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Archive for the ‘ENSEMBLE DRAMA’ Category

Blackboard Jungle

21 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

For Colored Girls

05 Nov

For Colored Girls – directed by Tyler Perry. Drama. 133 minutes Color 2010.

★★★★★

The Story: Seven negro women discharge their perils and experiences of their lives as mates.

~

The focus of the material confines it to the influence of males upon these women. In each case the woman is at the mercy of her beliefs as to what the penis will provide – VD, AIDS, rape, infanticide, addiction, abortion. It pronounces without questioning the reality of her beliefs as to what the word “love” means, at least insofar as she sees it embodied in the male.

What confines the material concentrates it, however, and focuses the point of view. For the writing of these women’s responses to what has happened to them in the matter is brilliant, daring, and deep.

I have not seen or read the stage play by Nkozake Shange, but I want to. I want to see this film again with the acting score in front of me. My old tv has poor sound, so a quarter of what these ladies were saying was lost, and another quarter was lost because they proceeded to weep while saying it.

This is a technical and professional mistake. You do not recite Hamlet’s soliloquy while bawling. Why? Because no voice as the brass to project verse through the gargle of a crying jag. And Hamlet is not supposed to weep. We the audience are.

So this is a miscalculation on the part of these actresses and the director who evidently has a taste for such stuff. Emotionalization is the defilement of feeling to the level of ocular perspiration. What really lies beneath it is too deep for tears. What lies beneath it is the pain of a terrible knowledge. We don’t need to see these women weep over their suffering if we are to suffer with them. In fact we need to see them bare of tears, living in the residue of terrible knowledge.

They are wonderful actresses, and it’s a really well directed film in many ways. It is perfectly cast and produced. It is Gogol’s The Lower Depths for black women. It is important and beautiful and ours.

 
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Posted in ENSEMBLE DRAMA, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, PERSONAL DRAMA, Whoopi Goldberg

 

The Liberation of L.B. Jones

24 Apr

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Three Sisters – Olivier version

10 Apr

The Three Sisters – directed by Laurence Olivier. Tragi-comedy. 2 hours 45 minutes Color 1970.

The Story: Three young women stranded in a provincial garrison town long to escape.

~

Mildred Dunnock once said to me, “The English know what acting it, but they don’t know how to do it.”

She was speaking about the English acting of this era and type and she said it at the time of this production, which was the same time that she herself acted with Olivier. How was that, I asked her. “Oh, he was up to his old tricks.”

He’s up to them here and it infects the life-style of the production as a whole and fixes its virtues and its lacks. It is a style in which the actor exists in an impenetrable circle. You might say Brando did the same. He did. But Olivier, creates the circle, not outside himself but inside his character. And it is a character which is built on appearance. As though appearance could provide content. The circle is empty.

So we have Olivier in padding, to suggest that The Doctor has grown portly with sitting and reading the paper. We have Olivier in wonderful facial hair, which looks real. We also may have Olivier in a new nose, for he loved to build them. But we also have Olivier in his disgruntled walk, his gimlet eye, his quick turns of head, and his bite.

All this brilliant surface is at one with the fact that the women’s wigs are sensationally good. So are the costumes, with the exception of Irena, who is garbed in pale blue, and needs to be in darkening shades of green. As a color, blue never turns bad; green can.

We have big vocal control from the actors, but poor diction, so that most of the actors drop the last consonant of lines and words, such that we do not quite know what they are saying, or such that our effort to find that out diminishes our response to what they are saying. Joan Plowright is particularly guilty of this. She has a big vocal range combined with careless enunciation.

What’s great about this version of The Three Sisters acting is its finish. We are in the presence of actors absolutely at home in their parts, long installed in their lines, and bodies, and costumes and sets. But, as my friend, actor John Hutchison remarked: “It looks like a museum piece.” For this is a production which resulted from a big success at The National, which toured for a good while with Robert Stephens as Vershinin. For a short time, Alan Bates took over the part when Stephens fell ill, and went on to make this, the last movie Olivier would ever direct.

Of course, Stephens would have been ideal for the part, with his neurotic masculinity, height, and danger. Bates cannot bring that. What Bates brings is his deft timing, both physical and vocal, and the bearing in him, common to English actors, that everyone is acting all the time, on the stage or not. He is also physically beautiful in his beard and uniforms.

And sometimes acting very well, so that Bates’ beautiful, large, wide-spaced eyes can register his love for Masha as he announces it to her. You can see it happen. And Bates can render melodiously the philosophical monologues, with which the play abounds, those songs of the soul with which Masha falls in love. He is lovely in the role.

Masha, who becomes scandalously hot for Vershinin, is played by what is surely the coldest actor on the English speaking stage, Joan Plowright. I remember seeing her in Ionesco’s The Chairs and The Lesson at The Phoenix in New York when she was just starting out, and her most signal characteristic, a pronounced indifference, kept her at remove from the passionate and physical vitality of those plays, as it has always done with her, and does here.

Joan Plowright is always like an understudy playing a part whose necessities some other actor has established, and, boy, does she stand-in for the role here. English acting requires blind obedience from the audience to supply everything the actors omit that is demanded from the scene played. It requires preparatory admiration. It requires respect for fussy technique. It requires the collapse of everything but the maintenance of the indoctrination that this sort of acting is good.

And this may be good. First because it may be the only way the English can bring these plays forward to audiences at all, wrapped in cellophane. And second, because it may supply the audience with the distance of surrender necessary to grasp the overall and operatic impression the play offers.

I say operatic, because in part the play is as operatic as Shaw. It reads and plays like a series of arias and duets emitted by characters all of whom stand apart from one another.

Arias meant to impress the audience, not the other actors.

Which means that you feel that none of the actors’ lines actually land inside any of the other actors. Which means than nothing happens. And nothing happening means nothing builds.

And nothing building means that the architecture of the play is foresworn.

For the architecture of The Three Sisters is plain. Four Acts. Each one offering a momentous event. Each one offering a hope and then a new and changing relationship to that hope.

Act one, the event is a Saint’s Day party for the youngest sister, Irena. In this production, no one prepares for it, no one sets out decorations or arranges flowers, no one dresses up for the special day. The hope is that the three sisters will move back to Moscow from this rural village where they have been cast away.

Act two, the event is a carnival. Here again, no excitement about it, no sense that it is a Mardi Gras preceding Lent, no dressing up, or particular ritual. Here the sense needs to be about the giving-up-for-Lent-or-for anything-else or about postponing this hope for Moscow, temporarily. It needs to be reflected in the style of the monologues, just as it is reflected in the contents of them. But of this, nothing.

Act three. The event is a fire. The whole town is burning to the ground, but here we have no sense of what is burning down, the peril to them, or the actions they take to relieve it. The words are there for it. But not the energy. The action of Act Three is: the hope for Moscow burns down. Again, it is in the monologues; again not acted, not directed.

Act four. A farewell. Farewell, finally and irrevocably to hope for the future and for everyone. The lines carry it. The performances do not; they are sculptures without living bodies within them.

 

Sviatoslav Richter said one must play Brahms as though every note were farewell. And certainly hope’s slowly turning around into a farewell to hope, a looking forward slowly turning into a looking back, a paean to the future slowly turning into a dirge about the future, a promise into resignation of all promise, are the very substance and structure of the play. We are asked to experience and by experience to know the life and death of hope. This is the great play which embodies the capacity and career of human aspiration. The fact that our lives do not turn out as we envisioned them. But, I, as an audience, do not feel from the actors any resonance with this common human theme.

It is no secret. Inherent in that farewell, is the first line of play, which announces that the birthday of Irena concurs with the death of the father of the sisters.

So what prevents them from slipping out from under that death and taking off for Moscow?

The failure to act.

Through fear?

Through social style?

But here, the failure of the characters to act becomes confused in the failure of the actors in the play to act. You might say that the actors act all over the place. Olivier acts up. But that’s not the same thing.

These parts are frightfully difficult to do. They require all the sense of period style shown here, but they also require superhuman alertness. Superhuman alertness because all the characters are lazy. All of them lounge about reading poetry. Or making it up. And then quoting it. They are ourselves. We all do that. In our minds. The disease of suicidal postponement, hope disemboweled on the operating table of Doctor Chekov.

The Doctor, which Olivier plays, is the most actively lazy person on stage, and the one most actively aware he is. He is ignorant of his own profession and of everything else in the world, except the scandal sheets he reads, and the irascibility he can achieve when drunk.

And yet the actor playing him not only cannot say the lines in his sleep, but, on the contrary, he must play the part with an awareness of his character’s own awareness. And this Olivier does not have.

Chekov called his plays comedies because his characters see themselves for what they are. Likewise, the actors must know and embody that no matter what their characters say, no matter how passionately or tragically they feel, no matter how high they aspire, they are futile and they know they are. The actor playing The Doctor must see himself seeing that folly, that inaction; so must they all. And this act of super awareness must drive each of them about that stage like pinballs. They each really must be searching for something on that stage each time they appear. And that’s not what I see here. I see poise and pose. Not bad things at all for theatrical presentation, and a good foundation for Chekov’s upper-class flaneurs, but only nice shoes, not the whole outfit.

 

Some day they will re-release on DVD the Actors Studio version of The Three Sisters. It is a conglomeration of styles, which the Olivier version is not, and the great Kim Stanley as Masha, while she cannot actually play anything above the truck-stop class, brings to the stage a steamy frustration delivered into a book of poems mean to quell it. I have seen The Three Sisters played in Russian by The Moscow Art Theatre.  I have seen The Three Sisters with Olympia Dukakis as Olga and Louis Zorich as The Doctor. Zorich’s vitality and humor is a perfect foil for the Doctor’s laziness and prevarication – which proves that you can cast these parts in various ways, making Plowright as Masha not actually miscast at all.

The difficult riches of The Three Sisters I witness as I watch this version again. So I come to give everyone their turn. I see how fluid Ronald Pickup is as the unloved Baron Tusenbach. It is a performance which would register more if it registered more on the actors around him. The production is filmed marvelously, for it is a company piece, and we need to know who is in earshot of whom on a filled stage. The groupings remind one of Sargent at his best.

In Act Two Derek Jacobi plays his brother as a temperamental, nervous martinet. (In the Olivier style.) His important scene with Ferrapont the deaf old servant is misplayed. We never feel how talking to someone who cannot hear to be poignant and representative of all of these people, none of whom really listen to one another, but each of whom spouts forth, while all the time not walking the talk.

In Act Three, when the whole town is burning to the ground, the level of relationship to this event is virtually nil, even to the needed degree of overlooking it. Olivier is really good in his solo drunk scene, which he does without accompaniment. The actress plays Irena such that virtually not a word she says is audible: crying-scene-self-indulgence and swallowing air. The big scene between Natasha and Olga goes to waste because the actress playing Olga weeps in capitulation from beginning to end. But it’s written as an out-and-out argument between the two, an argument which Natasha wins with a fusillade of vulgar vituperation of the kind Olga has declared she cannot endure and does.

Also left out of this production is any relationship to the passage of time of day. The First Act takes place at lunch. The Second Act takes place in the evening. The Third Act takes place at 3 AM. And the Fourth Act takes place around noon. No registration is taken by the actors or director for any of this. It’s not a literary matter. It’s a theatrical matter. It’s an unnecessary omission.

The Fourth Act is so beautifully set by the designer one is prepared to forgive much. And the arrangement of the scenes by the playwright almost forgives the rest. It is a Brahmsian farewell on all sides. One watches Olivier do it, and one sees that he is doing what he has almost always done. He is not playing the character; he is playing an actor playing the character. The good thing about this is that the actor he is playing is one of a certain daring and imagination. The bad thing is that the character is dead.

Most of what Irena is saying is still inaudible, and Derek Jacobi acts the part as though he did not need to be in it to do it.

He is not an actor of much imagination and of no daring at all. The brother is weak. The brother’s weakness is that he is distracted by fancies, such as gambling, violin playing, his ghastly wife, and finally his brats. He is distracted most of all by his boredom. Jacobi realizes none of this. We should all love the brother, as do the three sisters, because there is something endearing about his weakness; instead we are indifferent; his piques grant us so little.

Joan Plowright has the great farewell scene with Vershinin. Our hearts should break for her. But there is not enough for us to land on in the performance for us to do that, because Plowright executes Masha, as she does every character I have ever seen her play, as an abstraction; that is to say, as a figure which she need only touch down on with a few dots, lifted up and abstracted from the page. Abstraction in acting is usually reserved for older actors, whose right is earned by their years of acting experience and of life.

Of course, Plowright is very watchable. As with Bette Davis, say, it makes her naturally conspicuous. One attends to her, no matter what. She draws focus. Not by anything she is doing to seize it, but by a natural inheritance. The same is true of Olivier. One looks towards them automatically. They were born to be attended to. And then one looks towards them for a sign of life. This one does not often find.

The Three Sisters is a very great play, if only from the point of view of its construction, which is extremely strong. You can tell that, maybe, because it takes its time. If you want to understand construction in art, listen to the music of Franz Liszt.

I suppose all the parts are winning roles, although the most difficult, I believe would be Masha’s cuckolded husband who must announce, despite all sensory evidence, that he is “content”. And none of the parts would be easy to play, right down to the exact strategizing of the deafness of Ferrapont. One could go on as to what the play is about or for, how it reflects modern human life and has not aged. But those are matters for an audience to expose themselves to in person, not on the printed page. My criticism is that this version does not offer enough for the audience to expose themselves to. Not enough rises to the surface to catch us, ere we drown. Drowning alone would make us live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: STAGE ENGLISH, Derek Jacobi, ENSEMBLE DRAMA, FAMILY DRAMA, Joan Plowright, Laurence Olivier, Period: 19th Century

 

August: Osage County

19 Jan

August: Osage County – directed by John Wells. Family Drama. 121 minutes, Color, 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: A paterfamilias goes missing and the clan gathers, poisoned daggers out, lips drooling with vitriol.

Misty Upham, as the American Indian caregiver, is the only sane and decent woman within miles.

First, We have sister number one, Juliet Lewis, who in no movie is ever sane and who arrives in a condition of advanced delusion about honeymooning in Belize with her sleazy boyfriend, Dermot Mulroney. Then we have sister number two, Julia Roberts, who arrives in high, control-freak denunciation and a condition of covert separation from her husband played by Ewan McGregor. Then we have Margot Martindale, a battle-axe aunt castigating her feckless son and married for 38 years to Chris Cooper. And last but most, we have Sam Shepard’s wife, Meryl Streep as the Medusa of the family, dedicated to speaking the hideous truth, the whole hideous truth, and nothing but the hideous truth, and suffering from cancer of the mouth and extreme drug addiction, to boot.

To record all this here seeps mockery into one’s tone, since the dishes are piled with more food than one can swallow. The actors sink their jaws into it, though, and shake it all about. It is wonderful to see acting of this high order and imagination.

Indeed I sit back in wonder and amazement at the daring, skill, and inventiveness of the performers. Julia Roberts is filmed in close-ups that leave no leeway to age. And Meryl Streep is extraordinary as the Oklahoma materfamilias out to get every member at her dining table with the meanest mouth in the West. She plays a woman seared by age. She plays not an old woman. Rather, she plays a woman denounced by age, demoted by it, defeated by it, although her dying cries are ear shattering. The beastly mouth of old age indulges itself. The part is about already being old. She laughs it off; she lies. I have never seen Streep explore such a thing before.

The play itself is not about age but about the dubious proposition that if you had a terrible childhood passing it on makes you understandable and, indeed, excusable. You are awarded all this once an author writes you an exposition scene about how nasty your own mother was to you that time. No one breaks the chain, here. There is never a choice-point, every woman spits out the venom, as to the manner born, which they were, and perhaps the playwright does not have in his belief system that people can change. The venom is very well written venom. It is not venom in a Dixie cup. It is venom in a chalice.

The writer is less adept with those less verbally adept, the parts of McGregor’s and Robert’s daughter, and of the third sister and her boyfriend. These three are mute victim bystanders, the collaterally damaged. However, all three parts are weakly conceived and written. Moreover, Benedict Cumberbach misconstrues the boyfriend as somewhat simple-minded, which he is not. In any case, both characters would be better kept off-stage entirely. They would be more potent if they could not or would not appear on it at all. That writing error leads to a bad misplacement of dramatic energy in the Third Act.

But this is a cavil in a piece which we all must see, we who honor and love and enjoy acting for itself alone. On this level, August: Osage County can’t be beat. See it.

 

 

Home At The End Of The World

23 Sep

Home At The End Of The World –– directed by Michael Mayer. Drama. Two male lovers housekeep with a screwy female. 96 minutes Color 2004.

Robin Penn is far too old to play this lady with the rainbow hair. It’s a part for a fat young woman with no confidence in her own sexual attraction. Robin Wright is very handsome and is in her late 30s, and she would not be fooled by this hair for a Manhattan minute. And the actor, in fact, does not relate to the hair at all; she simply wears it with less adventure than she might wear a Halloween wig. It is an earmark of a performance by an actress, usually canny in her craft, usually offering us something novel and brilliant. And yet one feels that she is fully engaged. And so she is. The trouble is that there is nothing very much for her to be fully engaged with. She is a tiger engaging with an antipasto.

The script and the direction are flimsy, the tone of the picture is false, the casting is false, the playing is false. Sissy Spacek’s work is vaporous.

Colin Farrell is off-base and phony as the adult gay lover. He play-acts innocence and dumbness. His eyes wander about like Mayflies, and he affects a little lost smile. It is a strange piece of amateurism, when his own innocence, his own stupidity would have done just fine.

And worse still the director and author seem to think that homosexual relations are devoid of blood-rare lust, that they are something one sips genteelly like lemonade. For none of the players evince anything more than a pastel passion.

This is fraudulent. Aside from there being nothing at stake in it and therefore no drama, it is an attempt to make homosexuality nice – which is stupid – since part of the charm, the power, the influence, and triumph of sex of any kind is victory over the “nice.” “Oh, for a delicious smooch!” as one finds in Almovódar’s Law Of Desire, for instance. “Oh, for a great big juicy steak!”

And to top it off, the film does a toe-dance over the affliction of AIDS. It offers us the Farrell character as too stupid to know his partner has it, when it is obvious that that is exactly what he has.

So, spare yourself the dismay. Do not, whatever you do, take up residence in the Home At The End Of The World.

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Cissy Spacek, ENSEMBLE DRAMA, FAMILY DRAMA, Gay, PERSONAL DRAMA, Robin Wright

 

Downton Abby, Season 3

18 Jul

Downton Abby, season 3 – various directors. Period drama, 8 part TV series. Will the great house fall or will it not fall? Color 2012.

★★★★★

Is it based on George Stevens’ Giant? It is largely the same story: enormous holdings are  invaded by the younger generation with ideas of their own and with tolerances intolerable to the masters of the spreads. Bick Benedict is the American Robert Earl of Grantham, and The Riata the holding comparable to Downton. Outsiders and lower-class folk interlope into the families, and Robert and Bick must learn new ways, or succumb. Members of the families marry outside their station, and always hypogamously. And everywhere the ranching and the farming are impressive.

Anyhow, here we have another topping season of one’s favorite characters, acted by a first class cast. I won’t summarize the story, why should I? Once you start it, two seasons back, you tell it yourself as it goes along. This version does contain the killing of two major actors, but be it far from me to reveal who. (One of them got a job in a Broadway play, and so must die. Serves that actor right.)

The clothes gain in brilliance and beauty and cut and tailoring. The makeup. The direction. The writing.

Oh, wait, the writing. This version includes the presence of Shirley MacLaine, and writing of her part is all wrong. Why is that? Because there is nothing dramatic at stake with the character being brought in. There is no question in the MacLaine character that she will provide the money. She cannot, even if she would.

Vilely costumed and wigged, her entrance is a put-up job. The scenes she plays are also not well written in terms of the other characters. All Americans are thought of as vulgar upstarts by the aristos of Downton, and perhaps by the author Julian Fellowes as well. Indeed she is even given the Jewish name of Levinson, although nothing is made of this. Her daughter, The Countess Cora, beautifully played by Elizabeth McGovern, is the finest lady in the Abby – so how could she have such a woman for a mother?

To play the part, Shirley MacLaine, who actually as a person is vulgar, is hired, I imagine, in order to confirm this view of American vulgarity. And she does. Therefore the play, even on the level of character surprise has nowhere to go when she comes on.

Nor does anything witty or rare arise in the playing of MacLaine with the other characters, such as Mrs Crawly or The Dowager. Their scenes together are not filmed as matches.

Nor indeed can MacLaine actually act them. She has no timing. It is as if she cannot act at all any more; doesn’t even know what acting is. To all reports she is great off-camera, but on camera she is inexplicable and a mess.

But this is a minor error. The rest is tops. Of course, you will see it. It is not a question of volition. It is inevitable as birth. If you were born, then sooner or later Downton Abby lies before you.

 

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.

 

Objective, Burma!

06 May

Objective, Burma! – directed by Raoul Walsh. Action/Adventure World War II Drama. A company of soldiers after completing its demolition mission must walk two hundred miles through the Burmese jungle while tracked by Japanese intent on killing them. 142 minutes Black and White 1945.

★★★★★

Nominated for three Oscars, George Amy for editing, Alvah Bessie for writing, and Franz Waxman for the score, any one of them deserved it, but, apart from Raoul Walsh, the key genius in all this is James Wong Howe who filmed it. One of the great film artists, he brings a raw look to every shot, and every shot tells. Particularly in light of the fact that we always believe we are in a jungle in Burma, when, in fact, it was shot at the arboretum in Los Angeles and at a California ranch. The uniforms and equipment are authentic, not props and costumes, and the combat footage is actual footage from the China-Burma-India Theatre. So we get real parachute jumps and actual glider landing operations of that period, with tanks and trucks and troops pouring out of them in Burma, and takeoffs, too, which Howe’s footage and Amy’s editing match perfectly. Again Errol Flynn is Walsh’s star, and, with all the guns going off, and the peril of the jungle, the sweat, the hunger, the polluted water, he plays the leader of the slogging men quietly, modestly. The subtle shift in his eyes as he sees the dismembered bodies of his men is so great a film moment that we never have to see the bodies at all. Of course, while the other men grow beards during the long arduous trek, Flynn’s jaw remains shaved – but at least it is dirty, sweaty, and drawn. Walsh made many war films, and this is one of the most commanding World War II films by anyone. His supporting cast is admirable, with George Tobias as the company clown, Mark Stevens as the rescue pilot who cannot rescue them, Richard Erdman aged 19 playing a 19 year old, Warner Anderson as the young Colonel who must abandon them to their fate, James Brown as a doughty sergeant, William Prince in his first film, Frank Tang marvelous as the translator, and Henry Hull who speechifies his lines grandiosely, alas. (“All right, boys, no Hamlets in the jungle,” Walsh told them, but Hull didn’t listen. He was always that way, though; after all, he’d acted with Barrymore.) If you like action/adventure films, Walsh was the top director in his day of them. This is one of his best.

 

 

I Remember Mama

13 Jan

I Remember Mama — directed by George Stevens. Comedy/Drama.  The love of a mother for her family forges a life for them in pre-WW I San Francisco. 134 minutes Black and White 1948

* * * * *

Stevens had been a cameraman all during the 20s and his technical grasp of filmmaking is unparalleled by any American director of his time, so just watch how he gives what he gives you – if you can, for his scenic power is so engrossing one cannot detach from the gift itself to pay attention to the wrappings which are an integral part of it. He will make you a voyeur by making you listen through a window. He will make you an eavesdropper by allowing you to hear what two characters standing on a street with their back to you are saying. He will hold you at the distance respect requires as a woman retreats across a barnyard and fades into the unapproachable solitude of widowhood. Or he will bring you so close up into the face of two characters that you are actually a part of the speechless energy between them. He will allow you in. He will keep you at bay. He will let you watch something in the corner. He is always aware of you, always wanting your participation and understanding, but he won’t hammer it home. He will often catch you in with the unexpected. He always has something for you, but he let’s you do your part by yourself. I saw this when it came out and it presents the ideal mother. She is played by an actress I don’t ordinarily like, Irene Dunne, but here I not only admire the actress I admire the character. The film is divided in chapters, each one recounting an episode of heroic devotion to her children. None of them are cloying, although the number of them might be said to be. Dunne’s playing is impeccable, and so is her accent, as are all of the Norwegian accents. She wore padding and no make-up. She was nominated for an Oscar for this. Nicolas Musuraca, famed “master of light,” filmed it. He was nominated for an Oscar for this. Barbara Bel Geddes played the elder daughter and narrator. I identify with this character because were I a female I would be her type, and because, like me, she is a writer. She was nominated for an Oscar for this. When Jessica Tandy turned down the role of the shy aunt, Stevens said, “Let the script girl play her,” so the script girl did, and a long career was born. Ellen Corby was nominated for an Oscar for this. Oskar Homolka had played Uncle Chris on the stage with Mady Christians and Marlon Brando, and when he is on camera Stevens gives him full sway in bringing to life this crusty, rude, frightening character. He was nominated for an Oscar for this. Save for Bel Geddes, the children in the film tend to be little Hollywood child actors, but it would be not before long that Stevens found Brandon de Wilde. Barbara O’Neil, Florence Bates, Edgar Bergen, Rudy Vallee, Cedric Hardwick, Philip Dorn fill out and give depth to the cast.

After The War, Stevens came home shell-shocked and did nothing, but eventually formed a company with Frank Capra and William Wyler. A great post WW II trilogy emerged. Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life is about the home-front. Wyler’s The Best Years Of Our Lives is about home-coming. Stevens’ I Remember Mama is about home, the thing fought for and the values that made the fight prevail, set even before WW I, in the city George Stevens grew up in at the time he grew up in it.

 

Air Force

07 Jan

Air Force — directed by Howard Hawks.  World War II Story. With many adventures, a B-17 heavy bomber makes its way from California starting on 6 December 1941 to Hawaii, on to Wake, on to Manila, on to Australia, with no sleep for the crew. 2 hours and 2 minutes Black and White 1943.

* * * * *

Terrific! One of the earliest and one of the best WWII films, it demonstrates Hawks’ ability to create living scenes among actors. Here they are filmed in very close quarters, but the characters, their relations with one another and their environment in the fuselage of the bomber carry the film. Our overall interest is, will the plane end up safely? In the story there are many characters with personality interest but only one character with dramatic interest, and that is John Garfield, who plays a disaffected gunner. Will he come around is the question. Or will he be killed beforehand. On hand for all of this are a bunch of very good young male actors full of pep and ideas: Gig Young and Arthur Kennedy and Garfield and John Ridgeley and Charles Drake and James Brown. Abetted by a remarkable old hand, the one-time Western star, Harry Carey, as the sarge in charge. He is just grand. As is George Tobias as a comic engineer. The movie would be dreadful in the hands of any other director, and it often was, as imitators of its melting pot WWII War story crowded the screen after it. Part of its satisfaction derives from its being filmed by the great James Wong Howe who performs miracles of presentation. The air fights were not filmed by him or directed by Hawks, but they are superbly exciting and startling, and the destruction of the Japanese fleet heading towards Australia is a masterpiece of content and editing, and rightly won the Oscar that year for it. Hawks and Howe capture the sweaty tight tube of a great bomber, afloat like a submarine in another element into which there is virtually no escape. And it captures how the men of that day got along with one another to achieve a common and very worthwhile purpose for those men, for the fighting forces, for the home front, and for the allies: the defeat of the Axis powers.

 
 
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