not expose enough of the male side of sex to count with the audience. Because we hardly see anything risqué, we are not shocked; so how can we gauge the statues’ shock on her? Lean has no sense of such things.

Another trouble is that we have in Judy Davis a young female none of this would shock. She is not the swooning sort. She is Australian-earthy, not a female given to fantasies, derangements, traumatic shames, or unhingings. She is not a foolish virgin. She is a powerful and fascinating actress. Either she is simply miscast. Or it would be interesting were all this to happen to a strong personality, such as Judy Davis’s –  but Lean’s treatment as scenarist and director go nowhere near this. It is as though the film’s story – which is a female story – is speaking a foreign language when entering female territory.

In a way, Lean’s film, and all his films, are about the male characters. The female character of Mrs Moore, for instance, is never fully realized. Peggy Ashcroft, in a yeowoman effort, drags Mrs Moore not into clarity but into light. Clarity is not to be had. She and Lean argued badly as to how to do her. Ashcroft won, else nothing at all would have been there, and Ashcroft won the Oscar. And Judy Davis also locked horns with him. Lean did not have a clue about women. He would not have been married six times if he had.

The picture is ravishing in its scape. We see an India whose immensity of effect is always present, always beguiling, always seething We see wild crowds, marshalled armies in parade array, markets, mountains, rivers, structures, distraught railway trains, and placid colonial dwellings. It almost gives us a balanced canvas of Indian and English characters and points of view.

And all the male characters are superbly realized and performed, save, of course for Alec Guinness who pads about playing an Indian Fakir. Why he hypnotized himself to cast himself as a Hindu sage only a real Hindu sage would know. Crazy. It’s counter-productive to the balance the film strives to achieve.

The three other male actors do fine work. First, Nigel Havers as the potential fiancé of Judy Davis. He plays a young magistrate in the British Colonial judicial system, and he is the perfect young man, is he not? Havers gives a lovely, easy performance as Ronny, making us thankful for the thankless role. He knows not what he does as a character, but as an actor he does.

James Fox as the local schoolmaster, friend to both sides of the ship, rules half the film largely because his acting of Fielding is so thorough it engages our interest and bias. Grand work.

The co-star of the picture is Victor Banerjee, making his character full of life and optimism and love and curiosity and good will. His performance grounds the film in the open fluidity of a wonderful madness when he takes Mrs Moore and Miss Quested on a side trip to the Marabar caves.

The temperament of the movie is spectacle-as-narration. It contains no scene which is not visually telling and rewarding, or essential. Every detail frees the camera to our eye. Its direction retains great respect for our ability to tell a story through what we see, through the placement of character, and particularly to the painted elephant called India in whose howdah all visitors cannot help but be shaken back and forth. One of Lean’s wives was Indian, and he had lived there a good while. He had a strong sense of its place, style, and potential as a vivid film subject.

Within this vast national impression, the drama is actually a closet drama, involving only five characters, Mrs Moore, Miss Quested, Doctor Aziz, Fielding, and Ronny. The opera Aida comes to mind, a closet drama surrounded by a vast dynasty and huge military display. Many curious and unusual relationships venture into being before us. To witness them A Passage To India is worth seeing, or, in my case and maybe in yours, worth seeing again.

 

 

The Mayor Of Hell

03 Nov

The Mayor Of Hell – directed by Archie Mayo. Prisonflick. 90 minutes Black And White 1933

★★★★★

The Story: A tough ward boss, as a reward for delivering votes, is given supervision of a boys’ reformatory, and it gets to him.

~

The trashy title should not put you off from one of the best movies of its era and one of James Cagney’s most brilliant films. Of course, being Cagney, it’s a gutter drama, but what a drama! What a story!

Cagney himself is in top display as an actor – fluid, immediate, and interesting. Of all the great stars, he was the most tragic artistically because his acting depended upon a manner, and the manner was so fixed that he could never play a part opposite to it, try as he might. Highly volatile, perched always on the balls of his feet (because of lifts?), his oddly made-up, glancing Lawrence Olivier eyes, he presents a constant perturbation. Off camera he was a honey, a gent, and a man of some cultivation. But he wanted to but could not play gentler parts because his technique had become fixed – probably by his many years on Broadway before he even got to Hollywood – as a live wire. He could only act one way.

Allen Jenkins, his old roommate from their chorus boy days, plays the dumb Damon Runyon sidekick. And he is but one in a cast that is top-heavy in every role no matter how small.

The beautiful Madge Evans plays the nurse at the reformatory. Watch her. She had been acting in movies all her young life, and everything she does is alive, fresh, apt, and necessary. She was brought over from MGM to soften the atmosphere. She’s so lovely. She’d such a fine actor.

Broadway star, Dudley Digges plays the mean reformatory head, and he will make you want to kill him. It is a thoroughgoing performance of a man ruled by terror and terrorizing everyone around him.

The leader of the reformatory boys is Frankie Darro, a tiny toughie. He plays in concert with 200 boys, each one particular, each one creative and vivid in the many scenes in which they appear, both regimented and in mobs.

Archie Mayo knows how to make the whole thing work and move and capture the truth and the comedy and the sentiment of Edward Chodorov’s fine screenplay. The Special Features commentary is tip-top. If your parents ever threatened to send you to the reformatory, you were right to be scared, because this is what they had in mind.

 

Body And Soul

01 Nov

Body and Soul – directed by Robert Rossen. Sports Drama. 104 minutes Black and White 1947.

★★★★★

The Story: A poor young man, to be a boxing champion, risks his soul and almost his body in the attempt.

~

The earliest great boxing film, it is a good picture raised to a masterwork by the genius of James Wong Howe: he took a hand-held camera into the ring and followed the grand-finale fight on roller skates. The film has a gritty, realistic, newsreel-in-the-streets quality, which creates a world, the Bronx, from which the fighter fled by means of one seedier, the ring.

At first one wonders what the German actress Lili Palmer is doing in it as the good woman, except soon it is plain that she really is a good woman and a voluptuous one too. On the opposite side of the fighter stands his mother, Anne Revere, with her stoic, modest probity. And Art Smith as his kindly dad.

All around the fighter hover a swarm of trainers and promoters and pals, men and women of mixed motives. Williams Conrad plays his guilt-ridden trainer, Joseph Pevney plays his chum, and Canada Lee the boxer he defeats and then befriends. Lee, himself a boxer, executes his final scene in a flare of intensity.

Behind these ignorant, greedy, devoted souls stands the chill person of the American powerbroker, played with ruthless élan by Lloyd Gough.

The film was a huge hit in its day, but its day was the same day as the HUAC. When you look at the film today, you can see that it presents a perfect model of capitalism at its most ruthless, thoughtless, and cruel. The boxer is thrice a commodity. He is worker, product, and buyer. All are a commodity – never human – each a thing to be manipulated into great profit. The boxer himself does this. He is the worker who transforms himself into a moneymaking machine and he buys into himself as popular merchandise. It is a powerful dramatic construction, and one never surpassed in film to my knowledge.

Whether or not this was understood by the Un-American Activities Committee, it dragged in John Garfield, who plays the boxer and produced the film, as a Communist. He was not one, but he was forever blacklisted from work. So were Anne Revere, Lloyd Gough and his wife, Art Smith, Robert Rossen, and scenarist Abraham Polonsky. Their careers were destroyed; they were impoverished and publicly shamed. Canada Lee, the greatest of all Negro Rights Activists, was hounded to his death by it at the age of 45. He was not a communist either.

Nor is the film Communist. Just because it is not Capitalist, does not mean that it is Communist. It is not a polemic either, so advise yourself to see it. As you would see any beautiful work of art. As you would see any picture filmed by James Wong Howe.

 

Snowden

22 Sep

Snowden – written and directed by Oliver Stone. Biopic. 142 minutes. Color 2016.

★★★★

The story: A brilliant young computer whiz mounts a high level career in US government agencies, learns the terrible truth, and breaks it to the press.

~

Any gross invasion of privacy would seem to be, for Edward Snowden, all the 7 deadly sins rolled into one. He is closed off, closed down, closed up. He doesn’t want to be pried-into. And one keeps thinking, thank God Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfectly cast as him. Why? Because this actor has the face of a man you know is keeping all his secrets. A gross invasion of privacy is what he is shown hating most. No wonder Snowden spilled the beans in the biggest invasion of privacy of all, the invasion of privacy of the US government’s secret invasion of the privacy of its citizens.

Never was such gorgeous use of the big screen. Never was a biopic told with such reliance on the intelligence of the audience to watch and weigh.

And all of that is interesting and consistently vivid, informative and narratively alive.

What is not alive is Stone’s rendering of Snowden’s romance with his girlfriend, which moves through its hackneyed tropes to arrive nowhere. For Stone is not interested in romance or sex or human relations. Stone is a civics teacher, and a darn good one. Besides, it is impossible to take sides with this woman, since Snowden is such a cold fish. His love life is not primarily important to him. Which is why he is such a cold fish.

Narratively, it’s a phony conflict. Snowden’s loyalty would not be between his girlfriend and his job, but rather the tug between his mastery as a computer virtuoso, systems inventor and innovator, smart as paint – and – what would jeopardize this true calling – the disclosure which would result in the loss of this job and this calling. Which is, in fact what happened. Stalled in Russia. In Russia all Russia is a Russian airport.

But Stone never sees this. Instead we get Stone’s canned approbation of Snowden – as though we couldn’t judge that for ourselves.

Still, the film, by Anthony Mantle, is beautiful to behold. We have wonderful actors at their best – Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage. And we have superb production values, Mantle’s stunning and convincing pictures, great editing by Alex Marquez and Lee Percy.

And best of all we have not the drama but the biography and background of Snowden well and clearly told, and it is worth the telling and the seeing.

 

Sully

16 Sep

Sully – directed by Clint Eastwood. Biopic. 96 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Forced gather to disprove the skill and heroism of the Captain of a passenger plane he landed in The Hudson River

~

Tom Hanks does not make a bad movie. Neither does Matt Damon. And for the same reason. They bring forward their middle class American foundation as foundation to their acting, and this is what I very much want to see. They are both lovely actors.

Tom Hanks has recently played a series of biopics, a sea captain whose grace under pressure saves the day; a lawyer brokering a spy exchange whose grace under pressure saves the day, and now a passenger airline pilot whose grace under pressure saves the day. All these parts require the authentic gravitas of life experience. He is the right age. He has the right look. He is ideally cast. He is always the same. Why should he endanger the part by forsaking his basic craft, type, and execution? It would be wrong. He is not playing characters; he is playing emblems. Offering emblems is one of the most important things films can do.

In Sully he plays the pilot of the airplane obliged to make a forced landing in the Hudson because both engines have failed. 155 persons aboard, all survived. The exploit was simple if you have 42 years of flight experience under your belt and a specialty in air safety as your sideline profession.

Laura Linney plays his wife – another expert actor – but in her case her exchanges are written conventionally, and there is nothing an actor can do with such lines except play them through. Besides, we do not care about the relations with the pilot and his wife, whether he will loose his job, whether their real estate will be foreclosed, whether he will be banished without a pension.

What we care about is whether justice will be done. For, the story unfolds as a trial staged by the aeronautics regulators to prove he could have made Teeterboro or La Guardia. So the film wrings us with suspense and anxiety and tension – which is just what we want such a film to do.

The staging of the landing on water, the conduct of the passengers as it happens, their rescue from the wings as the airplane settles in to sink is exciting and shown beautifully – twice! We root and worry for their lives on that deadly cold water. The whole outcome hangs in suspense, for eight years later everyone has forgotten the outcome of the investigation. Just because Tom Hanks is playing the captain and in our minds cannot be disgraced does not mean we do not sit on the edge of our seats until he is exonerated.

Aaron Eckhart, another lovely actor, plays his co-pilot and side-kick. Eckert sizes the part perfectly. Eastwood has directed it well and told its story in the right order.

Tom Hanks does not make a bad movie, which is not to say that he ever makes a great movie. Which is not to say Sully is routine or not worth seeing. It‘s real good. Hanks began with a splash. He’s still at it.

 

Beau Geste

13 Jun

Beau Geste – directed by William Wellman. Action adventure. 112 minutes Black And White 1939.

★★★★

The Story: Three orphan boys grow up together, join the French Foreign Legion together, and act nobly together.

~

In a neck-and-neck race with George Steven’s Gunga Din at RKO, Beau Geste is a scene by scene adaptation of the 1926 silent film starring Ronald Colman. As such it is slow going. Until it isn’t.

For nothing happens until the last scenes, in which Brian Donlevy, the nasty sergeant in charge of the garrison, literally mans the battlements by stuffing its crenellations with the corpses the marauding Arabs have made of his men – which scares the Arabs off.

This is a super-duper and justly famous battle scene, worth waiting for. It inspires the star of the picture, Gary Cooper, who hates the sergeant, to admit Donlevy is a great soldier. Donlevy, however, is perhaps ill-cast, for he does not have a mean streak, which is needed, but a wicked sense of humor, which is not. He plays the part well, nonetheless.

It’s all well directed by William Wellman, who made sure not to leave out his favorite, a rain-scene, even though everyone is indoors. Those indoors enclose the three adopted boys of the lady bountiful of the house, who possesses the famous infamous “blue water” sapphire which figures into a plot that frames the action of the boys once they join the French Foreign Legion. Is that clear?

I hope not, because to distract us from this plot, we have various young to-be stars trickling through the desert sands, Broderick Crawford, for one. Alfred Dekker, J. Carrol Naish for two more. And for another, Susan Hayward, the most strictured of all actresses, who is the fond focus of Ray Milland.

Milland is the only one of the three English boys to have an English accent. Gary Cooper, who was schooled in England, does not assume one. Wonder why. Nor does Robert Preston as the third of the boys. Preston with his Dennis Quaid grin and zest is the most welcome of energies always, and who could be more convincing than he to save the day at last?

The story is a long-winded set-up for the final scene. You keep wondering when something is going to happen as we lumber through the boyhoods of these boys.

Gary Cooper as a child is played by Donald O’Connor, of all people: O’Connor the most spritely, Cooper the least spritely of actors? Is this because Cooper looked older than he was and O’Connor’s youth was supposed to correct it? Here Cooper is 38, too old for the part of a runaway youth in 1939, the miracle year of American Film. Robert Preston is 21, which is more like it.

Cooper had written into his contracts that he never play a character who dies. Perhaps because as an actor he is already dead, so if he did die how could you tell? He used his inertia to act. He is never one to pick up cues before sucking attention towards himself. Sloth and sluggishness stole whole scenes.

His stardom has always annoyed me. In real life he was shy, elegant of dress, and had an enormous penis – an infallible combination for female appeal – but on the screen, I don’t get it. I suppose people felt that a taciturn male must be more profound than a talkative one and more attractive and more masculine, which, with Robert Preston on the screen is proved pure baloney. I knew that when I was six years old and saw this movie when it first came out.

If you can wait for the finale when it comes it’s an entertaining show. And you won’t have wasted your quarter. Or your 17 cents, which is what a matinee cost me in 1939.

 

Beau Geste

03 May

Beau Geste – directed by William Wellman. Action adventure. 112 minutes Black And White 1939.

★★★★

The Story: Three orphan boys grow up together, join the French Foreign Legion together, and act nobly together.

~

In a neck-and-neck race with George Steven’s Gunga Din at RKO, Beau Geste is a-scene-by-scene adaptation of the 1926 silent film starring Ronald Colman. As such it is slow going. Until it isn’t.

For nothing happens in the film until the last scenes, in which Brian Donlevy, the nasty sergeant in charge of the garrison, literally mans the battlements by stuffing its crenellations with the corpses the marauding Arabs have made of his men, which scares the Arabs off.

This is a super-duper and justly famous battle scene, worth waiting for. It inspires the star of the picture, Gary Cooper, who hates the sergeant, to admit Donlevy is a great soldier. Donlevy is perhaps ill-cast, for he does not have a mean streak, which is needed, but a wicked sense of humor, which is not. He plays the part well, nonetheless.

It’s all, of course, well directed by William Wellman, who made sure not to leave out his favorite, a rain-scene, even though everyone is indoors. Those indoors enclose the three adopted boys of the lady bountiful of the house, who possesses the famous infamous “blue water” sapphire which figures into a plot that frames the action of the boys once they join the French Foreign Legion. Is that clear?

I hope not, because to distract us we have various young to-be stars trickling through the desert sands, Broderick Crawford, for one. Alfred Dekker, J. Carrol Naish for two. And for yet another, Susan Hayward, the most strictured of all actresses, who is the fond focus of Ray Milland.

Milland is the only one of the three English boys to have an English accent. Gary Cooper, who of course was schooled in England, does not assume one. Wonder why. Nor does Robert Preston as the third of the boys. Preston with his Dennis Quaid grin and zest is the most welcome of energies always, and who could be more convincing than he to save the day at last?

The story is a long-winded set-up for this final scene. You keep wondering when something is going to happen as we lumber through the boyhoods of these boys.

Gary Cooper when little is played by Donald O’Connor, if you can figure: O’Connor the most spritely, Cooper the least spritely of actors. Is this because Cooper was an actor who looked older than he was and O’Connor’s youth was supposed to correct it? Here Cooper is 38, too old for the part of a runaway youth in 1939, the miracle year of American Film. Robert Preston is 21, which is more like it.

Cooper had written into his contracts that he never play a character who dies. Perhaps because as an actor he is already rather dead. If he did die how could you tell? Cooper is an actor who used his inertia to act. He is never one to pick up cues before sucking attention towards him. Cooper’s sluggishness stole scenes.

His stardom has always annoyed me. In real life he was shy and had an enormous penis – an infallible combination for female appeal – but on the screen, I don’t get it. I suppose people felt that a taciturn male must be more profound than a talkative one and more attractive.

I knew, when I was six years old and saw this movie when it first came out, it wasn’t necessarily so.

Still, it’s an entertaining show. And you won’t have wasted your 17 cents, which is what a 1939 matinee cost me.

 

The Constant Nymph

02 May

The Constant Nymph – directed by Edmund Goulding. Romance. 112 minutes Black And White 1943

★★★★

The Story: An adolescent girl has a crush on a classical composer who is a friend of the family.

~

She was a licensed pilot, and, after a flight from their grape ranch in Indio, she and her husband Brian Aherne were tired and decided to eat out before going home. They stopped at Romanoff’s.

In a nearby booth was Edmund Goulding, who had directed Grand Hotel, Dark Victory, The Great Lie, and knew Brian Aherne who was also English. Since Aherne had played the lead in The Constant Nymph in 1934, Goulding thought that Aherne might help with the casting of the female lead in the remake. Joan Leslie and others had been considered. He wandered over to their table.

“Sit down and join us, old boy,” said Aherne. “And, er, this is my wife.”

“Jack Warner wants a star, but she has to be consumptive, flat-chested, anemic, and fourteen,” said Goulding. “It’s impossible.”

“How about me?” said Aherne’s wife.

“Who are you?” asked Goulding.

“Joan Fontaine.”

“Oh my god, absolutely right!” Goulding ran to the nearest phone to call Jack Warner, and Fontaine was confirmed the next morning.

Fontaine had played Rebecca and Suspicion (the only Oscar winning performance in any Hitchcock film), and she would be nominated for The Constant Nymph.

Goulding was generally considered to be a genius director, and that is never more apparent than in his direction of this film. He rewrote a lot of the script to its advantage. His sense of the mis-en-scene, especially in the first half, is remarkable. The frocks on Joan Fontaine are by Sears-Roebuck, which is right, and the gowns on Alexis Smith are by Orry-Kelly and are  royal – indeed, one of them looks made from a bolt-end of Bette Davis’s metallic dress in Elizabeth And Essex. The lighting and camerawork Tony Gaudio did for him, the production by Henry Blanke and Hal Wallis which guaranteed Warner’s top talent, the sets, all make for a first class entertainment. As supporting actors, we have Peter Lorre, Alexis Smith, Dame May Whitty  and Charles Coburn — whose mere appearance in any picture is a comic situation in and of  itself.

But his handling of Joan Fontaine is what is most remarkable. For she is here as she had never been before and would never be again. She had generally played and would go on to play wan heroines and milksops, a series of vapid Rowenas. But in this film she is a lively teenager, tearing around the house with her sister, with her hair anywhichway. I could not believe this tedious and strained actress could act this charming, vivacious, spontaneous jeune fille. The picture is a wonder because of her. She always said it was her favorite film. It is the best thing she ever did.

With complete authority, Charles Boyer carries the part of the composer which he is probably too short, fat, and old to play. But he is entirely seductive, as usual, with his wonderful eyes and sensual mouth and deep and resplendent voice. Boyer is a great actor and enormously popular in his day – which, in this case, means an actor backed up by great internal vitality – such as, for instance, Tom Cruise.

Boyer’s score is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, but the music side of the story does not work because it is gauche. But this is overridden by Goulding’s direction. His sense of setting and decor. And his handling of actors.

Aside from Fontaine, notice his handling of Alexis Smith, a cold actor, whom Goulding makes sure we see a different side of here. The same is true of Lorre and Coburn. Both are at first obnoxious and both we eventually root for. Indeed, we come to side with all these characters – he has written and directed them in the round — a great feat for a director.

Yes, everyone in Hollywood thought of Goulding as great director. But his Bette Davis movies, for instance, are not great as movies.  So where are his great movies?

Here’s one.

Perhaps one’s enough.

 

 

The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemum

27 Apr

The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemum – directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Backstage Drama. 142 minutes 1939.

★★★★★

The Story: A young serving woman finds her life’s work in supporting a spoiled young man to become a great Kabuki actor.

~

It is one of the great films of the world.

And lest that put you off, let me remark that the self-sacrifice one finds prevalent in certain female characters in American movies of this time (Stella Dallas, for example) collapses under the nobility of the burden of an emotion of which one tires because it was phony, because it was the goodie-goodie dole parceled out to audiences by the doers of The Depression as payoff for the chisel. We Cheated You But At Least You Met Deprivation Nobly was the American lie. This is not that.

No women’s-libber dare speak against this woman’s calling. Oh, yes, she is taken advantage of by some males about her, as well as by some females. This is not that, either.

And those who may decry her as a codependent doormat have no place at this table.

For who can convince the uniformed in human emotion? The vulgarity of social values is what is unintentionally triumphed over by her, including all those above named.

For she devotes herself to the truth of a great artist from the moment he is laughed off the stage as a lousy actor – which he is. How come he doesn’t know he’s lousy? Because he’s the son of the superstar, and everyone in the company toadies up to him with unearned praise. To see the truth within him is her God-given gift. This is what she gives herself to, as some give themselves to service or to art or to a faith.

That’s how it starts. How it continues involves a great story-telling technique, of fascinating our attention to the narration through the point of view of enormously long takes – one of them 6 minutes – a device Hitchcock failed at twice – but which encompasses a visual setting of such relentless loveliness the calmness of them is as irresistible as a volcano.

You may weep. You may not. You may want to own it in order to make a life study of it. I simply counsel you to subject yourself to it. Michelangelo’s Pieta traveled around America, and when it did we all came to see it: a teenage girl holding the body of her 33 year-old dead son. See this for the same reason. Exercise your cultural curiosity by crossing the street to where it is.

And thank me one day that I whispered these things to you.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: JAPANESE MOVIE-NOH, DIRECTED BY: Kenji Mizoguchi, MUST SEE

 

Damn Yankees

30 Mar

Damn Yankees – directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen. Sports Musical. 1 hour 51 minutes, Color 1959

★★★★

The Story: A baseball nut sells his soul to the Devil so the lame Washington team can win the pennant against The Yankees but then the Devil must set a grande horizontale to sabotage the magical home-run hitter he created to achieve it.

~

In the theater, it was originally conceived by its choreographer as a dance vehicle for his wife Gwen Verdon, and it remains that in the film.

Verdon had phenomenal ability as a show dancer, and she also had the rarer ability of being able to sing while she danced.

In her big successes, Sweet Charity, Chicago, Redhead, and here and after, however, you see her playing women who are not quite real. That is to say, the delivery of their lines suggest that her acting ability is less than her ability to dance, and that its naïve emotional range is not personal, or rather, not normal.

As a dancer of comic and specialty numbers, Verdon is without parallel, however. She was never to be a movie star, because emotionally she is a stage star. Broadway is her true milieu, her nation, the land of her birth. Her acting style is too broad and too backstage for film. If you set her next to Betty Grable, who was herself a deft comic dancer, and who danced with Verdon in movies, you can see that Grable’s acting dimension is perfectly suited to film. In movies, you don’t have to have a large Broadway style, like Verdon’s, because the screen is already large. Screen size is its actor’s projection. On Broadway you excused such acting as Verdon’s as a musical comedy convention and because her dance feats were actually taking place before your very eyes at that moment.

The show of dance as an art is not subtle; its subtlety is always telegraphed; you cannot mistake it. So Verdon’s big projection as a dancer does not stand in our way. Unlike her acting, its excesses are natural to dance, and Verdon achieves the comic feat of the dances with a suppleness, naturalness, and ease that is amazing.

The dances of course, are garish. They are all by Bob Fosse, who choreographed Verdon’s Broadway shows, of which this was one. Tight, tense choreography is his earmark; whatever he has borrowed from Cole and Kidd has been given its dose of Novocain. And here he even appears dancing with Verdon in Who Feels The Pain When They Do The Mambo? – a famous duet from the Broadway show, brilliantly executed here. However, she is the one you will watch, because she is so alive. He is too, but she more so.

Many of the actors from the Broadway Show are here, too, and the film welcomes their experience and talent. The reason it does is that there are five important singing parts for performers over fifty, from Jean Stapleton to Ray Walston who plays the devil. Their abilities with these parts being already in place make them essential to the integrity of the film, and we are fortunate to have them brought over. They lend a coherence that the direction of the piece lacks.

George Abbott, its Broadway author and director, is also brought over, and one wonders what he thinks he is doing here. He directs certain numbers exactly as they were directed on stage; you can tell this because there is no other reason why a great song like Ya Gotta Have Heart should fall flat. Stanley Donen, director of Singing In The Rain fortunately is co-director, and one suspects he directed the only parts of the film that work. In addition, the directorial storytelling style is triply uneven because the movie is so much a dance musical and Fosse predominates. Three different styles. Nothing holds the film together.

But there is an element that carries the film – and that is the presence of Tab Hunter as the athlete of the devil’s doing. He is perfectly cast. First because he was a superb athlete in his real life. Second because his great physical beauty works as a devil’s creation. But most of all because his natural modesty about himself is so beguiling that you can easily get behind him as the focal point of the story.

Tab Hunter’s ability as an actor grew with time in the craft. He is one of the great learners. He learned voice-placement, projection, truth. By the time of Damn Yankees you have no trouble accepting him as a good actor. He, quite rightly, was the biggest star on the Warner lot at this time.

The film is the best record we have of the uncanny ability of Gwen Verdon as a dancer, and anyone interested in great dancing will have a lot of fun seeing her strut her stuff. Talk about facility! Talk about dance energy! Talk about technique. She was a national treasure and a wonder of nature. She was litheness incarnate.

 

The Missing

24 Feb

The Missing – Directed by Ron Howard. Western. 137 minutes Color 2003.

★★★★★

The Story: An Apache brujo, or male witch, and his gang steal young women to be sold in Mexico, but the mother and grandfather and tiny sister of one of them track them through the New Mexico winter wilderness to recover her.

~

Of course, it’s a marvelous story beautifully set in that strange land. Cate Blanchette, who seems to fit into every part she is given, here leads the way as the mother. She is accompanied by her father, a fake Indian Chirhucawa, played by Tommy Lee Jones.

But the performance to behold is that of Eric Schweig as the witch – master of snakes and spells. With a strand of Cate’s hair, he can summon spirits to travel miles to kill our Cate, and he almost succeeds. His face, his bearing, his eyes – you will never forget them. At least I won’t. It’s a beautiful piece of work by a fine artist.

The chase takes place on horseback. The three year old, Dot, Cate her mother, and grandfather Jones spend most of their time on horseback riding through the land of enchantment. What a strange world!

The underlying problem in this pursuit is that Cate detests Jones, who has much to atone for that seems unatonable. So that matter clatters in every hoof beat.

The final standoff is not properly staged. The use of fire-arrows does not work. The whole session is not scary enough. Still we regard with respect the narrowing of Blanchett’s remarkable, wide-spaced eyes as she fires her rifle into the brains of the marauders.

The Missing is a big Western, like Shane and High Noon and Stagecoach. It encloses a lot of territory in its allegory. The sets and costumes are first class. Elizabeth Moss, Evan Rachel Wood, Aaron Eckhart, and Val Kilmer fill out the cast. If you like the genre you will be happy to watch it unfold, and besides there’s Eric Schweig forever to haunt your dreams.

 

Carol

31 Dec

Carol – directed by Todd Haynes. Drama. 118 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★

The Story: A Park Avenue woman takes up with a shopgirl and she with her in a relationship whose seriousness jeopardizes their lives.

~

The idea that this picture is about a lesbian relationship seems besides the point when actually watching it. For the environment of its story is also the story, and to define the movie in genital or sexually deviant terms seems vulgar and beside the point.

The relationship progresses in slow stages, but these stages are rendered through the lens of the setting of such love itself, not directly, but indirectly. The surroundings, that’s what we see and want to see, because the film makes us recognize surroundings as the kind permission and very condition of love – we who have ever known such a passion as is before us here. Unacknowledged setting is the sine qua non and soil of passion.

That is to say, the film is rendered through and as two simultaneous and converging stories, the more important and potent of which is that such love generates itself into being in half-tones, is experienced through doors partly closed, looking out car windows none of the landscape of which has any registration but has carrying power in that it provides the mundane context of Cupid’s wings gently fluttering out of sight behind His back all along. It doesn’t matter what it is.

The banal is the secret doily of love’s Valentine. The ordinary. The every-day. How cigarettes are needed, run out of. How a sales supervisor in a department store can create the very prison of disapproval on which such love will be forced into flower. How a child’s nurse must be reprimanded with a forbidding tone of voice.

The motels, the diners, the friends of the family – things of no importance actually provide the screen and fortress behind which and before which passion plants itself and thrives.

I stopped reading the novels of Janet Highsmith years ago, so I have not read this one. But I suspect the one fault of the film is in the screen writers being too respectful of one of the two women described in the book. Cate Blanchette plays the older one, the Park Avenue lady, and is superb. Rooney Mara plays the shopgirl, and she is good too. The trouble is that she is written as a little grey mouse, and it won’t do. It probably did well enough in the book. But the film needs a different contrast of types, one in whom we can take some interest. For our interest should be the same as Cate Blanchett’s – we’ve got to see what the heck she sees in her! It needed to be either written differently or cast with an actress with a strong personal quality – think of a young Julie Harris in the role – or both.

The film is majestically directed. Haynes’ sense of the ’50s is 100% better now. I lived through that time and I know. Beautiful Packards and Lincolns. Perfectly costumed. Perfect settings. It is shot with noble beauty by Edward Lachman, who also shot Haynes’ Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce. Exquisite.

Carol is worthwhile watching for everyone with an adult within them.

 

Youth

23 Dec

Youth – directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Drama. 124 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: Two old artists recuperate at a fancy Alpine hotel as their pasts and futures converge on them.

~

You wonder momentarily under what circumstances Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel could have become boyhood best friends, but the common ground is, of course, that both are walking slums. Caine has risen to great heights as a conductor and composer, but he is retired and now refuses to conduct a composition of his before The Queen. Keitel is in retreat with his screenwriters to finish his latest script. They are both in their late 70s, and what the film is about is less its story, which has its suspense, than what old age is like for each of them.

It’s not bad. It’s not what you thought it might be – which is to say that fleeting memory is not looked upon as a defect or loss, but as an advantage which offers to them a wider horizon for living life itself. Life itself, lived, with that horizon filled with nothing but itself. Not dismay. Not fear of death. Not major discomfort. Not regret or remorse or nostalgia for what has departed. But simply space.

I have never seen the matter of age presented in this way, and I, as an 82 year old, welcome the painting of a recognizable landscape. Dignity does not consist in resignation, or bearing-up. It consists of looking reality in the face with shrewdness and humor. And this takes a relish in a slower pace, which this film affords, and a willingness to forgo colors one no longer can relish and to enjoy colors one never expected existed.

The aim of certain scenes does not hit their target, such as the parade of Keitel’s screen heroines on a hillside. But many stern and stunning scenes hold my respect for their novelty, daring, beauty. We are given a good long time to contemplate here, which is what being 82 gives you. Editing does not rush us by. Things can register.

Youth’s story is told with a quirky idiosyncrasy easy to get used to. Jane Fonda has three terrific scenes, one with Keitel, one going nuts in an airplane, and one as a peasant woman holding a basket. Rachel Weisz is particularly fine in a long monologue. Paul Dano is just right as an abused movie star. Luca Bigazzi filmed it beautifully. And the concert at the end is certainly worth waiting for.

The director also directed The Great Beauty, which won the 2014 Oscar for the Best Foreign Film.

 

Blood And Sand [1941]

22 Dec

Blood And Sand [1941] — directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Sports Drama. 125 minutes Color 1941.

★★★★★

The Story: A poor illiterate boy from Seville becomes Spain’s greatest matador, marries his beautiful childhood sweetheart, and then meets Rita Hayworth.

~

The lipstick on her mouth is the slash of death. As soon as she appears in purple, you know Tyrone Power is in Dutch. Anyone would be.

She’s 22 but she plays a woman of marked sophistication and massively confident sexual greed. She is never dressed down but always up and never less than to kill. Like gold coins, men move through what her choreographer Hermes Pan called the most beautiful fingers in the world. The part made her a star.

Even here, you can see what a good actress she is, her gift dependent upon her responsiveness. Just watch her in the big confrontation scene with Linda Darnell; watch how everything Darnell says to her hits her and what Hayworth does with it.  She has a natural inbred Meisner technique.

There are many attributes that made Hayworth a star, but let’s just notice one of them: her beautiful carriage. You’d have to wait until Cyd Charisse to meet her match. Look how the shoulders and hands are carried as she dances. She has three dances here, one sitting down playing a guitar in which she moves only her shoulders, one where she turns Power into a bull of her bidding, and one in full upright fornication which she does with Anthony Quinn.

Quinn, when young, is sexier than Power. His eyes burn with the hatred of an Italian whore; nothing could be hotter. And then we have Linda Darnell who is 17 years old here and unutterably touching. These film stars have such natural gifts. Darnell has the power to inhale with her eyes. It’s not a trick. She simply does it as an attribute of what she is. To witness such things is to cause wonder.

The weak link in all of this is Power himself who never has a hardon as the matador. He never investigates the character; he misses the eager brash guttersnipe of that scampering scamp of a boy he began as. You never feel his love of the sport, upon which the story depends. Of course, as in all bullfight movies, you cannot show the actor actually fighting the bull. If it were football, it would be different.

Blood And Sand is renowned for its color scheme of gold, ice blue, and blood red which the director imposed on it, and its Special Features contains a commentary by a modern cameraman Richard Crudo, a tutorial on the cumbersome challenge of Technicolor, which here is thick, rich, and saturated.

Mamoulian paints with film, right from the start with an all-but-naked adolescent boy racing through a blue moonlit countryside. He spray- paints Hayworth’s banquet flowers black. He spray paints John Carradine’s deathbed sheets grey. Darnell’s dresses are always white, black, or true blue. And Mamoulian dyed Hayworth’s hair auburn, which it remained for the rest of her career.

The backstage work of bullfighting is arresting, and we are treated to a supporting cast of considerable strength: Carradine as Power’s faithful friend, J. Carroll Naish as a wise fellow matador; Laird Cregar as louche journalist full of himself; as Power’s mother, storied actress Ala Nazimova. The movie is a lot of different sorts of fun: its camera work, color schemes, bright casting, two gorgeous young women. Although, as a whole, as you will see to your amusement and forgiveness, lead does not add weight to melodrama.

 

 

Metropolis

06 Dec

Metropolis – directed by Fritz Lang. SciFi. 148 minutes Black And White Silent 1927.

★★★

The Story: In a modernistic city controlled by an oligarch, his son enters the bleak world of the lowly workers to make things better.

~

Fritz Lang is in possession of a reputation for high art which leaves me stumped. When I read David Thomson on Lang, I don’t doubt the enthusiasm of what Thomson is saying, but I don’t see it evidenced in the films. I don’t see Lang as a telling director of actors. I don’t see his working with difficult or timeless subjects. I don’t see a visual style that is ever a narrative force in and of itself. He’s not a bad director, but it seems to me that his reputation stems from his professional associations rather than with his innate gifts.

Lang’s big name comes from his work in Germany — from Metropolis, M, two of the Mabuse films, and several others — from before 1933 when he withdrew his fortune and emigrated to France and Hollywood. The remarkable thing about those films is that they were all conceived not by Lang at all, but by a woman, Thea von Harbou who wrote them. She became his wife, and, both before and after her association with Lang, was the top script writer of German films.

Lang also had to hand various highly skilled technicians, and much of the critical attention to him stems from the presence of the spectacular sets in his work. He also had the creative genius of Gunther Rittau to conceive and execute the filming of the renowned special effects of Metropolis. And he, of course, had a remarkable cinema-photographer, who was to go on to shoot Garbo’s Camille, Pride And Prejudice, Tortilla Flat, Without Love, and Key Largo and end up – and then on to being hired by Desi for his inventiveness with cameras and to film I Love Lucy.  It is none other than the great Carl Freund. What we are seeing, it seems to me, probably belongs to all these people, rather than to Lang.

I feel Lang is a director without a vision and not much heart. I feel he is drawn to the obvious. Jamie Lee Curtis said, with pride, that her mother the actress Janet Leigh took on anything the studios threw at her. I feel Lang did the same, but with a mean streak. He directed because he liked to live well. His subjects are the psychological small potatoes of human life. A large subject, as here, he reduces to a maxim. On the other end of his spectrum for platitude he indulges in conflagrations, which is like someone who can’t get their own way having a tantrum. He sat by the camera, pressed the button, and whole sets would explode.

Metropolis establishes its cliché from the start, just as each and every modern science fiction movie does, by making the Metropolis a dystopia. The drive to hold onto the lineage of the dictator’s dominance is both enforced and undermined by a mad inventor who is able to recreate in a robot the love he lost years before to the dictator. She comes to life as a Duessa version of the Una version of the heroine who wishes to reform the Metropolis, and both of these, in identical dresses, are very well played by Brigitte Helm.

Lang nearly burned her to death in the immolation scene (he was never very good with actors). But he is here and elsewhere served well by his German character people and a zillion extras. However, on all available occasions demanding an impression, his leading man lodges his irises in the middle of his eye sockets and stares vividly, a  one-size fits all technique. He is like many Silent film actors who tend to rely on lots of mascara for their art.

It’s a film worth seeing, for it is felt to be the greatest film ever to be made in Germany, at one with the work of Beethoven and Bach. I don’t see it that way  — after all, it’s science fiction, a genre that forbids depth by very definition. It’s pulp made to appear important with lots of mascara. But you must make up your own mind. If you can face the delirium and live.

 

Bridge Of Spies

27 Oct

Bridge Of Spies – Directed by Steven Spielberg. DocuDrama. 141 Minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A Russian spy during the Cold war is caught, tried, found guilty, which he was, and imprisoned against the day when he might be traded for an American spy caught by the Russians, a day that soon befalls.

~

Steven Spielberg serves us up another of his Civics Lessons, which he has treated us to for the past twenty years: Schindler’s List, Amistad, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, Flags Of Our Fathers, Letter From Iwo Jima, Empire Of The Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, and now Bridge Of Spies. In each of these he gives us our money‘s worth, and if you don’t think so, you don’t know what your money is worth.

They are richly produced, earnest, valorous, and thorough. There is entertainment value in all these qualities, but the entertainment value of these pieces is not limited to these values. And Spielberg may be getting better as a filmmaker for making them. There is usually something wrong with Spielberg’s endings. But Bridge of Spies escapes this failing, barely.

If you are interested in such things, Bridge Of Spies also presents us with a lesson in variation of acting styles. Tom Hanks plays the lawyer sent to defend the spy in court and eventually to barter his exchange. It a perfect example of one actor, Hanks, playing a role, and another actor, Mark Rylance playing a character.

Hanks is a skilled and judicious actor, likeable and devotedly bourgeois. He brings to the role a notable probity, vital for the role, and rare in actors nowadays, although once evident in Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Joel Macrea, Spencer Tracy. He, like them, is droll in humor. As an actor he gives us every reassurance.

Mark Rylance, raised in America who has made his career on the British stage, is different artist entirely. His job is more acute than Hanks’. Hanks can ride the attention as the principal player, the hero. Rylance has to forge a way of making our attention to Hanks worthwhile. He does this by a series of alienation effects – dull dress, a sniffle, a tick – so that you are turned off by the character at first – in order that you may generate a change of view about him as the movie goes by. Otherwise he would be an object of merchandise, and of less value and interest to us as the exchange piece for Francis Gary Powers, our spy pilot whose plane the Russians shot down.

These two opposing styles do not conflict with or grate upon one another. Nor do they dovetail. What they do is suit the character situation which the story presents, which is that of an ordinary American working to defend the life of an odd duck. A duck so odd, indeed, that it is impossible to read him at all. Which is to the story’s advantage. For, since we know nothing of Rylance’s character, his character begs nothing either from us or from Hanks, except what is common to Hanks and us, mystification. We have zero back story for him. But, boy, does that pay off, since it declines to engage a false sentiment to root for him. Hanks allows Rylance’s character to be as he is. The probity Hanks works from is that of John Adams defending the Boston Massacre British soldiers. Every person deserves a fair trial. The entire ethical level is allowed to play out on the acting level. They are masterful actors who can play their opposing techniques together seamlessly. Every actor deserves a fair performance.

Another thing, if you are interested in acting: ask yourself the question: in the scenes with Hanks and Rylance, which one always has the upper hand? And how does that come about?

Think about it when you’ve seen Bridge of Spies, which I know you shall do. And let me know what you think.

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted in Directed by Steven Spielberg, DOCUDRAMA, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Mark Rylance, Tom Hanks

 

The Martian

16 Oct

The Martian – directed by Scott Ridley. Scifidrama. 141 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: An astronaut left behind and believed dead on Mars, contrives to survive, while rescuers on earth exhaust various schemes to save him.

~

Among actors of his generation Matt Damon possesses the rare quality of human decency – which Tom Hanks possessed and Jimmy Stewart possessed and which his contemporary Jim Caviezel also possesses. It means that he can bring to his characters an atavism, a strain of honesty which supersedes modernity by going back to the American primordial, a strain which is recognizable, trustworthy, and inviting. As such, Mark Damon is an actor as useful as bread. Not for just the characters he may sometimes play, but always for the way he plays the character.

For the character is not always white bread.

Here it is sour rye. His character is not peachy clean. He has temperament. Opinions. Dislikes. Vanity. Tartness. In embodying this, Damon gives to us someone we might know. And whose survival we might care about and root for.

All this, naturally, is in the writing, but Damon extends himself into each word said as a physical release – which is important, since he is often bench-bound. And since his resources for survival are so technical they cannot be appreciated, save in the actor’s practical, personal commitment to them.

The story is beautifully filmed and directed. Each member of the all-star supporting cast is scrumptious to watch. Each of them is a space program bureaucrat. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the NASA mission director; Michael Peña plays a fellow astronaut; Benedict Wong plays the rocket engineer; Donald Glover as the aerodynamics pro who masterminds one of the rescue missions; Jeff Daniels as NASA head; Jessica Chastain as the captain of a space ship.

If you like The Wizard Of Oz, you will find that this is the sort of story The Martian is. A fellow human finds himself unprotected and alone in strange land. Assisted by friends, plus his own gumption and perseverance, he must make a long journey through it to reach the salvation that will whisk him home.

You will cheer at the end. I understand you will cheer even more if you see it in 3D. I didn’t, but I enjoyed the story and the spectacle just as well. It’s a big hit, and Damon well worth the Oscar for it, don’t you think? For his opening scene alone. Check it out.

 

Quality Street

13 Aug

Quality Street – directed by George Stevens. Costume Drama. 83 minutes Black And White 1937.

★★

The Story: In 1805, a young woman hopes for a proposal from the local doctor, but instead he leaves for The Napoleonic Wars and comes back 10 years later, when, in revenge for his rebuff, she pretends to be her own 20-year-old madcap niece.

~

One wonders why Katharine Hepburn chose to drink this flagon of box office poison, after three flops in a row. Was it because George Stevens was to direct it? He had directed Alice Adams, a hit, and they had had an affair then.

It’s J.M. Barrie, and Maud Adams, Of Peter Pan fame, had starred in it on Broadway in 63 performances. It hardly offers Hepburn room for her trump suit of self-possessed, willful, smart, game women such as she would play in Stevens, Woman Of The Year.

Perhaps Hepburn thought the double roles of Phoebe and Livy would be an acting showcase. But neither female is particularly interesting or true in her hands. Hepburn’s faults as an actress are in full display with them: she puts on airs, she is arch, she is coy. She possessed the terrible trick to summon tears in a second and even control which eye would flow. Her performances all her life tend to be lachrymose, therefore, when only the audience should be.

Of course, there is still plenty in evidence of what we love her for: her remarkable face, her unflinching delivery, her ability to play an upper middle class female, and her ability to get her mouth around such lines as: ‘O, sir, this dictates of my heart enjoin me to accept your offer.’ According to her lights Hepburn snaps the script up like a macaroon. Good for her. Reluctance would have been awful.

The setting is Jane Austen land, and the genre is A Woman’s Film. The women are all in a tizzy about any man who passes who looks dashing. Eric Blore, he of the interminable grimace, as a sergeant is not dashing of course and ends up with the movie’s only authentically human character, the lusty, busty housekeeper, adeptly played by Cora Witherspoon. Estelle Winwood plays the gossip. The exquisite Fay Bainter plays Hepburn’s colluding sister. Franchot Tone plays the doctor beautifully, and looks beautiful doing it.

Maybe RKO thought the Barrie play would show class and tone. She had already played The Little Minister. But the period style stiffens into a pose. A greeting card has more weight. George Stevens, usually a master of screen treatment, films the whole thing as the stage play it is, four square, as fully lit as a cameo. Walter Plunkett’s costumes are frocks from fashion plates, women cradling shawls in the crook of their elbows when no sensible woman would have done so. Actually, Hepburn’s modern American manner is quite out of place in costume pieces, save in Little Women, which requires a hoyden in a long dress. Jo’s an A-level Hepburn character; Phoebe/Livy aint. Quality Street? A curiosity piece.

 

Irrational Man

09 Aug

Irrational Man – written and directed by Woody Allen. Perfect Crime Comedy. 96 minutes Color 2015.

★★

The Story: While deciding on an affair with a student, a philosophy professor decides instead to better humanity by killing someone.

~

The story does not work because the main character, the professor, is stunningly miscast.

Joaquin Phoenix cannot articulate the role at all. That is to say, he cannot get his mouth around the words he is asked to say.

One wonders what Woody Allen had in mind in hiring him. Phoenix is a great actor, but devoid of imagination for any style that does not correspond to his own intestinal depths. In brain-damaged roles, those depths are wonderful, but he is an actor incapable of a thought. He cannot imagine how to play an intellectual, because his acting instrument is not tuned for it: a respected, highly accomplished, well published full philosophy professor working at a New England college such as Bard.

Phoenix is a master-musician of the crude but sensitive soul. But Allen should not ask him to dally in a realm perfect for Jeremy Irons blindfolded. In his mouth every line Allen has given him sounds ill-written, phony, off-key. He cannot act them, that is to say, he cannot get his nature around the expression of a character whose life is of the mind.

So, unwittingly, he turns into a platitude what might, for Allen, have been an interesting excursion into rash land. Phoenix doesn’t mean to, of course; he’s not mean spirited or doctrinaire; he’s just not bright in the way required. For in his life he has chosen an engine for acting which forbids his operating in any other style save the one he has already installed. He runs on diesel, not gas.

He is not helped much by Emma Stone who appears to be a rather ordinary young actress playing a rather ordinary young woman. She’s a good actor, but her efforts batter against the brick wall of Phoenix’s technique like custard pies hurled at a Richard Serra wall.

The film is beautifully mounted by Santo Loquasto as usual. The music is tops. The costuming is questionable, since, in class, it keeps Phoenix in the same dull shirt for weeks, and it keeps Stone in skirts so short she looks like a toddler in didies. When she gains wisdom, the designer covers her legs, duh, in slacks.

The supporting people are darling. We even have Parker Posey, who almost turns her character into a substitute for the main interest– a stand-in waiting to go on. None of this salvages the film. You cannot mount a Perfect Crime Movie with the perpetrator played by Goofy.

 

Something To Live For

06 Aug

Something to Live For – produced and directed by George Stevens. Drama. 90 minutes Black And White 1952.

★★★

The Story: An alcoholic actress is rescued by an AA sponsor who falls in love with her.

~

Made between George Stevens’ masterpieces, A Place In The Sun and Shane, this film seems to have no explanation for its existence at all. It is baffling to both to watch it at the time and to contemplate afterwards.

The story destroys it. It was written by Dwight Taylor, an experienced screenwriter, who certainly knew about dipsomania, since alcoholism was rife in his family: his mother was the greatest of all American actresses and alcoholics Laurette Taylor.

The film starts with Ray Milland, an AA doing outreach rescuing (by some inexplicable coincidence) an aspiring actress from a binge. He then 13-Steps her, by falling irrevocably in love with her. She loves acting, but is failing at it. We then learn Milland has a job as an art director in (by some inexplicable coincidence he is failing at it). He also has a pregnant wife and two children (one of whom by inexplicable coincidence turns up at a rendezvous between Milland and the actress). The actress also turns up at a party (by some inexplicable coincidence), which Milland and his wife attend. The wrap-up takes place at the actresses opening night on Broadway to which (by some inexplicable coincidence) his wife at the last minute obtains center-of-the-orchestra tickets. And so it goes.

Perhaps the rockiness of the script defeated George Stevens’ famed treatment and handling, but little of what he does resuscitates the narration. There are his shots through windows and there are his slow fades and there are his usual and unusual angles and set-ups – but none of this can seize the material: it is too slick for talent to grasp.

The problem also lies, as it often did with Stevens, in the casting, about which he could be lackadaisical. The Diary Of Ann Frank is ruined by miscasting the leading role with a teenage fashion model. Max Von Sydow a blue-eyed Swede, good actor though he is, is hardly a Middle-Eastern Jew named Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Elizabeth Taylor could never have been a showgirl we are asked to accept her as in The Only Game In Town.

Here we have three Academy Award actors in the major roles, and none of them belong in them. Teresa Wright as the little wife does her plaintive routine in a thankless role. But casting Ray Milland and Joan Fontaine as the art director and the actress smears the material, making it Englishish. Milland had won an Oscar for playing a drunkard in The Lost Weekend, and he is good here as a reformed alcoholic sexually obsessed with the actress, but, through no fault of his own, his particular vocal projection does not belong in this hard-headed New York City material.

And then there is Joan Fontaine, an actor almost always miscast, except as a country mouse. Her vocal projection is strangled. She always plays the flaxen-haired, vapid, flaccid, fair Rowena of Ivanhoe. The part is really meant for an actor who is willing to exploit her mean streak, as Bette Davis did to win an Oscar for doing the part in Dangerous. But Fontaine falls back on pathos, her stock in trade. (Even her hair-do seems miscast.) Stevens used her in a minor role in Gunga Din, where she is fine, and in Damsel In Distress dancing with Fred Astaire, in whose arms she is completely out of place, as here. Why?

Stevens sometimes used actors who just happened to be on the studio roster and lucking-out, as he did with Shane. But here, at Paramount, the skewed casting is exacerbated by the colliding of coincidence and by the forcing of drinks on the two recovering drunkards. Drinks are thrust at them, dangled before them, shoved on them, poured into their water glasses. Alcoholism does not work that way. Alcoholism is an inner mental condition, a lure in the physical system. It exists as a sovereign space in the imagination. Having once succumbed to the salvation of the first drink, the license to continue is unleashed. It is not a moral or ethical defect nor one of want of fiber, but a chronic disease, like diabetes. The script does not grasp this and the rendering of the material by the director does not show he understands it.

George Stevens was a director with flawless consideration for his audience and what they could do and were very willing to do. I would love to understand why he thought he could do anything for an audience with this cast in this material at all. But it is interesting how each work of a master is not necessarily a masterpiece. For, as W. Somerset Maugham pointed out, only the mediocre achieve a level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Beauty

05 Aug

The Great Beauty – directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Personal Drama. 137 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: A once successful novelist faces the truth of his life and habits now in high middle age.

~

What we have here – and it’s best to say it at the outset – is a big international film talent, of the sort no longer arising but once prevalent in the work of Truffaut, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Ray. We are operating here in the territory, if not quite on the level, of Jean Renoir. Because the values Sorrentino is regarding with his tale and his camera are unprejudicely human. The film won the Oscar of 2014 for The Best Foreign Film.

The text is Tolstoian, of course. It poses the question Tolstoi poses in The Death Of Ivan Ilytch, which is: “What are you doing with your life?”

Toni Servillo is the actor appearing in virtually every scene. He has the perfect touch for this character, who skims along lightly in life. He is an author who has never written a second book. His daily and nightly habits of sex and society have so preoccupied him that he has even forgotten a sense obligation to actually write a second novel – and now he is 65.

The final resolution of this situation does not convince me. For art is not a trick. It is a craft. If that’s what he means by a trick, fine, but that’s not what he says. What he says is that it is a trick, meaning a low calling, a scam. Whereas art is neither a low calling nor a high calling, for all who are called to it are called the same. Only their talents for it vary. There is nothing contemptible in or about any of it. All art is quite useful – to those who make it.

So the question of his writing again becomes specious. One does not believe it.

For me it is important that one does not believe it, because if he gave up writing, we have wasted our time on him, and if he resumes his writing, we have also wasted our time, because we have been served up the dessert of a happy ending to a story which demands differently.

What the story demands is what it delivers all along, which is a series of episodes in a life which is characterized in its shallowness by being lived episodically. So the style of the film accords perfectly with the style of the protagonist.

The episodes are brilliant in their choice and execution, so brilliant one can see easily that he could not have been seduced away from his work by anything less brilliant.

One after another they emerge before our eyes and his: the sudden death of The Observer; the vulgar violence of middle-aged hippies dancing their lives and the night away; Rome’s palaces in midnight trespass; wild animals in The Coliseum; death of the young; sorrow at early love failed; the scathing of a pretentious liberal. One scene after another looms before us with telling force and imagination. The religious world of Vatican Rome in which an ancient saintly nun crawls toward God; the screwing of a sweet young thing by a sweet young priest; the gaze of a novice out through the bars of her convent at a world she is missing.

So there is no difference between the sacred and profane here. All melds.

All constructs itself to remount the question of how one is living one’s life.

I highly recommend the film. It is a film of great narrative latitude. This gives it leisure for suspense and a welcome to one’s speculation. And to get to know a character as he discovers his sides are too few.

To regard one’s life not from the point of view of its great events but from the point of view of the petty human habits that bring it down is to educate oneself to one’s own daily stuff.

Rent it. It’s lavish. It’s unexpected. It is not profound except that to see it causes profundity in those who do.

 
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Posted in DIRECTED BY: Paolo Sorrentino

 

Vigil In The Night

23 Jul

Vigil In The Night – produced and directed by George Stevens. Medical Drama. 96 minutes Black And White, 1940.

★★★★★

The Story: Two nurses try to escape their pasts in a cruel and dangerous profession.

~

The five important pre-War directors in American film – George Stevens, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and John Ford – all were permanently affected by it, as were the actors who went.

Robert Montgomery, Tyrone Power, James Stewart, Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, Clark Gable engaged in dangerous action in The War. Sweet Kid Galahad, Wayne Morris, flying a Hellcat off the aircraft carrier Essex, shot down 7 Japanese planes and contributed to the sinking of five Japanese ships. As did the whole nation, all came back solemnized by The War.

Before The War, George Stevens made comedies such as Swing Time, the best of the Rogers/Astaire musicals, Vivacious Lady with Jimmy Stewart, The More The Merrier with Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, Gunga Din with Cary Grant, and Woman Of The Year, the first and best of the Tracy/Hepburn comedies. During The War, George Stevens filmed Dachau. After The War he never made another comedy.

So the pre-War Vigil In The Night comes as a surprise in Stevens work. It is serious. It is an ER melodrama such as we have seen many a one on TV, set in the nursing profession, with Carole Lombard in a role of the sort she was never known for.

The highest paid actress in Hollywood at the time, she ordinarily played lamé women of a highly volatile disposition in slapstick comedy. Here she is burkad in nurses’ caps and scarves and aprons. She appears to wear no noticeable lipstick or eye makeup. Because she had a scar on her left cheek, her face has a heavy, but matte, foundation. Her blond hair is seldom visible.

The story is from a novel by A.J. Cronin, who, like Keats, Stein, Maugham, W.C. Williams, was a medical doctor, so, written from the inside, the movement of the material rings true as narrative.

If Vigil In The Night had been a masterpiece, the film would have been a masterpiece. But unlike Stevens’ A Place In the Sun and Shane, no visual or narrative power on the part of the director can budge it beyond its convention of well-ordered melodrama. Its convention is honorable and solid, of course. It is narrative-driven. But it cannot escape the many corners of its own story. This story holds the film firmly in hand, and the only escape from it is the question that arises in the viewer as to whether the leading nurse will renounce her profession of nursing for marriage to the doctor who is in love with her.

This is the sole drama for the audience. All the rest of the drama is elected to the screen, moved forward there, resolved there. In Vigil In The Night, there is nothing for us to do. In Shane and A Place In The Sun there is everything for us to do. In A Place In The Sun, the power of the film lies in the director’s ability to leave an immense part of the story literally in the dark, at a distance, over there, for our delectation and voyeurism. To Watch it, a huge amount of imagination is called for, as to watch Shane. To watch Vigil In The Night no imagination is called for. The plot suborns it all.

The astounding thing about it, this being so, is the director’s handling of the material: the almost silent-film opening with its Bela Lugosi music, the angles of the camera, the overhead shots of the operating room, the director’s movement of the cast through wards, his placement of personnel, his characteristic use of windows through which to shoot, the taciturn handling of a bus accident so that, in not quite knowing what is going on, we experience the confusion of the episode, the management of every scene to make it unobtrusively interesting and right for us, shooting the child’s rescue through the slats of the crib, his arrangement of bodies in light, his ability to tell the emotional story through stark movement. From the point of view of treatment, Vigil In The Night is a masterpiece. Otherwise, not.

He produced the film, under the fine, overall production of Pandro S. Berman at RKO with whom he had worked successfully before. And as usual, he edited the picture himself. The only blight on the film is Alfred Newman’s music, which sentimentalizes emotion by supplying sentiment already there. Stevens’ soft spot for polemic also peeks out here – a trait that was to sink him years later.

What you have at the center of all this are four main characters: Carole Lombard as the career nurse, Brian Aherne as the honest hospital physician who must fight the head of the hospital board for healthier conditions, Anne Shirley as Lombard’s sister who doesn’t belong in nursing at all, and Ethel Griffies as the hospital head matron of nursing.

In scene after scene, through imaginative shifting of points of view and position Griffies holds the story in suspense as to the question of whether Lombard and her sister Anne Shirley can escape or redeem their pasts.

Brian Aherne, the archetypical leading man, is an actor of lyrical rather than dramatic strain, which perfectly suits the sexuality of the character he plays, since he needs to not claim Lombard without her express permission. Stevens films him with his eyes lowered in one scene; unusual for a camera to dwell on an actor like that; it suits the character perfectly.

As it should and must, the film retains our engagement because of Carole Lombard.

What is it about her? There was always the sense she was a madcap amateur, with the voice pitched too high.

Not so here. Here she is entirely under wraps, and one is given latitude to respect what she does and is. Quite simply, quite obviously, she was that rare combination of an actor who was both truly beauteous and, behind that, truly appealing.

With her hair concealed, the planes of her face emerge, and they are something to behold. Large, wide-spaced eyes. Mobile mouth. High cheek bones. A long, delicate jaw-line. Slender figure. And the voice, for once, placed low. Regard the slight movement of her exquisite brow. The features are severe; what lies behind them is not.

Technically it is a part hard to do without pushing and thus betraying the virtue we are expected to credit this character to possess, which is that of self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, a capacity for grueling, dangerous work, command in emergency, nobility. None of these does Lombard “play.” We are left to supply them, and we do, willingly. Thus we root for her. She herself makes nothing of them – and makes nothing of making nothing of them, as is right, for they would be already part of her character’s nature, and she and the director knew that the muscle of the story and her movement in a scene did the job. Lombard keeps it simple.

She had chosen the part because the wanted an Oscar. She had been nominated for My Man Godfrey, but she was not nominated for Vigil In The Night at all, and you can see why: the part goes nowhere. No alteration is available to her from beginning to end; no arc. She is superb in it, but superb is all she can be. Still, she is a perfect vessel for Stevens’ direction. Had she lived, one wonders if he would have used her again, as he tended to do with actors.

Stevens tells and lets the actor tell the emotion of the story with movement alone. By this I don’t mean grimace, expression, gesticulation. What I mean is that he makes the dynamic of the scene itself move the actors, not emotionally, but physically, to tell their story. You know what they feel by where and when they walk, how closely they stand to one another. For Stevens, emotion is narration, narration is actor placement, placement dictates scenic content. Stevens was the cameraman of Laurel and Hardy, and knew that their power lay not in jokes or in what they said or in slapstick, but in the collection of drama available inside the wider context of each scene they played. It had to do with the quite careful but unforced allowing of comedy to emerge – you find this over and over in Stevens’ comedies.

You find it here. Finding it here might not be enough to lure you to see this film, but Vigil In The Night is more than a text for screen scholars or students. It is master work by a great film artist. It is a masterpiece of directorial and acting entertainment in which every resource available to render the material for us has been engaged, invented, imagined.

 

The Salt Of The Earth

10 May

Salt Of The Earth – directed by Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Documentary. 110 minutes Black and White and Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: Sabastiäo Salgado, young Brazilian economist in London picks up a camera and becomes the world’s greatest photographer of indigenous peoples.

~

What an eye!.

And what an eye he gives us to see what he means us to see!

Black and white photography differs from color photography in that color photography tends to reach out to the viewer, while black and white photography asks the viewer to enter in.

So we find the world’s depths reflected over and over again in this display of the renowned photographer’s black and white work. We see him from the time he starts out through his many long travels until the present time when he is 71, man of great feeling, a big masculine presence, and an undeviating talent.

We see him and his pictures from various trips to Africa, the drought regions, the refugee cities, the genocide roads. We see his photographs of the spectacular African gold mines with their ant-like workers scrambling by the thousands up and down quarry walls. We see New Guinea males with their penis cones dancing in the sunny heights, and we see the Amazonian tribe of naked Indians with their lip spikes hunting sloths high in the jungle trees.

The work of this this man is clearly inspired by the muse of his smart and able wife, and certain expeditions, to film Siberian walruses, for instance, are shot by his grown son. But the main presence for him is the German film-maker Wim Wenders.

Wenders talks to him, and Salgado talks to us back, in full close-up. Wenders himself creates with those close-ups a black and white depth of investigation rarely to be found in film, or in any human being, for that matter.

The film’s final sequence offers a complete surprise, which I shall no further hint at. But even without it, one has the feeling of being in the company of a human who has spent a worthwhile and loving life.

 
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Posted in DIRECTED BY Wim Wenders, DOCUMENTARY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

The Liberation of L.B. Jones

24 Apr

The Liberation of J.B. Jones – directed by William Wyler. Drama. 102 minutes Color 1970.

★★★★

The Story: In a Tennessee town, two bad cops pursue domination over the black community, while two black members of it seek and achieve retribution.

~

Important violence raises this picture out of the mud flinging of a message film and into an imaginative tale of human fact which has not dated.

Willi Wyler’s films earned more Academy Awards for acting than any other director in history. Usually it is Hollywood-type acting, but he certainly cast his pictures well. The original casting of the Lee J. Cobb lawyer who compromises justice for the sake of social peace was Henry Fonda, who would have brought more scope to the role’s requirements of a basically honest man doing the wrong things for what he thinks are the right reasons.

The real mistake in casting is in placing Lee Majors in the key role of his nephew and neophyte law partner, for Majors has a peculiarly corrupt Hollywood handsomeness to him and gift for histrionics that is truly oaken. Barbara Hershey is fine as Major’s wife, but neither of them have scenes sufficient to make the balancing of the whites dangerous.

Not so the casting of the black actors, which is impeccable. The excellent Yaphet Kotto looms as the sweet-natured avenging angel, and Roscoe Lee Brown brings his storied refinement to the role of the rich undertaker who is divorcing his wife. She is played by Lola Falani who is very beautiful and very gifted as an actor. She moves through a dozen ambiguities in the role of Brown’s young wife, and her skill keeps us away from asking a simple obvious question about her: Why doesn’t she just tell her husband? Fayard Nicholas and Zara Cully bring their piquancy and smarts to open the material up for us into the black world. Watch Nicholas, that dancing genius, turn and waylay that woman with a just blow to the jaw. What timing!

Anthony Zerb plays the principal fool cop, and, like Arch Johnson as the other one, they lose their characters behind their put-on deep South accents, so their human projection is lost behind their stereotype sound. It’s a common foible for actors. All you have to do is listen to Chill Wills here to get what a real country sound does when it rings true.

The film is a fine picture, Wyler’s last, co-directed by Robert Swink, for Wyler was laid up by the Southern heat. As a subject it stands as a recompense for his two cowardly attempts at The Children’s Hour, both of which failed and should have failed. But this is a strong film, interestingly framed and shot by Robert Surtees. It is the first film ever made showing a black man killing a white man. And about time too.

During the filming in Humboldt Tennessee, someone approached Roscoe Lee Brown on the street and said, “How come you don’t talk like other colored folk?” To which Brown replied, “Because when I was young, we had a white maid.” And about time too.

 

Cake

09 Feb

 

Cake – directed by Daniel Barnz. Drama. 102 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A woman, badly traumatized and scarred, sets everyone’s teeth on edge, as she resists all conventional California remedies.

~

Does this sound promising? I hope not. Drama is not frozen custard. Nor should it have to end in warm and fuzzy, Steiff, panda-bear hugs.

Instead we have a brilliant performance by Jennifer Aniston of a brilliant script by Pat Tobin, and what more do you want? Do you want a gum-drop heart?

Well, this is not a candy store movie. This is the sort of movie Bette Davis pioneered for us, so let’s honor our heritage and place Aniston in our trove of cultural treasures where she belongs. We have a great female American actress here; let’s pay attention!

Long the most skilled of light comediennes – so skilled, indeed, that it is obvious she could play anything – now takes on this mordant drama of a woman who chooses to be coldly sardonic rather than take cheap cures.

There are no cheap cures for what has happened to her. I won’t go into it, because I don’t want to spoil the unfolding of the tale which develops with a narrative expertise teased to ripen before our inexperienced eyes. You have never seen anything like this before. Don’t worry. In this movie, for you too, there is no cheap cure. You will hoe the row.

There is no actress alive who can calibrate a performance with the mastery of Jennifer Aniston. You must behold it to behold it. Her timing, her inflection, her command of the interior valor, her willingness to be mean – all pay off in telling a story whose sole instrument is the character itself.

Adriana Barraza plays her housekeeper, chauffeur, and bodyguard. Brilliant casting. Brilliant performance.

Wonderfully directed.

I wish I could tell you more. But I don’t wish to. I wish you to go yourself and see what Cake tells you all by itself.

 

American Sniper

29 Jan

American Sniper – directed by Clint Eastwood. WarDrama. 133 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

~

The Story: A natural marksman becomes a sniper with the most kills in American military history, and his family suffers by it.

Of course, Clint Eastwood is the most experienced maker of war films alive, and this would be, as such, his masterpiece.

The movie is far from a masterpiece. for the domestic drama is badly written and directed, and the poor actress whose unappetizing job it is to slog through the part of the wife does not have the character or variety of craft to relieve it of its monotony, shallowness, and borrowed tone. All the character does is whine and plead. But that’s the way it’s written. It is as though this woman, who has lots of moxie when we first meet her in a bar, has no inner resources of her own, but exists only as a dependent clause of her husband.

Eastwood has a habit he shares with Spielberg of, after a champagne banquet, for dessert serving Cheerios. It’s too bad, because, by this, the actual ruin war has on males is given short shrift. Oh, tut-tut, he almost throttles a dog that is playing roughly with his son! Not enough, Clint!

Perhaps the problem was that it was based on Chris Kyle’s autobiography. It might have been better told like Hawk’s Sargent York, as fictionalized as could be. But it’s not.

The result of this is that Kyle does not emerge through Bradley Cooper’s acting. Oh, the character is there, the actor has done his work well, but the scenes are not there. Klye is essentially a feminine, receptive individual; that’s why he such a subtle, long-suffering marksman. It’s also why he just stands there and recites his indoctrination about protecting America. Don’t be fooled by his bulk, he is most tractable of men, which is why he would one day make a good teacher of the intractable, and why his escape from his forced submissiveness is to lay in wait and kill.

For why he goes back to kill in four deployments has nothing to do with his stated reasons: patriotism, care for his corps. It has to do with what we ourselves feel as he lies there on rooftops waiting to slay. The sheer inner lift of it. The exaltation the concentration gives us. And the desire to see bodies splat and fall. The satisfaction of seen slaughter. It’s a resource available to almost none, but in all its forms it serves well as an antidote to abuse, a bypass for resentment, a getting-back against tyrannical fathers.

The war scenes are the best you’ve ever seen. The movie is well worth experiencing because of them. They are not to be missed. The film benefits from Eastwood’s usual broad, relaxed narrative canvas. But how anyone ever escaped alive from such belligerence is incomprehensible. The stations on the front, with their unindividualized male personnel have the presence and power of a personality in and of itself, the character of a whole human society. A light shines in on how men are. Which is essentially gentle with one another. And never more so than when in crisis.

 

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 Gambler

03 Jan

The Gambler – directed by Rupert Wyatt. Suspense Drama. 111 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: A man gets in over his head and owes a fortune to three men who mean mortal business.

~

Mark Wahlberg is a wonderful actor.

What does that mean? It means that I look upon him and wonder. I contemplate his visage, his emotion or his emotion held in check or his delivery or what his mouth is or what his eyes are, and I wonder.

What does this mean to me? It means that both of us are in exactly the right places, I in the audience doing what I am supposed to be doing and he is up on the screen doing likewise.

Various things fall in his favor as an actor. First, he seems to have learned on the job, a good way to come into the craft. Second, his essence is working-class, which in this role would seem out of place, for he plays a college English professor and the son of a millionairess bank owner – yet his presence as such is without contradiction because he has conceived the role as beyond circumstance. Irony is the razor edge of death. Third, his male energy does not prevaricate. It stands there giving him, along with his medium-height and tone, the common touch. And finally he knows how to be before a camera such that both the camera and the audience can participate being there with him.

I felt he should have had the Oscar for The Departed. I felt he should have had the Oscar for The Fighter, but the withdrawn character he played was neoned-out by the electricity of Leo and Bale. He’s a first class screen actor. Will someone please hand one to him?

The picture is beautifully directed in terms of narrative intrigue. The director allows every actor forward into their talent. Jessica Lange, always a touchy actor, holds herself in strict check to play Wahlberg’s mother. John Goodman is filmed half naked, which grants us the power of his mass and the mass of his intelligence. Brie Larson holds us as the student taken with Wahlberg. Michael Kenneth Williams makes great book as the black money-lender. Alvin Ing is the still point of a knife in the role of a Korean gambling king. Richard Schiff plays a tip-top scene as a porn broker.

Every scene counts. Every scene is delicious to look at and never distracts with that fact. The music is mad and neat. It is perfectly cast. It is elegantly written. Grieg Fraser has filmed every scene color-right, and the unusual frequent use of closeups brings us into the situation every time. Production design, art direction, costumes, editing – all are unexceptionable.

The Gambler is the best movie I have seen all year.

Oh, this is the second of January, isn’t it! Well, you know what I mean. Take a gamble. See it.

 

Nobody Lives Forever

31 Oct

Nobody Lives Forever – directed by Jean Negulesco. Grifter Drama. 100 minutes Black And White 1946.

★★★★★

The Story: A G.I. comes home to his former crimes scene and heads for a multi-million dollar scam.

~

John Garfield, perfectly cast as both a G.I. and a criminal. It’s his way, which is always the same way: the sensitive tough-guy, Bronx marshmallow. Very lovable. Very understandable. These are qualities which come with some actors and don’t come with others, and they determine work. Work in two ways: casting, and the way he executes scenes. For out of these qualities spring choices in handling scenes. The acting craft holds outlets for these people. They are not ordinary, these people. They have vitality, presence, and looks. They have in them that which wants to be seen. So in discussing acting in relation to them, it is almost impossible to view them dispassionately. It is almost impossible to define the skill with which the tiger dismembers the faun. What is first, mainly, only possible, is to experience being impressed. That much is sure.

Like them or not, there they are up on the silver screen where they belong. With him and always opposite him are all the other members of the cast, all as vital. George Coulouris as the sleazy crumb horning in on Garfield’s grift. George Tobias, as always comical as the almost useless sidekick. Two comical thug fools, in James Flavin and Ralph Peters. His two-timing, slapable canary played by Faye Emerson at the peak of her beauteousness. And the astonishing Walter Brennan as the pickpocket guru. All these are contrasted in their comical or threatening positions to him and to the only one who is not threatening, but is lovely, Geraldine Fitzgerald playing the widow they mean to cheat. Fitzgerald’s performance makes the film work. She is smart but justifiably ignorant; she falls in love with Garfield and you believe it; she registers everything quietly and truly. Don’t miss her. She lets you perform the part with her. Garbo did the same.

The film’s finale is handled somewhat clumsily. But otherwise the film is beautifully directed, which is a question of values attended to in a way noir does not often offer. W.R. Burnett (author of Little Caesar, High Sierra, This Gun For Hire, The Whole Town’s Talking, Scarface, The Asphalt Jungle) wrote it.

Give it a viewing. Let me know how you liked it.

 

Ride Lonesome

26 Oct

Ride Lonesome – directed by Budd Boetticher. Western. 73 minutes Color 1959.

★★★★★

The Story: A bounty hunter must bring in a murderer and encounters mortal danger inside and outside his posse.

~

Randolph Scott was for decades one of the most popular stars in Hollywood, and towards the end of his long career he made seven excellent films with Boetticher, of which this is the next to last and one of the best.

Scott came from a well-to-do Virginia and North Carolina family, and made a great fortune from films. He exuded the demeanor of a Southern gentleman too well bred to surrender to the admissions of the actor, but in time he loosened up internally and became an object of riveting registration. He is 61 when he makes this picture; his face has become marbleized; he is a national monument; he is stalwart, shrewd, and physically flexible when on horse; watch his body move. He is careful about what he laughs at, but contains a droll humor. When he is on screen all attention goes his way because he works the moral drift. Probity leads him. And that leads everyone else. Unlike Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, he is never hollow; he is without bombast. Burt Kennedy wrote this script, as he did for other of Scott’s best pictures, and knew Scott’s instrument and wrote fine music for it.

This is a trek movie. Like Stagecoach and many another it involves a long, tense, journey.

Accompanying Scott is the weak-minded young prisoner Scott has captured. But two other men go too, both interested in killing Scott so they can bring in the prisoner themselves and collect their own reward. They are interesting, because their reward would be amnesty from their past crimes and because they are played by James Coburn in his film debut, as a young lunkhead who idolizes the other one, played by the redoubtable Pernell Roberts. Roberts was the best Petruchio I have seen; he did it at The Phoenix in New York on Second Avenue back when. He had the kind of masculinity and big theater presence and great voice you found in Robert Preston. The fifth wheel in this posse is played by Karen Steele (Boetticher’s mistress at the time), an actress in whom our interest is stifled by her pyramid titties, immaculate beauty parlor appearance, and stiffness. Lee Van Cleef is, of course, the arch villain tracking them down.

The precision of the film gives us the story in all its timeless conventions and necessary taciturnity, and the director has given it to us in the spectacle of the taciturnity of the rocks amid which it is shot. It is sensational to look at. It would be wonderful to see this picture on the big screen, it must have been marvelous to witness it there at the time of its release. It’s still good to see it now.

 
 
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