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Archive for the ‘MAGNIFICENT FEAT DRAMA’ Category

Sing & Moana

29 Jan

 

Sing – directed by Garth Jennings. Animated feature. 110 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

Moanadirected by Ron Clements and John Musker. Animated Feature. 110 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

Stories: Both stories deal with ambitions thwarted and then triumphed.

~

Both films are perfectly suited to adults. And where I sat, the children were as quietly attentive as the adults that accompanied them. Why is that?

A maximum of surprises, movement, angles, colors.

An amplitude of wit.

And they supply – worse than any live action film can – horrendous catastrophe. In Sing it’s a catastrophic flood. In Moana it’s deified lava.

But the young hero and heroine surmount all difficulties. Not without unlikely escapes and rescues and a sentimentality that would crush a nun dressed as a dragon. (Neither of these feature such a creature.)

In Sing, to save his theatre, the young Koala Bear owner must put on a talent show. In Moana, a young woman must bring back a talisman to save her island people.

I enjoyed myself no end. I simply wandering in to sample them while waiting for the feature I’d paid for to start. Remained riveted to my seat.

In the watching, these films dwell on nothing. Remarkable individual beauties and Voltaire-like coups of imagination flit by in sumptuous plentitude. I wish they’d wait for me – I was reared on Pinocchio.

 My favorite character of all was played, in Sing, by the director Garth Jennings as Mrs Crawly, a superannuated loyal iguana secretary with a wandering glass eye. Every time the old woman meandered on in her well-meaning way, I rejoiced.

Such films are rightly called “animated.” For they animate the variety and particularity of the truth and comedy of human gesture in a way that no straight film actor can achieve – because animators are more daring than actors. Because more shameless.

In animation, we expect over-acting. Which means more acting than is necessary. Animation cannot achieve depth of performance, which is what human screen acting can, but it can achieve breadth of performance, which is what human screen acting avoids like Swiss cheese.

In Sing the characters are animals; in Moana, humans. I notice the animals in Sing are more human than the humans in Moana. But I quibble not.

I loved them, and you won’t waste your time, nor is time wasted on you, should you drag your inner or outer child to either or both.

 

The Missing

24 Feb

The Missing – Directed by Ron Howard. Western. 137 minutes Color 2003.

★★★★★

The Story: An Apache brujo, or male witch, and his gang steal young women to be sold in Mexico, but the mother and grandfather and tiny sister of one of them track them through the New Mexico winter wilderness to recover her.

~

Of course, it’s a marvelous story beautifully set in that strange land. Cate Blanchette, who seems to fit into every part she is given, here leads the way as the mother. She is accompanied by her father, a fake Indian Chirhucawa, played by Tommy Lee Jones.

But the performance to behold is that of Eric Schweig as the witch – master of snakes and spells. With a strand of Cate’s hair, he can summon spirits to travel miles to kill our Cate, and he almost succeeds. His face, his bearing, his eyes – you will never forget them. At least I won’t. It’s a beautiful piece of work by a fine artist.

The chase takes place on horseback. The three year old, Dot, Cate her mother, and grandfather Jones spend most of their time on horseback riding through the land of enchantment. What a strange world!

The underlying problem in this pursuit is that Cate detests Jones, who has much to atone for that seems unatonable. So that matter clatters in every hoof beat.

The final standoff is not properly staged. The use of fire-arrows does not work. The whole session is not scary enough. Still we regard with respect the narrowing of Blanchett’s remarkable, wide-spaced eyes as she fires her rifle into the brains of the marauders.

The Missing is a big Western, like Shane and High Noon and Stagecoach. It encloses a lot of territory in its allegory. The sets and costumes are first class. Elizabeth Moss, Evan Rachel Wood, Aaron Eckhart, and Val Kilmer fill out the cast. If you like the genre you will be happy to watch it unfold, and besides there’s Eric Schweig forever to haunt your dreams.

 

The Martian

16 Oct

The Martian – directed by Scott Ridley. Scifidrama. 141 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: An astronaut left behind and believed dead on Mars, contrives to survive, while rescuers on earth exhaust various schemes to save him.

~

Among actors of his generation Matt Damon possesses the rare quality of human decency – which Tom Hanks possessed and Jimmy Stewart possessed and which his contemporary Jim Caviezel also possesses. It means that he can bring to his characters an atavism, a strain of honesty which supersedes modernity by going back to the American primordial, a strain which is recognizable, trustworthy, and inviting. As such, Mark Damon is an actor as useful as bread. Not for just the characters he may sometimes play, but always for the way he plays the character.

For the character is not always white bread.

Here it is sour rye. His character is not peachy clean. He has temperament. Opinions. Dislikes. Vanity. Tartness. In embodying this, Damon gives to us someone we might know. And whose survival we might care about and root for.

All this, naturally, is in the writing, but Damon extends himself into each word said as a physical release – which is important, since he is often bench-bound. And since his resources for survival are so technical they cannot be appreciated, save in the actor’s practical, personal commitment to them.

The story is beautifully filmed and directed. Each member of the all-star supporting cast is scrumptious to watch. Each of them is a space program bureaucrat. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the NASA mission director; Michael Peña plays a fellow astronaut; Benedict Wong plays the rocket engineer; Donald Glover as the aerodynamics pro who masterminds one of the rescue missions; Jeff Daniels as NASA head; Jessica Chastain as the captain of a space ship.

If you like The Wizard Of Oz, you will find that this is the sort of story The Martian is. A fellow human finds himself unprotected and alone in strange land. Assisted by friends, plus his own gumption and perseverance, he must make a long journey through it to reach the salvation that will whisk him home.

You will cheer at the end. I understand you will cheer even more if you see it in 3D. I didn’t, but I enjoyed the story and the spectacle just as well. It’s a big hit, and Damon well worth the Oscar for it, don’t you think? For his opening scene alone. Check it out.

 

The Imitation Game

24 Dec

The Imitation Game – directed by Morten Tyldum. BioDrama. 114 minutes Color 2014

★★★★

The Story: An odd duck of a mathematician becomes the goose that lays the golden egg when he breaks the German Enigma Code, thus hastening the end of WW II.

~

Many BioDramas just now. Selma, Wild, Rosewater, Foxcatcher, The Theory Of Everything, Unbroken, and this. Why is that?

The reason is that no one can write film drama. At least not for the silver screen. Drama has been swallowed by junk food, Blockbuster Candy. Drama has been subsumed by SciFi, Horror, and GagComedy. Drama has been gorged up by theatricalism and special effects of Action Adventure. All non dramatic genres. Drama has been devoured by series on paid TV. Besides there are too few grown-up stars to play it. To come close to making a “serious” film,” then, make a BioDrama, instead. BioDramas look dignified when the Oscars loom.

And even in BioDramas we have the foolish action sequences, as here, when haymakers fly and bodies are thrown against computers. One knows those people wouldn’t behave like that. For the English a stiff upper lip was Sufi practice.

But that is the worst of it, for, while the movie is not well directed, it is well conceived, and it has a story natural to it.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays him well: Alan Turing, a quirky lot, was the finest mathematician in England, though young – though most mathematicians show their genius only when young. He enters into the top-secret task of breaking the unbreakable Enigma code, and to do it builds what seems to be the first computer. His off-putting personality is not one to inspire overpowering amity for him in his crew, however, until the only female mathematician, well played by Keira Knightley, induces him to loosen up.

The breaks in the team’s bad luck are well recorded here and we root for them all as the code yields itself to them. How exciting!

But the breaking of the code must be kept secret. And another secret must also be kept: Alan Turing is an active homosexual. To reveal either secret would be against the law.

This is a fine and bitter story. You yourself when you see it will experience the killing imbalance in the situation. And when you do see it, you will experience also the excitements of science in the moment of breakthrough, just as we did in the old days with Paul Muni in Louis Pasteur, Edward G. Robinson in Doctor Erlich’s Magic Bullet, and Greer Garson in Madame Curie. A tedious persistence in the task precedes those thrills, but therein the drama also lies. We want so much for mankind to take a step forward. And when it happens we take it too, even in a movie theatre.

Charles Dance is particularly fine as The Adversary as is Mark Strong as the M-5 intermediary. They both threaten very particular harm. But the wireheads win through.

Except do they?

 

 

Wild

24 Dec

Wild – directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. BioDrama. 113 minutes Color 2014.
★★★★
The Story: A young woman treks 1000 miles on the Pacific Coast Trail on a quest for peace from a disarrayed life.
~
What did I believe?

I believed in the presence of the actor in the wilderness, the woodland, deserts, rocks, stones.

I believed in the chronology of the weeks it took.

I believed in the eventual diffident acceptance of rain, storm, snow.

I believed in the voice-overs from her diary.

I believe in the fundamental journey.

I believed in the wilds she went through.

I did not believe Reese Witherspoon’s playing of the character as a whispering, sensitive, shy, vulnerable creature.

Playing it this way damages the character. First, It leaves the actor with no place to go, save where the voice-overs inform us she goes. In the actor/character we see nothing happen. She starts withdrawn. She ends up withdrawn.

Moreover, Reese Witherspoon is not a leading lady. She is not an actor of heroic mold. She is a character lead, and a good one. So if you ask her to play the heroine, you bark up the wrong tree. It’s not within her instrument to play a part perfectly suited to Ingrid Bergman or Sophia Loren.

To cast the part of Cheryl Strayed you must cast her with whom? Charlize Theron? – who exudes strength, who is physically formidable, someone who can cause trouble. Cast someone like Theron and you have an Amazon becoming a real human as the arc of the character. For the story cannot be about a city mouse becoming a country mouse. It’s not about a mouse. The woman who embarks on this trek is already brash. She is out there. She is not withdrawn. She is brave and foolish. But this is not within Reese Witherspoon’s range. And to choose to play her introverted is a miscalculation, although it may have been the only avenue open to her.

This being said, the movie is a good one. Taking a long walk to clear up a mess is good medicine, and every human knows it. This is the story of that. It does not even have to count as a story of some poor weak female doing it. For the same vexations, perils, boredom, exhaustions, and self-discoveries, both pleasant and unpleasant, prevail not as matter of gender but as human matters and with whomever takes such a journey. And in this sense it is good, beginning to end, to take the journey too.

The film is well filmed but not well acted, and the reason for that is that it is underwritten.We need language, language language, for in a wilderness language is what we are left with. Language in the mind. That and the landscape which language tries to defy.

 

The Railway Man

30 Apr

The Railway Man – directed by Jonathan Teplisky. BioPic. 116 minutes Color 2013.

★★★

The Story: A middle-aged couple’s new marriage is about to be sabotaged by the history of the husband’s prisoner-of-war experience under the Japanese.~

It is excruciating.

In two senses. One is that the film shows the screaming brutality of the Japanese, their demented rage, their maniacal beatings, their sadistic torture. I lived through that era and remember well “those dirty Japs,” and I wonder now how it was possible for a whole people to behave this way. Now that I say this, I must also say that I got this information from what I have seen in war movies at the time – and this one. But still, inside the Japanese then was the capacity of wolverines. A viciousness so extreme it may be, as suggested by one of its perpetrators here, that it came from their being told that the Japanese could not lose – a lie that triggered the chaos that comes from a sense of unbridled power.

It is excruciating also in that all this is prolonged by a narrative style that asks us to fill in blanks, which we do not have sufficient identification with the characters as given to do. But the real excruciation is the way it is filmed, which is in a sort of perfumed haze, so that nothing is quite immediate. It is as though the whole thing had been slipcovered in makeup like Joan Crawford. It is very pretty and you can never quite get to it.

The story tells of Eric Lomax, a young British radio operator taken when the English army surrendered Singapore. He becomes a car mechanic but conspires with his fellow prisoners to assemble a radio to listen to broadcasts. When the Japanese discover it, he takes responsibility. They torture him to tell what he was broadcasting. He is caged, water boarded, beaten. Over and over. That he survives is astonishing.

A back and forth narrative works well. The corny staging of the resolution does not work well, but is still affecting, and a great moral lesson inheres in it. But it does not inhere in the movie, because the movie lacks internal life. The structure does not correspond to the outer story. The marriage is set aside as a narrative force, for one thing, and for another Nicole Kidman as the wife is miscast. The wife needs to be more ordinary. Kidman, of course, is good, but the part needs to be played by an actress with a broader foundation.

The young Eric Lomax is well cast and played by Jeremy Irvine; he has something of the mouth and the speech pattern of the older Lomax. But, as the older Lomax, Colin Firth is a dead hand. I do not see anything in Colin Firth. He is an actor who just stands there and expects you to do something about it. I do not find him permeable. I do not find his face interesting or sensitive. I do not understand what others see in him or why he should be up there before me. I cannot be for him; I cannot be against him; I find him inert.

And I do not gladly fill in his blanks, nor the enormous spaces between speeches, nor the narrative lacunae in this remarkable story of a moral, brave, and resilient human being.

 

Dallas Buyers Club

14 Dec

Dallas Buyers Club – directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Docudrama . A rogue cowboy discovers he has a fatal disease and ventures to defy law and save fellow sufferers. 116 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

Some actors are despicable: Jack Palance, Shelly Winters, Miriam Hopkins, Richard Widmark, Robert Mitchum, Jessica Lange, Christian Bale. Humorless bullies all.

Matthew McConaughey stands tall in this category. There is no actor whose appearance in a film I more wish to avoid. A slivery egomania rules in him with imperious ease.  A smug cologne, unquestioned and rank, the attar of this assurance wafts about him.

He is dreadful looking, with fatal dimples, tiny teeth, and the most beautiful and seductive male speaking voice since Charles Boyer. He is worse than a rogue; he is a bounder. To be in his screen presence is to break out in a rash. He threatens to make one believe in evil.

He is one of those persons who stumble into acting and make a great success. This so rarely happens, it becomes legend, so we think if it can happen to Gary Cooper, it may happen to anyone. But legends are never common.

And what is not common about Matthew McConaughey is that, apparently and even so, he has discovered the craft of acting for himself. That is not an easy thing for a big star to do. Robert Mitchum never did it, nor did Gary Cooper.

But McConaughey is a person of enormous intelligence. Or maybe it would be better to call it smartness. After all, he’s a Texan. And in Texas intelligence means horse-sense. And horse-sense means a practical grasp of life as it is actually lived. What does an actor of his cheap effect do once his romantic appeal gets stale?

Mud was an example of this actor taking on the task of dropping out of the category of leading man and entering into the category of character lead. Going somewhere beneath or other-than his masher forte, he entered us into an arena of acting into which one never in a million years expected him to venture. What a revelation!

Of course, this switch may have happened more slowly with him: one sees but the sudden result: films take years to generate: his change may have been long pondered: this may have happened less suddenly in films of his I have not seen.

In the present film we see a character bodied forth who also took long planning, since the actor had to emaciate himself by 47 pounds or a quarter of his body weight to play it. He plays a hero, but is never noble, always the ornery cuss. Miss him play it in peril of the cultivation of your soul.

In the past, McConaughey has been the tray of despicableness on which the part was presented to us. In Dallas Buyers Club he takes that tray of despicableness in both his conscious hands and presents it and all that is on it to us as an offering of human truth.

It is wonderful to see an actor discover the great and dangerous craft of acting.

 

Captain Phillips

29 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Princess Bride

03 Sep

The Princess Bride — directed by Rob Reiner. Fractured Fairy Tale. Two young lovers are separated by doom and dastards until both are vanquished and the lovers kiss. 98 minutes Color 1987.

★★★★★

“Have you seen The Princess Bride?”  I ask folks, and everybody I ask has. But me.

I thought it was a little girls’ movie. But, in fact, in a very pleasant and useful conceit, a bed-ridden little boy introduces it by rejecting it by the same measure as I rejected it, that it wasn’t for boys at all. This little boy, and his gramps who reads the story to him, played by that master of accessibility, Peter Falk, interlope throughout to comment on the action, halt it, and increase the magic of its grounding: that fairy tales are meant to cure the sick, All entertainment is meant to cure the sick, but fairy tales most of all.

I thought it was only made last year, but I see that brilliant actor Robin Wright , in the title role, is being introduced to the screen in it, and the year is 1987, 25 years ago.

It is not played as a straight fairy tale, but a fractured one, by which I mean a modern sensibility intrudes in the diction and demeanor of certain characters, such as those played by Carol Kane and Billy Crystal as two antediluvian Cony Island Jews pushing magic for bucks and by Wallace Shawn who’s a modern boss bastard.

Others bring other things to it, such as Mandy Patinkin playing a sword-happy hidalgo hello-bent on revenge. He wields the most wonderful sabre you have ever seen.  You want to hug André The Giant as The Giant and even Mel Smith as a torturer with cold sores and Peter Cook the clergyman who cannot pronounce his Rs or Ls. Christopher Guest and Chris Sarandon play the Basil Rathbone/James Mason parts of the evil count and his monarch. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright are just right as the lovers. You want to kiss everybody in it.

All sorts of medieval special effects are on offer, a fiery swamp complete with ROUS (rodents of unusual size) and a cliff-hanging cliff-climb and a stupefying torture chamber.

It is all as you wish it.

One of those movies that do just what movies alone can do and rarely do do. It satisfies its own medium.

 

 

Mud

15 May

Mud -–– directed and written by Jeff Nichols. Drama. Two fourteen year old boys set out to rescue a derelict on a desert island. 230 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

Is Michael McConaughey despicable?

There are such things as despicable in the realm of acting. Shelley Winters? Yes. Jack Palance? Certainly. This does not mean they are bad actors. They have their uses. And long careers even.

McConaughey, with his sleazy confidence and smug affect– one steers clear of him, repelled. Partly because all of this is found to be mighty sexy by certain females.

And it is true that he has presence, moves interestingly, his face takes the camera well, he has a wonderful figure when stripped, fine sloping shoulders, a handsome back of his head, and the most beautiful speaking voice in film since Charles Boyer. My goodness. So Southern. So ruthlessly seductive. So smart. So all things Texas.

Despicable. As romantic leads. Playing what he calls Saturday boys. The sexually confident one in a modern comedy. Despicable. But here we have him actually playing a despicable character, and he is not despicable at all. He is quite fine, and all the character requires him to be: off-hand, devoted to a cause outside himself, efficient. He is well cast as a male whose body has nothing left but his masculinity, and nothing to do but devote his whole male being to a woman with it.

He is not a trained actor, but rather one of those who wandered in off the street like Gary Cooper and someone put a movie camera in front of him, and it took. Nor is it any mark against it that he comes to his craft untrained. Many a fine actor has done the same. He single-handedly wrecked Spielberg’s Amador with his mod beat jarred up against the era of John Quincy Adams, but what else could he do? He was incapable of anything else. And there are a lot of actors whom you can’t put into costume. Jimmy Stewart would head the list. Lots of them.

But here he is and he’s really worth being with. And so is everyone else in this fine and unusual picture. Which is really about a fourteen year-old boy who lives in a bayou houseboat with bickering parents. Living off subsistence fishing, the boy, well played by Tye Sheridan, comes upon McConaughey, as Mud, living in a boat in a tree on a desert island in the sea. The boy and his buddy get caught up in the romance of Mud’s needs which consist of his yearning for a rapprochement with his old sweetheart, Reese Witherspoon.

Everyone is dandy, and the setting and the story and the adventure keep one attentive right up to the end which is a bit more patly worked out than the texture of the material promises, but never mind. We have Sam Shepard, super as a cranky coot, leading a fine supporting cast. And fascinating are the settlings, the place, the world of the fisher folk. And completely believable is all those two boys dare on their secret rescue of Mr. M.

 

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.

 

Amour

27 Jan

Amour – directed by Michael Haneke. Drama. A married couple in their 80s end their time together when the wife suffers a stroke and slowly declines as the husband devotedly cares for her. 127 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
If you sit back, if you’re capable of sitting back, you will find yourself in the privileged position of watching a life-and-death process you never imagined you would witness. The direction and filming of this story is so close to its home that one does not seem to be intruding at all, much less watching a film.

The story is very simple. They are retired musicians. They have made their contribution, and when illness overtakes the wife, one of her pupils, a successful concert pianist comes to pay his grateful respects. That tells you everything you need to know about their lives before their present trial. Their daughter comes; she also is a musician; she is on tour; her views of how to handle matters are desperate and understandable – but there is nothing to be done that is not being done well.

All this sounds uneventful, and so it is in a way, because while the death sentence of life hangs in the wings, ordinary life goes on as well. The newspaper is read, the tea is made. But also the patient must be bathed. The diaper must be changed. The straw must be applied to the lips. The husband takes on these tasks. He performs them simply and well.

Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trantignant. I am almost loathe to mention the names of the two actors who plays these two old persons, because they seem to not be acting but simply enacting. The film seems not to be staged, but to unfold in large chapters before my eyes and mine alone. The two characters are often shown, not dead on but at an angle as though I were eavesdropping right there over their shoulder. It doesn’t seem like a film, so much as a record. It left me speechless.

The film is in line for a 2013 Oscar as The Best Foreign film and The Best Film. Emmanuelle Riva is nominated for Best Actress. Michael Haneke for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It won the Palm D’Or at Cannes. You owe it to yourself.

 

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

08 Dec

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo – directed by Mervyn LeRoy. WWII Drama. Four months after Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Dootlittle’s B-25 squadron mounts the daring bomb attack for which the airmen know they do not have sufficient return fuel. 138 minutes Black and White 1944.
★★★★★
What you have is a script by Dalton Trumbo who hypothesizes every scene into what he ideologically wishes it to be, so the script always floats slightly above the actors’ heads. They have to reach back into their Sunday School pageants to play it. But it does give Trumbo leeway for the scene where two men discuss whether they actually hate the Japanese and what it feels like to kill civilians. It’s good the scene is there at all, since it would have been a matter of discussion among troops. So “Anti-American” though; so Dalton Trumbo; so HUAC. After all a War is on! Loose lips sink ships! As usual with Trumbo, it feels at once startling and pat. An honestly acted liberal rant.

Not to be missed are terribly acted romantic scenes of Phyllis Thaxter who grinds every scene to a halt by her sparkle; she narrows her eyes and just glimmers away. You want to slap her. It’s a wonder Van Johnson can perform opposite her at all. You look at him being convincing and crown him with a halo: that he could act opposite Phyllis Thaxter and not gnashed his teeth once.

Spencer Tracy walks through the Doolittle role with his commanding presence merely. When you see him in the cockpit of his bomber in leather flight jacket, you want to laugh, and put him back in his suburban easy chair where he belongs and never left, not once, to do a little research about how it feels being a pilot.

But he has little to do, save deliver a few gritty speeches, and the film is well worth watching for the actual bomber training of these men, at the actual airdrome they did it in, and the tiny practice runs they performed of those huge wretched bombers in preparation for taking off from the minute flight deck of the U.S.S. Hornet. So quickly after Pearl Harbor too!

And we see the actual takeoffs on that day, for it was filmed at the time. They’d been spotted by a fishing boat and had to leave many hours too soon and farther from their targets, thus reducing the return gas in their tanks. We see the actual approach to Japan. We see them see Fujiyama. We see them skim low over the paddies. We see the actual bombing raid. All of this is thrilling and valid. For we are seeing the actual footage of it

Then we see how they had to fly to a base in China, which only one of them actually made. China was Japanese occupied at the time, so when the bombers landed or crashed, their crews were either taken by the Japs or hidden by the Chinese and spirited away to secret airfields where lovely and ever-resourceful DC3s flew them off in the nick of time.

The story focuses mainly on Van Johnson’s crew, among whom we find the refreshing face of Robert Walker, a terrific actor here and elsewhere. A big team of Oriental and American actors ably acts it, including Don DeFore, Robert Mitchum, Leon Ames, Benson Fong, Hsin Kung, Ching Wah Lee, Ann Shoemaker, Stephen McNally, Bill Williams, Scott McKay, Selena Royle, Alan Napier. Most of these appear in the adventure and escape in China. Harold Rosson and the great Robert Surtees filmed it. It is action/adventure as its most documentarian and thrilling.

 

The Life Of Pi

25 Nov

The Life Of Pi – directed by Ang Lee. Survival Drama, Family Film. An adolescent boy is cast adrift in a lifeboat with a fully-grown Bengal Tiger. 127 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★
The film begins in enchantment, from the credits and forward to the translucency and wonder of the images that follow. The story is framed by the telling of the grown man to whom it happened. There he sits recounting it to a writer, and there they are at the end, when the picture as a whole ends with a bourgeois maxim.

The events of the family zoo in Pondicherry in India, the man’s boyhood introduction to the tiger, and the family’s setting sail for Canada on a Japanese freighter which sinks in a typhoon, are well told, thrilling, and novel. The filmmaker’s attack on these episodes suffuses us with awe. We are ensorcelled. Never have we seen such things. We sit back agog, and we believe.

But the boy is adrift with a ravenous tiger, so some sort of truce must be struck before the boy himself is eaten. And also we await their rescue, which never seems to come. What does come is a slackening of tension which is more fatal than the tiger is. For we lose contact with the inner life of this starving castaway, and the grim process that finally seizes one’s mind after one is adrift for months on the open ocean. We have too many accounts of this stage of death at sea not to know what it is like.

One is covered with salt, one’s eyes are practically blind, one’s lips are bubbling with sores, one’s skin is dripping off one’s body, one is malnourished and athirst and burned alive. And just before surrender to death comes the phantasmagoria of magical rescue, with dancing girls and feasts and rest and reunion. At this point, any delirium is tempting, the temptation being to succumb to the delirium as real, and thus surrender to death, for The Gate Of Death is Pleasure. The alternative to it is to surrender to the delirium as delirium, yet not submit but stand away from it and exit it. Attention to that process provides a rest and recuperation from the bodily and mental torment, and the outcome of that rest is the energy to go on.

What needs to happen is that the boy is dying and the tiger is dying, and the delirium moment arrives, but, instead of that, instead of a working into and out of the perilous malaise of the dream of rescue, the author and the filmmaker give us a pretty, little cop-out, a phony island out of an old Maria Montez movie, where the boy and the tiger can feast and rest. The Special Effects execution of the island is a gross violation of style. And there is no drama. Without it, the movie sinks.

We immediately lose any interest in the tiger and the boy and their survival, not because we know they did survive, for the boy now grown is telling the tale to the writer, but because the director and the author have not done their job which is to take us into the worst crisis of all, A Vision Of False Paradise, and record his escape from it.

This film is still worth seeing. It is beautifully filmed in 3-D by Claudio Myranda and perfectly cast, right down to the four tigers that play the tiger here — one Richard Parker by name an unpredictable cat if there ever was one.

 

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?

 

Mildred Pierce — 2012 version — The Guy Pearce Papers — 3

13 Oct

Mildred Peirce – directed by Todd Haynes. Drama. A single mother in the Depression struggles to support herself, and turns to baking, which leads to great success with the business and great failure with her daughter and her lover. 5 part mini series. Color 2012.
★★★★★
He enters our field of vision with exactly the right hair, as a sort of male Veronica Lake. Peering from beneath the springy, pendulant twin locks his center-dividing part grants it, his hair is so much of the period of the ‘30s, that one is stunned to remember that that is so. Stunned also by this choice of hair, which is always a leading choice for an actor, and which supports what he makes of the character of this louche playboy: Dan Duryea and George Plimpton rolled up into one, with a dash of impatience and a soupcon of charm. He is fully embodied. Guy Pierce is so at ease inside this smarmy prince that one cannot but admire his style at the same time that one deplores its effects. He is an actor of great phsyical dispatch, with a neck feathered for mating dance at all times. The accent is perfect, as usual with this actor. It never gets misplaced; it never is exaggerated; he is never lost behind it. This is true of the accents of all the players in this perfectly cast piece. Morgan Turner as a young miss putting on airs makes her character so infuriating, one can only send her flowers of congratulations, since that is exactly what the character, and with no holds barred, should be. The range of casting is a cake rich throughout. Evan Rachel Wood is exactly right as the musician the young Veda Pierce grows into. Yes, one thinks, that unusual little girl could have become this raving beauty, and Wood must have copied the younger actor’s performance to get the character so right. Bryan F. O’Byme has this great moving mug; another face of the period; he keeps the story of Mildred’s husband covert and easy, until the very end. A wonderful actor, as, of course, is Melissa Leo as Mildred’s crony and another one, James Le Gros as Mildred’s aid and abettor. Mare Winningham, a waitress, is a creature entirely out of the ‘30s. She existed never after. Remarkable in this picture, in fact, are all the ‘30s production values – music by Carter Burwell, set and art decoration by Peter Rogness and Ellen Christiansen, and all the cars correct. I lived through that time, so I know. But what is most remarkable of all are the costumes by Ann Roth. They are exactly right at every turn. And they are particularly suited to our belovèd Kate Winslet who is not an elegant woman or a fashion plate like Evan Rachel Wood, and who is dressed perfectly for her type, in every scene, as is everyone else, male and female. Winslet brings to the character a determined mother-love, a love which hangs onto her daughter and blinds her to what she is. Winslet is earthy. You believe she can make pies and quarter fowl. Joan Crawford in the part you never believe could do either, but Crawford brought a trait inherent in her, the desire to pull herself up by her bootstraps (or ankle straps) and better herself. Crawford was like that in person, and you believed her drive towards that end. It worked for the role. What Winslet brings to the role is the temperament of a woman who is uneducated and ignorant, a woman who never had a single ambition; had many feelings but no thoughts; lived from day to day, pie to pie. Winslet is always lovable; Crawford never is. Crawford was always special; Winslet never is, and it serves her well. When you see her at the concert leaning forward to understand an aria, you see that, try as she might, she is aesthetically cut off from understanding or appreciation or even enjoyment. She tries too hard for her ever to get it – a human being like that. The director and his cronies give a silly, because unprepared commentary, unworthy of the film they have made. But one thing they do say is that, unlike the Crawford version, they have stayed close to James M. Caine’s novel. Of it they have made an interesting and commanding rendition. A remarkable achievement by all.

 

China Seas

10 Feb

China Seas — directed by Tay Garnett. Low Adventure On The High Seas. A ship captain endures pirates, monsoon, and the forward attentions of two desirable dames. 87 minutes Black and White 1935.

★★★★

Drama at every turn, so, why are you complaining – ain’t you gettin’ your money’s worth? Yes, you are, but it’s a crazy film. Clark Gable is before us, aged 34 and at the peak of his masculinity. There’s a lot to say about Gable as an actor, for he loved his craft, was absolutely in earnest about being good at it. Technically he is the perfect film star, with the most beautiful head of hair, shape of head, face, eyes, mouth, nose, and photogenicality. He has a voice unmatched for male ardor. He is absolutely sure of his sexuality, which is really the foundation of his appeal, and which means not only that he can go after what he wants, but that he can decline what he does not want, both without shame. And what he does not want in this story is the neediness of the dame he has been screwing, played by Jean Harlow. How different a sex idol she was than Monroe, who has all the seduction of pliability, soft as perfume, whereas Harlow is rapacious and hard. The peroxide hair of Marilyn made her look soft, that of Harlow tough. Interesting huh? The difficulty with the material lies in these two stars’ acting. Gable had a lot more talent and technique than Harlow, but he barks and barks, and Harlow is cacophonous. She is so monotonously raucous in her playing that the character looks insane, and you never think that Gable would put up with her for a minutes, much less possibly end up with her. They needed a suggestion of more variety from the director. Rosalind Russell, such a tonic as an actress, plays the English lady Gable really loves, a gal friend from his better days. Aboard this ship of fools is Robert Benchley as a droll drunk, C. Aubrey Smith, that firm but kindly hatchet, as a bemused ship owner, Lewis Stone as a deposed captain, Edward Brophy playing out that great Somerset Maugham story about the necklace opposite Akim Tamiroff, he of The Moscow Art Theatre and Stanislavsky, along with Donald Meek, Hattie McDaniel delicious as the greedy maid, and, last but never least, Wallace Beery as the loveable heavy. Harlow’s and Russell’s dresses are by Adrian and are masterpieces of the costumers’ art. Dwell upon them. The story is by one of the most gifted screenwriters of the day, Jules Furthman. The filming of the typhoon at sea is worth the show – but all of it is worth the show. If only to just watch Gable, and see how good an actor he is, a factor almost impossible to scope past his personal presence, confidence, and beauty.

 

 

Air Force

07 Jan

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

* * * * *

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

 

The Help

16 Aug

The Help – Directed by Tate Taylor. Magnificent Feat Drama. An ambitious Mississippi Junior Leaguer decides to make a secret collection of the  recollections of the other Junior Leaguers’ colored maids. 137 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

Have you ever heard of invisible ink? Well, The Help is the story of an invisible revolution. It all goes on completely underground, until one day the lemon juice of publication brings the revolution into the embarrassing light of day.

The book is devoid of description, but told solely in monologue of what the characters are thinking and dialogue between them. This gives an inside picture, naturally somewhat lost to the film, but the film gives an outside picture of the world of the Mississippi town, standing-in for Jackson, where it was originally set, and a view of the characters in the round.

As a film it is amateurly directed and edited. Someone says something to the camera; the camera shifts to someone saying something back; the camera shift back to what the first person says.  This bashes any sense of what really lies between people, and leaves us only with character reactions. And the result is that the actors’ work tends to be emotionalized: that is the actor will produce the emotion concurrent with registering righteous satisfaction in having the emotion. It is TV acting at its basest, self-congratulatory to the max.

The beautiful Cicely Tyson, the great Allison Janney, Oscar winners Mary Steenburgen and Sissy Spacek all bring their chops to provide a strata of foundation stone to the story. Bryce Dallas Howard gives a ruthlessly honest performance as the control freak Hilly. Jessica Chastain (the mother in The Tree Of Life) startles as the Dolly Parton white trash millionairess.

Octavia Spenser and Viola Davis play the leading roles of the maids who are the first to sign on to speak their secret memoirs, records of the pain and beauty of their servitude. There is a moment when Davis pulls her arm away from the consolation of Spenser that will make you weep to behold. The director is clumsy with these actors, but their skill and dignity win through.

The character of the young woman inspired to gather these recollections would appear to be a hard role to play, but it is done beyond the call of duty by Emma Stone.

The entire endeavor is too self-satisfied to get away with itself, but the fundamental story is a good one and is honored. I don’t know if you will love it if you haven’t read the book, but I say it’s, like the creation of the memoirs themselves, worth a try.

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The Great Debaters

26 May

The Great Debaters – Directed by Denzel Washington. Winning-Through Docudrama. A small rural Negro college in Texas in 1935 gains national acknowledgement as an unbeaten debating team.  126 minutes Color 2007.

* * * *

The musical score of this film undermines by supplanting the drama and emotion of every scene it is heard in. And this is quite unnecessary, because Washington is a first class director of actors. They need no musical appurtenances. There are four debaters and their skin is beautiful, their faces are beautiful, their acting is beautiful. Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, a brilliant professor among brilliant professors at Wiley College in Marshall Texas, and he coaches them ruthlessly to win, and win they do. This is like a Rocky film or a horse film. Since it is about a feat, you understand at the outset that you are to be faced with a foregone conclusion, and so we are presented here with the customary tropes of such stories. For me, the problem with this show was that these tropes galloped away with the film, and with it went all living peculiarity. We are left with nothing but the contraption of the tropes. Washington begins it with a brilliant display of character acting as he recites poetry in his classroom and scares and excites everyone therein. But his entire character is lost as the film goes on, and lost too is his particular story of his writing all the debates for the students, and lost too are the character pieces, the genre scenes, those little anteroom scenes necessary to put the film on a siding so that we may enjoy and get to know the characters. Forest Whitaker plays the chaplain of the college, and he is getting to be a better actor with time; it’s nice to see. Neither he nor Washington, though, has any temperamental or ego conflict to be resolved with one another or with anyone else in the picture. We have four lovely actors playing the four debaters: the 14 year old Denzel Whitake playing son to his father; Nate Parker as the brilliant and defiant ne’er-do-well; Jumee Smollett as the first female debater, and Jermaine Williams who must bow out. They are dear, but I wish the choochoo train the script thrust them on had, from time to time, stopped at a station not called Debate. Although it’s played well, the whole romance business could have been scrapped; it goes nowhere, and it routinizes the film. However I am grateful for the small mercies of it, an accounting, especially at the beginning, of how it all started. I wish Washington had not been forced by the script to forsake his character for his usual star stuff. Given the script, there was nothing else for him to do. I love these black actors, though, and I am grateful to see them in films where violence is not the main source of interest. The Extra Features are lovely, and in so many ways, so is the film.

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