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Archive for the ‘DOCUDRAMA’ Category

The Company

13 Jun

The Company –– directed by Robert Altman. Docudrama. The backstage and onstage life of the dancers of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. 112 Minutes Color 2004.
★★★★★
A hybrid tea rose. Gorgeously filmed by Pierre Mignot, who took many of Altman’s later films.

This is Altman’s penultimate work, a small masterpiece, which offers the current of a story not spelled out but floating along in the stream of the life of the dancers in which Neve Campbell, the actress who wrote it, produced it, and does (unlike that other young woman who won an Oscar) actually dance it.

She was trained in ballet long before going into acting, and she worked for three years with another writer to grant the Joffrey their story. And then for months she trained, as no professional athlete could train, to get into ballet condition.

Nothing is filmed in documentary style; everything is filmed in dramatic film style. All of this is quite fascinating if one can step back and realize that only five actors are actually used and only three of them have principal roles, and only one of them says much. The dancers are beautiful actors, doing what they would do anyhow, which is dancing and being humans preparing to dance.

This means that all of the backstage, dramatic relationships are worked out largely as pas de deux, or pas de trois, or pas de howevermany. And so we get a view of how the dancers actually live. On the stage they are accoutered gorgeously and lit like angels. Off stage they waiter in saloons to make ends meet and sleep on the floor, because they are not paid a living wage.

But that is not so much what we get as it is that we see the ambiance and the mechanics of a great dance company in counterpoint. Malcolm Macdonald is hilarious on target as the domineering head of the Joffrey, and Neve Campbell and James Franco sweetly play the young lovers, two youths separated and united by their skills. We see the business arrangements and we see the dance arrangements, and we see that, like the lovers, they do not meet except in hiding. For what see on stage is glorious in its riches.

We witness about six astonishing ballets of the Joffrey, with the full company engaged in them and preparing for them by their choreographers and dance masters.

Will you sit back in delight as I did to watch these highly theatrical pieces? Will you send out for this film, better than sending out for a pizza – and far more digestible, you may be sure? Will you remember me and thank me that you read this and behaved, as the saying goes, accordingly? Will you enjoy yourself so deliciously?

I hope so. What gifts Altman had to give when his heart was in his work!

 
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Saving Mr. Banks

07 Jan

Saving Mr. Banks – directed by John Lee Hancock. BioFlic. 125 minutes Color 2013. ★★★★★

The Story: Walt Disney attempts to induce stubborn P. L. Travers to sign over the rights to her book Mary Poppins, and both turn out to be different than you thought.

~

Terrific. Made with the immaculate production values we are long accustomed to with Walt Disney movies, and, once we blind ourselves the poise of them, the trip is certainly worth our while. For the making of Mary Poppins was certainly worth while. For it tugs at the heart with unlooked-for happiness, in the same good old Disney way.

Inside each of these famous people who wrangle over the production of the film a Bambi lies covert. A father ruined, and almost ruinously wonderful, preys on each of them.

This is somewhat less interesting than the performing of the principals. Kathy Baker is the wise secretary of the great man, Bradley Whitford is the script writer much abused, Jason Schwartzman is the song writer, and Rachel Grifiths sails in with her life-saving umbrella and basket of nostrums. She is the prototype of Mary Poppins, and an actor who looks unsettlingly but not quite exactly like Colin Farrell plays the prototype for Mr. Banks, the actor turning out to actually be Colin Farrell. A lovely little actress, Annie Rose Buckley, plays his six year-old daughter, enchanted by him. Paul Giamatti, in an infallible role, plays Mrs. Travers’ California chauffeur.

This high-end casting is a doily around the principles. Disney is played by Tom Hanks who is an actor who can play ordinary people unactorishly. He never pushes for effects. He never shows you he can act. He brings honor to the every-day and the expected to the expected. No more trustworthy actor exists. He is a pleasure as ever.

As the redoubtable P.L. Travers we have (and no one else would do) your favorite of all, Emma Thompson. Travers is at the end of her creative road and she knows it. So the part is set up to present you with the most difficult and rude British dame you ever met, protecting her last and dearest child from Hollywood molestation. She has that common British attitude that all things American are inferior and, even worst, vulgar. She mistakes condescension for breeding and contempt for superiority. She is crushingly dismissive of everything and everyone. And Emma Thompson means it, so you wonder, will this never end?

It does end exactly as it should, with her at the premier of Mary Poppins, and we are all in tears, because Mary Poppins is one of the most worthwhile films Disney ever made. If Julie Andrews lacks the rigor which Mrs Travers put in her, never mind, the idea gets across, and the songs crack the nut of any hard-heart within city limits. We shed tears not because we are in pain, but because we are given release of pain. And I say, Good! Shed some. Go.

 

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

08 Dec

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo – directed by Mervyn LeRoy. WWII Drama. Four months after Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Dootlittle’s B-25 squadron mounts the daring bomb attack for which the airmen know they do not have sufficient return fuel. 138 minutes Black and White 1944.
★★★★★
What you have is a script by Dalton Trumbo who hypothesizes every scene into what he ideologically wishes it to be, so the script always floats slightly above the actors’ heads. They have to reach back into their Sunday School pageants to play it. But it does give Trumbo leeway for the scene where two men discuss whether they actually hate the Japanese and what it feels like to kill civilians. It’s good the scene is there at all, since it would have been a matter of discussion among troops. So “Anti-American” though; so Dalton Trumbo; so HUAC. After all a War is on! Loose lips sink ships! As usual with Trumbo, it feels at once startling and pat. An honestly acted liberal rant.

Not to be missed are terribly acted romantic scenes of Phyllis Thaxter who grinds every scene to a halt by her sparkle; she narrows her eyes and just glimmers away. You want to slap her. It’s a wonder Van Johnson can perform opposite her at all. You look at him being convincing and crown him with a halo: that he could act opposite Phyllis Thaxter and not gnashed his teeth once.

Spencer Tracy walks through the Doolittle role with his commanding presence merely. When you see him in the cockpit of his bomber in leather flight jacket, you want to laugh, and put him back in his suburban easy chair where he belongs and never left, not once, to do a little research about how it feels being a pilot.

But he has little to do, save deliver a few gritty speeches, and the film is well worth watching for the actual bomber training of these men, at the actual airdrome they did it in, and the tiny practice runs they performed of those huge wretched bombers in preparation for taking off from the minute flight deck of the U.S.S. Hornet. So quickly after Pearl Harbor too!

And we see the actual takeoffs on that day, for it was filmed at the time. They’d been spotted by a fishing boat and had to leave many hours too soon and farther from their targets, thus reducing the return gas in their tanks. We see the actual approach to Japan. We see them see Fujiyama. We see them skim low over the paddies. We see the actual bombing raid. All of this is thrilling and valid. For we are seeing the actual footage of it

Then we see how they had to fly to a base in China, which only one of them actually made. China was Japanese occupied at the time, so when the bombers landed or crashed, their crews were either taken by the Japs or hidden by the Chinese and spirited away to secret airfields where lovely and ever-resourceful DC3s flew them off in the nick of time.

The story focuses mainly on Van Johnson’s crew, among whom we find the refreshing face of Robert Walker, a terrific actor here and elsewhere. A big team of Oriental and American actors ably acts it, including Don DeFore, Robert Mitchum, Leon Ames, Benson Fong, Hsin Kung, Ching Wah Lee, Ann Shoemaker, Stephen McNally, Bill Williams, Scott McKay, Selena Royle, Alan Napier. Most of these appear in the adventure and escape in China. Harold Rosson and the great Robert Surtees filmed it. It is action/adventure as its most documentarian and thrilling.

 

The Diary Of Anne Frank

28 Nov

The Diary Of Anne Frank – produced and directed by George Stevens. Tragedy. Eight people hide in an attic while vicious enemies roam the streets to find them. 180 minutes Black and White 1959.

★★★★

As a film it has lost nothing to time; indeed it takes on power by its set decoration and photography, for both of which it won Oscars. And these are the important Oscars for such a film, since they give to it the feel of documentary. Shelly Winters also won one, and Joseph Schildkraut, who had won one in 1937, who is marvelous, was not even nominated. Lou Jacobi and Gusti Huber, as Mrs Frank, had done it with him on Broadway, and their performances are fresh and strong. Diane Baker and Richard Beymer play modest characters with modesty; every moment tells; we never lose them; we never stop caring about them. With Winters, as an actress, her uncertainty tends to push her art. This makes her always intrusive, and so she is often cast as a pushy woman falling apart.

The use of the Cinemascope camera here in cooperation with a three-storey set, divided by verticals like bars, and the use of full eight-person ensemble scenes bring great strength to what is a director’s movie, which it had to be, since it had no stars and since the material is plotless and storyless, which it had to be, since it actually is a diary. So the direction is purely presentational and as such brilliant beyond expectation. We are never aware of “the direction;” nothing is showy; everything in honored that ought to be.

The difficulty is that one cannot identify with the actor playing Anne. She’s inhumanly pretty and she’s too old. She is never thirteen. In fact the actor was twenty, which is an entire time-zone away from thirteen. And there is something else wrong in that she looks like what she was, a young fashion model. Anne Frank was not a cover girl, but this young woman is a glamor-puss. (To see the part perfectly cast, see the television version.)

I don’t know what Stevens had in mind – a combination of Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn? Did Stevens think to draw focus to her because of her looks? Did he see her as a great new discovery? The problem is you don’t know what you’re getting when you hire an unknown inexperienced actor. Anyhow, the problem is not that she is a fashion model, but that that she relates to a camera in a fashion model way, a way quite different from a movie camera relationship. She knows exactly how to present herself “beautifully,” but that talent is irrelevant to Anne and disconsonnant with her as well. She is so pretty that she has long known how to use the charm of her looks to get what she wants and to get away with behaving as she wishes. Anne Frank was always “behaving” but to do so she had to summon something deep within her defiant nature quite different from the easy victories of a fashion model. Anne Frank was not “pretty,” and the scene where this beauty-actress has to fish for a compliment about her looks is preposterous.

Besides, Anne Frank was a truly funny person; this actress is not. Mind you, the young woman who plays Anne does everything well; she has a right to be proud of her contribution and her work, but, through no real fault of her own, the result of having her in it at all, is that, instead of what we do with the Anne Frank of the book, we have no one to get behind as a human, no one to identify with.

Tremendous vitality pressing outward from inside a difficult girl is the inner truth of the outer truth of the vitality of these eight people caged just because they are Jews inside that loft. Inside a tiny diary is hidden away, as are hidden these eight, the right to live! The injustice of the closet is the mark of this story’s greatness; the movie captures it and us. It is the greatest movie about being closeted ever made. It has not dated. It will never date.

 

The Sessions

10 Nov

The Sessions –- written and directed by Ben Lewin. Docudrama. A 38 year-old man confined to an iron lung by polio decides to lose his virginity, and hires a sexual surrogate to help him. 95 minutes Color 2012.

John Hawkes plays it like a true Virgo, that is to say he plays it understanding that the only thing that is critical to the role is that the character is in a physical difficulty that no human being could become quite used to no matter how long he had been used to it, and that this requires nothing more than a shift in vocal pitch – the only thing, since, as he is completely paralyzed, his voice is the only expressive instrument available to him. Everything else in the part is played by the audience. He will be nominated again for an Oscar. We ourselves see him with difficulty – from the side, from the top looking down, in profile supine. He is never shown upright and so we must meet him by lying down too.

And what sort of person is this? A very humorous one. Even his admission of self-pity is humorous. His humor gives us enough to do the rest.

The trick for such a story is to achieve a balance of ingredients.

First is a man who is sexually potent but sexually inert. He needs training. (Some men are like that. I was, and I too relinquished my virginity late, aged 20, to the whores in Inchon, to whom I am ever grateful. Like him, I was feckless. Like him, the first time did not work.) So he arranges for a sexual surrogate to come in, a trainer in the craft, here played by Helen Hunt. Hunt gives a generous, straightforward performance, much of it easily naked. She represents and plays the simple sexual act, unburdened by social or religious or family strictures. That’s the second ingredient.

Third is the weight of all outside moral stricture in the form of a Catholic priest, his minister and confessor. This is a part that must be played by the actor who does play it, that beaker of Irish whiskey neat William H. Macy, for the role requires the most impolitic of actors, and he is just the one, isn’t he? He is inherently without rules. He is adorned with hippy locks and jeans for pastoral visits. It’s a funny performance without ever poking fun. And that is smart and correct of Macy, for Hawkes must have all the jokes.

So you see it’s very interesting from the casting point of view. Helen Hunt has a beautiful figure and must be in her fifties, so we’re not talking about a sex kitten – that wouldn’t be legit. She has to be played by Hunt who is legitimacy incarnate. And the polio man has to be played by someone we don’t really know as an actor. Why? Because we have to fall into him, as into unknown territory in ourselves. It’s the sort of part that Sean Penn would kill for, but then it wouldn’t work, would it, because with Penn we’d already know too much.

The movie is about human sexual decency at its most naked. When have you ever seen it before?

 

Becoming Jane

02 Mar

Becoming Jane — directed by Julian Jarrold. Romantic Drama. Desperate pressures to get her married beset a lovely 18 Century bluestocking eventually to become Jane Austen. 120 minutes Color 2007.

★★★★

Set here in Ireland acting as Berkshire and perfectly cast as a late 18th Century place, one feels absolutely at home in the rough, peeling-painted, rectory-cum-farm of the film’s landscape, which never fails one second of this film’s footage to look right. What does fail is the sound and sound editing. The music, which is excellent, is always too loud, never more so than in the ballroom scene early on when not a single sentence of the dialogue can be heard above it. The actors do not help, either, for they believe, perhaps, that wit depends upon speed of utterance, and it does not. The elaboration of syntax, upon which much of the wit of Austen and the age depends, requires a careful mouthing. A tasting. A lingual pondering. Like wine. And dare I say it? – a drawl. It cannot be spit out like shot. Oscar Wilde was not at all like Noel Coward. And this is the age of Byron, behind whose drawl massed the power of his position and the greatness of the style of Don Juan. Ian Richardson knows the truth. His buffalo brow of disapproval looms like a dark eave over his enunciation of sentences of death. American actors think wit requires speed. Sometimes it does. But only for arrows. Austen’s zingers even when brief are instinctually weighted, tremendously elaborated shafts sent over the immense distance of a banquet table. These the actors tend to pipe or whisper. Not good. Certainly Maggie Smith understands this as she pecks apart her opponents with her chicken head beak and eyes wider than judgment. Her character relishes speech. For her, for the English, not just language, but speech is a consummate and delicious sterling silver tool. Perfectly cast, the film is also beautifully arranged for our enjoyment by the director and costumer. Anne Hathaway could not be bettered in the role of Jane; she has the intelligence, the strength of a love of independence, and no sense that she is using her looks to land a mate. She never flirts. She also understand speriod style. James McAvoy, on the other hand, is required to use his looks, and he is suitably combed and brushed and decked, and plays the part with no frippery extras but with great earnestness. (One wonders if he will ever graduate out of the category of jeune premier.) You quite believe the attraction between the two, which counts for a lot, although it does not directly feed the real plot of the film, which is how this enforces a literary imagination in the making. Julie Walters is grand as the mother of the daughters, particularly in her big scene hoeing potatoes, and James Cromwell as the minister has just the right looseness of attention to suggest his failing bank account. It is a film whose ending does not work. It needs the same ending as Splendor In The Grass: two lovers see one another after fifteen years, and it should break your heart. Instead of which it dissipates into the sentimental distraction of his having named his daughter Jane. Responsibility to historical accuracy shoots it dead in its traces. But by that time, a pretty good film is over.

 

Hatari

10 Oct

Hatari – Directed by Howard Hawks. Wild Animal Action Adventure. A company of animal collectors snares big game in Africa. 156 minutes Color 1962.

* * * *

Howard Hawks had no signature visual style, even when he used the same photographer. Nor was he much of a director of actors. His films are plainly shot in simple setups. What he had was a freewheeling attitude about scripts which in the morning he would make up among the actors or who ever passed through the shooting, and then film it later in the day. This openness and casualness produced a big permission for actors, so sometimes wonderful performances arrived. John Wayne’s, for instance. He is an actor who often chooses to “come from strength”, but here he pretty much lets that slide, and what comes to the fore is his wisdom, forgiveness, and rueful wit. He does not have any other actors in the picture who are on his level of artistry or humor, save Red Buttons, which is a shame, because that and their variety of foreign languages slows things down to the level of competence, which is a local train not a superchief; John Wayne is a superchief. However, what results here is a very amiable party indeed, casual, agreeable, and fun. This is not a movie you intently watch; it is a movie you hang out with. The story line is flimsy and contrived, and it all takes place indoors on Paramount sound stages, and looks it, as do the actors slathered in thick tan pancake. The story involves, if that is the right word, a couple of unconvincing romances, one of them between Wayne and the Italian actress Elsa Martinelli who is of all things called Dallas, the name Claire Trevor had in Stagecoach. (One must cover one’s eyes when John Wayne kisses anybody.) But, in the long and beautiful African scenes, Elsa Martinelli has such a terrific rapport with wild animals that I took her to be a professional trainer. She is remarkable with three baby elephants, and seems to harbor a leopard as a watchdog. The episode with the monkey tree is fascinating – evidently all the actors did the animal work in the picture – and wildebeest and rhinos and cheetahs and ostriches are caught in long and very exciting sequences. The chasing down and capturing of the wild animals feels authentic and was the raison d’etre for the film. These are interspersed with drunk scenes, which are not funny (at what moment in history did drunk scenes in Hollywood cease to be funny) and with sophomoric hijinks, which are not funny either. Hatari means danger in Swahili and the relaxed and genial nature of the story with its foolish excesses is just a necessary relaxation from the real and intense excitement of the hunts. Henry Mancini has written a brilliant score.

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Intervista

25 Aug

Intervista – Directed by Federico Fellini. Back Soundstage Movie Comedy. The comic story of shooting a film by Felinni about the first time Felinni came to a movie set when he was young. 102 minutes Color 1987.

* * * * *

Fellini is the Alexander Calder of film. Enchanting. Surprising. Fun. Here he gives us a film about how humans delight in what is made-up, artificial, fabricated. Not just but also in being those things. In being what is created, devised, imagined. In making themselves into those things. Not made up just by themselves but by someone else as well. Not just alone but as a group. And how they will endure folly, delay, uncertainty, rejection, and having their whole parade rained on in order that they have this privilege of concoction. Sacred and Exalted. Thrilling. Unifying. Hilarious. Natural. And forgiving.

And so we have one of the greatest and most unusual statements of human soul-reality ever made. And made how? Without ever coming out and saying so. It’s all done with a lot of people talking, shouting, carrying on, in the midst of every distraction and vituperation. And in all of this a story emerges which is coherent and which is told solely in film terms, in the rubric of film. Not just in narrative and entrancement but in felt content.

Emerging into this as though from the sky we have Marcello Mastroianni as a seedy magician. The crew all traipse in little cars to the villa of whom? She won’t let them in. She doesn’t believe it’s Felinni. When she does she sets her dogs on them. Anita Ekberg in orange towels. And this glorious Vercingetorix continues to appear in towels as though she had never quite dried off from that fountain all those years ago. Her reunion here takes my breath away, not because I am sentimental about the famous scene but because she and Mastroianni are 25 years older and look it and are beautiful and it’s just wonderful.

It’s a beautifully shaped picture. Like Singing In The Rain, it is a picture about pictures about pictures. Our happiness with fraud. Our envy of the freedom it confers. About the human energy it releases and the curious democracy which is its milieu and profound and delightful artifact.

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He Walked By Night

22 Aug

He Walked By Night – Directed by Albert Werker & Anthony Mann. Crime Drama. A sociopathic cop killer turns invisible until the L.A. Police doggedly track him down. 79 minutes Black and White 1948

* * * *

The picture begins rather flatly, even photographically, though shot by the mysterious John Alton. Then, except for a few scenes here and there, it takes off, and one detects the hand of Anthony Mann running the entertainment at us with his welcome and usual ruthless competence. Roy Roberts has the lead as the police chief in charge of finding the brilliant and elusive killer. He is assisted by Scott Brady playing the dumb cop who finally gumshoes the clues into the light of day. The film is an all-male suspense thriller, and it is riveting. On one side it is documentarian, but on the other, strange scenes follow one another in rapid order, creating a skewed sense of a loose-cannon killer holding a cannon – for instance, the long odd scene in which the killer enters the house of someone he knows, Whit Bissell, and beats him up for money. and a scene where the killer operates on himself to remove a bullet. These scenes and Alton’s treatment of them give the killer an unhinged interior for which Richard Basehart is perfectly cast, since he always looked nuts anyhow. (His apogee as an actor was the screwy tightrope clown in Fellini’s La Strada.) Here he is ingrown, mean, paranoid, and resourceful in all situations. Like the big chase scene at the end of Side Street, Mann mounts a stupendous chase through the storm sewers of Los Angeles. The excitement of these scenes completely obscures the fact that one does not care a fig for any of the characters, and that the director’s interest in the killer, signaled by the fact that only his own dog loves him, is purely for his entertainment value as someone as extreme in his attack in the film as the director is with the film itself.

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In Her Skin [I AM You]

17 Jul

In Her Skin [I Am You] – Written and directed by Simone North. Family Drama. A lovely 15-year-old girl goes missing, and her family refuses to give up on finding her, while a neighbor girl knows where she is all along. 108 minutes Color 2009.

* * * * *

Guy Pearce is the finest male actor his age, meaning 42. Essentially he is a character lead, remarkable in The Hurt Locker, The Factory, Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, rather than a leading man or matinee idol, and he is not usually cast as a pater familias, but here he is. The role is essentially a silent one, and one wonders why he took it. The noisy part is given to Miranda Otto who is very capable as the mother of the daughter who disappears. It is a true story, and all the originals, but one, are alive, and all but two were available for Otto and Pearce to meet and learn from. Sam Neill is first class as the father of the neighbor girl. He makes the man as understanding and forbearing as anyone could be. For no human being could put up with this girl or know how to treat her or wish to be with her: she is a creature of murderous self-indulgence. Ruth Bradley, at 21, plays this remarkable human, the 19-yar-old Caroline, the neighbor girl, and the company was lucky to have this actress, and by what miracle they secured her I cannot imagine, for she is Irish, and the film was shot in Australia. She bares herself to the role above and beyond the call of duty. The remarkable family to whom this catastrophe happened appears in the extras, which offer interviews with Sam Neill, Miranda Otto, and an extensive one with Guy Pearce. You will cease to wonder why he took the role when you come to the scene of hyperventilation on the bed. There are moments in films which penetrate me; such a moment occurs later on the same bed as he slowly places a kiss on Miranda Otto’s temple. You may not find it so. But for me a great actor is one who in the odd moment always finds exactly the right thing to do.

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The Great Debaters

26 May

The Great Debaters – Directed by Denzel Washington. Winning-Through Docudrama. A small rural Negro college in Texas in 1935 gains national acknowledgement as an unbeaten debating team.  126 minutes Color 2007.

* * * *

The musical score of this film undermines by supplanting the drama and emotion of every scene it is heard in. And this is quite unnecessary, because Washington is a first class director of actors. They need no musical appurtenances. There are four debaters and their skin is beautiful, their faces are beautiful, their acting is beautiful. Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, a brilliant professor among brilliant professors at Wiley College in Marshall Texas, and he coaches them ruthlessly to win, and win they do. This is like a Rocky film or a horse film. Since it is about a feat, you understand at the outset that you are to be faced with a foregone conclusion, and so we are presented here with the customary tropes of such stories. For me, the problem with this show was that these tropes galloped away with the film, and with it went all living peculiarity. We are left with nothing but the contraption of the tropes. Washington begins it with a brilliant display of character acting as he recites poetry in his classroom and scares and excites everyone therein. But his entire character is lost as the film goes on, and lost too is his particular story of his writing all the debates for the students, and lost too are the character pieces, the genre scenes, those little anteroom scenes necessary to put the film on a siding so that we may enjoy and get to know the characters. Forest Whitaker plays the chaplain of the college, and he is getting to be a better actor with time; it’s nice to see. Neither he nor Washington, though, has any temperamental or ego conflict to be resolved with one another or with anyone else in the picture. We have four lovely actors playing the four debaters: the 14 year old Denzel Whitake playing son to his father; Nate Parker as the brilliant and defiant ne’er-do-well; Jumee Smollett as the first female debater, and Jermaine Williams who must bow out. They are dear, but I wish the choochoo train the script thrust them on had, from time to time, stopped at a station not called Debate. Although it’s played well, the whole romance business could have been scrapped; it goes nowhere, and it routinizes the film. However I am grateful for the small mercies of it, an accounting, especially at the beginning, of how it all started. I wish Washington had not been forced by the script to forsake his character for his usual star stuff. Given the script, there was nothing else for him to do. I love these black actors, though, and I am grateful to see them in films where violence is not the main source of interest. The Extra Features are lovely, and in so many ways, so is the film.

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The Valley Of The Hearts Delight

12 Apr

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

* * *

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

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Shattered City:The Halifax Explosion

31 Mar

Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion — Directed by Bruce Pittman — TV Docudrama Miniseries. A shipment of high explosives converges with an out-of-line Belgian vessel in Halifax Harbor during World War I, and creates the greatest man-made explosion in the history of the world, and blows apart many local individuals’ lives. 3 hours Color 2003.

* * * *

This is a solid historical reconstruction of the events leading up to and trailing in the wake of the Halifax disaster. It’s a good piece of historical dramaturgy, based as it is on actual lives and deeds and on the memory of them by those who lived long after, such as the young Connie Collins, who lived until 2003. Arrogance at the helm brought ruin to the lives of 11,000 people that day. Many of the parts are beautifully played, particularly Ted Dykstra, the jolly pilot whose orders were remanded by the dazed captain, and by Lynn Griffin who is one bitching actress as Millicent Collins, the loving mother of all the children, who was permanently blinded, as were hundreds of others by the flash. Shauna Macdonald, a lovely actress, is perfectly cast for the intelligence and reserve which makes her successful as a visiting doctor, and the very handsome Vincent Walsh provides the necessary earnestness as the focal figure of the Royal Canadian Army Captain who takes charge.  Clara Stone plays Connie just fine. And the great Pete Postlethwaite turns up in the last part of this two part series to cause serious doubt as to whether the Captain will win his case. For, as the ship captain, the harbor master, and the pilot are all put on trial, it is worth waiting for the outcome. I found it interesting and informative and easy to take. The whole family could watch it together.

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The Overture

04 Jan

The Overture – directed by Itthi-sunthorn Wichailak – a drama recounting the career of a fable Thai musician, through the conflicts caused by him radical style and his fears of public competition — 103 minutes color 2005.

* * * * *

Rocky with xylophones!  The film is set in Thailand, where the playing of the rand-ek rises to national bouts, along the lines of the Rose Bowl. In this case, the Rose bowl is the imperial court, where the most accomplished players come to fence. They are the pets and patronees of the princes of the realm, much as our football games are the patronees of brewers. I only realized at the end that the old man was the same person as the child, the boy, and the young man, and that there were two parallel stories afoot. But this was probably due to me, rather than to the director who tells the story carefully and honorably and entertainingly. Apart from the tension of the competitions, the picture shows a world of Thai life, the homes, canals, slums, farms, palaces, and people. I loved seeing all this. It also does depict, loosely it admits, the story of the Babe Ruth of rand-ek xylophone players, the Lionel Hampton of his day, Luang Prodit Pairoh who was a daring innovator on the rand-ek, and whose daring we see still in place when the Japanese interlope Thailand in the 30s. Be careful watching this: you may come to love the rand-ek. This is a film the family will enjoy together –– at least those old enough to read the subtitles, which are as excellent as the film itself.

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Searching For Bobby Fischer

08 Nov

Searching For Bobby Fischer –– directed by Steven Zaillian –– family drama about a boy turned into a chess champion –– 109 minutes color 1993.

* * * * *

A fine picture, beautifully acted and filmed, with a story that skirts all the sentimental pitfalls and ends up full of authentic feeling. The boy Max Pomeranc is wonderful. He makes the whole thing happen. Its putative subject, chess, which put me off when I first heard of it, I found to be by no means a barrier to its interest. Joe Mantegna plays the father who pushes the boy forward. Lawrence Fishburne is the chess master who takes him on. Joan Allen is the mother, and very good indeed, as are Ben Kingsley, William H. Macy, and Laura Linney. I highly recommend it.

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2 X 4

24 Oct

2 X 4 –– Directed by Jimmy Smallhorne – gender drama in which an  Irish immigrant faces his homosexuality. 89 minutes color 1998.

* * * * *

A brilliant film! Beautifully photographed in Dublin and the Bronx, where immigrant Irish males come to make their fortunes in construction, manual labor, and entrepreneurial schemes and scams. Dark and wild, the story tells the coming of age of a powerful alpha male already in his thirties as he grapples with nightmares and day-mares of an inner homoerotic torment. It is brilliantly acted by everyone in it, each character completely convincing in his milieu. The direction and editing are astonishing. The film shows male frontal nudity and scenes of sexual congress, all coincidental to the scenes themselves. Jimmy Smallhorne plays the principal character with complete realism, and he also directed. If you are looking for pornography and the license of a happy-go-lucky gay lifestyle, this is no more that than a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie is a movie by Ingmar Bergman. This picture is a picture that stands by itself as a masterpiece of no previous genre. Very interesting, completely eccentric, entirely authentic, and told with a narrative skill that is uniquely cinematic. It won the Sundance Award for cinemaphotography.,

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Secretariat

23 Oct

Secretariat –– directed by Randall Wallace –– a horse picture in which an unpromising horse meets an unpromising owner who hires an unpromising trainer to win three unpromising races, The Triple Crown. 116 minutes color 2010

* * * *

Every time Margo Martindale as Miss Ham appears, the screen comes alive. She plays the woman who named Secretariat, and the female “support” to Miss Chenery, Secretariat’s owner, played by Diane Lane, who is sadly miscast in this part because she cannot play middle-class women well. A technical actress, she consistently fudges and softens emotion with half-grins and moues. See her in The Perfect Storm to see how great she can be, opposite Mark Walberg, an actor perfectly suited to her range. It’s like casting Brad Pitt as a society boy. He is a great actor, but only in lower class parts, and the same holds true of Lane. Secretariat is a Disneyfication of the saga of this remarkable animal, meaning that it is story-telling by the numbers. Everything is spelled out three times, as though no one in the audience knew how to read. But still, it’s a horse-picture and I am always stirred by horse-pictures and I was stirred by this one all the way through. Of course, we all know how it turns out, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t exciting or suspenseful. That doesn’t mean my heart isn’t filled by this horse’s nobility, pride, élan, and talent. John Malkovich brings his usual perversity of affect to the proceedings, which supplies the sort of low brow comic zest in the old days supplied by William Demarest or Mickey Rooney or someone. The races also are poorly filmed, which is odd, isn’t it, for one sees either the feet of the animal or the top of the animal. It must be very difficult to actually film a horse while it is racing, but I missed the beauty of the creatures in full flight. The actual Preakness, the second of the three races is shown, probably from old color footage of that race, as a television event watched by Miss Chenery’s husband and children, which would have been more interesting had one been able to see it up close. But that’s all right. It was proper to tokenize the second race as a build-up to the last, The Belmont, in which Secretariat created records still unbroken. All of the settings and particularly the costumes, are fine, and so is the acting. especially when Margo Martindale is on screen. Oh, just watch that wonderful face. How right she is, particularly next to the, alas, consistent wrongness of Lane.

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Carve Her Name With Pride

17 Oct

Carve Her Name With Pride — directed by Lewis GIlbert — a bio-pic in which a young WW II widow leaves her daughter and parents in London to risk great danger to help the French resistance. 1 hour 58 minutes black and white 1958.

* * * * *

A big star in her day, Virginia McKenna was not in possession of a great talent but rather of a popular one. Facially resembling Lizbeth Scott and with the vocal placement of Grace Kelly, in this piece she remains fixed within the virtues of its confines, and this serves the script very well. The story is told with cinematic economy and discretion, so doors close when they should, and the camera moves away from torture scenes better imagined than seen. Her steadfastness in the role is without neurosis or particularity, so it tells the story of a heroine rather than the story of an individual to whom these things happen. I do not complain. That is a legitimate mode of cinema acting-narration and, if not time-honored, certainly time-tested. Violette Szabo was a real English spy in France and did what we see, so when we witness her wipe out German after German, we have been well prepared by the fact that she was already a sharpshooter before she began, a veritable Annie Oakley. Her spy-partner is the redoubtable Paul Scofield. He had the most commanding presence of any actor on the English-speaking stage. And this is certainly in evidence here. Whether he was a great actor was obscured by his opacity and by his inveterate physical and especially vocal masculinity which carried all before it. I do not know whether he was a master actor because he was such a mysterious one. I saw him three times on the stage: King Lear in which he was effortfully boring; A Man For All Seasons in which he was effortlessly righteous; and Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing with John Gielgud, Diana Wynard, George Rose, Dorothy Tutin, in which, magnificent in furs, he dropped jaws of all beholders. Here he has already developed one trick of his personal trade: the secrete smile useful for passage work, such as getting across from the dance floor to the balcony. He has his moments: his face when she leaves;watch for it. Even when he is terrible he is just wonderful, and he’s far from terrible here in this simple, honest and well-told tale.

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Infamous

15 Oct

Infamous — directed by Douglas McGrath — bio-drama about Truman Capote, Harper Lee, and their approach to the Sutter murders which produced his best seller In Cold Blood. 118 minutes color 2006

* * * *

Well, it’s badly written, directed, filmed. The sets and costumes are suited to a Betty Grable musical. And it’s hard to like Truman Capote. One can admire him, for his strength and pertinacity, but his books are unreadable now and his position as the dwarf/jester of cafe society is gone. But during Gwyneth Paltrow’s perfect rendition of “What Is This Thing Called Love?”when she breaks down — you see Capote rooting for her. Odd. Capote rooted for no one but himself. Capote banked everything on vindictive survival. And it’s understandable, because he fell into no expected human category– until he found, after In Cold Blood, that survival itself wasn’t worth it. But that’s not the story told here. Toby Jones as Capote is trapped by the physical distortion he adopts, save once, in front of a mirror when he realizes the irony that he loves and is loved by someone he can never be with. Mark Wahlberg was to play that part, Perry Smith, and would have been better than Daniel Craig, who has only half of the character to offer, Perry’s violence; the other half, Perry’s artistic soul, is given Craig by dialogue but he cannot embody it. But Craig performs everything with complete conviction and simplicity, all praise to him. The great Lee Pace is Dick Hickock, the nasty psychopath provoker of the slaughter. Sandra Bullock is tops as Harper Lee, shrewdly achieving her effect by rarely looking at the camera, in the actual meditation of a modest woman. Juliet Stevenson is way out of line as Diana Vreeland. High Society people are not hoity toity, only people who imitate them are that. Sigourney Weaver is miscast as Babe Paley, it should have been played by an elegant woman, which Weaver is not: Jill Clayburg, Blythe Danner. But the story gives me room to ponder the ways of nature. I recommend the piece because it held me, and because the director, although not very bright, has given us a simple draft of the Capote romance with slaughter and slaughterers, and because of Lee Pace, the instrument of it, amazing in his few scenes. The film itself accomplished what it set out to do. Despite its shortcomings — an honest job about a dishonest person.

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