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Archive for the ‘FAMILY DRAMA’ Category

The Sense Of An Ending

05 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Sense Of An Ending

28 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

20th Century Women

24 Jan

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

I tend to adore Annette Bening.

 

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

 

Our Little Sister

16 Aug

Our Little Sister ­ directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. Family Drama. 128 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Three young bachelor sisters live alone in the big house of their grandmother, and, when they invite their teenage younger half-sister in, all their lives change.

~

Cartoons, action adventure films, films of violence, fantasy, science fiction, horror, chick flicks, drug films, Nicolas Cage films do not find me populating their crowded audiences.

Because they have no content.

So, it is with glowing relief I watch this story unfold. The three sisters do not carry side arms. They do not engage in midnight abortions. Their sexual arrangements are clear, understood, and peripheral.

What they present is a modern and unusual drama of family life whose content is their home, their city, Kamakura, their past, their prospects. Two of them bicker. One drinks a little and engages with worthless boyfriends. Another is a head hospital nurse moving into care of the aged, and taken for granted by her married boyfriend. The youngster proves to be a super soccer player and hops on bike ride with teammate through a paradise of cherry blossoms. The sisters make wine from a family plum tree. They laugh. They learn. What has become of their mother?

Why these ingredients have content is simple. The content of those listed above is theatrical and virtuosoistic and therefore vacuous. The content of Our Little Sister is human, realistic, and clumsy, therefore dramatic. You can actually be present with it as a fellow human being. Their conflicts are perfectly understandable and sympathetic as Japanese and perfectly understandable and sympathetic as our own.

The film was awarded the Best Japanese Film Of The Year, Best Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Sets, Best Leading Actress, Best Supporting Actresses, Best Newcomer, Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Lighting, Best Cinemaphotography, Best Musical Score.

The cast is incontestable.

The movie is true.

It sticks to your ribs.

Go.

 

Room

07 Nov

Room directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Drama. 117 minutes. Color. 2015

★★★★

The Story: A mother and her young son live in a room; the world is also a room.

~

If you don’t know what this movie is about before you go, well then, neither did I, so I am not going to tell you now. I am going to say: see it.

The first half of the film is an extraordinary piece of movie writing and making and acting, almost entirely confined to scenes between Brie Larson the young mother of a boy Jack just turned 5.

Larson plays her part as a woman with a high morale, which is to say she does two things: she plays against her character’s circumstances, which is essential considering the circumstances, and she plays it dry-eyed. Modern actresses have the tendency to turn themselves into aquariums. This is both unprofessional, inartistic, and counter productive in high dramatic roles — indeed, in any roles.

She is met gesture for gesture by the performance of one Jacob Tremblay as the 5 year-old son. His is one of the most remarkable child performances I have ever seen in my life. The script gives him a big range and he seizes it without compunction. You must see him.

The second half of the film is less well written. It concerns the response of people, even family, who must engage with those who have come from a set of circumstances so odd that no conversational routine will breach them. People don’t know how to behave at these times. It’s understandable. There’s no language for it. But it also presents a problem for the writer, which here has not been met, and certainly not on the level of the first half.

So in part two we get B-Grade TV-writing – a digressive scene, for instance, with the press, and a finale with big fat music tying up the package with a big fat ribbon, and, of course, a dog.

This second half introduces a very interesting character played by William H. Macy, the grandfather of the boy. His prejudice against the boy should be the subject of the second half, instead of which Macy is banished, and we get a cheap and easy recovery, which, considering where we have been, is insulting.

However, the boy’s grandmother is played by Joan Allen, an actress of impeccable discretion and power. Her presence in a picture makes it always worth seeing. Watch her in her early scenes – how dumb the situation would make any human being. Not noble: dumb. A wise choice for an actress, because true.

Taking into account what I have said, consider it recommended highly. Go.

 

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

 

Love Is Strange

31 Aug

Love Is Strange – directed by Ira Sachs. Drama. 2014 Color 94 minutes.

★★★

The story: Two men married to one another fall on hard times.

~

The problem is the writing and the problem is that the director also co-wrote it and like most directors has no gift as screenwriter.

Every scene is a genre scene. The scene at the dinner table with the abusive indifferent father. The advice scene between the teenage boy and the uncle. The street kiss at the end. Everything is picturesque, like a greeting card. Every scene is television bread pudding. I sit there longing for the scenes to be about something. Instead we get so called conversation, into the lengthy interstices of which the actors have to force emotion. This they do by grimacing, by pausing even more, and hoping, I suppose, someone will call cut. But nothing is going on. Nothing is at stake. We have lots of story, with no drama.

Inside this painfully inadequate mise en scene of chat, we have, on the other hand, the relationship of two gentlemen in high middle age during and after their nuptials. These two are all there is to see. This is the only matter of value before us. Everyone else is either indifferent to them, rude to them, or annoyed by them. But we are given nothing large enough to seize our interest, save our watching these two play together, sleep together, kiss, hug, snuggle, and laugh together. And that is just great because they are played by two experienced and well-loved hands indeed: Alfred Molina and John Lithgow. Boy, do they smooch good. It’s a relief to see this up on the screen.

To aid them is the impeccable Marisa Tomei, who never makes a false move. She must be a very well prepared actor, for one has the sense that everything she does is right, natural, and on target. There is never a sense of the random in her work. Though highly responsive, she comes on knowing what she must do, and she does it. Her face is in her favor, a great gift for an actor. Her scene trying to write is thrilling.

At the end is a scene in profile of a child crying. The scene is shot in a stairwell and goes on and on and on. And it’s wonderful that it does. And it’s also wonderful that it is taken in profile and that we do not see the young actor’s face. We just let him cry. It is wordless. This is followed by a skateboard scene that also goes on and on and on. It, like the crying scene, is wordless, and gives a suggestion that the director is not quite without talent for motion pictures. But he must stick to his last. He must do, but never speak.

For there is a difference between high drama and slice-of-life, which this mistitled movie purports to be. See Chekov: in slice-of-life the characters’ very souls are at stake. It is not just some conversations. The dripping preludes of Chopin dominate the sound track. But Chopin’s preludes are salon music; they contain, with the ferocity of a bottle of wine, tremendous sensation. Salon music, but whole lives are at stake. A salon film must do likewise.

 
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Posted in Alfred Molina, FAMILY DRAMA, Gay, Includes Some Gay Characters, John Lithgow, Marisa Tomei

 

Boyhood

28 Jul

Boyhood – directed and written by Richard Linklater. Drama. 165 minutes Color 2014

★★

The Story: A six year-old boy grows over the years to become eighteen.

~

Atrocious.

I covered my face with shame watching it. It is devoid of originality and it is very, very, very badly written. The Emperor has lots of clothes and they are all chic cliché.

It is the same old problem of a writer imagining he can direct – or it may be the other way around. The two talents rarely go together. Some try it. Only Woody Allen succeeds. Here they are so many miles apart I cannot make out that they exist in Richard Linklater at all.

What we have here is a marvelous idea, which is to chose a six year old boy, and make a movie about his doings over the years as he grows, until he is eighteen.

That this is not done as a sort of home-movie is fine. But what the director shows instead has nothing to do with anything that he has not learned from cheap TV dramas. Andy Hardy Has A Pillow Fight With His Sister. Andy Hardy Looks At Playboy With His Friends In A Back Alley. Andy Hardy Goes To College.

There is nothing original or particular in it. There is no eccentricity in it. There is nothing that does not record the customary, the rule, the expected. There is nothing that exists outside of the acceptable. Every scene is a slogan. Every line a dread banality. And there is nothing personal to the young man in it whatsoever.

I was ashamed to have to sit there pulling the wool off my eyes. People applauded at the end and laughed on cue all through. Big Brother was impersonating Boyhood.

Ellar Coltrane, who plays the young male, is just fine. He is introverted and beautiful, both of which draw one to him. His sister Samantha is played by Lorelei Linklater, and she is the opposite of introverted, and she is just fine too. There is nothing to forgive them for. Nor is there in the case of Patricia Arquette as their mother. Everything she does is simple, clear, believable, and true. She’s a fine actress. My hat’s off to her.

As to the three men who play her husbands, their performances are so bad I will not defame myself by describing them. Let us just say they are over-detailed without being particular. Which means they are hammy. Bill Wise, though, as the Uncle has a marvelous moment at the end. And the end is long in coming. For we have traversed A Currier And Ives Calendar Of Typical Boyhood Moments, climaxed by a scene in which we are treated to the father urinating on a campfire. He instructs his teen-age son to follow suit. This act of ecological mercy is followed by the boy’s eye view of his pissing. It’s yellow, yep. Yet a boy’s eye view would have shown his penis. But no. It’s Andy Hardy, the difference being that no one thought Andy Hardy was real, only that Mickey Rooney was. Like everything else about this film it was impersonal, hollow, and unnecessary.

The film is a gimmick without content. The three leads deserve something better. The subject of boyhood deserves something better. I deserve something better. And so do you.

 
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Posted in Ethan Hawke, FAMILY DRAMA, Patricia Arquette

 

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.

 

My Mother’s Smile

25 Jun

My Mother’s Smile –– directed by Marco Bellocchio. Drama A renown painter faces the prospect of his dead mother being made a saint by the Vatican. 105 minutes Color 2002.

★★★★★

This remarkable drama perhaps depends upon its performance by any one of the principal actors, but the entire film really seems to gather its value together under the dark black hair of the beautiful child who is the six year old son of the main character. He is the one worth saving from the grotesque farrago of sanctification. But each character is played without remorse.

The aunt of the father desires the sanctification to gain social status, and her arguments are convincing. So are those of the pious cardinal in charge of the process and two of the painter’s three brothers. So really are the plans of the reprobate miraculously cured by her.

The question raised is how are we to be loved for what we are. And how are we to know that unless we stand our ground, right or wrong. So the artist is challenged and humiliated by a haughty nobleman who at the point of death reduces him in his manhood and humanity. And he is also offered the fair distraction of a beautiful young woman of mysterious provenance. Whose side, if any side, is she on?

But it is the third brother whose seal of approval is besought with insane resolve by all but the artist. For this third brother is insane and has also killed the mother.

This is a fascinating and usual picture, highly watchable and highly engrossing. And a great demonstration of the power of film to deal with immense moral issues without ever having to preach to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Come Knocking

16 Apr

Don’t Come Knocking directed by Wim Wenders. Drama. A has-been Western film star flees the set and finds his way back to the families he disregarded 20 years before. 122 minutes Color 2006.
★★★
The poster shows Sam Shepherd perched on the hood of a 50s sedan, his chin in his hand, his hat on, his head down, his face invisible, contemplating his boots. This invisibility of the main actor is typical of the picture, the actor, and so is the way it is shot, largely on bare empty streets of Butte, Montana. No cars, no people, no content. Content Invisible.

Wenders has striven for an Edward Hopper look. But that is a look of blank tedium. And it is also a look which works in paintings because paintings do not move and the look of blank tedium is found only on the faces of humans who do not move. Movies move. So here the trick falls out of the rubric of film-making and into one of the pretenses which govern this picture.

One of the pretenses is that this hollowness holds Some Meaning. But the piece is written by Sam Shepard and as such falls apart before our hopeful eyes, just as all his other pieces do. For there is something empty in Sam Shepard and it is not the emptiness of The Divine. It is the emptiness of a criminal. The crime of art from the non-artist.

In this case, for instance, the confrontation scenes between Jessica Lange and the actor who plays her son, and between the son and Shepard,are not just overwritten but lies. For Shepard does his usual trick of busting up the joint as a display of anger. Smashing a ton of beer bottles at the end of a porch, wrecking your mother’s kitchen – here throwing all the furnishings out of a second story window is simply conventional Shepard shtick. And the convention does not hold because the issues is not rage, but fear.

Anger is easy to act and dramatize. But fear? This we never get to here. We never get to it in the character Shepard has written for himself, or in himself as an actor. I used to think that Shepard was a better actor than a playwright, and that he could carry a film, but I believe I am wrong.

His concerns are ones he wishes to nurse, not to solve. Certainly Butte is interesting to see. George Kennedy is brief fun as a floored director. Tim Roth is effective as the Javert character. And Sarah Polley is right on the money as a newly minted orphan. However, Jessica Lange mugs through her role, as usual, making much of her mouth, perhaps to draw fire from her eyes, which are not good actor’s eyes.

Besides all this bushwah, all the women in this piece are angels, and all the men are devils, and that does not add up to a drama. The rest of it does not add up to one either, and one is left at the finale duped once again by the sexiness, routine taciturnity, good looks, and self-involvement with which the public has masterminded Sam Shepard’s reputation into being. The films leaves you flat.

Flat.

 

Kagemusha — The Shadow Warrior

16 Mar

Kagemusha – directed by Akira Kurosawa. 16th Century Japanese Warlords find themselves deceived by the greatest of them being replaced by a hobo impostor. 180 minutes Color 1980.

★★★★★

Of course it could be said that it is too long, for the same reason that any film is too long, because the last part of it is full of detail which by now we, as the audience, telling the tale as we go, alongside Kurosawa, take as understood.

And, it could be said that the film was never meant to be viewed on a home screen but on a huge wide movie theatre screen, where I first saw it. What this means is that the power of the great troop and battle scenes is lost because they were designed as spectacle.

Of course that is not to say that the rest of the film is not spectacle. For it is. The interiors are all staged as spectacle, even when there is only one person present, even those scenes close-to, although Kirosawa here is not involved in close-ups, but in groups, or in a single player playing out his role full body. The staging of every scene is highly theatrical, perfectly organized, with nothing left to chance for our mistrust to fix upon.

And then there is the playing, which is Japanese in its style, not Noh, of which we are given a stunning sample, but cinema-Noh, which means a minimum of movement combined with the greatest intensity of content. The Noh actor, virtually static on stage, uses his voice for this; his craft is the craft of intonation. But in a movie, the actors must do most of it with their bodies and in such a way as that each movement will tell the tale required to be told, and no more. Unlike stage Noh, where the words themselves have a studied constant operatic force, in the film the actor speaks more physically than verbally. So, the movie is told as a feat of physical narration. An actor executes the necessary telling movement and immediately shuts down, and the story is told.

This is good for a fairy tale, which is what this is.

Once upon a time, there was a family, a great warrior grandfather and his devoted twin brother, the two sons of the warrior, and his four year old grandson. The most feared warrior in all Japan is this warrior, and his purpose is to protect his clan.

He is ruthless and valuable, and to protect his own life, his twin brother has played his double. However, the brother finds this role vexatious to his spirit and one day shows his brother a bum who looks like them both. An impostor is needed to give the head-brother the mysterious power of ubiquity, but this man is a wandering thief, a low-life, a vulgar ne’er do well. The two brothers train this thief to become the second impostor, a shadow warrior, which is what the title means. Or does it?

Does it not perhaps mean, when he dies, the warrior whom the peasant impersonates? Is he not the ghost warrior? Is not the person imitated the ghost?

As I sit here writing this, I do not know whether all three parts are played by the same actor. It would seem impossible, since the cantankerous and flaky thief and the warrior are so different in temperament, for the warrior brother is a mountain of immovable resolve, cunning, and wisdom. Nonetheless, this what the thief eventually becomes. How is it possible?

Everyone who reads this blog regularly knows that sometimes I like the history of movies and actors, but that I am not interested in theoretical or hypothetical or philosophical or sociological matters as regards movies and the entertainment of acting. But if I were, I might say that this film would be Kurosawa’s tribute, on the grandest possible scale, to the genius of acting and its craft.

For here we have an histrionic and cinematic masterwork about creating an histrionic and cinematic masterwork. It is the backstage story of all time.

Everything about the movie is stupendous. The costumes are stupendous, the battle arrays are stupendous, the volume of extras is stupendous. This is in order to stupefy us. And if we are in our right minds, we will be so, for the long, tense layout of each scene is of a pace important to impress. We must be silent, we must be respectful, we must bow down before this narrative style or the story will not register in us. We must wait out the tension in the room. That is our job. That is our story-telling. Around a campfire, the counselor begins a ghost story. We  allow ourselves to be riveted. There is no human alternative.

What is the moral of this story?

The moral arises in us as we watch, for it is the same that arises in the bum learning to becoming a shadow warrior – devotion to the master’s mastery, one-and-the-same thing, the master and the mastery – devotion to the warrior-master, which the shadow-warrior learns, and by an inevitable osmosis becomes; devotion to the mastery of the master, and devotion to being told the telling itself. All: one and the same thing.

One-and-the-same thing.

One-and-the-same thing.

 

The Impossible

01 Feb

The Impossible – directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Manhunt Survival Drama. A family vacationing in Thailand is washed away by the 2004 tidal wave that devastates the country and separates them cruelly. 117 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★
Melodrama means a form of drama with a strong musical accompaniment. We think of the form nowadays as a parody of drama, old fashioned, and ridiculous. We also think of it as a form of drama designed so that music could be written to it. The closest link in literary forms to melodrama is the form called satire. This linkage is what makes Dickens so rich a concoction.

Here, however, the music supplants the drama. We are awash in the drama. But then the drama is washed away by the music. The musical score demolishes all dramatic involvement in the proceedings whenever it is heard.

And it is not necessary.

The story before us here is simple in its construction and execution and strong. The largest water tank in the world was build in India to film the scenes of flood. And we certainly believe the catastrophic situation that befalls Naomi Watts and her eldest son young Tom Holland as they are carried miles into the hinterland, helplessly tossed against the debris which surrounds and endangers them. Watts is badly damaged, her son less so, but he is only a boy.

Her other two sons are rescued by their father, played by Ewan McGregor. He then combs the chaos of the country for his wife and son, after the flood recedes.

This is the story. It is the story of a manhunt. We know they will be reunited, because publicity for the film and its coming attractions have spoiled that part of the story for us, or, lured us to the promise of sentimental reunities.

But the directorial execution of the details of their finding one another is so exquisite, so correct, so thorough, so illuminating, so real, so encompassing, and so interesting that the entire story could be told without a single violin.

I can only recommend the film if you wear earplugs. The score is asking you to empathize with the music rather than the situation. This is why melodrama is ridiculous and outmoded. Its tendency is to turn catastrophe into corn.

Aside from that, the film is honorable on all counts and worth your attendance, indeed.

 

Silver Linings Playbook

01 Feb

Silver Linings Playbook – directed by David O. Russell. Family Drama. A Bipolar nut strives to reunite with his two-timing wife, and on the way meets up with a young promiscuous widow. 122 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
The preposterous notion that Love Conquers All is the Hollywood byword that rules this story, and we root for it as soon as ever we can, don’t we, well-trained poodles that we are!

The trouble is that the hero is an insane person, and it is never possible to link oneself to such a character, for two reasons: they are hopeless and they are annoying.

However, sanity sets in when another insane person crosses his path and they join forces on a project of physical dance, which grounds them and frees them.

Behind all this lurks the equally crazy figure of his father played in his usual way by Robert De Niro who is a bookie and a Philadelphia Eagles nut, glued to the superstition that his coo-coo son is his rabbit’s foot. De Niro provides a much needed comic leavening, and his wife, played superbly by Jacki Weaver provides the foundation in real emotion and common sense to the proceedings.

The two crazies are played superbly by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, but, of course, we cannot really take them seriously as humans until the dance practice begins and their self-centered ranting ceases.

However, while the film is beautifully directed and written up to that point, it collapses in both departments from that point on, and we are asked to appoint our credulity to the task of swallowing all sorts of unnecessary improbabilities in their romantic squabbles. It can’t be done. We choke.

What does work is the lengthly scene in which De Niro and his gambling partner work up a parley on the outcome of the Eagle’s game and the dance competition. This is highly suspenseful, beautifully performed, and fun. And besides we want Love To Conquer All, so we set aside our disbelief and our sense of the certainty that when love fades in color, madness will return fuelled further by the red truth that Love Betrays All.

But at least it’s given the opportunity to conquer. In Hollywood, Love is Rocky Balboa racing up a monumental flight of Philadelphia stairs. What is found at the top is The Hall Of Justice. Which we have no idea is standing there in wait for us.

 

Two Lovers

18 Jan

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Heigh Ho!
~ ~ ~
Two Lovers – directed by James Gray. Drama. A bourgeois man is drawn between two women, one of whom everyone wants him to marry and the other of whom no one wants him to marry. He wants to marry both. 110 minutes Color 2008.
★★★★★
The emergence of a true ingénue is rare in film.

What is the quality that defines an ingénue?

In a young woman, it is the quality of innocence which is a two-edged sword whose gleam charms the right people and protects her against the wrong ones. The protection side is never visible, but its existence dictates the story of any drama a true ingénue appears in. But few of them ever do appear. In film, in my lifetime, only two true ingénues: Audrey Hepburn and Gwyneth Paltrow.

But what happens to an ingénue when she is thirty or forty? With Audrey Hepburn nothing happens, for she continues, even in dramatic parts, to play the ingénue until she retires. But the ingénue is well beloved from the first, and the affection she inspires influences the box office to repeat her in the same role over and over again, such that she can hardly learn to play anything new or other. Audrey Hepburn was smart; she knew the limits of her talent, and she knew her fate, and she left off.

Ingénues are not physically small: Hepburn and Paltrow are rather tall: both of them are also fashion plates. While I don’t know that that defines the type, their slenderness gives them apparent vulnerability, so it must be seductive for them to adhere to their type. However, with Gwyneth Paltrow, this is not the case, for we do not live in an age of sophisticated comedy, and she is inherently far more talented than Audrey Hepburn never mistook herself to be. To work, Paltrow has played mothers. Paltrow has played a drug-addicted country singer. Leading lady to Iron Man. And you believe each one of them. I may have missed some of her films, but I didn’t mean to. She is unique in films for the same rare reason Audrey Hepburn was: she authentically sympathizes.

And so surely one must watch her play this part of what would in anyone else’s hands play out merely as a spoiled meth-head rich girl strung out on a married older man. Joaquin Phoenix tumbles for her big time. And who would not? Watch how she cares for him as she says no.

Phoenix is an actor mysteriously underrated by critics, who do not see his ruthless art for what it is, an almost pathological refusal to entertain. It’s perverse and noble. In this case, he is fat. His face is swollen with early middle age. He plays an overgrown failure, established as a loser from the start, due to inherit the dull fate of a dry-cleaning business, a man whose physical beauty, which in Joaquin’s Phoenix’s case is considerable, is as completely gone as though it never existed. He has nothing to fall back on but love, and he is not loved, at least not by men. His mother, played with exquisite proportion by Isabella Rossellini, loves him, and his fiancé, well played by Vinessa Shaw, loves him as a rescue project. And Paltrow loves him, but not that way.

His story, the picture’s story, is a fascinating account of a man incapable of a move which is not suicidal.

 

The Diary Of Anne Frank

28 Nov

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

★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Color Of Paradise

30 Oct

The Color Of Paradise – written and directed by Majid Majidi. Drama. A blind boy is abused by his father who is ashamed of him. 90 minutes Color 1999.
★★★★★
This is a wonderful picture, difficult for me at first, which is the customary strategy of this director, and then eventually and wholly to be surrendered to. Both the freakishness of the boy’s blindness and the dire hatred of him by the father are so off-putting that I knew I must stick with it for the good that might be arrived at — and it sure did come. I cannot imagine where the green countryside exists once this film leaves Tehran. I cannot imagine how they found that boy. I cannot imagine how they found an actor great enough to play that father so thoroughgoingingly. It is beyond my comprehension that this film, in its extraordinary extremes, came to exist at all. The whole thing is a mystery to me, and one that I am grateful for. Of course, watching it, don’t expect a walk in the park. But do expect that your capacity for compassion will be engaged to a fullness wider than wide. Expect a spaciousness in yourself to appear to hold this remarkable simple tale in your being.

 

The Oranges

11 Oct

The Oranges – directed by Julian Farino. TV Drama. Two close families fall apart when the daughter of one seduces the father of the other. 90 minutes Color 2012.
★★
Yes, but where is the fun in it? It’s a sex farce played serious, “for real,” at the pitch of a dirge, Bugs Bunny in a hearse. The great ones, Allison Janney and Oliver Platt, look as if they are about to jump out of their britches at any moment with the humor of the situation, but they are never allowed to reveal that humor in any way, since the rest are playing it on the level of TV soap, that is to say, for a small screen whose emotional responses, on the huge Big Screen, are facial and patented. Moues to mark an emotion, but which look gauche, mechanical, copied, and huge. The two principles need to be played by Steve Martin and any one of Goldie Hawn’s daughters. By which I mean actors with a point of view. Catherine Keener is woefully miscast, and, in any case is not an actor with the sort of comic mania for retribution that would permit her to drive her car killing dead all the Christmas lawn decorations of her husband’s home. Oh, to have seen Bette Midler play that scene: the relish in her wicked eye! There is moreover no connection between any of the members of the two households, either in writing or acting. You never believe they are related or married to one another, and I sat through the whole film not being able to sort out or remember who was the child of whom and the husband and wife of whom, and there are only seven principles in the cast. The premise is that the families have become constricted, lifeless, and routine. But routine marriages do not stay together with flimsy glue. They may not be lively, they may not be sexual, but they are held together by important natural habits of financial custodianship, regulation of meals, and tact. But not here. Platt is a collector of idiotic gadgets; Janney never listens to him and pesters her daughter. Only their negative routines are shown, never the routines that ground their lives as two families bound together and as individuals bound to one another. So in condemning the routine, the film becomes routine. But the problem with the film is not just this, or that its actors do TV acting (I exclude Janney and Platt from this denomination), but that the director and writers seem not to have seen the material for the sex farce it is. A wonderful title for a farce: The Oranges. And, instead, alas, all one can do is throw a little fruit at it.

 

Giant

24 Sep

Giant –­ produced and directed by George Stevens. An upper class girl from Maryland moves to her Texas husband’s huge ranch and confronts his way of thinking. 3 hours and 21 minutes Color 1956.
★★★★
Two elements destroy the picture. The first is that Rock Hudson as Jordan Benedict is miscast. He has no heterosexual energy coming off of him and the role needs it. Internally Hudson is limp, both in his craft and as a male temperament. Although externally he has presence and looks, if you like them, and he is well directed scene by scene, which carries him through the picture, and although he does as good a job as he can, there is nothing sexual coming off of him towards Elizabeth Taylor who plays his mate, and insofar as the picture is the story of this relationship, the picture fails. Hudson in real life had a sense of humor but as an actor, seems to have none, which is why Tony Randall was brought into his comedies. This means that he is never able to see his character as funny, peculiar, ridiculous, to be taken with a grain of salt at certain times, the sort of humorous self-knowledge that Cagney brought to a character. Hudson’s Benedict has no point-of-view, only a bias. All this means that the part remains a role and never becomes a character. And it also means that the relationship must be created by Taylor alone, who, of course, has considerable humor, a mischief, a sense of fun, a knowing flirtatiousness, a firmness of mind and principle, generosity, will, kindness, grace, a confident bad temper, and tact. Although the most beautiful woman in the world, as she does in other films, she also goes after her man and lands him. She loves animals and feels strongly for the underdog. She has both the allure of sexual gusto and motherliness to offer. She has all this naturally, which is to say she has everything to make her part work, and she is simply perfectly endowed for the role. And she has one other gift, for she is that rare thing, a true Romantic Actress. (Think of young Vivien Leigh as another.) She is so good in the part, she forces you simply by loyalty to her vantage point on him to believe in the marriage itself. But in fact because of Hudson it is hollow. And, at any rate, it is not her story that is being told, but his. He is one whose challenge it is to change both in his marriage and in his life. Much as we admire the Taylor character throughout, our focus must be on that. The change involves Hudson’s character eventually coming to accept three stranger Mexican-Americans as human beings. Until that becomes evident, we are treated to what may be the best performance Elizabeth Taylor ever gave on film – by which I mean the performance most ideally, fully, and completely suited to her instrument as a mature actress – just watch her carefully in the doorway scene at the marriage of her sister. Of course, the difficulty with watching Elizabeth Taylor as an actress is that her beauty is a spotlight so blinding that it hypnotizes us out of realizing what a marvelous actress she is. In both halves of the movie, it is clear at every moment that the picture is unthinkable without her. For if you think of Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly who were both considered ahead of her for the role, you can see that they could never have played the second half of the film, because they would not know how to allow Leslie be older. Maturity was never their line. It is also easy to overlook Elizabeth Taylor’s talent because she is physically so composed. She is not an eccentric actress, she is a concentric one, so much so that when she gestures she appears to gesticulate. In her stillness of composure and her certainty of her effects, it is also easy to overlook her talent when placed against actors trained by the Method into physical volatility, such as Carroll Baker and James Dean, who are always moving, stewing, twitching, fingering a prop. In this way Taylor herself is marginalized. They are wonderful actors. Baker, who was older than Taylor who played her mother, is unerring as a defiant, saucy teen-ager. But in the second half, one senses one is being presented with the structure of a false front and that we have gone around the back of the facade of Riata itself and are looking at the bare framework of a put-up-job. The script becomes too spare and obvious, defying Stevens’ renown for letting the audience rise to the occasion and do its own work. Mercedes McCambridge with her voice like an automobile accident plays Hudson’s jealous sister, and dies early, but generally everyone but Hudson is marginalized. All the Mexican-Americans are wallpapered. Other actors emerge from adjoining rooms, say a few lines, and return. Chill Wills is missing a scene between himself and Jane Withers, who creates a wonderful arc from a shy plump girl with a crush on Hudson to a loud Texan matron taking over a ballroom by shaking her white fox fur stole. She is also never given a scene. The wife of Dennis Hopper is sadly miscast and sets one’s teeth on edge by being allowed to play a Goodness Madonna, and Sal Mineo appears without our opportunity to understand him as a character at all, and the same is certainly true of Alexander Scourby who plays his Mexican-American grandfather. All these remain unexamined, unexamined not in terms of exposition (which they do not need) but in dramatic scenes sufficient to give them and the story life. Yes, in the second half, it becomes grievously apparent that there is a problem with the script, when even the character of Jett Rink is marginalized, given insufficient screen time. In the first half, Jett Rink, played to a fair-thee-well by James Dean, gives you a picture of the character work he might have done had he lived. For he ruthlessly creates a piece of prison-trash – mean-spirited, resentful, disloyal, cowardly, vicious, and whining. But Dean’s performance, in the second half of the film, as he knew, does not stand up. A bum in vicuna, a dull, sly, nasty drunk, consumed with self-pity in a ceaseless tirade against those who have more than he has and whom he claims have wronged him and wrested him of his rights, he is just the same as he was when he was 20. So he is also best in his pre-intermission scenes, particularly because the make-up is bad after that, when the three stars simply add radiator paint to their hair to be fifty. Actually as the younger Jett, he seems older than the older one, but what Dean needed was not to repeat his physicalization of the younger Jett, which he does, but to give the character polish, take away the slouch, the slyness, the shy little boy, the weasel. After all, we know this is a man bent on self-improvement, on losing his Texas accent, on night-school. Dean needed to give Tycoon Rink a suavity with no loopholes but one, his continued envy of the Benedict family. Anyhow, Dean didn’t think of it and maybe couldn’t have played it if he had thought of it. So his babyish playing of the scene between him and Carroll Baker doesn’t quite come alive on his part, for he plays it as a toddler tugging a female’s skirts to be cute. So, as with the others, the Dean character is set aside as well. For after the intermission, the film’s aesthetic collapses into polemic. This means that each character now Stands For Something, that Something being A Predictable Outcome. The dialogue exchanges become formulaic to that end. They lack personal flavor, and the comedy with which the second half begins doesn’t play, well directed filmicly as it is, because, although Taylor can remain in the moment with these scenes and make her character fully funny, Hudson does not have the talent to give the character the intelligence that would have made him attractive to us or the humor that would have made him see Jordan Benedict as maybe dumb or even silly in such scenes. Nothing really works richly, even though pretty much everything is convincingly played. The idea that Jordan Junior, played by Dennis Hopper, would have sought out Jett Rink in the middle of a banquet to sock him in the kisser for a racial insult to his wife is preposterous. He wouldn’t have done it there. He wouldn’t have done it at all, because he had never met Jett Rink and would have known him only in terms of his father’s prejudice against him. He also would have known not to let his wife go to the hotel beauty parlor to begin with, since by this time, he and she would have expected this prejudice to exist in public places in Texas. This leads to a fistfight in a wine cellar between Rink, who is flaccidly drunk, and Hudson, who is too flaccid inside himself to hit Rink, who in any case is too small for his weight class. The whole thing ends up with a theatrical gesticulation of some wine shelves being knocked over. Fistfights and failed comedy and polemic is the deterioration of the second half of Giant. Everything is sidelined for a preachment. And, yet, for a three-and-a-half hour film to come out at the end to be a polemic against prejudice is meritorious and had a great effect at the time, for sure. That it should be a prejudice against Mexican-Americans gave it, at the time, a force greater because more general than a specific prejudice against Jews or Negros. But I don’t think it is honest. For what Stevens felt in Dachau in 1945 when he saw and filmed the corpses was not “prejudice.” What he felt was horror. But the horror of prejudice we are never given in Giant. We see only a man, Benedict, being prejudiced. We never see prejudice from the vantage point of those who are victims of it. We never see inside a single Mexican-American. We never see the bodies pile up in their souls as they are dismissed and marginalized. For, of course, Stevens himself has marginalized them in his film. Even the fight in the café is not about the three old helpless Mexican people. It is only and always about Benedict, and even Taylor’s coda about him being her hero, and that it being all he ever really wanted to be, has nothing to do with prejudice. Taylor is so marvelous doing the scene that you cannot but go for it, but the final image of the black calf and the white sheep and the dark toddler and the gringo toddler in the floor crib is so crude as to be self-cancelling. Yes, you believe Taylor’s maturity in marriage, and her evenhandedness. It’s in the tone of her voice because it’s in her nature. But in Giant we are told to concern ourselves not where tolerance is, but where it is not, and its theme peters out in the over-broad gesture of it script, becomes lost in spaciousness, breadth of land, spectacle of vulgar riches, and the length of the film itself. Apart from Carroll Baker, no one but Taylor seems absolutely right for their roles – and the film is not about her. She is essentially a leading woman here, in a Myrna Loy part. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score lumbers along as the film lumbers along. William Mellor filmed it beautifully. But it is as empty as the ‘50s. It seems that Stevens has abandoned depth of character and dramatic situation for vastness of morality play on the one hand and for the minutiae of preparation before and the minutiae of editing afterwards on the other. There is not enough filling in the sandwich. It is as though actors and drama were now mere tools of his vision. But actors are not tools. Indeed, they are not even movie stars, even when they are Elizabeth Taylor. No. Inside a movie they are characters, or they’d better be and they’d better be kept so. The film was enormously popular, the top grossing film in the history of Warner Brothers. The public loved it and still does. The ‘50s were a spendthrift age, an age of tasteless excess. Giant is the fins on its Cadillac. But Stevens did direct it. So it also is a Cadillac.

 

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner

30 Aug

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – directed and produced by Stanley Kramer. Drama. An upper-crust couple must make an emergency decision about their only daughter’s decision to marry a negro. 108 minutes Color 1967.

★★★★

Ten years go by between their last film together, Desk Set, and this. Desk Set was clearly Hepburn’s film, and this one is clearly Spencer Tracy’s, as Father Of The Bride. It is the last film of nine they made together and the last film Tracy ever made. As material it thrust forward Kramer’s penchant for social reformation. He had big stars for such films, and this film was an enormous success, and won an Oscar for Katharine Hepburn, which, as she admits in A Tribute To Spencer Tracy, she did not deserve, saying it was really being given to both of them, and she was right on both counts. This is not one of her best performances, and it easy to see why: she tears-up at every turn. Now what’s wrong with that? After all, Hepburn is a very technical actress; she can produce tears at will; George Stevens tells how when he was making Alice Adams with her, needed at a certain word, she could produce a tear out of her left eye, and when the scene had to be reshot, she did the same thing at the exact same word out of the same eye. Nothing wrong with it. But one of the things that makes Hepburn terrific to watch, so lively and so interesting, is that she is so interested. And what makes her interested is how she listens. And, if you watch how she listens, you can see that she listens, not with her ears but with her eyes. Her ability to do this gives her characters intelligence, humor, engagement, and depth. But when she tears up, she is not listening to anyone; she is self-involved; her acting become general; it often looks like self-pity; she is doing the audience’s job for her. When Hepburn tears-up she loses her listening eye. She’s not the only one; three of the four women in the picture weep readily; it’s quite tiresome, when the emotion called for lies in a range of quiet anger. However, when Beah Richard’s has her scene with Tracy, she nails it; it’s a well written and well-placed scene, but she makes it count, tearing-up, yes, but playing it quietly. If it was for a single scene Hepburn won the Oscar, it would have been for the firing of a bigoted employee. Watch how she does it; she throws away two lines in the speech – “Start your motor” and “although I don’t” – and, because she does, they become the most potent lines in one of the greatest played scenes in all her films. Another great moment is Hepburn’s complete shock and disapproval on first hearing her daughter is marrying a negro. Hepburn, a notably fair-minded spirit must have what is not a noble response, but she does not balk; she gives it full value. I saw the film when it came out and was baffled by it, because it seemed to me like tokenism. Although there were well-written and well-played scenes, it seemed it was covering bases merely. Cecil Kellaway brings a portion of pure joy to the problem, but it seemed like a parlor movie, a TV movie, not a big screen big public movie. This may be because the fiancée of Sidney Poitier is weightless. It’s a Desdemona role, a young Katharine Hepburn role, a part that requires inner boldness and strong character, neither of which the actor possesses. There is no sense she would make Poitier a good wife, and there is no sexual energy between them to validate the decision to hurriedly marry. Taking that on faith, however, the film still does not satisfy the demand to entertain. Prejudice, Tracy’s, is never examined as such, but only as an argument to justify his care for his daughter. So the opportunity for a tragic examination of the actual inner mechanism of prejudice itself is skimmed over. Instead, the film wags its finger. It still holds up, though. Why? Because we still need to see that finger to wag. Make no mistake: Bigotry lies still as a tiger, still in the undergrowth, waiting.

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: HOLLYWOOD CRISP, Cecil Kellaway, FAMILY DRAMA, Katherine Dunham, Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy

 

The Beasts Of The Southern Wild

24 Aug

The Beasts Of The Southern Wild – directed by Benh Zeitlin. Drama. 93 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

The Story: A little girl and her father struggle for survival in a poor deadend village in the bayou.

~

Quvenzhané Wallis is the 8 year old girl who plays the princess to the angry old king, played by Dwight Henry. In real life, he is the former owner of a bakery and she is a former seven year-old, neither of them having made a picture before. They are quite wonderful, and the adventures and occurrences of this film are wonderful too.

It takes place in a bayou which seems almost out in the ocean, and occupied by hard-drinking mostly merry fisherfolk who dine off the sea and live in shacks. The little girl has been abandoned by her mother, and her father disappears inexplicably from time to time. There is something wrong with him, almost a madness, and in fact, what we are actually seeing is King Lear, and one of the great versions of it to boot.

The people of the town of Bathtub know one another and care for one another, and those who survive the great hurricane pitch-in and make a life for themselves. They live in shanties, patched together and they are educated by one another in the ways of the whole world, though they never leave this one hamlet.

The little girl has visions of the melting of the ice caps, and the release of primordial aurochs which are church-sized horned pigs. Both are out to get her.

Her father is hard on her and her search for feminine nurture leads her and her kiddie cronies on a remarkable adventure across the waters. The story is plain as a fairy tale and as potent. It is perfectly told and edited. It is the picture of the year. You mustn’t miss it. You have never seen anything like it before, and you will understand it perfectly.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Directed by Benh Zeitlin, Dwight Henry, FAMILY DRAMA, Quvenzhané Wallis

 

Before And After

06 Jul

Before And After – directed by Barbet Schroeder. Drama. What happens to the parents when their young son is accused of murdering his girl friend. 108 minutes Color 1996.

★★

This is the worst film script I have encountered for major actors to perform. What makes it so? There is in it not a single character with personal eccentricity of any kind, with the exception of Alfred Molina as the lawyer eating a subway sandwich at the first interview. Otherwise, nothing anyone says would anyone say under the circumstances. What they say they would say only under the circumstances of a TV show. “I must save my son!” is not what a man in the situation would utter, unless he had watched this film. But that is what poor Liam Neeson is given to say, over and over, and it doesn’t wash. Neeson is an actor of perhaps not much intelligence. He is usually given the role of an honest lug, a role that might also promise the intelligence of luggness if the actor’s instrument had it to offer. With this piece missing, we never care about Neeson’s character, and his being married to Meryl Streep is, of course, inconceivable. His character is simply a violent dope from beginning to end; whatever soft sentiments he has to show they are still violent, crude without being primordial. But actors have a hard job; they have to act; it’s their breath as well as their bread; at times they perform material for the sociological virtue it seems to have; or not infrequently they have to just take what’s available. The fault lies not with Neeson, but with the script, which, if I may lavish it with praise, is false, cheap, and manipulative. Then too, the boy is miscast. He may be a good actor, but the trick of adopting inertia as a histrionic mode is mistaken, and the young man looks 106 not 16. I am surprised that Meryl Streep, a fairly shrewd judge of material, could not see what is being fobbed off here. In creating character, style is everything, and style always consists in the extraneous, and that comes from the writing. If there is not that, the actor has nothing to work with. Streep is not a personality actress like Katharine Hepburn. Without a strongly marked personal character of her own or one to play she is curds and whey. There is no fault in that; it’s just the instrument she has. But give her a role with some spice, and her gift awakens.Otherwise, as here, she has challenges it is not, by its nature, meant to rise to.

 

 

Lars And The Real Girl

01 Jul

Lars And The Real Girl – directed by Craig Gillespie. Drama. A young man falls for a life-size doll. 106 minutes Color 2007

★★

This piece lacks in pictorial force. The director substitutes histrionic force for it. That is to say we need to see what the actors’ physical bodies are doing, not what their faces are doing, and the reason for that is the female manekin is introduced into their midst as a a living physical being, which brings their body-confidence under attack.  The result is that that, with the exception of Patricia Clarkson, everyone in this piece over-acts, that is to say acts irrelevantly. And this is not a function of the fact that everyone in town comes to accept the doll as an actual personage and behaves well towards her, for the townsfolk themselves do not over-act. But the actors who play the brother, his wife, and the wanna-be girlfriend do. This is not a result of the discomfort natural to the insertion of a manikin as a family fiancée, but simply a permitted miscalculation on the part of the director and of each actor, each of whom over-acts in a different way, the result being that by doing so each one of them distracts from the story, which is being told in a straightforward way as though a manikin as a family member were not unusual at all. What is an actor do with this situation? I’ll tell you what he must do: nothing at all. Don’t act anything. Just stand there and take it in and say your lines. By just saying your lines, you may discover that they do not amount to much in such a situation – and that would have enormous physical carrying power for the story before us, not one single element of which depends upon those characters. They must not “fail to understand him;” they must not “leap over into understanding” him. That is not their job, and the director must not let them take such liberties as to “act” — except this director does not know this. This leaves us with Ryan Gosling, a modest talent, to be sure, but one in this case sufficient to misconstrue the part slightly. Lars relates to the doll lovingly and as a boyfriend would. He is not delusional, and he must not be played that way, so the slight shift Gosling gives in this direction is a misstep, since it is a preset opinion which he walks on with and with which he is stuck throughout the characterization as a formula. He does not play “I am delusional,” mind you, but he does play “naiveté”, a sort of monotonous innocence, to which he adds a small flinch, as though Lars were just slightly brain damaged. Nothing of that sort will work in such a part. The part needs to be played as though there is nothing wrong with this person whatever, and as though he was just an ordinary guy and perfectly normal in buying a life-size doll, falling in love with it, talking to it, and pushing it around town in a wheelchair. But that is not what happens. Or rather, it happens only when Patrician Clarkson is on screen, for that is how she relates to Lars and the doll. And only when she is on screen and when we are watching her and listening to her does Lars become human at all. I feel the piece is rather a missed opportunity. It would be a good idea to remake it one day, with different actors, this time with Gosling in the Clarkson role. For me, my attention was being drawn away to the doll, who seemed more life-like than the humans around her, as though any moment she would breathe, rise from the wheelchair, and kiss him. The potential for life seemed so strong in her, but, alas, in her alone.

 
 

Mikey and Nicky

21 Jun

Mikey And Nicky — directed by Elaine May. Gangster Drama. Two friends from childhood, one to kill the other, amble through the dark streets of a big city. 119 minutes Color 1976.

★★★

That neurotic brat Elaine May indulges herself and her actors in a denuding in which nobody really takes off his clothes. The work by the two principal actors is clearly improvisational, which means that the actors are called upon to actually “write” the script by improvising it. A questionable process, no? The question being, are the two actors good playwrights? Another question being, do the improvisations improve the truth of their performances? Another question being, does the spontaneity of improvisation actually bring depth and key to narrative? In the case of John Cassavetes, a cold actor, the answer is no. For the performance. while showy, never delves beneath the sexy conman with which Cassavetes smirks his way through it. For all his variations on the theme the result is monotony. He makes the character always self-involved and always lying. He is an actor without emotion, and he takes no risks. And what this results in is that there is no moment when what lies inside this liar conman defense and opposite to it has a chance to come to light and importantly tempt his survival. The character never becomes exposed. A sexy conman is the opposite of a sacrificial lamb, but Cassavetes either cannot imagine becoming that or cannot do it, did not have it in him as an actor, and as Elaine May, who is an amateur, is not a real writer either, she simply indulges herself in her entrancement by what is after all no more than the fun of an acting class exercise in Meisner technique. Indeed the brutal and great acting teacher himself is present in the film as the capo financing the hit, and is quite good, without bringing any particular quirk of imagination to the role. Meisner technique is available only in lower class drama, such as this. (Sanford Meisner hated Shakespeare.) But “lower class” does not guarantee drama, and  there is no real drama here, for the Cassavetes character never gets forced to know and so never gets to the point of revealing the truth to his protagonist, played beautifully by Peter Falk, so Falk is never faced with the temptation to spare him. This is the essential drama — will these old best friends spare one another? — and it is missing. The drama is not whether Falk will kill Cassavetes; yes, he will, as far as this film goes; but the drama should be whether he will spare him; this is never available. May supposes that acting exercises write plays. They don’t. Falk, however, is another matter. I acted with Falk in Saint Joan and The Changeling — he was in his early days, his early thirties, but everyone said he was on his way, and he was. He has much more available to him than Cassavetes does. A warm actor indeed, of great natural appeal and no shtick, he plays the co-dependent to Cassavetes dry-drunk. Alas, his exposition scene comes in the last scene of the play and with the wrong character, whereas it should take place with Cassavetes after all those beers. And the revelation scene when Cassavetes learns that Falk is out to kill him comes too early, and is discarded as a subtext. Cassavetes has a brilliant moment with it. And there are brilliant moments throughout the picture. Cassavetes is not a likable actor, just a Mediterranean mug. Falk, on the other hand, is very likeable, and if you’d like to see him in the biggest film role he ever had, take a look. Expect to be fascinated but not be satisfied.

 

The Color Of Paradise

01 May

The Color Of Paradise — directed by  Majid Majidi. Drama. A father despises his son for being blind. 90 minutes Color 2000.

★★★★★

This is a wonderful picture, difficult for me at first, which is the customary strategy of this director, and then wholly to be surrendered to. Both the freakishness of the boy’s blindness and the dire hatred of him by the father are so off-putting that I knew I must stick with it for the good that might be arrived at — and it sure did come. I cannot imagine where this film was shot once it leaves Tehran. I cannot imagine how they found that boy. I cannot imagine how they found an actor great enough to play that father so thoroughgoingly. It is beyond my comprehension that this film, in its extremes, came to exist at all. The whole thing is a mystery to me, and one that I am grateful for. Of course, watching it, don’t expect a walk in the park. But do expect that your capacity for compassion will be engaged wider even than the director’s, a spaciousness in your being you’ll welcome. Miss it and you miss something of yourself.

 

Alice Adams

31 Mar

Alice Adams — directed by George Stevens. Family Drama. A young woman’s mother strives to upgrade her daughter’s social status. 99 minutes Black and White 1935.

★★★★★

Katherine Hepburn was 27 when she made this, and she went on starring in movies until she was 87, and you can understand why. She is an actress without repose. Even when acting repose she is actively doing it. Mind you, she has a very good script here and a first-class director, George Stevens, whose breakthrough film this was. Hepburn had played a series of high-strung, mettlesome, sophisticated girls, but here she plays an ordinary small town girl who wants to better herself. Alice Adams is a girl who loves her crude working class father, but takes after her mother who strives. She puts on airs, tells lies, and hides things to conceal her drab family background. The only result is that she is snubbed and picked on by the town’s worthies; she is not invited to other girls’ soigné parties, and wears handmade organdy when she is, and is a wallflower there. Why should we care about this pushy phony? It’s because in our lives when we were young we all wanted to be someone else, someone better, someone more popular. And because Alice is also kind and tactful, and, when home, direct and earnest, and because Hepburn herself is those things. So, well though we might wonder how tall, dark, handsome, Fred MacMurray, broad of shoulder, with wads of money, magnificent in tails, can stand this pushy dame with her coyness and strained lyricism and little half-laugh, it is because we see through her to Hepburn’s quality and harpsichord sensitivity to the truth about love. Booth Tarkington wrote the novel, and it’s a good one. The director and actress fought for the novel’s ending in which Alice has to go out and drudge as a secretary, but the studio forced this one on them, so it ends with a lecture. Except for Fred Stone as the father who sustains a whine of self-pity that is pitiless, the film is well cast and acted, especially with Ann Shoemaker as the mother, and Frank Albertson as the crude and rightly annoyed brother. Miss Hattie McDaniels is excruciatingly funny as a hired maid at a family dinner meant to impress McMurray, and she is but one example of Stevens’ quiet comic sense which infiltrates and supports many scenes: the look on the face of humanity is what Stevens is a master director of: a waiter asked to play a love song for the fifth time running.  As well as a sense of American mise-en-scene: you really feel you are walking down a small town street and not a back lot. As well as a stunning grasp of lighting, set to fit a mood: Alice coming back into the unlit shabby foyer from that wretched ball. As well as a revulsion to reaction shots in lieu of duets and closeups which enter the spirits of those explored: Hepburn and MacMurray’s kiss. How can Stevens like Hepburn so? For the same reason we do. Hepburn can create all that is false , affected, and pretentious about Alice, but she can also reveal how her feelings are hurt by the failure of her own folly, and how she is touchingly trapped in a cycle of groundless hope. Stevens’ strongest suit as a director was, better than any other director of his time, the creation of Americana: longing set against its conflicting background. The places we see are the places we knew. And the things hoped for are the hopes we hoped. This will eventually reach its fruition in his masterwork, A Place In The Sun. But here, for the first time, a master gathers his powers together.

 

 

We Need To Talk About Kevin

04 Mar

We Need To Talk About Kevin — directed by Lynne Ramsay. Drama. A mother rears a bad seed child. 112 minutes Color 2012.

Portentously simple, this film purports to have us believe that the mother does not learn that her child needs a good spanking. What we get instead is floating curtains, and opaque cuts, and dialogue overlaps, and tell-tale country songs. The story is told as though the director had not heard that motion pictures had even been invented, for the entire piece is told in terms of almost immobile stills. So the film is pictorial but lacks motion. It moves from one stalled stall to the next. The three actors who play the youth are good, but their scenes never convince because the main actor Tilda Swinton is miscast as a pliant, supine, co-dependent, doormat before this child’s depredations. Swinton is an actor of genius but only in the right role, and walking around with a blank stare and her mouth hanging open does not work, or rather the distance it takes us is not very far. Swinton is a being of more mettle than this, which means by definition she cannot play this drab. The question is then both that we lose patience with the fact that she does not lose patience, and we lose patience with the story itself. One cannot get either to the bottom of her character or to that of her son. One cannot even try. John C. Reilly is grand as the jolly husband, a part whose jingle bell shakes one note, though Reilly, as usual, makes it seem if not more at least other. The director appears to have come down with a terrible case of Ingmar Bergman. And there is nothing to do for the entire project but recommend a long bed rest and full quarantine.

 

 

Frozen RIver

03 Mar

Frozen River — directed by Courtney Hunt. Family Drama. A single mother is caught short of her house payment in the dead of winter and takes wild measures to make her nut. 97 Minutes Color 2008.

★★★★★

Frozen River — directed by Courtney Hunt. Family Drama. A single mother is caught short of her house payment in the dead of winter and takes wild measures to make her nut. 97 Minutes Color 2008.
★★★★★
I don’t know if you know how difficult acting is. I don’t even know if I know, and I’ve done a lot of it. Anyhow, it’s even more difficult than teaching. You won’t be able to find out here, because to watch Melissa Leo carry out this role is to never be given a moment’s error in which to step aside and judge.

What’s good about the performance I can only list in general and negative terms. She never resorts to tears. She never asks for sympathy or pity. She never is nice when she must be rude or nasty. She never begs for our approval of the character or our understanding. She never hedges the stupidity of the character. She never tongues-in-cheek the moral or ethical standards of the character. She never makes her brighter than she is. She never softens the character, or makes her harder than she is. She never soft-pedals the bigotry of the character. She never hides a face so beat-up that it has lost all its allure but for her power-red hair.

But now I have got to shut up. Because I have to invite you towards what she does do, and I don’t know how to do it. She plays a woman whose gambling husband has run off with the house payment. Chance throws her in with a half-blind Mohawk Indian girl who hustles her into a dangerous smuggling scheme. But I have to shut up again, for I never tell the story of films, but only what the actors seem to be up to, and with this piece there are no exceptions to the excellence of all involved.

Charlie McDermott plays the teen-age older brother who drives his mother nuts, and is just right, and Misty Upham plays the Indian girl, with astonishing and necessary confidence.

Upstate New York is one of the most beautiful places in America, but in winter it is also one of the most difficult, and the story-teller-director does not lighten its load on his characters or on us. Without spilling the plot, at the end, just watch the tone of justification Melissa Leo achieves when she takes the money. She makes it sound so logical. She makes it sound so right. That note of prevarication is one any one of us would have, and have, struck at such a time. How does an actor do that, how does an actor find within herself the truth of the lies we tell and dare to admit that it is in her, right there, huge on the screen?

The picture is a gem, story, script, direction, all. It’s a story about human beer, with everything that might mean to you.

 

Rabbit Hole

25 Feb

Rabbit Hole — directed by John Cameron Mitchell – melodrama: a couple’s career through grief for a dead child.  91 minutes color 2010.

★★★

Rabbit Hole plays like A Guidebook For Grief Therapy, and as such, as a series of “customary” moves, the screenplay is paltry. It plays like a statistic. No actor, no matter how demonically inspired, can lift the lid off of such routine writing. In the big confrontation scene: neither actor can break free of the banality of the lines; they both hit a very low concrete ceiling, and are fantastically monotonous. Naturally, there are side compensations when you have actors of this genius and experience before your eyes. Nicole Kidman plays the whole first part of the story with something going on with her lower lip. What she is holding in is a mortal bitterness. She is always watchable; one is always drawn to her. But Aaron Eckhart, bears o relation to her, for once again he is miscast in a leading man role. Like Leonardo de Caprio he is not a leading man. He is a character lead, which is quite different. He is brilliant in such roles, but a leading man requires a different inner life and a different inborn gift. Richard Widmark began in films the same way Eckhart has – playing maniacs, one after another, brilliantly, and then insisting on being cast as a leading man, or, at least, let us say, a man faithful to his suburban wife. Eckhart should probably do Shakespeare for the next ten years, for, as a leading man, he does not stick to the ribs. Dianne Wiest is riveting as the lower class mother of Kidman; she can give weight to the most prosaic script and does so here. And then we have the great Sandra Oh! Aha! She plays a woman in a Grief Workshop, and her scenes with Eckhart are simply killing. I have never seen an actress of such registration. Her long oval Japanese face is like an ancient and immovable drawing which come to life in the subtlest of ripples. Her scene with Eckhart smoking dope in a parked car is smashing. Give this woman an Oscar for goodness sake. Talent of this order belongs on a postage stamp. And in front of you in a movie theatre. The film is drab, and does not accord with its director’s imaginative temperament.  So go, for the female performances. If I have splattered the screen for its cheap and easy script, and for the routinization of the loss of a child, well, that is a well-deserved public dishonor. It has not shed its disgrace on those performing it.

 

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.

 

Duel In The Sun

17 Sep

Duel In The Sun. Directed by King Vidor and William Dieterle. A half-breed girl is taken into a King Ranch type family in Texas and drives the boys wild. 2 hours 28 minutes Color 1946.

* * * *

It isn’t beautiful but it is gorgeous. Never have you seen Technicolor used so lavishly, or actors throw themselves, not exactly into their roles but all around their roles. You would think Gregory Peck would be miscast as a sexy male, and he is, but he’s surprisingly good as a prick. And Pearl Chavez, played by producer David O. Selznick’s wife, Jennifer Jones, you would think would be written shrewder, but she’s not, she’s just dopey. She throws herself around like a bag of onions and never really proves to the watching world why she was so sexy that Selznick ran off with her into the chaparral. So we take the lickerousness for granted, although she does convincingly writhe on the floor in an agony of sexual conflict. Lionel Barrymore consumes scenery by the platter, and he’s really wonderful as the grandee rancher because the character is so rude, but Lillian Gish as his wife is unable to overcome the character’s failure to get Pearl out of those slouching blouses and into a proper dress, which would have ended the picture right there. I saw it when it came out. I thought it was going to be a dirty movie, but it was just silly. Of course it’s greatly silly. And not sexy, because Lewt is mean, which Peck does well, and Pearl is stupid, which Jones probably was. The film is supposed to vindicate the itch between them, and so achieve a Phaedra-like stature, but its lust falls in the dust flat. Joseph Cotton’s easy-come-easy-go style as the good brother provides no sexual competition for Peck’s bad brother. Charles Bickford is touching as one of Pearl’s swains. Walter Huston makes hay of the fire and brimstone preacher (Huston is sexy, though old, because sexuality seethes through him; Peck isn’t because it doesn’t.). And Herbert Marshall is lovely as Pearl’s doomed father. The film is written like a Perils Of Pauline serial, in chapters and chunks, none which liaison into each other. It proceeds with a very badly written scene of misidentification, which is beautifully directed and shot, and so it goes, with one badly written scene after another beautifully presented. Selznick was so intrusive, reshooting everything, such that the film cost a lot more than his Gone With The Wind (Butterfly McQueen has a much larger part here); Selznick even has his name as the sole screen credit. So King Vidor quit when it was three quarters done, and the film was finished by commonplace director William Dieterle. But never have you seen such sunsets, as though the sun were having the duel with itself. King Vidor’s strong sense of things puts it on all four burners and a pot bellied stove besides. Why are you holding back? You must see it. It is the greatest bad movie ever made.

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In A Better World

14 Sep

In A Better World — directed by Susanne Bier. Family drama. Treating bullies is the theme, and two eleven year old boys take matters into their hands, as does the father of one of them, a doctor in Africa. 118 minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

One thing I love about doing this job is discovering the number of wonderful actors there are in the world. Of course, “a wonderful actor” also means the actor is also cast in the right role. Mikael Persbrandt is particularly interesting in the part of the Doctors Without Borders surgeon working in desert desolate Africa sewing up the stomachs of pregnant women a local warlord has been cutting up on a bet as to the gender of the child within. Back home in Denmark his estranged wife lives with his 11-year-old son as he enters a new school and makes friends with a brilliant, hate-ridden boy. The two boys enter into a fearful partnership in fearsome locales, for both boys are bullied badly. One of them is capable of murder, and he is right. The bully in Africa and the bully at home, and the bully in the acts designed to wreck the bully – these are themes which fascinate. But the film lets us in to the inner and secret workings of all these males, and each one of them is perfectly cast. Without William Johnk Juels Nielsen as Chris, the hater, the film is unthinkable. He’s an actor who sticks to his guns playing a character who will not give up. You want to kill him yourself. Markus Rygaard as Elias, his dupe, you want to shake into consciousness, but the young actor makes the character’s acts perfectly understandable. Trine Dyrholm as his mother won many acting awards in this role. But Mikael Persbrandt is the moral pivot of the film. He chooses his moment and it’s not the moment you thought it would be. His face is a field of subtle and selective response. He is always surprising; he is always right. And he suits the director’s bent to a T, for the taste for the director lies towards emotion, but emotion refrained, except when it is revealed as a defect of character. Then it is given full vent. In A Better World is a beautifully written and filmed and won many awards, including the US and Italian Golden Globe Awards and the Oscar of 2011 as the Best Foreign Film of the year. See it.

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Moonlight Mile

25 Aug

Moonlight Mile – Written and Directed by Brad Silberling. Family Drama. Truth emerges following the death of a daughter who is also a fiancée. 146 minutes Color 2002.

* * * *

Jake Gyllenhaal is wet behind the ears when he stars in this film, but, still and all, he really does know how to play his cards. Until he does, you watch the hieroglyphic of his face, his curious mouth, his deep blue eyes, and his hunched walk for a sign of life, and you find immovable mystery. But he is still one of the few actors, all this being so, in whom I can actually place myself (and I resemble him in no particular). He makes the idiotic mistake of combing his hair over his brow in order to make himself look a teenager, and only succeeds in making himself look eleven – which is odd, since the character he is playing is 22 and Gyllenhall at the time was also 22. If you care about her, and I do, Susan Sarandon is sometimes a wonderful character actor, and this is one of those times. She also has a wonderful character to play, a feisty lady with a mind of her own and a wise eye on the conduct of others. The detriment to the film, here as so often elsewhere, is Dustin Hoffmann who is mechanical and actory, and none of whose good ideas are good enough to be natural. He is supposed to be an irritating character; he is just an actor whose acting is irritating; it’s not the same thing. When he drops it, he breathes a life that he has not earned. What less can I say? Let me say it. He is an actor of repellent technique. The film brings forth to blot him out the great Holly Hunter as the D.A. and an actor called Ellen Pompeo, a personality of the kind of female forwardness that once was found in the likes of young Lauren Bacall or Veronica Lake. She’s unusually likeable and mysterious. Sarandon, Hoffman and Gyllenhaal are Jewish. The Sarandon and Hoffman characters give their daughter a Jewish funeral. But nothing is done with this, nothing is realized about it artistically. Odd. Still, much of the excellence and recommendability of this film is the work of the writer director, who does miscalculate the writing of the exposition regarding Pompeo’s working double shifts to keep open a bar, but whose character dialogue has lots of vitality and ambiance. It’s very well directed, beautifully filmed, and the setting is sensationally right. Give it a shot. You will not be wasting your time.

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Adam Had Four Sons

31 Jul

Adam Had Four Sons – Directed by Gregory Ratoff. A governess raises four motherless sons happily until one of them marries a minx. 81 minutes Black and White 1941.

* * *

Fay Wray, who plays the mother who dies, said of Bergman, “Her heart was so in the film.  She treated the film as though it were the most important one ever done. I knew this was a girl who had to be an actress or her heart would surely break. She wasn’t working for the money, for fame, for success, even for fun, but because she had to be an actress.” And this Bergman said of herself, and it is certainly to her credit. But it is odd to contemplate how often she was seen as the same sort of actress, that of a stalwart milkmaid who is much put-upon. In role after role this is the character she plays. Ratoff directed her first American film; this is her second; the pattern is in place. And I wonder why? Why did people see only that in her? The role is not an inheritance of the females in film before that, for from Mary Pickford on most major female stars were powerhouses. Bergman, however, is always servile. Her endurance is there to carry her through many reels of her being abused. And her radiant smile is there to attest to her beauty. But just as she is almost always photographed three-quarters from the left, we only see her as hard-done-to, always only Joan of Arc. Here she is quite good in a film that is not. Two sets of four young males clutter up the screen with false exuberance and Warren William presents a stolid bourgeois father for romance. Bergman’s heartfelt relations with the boys is lovely to behold, but the story crumbles through too many of the same ingredients, the last being the introduction of Susan Hayward as a slatternly wife of one of them. She’s full of herself and very good. So is Bergman. You’ve got to hand it to her.  You may lament her casting, but her heart is in it.

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The Tree Of Life

11 Jun

The Tree Of Life – Directed and written by Terrence Malick. Family Drama. The death of a younger brother triggers a growth many years later between the older older brother’s spiritual life and his experience of their father. 2 hours and 18 minutes. Color. 2011.

* * * * *

One goes to the movies of Terrence Malick as one goes to the dentist, not because one wants to but because one has to. And there one sits back and endures the same monotonous drill. Fortunately Terrence Malick makes one film every ten years, so one’s visits are not frequent. One must at the start make such a facetious crack, because Malick is devoid of a sense of humor. But that does not mean he is devoid of a sense of humans. For that is what is interesting about him. Here his color scheme is glacial, It is as if he wanted to keep us at a distance from the material and the people and what they endure: you may look but do not touch or be touched by it. I think that’s rather an easy out. For he has the actors sufficient to the substance rather than the scheme of drama. The story is essentially about three boys, 9, 11, and 12 I should say, and Malick captures their ways and means fully, and I believe his treatment is made from fear of making them piteous. He certainly does not need to do it to achieve memory, for his period is the later 40s and early 50s, and that is registered fully and accurately. Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are master actors, and one goes to see how they will operate in this milieu, and they do just fine. Brad Pitt as the father has sold out and failed in the bargain he struck, giving up music for security as an engineer; then looking for a better bargain still, he works on inventions, also a failure. And, fifty years later, Sean Penn, as his architect oldest son, has also sold out. His home is as barren as the skyscrapers he constructs, so that his one-night-stand has to bring in a dead branch from the garden to give some natural life to it. Pitt’s relations especially to his elder son, who will grow up to be Sean Penn, are of ministerial authoritarianism as though in displacement of his own self castigation. He is devoid of play; even when he plays the piano he does not play, and the music associated with his burdensome personality is well upholstered classical. But he also physically loves his sons, and presents a parent who is both not the doormat-mother and is male. The movie ends with the vision of a bridge between natural life and grace. I have to say this out loud because it registers in the film as a bafflement. But if it had registered in the film it would have been as a feeble vulgarity. So – why does one go? One goes because Malik is a serious artist of film. Paul Thomas Anderson is another. There are precious few. One goes simply to be in the company of such temperaments.

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Saturn In Opposition

07 May

Saturn in Opposition – directed by Ferzan Ozpetek. Drama. A family of family and friends entangles and disentangles like roots in the earth. 110 minutes Color 2007.

* * * * *

I should think that anyone whose prejudices have ever posed themselves against homosexuality would want to see this film.  For if a prejudice ever existed internally in one, it will always remain lodged there like a boulder under water. It’s just natural. Changes of attitude and behavior are to be lauded, and they are vital to the ethos of culture and democracy and civil society, and no law is moral which upholds bigotry. But this film places the matter right in the lap of the viewer, and it is a tonic. As I watched I stepped back at one point and asked myself the question: Why is this a good movie, and I could not answer it, although the evidence was before my eyes. It’s beautifully directed by the same director who brought us the well-known His Secret Life.  It brings us Pierfrancesco Favino (“brother” to Javier Barden) and Margharita Buy, but the cast is an ensemble, as is the customary case with this director’s pieces. I recommending this film without telling you a thing about it, except that everything about it is excellent. There is nothing else I can do, and you will know why that is as you watch it.

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Winter Solstice

18 Apr

Winter Solstice — Directed and Written by Josh Sternfeld. Domestic Drama. A father and his two teenage sons struggle to hold things together. 89 minutes Color 2004

**

Why do screenwriters steal from screenwriters? The tradition goes so far back it should by now agree to fall into the dark of prehistory. For the result is that screen scripts play like screen scripts and not like any recognizable form of real speech and action, and worse: play without any responsibility to entertain. In real life, humans have more zest, more character, more wit, than what is borrowed from screen scripts. No one in this movie talks like any human really talks, or responds as people really respond. In fact, they don’t even breathe like anyone really breathes. If the pauses had been deleted the picture would have been quicker than a cartoon. Films, drama depend upon having interesting people in them to say interesting things; it’s a must, and no actor in this picture, in and of himself (unless you’re someone on the order of Spenser Tracy, Edward G. Robinson) has sufficient natural interest with which to fill those Mojave pauses. Competent acting is not enough. Allison Janney alone brings her richness of humor before us for our blessed relief. If you watch her negotiate this paltry script, you can see how her natural gift supplants every platitude  and every longueur with life. As to the rest, it is tv acting at its most deplorable. The screenwriter’s choices are viciously dull. When the boys are not insolent they are sappy. When the father is not dreary, he is weak. If people were really like this, one would certainly not want to make a film about them, would one; indeed, were life like this, one would not even wish to be alive.

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