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Archive for the ‘DOCUDRAMA’ Category

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.

 

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.

 

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 Big Short

01 Jan

The Big Short – directed by Adam McKay. Docudrama. 130 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★

The Story: A group of Wall Street investors, foreseeing the housing market will fail, bet against the market, but when housing fails, they can’t collect because the banks deny the failure.

~

Two things I don’t understand about this film: one is the sense that this is called an ensemble piece when in fact the four main actors are never or seldom together. And two is that the separation of these separate stories is achieved with over-edited snippets and over-montaged sequences such that none of it can be made out by a normal eye.

Why is this done?

Perhaps to bewilder the audience into believing the reason they can’t understand the complexities of what is at stake is not because they are too stupid but because the flashy montages are causing it. And, by gum, if we are not comfortable with this style of montage anyhow, we must be not hip.

A lot of the film is made with a hand-held camera, which is supposed to grant reality. It doesn’t; it just grants the shaking of a hand-held camera. And, of course, color film almost always denies reality; it is too heightened; it demands too little of the imagination; it is too expected. This would have been a perfect subject for black and white.

So, being an English major, how can I respond to this confetti?

It is beautifully acted. Ryan Gosling is perfect as the snappy, rude investor. Brad Pitt is swell as the retired broker who breaks the bank with the help of John Magaro and Finn Whitrock as tyro investors. Christian Bale, in a great wig, is perfectly cast as the know-it-all pioneer of the trading system. But it is Steve Carell as a disgruntled investor who stands out just a little from the others. He is nominated for several supporting actor awards, which seems quite unjust to me, since he is the moral center of, since he stars, and since he carries the film. All the supporting people are first class, including, Marisa Tomei and, I imagine, Melissa Leo whom I never saw in it at all, so flashed-by were her scenes.

The film is also up for Comedy Awards. It is not a comedy in any sense of the word or life-experience of the audience. The film is about fraud. The award categories claimed for the film are also fraud. Too bad.

Everything the film-maker could do to make the complexities readable was done and then undone. I leave it to you to tell me more about the real estate collapse and if I am missing something or everything. Or perhaps confusion is the only knowledge to be had of the matter.

 

Truth

17 Nov

Truth – written and directed by James Vanderbilt. Docudrama. 125 minutes Color 2105.

★★★★★

The Story: a presidential scandal is discovered by CBS news, aired, and then called into question.

~

Truth – a good title when so many of us now feel that the news media is lying to us, or prevaricating, or decorating the truth. We now have pretty people voicing what? The moment of Truth is perhaps where this public corruption began.

The virtue of a written news report in a newspaper is that it is the work of one bylined journalist, at the scene. The difficulty of TV and radio journalism, on the other hand, is that the work appears to be done by journalist anchorperson, but is not done by the anchorperson, but by folks behind the scene, a group, a staff. This TV system makes in-depth investigation possible, because it includes big research teams; it leads to perhaps better and thorough verification of assertions. But it also leads to groupspeak. And it also makes such groups vulnerable to management for reasons outside the purview of the fourth estate, as takes place here in the case of Dan Rather.

I worked at CBS News in the early ‘60s. We were lodged in cramped offices on Lexington near Grand Central. It was the moment when Charles Collingwood was leaving CBS news and Walter Cronkite was taking over. I was a person of no importance there; I typed up the monitor for them – so badly, I wonder they could read it. I don’t remember a vast staff, a fancy studio. But one thing is sure: personal presentation counted for a lot. Collingwood was a handsome man; Cronkite a reassuring one. The word itself was, of necessity, secondary to these worthy facades.

Robert Redford plays Dan Rather here, the anchorman for CBS’s 60 Minutes. Rather could not have been better cast. Like an anchorman, Redford has always been an actor who presented a general impression. He was not so much an individual as an ideal type, the type of a handsome blond male of unassailable masculinity and no particular flaw. He filled a bill. Never an actor of rash gifts, his direct opposite as a film star would be James Cagney, a flaw incarnate, someone who could never in million years be cast as an anchorman.

Redford does a great job with this role. The Dan Rather we are shown is just, balanced, fair – and amiable to his staff and to those he interviews – a man of considerable character. The scenes Redford is called upon to enact are among the strongest in the film.

Behind him is his head producer, Mary Mapes, and Truth is essentially her story. Cate Blanchette is an actress at the top of her game, just now, so it’s gratifying to see her seize the role between her teeth and shake it this way and that. I say “the role” and not “the character”. There is really no character here; there is the actress playing scenes. Such is the way it is written. She’s very good. She is playing off her personality, which is certainly good enough.

Truth lies parallel to another big film just now, Spotlight, which, like Truth, gives us the Boston Globe gathering of another great scandal, the collusion of The Catholic Church in the molestation by priests of children. Truth gathers the behind the scenes drama of the story of George W. Bush’s Air National Guard AWOL, an indictment which is obviously true, nailed by the big tablecloth speech of Blanchette at the close.

Elizabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid play members of the Rather team. Stacy Keach is wonderful as the suspect source of the story, and Noni Hazlehurst is outstanding as his wife, steamrollered by the network.

Bring yourself to both these films. The tendency to release biopics as Oscar contenders at the end of the year is part of life nowadays. Neither drama for itself alone, comedy for itself alone have remained worthy our contemplation. But still, see Spotlight and see Truth. And ask yourself: what is to be done?

 

 

 

 

 

Bridge Of Spies

27 Oct

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

Everest

14 Oct

Everest ­– directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Docupic. 121 Minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: Four commercial climbing expeditions join forces for the sake of safety as they take their clients up to the highest elevation in the world.

~

Well they certainly found the perfect actor to play the lead. Jason Clarke, an Australian actor, brings to his role the requirements needed to hold the entire story together. Because there is that within him that allows you to believe that he holds the entire expedition together. It is he who has the foresight to see that five expeditions cannot embark on the same day, and gets three of them to join with his group. This actor exudes the compassion, expertise, and common sense which makes us go along with him on what is, after all, a $65,000 ticket to a thrill for the climbers.

The film takes us into the depths of the mountains, and I wonder how they ever managed to film it. I was astonished. I was held. I kept learning. I felt present on the spot.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays an expedition leaders, a rapscallion. And John Hawkes plays a climber on his last chance to make it. Josh Brolin plays a climber addicted to mountaineering. The great Icelandic actor, Ingvar Eggert Sugurösson plays a leader who never uses oxygen and who does jim-dandy without it. He alone is clean-shaven, which helps his performance, for it is often hard to tell one character from another, since all the men wear beards which cooperate with the snow and the oxygen-masks to disguise them. But you can identify the characters by their parkas. And the director makes the back-and-forth of the perils they meet as clear as can be in all that white.

The female actors are particularly strong. Keira Knightley as Clarke’s pregnant wife, Robin Wright as Brolin’s. Elizabeth Debicki as the base camp doctor holds the fort with the wonderful Emily Watson who plays the base camp manager. What a treasure she is!

I won’t tell you the story, because I did not know it myself when I saw it. But I surmised that things did not turn out well for all these people, or the film would not have been made. It’s beautifully done. The mountain itself looms above it all, deciding who will live and how and who will die and how.

The peril is threefold. Steepness. Oxygen deprivation. Cold. I am a cold person, so the last of these interested me most, in that some of the characters are clearly more comfortable with cold than others.

Of course, by cold, I do not mean nasty, narrow, cruel, prudish, or mean. Cold is a temperature of love of life and a latitude for moving through it. Hot blooded people are colorful, bold, and tempting. But the cool ones love the reserves in themselves, and the path therein to their souls and their callings. So I like snow. I like ice. I like to witness the perils inherent in them. The perseverance. The melt.

Also, I saw it in 3-D, which helps, I think. Anyhow, I recommend it, as, of course, I do the film itself.

 

Woman In Gold

16 Apr

Woman In Gold – directed by Alexei Kaye Campbell. Docudrama. 109 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A Los Angles shopkeeper explores her right to reclaim a painting stolen from the walls her the family’s apartment by the Nazis 70 years before.

~

Whether or not you consider Gustav Klimt’s work to be Liberace on canvas or not or have no view of or knowledge of it one way or another, this docudrama is simple, straightforward, and arresting. There is nothing special about its acting or its direction, and there doesn’t have to be.

Rather there is the sense of a thread unfolding into an enormous carpet stretching from California, right through The United States Supreme Court, to the grandeurs of Vienna where it encounters a bureaucracy of Olympic rigidity.

The painting in question is not simply worth over $130,000,000. Its real worth is that it is the portrait of the belovèd aunt of Maria Altmann and hung over the fireplace of the luxurious home she lived in until she was married and the Nazis came to steal everything , kill its occupants, and deposit the painting in the Belvedere Art Museum of Vienna, where it became the iconic painting for the city itself. It was called The Woman In Gold rather than the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, for, of course, she was Jewish.

The movie covers all the unlikely sides of this attempt at restitution. The case is handled by an inexperienced lawyer, well and honestly played by Ryan Reynolds. Frau Altmann is played by Helen Mirren, as the upper class woman she was, well bred, and resigned to forget the past, until she wasn’t. They are ably supported by Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth McGovern, Charles Dance, Frances Fisher, Jonathan Pryce, and others.

The story, rather than the picture, carries the picture. It is a plain basket and does its job stoutly. It never betrays its material. And my suspense in its outcome, even though I knew it beforehand, since its headlines involved the most expensive painting in the world, continued until I was gratified and enlarged to learn how it ultimately came to survive.

 

Captain Phillips

29 Nov

Captain Phillips  directed by Paul Greenglass. BioPic. Pirates take over a container ship in the Indian Ocean and kidnap its captain, engaging a U.S. Naval mission for his rescue. 123 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

The style is documentarian and it works like gangbusters. One feels one is in Somalia with the Somalis in their desperate situation as it resolves into theft, kidnapping, bribery, and frequently ingested drugs, and one is aboard as well with the crew, in its fear, resourcefulness and valor.

So the great virtue of the treatment of this material is its evenhandedness between the invaders and the sailors. There are no villains; there are simply certain people doing certain things. Members of the crew somewhat emerge, while Tom Hanks carries the sailor side of the story, but the Four Somalis emerge clearly as persons. Surrounding them is the document of the vast sea, and one has the sense that the entire film was shot actually at sea, not in a studio water-tank. The ocean is the document. She is both the tool of the piracy and the tool of its comeuppance. She permits the pirate to board the ship, and she slows down their escape.

I don’t have TV and I don’t watch the news any more, nor do I read movie reviews, and so I was unfamiliar with the misadventure of the Maersk Alabama. Consequently everything commanded my intelligence, everything surprised me, everything interested me, particularly the reality of the insides of the Alabama, its corridors, appointments, engine room, and fo’cstle, and the curious interior of a modern life-boat, whose aspect I shall not betray here, lest surprise fail you when you actually see it for yourself.

Apart from all this, I was fascinated, tense, thrilled. I had no idea what was going to happen. The capture of Captain Phillips and the intermittent threats to his life were exasperating, even exhausting, but one is meant to sit through them for the uncertain outcome, just as he had to.

The trial by water is made worthwhile by the playing of the leader of the pirates, a wonderful Somali actor, Barkhad Abdi, who is just right in his relations to the other three henchmen, one of whom. insane on drugs and religion, wants to kill Phillips, and one of whom, a tyro to all this, is taken over from time to time by his own naive kindness.

Tom Hanks plays Captain Phillips as a dull bourgeois, which is exactly right. He is a competent sailor, he knows how to lead a crew and preserve their lives, and he is almost always devoid of snappy Hollywood cunning. This makes his Captain Phillips a triumph, for it means an ordinary person in extraordinary peril, may have just enough wit to bring rescue about. Clearly his Captain Phillips is a bad actor when trying to convince his captors to a certain course, to search certain sections of the ship, to think a certain way, but his very ineptitude at being convincing is enough to confound the search of the ship and ensure his crew’s safety. It is a stunning anti-heroic choice for the actor to have made.

The screenwriter and actors have also fashioned a relationship between him and the pirate chief which emerges as the focal point of interest, for these two are men of practical intelligence who are interested in one another’s being, nature, and position. Both are fighting for their lives, both in different ways, and it is our fascination to see which shall prevail before the sun sets upon them.

 

Mississippi Burning

21 May

Mississippi Burning –– directed by Alan Parker. Drama. Two FBI agents search a small Southern town for the murderers of three young civil rights workers. 128 minutes Color 1988.

★★★★★

It hasn’t dated one day.

Two widely divergent investigative styles cross their purposes in this recounting of the actual murders. And in this the film has its only flaw, which is the casting of Wilhem Dafoe as the conservative by-the-books young Turk agent whose methods overwhelm the investigation. He is either miscast or not a good enough actor to play the role unconventionally. Instead we get the conventions: the glasses and the stuffy manner. We get the primness and the stiff necked pride. The problem is as soon as the role is played that way the audience dismisses the character as known.

It needed to be played with easy physical flexibility and charm. The character would still have to say the same lines, it’s just that you would never be able to expect what was coming. It needed an actor much more temperamentally lithe than Dafoe – Robert Downey Junior, say – an actor with whom you never know what’s coming, an actor who can play against the script and still reveal it.

Particularly as opposite him, Gene Hackman, as the second string agent, gives what may be his finest screen performance, in a character so fluid and variable that he can infiltrate a den of snakes and out-writhe them. Every choice is subtle and pertinent. His scenes opposite that great actress Frances McDormand, as the modest wife of the criminal deputy are exquisite.

The film uses Southern negro townsfolk, and their wonderful faces and beings illuminate the screen with telling force. The same is true of the sets and set decoration, which is first class (I know those Southern bungalows) and the locations, most of which were taken in the deep South. These lend an astonishing veracity to the poverty and down-troddenness of the black folk, and the brain-damage of the white folk whose blind bigotry strong-arms and gentles the negroes into the shanty mind of second class citizens in a free nation. Which changes with glacial rapidity. Not even that.

Yet it happened, and they caught those rats.

I was moved by the story and impressed by the authenticity of everything I saw in Mississippi Burning. All of it still pertains.

 

The Company

07 Apr

The Company –– directed by Robert Altman. Docudrama. The backstage and onstage life of the dancers of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. 112 Minutes Color 2004.

★★★★★

A hybrid tea rose. Gorgeously filmed by Pierre Mignot, who took many of Altman’s later films.

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

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

Nothing is filmed in documentary style; everything is filmed in dramatic film style. All of this is quite fascinating if one can step back and realize that only five actors are actually used and only three of them have principal roles, and only one of them says much. The dancers are beautiful actors, doing what they would do anyhow, which is dancing and being humans preparing to dance. All the more interesting if one knows that The Joffrey is a ballet company without stars: anyone may dance major roles. This gives the film narrative a level playing field.

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

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

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

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

I hope so.

What gifts Altman had to give when his heart was in his work!

 

Zero Dark Thirty

13 Jan

Zero Dark Thirty – directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Docudrama. The story of a young woman’s ten year manhunt for Osama bin Laden and his assassination by her. 157 minutes Color 2013.
★★★★
I felt unsatisfied.

Oh, I felt a good deal of tension in the execution of certain passages, such as the actual flight that night into Pakistan by the Navy Seals. And I was held by the authentic look of the ruckus of the operation in action. I felt that must have been much like what is was like.

But I didn’t see Osama bin Laden shot. It was reported as having taken place “upstairs”. Odd camera angles hedge the moment when Jessica Chastain, the CIA agent working to bring him to ground, unzips the body bag, as though the mortality of that well known face were for the satisfaction of her eyes alone. But our satisfaction is left out of the picture.

Other odd things stumped me. I did not understand the story purpose of the extensive torture scenes, beautifully played though they are by Reda Kateb and Jason Clarke, since, unless I am mistaken, torture yielded nothing in the way of leads. I can understand those scenes as giving us a picture of Jessica Chastain hardening to her task. However, since as a character, she comes out of nowhere, has no family no friends, no past, and in the end no future, her development as a human is irrelevant. All we need is an actress who can go from compliant to implacable, and this Chastain brings to the role as part of her nature; we do not need a story to reveal it; the actress herself is the story.

The film is confetti-edited, and hard to look at. As humans, we do not live out the stories of our lives in nanosecond splices. To walk to end of the block takes three minutes. That’s how our stories are told, not in tiny inscrutable bits of flash. Confetti editing is a resort to blanket a feeble tale. And the film’s first part’s partly inaudible. My bias is that if actors say something, you should, unless the film is Altmanized, be able understand exactly what those words are. I also felt the escape from bin Laden’s compound was cut short; there was a whole bunch of soldiers I saw left behind, as the damaged helicopter was demolished.

As filmed it is never less than spectacular. Pakistan looks chaotically beautiful and therefore hopeless. I loved seeing it, and all the settings. It’s beautifully cast and well-acted by everyone, and Chastain holds our interest by not attempting to. She’s someone one can play respectful attention to. I watch her, I wonder about her, I care for her, and I don’t want her to be hurt. I felt a sense of her accomplishment in the assassination. He needed to be put out of our misery.

But, as this is the one picture that will go down as a record of the mission, I feel cheated of a sense of its authenticity. My curiosity was not satisfied. No one applauded.

 

Won’t Back Down

07 Oct

Won’t Back Down — directed by Danil Barnz. Docudrama. To create a better school for their children two women take on entrenched forces and win through. 121 minutes Color 2012.
★★★
Backed by the great Rosie Perez and the great Holly Hunter, Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal effort womanfully to pump the gas to keep this story aloft. But it’s the way with “inspirational” films, a genre in which the effort it takes the actors to move the Jews to the Holy Land is actually greater than the move of the Jews to the Holy Land. For, boy, do they bend their shoulders to the task. It’s a horribly difficult genre to act, write, and direct, because it forbids everyone to work with anything but the broad strokes of finger paints. Subtlety is not in view. And the poor extras who have to raise their fists in the air and cry, “Down with the emperor!” with the conviction of storm troopers. The tendency of such films is to look patented. But the real problem lies in the shrug of the audience once the film is over, for the characters having given their all to the cause, we, the audience, have no room to give anything. We are as good as not-present before the difficulties and successes which are routine in such a genre. Maggie Gyllenhaal, she-of-the-frantic-locks, gives a cyclonic performance of a character who has no character defects, of course, because all that is in her is The Right, and it is a tribute to her wit and her valor and her inherent recalcitrance that she works the part so well. She never appears righteous. She’s an entrancing personality, with huge impressible eyes and the Gyllenhaal smile carved at the corner of her lips, so it is easy to look upon her with favor. She’s all heartstrings. All give. She is so slight of figure that you imagine she could not push the load she sets in motion, and she is so costumed that you think no one would take her seriously. The actress cast, that is to say, would be in dramatic conflict with the part she is asked to play, and that is the wonder of the outcome of this war, not the war itself, which is based on actual events. Viola Davis’ body, on the other hand, is one of elegance and groundedness. So she’s the anchor to Gyllenhaal’s tossing dinghy. She herself does have a character defect, which is to pressurize her young son to excel as a student past his natural speed. A late exposition scene relieves both of them of this burden, and it’s very well played indeed. Davis’ large eyes convey a beautiful reluctance to go along with the Gyllenhall torrent. And both these actresses are worth seeing as they energize this civics lesson into immediate life, every scene of which is a resuscitation. Which makes it different from Norma Rae, say, as the story takes us to battle with the school bureaucracy, the parents, the teachers, and the teachers union itself, for the battle is not against adult slavery which we can see for ourselves in its effects on rural lives, but against children’s inferior education which we, of course, can witness in children but briefly. So do these two women shine through? Yes. That’s the habit of such stories. Do they shine through to the audience? When Maggie Gyllenhall says to Viola Davis, “Beautiful new nails you’ve got there,” Davis answers, “Cheaper than therapy.” No. There’s too much enamel on the story. A little more depth and a little less polish might have better served.

 
 
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