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Archive for the ‘DRAMA’ Category

The Wife

08 Sep

The Wife – directed by Bjorn Runge. Drama. 103 minutes Color 2018
★★★
The Story: A renowned novelist prepares to accept The Nobel Prize for Literature his wife has written.
~
Glenn Close plays her as a lady nothing could perturb. She’s miscast.

Francis MacDormand was originally to have played it and would have brought to the character the subtext of an individual capable of being duped because she was inherently unstable or co-dependent. Duped by the privilege of being allowed to write at all and be published. And duped by the hot flesh of the professor who seduces her as a partner in sex and crime.

But writing and publishing are not the same thing. And the screen writer does not honor or even seem to know this distinction.

Close says he is merely her editor. It’s not true. She rejects his editing. For, actually, her husband gets her published under his name because he is Jewish and a male and therefore supposedly “in” and therefore because he is a sort of agent/front-man who puts his name on her work, she is spared the drama of publisher’s rejection and the calisthenics of literary business. She sequesters herself from her family and writes, while nobody knows of the forgery.

Why then does her grown son find her behavior so unnatural, when, he himself is a writer and all writers do exactly that? Writing is a job. It requires a room of one’s own and working hours. Why does he accuse her of that? It doesn’t compute.

The script and the performance of Close are blotted with such anomalies. And Close allows the story to be carried by a smile so broad and fixed we cannot swallow it after a time as being anything but condescending.

Close and her cheatin’ hubby wait out the night for him to be announced as the winner of The Nobel Prize For Literature. When it comes, no indication is given, as they trampoline the bed, that there is an unbalance. Nothing speaks in their eyes. Close plays it as a grand dame who voluntarily corsets her power and likes it and approves. Close plays it like a duchess.

Jonathan Pryce perfectly creates the character of a crude Brooklyn Jew, and behind such a façade anything might be hidden and denied. He’s on the make. He always has been. Of course he’s gleeful to win. But she? She who has actually written the books? Her glee is as unreluctant as his. In fact, as written, there is no way the early scenes can be played. They defy subtext, and none is offered. On and on they go. Through flashbacks of his infidelities and now to his infidelities to come. He is allowed to fuck someone else’s body and she is allowed to write someone else’s books? The tradeoff doesn’t compute. Writer’s cramp would have seized her long before the finale.

Close’s performance coasts on the current Women’s Movement. The Wronged And Abused Female is the sleigh she smugly lays back in and rides. So until his comeuppance, she waits her moment for a nice big fat scene to play—when we’re supposed to feel partial to her as a poor wronged woman.

The truth is they both are crooks.

Christian Slater is perfectly convincing as the popular biographer pushy to sign Pryce on—willing to strong-arm his way into a contract because on the eve of the Nobel award he has guessed the truth. And Elizabeth McGovern is highly effective in the key scene where she inculcates Close in the folly of a female hoping to write anything worthwhile and get the attention a male would get.

One wonders what on earth Close will continue to write when the film’s story is over. How will her famous style not betray her previous con? The question shoves the story over the cliff into the preposterous.

Two recent films promote the same story. In Big Eyes Amy Adams played the woman who painted the Keane kids with their creepy pop-eyed peepers, and Christoph Waltz played the husband. And soon to come, Keira Knightly will play the title role in Colette, whose husband, Domenic West as M. Willy, published her first four books under his name and collected the royalties and spent them.

Of course, Colette’s story is more interesting than the two others because Colette actually was a genius. And because, while she was still young, she beat down the door she had allowed herself to be locked behind. She eventually obtained the rights to her early work, and of her later work, Julie de Carneilhan, Gigi, Cheri, The Last Of Cheri, These Pleasures, Sido and My Mother’s House are among our great literature.

Colette’s indentured service is a fascinating story to know about. Whether it is a great story to watch on the silver screen we shall see. The story of The Wife is not. Glenn Close is not really playing a writer. She is playing a polemic.

What is the key to such stories?

The key is: at what point and how did the artist realize her talent was viable? For if each of these young women knew she had talent, still none of these women yet knew that talent was interesting to a multitude. That is to say that her work was commercial. That is to say that she could make enough money from it to free her from a corrupt marriage and set her name down on a title page.

How did they wake to this?

That story I would like to behold. Not that the con happened, but how the artist came to realize she was richer than the counterfeit she herself had willingly, happily, lazily, and self-indulgently once allowed herself to commit.

 

Leave No Trace

12 Aug

Leave No Trace – written and directed by Debra Granik. Drama. 109 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: A teenage girl and her father make their home outdoors in an Oregon forest, until one day they are discovered.
~
Something off about this movie from the start.

Inside the sumptuous green of the forest, amid shade, ferny and thick, two humans live hidden. The silence of Nature – which only reveals Herself in silence – is punctuated by the added silence of the two.

And this silence is the problem. The picture needs less picture. It needs more words.

The daughter is played by Thomsin MacKenzie, an Australian actress of 18. From the point of view of exposition, she’s a bit old for the part, because the sylvan background of this story rejects a girl older than 13. But the main drama of the story, which is the discovery of them by forest rangers and the decision she must come to, requires 18. She’s a lovely actress, perfect for the part in her discretion and her reserve.

Ben Foster has a more difficult task. For his part is underwritten to the point of crippling it. The danger the actor faces is that being given so little he risks damaging everything by adding anything to it.

The film, that is, is wholly underwritten, leaving the audience to carry a load which only fundamentalist liberals can lift. Actors are directed to speak in tinny whispers – a hold-over from TV acting which is designed for living rooms not for a movie theater. This elocution pitches the voice into a plaintive realm and produces a false insecurity, bidding for audiences’ sympathy. I don’t buy it for a minute, liberal though I am.

So the direction is a disservice to the audience. And so is the screenplay which is written by the director and comes from a book which comes from an actual happening. But each devolution degenerates the original material.

For instance, we are shown the father making a living by selling VA drugs to hobo addicts. In fact, I know no veteran can get prescriptions in those amounts. I am a vet, I also get my prescriptions from the VA. In real life, however, the father made his money from a VA monthly compensation payment of some $400. It’s less “dramatic” but more mysterious and engaging. It’s also less banal and less phony.

Like the father, I am a single father and veteran who reared his daughter alone. Seeing this father and this daughter, I feel the parallels in this film and they are right. The difficulties and education are parallel. Even the living situation. What’s off is what underlies this story.

For instance, in the movie, when caught, they are separated, whereas in real life they were kept together since their captors could see how important this was for them. What’s off is the screenplay separates them merely to incite our “emotion.”

What’s off is that in real life, they were treated exquisitely at once, and the more interesting and dramatic story is what actually took place. How can two such intelligent, educated, isolated individuals be weighed by the mores of ordinary society, how can they be treated even-handedly when their own mores forbid society? Missing that is what’s off. What’s off is the lie lying shimmering but invisible beneath the screenplay and concocting it.

The real drama may lie between the temptation between two Edens, whereas what we are left with is that the woods are the Eden of the insane and the life of the hermit more evolved, while the Eden of the town offers sex. It is not a real conflict. Let’s have a battle between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a sequoia. It’s not a real conflict.

The film offers the audience an unearned sorrow which no one applauds. However, it must be said that the vulgarity and falsity in the direction and writing is almost completely camouflaged by the skill of the acting of the two principals and of the supporting players – for instance, Dale Dickey perfectly cast and perfect in the part and Jeff Kober perfectly cast and perfect in the part.

Like Granik’s Winter’s Bone, the story explores the ripening of a young woman’s self-sufficiency. But what’s off is that the story of the girl’s real relation to her father, which over the years granted her the latitude for that self-sufficiency, drifts off into the Oregon woods. His training of her set her free. But he himself is released finally into the wispy wilderness of the screenwriter’s sentimentality as a harmless loony. The debt to him is not explored, written, paid, or even imagined as owed. The drama of that gratitude is the missed drama. What’s off is that the writer doesn’t know that in film, as in life, the right words are worth a thousand pictures.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DRAMA

 

First Reformed

18 Jun

First Reformed –– written and directed by Paul Schrader. Drama. 114 minutes. Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: The pastor of a famed New England Church struggles with crises of faith, ethics, mission, courage, and his own past.
~
How does an actor convey all these at once?

He never conveys them. He holds still, opens his pores, and lets the audience convey them for him.

Of course, that’s the way it’s written and directed and filmed, but Ethan Hawke is an actor in the past covered with a sheen and endowed with an unfortunate smirk at the corners of his mouth, so he has never been an actor of much penetration, but rather an actor of unearned smugness.

But, recognizing himself to be not an A-list actor, the movies he has chosen to be in have been more interesting than his work in them. This has served him well and kept him before us. This has been true of him since he was young, which he no longer is. Here he plays a pastor of 47 which is also the age he is. He looks every day of it.

And he has largely mislaid his basket of acting tricks, we get only one empty side-long glance. His pushy charm and the coin of youth are gone.

He is not an actor who inhabits a character or whom a character inhabits. In his watchfulness as an actor there is the sense that he is not an actor at all, but a writer. So his instrument is limited and squeezed.

But what has always been so is that he is an actor who is present for the character to be present. And, oftentimes in screen acting, more than this is unwanted.

We are told about his minister; he tells us things; others tell us things; things are shown about him; the camera watches what he does, and all these things inform us with what we must learn in order for us to participate in creating this character.

So Ethan Hawke has begun to grow up in his craft. Hawke does not distract us or force a point of view of the character on us, so he is never remote. If, for narrative purposes, the character feels despair, we see despair in Hawke’s eyes and face. Otherwise not. If the character drinks, and it is narratively unnecessary for us not to know why, Hawke never betrays the story by detouring it into making whisky understandable. If the character is meant to internalize the ravage of the environment, the domination of the plutocracy, the fatness of the megachurch, his thoughtless fatherhood, he holds true to an ancient family and social code of consideration for others which would compress these influences and never show them. And we believe it. He does not indicate they are in him, and because he does not, we intuit that they must be in him.

Hawke keeps the physical circumstances of his body small. It’s a part which the slightest gesture would betray the role into overacting.

So we are not interested in Ethan Hawke here because he is, like Bette Davis, an actor of passionate histrionic drive whose physical show stuns us. No. Hawke simply leaves that out and lets the audience do the job of bringing the character alive in Hawke’s flesh. Hawke’s presence and the character become concurrent.

This is important because of the style of the film which is ruled by the decorum of church settings, music, and deportment. The film does not rush. It is as ritualized as a processional. Words are allowed to be heard. Scenes are allowed to develop. Arguments are allowed to ripen. We are in a film of grown up matters. There are social and spiritual and religious dialogues. We have to hear them out, for we too, as audience, have our pastoral duty. We see that characters do not realize that some of this formality is so beside the point that it is dangerous.

The film lets music play its role but never to enforce mood, but to counterpoint it. The camera is as steady as the style of the tale it tells. The acting of the others confirms the director’s style, which is to reveal the story straightforwardly and no more fully than our digestion permits.

With First Reformed we are constantly in the experience of story. Paul Schrader is like Satyajit Ray and Ingmar Bergman in this.

Hawke’s character has lost his ability to pray. Every human on earth loses their ability to pray every day. Each of us struggles towards an ethos vivid to us. Hawke’s character has lost this struggle. What is he to do?

I honor this film, everything about it, and everything in it.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Method, Ethan Hawke, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

Son Of Saul

10 Jun

Son Of Saul – directed by László Nemes. WWII Tragedy. 1 hour 47 minutes. 2015.
★★★★★
The Story: A Jewish slave working in the gas chamber of Auschwitz goes to extremes to find a rabbi to say Kaddish over an adolescent boy whom he says is his son.
~
What makes a film great?

Ruthlessness is one quality. Ruthlessness of Carol Reed’s Outcast Of The Islands and Odd Man Out, Kazan’s East Of Eden, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Here, this high virtue is achieved by the camera never leaving the point of view of the main character; the refusal to let a music score dictate value; each actor must speak his native language; no detour of melodrama or comic relief allowed; no modern comment, religious bias, prepackaged pathos, straining for sympathy, and no irony; refusal to soften the color scheme; keep the viewer inside the prison; in the audience take no prisoners.

Audiences around the world have gone along with this masterpiece for this very ruthlessness. Without it, the film would into enter the category of grand Guignol or Horror and be therefore less horrible and therefore unwatchable.

As it is, it is difficult. But I trusted everything I saw. Even at its most grueling, I respected it, knew I must go through with it. Although I hated to see what it looked like there, still that’s the way it was, and it was important for me to know. For I lived through The War and well remember what we learned in Europe that spring of 1945, and what Life magazine then and George Stevens’ camera later showed.

For here I finally see what went on, how routine it was, and how clumsy. I believed every minute of the camp and the ovens and the behavior of the Jewish slaves who had to gas their co-religionists and clean up after them by burning them and by tossing their ashes by the shovelful into the river.

The main character is perfectly cast and acted, and so is everyone else. Both the main action of the story of finding a rabbi and the secondary action, having to do with the slave rebellion and escape, propel the main character towards our hopes. Direction, filming, sets, costumes – I praise every aspect of it without exception.

So does everyone else. For it won The Best Foreign Film in the Oscars, The Golden Globes, Palm d’Or at Cannes and prizes all around the globe in many other places and nations. Indeed, Son Of Saul is said to be the most awarded debut feature in the history of cinema.

In 2015 Birdman won best Oscar. Next to Son Of Saul, Birdman is nothing. Films forgotten tomorrow lie in heaps around the feet of this film. It stands next to those of Satyajit Rey, Kurosawa, Ophuls, Renoir. You owe it to yourself to see it, and, more, important, you owe it to the film.

 

La Sirga

23 May

La Sirga – directed by William Vega. Suspense Drama. 68 minutes Color 2013
★★★★★
The Story: A teen-aged refugee comes to work in a dilapidated hotel by a vast lake in Columbia and the story of everyone else comes into being around her.
~
I watch with wonder at the unfolding of this story, told at a pace and in a style perfectly suited to its sedate subject. We would call it a classical style, which means it is a style which creates a class – a class of its own – to be imbibed if possible, stolen outright if not. We are in a world of color, wind, weather, noise, and place – alien and exquisite – which seem to narrate themselves.

The director, William Vega, and the camerawoman, Sofia Oggioni and the editor Miguel Schverdfinger, and the set decorator, Marcela Gómez Montoya, have captured in true film narration the sweet morale of the teenage girl on whom our attention and care is focused.

The big lake is itself a character in the story, as is the inn her uncle is trying to make presentable for guests who surely will never come. For the basis of this story is that of The Iceman Cometh. Castles in the air are the smoke of pipe-dreams, and no one will ever inhabit them.

Each character contributes, without demur, to the dreams of the others. The trout farm, the abandoned town we visit by raft, with its inexplicable towers, the young man who desires to take her away to a “better place,” her cousin with the evil mustache, and even her uncle who voyeurs.

In the eyes of each of them, she stands for the dream of starting over.

That is a great dream, is it not? And, of course, I won’t tell you how each turns out.

The young woman is perfectly cast, so we root for her, feel for her. Her female mentor, her uncle, the cousin, the boy in the raft – all of the actors play their parts perfectly and are perfect for them.

I seldom see as unusual a film as this, set in a part of the world I never saw, never heard of, with people I otherwise would not know, and brought forth with such calm and fitting beauty.

I am grateful for it. I recommend it as a first class suspense drama – meaning one that does not depend upon murder.

Do see it. See it with friends. It will confirm the relationship.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, SUSPENSE

 

The Pacific

16 May

The Pacific – various directors – produced by Tom Hanks & Steven Spielberg. 10 episode mini-TV series – drama 8 hours 15 minutes 2010.

★★★★★

The Story: Three marines and their comrades fight disease, filthy weather, bullets, burial, and the fanatic Japanese in the Pacific theater of combat of WWII.

~

I was 12 years old when The War ended, and I remember it well. But I remember mostly the European theater, because my parents were from England, and because Hitler, as an Aryan, was, to me, a more defined monster than the Japanese Hirohito, and because I lived on the East Coast nearer Europe.

But we certainly heard about the Pacific War, both on land and sea, as the troops stepping-stoned from atoll to atoll until they finally hit Japan on Okinawa.

I cannot recommend this series more highly than to say it is so convincing a picture of the guts and gore of war you may find it difficult.

I served in the Army during the Korean War, shipped there during the armistice. So I knew one ghastly feature of it – its tedium. The close quarters with other males for long periods of time has its merit and its murder. It brings out the worst and the best. And none of it is really anyone’s fault. It’s the situation that makes men nasty, hard, cruel, and violent as well as, in those same men, loyal, gentle, humorous, and true.

I knew none of the cast, but I was glad to see, once again, how wonderful our American actors are. I believed every one of them. I believe all I saw and could not imagine how the film-makers managed to recreate the massive landings and battles on those islands. But it sure gave me a picture of what those battles were like and what those men had to do to survive and prevail.

I take the series as a part of my education. And it is also a documentary drama of real soldiers, whose actual names are used, whose reflections we hear from them, and whose stories gripped me from beginning to end. I recommend it without reservation.

 

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.

 

Darkest Hour

10 Feb

Darkest Hour – directed by Joe Wright. Bio/Docudrama. 125 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: Distrusted, disliked on both sides of Parliament, Churchill is made PM and must face them and Hitler’s overrun of western Europe and the ambush of the French and British armies at Dunkirk.
~
The character takes over the actor and, since the character is Winston Churchill, the character takes over everything. But as the purpose of every other character is to squeeze Churchill into a thinner man, the drama consists in Churchill’s temptation to let them do it.

It is a dark hour indeed when a human tempts himself with his own ethical demolition. What Churchill stood for was the expansion of himself into economic security, based on feats of derring-do with prodigies of eloquence to make them known, both before and after. At this he was brilliant.

The question was, was he an honest man? He cared about his country, but did he care about his countrymen? Born in Blenheim palace as grandson to the Duke of Marlborough, did he even know his countrymen? One of the most effective scenes in the picture puts him in contact with them. And one of its most effective strands is his relation to his young female private secretary.

How come Gary Oldman was ever for a moment considered for this role I shall never hope to know. But the question slips from consideration as his Churchill faces the whopper crises of the spring of 1940. Whatever Oldman does here as an actor – and we all know that he is capable of plenty – I hand full credit to him and to his implacable makeup for allowing me to become lost in Churchill’s doings.

I lived through this era. I remember Churchill. I remember picking up the phone when I was 8 and finding Randolph Churchill on the other end, for my father syndicated his journalism. I lived through Dunkirk, for my people were English, and every scrap of news hit home in our household. I read Churchill’s histories of the War later.

But I never knew the key personal crisis he faced from within his war cabinet and from within himself as it seemed he must treat for peace with Hitler who had swallowed Hitler whole and was about to dine on England.

Will Hitler be invited to dinner? So, here I see Churchill collapse into doubt. Collapse. Churchill, a larger even than his own life personality in our world, a living cartoon of himself, is seen human, even by himself.

I like the movie. I liked the depth of its drama and beauty of its filming and the spot-on of its costumes – for I remember the period and what we wore.

But all that is set aside in my personal-biography interest. I was doing what I was doing here, while Churchill was doing what he was doing there. Now I get to put them together.

 

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

05 Feb

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – directed by Mike Nichols. Drama. 132 minutes Black And White 1966.
★★★★★
The Story: A college history professor and his wife host two newcomers to the faculty and engage everyone in a battle royal for marital survival.
~
Elizabeth Taylor was untrained as an actress but as a child took to it like a duck to water. By the time of this film she was the most experienced film actress of her generation but had long moved out of that rare category and her true forte of a romantic actress into the dramatic category. It is a great loss to movies, for Taylor from a fifteen-year-old up through Giant had a capacity for film acting never seen again on screen – sad, fun, loving, kind, tender – as perfectly strong as perfectly beautiful and at home in being such.

I had lunch with her during Butterfield 8. By that time, she had three children, was in her fourth marriage, and she and I were both still only in our mid 20s. She was a young woman with a big nut and had to work responsibly to meet it. The film roles available were not up to her; they were simply what was available. Over our tuna salad I suggested Nicole Diver in Tender Is The Night as one more Fitzgerald heroine perfect for her. “Eddie and I want it,” she said, “but David owns it and he wants Jennifer to do it, and she’s too old.” Getting good parts was not simple.

As an instinctual actress her very instinctual not-so-private life may have dictated the sort of films she wanted to do or would be believable in or be offered. Perhaps marriage to Mike Todd had coarsened her. She was no longer the romantic girl of The Last Time I Saw Paris. So, while she could write her own ticket, what actual destinations were available?

People came to Elizabeth Taylor’s films to mark the progress of her beauty, inner and outer. No one ever, off screen or on, got more attention. On screen she was gorgeous. Off screen, so beautiful, I could see she was actually un-photogenic. But by Butterfield 8, everyone knew everything that could be known about her. The inner beauty had largely disappeared. So, and with all of that, plum roles did not come along every year. But one did in 1966 when she played Martha. If she had to campaign to get Giant, and she did, she certainly had to campaign to get Martha, and to get Burton hired. It was the perfect film for Bette Davis who was the right age. Taylor twenty years too young, 31, but, stronger than dirt, got it.

I saw the original Broadway production of Virginia Woolf. Uta Hagen, also highly experienced, had a raw coarse texture as an actress. She was very good and right for the role. Arthur Hill was completely believable as her scholarly, refined, and more powerless husband. I recall George Grizzard’s Nick as a tennis coach, but he actually teaches biology, and I don’t recall Melinda Dillon at all, which is probably right, since the character tends to paste herself against the wall to get out of the way of the melee.

Taylor is miscast. She doesn’t look 50, but, more importantly, she does not have the instrument, the technique, the training to play it. Instead she plays Martha as though she had an “idea” of what Martha’s character was. But Martha is not a character; she is a figure in an allegory. Besides, since she is not within Taylor’s aesthetic realm, Taylor can’t really play her instinctually. Instead, she flings herself about in the role at fishwife pitch and gets all the swearwords wrong. Elizabeth Taylor was built for survival; it is her virtue and her vice; the same is true of Martha. Taylor drew on her own strength for survival, but Martha drew only on her own weakness. Martha is weakness miming strength. Either here or elsewhere, Elizabeth Taylor was never that.

But in certain ways Taylor is well cast. Martha is fundamentally Taylor’s specialty, a trophy-wife role. Also, Elizabeth Taylor had a rowdy, cackling sense of humor that worked well for the part. And her performance certainly has its moments. What I remember when I first saw it was a crying scene at the end in which she wept for her soul. Seeing it on VHS now, there is no such scene. Instead, Taylor has a finale on the window seat, and in her eyes is nothing left, which, considering Taylor’s eyes, is even more astonishing.

Still, she is fundamentally miscast. “Elizabeth Taylor is too beautiful a woman for any of that to have ever happened to her,” my wife said to me. “A woman that beautiful has other strategies at her disposal.”

But ya gotta hand it to Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, she does not play the beauty queen; she flings herself into the role like a bucket of slops tossed out a window. And she won an Oscar for it. And I have no criticism of the fact of that.

George Segal is best in the stupidity and naiveté of the guest. George Grizzard, of course, exuded intelligence and class – which gave the play, in the reduction of his character to a klutz, a secondary strong dramatic undercurrent. You don’t get any of that with Segal, but it doesn’t matter. Segal is a klutz to start with. What you get is Segal’s big heart in conflict with the unethical seduction of his ambition, both playing against the want of seduction in his wife.

Sandy Dennis, in her looney, abstracted, tricksey way, works perfectly for the mentally and intestinally fragile wife, Honey, and deserved the Oscar she got.

Richard Burton, it is said, was miscast. I’m not so sure. Yes, he is miscast in the sense that, unlike Arthur Hill, obviously Burton always has power to spare, and you don’t need that to play George, but it doesn’t stand in Burton’s way. It sometimes comes out when Burton employs orotundity to carry passages – always a mistake. But we must remember, at the end of the play George always has one power left, to demolish the frayed bridge of the marriage. He will declare the inviolable secret of a certain love between them to be
false and he will kill it. Burton with his hold on his power or Hill with his want of power – no matter – George will smash the delusion. Hill quietly pulls the switch. Burton quietly pulls the switch.

With it gone, what do each of them have to live for with one another? What do husbands and wives have to live for? Without their old fabrications?

We do not know.

They do not know. That’s the risk George takes, and in that lies the greatness of the play.

In the Burton version, we see him place his hand on Taylor’s shoulder to reassure her of the future. But there is no known future and maybe no future and who knows whether reassurance is a requirement to endure it?

The difference between the play and the film versions is that on Broadway the play is thrust forward and takes precedence over the performances. In the movie, the stars take over. To such a degree that Mike Nichols seems not to have coached Taylor away from her gaucheries and not to have forbidden that godawful wig. But no matter. Either way, the play prevails by swallowing its own imperfections as it goes.

The material itself would seem to be about alcoholic excess. But it isn’t. For in this case, there is no truth in wine. The play has the power not of alcohol but of vitriol whose extremes push the four to the bourne of their self-delusion and over its cliff.

The thing that keeps you going is the thing that is killing you? Yes? You agree? But still, are you really willing to sever and surrender the most cherished and most ingrained operational prevarications of your relationships with yourself and others?

52 years since I first saw Whose Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and didn’t understand it either time. Was it too startling to understand or I too young? But now that I understand the the poison it prescribes for a cure and the ritual of decapitation it demands for survival, would I actually risk outliving my own suicide? Would I surrender even one of the superannuated life-strategies I once found vital?

 

Phantom Thread

22 Jan

Phantom Thread – written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Drama. 130 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: An artist suffering from mater-philia becomes inspired by a young woman who, to cure him, must practically kill him.
~
What are the force-fields inside an individual which draw a human to force-fields inside another – and how can they be made to fadge, converge, and agree?

The execution is suave. The picture luxuriously filmed, perfectly cast, marvelously directed, impeccably scored, ideally set, fabulously costumed, vividly acted. The setting is some fifty years ago when London was a fashion center and its focal character, Reynolds Woodcock, was the most renown women’s designer of the time.

All that is window-dressing, albeit superb, but the picture must have it in order to explore the sub-surfaces which are its true subject.

Woodcock in a once-in-a-lifetime-draw to a young waitress with a figure perfect for his clothes, spirits her away to his home. She falls for him. But when she does, he finds her annoying, and we soon see his interest in her is neither romantic nor personal. He has made her his muse. But she has no other interest for him.

He lives in a household and work-world entirely female. And he admits that his first and main muse was his own mother. Indeed, she is the phantom thread with which he has woven his life into what he is: a gourmet monastic, and that mother will reappear as that phantom.

His sister runs his business, has his number, and knows that his strength comes from women – from their mother, from herself, from various women he lives with, from his battalion of seamstresses, and from his clientele. Such strength as he possesses lies in the brilliant, shocking, chilly genius of his dresses.

But the young woman he has carried off comes from an even colder clime. She sees that, in order for him to love her, she must mother him, and in order for that to happen she has to rescue him from peril. And to do that, she must create the peril.

Have I already said too much? No. Find out for yourself. Go see it.

As it starts, the film is slightly overwritten, as characters explain themselves in ways they wouldn’t and we don’t need them to. One day someone must do a study of the accents used. And the film will only half-satisfy because the default position of the woman’s psyche is left unattended to. So the plot remains a mythic scheme stumbling towards a finale that does not exist, a stream with no pond to feed. But never mind that. The satisfactions available in it outstrip its wants.

And it is played by a group of sterling, deeply experienced actors, who are a pleasure to behold. Vicky Krieps plays the young woman who sees through Woodcock; her performance is a treasure. Lesley Manville plays his sister; her performance is a treasure. Harriet Sansome plays a Barbara Hutton type about to marry a Porfirio Rubirosa type; her performance is a treasure. Every performance is a treasure.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays the designer – at first with the too-knowing smile of a man no woman he has set his sights on can resist – and then he just plays him. His is the story of a cool man whom to wed a good woman must first cremate. Day-Lewis, a great cold actor, is well cast as this gelid gent.

Day-Lewis is not a romantic leading man. He is a character-lead, but the part is close to a leading man role, yet here, by his mastery of the technical acts of fashion design, the actor skirts the category: how pins are applied, how cloth is moved and discussed, how scissors close on a fabric, how a sketch-book is held, the way he wears the clothes he wears and that he chooses to choose them (I want those magenta socks), and the infantilism of the Divo – all that which, through deeds, decodes the obsession in him that blinds him to what he cannot more greatly adore. It is a performance consummated sheerly on the level of behavior.

But Krieps is an actor and a character who takes him on, and, boy – even cooler than he – does she ever! She realizes the foundation in the maternal in him is too strong to collapse but to crack its depths she must bring out another and different female side lying beneath the maternal, to dare to release an even greater muse, the normal. With the gentlest of drills, she embarks on a mining operation seldom seen in film.

For the story of Phantom Thread – the overthrow of the default position of an individual or a relationship – the reference is Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Have I said too much? Yes, I have.

Find out for yourself. Go see it.

 
 

The Post

15 Jan

The Post – directed by Steven Spielberg. Docudrama. 116 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★
The Story: When the Justice Department bans the farther publication of The Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post seeks to continue, and the battle to do or not to do this seethes throughout the Post’s personnel.
~
It’s a civics class, presented as a scrapbook of walloping headlines and fill-you-in-quick info. Which, in film terms, means that it is collage as montage.

We get big, fat, hairy History Facts. The crudeness of their presentation means they must be jammed down our throats rather than presented cinematically. And all the supporting parts are overwritten.

The style is to hype all this into a suspense story, and it sure achieves that effect. For the film excites as the suspense mounts, for it mounts as the fears mount. And the fears mount. Or at least reproduce like fleas.

Will the Post survive? Will the Post staff go to jail? Will publication ruin the stock options for the Post? Will the First Amendment be forsaken? Will the Post get The Pentagon Papers? Can The Post reporters assemble a coherent copy from unnumbered pages? Will the scaredy-cat Post Board Of Directors and lawyers prevail over the valiant editorial staff? Will Robert McNamara’s friendship with Post’s owner, Mrs Katharine Graham, override her ability to disgrace him? Will she be able to seize the steering wheel of the paper like the good feminist she doesn’t even know herself to be? And will Ben Bradlee, her editor-in-chief, lose his job to disgrace and failure?

I sit on the edge of my seat for all this as though I didn’t know the outcome. And the Berkeley audience at the multiplex, which also knows, applauds each time Mrs Graham makes the ethically adventurous choice. Each episode offered us keeps the movie going: John Williams’ score excites; Janucz Kaminski’s camera captivates; Ann Roth’s costuming convinces. We’re all ganged up on by Spielberg’s bunch and we expect to be.

Because what we have is an old-fashioned movie about a heroine.

Heroine-acting is – well, let’s give a fond example – Katharine Hepburn acting. She did that sort of acting a lot, and it’s done with a lot of tears and nobility of jaw and a sky-blue righteousness.

Meryl Streep does not play Mrs Graham in this vein. She does the opposite all. She plays it, let’s say, in a pair of old sheepskin bedroom slippers and a comfy bathrobe. That is, she underplays big moments. She throws them away. Watch her do it. And see how you pick up what she throws before it hits the ground, polish it up, and hand it to both of you.

This acting decision makes Streep’s every character decision personal to the character. It’s that simple.

Kay Graham was Jewish. Streep gives her a tiny overlay of this in her accent. She was an ordinary, well-bred Vassar girl of modest ambition, and Streep makes clear that which was unclear in Graham, not an easy thing for an actor to do. It’s a good character performance which we all can enter into as its boundaries and qualities unfold.

Tom Hanks plays the supporting role of her goad and ally, the editor-in-chief bent on the big fun of a big story. Bradlee was a virile, brash personality, which is not in Hanks’ usual line. One thing he does to nail Bradlee is to play in his shirtsleeves, for earthy honesty is Bradlee’s ethos, which is in Hanks’ line, and it carries the role.

Hanks squeezes the part into his brow and into a mouth that does not speak with forked tongue, so you get Bradlee’s toughness, resolve, and vim in an inner battle between restraint and outbreak. And Hanks does beautifully a well-written monolog late in the film, and, like Streep, it is taken anti-heroically as he lounges back on a couch. He’s an actor who knows it’s the woman’s picture, but since that doesn’t offend the actor, so it does not offend the character, which is essentially what makes the character work as an influence in a story not his own.

The directorial style is forced and crude and obvious. But one does not ask and has never asked for subtlety of treatment from Spielberg, but for a big-bang-up subject to stir and engross, with the soft landing of a moral at the end. Such perils provide the entertainment of the thrill of a free fall into a dish of tapioca pudding. I always go to them. Good old-fashioned movie-going is what I know I’ll find, and I do.

The movie may seem apt right now, because, as with Nixon then, we once again have a lunatic rat in The White House. Nixon, of course, was clever but devious. If Trump is clever he’s too clever to ever have revealed it, and he is as devious as a load of garbage cascading down a mountainside.

Both presidents sought to squelch the press. Bu in Nixon’s day newspapers still existed as a source of truth – valiant truth sometimes. Nowadays, newspapers have been superannuated by screens, and screens are a compromised medium – as compromised as the president who would compromise them further. One believes neither president nor press. All there is, is the blatant outrage of misconduct by all parties and on all sides, whose sleep alone allows the peeps of liberal complaint to seep through. We cannot have freedom of the press if freedom has no place to exist. We cannot have freedom of the press if there is no place for content. If we cannot hold a newspaper in our bare hands, what can we possibly believe. If those who create it do not have to hold it in their bare hands, why should veracity bother them.

So even this civics lesson picture falls under suspicion of mis-information and pious prevarication. How true is all of this? Did this really happen? In this order? Or is this just another People magazine version of a celebrity inside-story by those whose power prefers to shout from outside the gate with impotent resentment across a vast lawn to a White House whose occupant’s mentality of an orange is in Florida. That is to say, is this another splash of muck on just another screen. In 2015, The Washington Post itself was sold to Amazon for 250 million dollars in cash – which is to say it was sold to just another computer screen.

 

The Shape Of Water

14 Jan

The Shape Of Water – written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. Thriller Fairy Tale. 123 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: An Amazon river god is imprisoned in a U.S. research installation, where he is tortured and threatened with dismemberment until a cleaning woman nurses and rescues him.
~
Of course, fairy stories are true. Myths are true. Allegory is true. That’s how come they last and carry weight in the spirits of children and indigenes. What “true” means is that fairy tales and myths and allegory mimic the inner procedures of the human psyche. The reason fairy tale and myth and allegory endure is that their method of communicating the most important human truths has never been supplanted.

So we see the kindness of the cleaning woman to be the real food she offers the creature, along with hard-boiled eggs.

But what use has this scary creature? The use is, as with all gods, that they never die. What goes with that territory is that they can heal death in others. Mercury, the god of thieves, medicine, tricks, and messages, is the winged avatar of this still, but Hindu religion is crammed with others. In all cases, they heal.

Not always in the way you might want, and in this case the healing teeters perilously before it is revealed. For the god has taken the shape of a merman, and his aspect is daunting. He is played by 57-year-old Doug Jones, lithe, sensual, sudden.

I can’t think of an actor who might have better played the cleaning woman who becomes his mate. Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito (which in English means “exposed” or “transparent”) opens her character up not just to him but to her colleague played by Octavia Spencer whose every word one always believes and so it is here. Over a movie house which seems to be playing forever the same B-Toga epic, Hawkins lives in generous neighborly conjunction with with a commercial illustrator whose style has dated him.

Richard Jenkins does him perfectly. He is the artist who cannot make a difference, the old fool, The Failed Father Figure Of Fairy Tale. Rather like the sad king with the unmarriageable daughter whom you find all the time in those stories. Either she herself or someone beyond unusual must rescue her from the doldrums of the kingdom. And in this case, the doldrums are enforced by a vicious tyrant played with his usual perfection by the handsome, hard Michael Shannon.

Mortal stupidity swirls them around – by the American military bureaucracy typified by Nick Searcy as the general in charge of everything – and by the Russians who want to steal the merman, and whose plans are foxed by Michael Stuhlbarg, who who plays a scientist/spy bent on saving the merman.

So you see, you have a full complement of forces, modern and fantastical, to urge our attention and our loyalties on.

The film is beautifully filmed and imagined. Just what you want for such a tale.

And what is it that you want?

What you don’t want is to be told. So both the merman and the cleaning woman are mute and must, nonetheless, make themselves perfectly understandable to themselves and to us. We see that it is not hard to do.

What you really want is resurrection.

And that’s what the picture provides.

Enjoy yourself. See it.

 

Ida

14 Dec

Ida – directed Pawel Pawlikowski. Drama. 82 minutes Black And White 2013.
★★★★★
The Story: Her niece pays a visit to an aunt she never knew she had, and the niece, a novitiate, and the aunt, a hedonist, embark on a search into the dynamic past of both of them.
~
Boy, here’s a film you won’t want to see: Black And White, Polish and in Polish, about a nun, and the grim aftermath of WWII. Yet it seems to have five stars tattooed above and to have won the Oscar For The Best Foreign Film Of 2013.

Why would I pluck this off the library shelf if I had never even heard of it? Don’t answer. Because the answer is: because you and I are both in luck.

People die when no one’s looking. And they live when no one’s looking. We all know that. This seems to be the square in which Pawlikowski frames his actors – lives seen beneath monstrous skies they do not notice.

It is perfectly acted by Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida, the novitiate. Hundreds of actresses were auditioned. She was discovered at a café table, a rank amateur, and thus began a film star career.

The aunt is played by Agata Kulesza, an actress of deep experience and every wile.

These two explore the places and persons of the past, as they travel through Poland in search of the core of the mystery encompassing both of them.

You will regret not a minute seeing this film. And having said that: you might regret every minute not yet seeing it.

 

The Novitiate

05 Dec

The Novitiate – Directed by Margaret Betts. Drama. 123 minutes Color 2017
★★★
The Story: With no outside pressure, in fact directly in the face of her mother’s disapproval, an eighteen-year-old girl enters training to be a nun.
~
Divided of purpose, unlike its heroine, the film loses its attack on the subject through its casting. The great Melissa Leo? Miscast? Let’s see.

Fortified with an enormous technique, distinctive looks, and a particular and well-placed voice, Leo always offers someone definite. Good. She plays the Mother Superior as unnecessarily strict. The Mother has taken her very identity from the generations-old and rigorous disciplines of her order, and now Vatican II, with its slackening of ritual and custom, threatens that identity.

But the split in the story lies just here. For the Mother Superior’s obsession with her order precedes the introduction of Vatican II into the story and one might say has nothing to do with it.

“Are there any questions?” she asks the fresh novitiates. A hand is raised. “Go home,” she coldly says. “You must not question.” But the point is or ought to be that the obedience Mother Superior offers might be a value worth our attention, yet Leo’s cold playing throws our chance for that out the window along with the novitiate she has just discharged. Because Leo is draconian, we align ourselves against her and whatever she may stand for. The performance leaves no room for doubt in the novitiates or in us the audience, for, just as they do, we need the suspense of doubt to engage with their plight.

If the words had been said kindly, we would have had a chance to wonder about the values Reverend Mother offers. And to remember that, at times, unquestioning obedience is good for our souls. If the Mother Superior is played as a martinet, we are robbed of the drama of our own decision in the matter.

Perhaps the part appears to be written that way. Perhaps Leo was told to play it that way. But playing it that way dismisses the disciplines of nuns as the malpractices of sadists. Wasn’t there more and other to their practices than that?

We hear Leo lament that Vatican II declares nuns will no longer wear medieval wimples and indeed are now ordinary people. And when the film proper is over, we read that 90,000 nuns left the church. (I go on a yearly silent retreat at Santa Sabina, one such former priory.) Well, if the neighbors don’t look up to nuns as special, what is the use of remaining or becoming one. And if your spirituality in its delicacy cannot be part of and protected by walls and encouraged by the modest idolization of an order, how is a young woman to make a life’s work of devotion to God at all?

The story splits. If it were not already split by a lesbian explosion in the novitiate, Sister Cathleen, whose bone fides in a genuine spiritual calling prepare us in no way for this disruption. Margaret Qualley in the part holds our attention by remaining a complete mystery.

Leo is marvelous in all she does, but I wish the director had asked her to do something else. She holds us in our seats – but for the wrong reason.

The supporting people also hold us in our seats, particularly Julianne Nicholson as Sister Cathleen’s earthy mother, and Dennis O’Hare’s masterful fun delivering his ultimatums as an experienced and lets-get-down-to-business Archbishop.

The life of the celibate eremite is almost lost to Christian religion. The choice to withdraw forever into the gated cloister merits and requires protection, support, understanding and – why not? – respect. So where are these young people to go for the quiet, lifetime contemplation of God? Where? Many recent films have blared out the scandal of sexuality in The Church. Good. But will that stop it? Were those films meant to stop it?

Yes, they were. And in the process they seem to have damaged the structure for holy calling itself, as here, in The Novitiate. It’s a topic still worthy of a film worthy of it.

 

American Made

11 Oct

American Made – directed by Doug Liman. Biopicish. 115 minutes Color 2017.

★★★★★

The Story: A bored TWA pilot seeking loot and thrills in a CIA overthrow of a Central American country, finds himself up to his elbows in drugs, guns, and peril.
~
What makes the American Made protagonist, Barry Seals — a real-life gun-runner for the CIA — worth watching is partly the unlikelihood of his adventure and partly the narrative trick of Seals’ video-taping himself introducing each episode of it. But mainly the playing of Tom Cruise.

You watch and you wonder: how could anyone be so reckless as Barry Seals? And the answer is before you every instant. For Cruise makes Seals a man with absolutely no foresight, no ability to plan ahead, a man whose grasp of outcomes is wholly retarded. A character both brilliant and dim. It’s an astute choice.

This make Seals’ video-taping his adventures all the more touching, since, while the tapes might be used as evidence against his enemies, they would be impotent if Seals were dead. You can see this imprudence in Cruise’s slight accent and in his eyes, as he leaps towards and finesses all the pots of gold and the derring-do.

For what makes Cruise doubly watchable is that Seals is a king-of-the-mountain at what he does as a buccaneer drug and gun runner. No one does it better. And no one does such parts better than Tom Cruise.

In his first film, Taps, Tom Cruise was an unbilled extra on a close-order drill team. One of the leads had to leave the shoot. Cruise had played his drill-team cadet with such intention, practice, and concentration, they said, let’s try him. So Cruise got to play one of the leads, a fixated sharpshooter. Cadet or killer – the same devotion to the craft of acting and to the craft of the character.

A star was born. And rightly so.

For there is no actor on the screen today who enjoys acting more than Tom Cruise clearly does. The passion of professionalism he brings to his craft is the same signal quality of the expertise of the professionals he so brilliantly plays. A pool shark, a sports agent, a motivational speaker, a war activist, a super-detective, a Wall Street hotshot, a Courts Martial lawyer, a race car driver, a senator, a boxer. In each of these roles, the narrative depends on the character’s high professionalism. Each character does his work brilliantly, devotedly, obsessively.

Thus we see how an actor may use a single strand of his own nature to make a career.

For, despite his looks, we do not think of Tom Cruise as playing a husband, a family man, a great lover. His films do not generally show him in such roles. And the authenticity of American Made, although it includes such elements, does not depend upon them as narrative motives, but rather on the character’s dedication to and focused on the work at hand. As a businessman. Cruise’s Seals is a fool, as a husband cursory, and he is not quite sure how many children he has. But as a renegade pilot, he’s a whiz.

Cruise at 55 is the perfect age to play Seals at around 43, because, in order to stay an A-list actor, Cruise kept his figure – and his face, although a little beefy, sure looks the part in EXCU. Cruise has done his job as a star. And so Tom Cruise is the perfect producer of Tom Cruise pictures, which are pictures with great big fat parts for him. For they are vehicles for an actor who loves to act, and for us who love to see someone who does.

I don’t see all Tom Cruise pictures, for the subjects of them all may not draw me. And I have seen some that did not satisfy me. But in every one I have seen, he has given full value. And that’s because, at an early age, he fell in love with the work, and never fell out of it.

I wonder what will become of him as he enters his retirement years.

When you see him in as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder play a gut-fallen, cigar-chomping, bald, fat-fingered, Hollywood producer do a victory dance, it is evident that he has a natural gift for low comedy of character.

When you see him with Conan drive around London and you watch his responses and you see they are perfect let’s–go-with-it-improv-responses – having nothing to do with low comedy, but with the ability to arrange himself to open and exploit a comic situation which his doing these things brings into being – you see that he might perform tuxedo comedy, ala Cary Grant.

When you see him in the locker room scene desperately convince Cuba Gooding of something which Gooding can only end up laughing in his face about, you see that he is willing to make a jackass of himself, which is the necessary faculty the actor in comedy must arrive on the scene with pre-installed.

The failure of Hollywood to make mature comedy nowadays might mean that the talent to write them is atrophied. And all film depends on the writing. But wouldn’t it be entertaining to watch Cruise play out his career doing comedy? What would it be like if he had a partner, like Stan Laurel? Or doing character work, like this?

Behind the handsome/cute guy lies an actor of talent. Not all talents. But enough to keep me interested about what might come next.

Tom Cruise is American-made. Take him in. Let him take you in.

What’s coming next is, in fact, here right now: American Made. Catch it.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, BioDrama, Tom Cruise

 

In Name Only

06 Oct

In Name Only – directed by John Cromwell. Romantic Drama. 94 minutes Black And White 1939.
★★★★
The Story: Out fishing, a young woman finds herself attracted to a handsome man on a horse, but he’s married and his wife would rather kill him than release him.
~
Carole Lombard tended not to make “serious” films. She felt a responsibility to her studios to make money for them, and her comedies were perennial hits. She made George Stevens’ “Vigil In The Night” to get an Oscar and she’s darned good in it but she wasn’t even nominated. So you might think that a film with this title, particularly one with Cary Grant, would be a 30s comedy, but it aint.

It’s a serious romantic drama, and well worth seeing because everyone is good in it. Grant is an actor seamlessly adaptable to any genre. He is so victorious in tuxedo comedy that one supposes this film might turn into one, but it never does.

Kay Francis plays the calculating wife, and, in its way, she is the most interesting character – or almost. For what motivates a human being to trick someone she does not love into marriage and then clutch it to her forever? I don’t mean the outer motivations of money and place, I mean the inner motivation, the inner human contraption. Only an actor could truly display such a thing, and Kay Francis reveals glimpses of it.

But of course, Carole Lombard and Cary Grant have the focus of our hearts. And Grant is at his handsomest – although, oddly, his sports clothes are of the wrong material. Why is that? Was this before he brought his own clothes to his roles?

Lombard’s misery at being his mistress is completely convincing, as is the sexual energy between them. Lombard was an actor of clearly defined decisions. She always knew how to tell her story clearly, using a single small detail. The audiences of her day appreciated her for this.

She has that wonderful female quality of the comediennes of her era – and all of them had it – Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy – they were game. They were up for some fun. They were game dames. Women who were ready to take a chance. To throw themselves into it – whatever it was. It’s not a quality you find in modern film comediennes, good as some of them are.

 

Imitations Of Lives

30 Sep

Imitations Of Lives, 1934, 1959. directors John. M. Stall and Douglas Sirk. 108 minutes Black And White 1934. 124 minutes Color 1959.
★★★
The Story: A black woman and a white woman raise their daughters together, but one daughter wants to pass as white and the other wants her mother’s boyfriend.
~
The difficulty with the films’ material lies in that the attention given to the white story is greater than the attention given to its greater, unique, deeper title story, the story that actually would carry the film if it were handled honorably – that of the black business-partner/housekeeper and her daughter who wishes to pass as white.

The prosperity-story of the white woman’s rise to professional security is never in doubt because each lady is played by superstars Claudette Colbert and Lana Turner. When each has her success, each becomes a fashion plate. Even when poor, we never see them messy. We never see them seriously depressed. These things are touched on, but we are spared. Each ascends into fox furs by the hot air balloon of Hollywood narrative bunk.

Colbert has an advantage over Turner in that Colbert’s leading man, Warren William, is a more ambiguous charmer than Turner’s and possesses a masterful wit in lovemaking and dialogue, whereas Turner’s fella’s sense of humor is nowhere evident.

Colbert also has more natural presence and give as an actor than Lana Turner, is more humanly appealing, just as pretty, more instinctual, just the right age, and a lot of fun. She can also play on several levels. That is, she has the advantage of being more diverting. Being diverting was enormously important for a film actor of her era, for presence, charm, humor, and sheer character was necessary to divert us from the improbable routines of the stories.

Lana Turner is diverting, yes, for as long as you find an artificial flower to be diverting. For Turner has a hard time holding your attention surrounded, as she is, by her accoutrements of makeup, dress, and a hairdo as stiff as a mummy’s beard. In the 1959 remake, instead of rising to fortune on pancakes she rises to it as a Broadway actress, if you will. Saddled with a young daughter, a widowhood, and a cold-water flat, her costly, peroxide perm stretches our credulity way past Lana Turner’s girdle. For Turner is already a woman of a certain age, and what encumbers her even more is that her leading man, John Gavin, is younger and far more beautiful than she.

Jean-Louis coifs Lana Turner with his costumes. They stun and they are no more to be believed than her hairdos. Turner knows how to entice. And she has a moment or two as an actor, but she is left to her own devices by the director, and since she lacks taste and sensibility as an artist, her moments get lost in her performance decorations, one of which is her refuge to easy tears. We also come to understand why she never played in comedy, for she has no sense of humor.

And then enter My Lady Squeal, Sandra Dee – immediately at one with the vulgarity of the Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk treatment. For the screen smears us with the candy of technicolor general lighting – that favored Hollywood illumination of the ‘50s which cursed us with American Dream pastels and avocado kitchen appliances. It fattens the film as it fattened the age. The film is swinish.

In both versions their false-eyelash direction, acting, writing, lighting, sets forbid the black women’s story from being played authentically. Juanita Hall and Louise Beavers, actors of quality, cannot play the parts because they cannot play the parts realistically but only as written in the false styles of each film, styles dead to any human relationship that is not narrative in motivation.

The issue of the story is not that of wanting to pass, but why. We never see it.

So, neither Beavers nor Hall can play their parts of the mothers beyond a general expression of sweetness, forbearance, and pain – sometimes all at once. The writing allows them no particularity, idiosyncrasy, or detail. We have to swallow an indigestible self-sacrifice from each. To these actresses of this race no other choice is provided. It’s really a form of racial bigotry passing.

Both films do have grand black funerals — the Beavers’ one being particularly characteristic — the pallbearers’ itching their rears, the horses caparisoned with net. The Juanita Hall cortege imitates it, but, of course, it is less impressive in color. Mahalia Jackson sings the elegy, and even Lana Turner is allowed to show a line on her face.

Turner’s version is an imitation of the life of An Imitation Life which wasn’t even an imitation of life to begin with. It makes no sense to think of these films as Black Flicks That Matter, but does make sense to think how, for a long time, black flicks, even when they appeared to exist, didn’t matter because they really didn’t exist at all, except as tokens still content to shove blacks into the rear of the human bus.

 

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.

 

The Memory Of Two Mondays

09 Jul

The Memory Of Two Mondays – directed by Paul Bogart. Drama. 88 minutes Color 1971.
★★★★★
The Story: A teen-ager starts a job to pay his way to college and finds himself in the company of co-workers who, by the day he leaves, have changed radically.
~
It’s the 1930s and everyone is holding down his job for dear life, even though work may be soul-searing and dull. Arthur Miller who wrote it about his youth gives us an introduction to it, for it’s a memory piece, like The Glass Menagerie, and all the better for that.

Everyone is stirring and interesting, and some of the characters seem fated and are not and some seem not and are. But the deliciousness of it is the acting by all these New York actors at the peak of their gifts. One saw them on the New York stage in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and one found them again in film and tv, and what wonderful actors they were.! How they always surprised! How they always delighted! How generous they were in their technique.

Estelle Parsons as the blowsy accountant sets the show in motion. Jack Warden, perfect and rich in one of his died-in-the-wool crudes roles. Bernard Hughes, a magical actor at all times, as his drunken crony; we saw him in Shakespeare In The Park in those days in big leading roles. And there was J.D. Cannon whose dark male voice held the stage as Shakespeare’s heroes, here playing an ossified drunk, whom his co-workers try to save from self-destruction.

George Grizzard plays the sales manager with every single car part’s place in the warehouse tragically memorized along with every part for every car ever made. Harvey Keitel is listed as prominent in the cast, but his part is minute; 45 years ago, this would have been right. Tom Hamilton is lovely as the Irishman who wants the dingy windows cleaned, and then is horrified when he gets his wish.

This is an immaculate cast and one is grateful to see its immaculate preservation. It’s part of the priceless Great Performances TV Series, among which we have Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock and George Segal in another play of Arthur Miller, Death Of A Salesman.

Every film in this series is worth exploring. And this one is particularly for the big-hearted work of those fine New York actors in their heyday.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DRAMA, Jack Warden, Kitchen Sink Drama

 

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

05 Jul

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – directed by Nagisa Ôshima. WWII prisoner Of War Story. 123 minutes Color 1983.
★★★★
The Story: The Commandant of a Japanese prison in Java falls in love with a British prisoner.
~
As in In The Realm Of The Senses, Ôshima deals with love’s wildest extremeties.

He is a director of simple means. He does not inflate; he does not relate. The story unfolds before one’s eyes in eminent visual narrative and in scenes in which all is present that needs to be and nothing else.

So much for his skill.

The camera captures performance like no body’s business, and everything seen convinces and holds.

Four main characters work out this material, and three of them are not actors, but hardworking, earnest, gifted amateurs. Each has a world of performance experienced in him. But of the three one becomes an actor, Takeshi Kitasno, the famed Japanese comic, who sets down in it naturally, as comedians often do when they are called upon to act – Jackie Gleason being the most renowned example of this I know of. Somehow or other Kitasno does so too.

Two world-famous rock stars play the main characters.

Tyuichi Sakamoto plays the slight, powerful, Shinto-devoté commandant who falls in love at first sight with a spiritually-freer-than-he handsome blond prisoner.

Sakamoto’s job is to repress everything. For an actor, repressing means trying to hold back going to the bathroom. You squeeze. And the credit you hand this first-time actor is that you side with him because he is in so much pain. You believe in the frozen rapture of his discipline, his ethos, his meditation, his sword-play. There is not a moment uncorsetted, until the moment of letting go happens to him, and we see him feel the greatest ecstasy he has ever felt combined with the greatest shame.

David Bowie is not an actor, but he buckles down and works his part. In other arts, we have seen David Bowie as a performer of his own fascination. And why not? He is magically beautiful and he is endowed with enough neurotic eccentricity to scrub an ocean. He is, like Robert Downey Junior, one of the angel/devil beings, born to entice and to bless and to know it. He is shameless – good. But his eyes are always in charge. So it does not matter what Bowie’s face reflects. The character is inert. The inner actor is missing. This prevents us from moving towards him as a human.

This is often the way with non-actors. The idea that non-actors are naturally free and spontaneous is delusional. What is needed from them – and many notable stars do not possess it – is the lit candle of the calling. Bowie can be the part, yes – but Bowie cannot play the part.

Such is certainly not the case with Tom Conti, an actor of choice. In interviews, he criticizes himself for too much “acting” in this film, and at times it is true, but he has the ability to respond to an imaginary situation imaginatively, situationally, not as a performer or star or personality, but as an individual meant to act in it.

We have many fine prisoner movies. I would not number this one among them. Burt Lancaster is a bad actor but he is an actor, and so The Birdman Of Alcatraz works. Acting is a high calling. David Bowie is a gifted performer, but forming and acting are not the same thing, and we all know the difference. David Bowie is beautiful. In acting, beauty does not cross the bridge. When we find the candle of the actor lit, no matter how many beautiful creatures stand near it, Edward G. Robinson is whom we will look at always.

This film is a fictional account of the war experiences of Laurents van der Pos. Accompanying this film is a biographical documentary of Laurents van der Post worth more that the film itself.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC, HISTORICAL DRAMA, PRISON DRAMA, Tom Conti, War Story, World War II

 

Miss Pinkerton

21 Jun

Miss Pinkerton – directed by Lloyd Bacon. Murder Mystery. 66 minutes Black And White 1932.
★★★★
The Story: A hospital nurse takes on a police case in a creepy mansion.
~
Joan Blondell is the face of the ‘30s. Big-eyes open to life, quick of tongue, game, pretty, and strong as an ox. Not Crawford or Shearer or Hepburn or Lombard or Arthur, but this lower-class tootsie, Joan Blondell, a little too susceptible to love, but up for any role, any case, any dance. She was the world’s greatest tonic for The Great depression. As lovable as she was skilled.

She played leading roles sometimes, such as Miss Pinkerton, but she was not a leading lady but a jolly soubrette.

Here she plays a bored-to-death hospital nurse who is assigned the care of an old woman in whose grisly mansion a shooting has occurred.

So many plot twists and angles and changes and characters interlope on her attention that you wonder how the makers of the picture are ever to solve the murder. I’m not sure they ever did.

The film is beautifully shot, and imaginatively directed by Lloyd Bacon. He keeps us guessing and off balance, yet leaning forward still into what is going on.

The picture is 1932, a year in which Blondell made nine films, and is advertised as pre-code. While it has nothing risqué in it that I could tell, it sure has a lot of love twisters. And more meaningful looks than a bathhouse. And it has the suavely smirking George Brent as the likeable detective assigned to crack the case. He has a voice like a cast iron radiator. Smooth-talker that he is, he soft-soaps her into his arms consistently and, of course, at last. She is eager.

This is Warner Brothers cheap entertainment, which does not mean it is bad entertainment. Not at all. Coney Island is good entertainment, because it is well done. So is this.

We passed the time with Blondell in many a movie in those days, and she went on acting (in over 100 pictures) right until the end.

She was sexy, funny, ripe, and vulnerable. A fast-talking dame, she could dish out the snappy dialogue with the best of them. To Cagney she delivered the renowned put-down: “You’re the biggest chiseler since Michelangelo!” He never recovered – in that movie anyhow.

We watch her in this one with complete sympathy, interest, approval, and concern. But she saves herself from doom every time. No one could scream on camera like Joan Blondell. No one was ever so simply likeable.

 

Mr. Turner

20 May

Mr. Turner – directed by Mike Leigh. Biopic. 2 hours 30 minutes Color 2014.
★★★★★
The Story: The English painter successfully moves through the scenes of his renown and successfully also hides out from it.
~
Mr. Turner is a drama without conflict.

How a superbly accomplished artist moves through his days at the peak of his success is the worthwhile subject of this Mike Leigh masterwork, Mr. Turner.

Is Turner dissolute, drunk, stingy, mean, competitive, bellicose? Yes.

He is eccentric, also, which means his actions spring from his inner sources. He is a master of his medium, true, and if his means are odd, he also had worked them out as a child in his father’s barber shop. He is unattached by marriage, but that is because he is married to his calling. The two of the three women he is sexually involved with seem pleased by him.

All this is hidden. All this is revealed. We move through his worlds of The Great Houses of Britain whose owners decorated their walls with the sublime scenes he liked to make. We move through his comfortable domestic life and his home gallery set up splendidly for sales. We move through his life hiking through the seaside hills and through the common streets and rooms which were his true environment and where he found his subjects.

For, though he was wooed by the aristocracy, hung out in their palaces, his home base was lower class inns with lower class folk, the industrious shopkeepers and fisherfolk of the villages and cities, people like himself.

A crude man of infinite delicacy, the Mr. Turner of Timothy Spall won several awards for this performance, and we rejoice to see him in such a big, fat, long juicy role, surrounded by Dickensian characters and stove-pipe hats.

It may seem odd that Turner goes out to work every day to paint dressed in a suit, silk hat, and vest, yes, but consider: England is cold by the seaside; he dressed for warmth – warmth as well as a way of not being noticed as being as odd as he was – a painter to hoofing it.

Beautifully filmed, written, acted, produced, directed.

Highly recommended, in case you wondered.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC, BIOPIC, Timothy Spall

 

Dead Man Out

11 May

Dead Man Out – directed by Richard Pearce. HBO Drama. 87 minutes Black And White 1988.
★★★★★
The Story: A psychiatrist, tasked with restoring a death-row inmate to legal sanity, finds himself entangled with the soul of the man he treats.
~
Where has Rubèn Blades been all my life?

I assumed an actor this dangerously brilliant must be dead, but I see he has a going career in television series, and I am glad for him and all his kin. I had read his name but assumed it was Spanish and pronounced Bladès. He is Panamanian by extraction, but his last name is English, Blades. As you already probably know.

This praise for him must be couched in another praise, which is that his performance takes place in a very great TV play. Great in the sense that The Ajax is great, or that Coriolanus is great or The Outcast Of The Islands. Which is to say that it deals with a human dilemma so massive it steals the power of conception from the viewer. No solution can be imagined for it for either protagonist.

Blades is a crazy-behaving prisoner, and he must be treated back to normalcy. Danny Glover is his treater. Glover is a lovely actor all his life and perfectly suited to the part because of his big open features behind which anything might be felt. Glover is 42 when he does this, which is just at that perfect age before middle-age, when the inner life is only partly settled. As he persists with the treatment, it is borne in on him that the man he is treating is far more intelligent than he is, far more daring, more eloquent, with far more at stake.

As that man, Blades is 41, and so he must be, for the character is ripe in the ways of the world and of prison. Blades plays him full out. Nothing is omitted and because nothing is omitted we credit him with full humanity, full intelligence, full ability to perceive and know and speak. You root for Blades’ character at his worst and best. He is humanity as seldom revealed, so you have no option but to invest. Blades gives him all you ever knew about life.

The film exists on VHS, where I saw it, but also on DVD, neither expensive. Every collection of great film acting must contain it.

You deserve the best

Find it.

See it.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Danny Glover, PRISON DRAMA, Rubén Blades

 

The Cut

06 May

The Cut – directed by Fatih Akin. Family Drama 2 hours 18 minutes Color 2014.
★★★★★
The Story: A young husband and father is conscripted into the army and separated from his wife and daughters by many perils and pains, yet seeks to find them wherever they may be
~
I bow down at once. A masterwork!

And that is partly because I had no interest in the subject before. Some Armenians? Some war? No blond people? No tap-dancing?

But I was held from the moment it began, and could not possibly anticipate its ending.

So beautifully and simply made. Moving from the vast barren mountains and blond deserts of the Middle East, to a series of locales which I shall not name to you, for fear of spoiling their importance to the story.

I was agog at the travails and trials this young man went through, and the solutions he found for them as he moved the heaven and the earth that lay upon his shoulders.

I don’t really want to say a single thing more about this piece. Because I want to you know them for yourself right in front of your eyes.

Beautifully acted, directed, produced, costumed, scored, shot.

The thing I most understood about it was how he refused to abandon his daughters, how he would not allow himself to be separated from them, how that tie to them in him forbad him from relinquishing his family bond to them, how he set everything aside, every consideration, every pleasure, every opportunity for money or success, or comfort in order to make sure his daughters knew their father was alive and had sought them.

One day when we meet again, I will ask you, eagerly, if you saw The Cut.

And you will thank me gratefully that you have.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, GREAT FEAT DRAMA

 

The Sense Of An Ending

05 May

The Sense Of An Ending – directed by Ritesh Batra. 108 minutes Black And White 2017.
★★★★
The Story: As his daughter prepares to have a child, a London Shopkeeper looks back on his life, to unearth the mystery of a college friend’s suicide.
~
Jim Broadbent is the motive to go. It’s lovely to see this senior actor play an ordinary man as he plays off against past events which may not have been as ordinary as he thought. Broadbent has the great inner energy of the actor which can go in any direction to lay out the human truth. He deserved the Oscar he got.

Julian Barnes wrote the prize-winning novel on which the story is based, and it may work as a Tchekov novel might work, but, as a film, it plays as a Why Did He Do It, which makes its energy and our interest more than ordinary and other.

I believe this Agatha Christie aspect of the material subtracts from attention to the Broadbent character. One of the most interesting scenes in the picture occurs when a passerby enters Broadbent’s used-camera store and enquires about the expensive Leicas. Broadbent comes alive to the situation as though he felt, as I did, that the man was a thief. For the rest of the film, I wondered if Broadbent would turn up at his store and find it had been sacked. But no.

Charlotte Rampling is perfectly cast as the older version of Broadbent’s college girlfriend, and Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary, to you) is also perfectly cast as the lesbian, pregnant daughter.

It was interesting for me (as a first-generation English-American) how English males have a dear but dumb way of speaking that in no way reveals the truth and how English females have a way of being bitches and say what should never be said. Every female character is cold; every male character is warm.

I found the movie as satisfying as a glass of water. But one needs water in some form every day. Not exiting, perhaps, but an inner requirement notwithstanding.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC, Charlotte Rampling, FAMILY DRAMA, Jim Broadbent

 

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.

 

The Sense Of An Ending

28 Mar

The Sense Of An Ending – directed by Ritesh Batra. 108 minutes Black And White 2017.
★★★★
The Story: As his daughter prepares to have a child, a London Shopkeeper looks back on his life, to unearth the mystery of a college friend’s suicide.
~
Jim Broadbent is the motive to go. It’s lovely to see this senior actor play an ordinary man as he plays off against past events which may not have been as ordinary as he thought. Broadbent has the great inner energy of the actor which can go in any direction to lay out the human truth. He deserved the Oscar he got.

Julian Barnes wrote the prize-winning novel on which the story is based, and it may work as a Tchekov novel might work, but, as a film, it plays as a Why Did He Do It, which makes its energy and our interest more than ordinary and other.

I believe this Agatha Christie aspect of the material subtracts from attention to the Broadbent character. One of the most interesting scenes in the picture occurs when a passerby enters Broadbent’s used-camera store and enquires about the expensive Leicas. Broadbent comes alive to the situation as though he felt, as I did, that the man was a thief. For the rest of the film, I wondered if Broadbent would turn up at his store and find it had been sacked. But no.

Charlotte Rampling is perfectly cast as the older version of Broadbent’s college girlfriend, and Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary, to you) is also perfectly cast as the lesbian, pregnant daughter.

It was interesting for me (as a first-generation English-American) how English males have a dear but dumb way of speaking that in no way reveals the truth and how English females have a way of being bitches and say what should never be said. Every female character is cold; every male character is warm.

I found the movie as satisfying as glass of water. But one needs water in some form every day. Not exiting, but an inner requirement notwithstanding.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC, Charlotte Rampling, FAMILY DRAMA, Jim Broadbent

 

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.

 

Pressure Point

27 Feb

Pressure Point – directed by Hubert Cornfield. Drama. 91 minutes Black And White 1963.
★★★★
The Story: A black prison psychiatrist takes under his care a crazed white-supremacist convict.
~
Sidney Poitier in his most characteristic role, The Patient One. His Patient is played by Bobby Darren.

Darren is a devoted extremist, member of The Nazi Bund, and declarer to Poitier that, when the round-up for the cattle cars comes, Poitier will be easy to recognize. The characterization is easy to meet, because Darren internalizes the role to such a degree that he never steps out of it while playing it, by making the character evil, thus to say: “See, I’m really not like this.”

Poitier keeps the ball rolling by picking up his cues and by holding back his rage until the final scene, where he lets Darren have it full bore. It’s the customary structure of Poitier films, the soft-spoken man, sufficiently put-upon, becomes the hard-spoken man in the last reel.

All the big actors in Hollywood had turned down the role of the bigot, but Darren campaigned for it. He is excellent; he got a Golden Globe nomination for it.

Stanley Kramer had a lot of people on the payroll after the big success of Judgement At Nuremberg and he had to put them to work. He directed only the framing scenes including Peter Falk, scenes which weaken the power of the story.

All of Stanley Kramer’s pictures are dated, and were so at the time, because they were all delivered with a violin obbligato of 19030s sentimental idealism. That means that they deliver the pain of democracy’s failures at the same time that they congratulate themselves for nostalgia for the same failure.

It has always been startling that actors could get their mouths around his lines. For this perfumed idealism is lodged in the writing. It is writing to side with the pre-ordained underdog, writing slanted in such a way that we are given no choice.

But Poitier is always good to see and never wastes our time by a single line.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Sing & Moana

29 Jan

 

Sing – directed by Garth Jennings. Animated feature. 110 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

Moanadirected by Ron Clements and John Musker. Animated Feature. 110 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

Stories: Both stories deal with ambitions thwarted and then triumphed.

~

Both films are perfectly suited to adults. And where I sat, the children were as quietly attentive as the adults that accompanied them. Why is that?

A maximum of surprises, movement, angles, colors.

An amplitude of wit.

And they supply – worse than any live action film can – horrendous catastrophe. In Sing it’s a catastrophic flood. In Moana it’s deified lava.

But the young hero and heroine surmount all difficulties. Not without unlikely escapes and rescues and a sentimentality that would crush a nun dressed as a dragon. (Neither of these feature such a creature.)

In Sing, to save his theatre, the young Koala Bear owner must put on a talent show. In Moana, a young woman must bring back a talisman to save her island people.

I enjoyed myself no end. I simply wandering in to sample them while waiting for the feature I’d paid for to start. Remained riveted to my seat.

In the watching, these films dwell on nothing. Remarkable individual beauties and Voltaire-like coups of imagination flit by in sumptuous plentitude. I wish they’d wait for me – I was reared on Pinocchio.

 My favorite character of all was played, in Sing, by the director Garth Jennings as Mrs Crawly, a superannuated loyal iguana secretary with a wandering glass eye. Every time the old woman meandered on in her well-meaning way, I rejoiced.

Such films are rightly called “animated.” For they animate the variety and particularity of the truth and comedy of human gesture in a way that no straight film actor can achieve – because animators are more daring than actors. Because more shameless.

In animation, we expect over-acting. Which means more acting than is necessary. Animation cannot achieve depth of performance, which is what human screen acting can, but it can achieve breadth of performance, which is what human screen acting avoids like Swiss cheese.

In Sing the characters are animals; in Moana, humans. I notice the animals in Sing are more human than the humans in Moana. But I quibble not.

I loved them, and you won’t waste your time, nor is time wasted on you, should you drag your inner or outer child to either or both.

 

20th Century Women

24 Jan

20th Century Womendirected by Mike Mills. Dramedy 119 minutes Color 2017

★★★★★

The Story: The mother of a teenage son enlists the help of her friends to rear him.

~

When we are teenagers we become secretive to our parents. If we are not secretive already, still we pull away into the unknown experiment called independence.

Annette Bening does not understand this about her son because she does not remember that she did the selfsame thing in adolescence. She does not remember and she is not aware that she does not remember.

This makes her character a gem to watch. Because it means we who watch it can fit into her ordinariness and her error. We can fit into it by means of seeing how disordered her hair often is and how unaware she is of that disorder. And how she, most of the time, is unconscious of any notion of being aware of it to begin with.

How we live our actual lives seldom gets to the screen. Movies are often about tying things up. From the very first reel they aim in that direction. And it is a fine direction to aim for, because wrap-up is one good way to end a story.

I liked the way the story unfolds. I liked the this-and-that of it. The foolishness of the endeavor. I liked what Bening found in this woman. I liked what the writer put in the woman to begin with. Such a woman allows us to forgive everyone we ever met, including our difficult mothers. Forgive them, and forgive ourselves, for they, like us, lived their hours and days in untidy life. Not silly. Not without purport. Not without accomplishment. But not camera-ready.

I tend to adore Annette Bening.

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE, Annette Bening: ACTING GODDESS, Billy Crudup, DRAMEDY, Elle Fanning, FAMILY DRAMA

 

Neruda

20 Jan

Neruda – directed by Pablo Lorain. Biopic. 107 minutes Color 2017

★★★★★

The Story: A poet/politician balks authority and, because his poems are so loved and recited by the people, a bounty is put on his head and he must evade capture by the stupid detective set to accomplish it.

~

It is a chase film, 90% of which takes place indoors.

The riches of this arise from our expectations of a chase film being defied by what satisfies them even more.

A bouquet of relationships is slowly unveiled by the film, as each character reveals himself to be the immortal creation of the other. The detective, for instance, whom the poet Neruda has brought into necessary life, has already given himself a name and an ancestry. So each individual is also a creation of himself.

This is not some South American mental toy, but a dramatic force, and the structural principal of this film which consists in repeatedly surprising us.

Surprise is several things but it is seldom satisfying. But here surprise is. Who is the hero? The celebrity poet or the measly detective?

Both actors, Luis Gnecco and Gael Garcia Bernal give slants and lights to a script of charm and originality. They are supported by two great female performances in that of the wife, Mercedes Morán, who understands Neruda thoroughly and blames him for nothing. And by the radiant work of a transvestite entertainer in a bordello, whose defense of Neruda to the police makes everything about the popularity of his work simple, stirring, and plain.

If the film is near you and you happen to know any grown-ups, be swift to buy a ticket, for where I go, Friday and Saturday were sold out.

This is a good one not to miss. You already know to see Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea. Listing this next to them makes it authentic.

 

Arrival

04 Jan

Arrival – directed by Denis Villeneuve. Sci-Fi. 119 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★

The Story A linguistics professor and a scientist are drafted to translate the language of alien invaders.

~

The music adds a lot to the telling. So does the editing. So does the filming, which is suave, muted, controlled. Like all sci-fi, it is a director’s gala day.

The story is so simple as to be rudimentary. Has anyone thought of it before? Alien spaceships land, but they speak an incomprehensible language. What are they trying to say? Neither in sounds nor in writing can it be understood.

Linguistics, you learn when you study it, has a substructure in mathematics – at least that is what the professors tell you. It is their livelihood to tell you something, so this is what they have contrived. Which is why a mathematician is brought in as the sidecar to the linguist – not that a linguist would need one, since a linguist would already know how to do the math, if any needed doing. He’s actually a poorly-written foil to give the linguist someone to talk to. You see what one is up against.

One other trouble I had was that the adventure of what the aliens were trying to convey stalls, then dissipates. For, into a language of black raindrops, we have no way of following leads and clues. The translation is un-filmable. As an audience, we must take on faith the power of the linguist to interpret it. We have faith in the actor to play the part, but we cannot know the part she is playing.

Another trouble lies in the character of the mathematician. Either the script or the director or the actor himself or all three have allowed him to be played as more volatile than need be. In short, Jeremy Renner overacts.

This might be a strategy to counteract Amy Adams’ playing of the linguist. For she plays her as if she knows what she is and what she does. She a steady-as-you-go linguist. She is undeterred and un-bestirred by the pressure of the situation. And this choice by the actress is right, smart, and actable. It’s isn’t showy, but it works for the story. It carries the film.

Renner’s behavior fails to throw Adam’s reserved linguist into error or even question, which is to say it has no dramatic function. He should have played it not as a counteraction but as a counterpart, as a fellow professional, just like she did. It would have worked just fine. Instead, his character looks like an amateur, like some Joe who stumbled into a sci-fi movie.

The particular information the aliens have to impart is blocked by The Great Powers, represented by their thick-headed minion on site. This obstacle is a ritual of melodrama and one which we cannot take seriously, so the conflict looks routine.

Forrest Whitaker, at his most magisterial, plays the colonel in charge of operations, but his part goes for naught. Its function seems to have been cut, but his grim bearing adds portent to the suspense.

That the suspense is considerable is due to the power-spectacle of the ships, the aliens, and their unaccountable bearing. The simplest and most effective element of this suspense comes from the aliens’ coloring. They are black. But is their message black? We must wait and see.

That the linguist was born with and therefore is already in possession of the aliens’ information is the surprise and quirk of the plot, about which no more shall be said here. The plot has other features of suspense besides spectacle, and they are held there by music, cutting, direction, and particularly by Amy Adams’ restraint.

I seldom go to sci-fi film. I find sci-fi sophomoric and humorless. I find it intellectual, chilly, and small. But theatres are packing them in. So, if sci-fi is your bent, never mind what I say here. You will find that your arrival at Arrival has been lavishly and unsparingly prepared for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nocturnal Animals

03 Jan

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lion or Far Away From Home

02 Jan

Lion or A Long Way Home –  directed by Garth Davis. Picaresque Drama. 119 minutes Color 2016.

★★★

The Story: A five-year-old Indian urchin, lost in Calcutta, is adopted by a middle-class family in Australia, and, aged 25, seeks to find his original family in India.

~

The first dumb thing is its title, Lion, for the main character is no such thing. The secondary title is more to the point and requirements of our understanding.

We enter the boy’s life with his mother, and with his older brother scavenging the streets of Delhi to supplement their mother’s income as a laborer moving rocks. They are impoverished but close and loving.

Due to a mischance, the little boy is separated from his brother and soon finds himself a thousand miles away, homeless, starving, and not speaking the language.

So far, all is well with the film. We are thrilled and held. We have a Dickensian tale of dire orphanage, a situation which appeals to the orphan in each of us.

But as soon as the movie lands in Australia it becomes dumb. It fast-forwards twenty years and kersplatts into an unnecessary side trip into a romance with a young American girl. And it kersplatts into an unnecessary detour into his relation with his older, also adopted, Indian brother. And it kersplatts into pantomimic melodrama, wrist to temple, as he wrestles the matter of tracking down his family of origin.

The worst dumb thing it does is make us watch him find his house of origin – by satellite – which means that the search is undergone not by him but by a robot.

By this point the film has lost its focus, story, and passion. And two sensational actors are left at sea on a foundering script. Nicole Kidman as the boy’s adoptive Australian mother must dig deep to bring the proper soundings to the part of the mother in the screen time allotted her. This she manages to do, but the script fumbling around her does not support her work.

And it undercuts our understanding of the main character played by the wonderful and wonderful again Dev Patel. You just sit there and welcome him on the screen. What a delight! What an actor! See it, as I saw it, for him. Don’t miss him.

Never miss him.

 
 

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.

 

 

Manchester By The Sea

28 Nov

Manchester By The Sea – directed by Kenneth Lonergan. 137 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Trapped, can this man get out of the trap, is there any thing, condition, person, breakthrough that can liberate him?

~

Well, a Hollywood movie this good, to my knowledge, never before came before my eyes. It is a Hollywood movie minus Hollywood. Unique. A top-notch cast leads it and balances it, and, for once, the person, who superbly wrote it, superbly directs it.

Its first distinguishing feature is that its characters are undistinguished. They are ordinary, their lives are ordinary, the circumstances that beset them and their responses to them are ordinary. This is what is extraordinary about them, and why I feel privileged to be with them. For I wouldn’t be allowed to ordinarily.

Casey Affleck plays a live-in handyman of Boston apartment houses, and one wonders how come. Not that he is special in any way, but that his current life and his testy personality seem a hermitage from something. The story is his, and our focus is on the mystery his difficulty with life seems bent to retain. He has a former wife, three young children, a brother and nephew, and a town, where he once lived, Manchester By the Sea, where he was reared and where everyone still knows him. His story outwardly concerns the death of this brother and the benefactions bestowed.

Casey Affleck is an actor I have in the past avoided like a left hand turn into moving traffic. When I first saw him ten years ago as Robert Ford in the Jesse James movie, the placement of his voice, a high, pleading whine, grated so I could not imagine he would ever have an acting career. He was thirty-one then; because of his voice, I took his character to not have gone through adolescence. Why didn’t this actor go to a speech therapist? Spare me his presence again.

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker said what I have never known him to say of a film, that he loved it, and a good friend suggested it, and I went. There I discovered that Affleck, now forty-one, has matured as a male, such that his voice, still oddly placed, has a weight no longer adolescent. His is a great performance because it is a great role, and a great role, because it is a greatly written role.

No nonsense. You will be taken through the wringer and grateful every moment that finally here is a film good enough to inspire that capacity in you. The film plays with the spaciousness and weight and variety of developed characters of a very good novel.

It is set in a Massachusetts town among lower working-class folks, every one of whom voted for Trump. So you’ll see how it is they did so. For these folks live only on a certain kind of emotional level, and emotion is their fight, their gauge and their ruin.

Of the major performances, Michele Williams, as Affleck’s wife, makes a lower-class woman completely alive and particular. The great scene with her nursing a cold in their bedroom is one of the best-written and directed scenes I have ever seen. It is exactly how things are, nothing forced, nothing manufactured, nothing left out. And the second scene, when she encounters him on the street, is excruciating in the attempt she makes to reach him and the just imperative in him that forbids it.

The second great piece of supporting work is Lucas Hodges as his nephew, the character whose resilience  drives the  story. Again brilliantly written from the credits on, when he is shown as a quick-witted nine-year old, as a sixteen-year old his character still does not miss a trick. There is nothing you can put over on him. And this skill in the character and the actor playing him provide the wall against which all the other characters are forced to play.

The film is a triumph of editing, costuming, filming. Its structure keeps one engaged in suspense from start to finish. You keep expecting something cheap to happen, and it doesn’t. Which means that, since you have read this review this far, you owe yourself the riches you deserve and will go to Manchester By The Sea.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

The Man Who Understood Infinity

18 Nov

The Man Who Understood Infinity – directed by Matthew Brown. BioPic. 1 hour 48 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: A mathematical genius from India is almost beaten to death by the math department of Cambridge University.

~

In the old MGM days biopics spelled out their story with great big letters, A B C. Their plots required neither understanding, thought, or interpretation. Only acceptance. We were supposed to swallow them whole. We were supposed to digest them by rote, since that was they way they were written and since no other option was available, save, in the end, skepticism that whoever made this film maybe didn’t get their facts straight.

The writing of such biopics prohibits those scenes of conflict known as drama. What they offer instead is tableaux. That is their narrative method. In these tableaux actors must paralyze their power to act in order to mime as best they can what is constant brass. For the emotion of these stories does not depend upon actions, actors, or even characters. In tableaux there is no emotion. Or whatever emotion the music can eke out of us. There is only the rigid formality of responsible biographical information. They are about big names and require great stars to stand there and just do them.

Such biopics constitute an actual form. Many biopics follow it. The pauper-genius makes his way into the chambers of power and is met with scorn, ridicule, banishment, deadening doubt, and so forth. But someone allies himself with him, and, against all obstacles, he wins out in the end. It is a victory scathed by bitterness because of the price required to achieve it, which sometimes almost includes his mate.

This form is called the story of the underdog. And two actors of great grace and fluidity, Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, constrain their imaginations to fit into the corset of the form in this one.

Deadening doubt is what Irons is allowed to play against Patel’s Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young impoverished nonentity who arrives from Madras at Cambridge where Irons’ Harold Hardy is a don in higher mathematics. Hardy has invited him there from India. Ramanujan is a completely untrained, unschooled conceptual genius. His mathematical formulas envision the answers to problems no one has ever solved.

Hardy demands proofs of Ramanujan’s routes to the formulas. Ramanujan resists. Toby Jones stands by. Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell gives droll advice. And Ramanujan’s luscious wife has to stay in India thinking herself forgotten because her mother-in-law never delivers Ramanujan’s letters to her.

Audiences are biddable. They paid their ticket; they don’t stalk out.

Because there are other benefits here besides dramatic or narrative ones.

One of these is the setting of Cambridge in the midlands and the quad and rooms of Trinity College.

Another is the presence of these two actors who are vivid by nature.

Irons is not here in his virtuoso mode. He is a character hoping to save himself from the peril of disgrace by forcing his doubt on a perfect flower. That, to Hardy, mathematics itself is a poppy makes doubt grate on his wonder.

Dev Patel – he of the Slumdog Millionaire, he of the Marigold Hotels – grips one, as he always does, by the honest vitality of his being. Nothing about this actor is forced, which is a wonderful thing to see in a human. So we sit in our seats and allow the ceremony of the plot to take place before us as it has so often done before.

Dev Patel’s existence as an international star makes this story possible. Ramanujan was a great man. But who would have heard of him had not Patel been alive just now?

It’s wonderful to hear about Ramanujan. To see his name for the first time.

To see Patel fortuitously frame and make this name a name again. To type it out here, over and over, as someone who is now never lost.

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, BIOPIC, Dev Patel, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Jeremy Irons: acting god

 

Creed

17 Nov

Creed – directed by Ryan Coogler. Sportsdrama. 133 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: a young man whose father was a famous boxer, but killed in the ring, takes up the calling with the help of one of his father’s opponents in the ring.

~

I like boxing movies. From 134 B.C. on, I’ve seen them all. This one, of course does not rank with The Fighter with Mark Wahlberg, for that one had inside its drama something real, whereas this one has its drama something typical. It’s a type of movie: a boxing movie. It is all geared to a wrap-up, and you know by its structure what that wrap-up is to be. A ritual. And worthwhile as some rituals truly are.

Ritual or not, that doesn’t matter here because the writing is so clean and the direction so energetic and young. Just what’s needed.

It also has the big assistance of the performance of Phylicia Rashad who opens the film with a performance standard that ensures the acting that will follow will be of a noble order.

And it is met. Certainly by the beauteous Tessa Thompson who plays the young singer our hero, Creed, falls in with. And by every one around Creed, who is played by Michael B. Jordan, who played the young troublemaker in the same director’s Fruitvale Station.

What are actors made of? If you are fortunate as Jordan is, actors are made of wonderful eyes. And if ever a person was meant to be on the silver screen it is he.

He is in great shape, and his training is so horrendous, you wonder that he doesn’t give up the ring and take up acting. He’s a lovely performer, completely convincing in the madness which the climactic fight takes him through.

Opposite him is Sylvester Stallone. I’ve always found him to be an actor difficult to behold. The droopy lids. The droopy mouth.

But the one thing about him which has always dominated his acting is his love of it. And also that, no matter what he looks like, he’s meant to be there doing that.

Even as an actor always meeting his calling, I’ve stayed away from the sort of stories he’s involved with. The first Rocky was the last one I saw. He was great in it. But he is greater by far here. As the old reluctant trainer, Rocky Balboa, he gives true value in every scene; he’s fascinating to watch; you don’t quite know what he’s going to do next; or say next.

Don’t miss him. He is that rare thing, an artist in a part, at an age, in a story, where his whole life has exactly meant him to be.

 

Moonlight

14 Nov

Moonlight – written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Drama. 114 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: In three stages of his life, boyhood, youth, adulthood, an African-American male digests and responds to the forces besetting him and remains pure in his sexual loyalty to his friend.

~

What movies do best this movie does. It allows us to eavesdrop on scenes we would never attend. It grants to those scenes the intimacy of their full length and depth. And it does this by capturing the performances of the actors and never giving up on the truth acting alone can reach.

If that were not so passionate an utterance it would be dull. But I leave this film transformed by it after and transfixed by it while it unfolds. I have great respect for the narration, which is the director’s job, what he shows, what he withholds, what he allows the audience to do on the story’s behalf.

I have never seen any of the actors before. I cannot believe I will ever see them in material which will allow them to be better than they are here.

The story will put you in mind of David Lean’s Brief Encounter or Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. But this film is far more detailed and rich.

I offer you a full bow before Moonlight. Watch me. Full credit. Which means all the credit that cannot be uttered because it leaves one speechless.

The acclaim this film has received is astounding. It is the least that criticism can do.

It is the movie of the year.

 

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

M. Butterfly

12 Nov

M. Butterfly – directed by David Cronenberg. Romantic Drama. 101 minutes Color 1993.

★★★★★

The Story: A French bureaucrat in China falls in love with the star of the Chinese opera and she becomes the love of his life, until he turns on her, and turns again.

~

The central fact of M. Butterfly is the love-of-one’s-life love beyond which, for those who have experienced it, exists nothing of importance.

One who has experienced this wakes to the core of the film for its surpassing value in exploring, portraying, honoring the matter.

And you believe it. You believe that love is the love you once knew too.

What is questionable about the film is does the character who falls in love with the opera star believe that she is a woman, when we in the audience all know that it is being played with steadily ruthless seduction by John Lone? We know he’s a male. But the bureaucrat does not know it. For he never sees his butterfly naked.

Inside the story and carrying it and exfoliating it are the great arias of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly with their heartbreaking rapture. It was the greatest love that Cio-Cio-San ever knew and ever hoped to know. And the same holds true of the French bureaucrat. For in the film, the roles are reversed.

The finale of the film consists of a big bravura piece by Jeremy Irons who plays the finally imprisoned bureaucrat. In it, everything that has repelled him when he finds his lover’s true gender turns into an acclamation of the love itself, The great feat: love. For it was never a question of seeing his lover naked. That was not the issue, startling though it may be and was. Not lover naked – but naked love. Naked love. That’s what we see and know.

Here it is in all its force and necessity.

 

 

 

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.

 

The Lady In The Van

28 Oct

The Lady In The Van – directed by Nicholas Hytner. Biopic. 114 minutes Color 2105

★★★★

The Story: A cracked old woman parks her van for fifteen years in the driveway of a British playwright.

~

What is this a duet of?

It is a duet of people whose duet with one another is meant to petrify them.

That’s not a bad premise for a story, because fear of change is a universal and determining human dread.

And yet, we do watch them for 114 minutes not change. Although each is beset by the other and by the chances of life, the more things get crazy, difficult, unlikely, the more each of them becomes entrenched in their own marking time.

She remains impervious to him as a human being. She does what she pleases, says what she pleases, and shits in his driveway when she pleases. He in turn remains displeased. That is what he does, what he is meant to do, what he is a frozen expert at being. Displeasure neither changes him nor rouses him nor wakes him up.

I am not sure Alan Bennett should not have ceded this material to Jean Genet. For it does seem Bennett does not realize the full potential of it. It is a story of unintended masochism on the part of the man and unintended sadism on the part of the lady. Each in his own way is impervious to the other. Each has a hide of leather. Neither becomes intimate with the other, no matter what they may learn of the other. Neither wants to. What you watch is not paint drying. What you watch is dry paint.

But what you also get is two ripe performances. Both actors played it on the London stage to great acclaim and success. Now both performances are filmed by their West End director.

It’s really wonderful to see acclaimed, finished stage performances – such as Julie Harris and Ethel Waters and Brandon De Wilde in The Member Of The Wedding – brought to the screen as treasures, herein by Alex Jennings and Maggie Smith.

In doing this, the greater interest is seeing inside of the doings and workings of a bag lady’s life. We would never be privileged to witness this, were it not for Maggie Smith’s unwashed rags and opinions and the filthy interior of her van, which Alan Bennett actually hosted all those years.

The basic difference between the two humans is that the lady is actually crazy and the man is actually sane. Which makes the relation between them superficial and makes our satisfaction with the movie superficial also. The only story possible, therefore, is that of Alex Jennings as the Bennett character. But Bennett does not know what that story is. As in the film as in his life, for all that happened nothing happened to him.

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC, BIOPIC, Maggie Smith

 

Washington Square & Acting & Maggie Smith

27 Oct

Washington Square & Acting & Maggie Smith– directed by Agnieszka Holland. Costume Drama. 116 minutes Color 1997.

★★★

The Story: Is the swain of the homely heiress a fortune hunter, as her father thinks, or is he something else?

~

I’m exploring the acting of Maggie Smith with you today and for a little while to come.

Yesterday, friends crabbed about The Lady In The Van. They made long faces, said they didn’t like Maggie Smith at all. Sounded like they would never go see her again if they didn’t have to. Stuck out their tongues.

Perhaps they make a mistake.

I haven’t seen the film, but the mistake they perhaps make is to confuse Maggie Smith with the character she is playing. Perhaps the character she is playing is unlikable, selfish, and cruel.

But, if the character is supposed to be these awful things and Maggie Smith convinces you she is those things, then Maggie Smith is a brilliant actor, to be admired, commended, enjoyed, and advanced in our affection. If she creates the character without eliciting your sympathy for the character, well that may be her job.

 

It used to be said that John Wayne was a bad actor. But people said that because he played cowboys, and the snob in folks thought Westerns were lowbrow so you could not find good acting in them. Entertainment, yes, good acting, no.

John Wayne was a good actor. Of course, he could not play King Lear. But to scold an actor because he cannot play a role his particular instrument is not suited to is plodding. And not being Lear does not mean the actor is not a good actor in his way. Who was ever better at What John Wayne Did than John Wayne?

 

Wayne’s instrument was not of a classical nature. But like the instrument of many classical actors, Wayne’s instrument was only truly at home in costume drama – costume-legend, which is what Westerns are. Even in non-Westerns he had to be in costume, the uniform of a trade – which in modern dress would be military uniform, sea captains’ togs, naval brass, Marine fatigues, Green Berets. Even when he started in perhaps his greatest Western, The Big Trail, as a very young man, he is already in fringed white buckskin. Put Wayne in a suit and tie and you have a problem. Why? Because –– think about it – his manner is never contemporary; it is always legendary. He is never paying anyone you would ever actually know.

There’s nothing wrong with that, nothing less in being able to act and do that. Wayne came from, belonged to, and remained in the heroic period and mode of film acting, which started when it started and has practically expired in film, although Tom Hanks, in his modest way, sustains the tradition in certain roles. Hanks originally played comedy. No more. Why is that? In asking this question we ask what sort of actor has he become, and what sort of actor is any actor.

Wayne is or became a performer of ceremonial plots. He delivered his dialogue with the ritual intonation of a doxology. He was successful at it. As King Lear he would not have been successful. Paul Scofield would have failed as Ringo in Stagecoach.

 

Maggie Smith’s instrument is also of a classical nature.

What does that mean – classical nature?

From the professional standpoint, it means the actor plays best in roles of high rhetoric: Shakespeare, Wilde, Shaw, Restoration Comedy, Old Comedy, Operatic Melodrama and Romance, Greek Tragedy, Schiller, Corneille, Moliere, plays in rhymed or unrhymed verse.

From the technical standpoint, the standpoint of craft, an art is classical which steals from the art of the past. Sargent is a classical painter because he stole from Velasquez. And it is one of the quirks of such an instrument that the noise the classical actor makes, whatever else it may be able to do, is generally not endearing, John Gielgud being an exception to this rule.

On the other hand, it also seems true that actors who are not classical actors are often quiet endearing. Lady Macbeth was not within Marilyn Monroe’s reach, but she was very endearing.

So it’s a good idea to try to see the whatness of an actor’s instrument before responding to their performance. Try to see what they are and what they are not before making up your mind.

 

As I say, I have not seen The Lady In The Van, but considering that Maggie Smith is essentially an actor seldom cast in heavy drama but more in comedy, we might consider what experienced theater folk say of her: that comedy is where the essence of her talent lies. That that’s the sort of actor she best and truly is.

In which case, from that lady in the van we might expect her to be nasty, sour, and unlikeable, and all those things we mentioned – plus funny.

If you look at her work in Downton Abby, you must observe that, except for Daisy and Mrs Patmore belowstairs, Smith is the only source of comedy, and the only upstairs version. Why does she make you laugh? (Those who know her say that as a person Maggie Smith is inherently funny!) The Dowager Countess is funny because she is wickedly funny.

And how does that work? How does she do it?

Why isn’t it just malicious? It almost is.

She’s funny because she makes her Dowager funny to herself.

She is not saying these things because they are mean. She says what she says not to hurt someone. She simply says it to them anyhow! And because it is delicious to her.

How does the Dowager get away with it?

She gets away because she directs her cracks towards those we already dislike. Which is also the way her part is written.

This is quite different from her performance as Lady Trenton in Gosford Park. The Dowager is not malicious. Lady Trenton is. She is inhumanly thoughtless to servants, whereas The Dowager is tolerant of her servants, and indeed pretends to let them believe that they rule her life. When Lady Trenton says, “Me? I haven’t a snobbish bone in my body!” you laugh at her behind her back as ridiculously unaware of herself. But, when an obnoxious suitor to the granddaughter of The Dowager says, “I’ll never come to Downton Abby again!” and The Dowager sweetly says. “Do you promise?” you laugh, for she is never ridiculous and always well aware of herself indeed. The Dowager has said what you yourself would wish to say to characters; Lady Trenton says what should never be said by anyone to anyone.

Partly what’s funny is that Smith makes The Dowager so completely selfish in this that you have to laugh. That is to say, she is happy. And the screenplay grants her license to be so. Still, how does she get away with it?

She gets away with it because The Dowager always tells the truth and it is always out of place. So it’s doubly funny – meaning its humor is complex and we find the very complexity funny. She gets away with it? Because no one can put her in her place; because, being a countess, she has the highest title; because she is the principal and ultimate forebear; because she is unassailably old; because she is rich; because she holds grand-maternal power; because she is beautifully spoken – all of which are givens with the role and therefore do not have to be acted at all and which Smith does not act. The Dowager is drenched in permission – all of which allow her to tell the truth out of place. Her job, as an actress, is to find the place. The Dowager is privileged as a child who cannot be spanked. What the rest of us have in mind but dare not say, she blurts.

And, of course, she is given lines which make her do so.

Such characters as The Dowager and Lady Trenton in Gosford Park have riches, power, position. They have everything, and so they are characters free to speak their minds. The one is funny to us in one way; the other is funny to us in another way.

Another character who could freely speak her mind would be one who had nothing. Such as a child.

Or a baglady in a van.

 

Other actresses admired Maggie Smith when she first started. And  actresses are quite chary and near and keen in perceiving excellence in a rival, and to all actresses all actresses are rivals. It was not because she played likeable characters, attractive characters, entertaining characters that she was admired by actresses. It was because she acted what was there. She played godsbody to Orson Welles in The V.I.P.s and a paid companion to Bette Davis in Murder On The Nile. Not glamorous roles. And not doing so, she has won 57 competitive acting awards in 158 nominations, and it would be wise to observe that these were not for roles whose conventions made her universally popular such as Bette Grable or John Wayne had. For, as anyone can tell, if she is a movie star at all, she is not a star of that sort.

She is not a star of the universally admired forces: The Heroine (such as Katharine Hepburn); The Endearing Lady (such as Elizabeth Bergner); The Trophy Wife (such as Elizabeth Taylor); The Sex Kitten (such as Brigitte Bardot); The Tough Dame (such as Barbara Stanwyck) or The Striver (such as Joan Crawford). Those women gave fine performances, but Maggie Smith is not an actor of such a universally and recognizably popular sort. She is not an actress of The Great Forces That Drive Us. That is not her whateness.

You might want to put Maggie Smith in Geraldine Page’s  class, but Page’s power puts her in a class by herself, and Maggie Smith does not possess Page’s power.

So you don’t go to Maggie Smith for a character to be nice or popular or kind or beautiful or vulnerable. Those are very big things, lovely things, some of them. You might find that a certain characters she plays might include those things. But you’d best not count on it. If you want bittersweet chocolate, Carole Lombard will grant it without fail. Carole Lombard was the most loved actress in Hollywood. She was also of the order of actress who could give the audience bittersweet chocolate reliably every time. Sweetness with a bite. It’s a fine order of actor. Maggie Smith is not of that order of universal consistency. Or rather, A Consistent Universality.

So you’d best not say you don’t like Maggie Smith when what you may really not like is the character she is playing. Miss Jean Brodie is not likeable .

So do not expect her to be always decent, as you do Henry Fonda, or emotionally pretty, as you do Marilyn Monroe. Or expectably anything. Or, rather, the only thing you might expect of Maggie Smith is that, within the realm of the character, she might be funny.

But her Desdemona in Olivier’s Othello, could be, but is never funny. So there! Best not expect anything.

 

Maggie Smith is now over 80. Leading roles for actors of this age are few. And, if they are written, do audiences come to see someone old?

Actresses take what is on offer at the time, as they have always done, and if character leads are also fewer, even an actor of renown may find herself pinched into the corset of a supporting role.

That seems to be Maggie Smith’s case with Washington Square, a TV adaptation of Henry James novel. It had previously been done in a Broadway play The Heiress, then in a notable film.

In all versions, Washington Square is about an upper class girl who is wooed by a good-looking worldly young man with no money. Her father acts as though the young man must want to marry her for her money and tries to put the kibosh on the wedding.

 

The hard thing is find the right cast.

In New York, the heiress was played by Wendy Hiller and the father by Basil Rathbone. Outwardly a good combination. In London it was played by Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson, another good combination. Cherry Jones won an Emmy in it 1995.

This version, which is a different take on The Heiress, returns us to something nearer his novel Washington Square. As a version it is more interesting, as a performance questionable.

The question arises as to how to play Catherine Sloper.

Her father sees her as unmarriageable – awkward, charmless, dull – and calls her so, forces that view upon her, that his daughter should really be man’s best friend, a lapdog.

But how does an actress do that?

For real.

Because the play, which has been successful many times, is about a person thinking they are not lovable. That is the drama. The drama is: is this true? Or in what way true? Can the suitor prove it to be true – or not true? Lovability. A Great Theme. Because each of us may harbor that gleaming doubt. Nobody Will Ever Really Love Me is the mantra in all of us that makes us want to prove this story out and stick with it.

But by what standard of unloveability is it judged, one must ask?

By the standards of her time, her father, her family history?

The actress must decide this. She must find what she can do. She must find what the rubric of acting allows her to do.

For unloveability itself cannot be acted.

Shyness might be acted, but it doesn’t get one far.

Modesty and humility, which is what Olivia De Havilland played in the film, don’t go far enough.

Physical awkwardness might do something – but it’s external. Here, the actress tries it in a dance scene, and it doesn’t ring true, because it’s exaggerated; she looks at her feet and counts beats. It’s too obvious, too externalized, too shown. Besides, behaving that way would make Catharine Sloper an idiot, and if she were retarded, she probably could not be pursued for a wife legally by anyone.

Does Catherine Sloper have sufficiently bad taste in dress to make her a poor trophy wife? Is that why she’s unlovable?

Here, she wears one hideous dress, true, but is one ugly dress enough to make one unmarriageable?

The character lacks self-confidence? Is that the basis of her unlovability?

It seems to me, that’s the heart of it, but in and of itself that is also unactable. That is, technically an actor cannot act such a thing as lack of confidence. What an actor can act is a seesawing between two choices resulting in confusion, which can be read as lack-of-self-confidence.

Lack of self-confidence can also be worked as someone who tries to be someone else or someone better or other than she is, which would make her a hypocrite and a phony. Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams does this, inadvertently.

But then such a Catharine Sloper would have to be a very tiny hypocrite for a suitor to get past it.

Or does Catharine Sloper think of herself as unlovable to please her father who calls her unlovable?

Does the key to the part lie in her father’s behavior towards her?

Does her confusion arise from believing her father loves her yet dubs her unlovable.

Her father resents her because her birth killed his wife, and so in his mind Catherine’s very existence deprived him of love and sex. So he in turn denies her both; it just comes out of him that way.

The father is an interesting character because his firm stand must be to declare he loves his daughter and declare she is unlovable, and in the same voice declare that the reason he says she is unlovable is because he loves her.

We can see this working itself out before us. When she is little he treats her as his devoted spaniel. And no more than that. We learn later what in his eyes her life should be: a permanent household companion to him. Obedient. Faithful. Fawning. He never wants her to leave the house. He never wants her to marry. He always wants her on a leash. He wants her faithful to him. He wants her to be a dog.

Yet we must believe that she believes that he loves her.

Or we must see that the extravagance of her love for him is designed to mask from her that he does not love her at all – a condition even more intolerable than the hypocrisy she fabricates to hide it.

So, we see her tearing down the stairs and jumping up on him like a clumsy puppy. Is that the key: she has decided she can be loved only as a Fido, not as a human woman. Is that where we have the foundation for Catherine’s character?

How would it feel to be treated like a pet dog, and agreeing to it, because it pleases the head of the house? And how would it feel buying into that fully – for her father and for everyone in their circle – and their buying into it too.

 

But now someone arrives on the scene who wants to treat her as a human being! A woman to be loved, desired, and married.

What does the actress do? Dog into human, human into dog.

Now there is something actable.

Perhaps Catharine’s failure of confidence is her awkwardness as she approaches life and others like a puppy.

Or, perhaps, she refuses to be petted, is standoffish, until she finds someone who can love her without scratching her behind her ear.

“Do people think I’m a dog? That I’m a mammal but not human? I don’t want them to. But so what! If that’s what they think, then I’ll be an Afghan Hound!” Is that how to start the part? On shaky ground?

 

I’ve seen this part done by Julie Harris, Olivia De Havilland and now Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Jennifer Jason Leigh has always been a problem-actress. She usually plays creeps, or at least that’s how everything comes out – the Lois Smith syndrome, except Smith got over it. We see something unstable in Jason Leigh as she does this. The actress, here as elsewhere, deliberately makes herself technically unmoored. Her characters go gaga. This turns her into a loose canon, such as she so brilliantly was in The Ugly Eight. And this is what Jason Leigh uses to show why Catharine Sloper is taken to be unlovable. Meaning unattractive. Meaning so odd no one can get a fix on her long enough to court her. She is unlovable because she’s too dangerous.

It doesn’t work. Catherine Sloper is not dangerous. Not insane. Were she insane or in danger of being so, there would be no drama, because the suitor would be automatically disqualified by it.

But still, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a professional actress playing a part for which she is suited. She has to go through with it.

And she fails because in the end we know we do not want the suitor to love Catharine any more than her father does. Because no one wants a handsome suitor to marry a bag lady. No wants a Catherine Sloper with such screaming eyes to marry anyone ever. And the reason we don’t is that Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Catherine Sloper is a creep. Whether the father loves her or the suitor loves her is of secondary importance.  We, the audience, must love her —  must know we love her — and love her for her — and we don’t.

 

Maggie Smith plays Catherine Sloper’s in-house chaperone, Aunt Lavinia. It’s a marvelous role, successfully played by Miriam Hopkins in the William Wyler movie in which Olivia De Havilland won an Oscar.

De Havilland is a pretty a woman if ever there was one, so that her Catharine is supposedly plain doesn’t work. Instead, her Catherine is supposed to be ordinary, which flattens the performance, so that’s is not quite enough either. But Ralph Richardson turns his opaque eye upon her to good effect. Montgomery Clift as the penniless suitor is beautiful enough to make up for all the qualities which the suitor Maurice Townsend is meant to possess: brilliance, charm, and a well-travelled sophistication, in all of which Clift is completely void. Montgomery Clift came from an upper class family; as an actor he is a City College undergraduate headed toward accounting.

None of these allures does Ben Chaplin possess either. He has lightless eyes and not great beauty. So we have to simply take on credit that he is her dreamboat.

The argument that the suitor could make a good husband as well as being a fortune-hunter does not enter into the Wyler film, but it does so here, and it is cogent, but not developed. It would make of this piece a considerable tragedy if it were and were there any appeal for us in the two actors themselves.

Another American actor, Judith Ivey, is excellent. The costumes of the ugliest period of women’s clothes in the history of the world are superb and are urban crinolines topped by sausage curls. Hideous. But accurate.

The interior settings are the most brilliant I have ever seen for this period. The movie is well worth watching just for them.

 

What Maggie Smith does is have a grand old time – strictly within the bounds of the size of the part.

Aunt Lavinia, poor woman, is as much in a passion over Maurice Townsend as Catherine Sloper is. Smith’s sexual dabbing on him, her brazen and fake-bashful rendezvous with him in a bordello, her interloping and go-betweening actually capsize the affair. Having so little business of her own, Lavinia noses into others’ business like mad.

Smith has a sound American accent in the sense that she rounds her Rs, a letter which, except at the beginning of words, the British never pronounce. Her mistake is that she has no specific American accent. Everyone in American came from somewhere in 1850; they would have sounded as though they did. Albert Finny as Dr. Sloper is also supposed to be American. Ben Chaplin the same, and is also English. So we have three English actors having vacated their native tongue and one American actress who has vacated her technique. The result is a dead axle.

Moreover, Maggie Smith, even with her American accent partly in place, does not convince in the role.

Watch what she does. Everything she does is on-the-money-American. But…

But her speech patterns are British. They are of British upper-class Modern Comedy, in which she excelled. Restoration comedy, in which she excelled. Shaw, in which she excelled. Oscar Wilde, in which she excelled. Comedies of Shakespeare, in which she excelled. It’s in her body.

The energy behind them is not of an American from Boston, a widowed Aunt living on the charity of relatives. The energy is British. The sort of person she gives us is someone who never crossed the sea.

 

To do my friends justice, their response to The Lady In The Van was that the character Smith played was so obnoxious that it made them gag, and, if they made of that a condemnation of the way she played her, their condemnation may be right. I haven’t seen it.

But if you look for the whatness of an actor at work you may find elements with which you can weigh and distinguish what you are seeing. This whatness is a quality almost so physical it will have a physical manifestation. Look for it. That way, you are more able to avoid saying that you hate an actor, that such an one is a bad actor or that so and so gave a bad performance. When, in fact, they have given a good performance of a character you don’t happen to care for.

 

It’s hard to distinguish one thing from another in human beings. Or in oneself.

Still, it’s more fun to look a little deeper.

It helps makes one more forgiving.

Before which, of course, one must become more ruthless.

 

~ ~ ~

 

 
 

Denial

17 Oct

Denial – directed by Mick Jackson. Courtroom Drama. 110 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★

The Story: A historian/academic has defamed a holocaust-denier, and he takes her to court in England for slander.

~

Oscar-time means biopics. True stories from headlines or history books crowd our attention, as civics lessons and catch-up info, and they are always welcome for the impersonations actors bestow in them.

Here we have Timothy Spall – face once seen never forgotten – as the headline-grabber no-holocaust side. We see him charming the convinced – skinheads, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites – that Hitler had nothing to do with the extermination camps and that the cyanide was merely to delouse the inmates. His rich rhetoric, so confident, so humorous, makes us delight in how convincing wickedness can be when skillfully said.

He is the first of four fine performances. The second is by Andrew Scott as the strategy attorney who has to hold himself in check in order to hold his client in check, a female threatening to run wild.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt the American historian baffled by British Court procedure and eager to run her own. show. Watching her, I wished they had cast an American Jewish actor. For Weisz, a good actor, gets lodged behind her Queens accent, such that I can’t bear to hear her utter another word after she utters the first. This stalls the performer behind her technique. I never get beneath my own irritation with her character’ coarseness to care about her as a human. The accent is flawless; that’s the trouble with it. But she does a good job of playing her scenes, which consist of gritting her teeth after she has gnashed them in outrage about how her case is being handled.

That all her ideas are wrong is set right by the performance of Tom Wilkinson as her defense attorney. He is an actor of mystery. If he were wholly mysterious, he would not be mysterious at all. But he is-half mysterious, except you never know which half. I delight to watch him. I am amazed by his discretion and power.

He has wonderful lines by David Hare to speak in the three crucial scenes in a trial that lasted thirty days and cost millions.

The film is sound, informative, honest, suspenseful, and well-told. The story is enclosed in its own drama, but you will not waste your time. Go.

 

 

The Dressmaker

01 Oct

The Dressmaker – directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Dramedy. 1 hour 59 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★

The Story: A woman returns to her hometown to wreak revenge, and finds revenge in more ways than hers.

~

Shakespeare wrote several comedies which are called problem comedies or romances or failures, depending on who’s trying how to legitimize them. But they are interesting because they’re not legit; defy expectations; renounce definition.

In one the prince is small-minded dolt, but the heroine achieves him. In another jealousy is paid back by a termagant’s plot which improbably restores virtue to its reward with the marriage bed of a vicious ruler. We are met in Shakespeare, as seldom elsewhere in drama, with sudden events which no audience is prepared for or desires. In fact, like life, they dissatisfy. They do not regroup the order of nature and the world at the final curtain. They leave their audiences with the stark tang of reality. They’re Shakespeare’s mean streak. In them, the wickedest characters defiantly proclaim – and we never forget them them for it – “What I am shall make me live!”

This kind of piece is The Dressmaker. It reminds you of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit, in which The Lunts had one of their late successes and in which in the film Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn did not. A woman comes back to the town which disgraced her, but now, she has enormous power to unleash.

If you cast Kate Winslet as the woman you are home free, for two reasons, aside from her delicious physical appearance. First, she can act the role, which is to say that it is, unlike The Reader, within the range of her instrument and she has the ability. Second, behind that which lurks in the corners of her mouth as an action determined to take place, she has also a natural sympathy for us to participate in. Kate Winslet? Who cannot like her?

Which means that, whatever she does on screen, something in us roots for her. So on the one hand we believe her vengeance is inevitable, and on the other, where we might want forgiveness to reign, virtuous or not, we actually want her to succeed even at the worst she can do. We never want Winslet to fail.

She’s not like Katharine Hepburn or the heroic actresses of that era. Her characters’ success is not mapped out beforehand. No. You don’t know what will happen. She might be stupid or shot or detoured. Will this revenge take place and what form will it take? Especially when it begins with what appears to be also an act of kindness and even forgiveness. But no more of that. It is for you to watch, wonder, and admire.

Opposite her and lodged heels-in against her is her derelict mother played by Judy Davis. Davis, as we all know, is one of the great humorists of modern art. It’s her mouth. Anyhow she is bewitching in the role, and you want to visit the film again and again to see what she does with this woman.

Flying into their midst is Liam Hemsworth, a young man of such resplendent beauty you can hardly imagine he is as good an actor as he actually is. Twenty-six when he makes this film, he is just entering the peak of his masculinity. It’s always satisfying to see a male like this about to burst into ripeness. They come along from time to time, Hugh Jackman, Tyrone Power, and Hemsworth’s appearance brings a stunning reversal of energy to the film, which shifts its story, and shifts it again. Can there be an alternative to revenge? Mmm.

Films like this are hard to end, and a director really has to wrap things up faster than The Dressmaker manages to. But I didn’t mind. I’ll see it again. I know the good of it. The good of it is better than the good of most.

 

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.

 
 
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