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Archive for the ‘HISTORICAL DRAMA’ Category

Son Of Saul

10 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

05 Jul

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

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

So much for his skill.

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

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

Two world-famous rock stars play the main characters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Belle

18 May

Belle – directed by Amma Asante. Costume Drama. 109 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: A mulatto girl becomes the heiress of a great 18th Century British fortune and goes into politics.

~

“What a great big lovely movie!” I said to myself when it was done, and so it is. Produced in the best Masterpiece Theatre manner, with grand costumes in immense mansions and slightly postured dialogue delivered in the style of low emotional tremolo when feeling is required, it delivers full value as a costume drama.

A costume drama is a drama with no drama, only certain posits foregone. Will the mulatto daughter heiress marry right and well? Will her adopted father who is Chief Justice of The Realm come out on the proper side in the case of the drowned slaves? Will society ever accept her, illegitimate and chocolate as she is? Of course, of course, of course is the answer to these questions even as they are posed. And why?

Because no one is deeply engaged in any personal drama at all. People weep and shout, but so what? Is there ever a matter, inside any main character, which is virtually undecidable? Is there a character defect in any one of them (as there is, say, in Emma), that is tragic or virtually tragic? Is there a situation that goes deeper than a code or a social necessity or a decorum? Not really.

As it stands it might be but isn’t Tom Wilkinson’s story. For he, as the Chief Justice, is the one who may or may not set the entire world on a different course on the matter of slavery. But he is not given the scenes that would cut inside him as to how this momentous case reflects out from his relations with the black niece he has harbored. Certainly she is played well by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as is his wife played our belovèd Emily Watson, and his sister, Aunt Mary, played by the redoubtable Penelope Wilton.

But the forces of Costume Drama are arrayed against any such drama. And the story is handed over to the black girl, who actually is given nothing in the writing inside herself to play against. For the expectation is that, though an heiress, she can never marry, but must, like her Aunt Mary, become the spinster chatelaine of a vast estate. Oh horrors! Why is a woman’s fortune so meagerly thus! But, really, what we need to see is the real attractions there might be in becoming just like her aunt. Instead she is presented as the perfect heroine, fetching, pretty, bright, courageous, and startlingly adept at Scarlatti. And, of course, offered the handsomest man in the picture as a beau. He is very good. His name is Sam Reid.

Still, it is a wonderful picture of its kind – like Spielberg’s Lincoln – an overview of a single historical event – involving slavery — although less of a character study. You will not be wasting your time to see it; not at all; you will be informed and heartened. And finally know that slavery is wrong? No, that something worse is wrong: blind-heartedness. Blind-heartedness is wrong.

 

The Monuments Men

09 Feb

The Monuments Men – directed by George Clooney. War Drama. 118 minutes Color 2014.

★★★

The Story: A WW II mission to save works of art destined for destruction should the Nazis loose.

~ ~ ~

If ever a movie sank more solemnly under the freight of its miscasting, I have yet to see it. Art museum directors, curators, scholars, educators, archivists — George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Bill Murray, thou never wert.

If John Goodman was not obviously such a good actor, he might be convincing as a sculptor.  And if Jean Dujardin were not so helplessly charming one might root for his loss from a profession we never grasp. This leaves Bob Balaban, who might pass for an academic in the world of world art, Hugh Bonneville as a former drunk, Dimitri Leonidas as the German-speaking Brooklyn Jew, and Cate Blanchett who is thoroughly convincing as the Jeu de Paume curator who kept a record of the stolen pieces.

All the others, wonderful actors though they are, exercise their noble craft as best they may, imagining that the good will which backs our affection and admiration for each and every one of them will supply the deficiency of their being in the wrong parts entirely.

George Clooney is the main culprit. For he is producer, writer, actor, and director. It is as a writer he is first to be stripped of his medal. For he has given the men the most routine of male chat to move things forward. Silent strength – you know the sort of thing – stalwartness in red, white and blue. I once worked in the high-testosterone History Of Art Department of Yale in the early ‘50s, and the chat was not that.

As director he lets his actors go where they will, as they will, each of them basically falling back on their star masculinity to perform their roles for them. As an actor, Clooney reverts to his casual, laid back, insouciant manner, and lets tacit charm muscle a job which has no place in it. Damon falls back on his Everyman quality, Murray on his piquant personality; both are irrelevant.

As producer, the picture cost 70 million – although how so blandly round a figure is come at one wonders – and it made what is essentially a small movie about a large subject, into a large movie about a subject which is invisible.

For Clooney sermonizes that these works of art must be saved from destruction and returned to their owners because they are the golden fruit of Western civilization. Everything we are fighting for! A great “accomplishment” which must not be lost. What vulgarity! What nonsense!

The only reason these works of art should be saved from theft and destruction, much less returned to their owners, is their priceless and inherent beauty. All these rescuers were chosen for their dedication to beauty. But “beauty” is a word never uttered by Clooney nor by anyone else. It is as though the word “beauty” were unmanly. The entire adventure operates under the cow pad of this omission.

 

 

 

Suez

04 Jun

Suez –– directed by Allan Dwan. Historical Epic. Ferdinand de Lesseps struggles to build the Suez Canal. 104 minutes Black and White 1938.

★★★★

He struggles to dig, he has a setback, a woman encourages him, he struggles to dig, he has a set back, a woman encourages him, he struggles to dig, he has a setback, a woman discourages him. The monotony of the story is supposedly counterbalanced by the beauty of the stars and the production values. And the costumes. Except that the film is over-costumed, so you cannot believe for a minute that anyone ever wore any of those clothes to anyplace but on the way to a movie set. Loretta Young is so dressed, she not only looks like the bride on the wedding cake, she looks like the cake itself.

How did people ever go the bathroom in those clothes?

Well, that’s not the sort of question you were supposed to ask of such films. In those days, you were supposed to be humbly and unquestionably grateful for and trusting of the validity of the “history lesson”. Right now all one can say is that Mister de Lesseps was somehow involved in the excavation. The digging itself was easy, since the isthmus in ancient days was navigable. It was the sand of preparation that had to be continually cleared away, and that is what makes up the story here. But we are given two wonderful big-time special effects, a fatal sandstorm and an avalanche set off by those Islamic terrorists again. They still don’t know when to stop. The director Allan Dwan sure keeps things chugging along, though.

A big and experienced supporting cast cannot breathe life into the dialogue which is as stilted as the men’s high collars, although Nigel Bruce, as usual, somehow manages it. The cast is headed up by Our Lady Of The Holy Wood, Loretta Young, and by Tyrone Power. They made delightful comedies together earlier on the 30s and were a popular duo.

Tyrone Power was a man so beautiful you become rapt to see what his face will do next. Since he is an actor of natural discretion, what you see is always authentic, although how he achieves it, given the lines, is impossible to guess, except that his modesty never rises to the level of the vulgarity of them. With Tyrone Power, what you see is what is made gettable by the fact that behind that face lies the quality that made him a great star, his kindness, sense of fun, his gentlemanliness. He’s not vain and he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was inhumanly beautiful but not inhumanely beautiful.

The third star is Annabella, who was soon enough to become Tyrone Power’s first wife. While a good deal older than Power, she is perfectly convincing as a hoydenish teenager. She is French, which makes her seem odd and out-of-place, since, while everyone else at court is French, she is the only one in the cast who actually is so. She is a gifted and very fine screen actor and is wonderful to watch, although might prove irritating to watch much longer.

Anyhow, this is a typical historical Hollywood contraption of the period. It is a showcase. It was a crowd pleaser. And Power and Young when young still are enjoyable to behold.

 

 

 

 

Lust, Caution

28 May

Lust, Caution – directed by Ang Lee. Spy Drama. In the Japanese occupation of Japan a group of students become resistance workers determined to assassinate a high ranking collaborator. 157 minutes Color 2007.
★★★★★
After making Brokeback Mountain, the angel director Ang Lee returned to China to film this account of the late 30s occupation of Hong Kong and Shanghai. He avows it was to honor the history of the period, which was his parents’ time, and which would he feared be lost if some record of it was not made. But the movie is far more than ancestor worship.

As with all his films (The Life of Pi, et al.), it is an exposure of human nature under huge pressure, danger, and duress. I am loath to recount even the beginning of this story, because each episode is precious and unusual.

Rather let me speak for a minute about the cast, which, along with Joan Chen, boasts the highest ranking Chinese actors of our day.

Wang Leehom, the international Asian singer superstar, plays the young leader of the troupe. A beautiful young man, he captures the intensity of the boy, including his fatal lack of humor linked to a sexual restraint such as to make of them a plot device in and of themselves.

The great Chinese superstar Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays the collaborationist magistrate who is the target of the troupe. You would suppose you would respond to him as a villain. But the intensity, pain, love, perspicacity, fear, cruelty, and desire he evinces forbids any such condemnation as the full human being arises before our eyes.

The power and delicacy and sensuality of his playing take the story to excruciations of lust and fear – to a point almost inhuman where neither of them obtain. And with him rides Wei Tang as the femme fatale of the troupe, out to seduce and betray him. She is an entrancing female, subtle, lovely to behold, true, believable, and interesting in and of herself.

I say no more. I have said too much.

It is beautifully filmed by Rodrigo Prieto and has an infallible sense of period.

I saw it on DVD, which offers an uncensored version, It seems to me that the film would make no sense without the full bore sex scenes. Or at least insufficient sense. After all, the film is not a candy apple.

Highly recommended for grown-up viewing.

 

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.

 

Lincoln

16 Nov

Lincoln – directed by Steven Spielberg. Docudrama. President Abraham Lincoln is surrounded on all sides as he presses to get Congress to pass the 13th Amendment forbidding slavery. 149 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

I was thrilled, stirred, gripped.

I thought beforehand I would not be, for the coming attractions are ill advised.

But, once there, everything about this film surprised, entertained, informed, and moved me.

My first fear was that Daniel Day-Lewis would simply dress himself up in a top hat and shawl and, in the voice of Henry Fonda, perform The Lincoln Memorial.

But what Daniel Day-Lewis has done with Lincoln, is to give him a posture which is stooped, which we know he had, and a short gait, which we couldn’t know he had, but which keeps him in the contemplative present when he moves.

Day-Lewis’s figure is tall and thin, as was Lincoln’s, and his face is long, as was Lincoln’s. He has, as Lincoln had, cold eyes. Lincoln had a high-pitched voice, and that is what the actor contrives for us. The impersonation is beyond exception.

The actor also has the ability to negotiate Lincoln’s remarkable diction, so he is able to manage Lincoln’s speeches and his raconteurism –– everyone said Lincoln was a most entertaining individual, and folks gathered around him to hear him tell jokes and stories –– and this is given full play as is his play with his little son. But the weight of the matters that concern and confront him and how he faces them are the story.

The political shenanigans environing the passage of the 13th Amendment are the setting here, and in this he is beset by his foes and friends alike. Among the foes is Lee Pace, an actor of signal clarity of attack, who leads the Democrats of the day who, like the Republicans of our own, have no agenda but to oppose, in all matters, the person who holds The Presidency.

The complex backstairs bargaining and bribery and bullying to get the amendment through is exciting and involves a lot of first class actors to bring off. Kevin Kline as a wounded soldier, Jared Harris as U.S. Grant, Bruce McGill as Secretary Stanton. We have James Spader as the foul-mouthed operative sent to influence the undecided with sinecures and cash. Hal Holbrook as the peacenik operative whose truce-making might arrest the entire effort. John Hawkes as Robert Latham.

But the big difficulties at the time were two people who were in favor of the amendment. The first was Mary Lincoln, unbalanced by the loss of a previous child and exhausting and distracting Lincoln by indulging herself in grief because of it. This is an astonishing piece of work by an actress who has grown over the years: daring when young, even more daring now: Sally Field.

The second problematic character was Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist so radical his extreme fundamentalism bid fair to upset the applecart. A formidable politico and vituperator, it required an actor no one could out-wily, out-cunning, out-sly. And such an one we have to hand in the person of Tommy Lee Jones. He’s killingly funny and powerful in the role. It’s one of his great film turns.

The filming of story and the direction of it are exactly right, established at once by Janusz Kaminski with a Brahmsian color palette and a scenic arrangement that gives us a view from under the table of the White House goings-on and political dealings that never fall into the staid tableaux of Historical Documentary or the expected or the pat.

But the great credit of all the great credit due is to Tony Kushner who wrote it. He alone of modern playwrights could negotiate the elaborate rhetoric of 19th Century invective, without which the telling of this material would be incomprehensible. Instead of taking out your gun and firing at an insult, you had to stand still to hear it long enough to mount a more suitable riposte than a bullet. Congress in those days was messy, rude, and volatile. We see it all.

Kushner frames the picture with two speeches, and each one is given to us in a surprising way. Historical events with which we are familiar are gestured when they are not integral to the strife within. He knows how to write a scene with lots of words, and the material needs them and welcomes them. You have to lean forward and keep your ears alert, just as these men and women did in their day. You want to. It’s part of your engagement, your learning, your joy, and your satisfaction.

Up close and personal with Lincoln, if you ever imagine yourself so lucky as to be, you sure are here. You give full credence to this actor’s Lincoln. You watch Lincoln, yes, he is available. You still admire him, you are touched by him, you know him as well as you ever will, save you read his letters. A man of great depth of reserve and great humor. Torn, pure in two, but one. Because fair and honest and kind. Smart because he understands human language from aint to art. When has his party put forth for president a person of one tenth his character? Will they ever do so again?

 

Battleground

05 Jul

Battleground – directed by William A. Wellman. WW II Drama. A platoon experiences The Battle Of The Bulge. 118 minutes Black and White 1949.

★★★★★

Paul C. Vogel won an Oscar for photographing it, and Robert Pirosh’s script won one too, and they both deserve it. For this is a wonderful war picture in just those ways, the outlying ways, rather than the performance ways or the direction ways. Whoever was assigned the mise-en-scene deserved one too, for the snow and dirt and fog and filth are convincing and important in determining the grand irony of the Tolstoyan story which tells of a platoon of men in a great battle, none of those men knowing that it is a great battle, none of them knowing if it is a battle at all, none of them knowing even what country they are in. They move in one direction and lie down and fire their guns; they dig foxholes; no sooner are they dug-in than they have to get on their feet and move in another direction. They have no sense of a plan, or who is giving these orders, or why. They shoot at the enemy without patriotism and they lie back in the snow for a flicker of rest without repose. A great deal of the time is spent waiting, scrounging, scratching. I don’t know the time-line of this piece, but it was released in 1949 or 1950 depending on where you look, and this was six years after the events described, which is The Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne in World War II. The principal players are excellent, with Van Johnson as the loud playboy, John Hodiak as a GI with some breeding, and James Whitmore as the Sargeant. (Whitmore never breaks stride with his frost-bitten limp once he adopts it, which is a tribute to his craft.) But the little moments of the picture are as telling as the characters. One wants to know what is going to happen to them rather than who they are, which is just fine, but their walking around a dead body without comment, the disarray of their combat clothes, the pile of galoshes that don’t fit — these make the film a wonder and a reward. I have been in a war and carried an M-1, and the attitudes of survival shown here are real. Besides that, it was a big hit.

 

Hysteria

10 Jun

Hysteria – directed by Tanya Wexler. Women Lib Drama. Two daughters become the objects of the attention of a doctor with an unusual therapeutic practice for women in the 1890s.100 minutes Color 2012.

★★★

Oh, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Repeat that word over and over for as long as this page is long and for as long as you like, and consider it an hosanna. The picture is a women’s lib version of a subject, 19th Century medical masturbation as a placebo for female ailments, also dealt with concurrently by the play In The Next Room: The Vibrator Play, which I have seen and which, like this, is unworthy to witness as a subject for a cause so great as equality of gender. The orgasms we see on screen are cartooned by the actresses and by the director; they are never taken as real, deep,and important. They are executed by actresses chosen because they are funny looking: either fat or thin or blousy, and when we see ordinary women being treated, they and their orgasms are mocked by the actresses themselves. The male doctors engage in this treatment with reverence. They take it they are engaging in a medical breakthrough. Jonathan Pryce is the senior physician in a part written only one way, so we know how he and the movie will end. As we know how it will end with his two daughters, the one proper, the other a Shavian modern woman running a settlement house, played by the great Maggie G. Watch how she stands at the trial scene. She never stands foursquare, but, like Garbo, always at an angle. Her whole performance is like that, except once. See if you notice it and how telling that is! Anyhow, the script is routine, and the performance by the leading actor is  – well, let’s say he is not such as to carry a film. But with a film this flimsy, that would take Atlas. The spectacular, even scandalous subject is not sufficient to make a good story of it. It simply plays like an oddity out of an old Sears Roebuck catalogue. It presumes to find itself important. One thing it seems to be blaring out is, “Tut tut, Men don’t understand female sexuality or even consider it to exist!” So you see, it’s really mean-spirited and as dated as a zombie.  It presumes to look down on male ignorance. Everything about it presumes, except for M.G, who simply vibrates with life. She, and she alone is the vibrator.

 

Mrs Miniver

08 Jun

Mrs Miniver — directed by William Wyler. Drama. An average upper-middle class English family encounters WW II in their own back yard. 134 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★

The films of William Wyler won more Academy Awards for actors than any other director, two of them for this picture, which won for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinemaphotography. Teresa Wright won it for Supporting Actress, and Greer Garson for Best Actress. She didn’t want to do it, and didn’t get along with the director, at least at first. But the fact is that she won the award more for the role she plays than for her playing of it. For neither the film nor her work in it hold up much any more, despite passages here and there. But it was an enormous hit during its day, and rightly so. Helmut Dantine, who rather looks like her twenty-year-old son in the film, is the vicious German, and despite opposition by Mayer, Wyler has him as a very nasty piece of goods indeed. (Mayer was afraid of losing the Axis market, if you will.) Dantine does a good job, but it is for the audience to play the scene where he appears in Greer Garson’s kitchen. Garson is merely moon-faced, unreadable, and this could be said of her performance throughout, except for a moment of humor here or there or the look in her eye when she cajoles Dame May Whitty into relinquishing a rose prize to Henry Travers, a lowly fancier. Garson always acted as though there were a powder puff in her mouth. She is always A Lady doused with English Lavender. My gracious, how gracious!  So her performance, here as elsewhere, is generalized, lacking in punctuation or particularity. Eccentricity is not hers. (One wonders how she ever got to replace Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame on Broadway.) But at the time this did not matter. She stood for something! And it worked. What she stood for was the ability of everyday people in the Allied home front to engage in the war bravely and positively. She was The War Effort. It was not just a case of The British courage; it was the courage of all people everywhere to endure the hardships of that time and win through. I lived through that time, and Mrs Miniver was the iconic film for it. Looking at it now, one sees how forced the humor is, and how false the Hollywood settings look, and how unquestioning the script. In it, Garson is a portrait, but not of a person. Her work is less than simple. Teresa Wright does just fine; Richard Ney’s performance is every excuse for his big-toothed smile to be promoted. Rhys Williams, Reginald Owen give good, useful supporting performances. Wyler and Henry Wilcoxon, who played it beautifully, wrote the sermon by the rector which is the film’s famous coda. But the only principal performance that stands up over time is that of Walter Pidgeon as Mr. Miniver. With his easy earthiness, his graceful humor, his physical practicality he grounds every scene he is in, keeping them from floating free in a story that does not exist, but which depends everything upon narrative liaison, in which, at least, Wyler is superb. Still it is Pidgeon one thanks. Watch him: he is always acting. He holds everything together. With the merest of means, he brings possibility for joy and real exhaustion and a witty taciturnity to the mise-en-scene. The passage in the home bomb-shelter in the garden is a stunning scene, that still works today; and his authority in it, that is to say, his deliberate modesty of means, contribute immensely here, as they did throughout his long and beneficial career. He was the most deft of actors.

 

Swimming To Cambodia

17 May

Swimming To Cambodia — directed by Jonathan Demme.  Docudrama. Spalding Grey performs his monologue about his experiences in Bangkok as a movie actor filming The Killing Fields. 82 minutes. Color. 1987.

★★★★★

There sits Spalding Grey in his usual plaid workshirt and jeans with a glass of water and a 5 & 10 spiral notebook and delivers his remarkable take on his life and mind. He is quite beautiful, and the director keeps close up on him, even though he is delivering it, supposedly, in the small space of New York’s Performing Garage. Actually the film is more than a record of a well-rehearsed performance piece, for it includes lighting effects and process shots not offered when one saw it in person. But that’s all right. Also all right are The Killing Fields clips themselves. It’s not a gag-driven monologue, although it is always humorous and sometimes even funny. It is, rather, a crazy education imparted professorially, for he maintains himself seated, dignified in all his indignity and indignation, behind the lecture barrier of the little table. We are being taught something. We all need this restraint placed upon someone who is after all tearing out his hair. For what is interesting is Grey’s fine madness. Which consists of what drives him nuts about himself and the world he inhabits, in this case the international political zoo of the 70s, when Nixon personally put America to a secret war against the Khmer Rouge in Northern Cambodia. Grey is involved in the massacre, and he is also involved in living, concurrent with it, the voluptuous life of a Hollywood production expense account, which also takes him to the wild and pristine beaches of the Indian Ocean, where he swims unto death. Why should we be interested in this? Because Grey is not a moron and is not pretending to a popular simplicity. He is a middle class, middle aged guy whose neuroses are such that they lead him, as neuroses often do, to the truth. He is a responsive actor and he is a telling mimic. And he is willing, for some reason, to experience, before our eyes, excruciation. One is aware, as he does this, that he does this every night, night after night, for an audience to which he would suggest his own resemblance. This is also part of his madness. For it includes our madness in going to see him, night after night, and as we watch we are aware of our own intrusive continued presence at this witty crucifixion. A college graduate. Yes. Literate. Yes. With good diction. Yes. And sane with insanity. If that troubles you, stay away. If it does not trouble you, then you can stand being troubled by his trouble. Just as you can stand being troubled by that of Garrison Keillor, who has the power to entertain you in just the same vein, you see.

 

Objective, Burma!

06 May

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

★★★★★

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

 

 

Gone With The Wind

08 Sep

Gone With The Wind – Directed by George Cukor, Victor Fleming, Sam Wood, Alfred Hitchcock. Drama. A selfish misguided flirt becomes a misguided survivalist. 220 minutes Color 1939.

* * * * *

It is the greatest movie ever made– because of its generosity of spirit. Everyone who made it hated everyone else who made it, and everyone hated David O. Selznick who produced it, produced it in the sense that he himself made it, and remade it, to his exact and exacting specifications. He was a terrible intruder, interloper, interferer, and one longs to know which particular details he interfered with. Perhaps and probably all details. I saw it when it came out. White dishes with red borders were the door prizes, given out in intermission at the Roosevelt Theatre in Flushing, now no longer existent. My mother took us, and I was restless; I was six. On its re-release I saw it, and was mightily moved. I thought it was the story of Melanie Wilkes. I took myself to be that devoted soul, though I lacked the deep kindness. I was more like Oona Munson as Belle Watling. Later on when I saw it, I realized it was the story of Scarlett O’Hara. The part is perfectly cast, because Vivien Leigh had a divinity’s charm, the inner hellcat, the greed for life’s rewards, and the daring to go for them, and it is her greatest screen work. Scarlett seizes other people’s property to gain her ends, and she is perfectly matched in this by Selznick himself. We hand it to Scarlett on the grounds of her sheer vivacity. And we never blame her. Why? Because she represents the triumph of what, despite our failings and meanness, we all deserve and what we will sacrifice for it. Scarlett is an accomplishment, Vivien Leigh’s performance is an accomplishment, and the film is an accomplishment, and it is all the same accomplishment, and that remains stirring to this day. The production is splendid. William Cameron Menzies sets, Jack Cosgrove’s backgrounds, Max Steiner’s moving score – all are exemplary, as are the pens of those responsible for its screenplay, Sydney Howard, Ben Hecht, Oliver Garrett and others. Olivia de Haviland wept selfishly at the Oscars when her Melanie lost to the first black actor ever to win an acting award, Miss Hattie McDaniel, who is tops. Everyone is at their best except Leslie Howard who, as an actor, in fact actually appears to be the milksop someone accuses Ashley Wilkes as being. And, above all, if he is forgotten for every other picture he ever made, he will be known and remembered perfectly for the part which captures his humor, his great charm, his mountainous masculinity, his physical beauty, his irresistible sexiness, and his great skill as an actor – in the part of Rhett Butler — Clark Gable.

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The Reign Of Terror [The Black Book]

31 Aug

The Reign Of Terror  [AKA The Black Book] – Directed By Anthony Mann. Costume Thriller. A resistance member infiltrates Robespierre’s inner circle with a mind to save France. 88 minutes Black and White 1949.

* * * *

Should be called The Reign Of Error. I saw it when it came out, the bottom half of a bill that played Wednesday only, and I thought it was a lousy movie. I thought Robert Cummings a consummate silly and completely miscast as a swashbuckling hero. His big worried eyes – no. What got me in ’49 was Arlene Dahl, and she does so still, 21 years old and astounding. She had a beauty spot and she was a beauty spot. Anthony Mann, for once, gives the female a strong leading role, at times more proactive and more in charge than the males, and Arlene Dahl meets the acting challenge like the movie queen she is. (In profile, her face has, like Garbo, a recessed brow. Check it out; see what it does for her face.) Certain of Mann’s crew such as Charles McGraw and Arnold Moss turn up here and do darn fine work. The story lacks focus, or rather it has the wrong focus, or rather it has a mixed focus. Are we focusing on Freedom, on France, on deposing Robespierre, or on his little black book? The black book looks like a McGuffin with too much screen time. But we have Beulah Bondi to rivet us to any scene she’s in, and Richard Basehart, another Mann actor, as Maximilien Robespierre, and he always looked crazy, so why not? He is never out of his pasty white wig.  The picture lacks Mann’s big final chase scene down a narrow passage, and that wouldn’t have worked anyhow because the costumes are so capacious. Actually Robert Cummings now does not look as silly as he seemed then and plays his scenes with considerable interest and skill. The whole piece is Costume Pulp, but John Alton who filmed it makes every scene striking with camera angles that skew the point of view, just for the sake of it, and you feel Alton having a better time with the material than anyone else. Though Alton filmed it, it is not noir. At the heart of it, I guess it is still a lousy movie. I wonder what I expected in 1949. I know. A swashbuckling costume French Revolution picture filmed by anyone but the confining John Alton. That is to say, an Action Adventure quite the opposite, with the big open spaces of an Errol Flynn show. But to do that, you also actually had to have Errol Flynn.

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The New World

06 Jul

The New World. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Historical drama.  A native Indian princess is wooed by two suitors in 1607. Pocahontas. 135 minutes Color 2005.

* * * * *

Colin Farrell and Christian Bale are the suitors for the hand of Pocahontas, but neither of the men is the focal character of the story. That falls to Q’Orianka Kilcher who plays the Indian maiden and plays her with great delicacy and meaning. It is probably not possible to imagine another actor to do it so well. There is that in her which carries the film’s 2 1/2 hours, and everything human in the film depends upon her performance, which grows and grows on one, just as it should do. The film recounts the miserable beginnings of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, its various early difficulties and resolutions. But the story itself is a grand romance, simple, and extended, for it unfolds, dignified and stately, as it probably did from the time Pocahontas threw herself across the body of John Smith to save him from death, to her subsequent history with John Rolfe. The story is very old- fashioned, for both men keep their hands off the maiden, whom both of them love, to be sure. Farrell woes her with his big brown eyes full of pain and fear; Bale woes her with his little brown eyes full of patience and doubt. But then Romance, by definition, depends upon separation. Lovers must be kept apart for Romance to work. Smith, it would seem, is her true mate, but is marriage-shy. But I say no more about the story, for there is so little to tell, that I would give away the entire plot in a sentence if I spoke more. The colony built on site at Jamestown certainly rings true, and so do the Indian villages. Unfortunately the crowd scenes are very badly directed and quite silly and unconvincing. No one is bloodthirsty; everyone is out to perform an honest tourist demonstration; it just won’t do. But the picture itself is beautifully filmed, of course, as are all Malick’s pictures, and abetted by music written one and two and three hundred years later, which Malick knows perfectly well, and which I found charming and right. A fine family film and most satisfying.

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Shattered City:The Halifax Explosion

31 Mar

Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion — Directed by Bruce Pittman — TV Docudrama Miniseries. A shipment of high explosives converges with an out-of-line Belgian vessel in Halifax Harbor during World War I, and creates the greatest man-made explosion in the history of the world, and blows apart many local individuals’ lives. 3 hours Color 2003.

* * * *

This is a solid historical reconstruction of the events leading up to and trailing in the wake of the Halifax disaster. It’s a good piece of historical dramaturgy, based as it is on actual lives and deeds and on the memory of them by those who lived long after, such as the young Connie Collins, who lived until 2003. Arrogance at the helm brought ruin to the lives of 11,000 people that day. Many of the parts are beautifully played, particularly Ted Dykstra, the jolly pilot whose orders were remanded by the dazed captain, and by Lynn Griffin who is one bitching actress as Millicent Collins, the loving mother of all the children, who was permanently blinded, as were hundreds of others by the flash. Shauna Macdonald, a lovely actress, is perfectly cast for the intelligence and reserve which makes her successful as a visiting doctor, and the very handsome Vincent Walsh provides the necessary earnestness as the focal figure of the Royal Canadian Army Captain who takes charge.  Clara Stone plays Connie just fine. And the great Pete Postlethwaite turns up in the last part of this two part series to cause serious doubt as to whether the Captain will win his case. For, as the ship captain, the harbor master, and the pilot are all put on trial, it is worth waiting for the outcome. I found it interesting and informative and easy to take. The whole family could watch it together.

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