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Archive for the ‘Backstage Drama’ Category

Behind The Candelabra

16 Sep

Behind the Candelabra – directed by Steve Soderbergh. Backstage Drama. 117 minutes Color 2013.
★★★★
The Story: A young man is taken up by a renown entertainer and they becomes live-in lovers.
~
Liberace?

Lots of sauce but no fish.

I never cottoned to him. He appeared in our family dining room in the days of early television and I didn’t like what he was up to in any of its aspects. All I saw was greed. As a personality he was a lisping phony. His purpose was to seduce, ingratiate, reassure. His voice was a slow syrup dripping out of an ornamentalized pot. As a pianist he was a vulgar contortionist.

I never experienced him in his glory days in Vegas or on TV later. If he was around, I skirted him. I don’t like men to effeminize themselves. It means their feminine side is lost to them.

Lost in competition with their mother, maybe. A way of holding off their mother’s intrusiveness. Debbie Reynolds plays the mother here, and I didn’t recognize her. Who is that wonderful old actress they’ve got for that part? I asked myself, then read the credits.

The young man is played by Matt Damon whom it is impossible not to like, and whom we see gulled by the sequined manner of Liberace, who seduces him with a kindness so lavish it can only mean nothing. But he is taken in. I will not list the ramifications. But I will say that his playing of Scott Hanson is another notch in a belt Damon wears, notched by now it scarcely holds up his britches. Which is just fine, since he has a beautiful ass, and a willingness to use it and a unique talent to adapt to his material modestly.

Michael Douglas is another matter. He does not really go for it. He plays some of Liberace’s traits, but he does not play the bitch queen behind the emu feathers and the nastiness burning at the center of all those candles. It’s a performance you have to take on faith, which is not hard to do after a time, since it is exactly on pitch in so many ways.

The whole movie is a masterpiece of production, costuming, and makeup. These play a big part in Douglas’s arc, since he goes from middle-aged to face-lifted ageless to cadaver. It is very well written and directed. It is less a portrait of Liberace himself, about whom everything was obvious to a ten year old boy in his dining room, so much as it is about the love of the young man for him. People like Liberace don’t need to be loved. They just need to hand the word Love around like a canapé for popular consumption.

 

 

Saving Mr. Banks

07 Jan

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Last Metro

29 Jul

The Last Metro –­– directed by Francois Truffaut. Backstage WW II Drama. A Paris theatre company holds together during the German occupation. 131 minutes Color 1980.

★★★★

The presence of Catherine Deneuve in any film whatever guarantees attention to it, just as her presence in it guarantees attention to herself. She is a woman with no sex appeal save that she seems to have none; males are captivated by the challenge of their own bafflement, apparently.  And, even with persons she is making out with, she evinces no sexual interest or energy towards anyone else. She is neither attractive nor attracted. So it is no wonder that Gérard Depardieu has no eyes for her.

She is thought of as beautiful, a claim discounted by that chin. And perhaps it is her consistently soigné manner and her consistently marvelous yellow hair and that she is consistently photographed as though she were beautiful that leads to the general belief that she is so.

But, of course, I do not find her so, and that is because, as a dramatic actress she lacks fire, she lacks temperament; she gives so little to her craft it creates a detriment, a hollow, which also adds to her so-called attraction, I suppose, but it doesn’t interest me, and I have no respect for it. She seems inert, a sphinx without a secret.

That is, until I saw her in Hôtel des Amériques, which she made with the great actor Patrick Dewaere, and in which she plays broad comedy and is screamingly funny. She is, in fact, a brilliant light comedienne miscast in a career of dramatic roles, such as this one. Sad.

The movie itself is quite entertaining, because of its photography, general production, crispness in the telling, and Truffaut’s eye for subordinate characters, which, given that this is a theatre company, means we are confronted with some unusual types.

But, while the story is well told, it is not well written, for such reasons as that a romance between Depardieu and Deneuve is tagged on at the end and arises out of nothing we have witnessed. And also because neither she nor Depardieu have real passion either for the theatre as a calling or as a business. As with her relations to her Jewish husband, she is doing her duty.

The film also is in lush color, which certainly suits Deneuve’s makeup and complexion, just as it suited Betty Grable’s, but it defies the gritty black-and-white truth of World War II in starving, domineered, occupied Paris. Both she and Depardieu play characters that seem to have no personal necessity save to play the parts in the movie in which we are seeing them. The film holds one almost to the end, which is a tribute to its power to entertain, if not to explore. In France it received all the major awards. Which is natural, since it congratulates the faith, fidelity, and fortitude of the French during trying times. And who can gainsay it. Will they survive? That is the tension. The answer? They will.

 

A Late Quartet

22 Dec

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A Late Quartet – directed by Yaron Silberman. Drama. A renowned classical string quartet disintegrates before their very own eyes. 105 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
Five stunning actors claim our attention as this story of a quartet unfolding unfolds. The key piece is Beethoven’s Op. 131. And the music suggests something larger is at stake than the coherence of the group or the piece. It suggests that the group is held together by stories older even than the great music they play so perfectly, and that it is the purpose of the drama and the calamity of the group’s disintegration to learn this and to bring it into their song.

The ending is a little corny, which means that the director is telling the story counting on the usual tropes rather than what lies inherent in the material behind those tropes. But this does not discount the playing of these wonderful actors.

The five actors of whom I speak are Imogene Poots, a young violinist at Julliard as the daughter of Catherine Keener and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the violist and second fiddle. Mark Ivanir plays the egomaniacally obsessed first violin, and Christopher Walken the cellist and most senior member whose illness oversets the avalanche brooding on the mountaintop.

All five actors come at their parts from separate artistic rooms. In their crafts they do not resemble one another. Ivanir comes from the gutsiest European modern tradition and offers as well his powerful figure, sexuality, and chilling decisiveness. The Daniel Craig school of acting.

Poots brings a live-in-the-moment technique which well suits her essentially adolescent twenty-year old. She charms. And she does so because her craft enables her to be thoughtless but smart. And this enables her to bring to her character a delicious insolence essential to it.

Catherine Keener brings her famous default position of withholding. This gives her the sovereignty of making important the saying of what she deliberately does not say. She makes art of her defect. She can articulate the whole truth but she never does. She’s stingy and as such quite marvelous in a great taxi ride scene with Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Hoffmann seems to have no technique. He is one of those great actors who seem to walk into the scene by accident and might leave at any time. What does he get by on? An intestinal watchfulness perhaps. The power to spring into unexpected attack is his forte.

Amid these four strange people stands the enigmatic Christopher Walken with his Queens accent and high-up-back-in-the-throat delivery. His once handsome face is now a bombsite of 69 years. He delivers each line like every other line. It is as though his inner response mechanism had no inner connection to his vocal response mechanism. A freak.

They all are. The harmony with which they play their roles with one another and the harmony with which the music is played by them are a monumental monograph of The Human Possibility.

 

Almost Famous

26 Jun

Almost Famous – directed by Cameron Crowe. Music Drama. A teenager becomes a stringer for Rolling Stone Magazine to cover the disintegration or rebirth of a famed Rock and Roll band. 124 minutes Color 2000.

★★★★★

Well, Frances McDormand is the best actress ever. Here she plays the pestering mom of the boy journalist, and each time she appears she is both dead on true and dead on funny. The boy is a gawky pubescent chap adopted by his journalist mentor played brilliantly, of course, by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a master of eccentric timing to allow a real life character to spring up through the cracks of his lines, as it were. The whole story is a dear adventure, based on the director’s actual experience as a fifteen year old kid sliding into the world of the big Rock stars, participating in their tours, being taken as an experienced journalist, and eventually filing the story. Crowe manages the mise-en-scene immaculately. He lived the boy’s story when young, and he brings it to life with relish and a loving eye. Billy Crudup is the target of the young journalist’s particular aim for a scoop, so we see a good deal of him. Crudup does not quite nail the inner life of the character, but depends on the story to do his work. In the crucial scene, when an apology is due from him to the boy, his failure to make it goes unregistered by the actor. But still, it is always a pleasure to see this fine actor, very beautiful twelve years ago, and in fine form as a Rock star, first deranged by modesty, then by drugs. Kate Hudson is the band-aide 15 Year old sex object of both the boy and Crudup, and she plays it out with remarkable presence. Anna Paquin is in it, but for some reason is not used properly. But Jason Lee is dynamite as the less-talented leader of the band, too full of himself to face the fact. It’s a good movie, even if you don’t, like me, care about Rock and Roll. A sort of open-heart surgery on the music world of that time, but the heart, while stricken, is sweet.

 

Annie Oakley

02 Apr

Annie Oakley — directed by George Stevens. Western. A country lass can shoot the thorns off a rose at 50 paces. So she joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. 90 minutes Black and White 1935.

*

This is a George Stevens production???!!! — the George Stevens who directed Alice Adams and The More The Merrier and Shane and Woman Of The Year? Inconceivable! It is a movie barren of distinction, save for the slight truth Preston Foster gives it as the bragging sharpshooter Annie loves. It’s a marvelous part, and later on Howard Keel would also be excellent in it, as a man whose pride is hurt and who misconducts himself because of it. The roles are great but the script is so poor even Stanwyck looks like a bad actress, which she wasn’t. She was an actress of limited range and disposition, sure, but she had the common touch and a beautiful carriage and natural presence and surety of execution, all of which counted for a lot in her work — in any actor’s work. Alas, the film is puerile, and one wonders at the aesthetic degradation studios felt they had to drag their audiences into in order to snare them. In real life, Annie Oakley was a woman of parts, smart and able and of fine disposition, and she had a long career. Oakley wasn’t even her name; it was Moses; she changed it to have more show-biz potency. Why didn’t Stevens make a film about the fun of that? Stanwyck is able to convey Annie’s youth — as a teenager — but, of course, she is incapable of creating a character — that was not her forte and why should she? — she already herself had enough character for twenty — and besides the script gives her so little to work on. And as to the director — oye! — who would have thought that he would one day direct A Place In The Sun. And yet why should I feel such dismay? As Somerset Maugham said, “Only the mediocre maintain a level,” and George Stevens certainly was not that. I should keep in mind that he directed a hundred films I never saw and never hope to see. That this was one of the forgettable ones is forgivable and then some.

 

 

Talk To Me

14 Mar

Talk To Me — directed by Kasi Lemmons. Backstage Bio-drama. A wild-talking ex-con shoots for a job as a DJ on a stuffy Washington radio station. 118 minutes Color 2007.

★★★★★

This beautifully written and directed picture ought not to surprise, since its star Don Cheadle has fostered a number of interesting projects in the past, except that one finds him here far to right of the mode of Hotel Rwanda, and its saintly hero. Cheadle has the eyes of a saint, so it’s natural for him to be cast as the good boy getting even better. However, in this piece he is cast as the devil incarnate. He dresses like a circus and he talks like one too. It’s a really brilliant turn, and it stays in the delightful realm of a horse movie until the character, Petey Greene, who is a real-life person, must go on air to calm the rioters on the death of MLK. The film becomes very moving, nowhere more so than in the performance of Martin Sheen as the head of the station. At which point the story focuses on Petey Greene’s mentor, Dewey Hughes, who wants to raise Petey to national prominence as a stand-up performer of black palaver. His manager is played by another superior actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, always fascinating to watch. (You will remember him from Dirty Pretty Things.) It’s interesting for me to see him act through his eyes, for it’s through the strength of the daring of their big open vulnerable plains that everything is delivered. With Cheadle, his eyes are where everything is hidden. He allures with half-lids. Dancing between these two is Taraji B. Henson, whose Afros get huger with every scene and who scallywags through the film with brilliant spontaneity doing a female impersonation that is extremely funny and always on target. The director has commanded all sorts of forces to her aid, and they all do well: the costumes of the period of the late 60s and the riots and the lighting of the black actors to register their skin tones for us properly. I found it quite satisfying, and as with Cheadle’s other efforts both gripping and educational. Educational. Is that a bad word? Not for me. For me it means an experience that is both humbling and enlarging.

 

 

All About Eve

06 Sep

All About Eve – Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Drama. 138 minutes Black and White 1950.

★★★★★

The Story: A great Broadway star teeters on the brink of 40, and a younger star tries to push her over.

~

I don’t know whether Mankiewicz is a good director, but his screenplay here works like crazy, because it takes the focus off of Bette Davis and hands it around evenhandedly to the other  characters before us, so our interest in the main matter which is Can Broadway Star Margo Channing Stop Being A Brat And Become A Grownup? is left to the other actors to manage for us.

Very crafty.

George Sanders is the only non-female main character in the story, but, if you consider the part could be been played, although not so well, by Clifton Webb, you will recognize that he is not actually a male character at all. There are three other males in the piece, but Gregory Ratoff as the play producer, while very good, has little to do, Hugh Marlowe as the playwright has only a little more to do, and Gary Merrill, as her suitor and her director, does everything with contempt for the craft of acting itself and is quite bad.

This leaves us with Celeste Holm. She said, when she first came on set, Davis was rude to her on sight. Davis was an inexcusable person; so Holm is very well cast as Davis’s best friend, and the first of Eve’s suckers.

Sanders won the Oscar for this, quite rightly (George Sanders like that other master of boredom, Gig Young, eventually committed suicide. And you can see it coming in his relations with Baxter.) More than any other actor who ever lived, George Sanders drawl could make any line sound witty, which is nice, since many of the lines are so. Marilyn Monroe – she of the Copacabana School of acting – charmingly appears as the object of one of them.

This brings us to the two remaining stars.

Bette Davis is really up for this role. Her natural vitriol gives way to the sheer physical requirements of the part – snatching up a mink from the floor, waddling into a bathroom, declining a bonbon. Her command of all that is inside her and all that surrounds her wins our loyalty from the start. For once, Davis is actually at home in a role, relaxed, her customary archness vanished, and the story grants us only the best of her tantrums.

That year the stories of two aging stars, Norma Desmond and Margo Channing, vied for the Oscar, but Anne Baxter bullied the studio to put her up for one too, and, in a divided vote, both Swanson and Davis  (how characteristic of Eve) lost and Judy Holliday, the younger actress, got it. Yet, as Eve, Anne Baxter is lamentably miscast. You cannot believe that any of those shrewd judges of character that those theatre people are would have been duped for a minute by those batting eyelashes and that breathy, tobacco stained voice into believing she was an innocent.

Never mind. Otherwise more than worth the bumpy ride. Davis endures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Malice In Wonderland

14 Jun

Malice in Wonderland —  Directed by Gus Trinkonis. Drama. The story of Hedda Hopper, Hollywood  actress and gossip columnist crushing all before her, including Louella Parsons, Color 1985

Too bad. Jane Alexander is quite fine, and she has the far better part. But then Our Liz had to take the part of the older woman because that’s what she was, for  Parsons took 20 years off her age, poor thing. The script is rotten and Richard Dysart is bafflingly bad. It’s fun to behold Elizabeth Taylor, quite beautiful at 52, in her own jewelry. But her performance is forced, partly because the director is a ninny and partly because the script is TV generic junk. But also because something went wrong with her as an actress when she was over 30. Or she chose parts of harridans and harpies, which her particular actor’s instrument was not designed to play with any finesse or fun. The greatest romantic actress of her era as a shrew? Nope. Of course it’s always interesting to see this great beauty as a beauty, just as it’s interesting to see the Grand Canyon from different angles. Both World Treasures.

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Black WIdow

22 Mar

Black Widow  — Directed by Nunnally Johnson  — Murder Melodrama. A man let’s a young chick stay at his place and there’s hell to pay. 95 minutes Color 1954

**

Glib trash. It’s not a Noir but a puerile Agatha Christie Who Dun It. One’s interest lodges not in Who but in How, which is all right, but it does mean that one cares nothing about the characters. For none of the performers are believable as husband (Reginald Gardner), producer (Van Heflin), actor (Ginger Rogers), chick (Peggy Ann Garner) wife (Gene Tierney, detective (George Raft, who appears in the same suit and tie and the same monotone he assumed for decades. He has great presence but no artistic authority.) This is the sort of bunk that we in the 50s were asked to swallow, the Valium of the age, a truly sinful time.

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Crimetime

15 Feb

Crimetime – directed by George Sluizer – Thriller. An Actor playing a serial killer is stalked by the serial killer wanting to be the actor. 118 minutes Color  1996.

* * *

Hitchcock often made thrillers about men wrongly accused, but occasionally he made a picture about a homicidal maniac: Strangers On A Train is one, Psycho another. This picture would be perfectly suited to Hitchcock’s second category, but it lacks Hitchcock’s prime ingredient, the ability to create and sustain an ominous mood. Here, what you see is what you get; in Hitchcock what you see is what you don’t get. The result is a B picture, but one with A level performances — on the one side, Geraldine Chaplin as the blind mad wife, and on the other our own wonderful Karen Black as the dread head of production. Between them are the two major talents of Pete Postlethwaite and Stephen Baldwin. Baldwin, whom I have never seen before, possesses the fantastic Baldwin rump which on occasion we are allowed to dwell upon stark naked, and the film plays off on the obvious general sexual energy of a sexy actor never trying to be sexy. He plays an actor, Bobby– an actor of the sort one occasionally meets in the profession, devoted to his craft so radically that he becomes cruel and obnoxious — as humorless, inconsiderate,  and spiritually intrusive as the dark fundamentalist he truly is. Baldwin is perfectly cast for  these qualities. And he is a bold actor. The story is about a TV show which takes the crime of the hour and reenacts it. Today’s crime is that of a serial killer, and so devoted to playing the part does the actor, Bobby, become that he becomes hypnotized by the killer, who talks to him over the phone. The killer, watching Bobby be him on the TV, recognizes that they have become one another. It is the story of a beautiful and famous actor’s desire for excellence acheiving its desire and the desire of an ugly nonentity to achieve beauty and fame, meeting. Pete Postlethwaite as the killer is remarkable. Every actor in England went to see him perform. (He once toured in King Lear playing every part.) And in this leading role, he has a full canvas to paint upon. His face is a treat to behold, with its big eyes and spike of jaw. His death scene is astonishing. Baldwin in recognition of his own lost life has a crying scene that is beautiful, and other fine scenes as well. The two of them are worth the time it takes to watch this really first class story — true, a story made banal by its director’s treatment of it — but still somehow a vehicle for great acting.

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Man On A TIghtrope

05 Feb

Man On A Tightrope – directed by Elia Kazan — Drama. The owner /ringmaster and his small touring circus fall afoul of The Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. 105 minutes black and white 1953.

* * * * *

Kazan was a high Virgo and while that means that he understood what was crucial, what was critical, it also means that he was highly critical of himself and his own work, and not always accurately. Thus his put-down of this work – an action adventure piece that actually comes alive completely in the bumbling escape attempt with which it ends. Man On A Tightrope is the best circus picture I have ever seen. Kazan adores the circus folk and their life, and really gets down with them. You see their color, their gypsy soul, their absurdity, their dignity, and their crazy fun. The story is based on the actual escape of a real circus from the Communists, and Kazan actually filmed this in Europe and actually uses that very circus in the film. He brings in Hollywood actors to play the principals, Alex D’Arcy, touching as the bashful lion-tamer, Gloria Grahame, once again as the girl who doesn’t want to say no, Richard Boone as the lumpen-heavy, Adolph Menjou covered with cigarette ash lying on a couch as he plays the bureaucrat out to outwit the owner, , and Frederic March as that owner. Kazan originally wanted March as Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman, which is strange because March is no more Willy Loman than my cat. He has too much inner stance. He is too middle-class. But he had used him in the original stage production of The Skin Of Our Teeth, a Kazan early triumph, when March told him, “Be careful with me. I tend to over-do,”  and which Kazan loved him for. It’s just wonderful how wonderful March could be. He is often miscast. He is not a sexually exciting actor. He doesn’t offer romance, even when young. But he can offer pain and its discombobulation and weakness. He can offer doubt. He offers the promise of middle-age, even when young, which means that he offers the values of a grown-up; at no point is he ever an adolescent. You have to take him seriously, even if you don’t particularly like him or don’t particularly like looking at his face, which is one thing you don’t have to do with a stage actor but do have to do with a movie actor. And you have to respect his technique which is displayed here with no showiness. Kazan, good naturedly said about March here that he had to keep Freddy from hamming it up, but March never seems in danger of doing that. Terry Moore, though, pushes it as the love interest with Cameron Mitchell, but that was the way she always was, and you wonder why Kazan allowed Zanuck to cast her. She’s a false note in a bad plot move, but the rest of the material is right on. What do you have to sacrifice to escape oppression is the theme. Perhaps Kazan didn’t quite realize it, but it’s a great theme. Too bad, but it’s still a marvelous piece, typical of Kazan in his love of actors, his spacious sympathies, and his phenomenal understand of human nature.

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The King Of Masks

04 Feb

The King Of Masks – Directed by Tian-Ming=Wu– Comedy Drama. An old street performer and master of quick-change masks, wants to pass on his skill, but can only do so with a male heir. 101 minutes Color 1999.

* * * * *

Many many folks praise this piece, and it is understandable. It has everything except an unhappy ending. It has an interesting master actor Zhu Xuas who plays the old man and a charming child actor who plays a hand opposite him. It gives us a simple and important tale about calling. It hands us brilliant renditions of China of the 30s with  buildings and people wonderful to look at. It imparts a story that grips one through every turn; a piece indeed of Dickensan richness and complexity and coincidence. And it reveals the ancient and inexplicable art of  quick change masks. Amazing. One wants these characters to win through and who knows whether they will? An Idyll. A tale for all time. And also a serious movie that can be watched by all, including children, with great attention and recognition, six and over, I would say. Don’t miss it.

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The Phantom Of The Opera

30 Jan

The Phantom Of The Opera – directed by  Rupert Julien – Melodrama. An understudy at the Paris Opera is lured by a lurid beast in the basement. 92 minutes black and white with color scrims, silent with orcheatra sound track, 1925

* * * * *

I can understand why this is such a popular story. On the surface is beauty, sexual attractiveness, talent, popularity, successful employment, love, youth, and innocence. And underneath, in the dungeon of one’s being, is an isolated crazy monster who believes himself unlovable and who wants to control the whole show.  What a model of the human individual in adolescence. One is always drawn to sympathize with the monster, of course. At least, in Claude Raines version one was. But this is the Lon Chaney version. It had color scrims to enhance certain scenes, and it is well-augmented by the Montreal Symphony, with vocals from Gunod’s Faust. For it seems Mlle. Deea has made a pact with the devil, or at least is happy to be hypnotized by him and drawn into his scary sewer lair. So far so good, until, Psyche-like, she strips off his mask, and then, ugh! This is a silent version, and the story lends itself well to silence and to the style of acting silents used. For silent films were not movies. For the camera never moved. It was stationary, and, within static sets, the actors alone moved. This led actors into compensating with big gestures. Olivier called it The Bent Wrist School Of Acting, and there is a lot of big bending at the waist here, heads thrown back, wrist to brow. It may look corny or hammy or old-fashioned, but the question really is: is it well done, and here it really is. Lon Chaney throws one arm behind him, extends one up in front of him in and stalks out through the exit. Such gestures were meant to capture and convey big emotions, and they do. There is nothing small in anything here. Mary Philbin, the soprano, is very beautiful and Chaney, The Man Of A Thousand Faces, is really evil looking. He uses his hands so beautifully you think they are beautiful, for every detail here is advanced into the realm of spectacle. We begin with a zillion ballerinas, the huge foyer of the Paris Opera House, tons of extras in astounding costumes dancing with flagrant abandon, and mobs of  audience inside the theater and out of it. The story has many variations, and this is a highly professional one of them.

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The Black Swan

22 Jan

Black Swan – directed by Daren Aronofsky – A ballerina cast as The White Swan learns how to dance the black swan. 2110 Color.

* * *

This is the story of the psycho-emotional-sexual internal dungeon a dancer must pass through to develop her craft. For the first part of the film, I sat there realizing that nothing was happening, and during the second part of the film that what was happening was obvious. Except for Mila Kunis, brilliant as a ballerina on the rise and Wynona Ryder, excellent as a ballerina on the downs, the piece is poorly cast. Barbara Hershey plays the mother, but Hershey is such a peculiar being that everything she does is tainted by something that is brought in from the outside and does not specifically relate to the character she is playing, so one sees her in double focus all the time, and neither vision is on target. Vincent Cassel, in the role of the leader of the company, lacks fascination. His moves to teach the ballerina are brutal and stupid and insulting, and nothing could possibly be learned from them. One is forced to compare him with the great performance of one of the greatest actors ever to appear in film, that of Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes, in a similar role. Walbrook’s character is, of course, very warm, Cassel’s very cold. But that is a fault in the writing, which is lame in its choices, and which from the start produces a performance in Natalie Portman which is flaccid. Portman probably does not have enough character to give us even the White Swan that she already is both on stage and in real life. What she does instead is to open her eyes wide and gaze out blankly. (Oh, if Gwyneth Paltrow could dance!) That is, Portman does not have the natural inner variety of the ingénue nor the technique to invoke it from parts of herself nor the imagination to conceive it nor the bent to draw it in from observation. So To Look At Her Is To See Nothing Happening For Over Half The Film. Indeed, we have to be told by the script that she is good as the White Swan, which means the script has not provided her with the means to demonstrate it by documentation, only by description. I felt the film to be at once overreaching and banal, its fancy “professionalism” cheap theatrics. In the end, the only reason we believe she is effective as The Black Swan, once her inner transmogrification is complete, is because of some startling eye makeup.

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The Overture

04 Jan

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

* * * * *

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

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Annie Oakley

17 Dec

Annie Oakley — directed by George Stevens — a country lass can shoot the thorns off a rose at 50 paces. So she joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

*

This is a George Stevens production???!!! — the George Steven who directed Alice Adams and The More The Merrier and Shane and Woman Of The Year? Inconceivable! It is a movie devoid of distinction, except for the slight truth Preston Foster gives it as the boasting sharpshooter Annie loves. The script is so poor even Stanwyck looks like a bad actress, which she wasn’t. She was an actress of limited range and disposition, sure, but she had the common touch and a beautiful carriage and natural presence and surety of execution, all of which counted for a lot in her work — in any actor’s work. Sorry, but this film is puerile. One wonders at the aesthetic degradation studios felt they had to drag their audiences into in order to snare them. In real life, Annie Oakley was a woman of parts, smart and able and of fine disposition, and she had a long career. Why didn’t Stevens make a film about the fun of that? Stanwyck is able to convey Annie’s youth — as a teenager — but, of course, she is incapable of creating a character — why should she? — she already herself had enough character for twenty — and besides the script gives her so little to work on. And as to the director — oye! — who would have thought that he would one day direct A Place In The Sun.

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Lady Of Burlesque

17 Dec

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

* * * * *

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

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Georgia O’Keeffe

19 Nov

Georgia O’Keeffe–– directed by Bob Balaban–– the tortuous relations between a painter and her artist/promoter husband –– 89 minutes color 2009.

* * *

Joan Allen –– is she not the premier actress in America film today? So you wonder why she would subject her gifts to the script presented here. She and Jeremy Irons can each carry a film to the moon and back, and yet there must be something to carry. Allen has the thin-lipped pinched, pioneer, poverty face (although O’Keeffe’s is a man’s face), so she can look the part. But that’s as much as she can do. The problem lies in the screenplay, drawn between documentary accuracy and the underlying taffy-pull of the love relations. So the script falls a-clunk between those two stools, and the actors are given no foundation. On one side, the documentation is inconsequential to anyone but O’Keeffe (the film does not get New Mexico light right), and, on the other, the love-relations do not develop, but decline into a stasis. Drama cannot breathe in what does not change. The film also falls flat because it falls in love with O’Keeffe in her every aspect. O’Keeffe has become a statue of liberty for the feminism of the 20th Century, but it is not possible to estimate the artistic merit of A Statue Of Liberty. She herself knew she was not a first class painter. Indeed she is barely a third class painter. This would have been an interesting premise for a film. We know O’Keeffe was cold, ruthless, and that she never thoroughly learned her craft is the first thing obvious about her work. Steiglitz was, on the other hand, a photographer of the first rank. He was also a lover of painting, and, as such, he promoted her. The film makers think of him as an impresario, like Diaghilev or P.T. Barnum, but he was closer to Sol Hurok, simply a presenter of art works in the right place. He was essentially a promoter – not because he was a flimflam man but because he loved other people’s work. Irons’ character is written to be always wrong, and Irons’ performance keeps falling to pieces trying to honor the mallet of this unactable opinion. O’Keeffe is made out to be right all the time, and Allen has the devil’s own job of negotiating this horror. Yet it is an exercise of our admiration to watch her do it. The collision of their characters would have been far more interesting minimilizing its data and maximizing the way she used him. A woman without conscience, who falls in with a man who is all about love, not knowing whether he loves her or the her in her work or her work as a work of her. A film can only tell one story. The story of the relations of Holmes to Moriarity and Watson is one story, not two. There are never two stories. Because, if you think there are, you can only create two hackney coaches which you cannot set off in the same direction at the same time.

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Easter Parade

14 Nov

Easter Parade –– directed by Charles Walters –– a famous hoofer chooses a bistro chorus girl to turn into his next dance partner –– 103 minutes color 1948.

* * * * *

Even with Edith Head doing the things, Judy Garland proved impossible to costume properly, a doom of her entire career. This was partly to due to the fact she not only was devoid of urbanity but she was also devoid of any show biz cache and she was short waisted and very tiny. What she exuded was The Rural, a quality that did not lend itself to haute couture or any kind of couture, vis the ghastly green velvet dress with the mink stole and all the others. Her best costume is a rust bathrobe with no makeup. Or the costumes for her comic numbers. From The Wizard Of Oz on she is rural, not because she was in that movie but because she is devoid of guile. She was very intelligent and quick and a lot of fun and talented beyond reason. Her gifts as an actress were remarkable: she is present, even when her deep brown eyes seem absent, responsive, imaginative, physical, ready, and always with a wellspring of humor about to burst forth. And with that rich hungry voice. Her acceptance of Peter Lawford as a pick-up in the charming song, A Fellah With An Umbrella, is a model of good naturedness, an actress’s choice that can’t be beat. The only element  defying this is an eyebrow make-up, here and always, unreal. Astaire is made in the first part of the picture to look like Stan Laurel because of a bowler and because he actually does resemble Laurel. His dancings are phenominal, as he sets the pace with a terrific number with drums in a toy store. Stepping Out With My Baby is a great song, perfectly orchestrated, yes, but take care to watch his footwork still on the stairs after his entrance. He is dressed in red and white, and while the second half of the dance is sabotaged by the costumes of the other participants and the dances they have to do in them, his dance is not elaborate, but his body is vitality itself. The picture is best in its first third, at which time you think it is one of the greatest musicals ever made. But that’s because all the jolly Garland and Astaire dances are there, but one: We’re a Couple of Swells, which is a parody of The Easter Parade itself. (If you ever wanted to know what Camp actually means, this song is it.) The musical stalls somewhat as it grows over-responsible to the plot of Astaire’s vindication regarding Ann Miller, his former partner. Miller, who is Olive Oyle in tap shoes, dances like a Tommy gun and is quite good as the vainglorious diva. Watch Garland, the most generous of actors, as she listens to Jules Munshin make the salad, and how her responses just naturally help that scene build. Pay attention to her separate and particular relation to the bartender played by Clinton Sunderberg, and the camera isn’t even on her. Very well directed by Charles Walters. Wonderful Irving Berlin songs. Astaire and Garland marvelous together. An Easter Bonnet!

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Harlow

24 Oct

Harlow –– directed by Gordon Douglas –– a bio-pic about the lingerie blond from the 30s. 125 minutes Technicolor 1965.

* *

I spent an evening talking with Carroll Baker in the late 50s after she had just had her first successes in Baby Doll and Giant. She was pretty and sweet and simple. She had a little wen under her chin which gave her face a certain unexpected character. She had that money-voice. More than six years go by before this picture is made, where she is playing a teenager. Her own story in her own autobiography is far more compelling than the one cooked up for this curious actress, Harlow, and far more shocking. As a performer, Jean Harlow is an actor I tend to avoid. She had a square hard face, thin lips, a voice like fingernails on a blackboard, and, except for wearing no underwear or wearing only underwear, no talent. Except for Hell’s Angels, in which she seems to be quite another person. Anyhow, Baker is right for this role and is a much better actress than Harlow. English actors are infirmly cast in parts around her, Peter Lawford who looks like he has been stung by thirty infected wasps, and Angela Lansbury, ordinarily wonderful, who is quite bad, gravely miscast, for some mad reason, as Harlow’s mother. The whole production is swamped somewhat by the Technicolor process, which is really something to behold in its heyday. Just take a look at the opening scenes where the extras enter the studio, go into Costume, and start filming. Edith Head did the things, which are wonderful, but have not much to do with the 30s; nor does the music. Martin Balsam has a nice turn as a vulgarian producer. Ten years after this film was made, I was in love with a woman who looked like Carroll Baker. She had the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. She’s gone. But I look at Carroll Baker’s films now, because Baker, retired to Palm Springs and no longer acting, was a very good natural method actress and because we had such a nice talk so many years ago and because of that.

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Peeping Tom

24 Oct

Peeping Tom –– directed by Michael Powell –– macabre drama about a photographer who kills with his camera. 101 minutes color 1960

* * *

Not as bad as it was said to be at the time of its release, and not as good as it was in later years claimed to be. Its interest does not lie with Powell’s famous sense of color, which is really simply bad taste in Technicolor. Nor does it consist of our interest in this film as a noir, for it cannot be a noir, since it is in color and since it was made 10 years after 1950 when the era of noir ceased. No, a picture of this kind must depend upon our interest in the personalities of the principals, and here they are not sufficient to the task of holding it. Carl Boehm is the leading actor, good looking, blond, and very German, which indeed he was; he was the son of a famous conductor. But why is a German called upon to play a role perfectly suited to Dirk Bogarde? Anna Massey his opposite in the film is the daughter of Raymond Massey, and she resembles him when in profile. She also has the habit as did he of an over-articulating mouth, which she cannot help, but she also delivers her lines from the same inner place her father did, which is that of well-projected unbroken recitation. This wrecks vulnerability. She is costumed oddly, also, for one cannot understand how she can afford such smart clothes when her circumstances are shabby genteel. The direction of this material is skewed throughout, particularly in the film studio scenes, which are handled with contempt as burlesque rather than as serious attempts to make a commercial film. Powell hated the studio system at Pinewood and this hatred sabotages these scenes and displaces the drama going on in them. Worst of all, the film is mis-titled. It has nothing to do with a peeping tom. It has nothing to do with voyeurism, so, if the slimy title did not disgust the reviewers of that time, it certainly must have disappointed them. It is simply a picture about a peculiar maniac. The commentary which accompanies it is numbingly dumb. It reads into the picture symbols where there are really only cymbals. Let us preserve a disrespectful silence then and say no more.

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You Were Never Lovelier

19 Oct

You Were Never Lovlier –– directed by William A Seiter –– musical comedy of a Taming Of The Shrew father who will not allow his younger daughters to marry until the eldest does. 97 minutes black and white 1942.

* * * * *

Rita Hayworth was Fred and Astaire’s favorite dance partner. From the time she was thirteen as Margarita Cansino she was working in nightclubs with her father as her partner. Dance was in her body and her being and was her joy. Astaire has at times a bit of a push to keep up with her here, so easy is she, so happy, and with such breadth of technique. She had a perfect bust and torso, straight back, beautifully shaped and held head, thick mobile hair which she used as a female force, and, for dancing, long lovely arms and the most elegant hands in the world. There was something just innately decent and even noble about Hayworth, at once prim and enticing. And of course she was a raving beauty. She came to life dancing! It’s just amazing to see her vim and wit, and how happy she is to be dancing with Astaire –– perfectly matched in abilities. For the title dance, by Jerome Kern/Johnny Mercer, she wears a gown which is clothed moonlight. You wonder how on earth… You would drool were you not so agog. The story is a dubious piece of fluff, and we could do with less of the Adolph Menjou plot, but never mind. She does a number with Astaire in a tennis outfit that’s super duper. And Astaire has a dance in a fancy art deco office in front of Menjou that may be the most brilliant sequence he ever performed. Replay it if you cannot believe your eyes. Yes, he actually does those things! Replay it if you cannot believe your eyes. Yes, he actually does those things!

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Angels Over Broadway

19 Oct

Angels Over Broadway –– directed by Ben Hect and Lee Garmes –– noir about Broadway hustlers in the 40s. 80 minutes, black and white, 1940.

* * * *

Douglas Fairbanks Junior is first class and well worth watching as the tough-talking hardboiled grifter of this Ben Hecht (His Gal Friday) written and directed film noir. D.F. Jr never takes the gum out of his mouth, and it works. Mealy-mouthed John Qualen is fine as the focal figure, which he also was in His Gal Friday. Thomas Mitchell, in full Irish drunk mode once again, plays the surrogate Hecht character and gives vent to the screenwriter’s most self-indulgent utterances. It is endearing to hear the yearning idealism of an earlier era, and in this era it was put in the form of a certain overblown futile self-pity, which you find in many of its writers, Saroyan, Steinbeck, Maxwell Anderson, Odets. Lovely Rita Hayworth plays an aspiring nightclub chorine, uncertain of herself yet loyal. She’s young and touching. She plays the movie’s moral center, and Hayworth as a picture’s moral or immoral center is always well cast. The supporting cast are excellent. The movie is a piece of chewing gum, something to do until something tastier comes along, but that’s all right. Like chewing gum it’s not supposed to stick with you. The flavor doesn’t last, but it has a tang while it lasts.

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