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Archive for the ‘PERSONAL DRAMA’ Category

First Reformed

18 Jun

First Reformed –– written and directed by Paul Schrader. Drama. 114 minutes. Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: The pastor of a famed New England Church struggles with crises of faith, ethics, mission, courage, and his own past.
~
How does an actor convey all these at once?

He never conveys them. He holds still, opens his pores, and lets the audience convey them for him.

Of course, that’s the way it’s written and directed and filmed, but Ethan Hawke is an actor in the past covered with a sheen and endowed with an unfortunate smirk at the corners of his mouth, so he has never been an actor of much penetration, but rather an actor of unearned smugness.

But, recognizing himself to be not an A-list actor, the movies he has chosen to be in have been more interesting than his work in them. This has served him well and kept him before us. This has been true of him since he was young, which he no longer is. Here he plays a pastor of 47 which is also the age he is. He looks every day of it.

And he has largely mislaid his basket of acting tricks, we get only one empty side-long glance. His pushy charm and the coin of youth are gone.

He is not an actor who inhabits a character or whom a character inhabits. In his watchfulness as an actor there is the sense that he is not an actor at all, but a writer. So his instrument is limited and squeezed.

But what has always been so is that he is an actor who is present for the character to be present. And, oftentimes in screen acting, more than this is unwanted.

We are told about his minister; he tells us things; others tell us things; things are shown about him; the camera watches what he does, and all these things inform us with what we must learn in order for us to participate in creating this character.

So Ethan Hawke has begun to grow up in his craft. Hawke does not distract us or force a point of view of the character on us, so he is never remote. If, for narrative purposes, the character feels despair, we see despair in Hawke’s eyes and face. Otherwise not. If the character drinks, and it is narratively unnecessary for us not to know why, Hawke never betrays the story by detouring it into making whisky understandable. If the character is meant to internalize the ravage of the environment, the domination of the plutocracy, the fatness of the megachurch, his thoughtless fatherhood, he holds true to an ancient family and social code of consideration for others which would compress these influences and never show them. And we believe it. He does not indicate they are in him, and because he does not, we intuit that they must be in him.

Hawke keeps the physical circumstances of his body small. It’s a part which the slightest gesture would betray the role into overacting.

So we are not interested in Ethan Hawke here because he is, like Bette Davis, an actor of passionate histrionic drive whose physical show stuns us. No. Hawke simply leaves that out and lets the audience do the job of bringing the character alive in Hawke’s flesh. Hawke’s presence and the character become concurrent.

This is important because of the style of the film which is ruled by the decorum of church settings, music, and deportment. The film does not rush. It is as ritualized as a processional. Words are allowed to be heard. Scenes are allowed to develop. Arguments are allowed to ripen. We are in a film of grown up matters. There are social and spiritual and religious dialogues. We have to hear them out, for we too, as audience, have our pastoral duty. We see that characters do not realize that some of this formality is so beside the point that it is dangerous.

The film lets music play its role but never to enforce mood, but to counterpoint it. The camera is as steady as the style of the tale it tells. The acting of the others confirms the director’s style, which is to reveal the story straightforwardly and no more fully than our digestion permits.

With First Reformed we are constantly in the experience of story. Paul Schrader is like Satyajit Ray and Ingmar Bergman in this.

Hawke’s character has lost his ability to pray. Every human on earth loses their ability to pray every day. Each of us struggles towards an ethos vivid to us. Hawke’s character has lost this struggle. What is he to do?

I honor this film, everything about it, and everything in it.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Method, Ethan Hawke, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

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.

 

The Novitiate

05 Dec

The Novitiate – Directed by Margaret Betts. Drama. 123 minutes Color 2017
★★★
The Story: With no outside pressure, in fact directly in the face of her mother’s disapproval, an eighteen-year-old girl enters training to be a nun.
~
Divided of purpose, unlike its heroine, the film loses its attack on the subject through its casting. The great Melissa Leo? Miscast? Let’s see.

Fortified with an enormous technique, distinctive looks, and a particular and well-placed voice, Leo always offers someone definite. Good. She plays the Mother Superior as unnecessarily strict. The Mother has taken her very identity from the generations-old and rigorous disciplines of her order, and now Vatican II, with its slackening of ritual and custom, threatens that identity.

But the split in the story lies just here. For the Mother Superior’s obsession with her order precedes the introduction of Vatican II into the story and one might say has nothing to do with it.

“Are there any questions?” she asks the fresh novitiates. A hand is raised. “Go home,” she coldly says. “You must not question.” But the point is or ought to be that the obedience Mother Superior offers might be a value worth our attention, yet Leo’s cold playing throws our chance for that out the window along with the novitiate she has just discharged. Because Leo is draconian, we align ourselves against her and whatever she may stand for. The performance leaves no room for doubt in the novitiates or in us the audience, for, just as they do, we need the suspense of doubt to engage with their plight.

If the words had been said kindly, we would have had a chance to wonder about the values Reverend Mother offers. And to remember that, at times, unquestioning obedience is good for our souls. If the Mother Superior is played as a martinet, we are robbed of the drama of our own decision in the matter.

Perhaps the part appears to be written that way. Perhaps Leo was told to play it that way. But playing it that way dismisses the disciplines of nuns as the malpractices of sadists. Wasn’t there more and other to their practices than that?

We hear Leo lament that Vatican II declares nuns will no longer wear medieval wimples and indeed are now ordinary people. And when the film proper is over, we read that 90,000 nuns left the church. (I go on a yearly silent retreat at Santa Sabina, one such former priory.) Well, if the neighbors don’t look up to nuns as special, what is the use of remaining or becoming one. And if your spirituality in its delicacy cannot be part of and protected by walls and encouraged by the modest idolization of an order, how is a young woman to make a life’s work of devotion to God at all?

The story splits. If it were not already split by a lesbian explosion in the novitiate, Sister Cathleen, whose bone fides in a genuine spiritual calling prepare us in no way for this disruption. Margaret Qualley in the part holds our attention by remaining a complete mystery.

Leo is marvelous in all she does, but I wish the director had asked her to do something else. She holds us in our seats – but for the wrong reason.

The supporting people also hold us in our seats, particularly Julianne Nicholson as Sister Cathleen’s earthy mother, and Dennis O’Hare’s masterful fun delivering his ultimatums as an experienced and lets-get-down-to-business Archbishop.

The life of the celibate eremite is almost lost to Christian religion. The choice to withdraw forever into the gated cloister merits and requires protection, support, understanding and – why not? – respect. So where are these young people to go for the quiet, lifetime contemplation of God? Where? Many recent films have blared out the scandal of sexuality in The Church. Good. But will that stop it? Were those films meant to stop it?

Yes, they were. And in the process they seem to have damaged the structure for holy calling itself, as here, in The Novitiate. It’s a topic still worthy of a film worthy of it.

 

Lion or Far Away From Home

02 Jan

Lion or A Long Way Home –  directed by Garth Davis. Picaresque Drama. 119 minutes Color 2016.

★★★

The Story: A five-year-old Indian urchin, lost in Calcutta, is adopted by a middle-class family in Australia, and, aged 25, seeks to find his original family in India.

~

The first dumb thing is its title, Lion, for the main character is no such thing. The secondary title is more to the point and requirements of our understanding.

We enter the boy’s life with his mother, and with his older brother scavenging the streets of Delhi to supplement their mother’s income as a laborer moving rocks. They are impoverished but close and loving.

Due to a mischance, the little boy is separated from his brother and soon finds himself a thousand miles away, homeless, starving, and not speaking the language.

So far, all is well with the film. We are thrilled and held. We have a Dickensian tale of dire orphanage, a situation which appeals to the orphan in each of us.

But as soon as the movie lands in Australia it becomes dumb. It fast-forwards twenty years and kersplatts into an unnecessary side trip into a romance with a young American girl. And it kersplatts into an unnecessary detour into his relation with his older, also adopted, Indian brother. And it kersplatts into pantomimic melodrama, wrist to temple, as he wrestles the matter of tracking down his family of origin.

The worst dumb thing it does is make us watch him find his house of origin – by satellite – which means that the search is undergone not by him but by a robot.

By this point the film has lost its focus, story, and passion. And two sensational actors are left at sea on a foundering script. Nicole Kidman as the boy’s adoptive Australian mother must dig deep to bring the proper soundings to the part of the mother in the screen time allotted her. This she manages to do, but the script fumbling around her does not support her work.

And it undercuts our understanding of the main character played by the wonderful and wonderful again Dev Patel. You just sit there and welcome him on the screen. What a delight! What an actor! See it, as I saw it, for him. Don’t miss him.

Never miss him.

 
 

A Passage To India

10 Dec

A Passage To India – written and directed and edited by David Lean. Colonial Drama. 244 minutes Color 1985.

★★★★

The Story: A young woman and her Aunt travel to India to visit, and India takes hold of them with a mortal attraction.

~

David Lean’s last film, now a DVD whose extras are as interesting as the film itself. For you would never imagine how it was made in India back in the day. So take a look at the second DVD.

A couple of problems with the picture sully the experience, and some have to do with Lean’s mishandling of the material, for the ending does not match with the bones of the story. I can’t remember how E.M. Forster actually ends the book, but it can’t be like this.

Other difficulties have to do with his handling of what happened in the cave. E.M. Forster never told what happened there. And the reason he didn’t is because he did not know. In any case, in the film at least, it is clear that Miss Quested has a brain wave of some kind, becomes unhinged, and proclaims that Doctor Aziz has molested her.

In the film, we are shown Miss Quested with lust in her eyes wanting Dr. Aziz in the cave. He, looking for her, of course, looks into her cave, does not see her, and looks into other caves for her. But Lean does not have the psychological imagination to cinematically envision what goes on inside her that produces the catastrophic result. What would the ingredients be? Lust? Shame when he doesn’t come in? Remorse? Flight? Embarrassment? Revenge? We get none of this. All we get is some cactus scratches. So what is supposed to hang over the story as a mystery, becomes a mere opacity.

Part of the trouble is that the preparation for the cave scene is inadequate. For the excursion Miss Quested makes beforehand, accidentally coming upon pornographic statues in the wild, does not expose enough of the male side of sex to count with the audience. Because we hardly see anything risqué, we are not shocked; so how can we gauge the statues’ shock on her? Lean has no sense of such things.

Another trouble is that we have in Judy Davis a young female none of this would shock. She is not the swooning sort. She is Australian-earthy, not a female given to fantasies, derangements, traumatic shames, or unhingings. She is not a foolish virgin. She is a powerful and fascinating actress. Either she is simply miscast. Or it would be interesting were all this to happen to a strong personality, such as Judy Davis’s –  but Lean’s treatment as scenarist and director go nowhere near this. It is as though the film’s story – which is a female story – is speaking a foreign language when entering female territory.

In a way, Lean’s film, and all his films, are about the male characters. The female character of Mrs Moore, for instance, is never fully realized. Peggy Ashcroft, in a yeowoman effort, drags Mrs Moore not into clarity but into light. Clarity is not to be had. She and Lean argued badly as to how to do her. Ashcroft won, else nothing at all would have been there, and Ashcroft won the Oscar. And Judy Davis also locked horns with him. Lean did not have a clue about women. He would not have been married six times if he had.

The picture is ravishing in its scape. We see an India whose immensity of effect is always present, always beguiling, always seething We see wild crowds, marshalled armies in parade array, markets, mountains, rivers, structures, distraught railway trains, and placid colonial dwellings. It almost gives us a balanced canvas of Indian and English characters and points of view.

And all the male characters are superbly realized and performed, save, of course for Alec Guinness who pads about playing an Indian Fakir. Why he hypnotized himself to cast himself as a Hindu sage only a real Hindu sage would know. Crazy. It’s counter-productive to the balance the film strives to achieve.

The three other male actors do fine work. First, Nigel Havers as the potential fiancé of Judy Davis. He plays a young magistrate in the British Colonial judicial system, and he is the perfect young man, is he not? Havers gives a lovely, easy performance as Ronny, making us thankful for the thankless role. He knows not what he does as a character, but as an actor he does.

James Fox as the local schoolmaster, friend to both sides of the ship, rules half the film largely because his acting of Fielding is so thorough it engages our interest and bias. Grand work.

The co-star of the picture is Victor Banerjee, making his character full of life and optimism and love and curiosity and good will. His performance grounds the film in the open fluidity of a wonderful madness when he takes Mrs Moore and Miss Quested on a side trip to the Marabar caves.

The temperament of the movie is spectacle-as-narration. It contains no scene which is not visually telling and rewarding, or essential. Every detail frees the camera to our eye. Its direction retains great respect for our ability to tell a story through what we see, through the placement of character, and particularly to the painted elephant called India in whose howdah all visitors cannot help but be shaken back and forth. One of Lean’s wives was Indian, and he had lived there a good while. He had a strong sense of its place, style, and potential as a vivid film subject.

Within this vast national impression, the drama is actually a closet drama, involving only five characters, Mrs Moore, Miss Quested, Doctor Aziz, Fielding, and Ronny. The opera Aida comes to mind, a closet drama surrounded by a vast dynasty and huge military display. Many curious and unusual relationships venture into being before us. To witness them A Passage To India is worth seeing, or, in my case and maybe in yours, worth seeing again.

 

 

Manchester By The Sea

28 Nov

Manchester By The Sea – directed by Kenneth Lonergan. 137 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: Trapped, can this man get out of the trap, is there any thing, condition, person, breakthrough that can liberate him?

~

Well, a Hollywood movie this good, to my knowledge, never before came before my eyes. It is a Hollywood movie minus Hollywood. Unique. A top-notch cast leads it and balances it, and, for once, the person, who superbly wrote it, superbly directs it.

Its first distinguishing feature is that its characters are undistinguished. They are ordinary, their lives are ordinary, the circumstances that beset them and their responses to them are ordinary. This is what is extraordinary about them, and why I feel privileged to be with them. For I wouldn’t be allowed to ordinarily.

Casey Affleck plays a live-in handyman of Boston apartment houses, and one wonders how come. Not that he is special in any way, but that his current life and his testy personality seem a hermitage from something. The story is his, and our focus is on the mystery his difficulty with life seems bent to retain. He has a former wife, three young children, a brother and nephew, and a town, where he once lived, Manchester By the Sea, where he was reared and where everyone still knows him. His story outwardly concerns the death of this brother and the benefactions bestowed.

Casey Affleck is an actor I have in the past avoided like a left hand turn into moving traffic. When I first saw him ten years ago as Robert Ford in the Jesse James movie, the placement of his voice, a high, pleading whine, grated so I could not imagine he would ever have an acting career. He was thirty-one then; because of his voice, I took his character to not have gone through adolescence. Why didn’t this actor go to a speech therapist? Spare me his presence again.

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker said what I have never known him to say of a film, that he loved it, and a good friend suggested it, and I went. There I discovered that Affleck, now forty-one, has matured as a male, such that his voice, still oddly placed, has a weight no longer adolescent. His is a great performance because it is a great role, and a great role, because it is a greatly written role.

No nonsense. You will be taken through the wringer and grateful every moment that finally here is a film good enough to inspire that capacity in you. The film plays with the spaciousness and weight and variety of developed characters of a very good novel.

It is set in a Massachusetts town among lower working-class folks, every one of whom voted for Trump. So you’ll see how it is they did so. For these folks live only on a certain kind of emotional level, and emotion is their fight, their gauge and their ruin.

Of the major performances, Michele Williams, as Affleck’s wife, makes a lower-class woman completely alive and particular. The great scene with her nursing a cold in their bedroom is one of the best-written and directed scenes I have ever seen. It is exactly how things are, nothing forced, nothing manufactured, nothing left out. And the second scene, when she encounters him on the street, is excruciating in the attempt she makes to reach him and the just imperative in him that forbids it.

The second great piece of supporting work is Lucas Hodges as his nephew, the character whose resilience  drives the  story. Again brilliantly written from the credits on, when he is shown as a quick-witted nine-year old, as a sixteen-year old his character still does not miss a trick. There is nothing you can put over on him. And this skill in the character and the actor playing him provide the wall against which all the other characters are forced to play.

The film is a triumph of editing, costuming, filming. Its structure keeps one engaged in suspense from start to finish. You keep expecting something cheap to happen, and it doesn’t. Which means that, since you have read this review this far, you owe yourself the riches you deserve and will go to Manchester By The Sea.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

Moonlight

14 Nov

Moonlight – written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Drama. 114 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story: In three stages of his life, boyhood, youth, adulthood, an African-American male digests and responds to the forces besetting him and remains pure in his sexual loyalty to his friend.

~

What movies do best this movie does. It allows us to eavesdrop on scenes we would never attend. It grants to those scenes the intimacy of their full length and depth. And it does this by capturing the performances of the actors and never giving up on the truth acting alone can reach.

If that were not so passionate an utterance it would be dull. But I leave this film transformed by it after and transfixed by it while it unfolds. I have great respect for the narration, which is the director’s job, what he shows, what he withholds, what he allows the audience to do on the story’s behalf.

I have never seen any of the actors before. I cannot believe I will ever see them in material which will allow them to be better than they are here.

The story will put you in mind of David Lean’s Brief Encounter or Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. But this film is far more detailed and rich.

I offer you a full bow before Moonlight. Watch me. Full credit. Which means all the credit that cannot be uttered because it leaves one speechless.

The acclaim this film has received is astounding. It is the least that criticism can do.

It is the movie of the year.

 

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

Washington Square & Acting & Maggie Smith

27 Oct

Washington Square & Acting & Maggie Smith– directed by Agnieszka Holland. Costume Drama. 116 minutes Color 1997.

★★★

The Story: Is the swain of the homely heiress a fortune hunter, as her father thinks, or is he something else?

~

I’m exploring the acting of Maggie Smith with you today and for a little while to come.

Yesterday, friends crabbed about The Lady In The Van. They made long faces, said they didn’t like Maggie Smith at all. Sounded like they would never go see her again if they didn’t have to. Stuck out their tongues.

Perhaps they make a mistake.

I haven’t seen the film, but the mistake they perhaps make is to confuse Maggie Smith with the character she is playing. Perhaps the character she is playing is unlikable, selfish, and cruel.

But, if the character is supposed to be these awful things and Maggie Smith convinces you she is those things, then Maggie Smith is a brilliant actor, to be admired, commended, enjoyed, and advanced in our affection. If she creates the character without eliciting your sympathy for the character, well that may be her job.

 

It used to be said that John Wayne was a bad actor. But people said that because he played cowboys, and the snob in folks thought Westerns were lowbrow so you could not find good acting in them. Entertainment, yes, good acting, no.

John Wayne was a good actor. Of course, he could not play King Lear. But to scold an actor because he cannot play a role his particular instrument is not suited to is plodding. And not being Lear does not mean the actor is not a good actor in his way. Who was ever better at What John Wayne Did than John Wayne?

 

Wayne’s instrument was not of a classical nature. But like the instrument of many classical actors, Wayne’s instrument was only truly at home in costume drama – costume-legend, which is what Westerns are. Even in non-Westerns he had to be in costume, the uniform of a trade – which in modern dress would be military uniform, sea captains’ togs, naval brass, Marine fatigues, Green Berets. Even when he started in perhaps his greatest Western, The Big Trail, as a very young man, he is already in fringed white buckskin. Put Wayne in a suit and tie and you have a problem. Why? Because –– think about it – his manner is never contemporary; it is always legendary. He is never paying anyone you would ever actually know.

There’s nothing wrong with that, nothing less in being able to act and do that. Wayne came from, belonged to, and remained in the heroic period and mode of film acting, which started when it started and has practically expired in film, although Tom Hanks, in his modest way, sustains the tradition in certain roles. Hanks originally played comedy. No more. Why is that? In asking this question we ask what sort of actor has he become, and what sort of actor is any actor.

Wayne is or became a performer of ceremonial plots. He delivered his dialogue with the ritual intonation of a doxology. He was successful at it. As King Lear he would not have been successful. Paul Scofield would have failed as Ringo in Stagecoach.

 

Maggie Smith’s instrument is also of a classical nature.

What does that mean – classical nature?

From the professional standpoint, it means the actor plays best in roles of high rhetoric: Shakespeare, Wilde, Shaw, Restoration Comedy, Old Comedy, Operatic Melodrama and Romance, Greek Tragedy, Schiller, Corneille, Moliere, plays in rhymed or unrhymed verse.

From the technical standpoint, the standpoint of craft, an art is classical which steals from the art of the past. Sargent is a classical painter because he stole from Velasquez. And it is one of the quirks of such an instrument that the noise the classical actor makes, whatever else it may be able to do, is generally not endearing, John Gielgud being an exception to this rule.

On the other hand, it also seems true that actors who are not classical actors are often quiet endearing. Lady Macbeth was not within Marilyn Monroe’s reach, but she was very endearing.

So it’s a good idea to try to see the whatness of an actor’s instrument before responding to their performance. Try to see what they are and what they are not before making up your mind.

 

As I say, I have not seen The Lady In The Van, but considering that Maggie Smith is essentially an actor seldom cast in heavy drama but more in comedy, we might consider what experienced theater folk say of her: that comedy is where the essence of her talent lies. That that’s the sort of actor she best and truly is.

In which case, from that lady in the van we might expect her to be nasty, sour, and unlikeable, and all those things we mentioned – plus funny.

If you look at her work in Downton Abby, you must observe that, except for Daisy and Mrs Patmore belowstairs, Smith is the only source of comedy, and the only upstairs version. Why does she make you laugh? (Those who know her say that as a person Maggie Smith is inherently funny!) The Dowager Countess is funny because she is wickedly funny.

And how does that work? How does she do it?

Why isn’t it just malicious? It almost is.

She’s funny because she makes her Dowager funny to herself.

She is not saying these things because they are mean. She says what she says not to hurt someone. She simply says it to them anyhow! And because it is delicious to her.

How does the Dowager get away with it?

She gets away because she directs her cracks towards those we already dislike. Which is also the way her part is written.

This is quite different from her performance as Lady Trenton in Gosford Park. The Dowager is not malicious. Lady Trenton is. She is inhumanly thoughtless to servants, whereas The Dowager is tolerant of her servants, and indeed pretends to let them believe that they rule her life. When Lady Trenton says, “Me? I haven’t a snobbish bone in my body!” you laugh at her behind her back as ridiculously unaware of herself. But, when an obnoxious suitor to the granddaughter of The Dowager says, “I’ll never come to Downton Abby again!” and The Dowager sweetly says. “Do you promise?” you laugh, for she is never ridiculous and always well aware of herself indeed. The Dowager has said what you yourself would wish to say to characters; Lady Trenton says what should never be said by anyone to anyone.

Partly what’s funny is that Smith makes The Dowager so completely selfish in this that you have to laugh. That is to say, she is happy. And the screenplay grants her license to be so. Still, how does she get away with it?

She gets away with it because The Dowager always tells the truth and it is always out of place. So it’s doubly funny – meaning its humor is complex and we find the very complexity funny. She gets away with it? Because no one can put her in her place; because, being a countess, she has the highest title; because she is the principal and ultimate forebear; because she is unassailably old; because she is rich; because she holds grand-maternal power; because she is beautifully spoken – all of which are givens with the role and therefore do not have to be acted at all and which Smith does not act. The Dowager is drenched in permission – all of which allow her to tell the truth out of place. Her job, as an actress, is to find the place. The Dowager is privileged as a child who cannot be spanked. What the rest of us have in mind but dare not say, she blurts.

And, of course, she is given lines which make her do so.

Such characters as The Dowager and Lady Trenton in Gosford Park have riches, power, position. They have everything, and so they are characters free to speak their minds. The one is funny to us in one way; the other is funny to us in another way.

Another character who could freely speak her mind would be one who had nothing. Such as a child.

Or a baglady in a van.

 

Other actresses admired Maggie Smith when she first started. And  actresses are quite chary and near and keen in perceiving excellence in a rival, and to all actresses all actresses are rivals. It was not because she played likeable characters, attractive characters, entertaining characters that she was admired by actresses. It was because she acted what was there. She played godsbody to Orson Welles in The V.I.P.s and a paid companion to Bette Davis in Murder On The Nile. Not glamorous roles. And not doing so, she has won 57 competitive acting awards in 158 nominations, and it would be wise to observe that these were not for roles whose conventions made her universally popular such as Bette Grable or John Wayne had. For, as anyone can tell, if she is a movie star at all, she is not a star of that sort.

She is not a star of the universally admired forces: The Heroine (such as Katharine Hepburn); The Endearing Lady (such as Elizabeth Bergner); The Trophy Wife (such as Elizabeth Taylor); The Sex Kitten (such as Brigitte Bardot); The Tough Dame (such as Barbara Stanwyck) or The Striver (such as Joan Crawford). Those women gave fine performances, but Maggie Smith is not an actor of such a universally and recognizably popular sort. She is not an actress of The Great Forces That Drive Us. That is not her whateness.

You might want to put Maggie Smith in Geraldine Page’s  class, but Page’s power puts her in a class by herself, and Maggie Smith does not possess Page’s power.

So you don’t go to Maggie Smith for a character to be nice or popular or kind or beautiful or vulnerable. Those are very big things, lovely things, some of them. You might find that a certain characters she plays might include those things. But you’d best not count on it. If you want bittersweet chocolate, Carole Lombard will grant it without fail. Carole Lombard was the most loved actress in Hollywood. She was also of the order of actress who could give the audience bittersweet chocolate reliably every time. Sweetness with a bite. It’s a fine order of actor. Maggie Smith is not of that order of universal consistency. Or rather, A Consistent Universality.

So you’d best not say you don’t like Maggie Smith when what you may really not like is the character she is playing. Miss Jean Brodie is not likeable .

So do not expect her to be always decent, as you do Henry Fonda, or emotionally pretty, as you do Marilyn Monroe. Or expectably anything. Or, rather, the only thing you might expect of Maggie Smith is that, within the realm of the character, she might be funny.

But her Desdemona in Olivier’s Othello, could be, but is never funny. So there! Best not expect anything.

 

Maggie Smith is now over 80. Leading roles for actors of this age are few. And, if they are written, do audiences come to see someone old?

Actresses take what is on offer at the time, as they have always done, and if character leads are also fewer, even an actor of renown may find herself pinched into the corset of a supporting role.

That seems to be Maggie Smith’s case with Washington Square, a TV adaptation of Henry James novel. It had previously been done in a Broadway play The Heiress, then in a notable film.

In all versions, Washington Square is about an upper class girl who is wooed by a good-looking worldly young man with no money. Her father acts as though the young man must want to marry her for her money and tries to put the kibosh on the wedding.

 

The hard thing is find the right cast.

In New York, the heiress was played by Wendy Hiller and the father by Basil Rathbone. Outwardly a good combination. In London it was played by Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson, another good combination. Cherry Jones won an Emmy in it 1995.

This version, which is a different take on The Heiress, returns us to something nearer his novel Washington Square. As a version it is more interesting, as a performance questionable.

The question arises as to how to play Catherine Sloper.

Her father sees her as unmarriageable – awkward, charmless, dull – and calls her so, forces that view upon her, that his daughter should really be man’s best friend, a lapdog.

But how does an actress do that?

For real.

Because the play, which has been successful many times, is about a person thinking they are not lovable. That is the drama. The drama is: is this true? Or in what way true? Can the suitor prove it to be true – or not true? Lovability. A Great Theme. Because each of us may harbor that gleaming doubt. Nobody Will Ever Really Love Me is the mantra in all of us that makes us want to prove this story out and stick with it.

But by what standard of unloveability is it judged, one must ask?

By the standards of her time, her father, her family history?

The actress must decide this. She must find what she can do. She must find what the rubric of acting allows her to do.

For unloveability itself cannot be acted.

Shyness might be acted, but it doesn’t get one far.

Modesty and humility, which is what Olivia De Havilland played in the film, don’t go far enough.

Physical awkwardness might do something – but it’s external. Here, the actress tries it in a dance scene, and it doesn’t ring true, because it’s exaggerated; she looks at her feet and counts beats. It’s too obvious, too externalized, too shown. Besides, behaving that way would make Catharine Sloper an idiot, and if she were retarded, she probably could not be pursued for a wife legally by anyone.

Does Catherine Sloper have sufficiently bad taste in dress to make her a poor trophy wife? Is that why she’s unlovable?

Here, she wears one hideous dress, true, but is one ugly dress enough to make one unmarriageable?

The character lacks self-confidence? Is that the basis of her unlovability?

It seems to me, that’s the heart of it, but in and of itself that is also unactable. That is, technically an actor cannot act such a thing as lack of confidence. What an actor can act is a seesawing between two choices resulting in confusion, which can be read as lack-of-self-confidence.

Lack of self-confidence can also be worked as someone who tries to be someone else or someone better or other than she is, which would make her a hypocrite and a phony. Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams does this, inadvertently.

But then such a Catharine Sloper would have to be a very tiny hypocrite for a suitor to get past it.

Or does Catharine Sloper think of herself as unlovable to please her father who calls her unlovable?

Does the key to the part lie in her father’s behavior towards her?

Does her confusion arise from believing her father loves her yet dubs her unlovable.

Her father resents her because her birth killed his wife, and so in his mind Catherine’s very existence deprived him of love and sex. So he in turn denies her both; it just comes out of him that way.

The father is an interesting character because his firm stand must be to declare he loves his daughter and declare she is unlovable, and in the same voice declare that the reason he says she is unlovable is because he loves her.

We can see this working itself out before us. When she is little he treats her as his devoted spaniel. And no more than that. We learn later what in his eyes her life should be: a permanent household companion to him. Obedient. Faithful. Fawning. He never wants her to leave the house. He never wants her to marry. He always wants her on a leash. He wants her faithful to him. He wants her to be a dog.

Yet we must believe that she believes that he loves her.

Or we must see that the extravagance of her love for him is designed to mask from her that he does not love her at all – a condition even more intolerable than the hypocrisy she fabricates to hide it.

So, we see her tearing down the stairs and jumping up on him like a clumsy puppy. Is that the key: she has decided she can be loved only as a Fido, not as a human woman. Is that where we have the foundation for Catherine’s character?

How would it feel to be treated like a pet dog, and agreeing to it, because it pleases the head of the house? And how would it feel buying into that fully – for her father and for everyone in their circle – and their buying into it too.

 

But now someone arrives on the scene who wants to treat her as a human being! A woman to be loved, desired, and married.

What does the actress do? Dog into human, human into dog.

Now there is something actable.

Perhaps Catharine’s failure of confidence is her awkwardness as she approaches life and others like a puppy.

Or, perhaps, she refuses to be petted, is standoffish, until she finds someone who can love her without scratching her behind her ear.

“Do people think I’m a dog? That I’m a mammal but not human? I don’t want them to. But so what! If that’s what they think, then I’ll be an Afghan Hound!” Is that how to start the part? On shaky ground?

 

I’ve seen this part done by Julie Harris, Olivia De Havilland and now Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Jennifer Jason Leigh has always been a problem-actress. She usually plays creeps, or at least that’s how everything comes out – the Lois Smith syndrome, except Smith got over it. We see something unstable in Jason Leigh as she does this. The actress, here as elsewhere, deliberately makes herself technically unmoored. Her characters go gaga. This turns her into a loose canon, such as she so brilliantly was in The Ugly Eight. And this is what Jason Leigh uses to show why Catharine Sloper is taken to be unlovable. Meaning unattractive. Meaning so odd no one can get a fix on her long enough to court her. She is unlovable because she’s too dangerous.

It doesn’t work. Catherine Sloper is not dangerous. Not insane. Were she insane or in danger of being so, there would be no drama, because the suitor would be automatically disqualified by it.

But still, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a professional actress playing a part for which she is suited. She has to go through with it.

And she fails because in the end we know we do not want the suitor to love Catharine any more than her father does. Because no one wants a handsome suitor to marry a bag lady. No wants a Catherine Sloper with such screaming eyes to marry anyone ever. And the reason we don’t is that Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Catherine Sloper is a creep. Whether the father loves her or the suitor loves her is of secondary importance.  We, the audience, must love her —  must know we love her — and love her for her — and we don’t.

 

Maggie Smith plays Catherine Sloper’s in-house chaperone, Aunt Lavinia. It’s a marvelous role, successfully played by Miriam Hopkins in the William Wyler movie in which Olivia De Havilland won an Oscar.

De Havilland is a pretty a woman if ever there was one, so that her Catharine is supposedly plain doesn’t work. Instead, her Catherine is supposed to be ordinary, which flattens the performance, so that’s is not quite enough either. But Ralph Richardson turns his opaque eye upon her to good effect. Montgomery Clift as the penniless suitor is beautiful enough to make up for all the qualities which the suitor Maurice Townsend is meant to possess: brilliance, charm, and a well-travelled sophistication, in all of which Clift is completely void. Montgomery Clift came from an upper class family; as an actor he is a City College undergraduate headed toward accounting.

None of these allures does Ben Chaplin possess either. He has lightless eyes and not great beauty. So we have to simply take on credit that he is her dreamboat.

The argument that the suitor could make a good husband as well as being a fortune-hunter does not enter into the Wyler film, but it does so here, and it is cogent, but not developed. It would make of this piece a considerable tragedy if it were and were there any appeal for us in the two actors themselves.

Another American actor, Judith Ivey, is excellent. The costumes of the ugliest period of women’s clothes in the history of the world are superb and are urban crinolines topped by sausage curls. Hideous. But accurate.

The interior settings are the most brilliant I have ever seen for this period. The movie is well worth watching just for them.

 

What Maggie Smith does is have a grand old time – strictly within the bounds of the size of the part.

Aunt Lavinia, poor woman, is as much in a passion over Maurice Townsend as Catherine Sloper is. Smith’s sexual dabbing on him, her brazen and fake-bashful rendezvous with him in a bordello, her interloping and go-betweening actually capsize the affair. Having so little business of her own, Lavinia noses into others’ business like mad.

Smith has a sound American accent in the sense that she rounds her Rs, a letter which, except at the beginning of words, the British never pronounce. Her mistake is that she has no specific American accent. Everyone in American came from somewhere in 1850; they would have sounded as though they did. Albert Finny as Dr. Sloper is also supposed to be American. Ben Chaplin the same, and is also English. So we have three English actors having vacated their native tongue and one American actress who has vacated her technique. The result is a dead axle.

Moreover, Maggie Smith, even with her American accent partly in place, does not convince in the role.

Watch what she does. Everything she does is on-the-money-American. But…

But her speech patterns are British. They are of British upper-class Modern Comedy, in which she excelled. Restoration comedy, in which she excelled. Shaw, in which she excelled. Oscar Wilde, in which she excelled. Comedies of Shakespeare, in which she excelled. It’s in her body.

The energy behind them is not of an American from Boston, a widowed Aunt living on the charity of relatives. The energy is British. The sort of person she gives us is someone who never crossed the sea.

 

To do my friends justice, their response to The Lady In The Van was that the character Smith played was so obnoxious that it made them gag, and, if they made of that a condemnation of the way she played her, their condemnation may be right. I haven’t seen it.

But if you look for the whatness of an actor at work you may find elements with which you can weigh and distinguish what you are seeing. This whatness is a quality almost so physical it will have a physical manifestation. Look for it. That way, you are more able to avoid saying that you hate an actor, that such an one is a bad actor or that so and so gave a bad performance. When, in fact, they have given a good performance of a character you don’t happen to care for.

 

It’s hard to distinguish one thing from another in human beings. Or in oneself.

Still, it’s more fun to look a little deeper.

It helps makes one more forgiving.

Before which, of course, one must become more ruthless.

 

~ ~ ~

 

 
 

Absence Of Malice

04 Jan

Absence Of Malice – directed by Sydney Pollack. Newsroom Drama. 116 minutes Color 1981.

★★★★★

The Story: The son of a former gangster is exposed in a Miami newspaper as under criminal investigation and tries to learn the truth from the female reporter who printed it.

~

When Mildred Dunnock came home from working with Paul Newman in Sweet Bird Of Youth, she told me “He’s always acting.” I didn’t ask her what she meant by this, though I knew she liked it, but I am going to report what I assumed she meant.

He is always generating.

What that means is that the character he is playing and the scene he is playing and the words he is saying and the attitudes he assumes all arise from a ground of chosen acting energy that you can’t notice, because if you did it would looked acted.

It certainly is true here. Newman’s task as an actor is to create a character who is competent. To do this he hauls liquor cartons, deals with strike breakers, opens fine wine, takes care of a 1943 yacht, serves a picnic on it, and reserves himself sexually by courting. He is always shown in competence-requiring actions. Ordinary everyday competence is the characteristic he must establish, because the finale of the film depends upon unobtrusive competence. You’re never to notice it; that’s how he gets away with it. It is his main character decision in the part, and he is right. Everything I said he does, he does. And as he does them he does them without effort or fear – slowly, carefully, as though he had done them many times before. He never “acts” them. The part of him that acts is another part entirely, and you can’t see it.

For to create this competence, it must spring from a center second nature to him: the thing he gets around in: the inner limousine of the Actor. Which you never see.

Newman’s habit of generating this conscious and constant energy is that of a race driver holding the car in neutral. The problem for Newman is that this tends to slow down momentum and get dull. You can see him practically fall asleep in Buffalo Bill And The Indians and Quintet. (They were Altman films and everyone smoked dope like mad; perhaps that’s what it was.)

Newman is 54 here admitting to 47, and he looks good. He entered films when he was 30, so he always looked younger, and, of course, to the day he left the screen he kept his figure and looked good. I notice when talking to him over the phone that he had most beautiful speaking voice. People talk about his looks, figure, blue eyes, but an actor’s best tool is his voice, and he had a great one. Check it out.

The ever-fretful Sally Field, a top notch actor, plays the reporter, who takes upon herself to write stories that cause a great deal of harm. To me it seemed the character was not authorized to write any of them, but the story has them meanly instigated by an assistant D.A., beautifully played by Bob Balaban. Wilford Brimley enters in to wrap-up the story and rap knuckles. It’s good to see Luther Adler as a Godfather in his last film role. Melinda Dillon plays the unbalanced friend of Newman so well that you think Dillon herself is unbalanced. But the film is not about acting but about an ethical crime.

I liked the film. I went with its pace, as it took its time to move through the examination of its subject dramatically, carefully, and fairly. Journalism put on the hot seat. Good.

 
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Posted in Bob Balaban, DIRECTED BY: Sydney Pollack, Paul Scofield, PERSONAL DRAMA, Sally Field

 

For Colored Girls

05 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Words

24 Aug

The Words —written and directed by Brain Klugman and Lee Sternthal. Drama 102 minutes Color.

★★★

The Story: Do you have the right for the truth to set you free, and will it do it, is the conundrum at the heart of this grifter story of a literary theft.

~

What is the difference between a hunk and a lug? A lug is a hunk without sex appeal. Such is Bradley Cooper in leading roles such as this. He is an actor born to follow, born to play in ensemble, born to suborn his tiny talent as a leading man into a pretty big talent as a character lead. Alas, not here.

Here he heads up and gets made a film by his boyhood chums, and an interesting story it is too – except they don’t know how to tell it. Having written it, they assume it told.

But I labored for the entire film under the delusion that the lecture with which it began was the university professor’s public reading of a biography of the writer Cooper plays.

It is no such thing. It was by the mere chance of watching the Extra Features that I learned the truth – a truth which I shall reveal to you now since it should come as no surprise and no mystery. The book read out loud by Dennis Quaid – an actor of complete mastery in playing emptied souls – is not a biography. It is a work of fiction, which Cooper and others subsequently enact.

It deals with a writer who publishes a book he has not written.

The good part is that the person who has written it turns up and is played by that dab hand Jeremy Irons. An old man, at the end of his days, Irons bodies forth this creature in living grey! He is an actor who seems can do no wrong. He seems absolutely free in his craft. He seems to have a big space around him into which he may toss his inventions. His presence alone makes the picture worth your time.

And so does the question of whether the Cooper character is to ever tell the truth. Or simply ride the wave of the fame which is his and not his at all.

I leave that to your mulling. It is worth the watch to make it.

 
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Posted in Bradley Cooper, Dennis Quaid, Jeremy Irons: acting god, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

Southpaw

28 Jul

Southpaw ­– directed by Antoine Fuqua. Sportsdrama. 123 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★

The Story: The Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion falls on evil days and rises once again.

~

All boxers are born punchdrunk. They would have to be thickheaded to stand the blows to their heads and thickheaded to imagine a fight could ever solve whatever drove them to want to fight to begin with.

Jake Gyllenhaal certainly grasps this as his basis for the character’s energy. It’s been used before in Kid Galahad, Rocky, The Fighter, and Wallace Berry’s 1931 The Champ of which this film is a dead ringer – the story of a fighter who puts his life together for his young son, the appealing Jackie Cooper, in this case for a daughter, the appealing Oona Lawrence. Southpaw is as dated as the antimacassar.

It is essentially an old-fashioned Victorian melodrama – at least it becomes that once Rachel McAdams is out the picture. While she is in it, the writing is superb. Once she is out of it, the writing degenerates, as it has to, to feed the dastardly plot. Cary Grant received his only Oscar nomination for playing the same ne’er-do-well parent in George Stevens’ Penny Serenade. But the present film gives Gyllenhaal no such Oscar scene as the famous one Grant played with Beulah Bondi.

But it does provide the four principal players with acting roles each of them makes wonderful.

As the twelve year old daughter, Oona Lawrence strengthens every scene she plays. Rachel McAdams, holding the reins on her out-of-control angry husband, has just the right touch. After all, her husband is puerile; he can’t help it. Forrest Whitaker’s acting improves with every film I see him in: he has lost the bid for pity which once marred his work.

However, these characterizations exist apart from the melodrama they are forced to pass through. 1-2-3 Melodrama declines subtlety of characterization; it requires types. So, although the work the actors do is worth the film-time, it is impossible to root for the outcome, because we already know what it is. If the lady is tied onto the railroad tracks she will be snatched from under the wheels of the train in the nick.

Gyllenhaal’s work is somewhat sideswiped by having to bear this melodrama-load.

He claims to have accepted the role because it was about a man learning to be a father. Of course, it is no such thing, though that is a value we are asked to accept. Nor is it about a man learning anger-control, although that is a value we are asked to accept. Anger-control takes a life-time to ingrain. It isn’t even a story about a man rising from the dregs of defeat, although this is also such a value, because we never believe in that defeat’s convenient, clumsy arrival as a plot convention. The material is mangled by the dead sentimentality of its form which is claptrap and a  sham.

What makes it work is watching Gyllenhaal and the other actors work.

Gyllenhaal gives his character a voice as though scabs lined his vocal chords. Not every actor can generate a character-voice; Bette Davis never could. This voice allows you to wander into his character and find inside his Billy Hope a mother-wit and a grasp of values, alongside of a gruesome swagger and a plodding gullibility, the bravado of a big-horned ram and the docility of a lamb.

Gyllenhaal is truly ugly in the ring. So we are not asked to pity a pretty face. He wears an undergrowth of short red beard, his teeth are blackened, his hair is shorn on the sides like a con’s. Billy Hope is a character so well made you wish it could have been supported by a story that did not sabotage it. Melodrama forces care. So, alas, we cannot care.

I don’t know why we are not told that a left-handed boxer is at a great disadvantage in the ring and in what way; that could have been a drama element for us. But, at least, we are taken through Gyllenhaal’s training by Whitaker; so we learn something of ring tactics, footwork, and the fact that good fighters don’t destroy opponents with haymakers. All it takes is the force of a five pound jab to knock the brains of an opponent into a coma.

All the information Gyllenhaal has given on Terry Gross ‘s Fresh Air, The New Yorker, and elsewhere, has enlarged one’s respect for this actor’s clarity of wit and the inevitability of his calling.

Fights in fight movies are stories within stories. In this film, they are superb. But the larger story that houses them in Southpaw is prefabricated.

I recommend the movie, but not over Mark Wahlberg’s The Fighter. Wahlberg makes his character modest and withdrawn. Gyllenhaal’s character is volatile and brazen, inside of which is an intelligence just daring to peek out. They are both wonderful actor performances. Southpaw is well worth seeing therefore, even though one wishes its larger story was as true as its fights, or as the acting of its actors is true.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Inside Out

21 Jun

Inside Out – director Peter Docter. Animated Feature. 102 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★

The Story: The inside of an eleven-year-old girl’s mind in crisis.

~

Even in 3-D the most noticeable aspect before us is not birds flying into our eyes, but the greater interest lying in the witty veracity of responses of the main characters to what confronts them. In this, all human comedy consists, and we are treated with an untiring and untiresome display of it, even when the film sinks beneath its own spectacle, as it is bound to do, because nowadays each film released must exceed the one before in vulgar excess, or the audience, it is imagined, will be failed and fail it.

For I long to dwell upon a detail. Won’t they allow me that, even once? Inside the little girl’s head we have such Castles In The Air as FAMILY, HONESTY, HOME, GOOFBALL, each one set up as elaborate Pleasure Islands Of Nostalgia And Habit. Oh, I want to examine one of those, see what it contains! Please! But no, we are whisked away to the next loom of catastrophe quicker than two eyes can blink or even one.

The trouble with catastrophe is that it soon becomes labored and ho-hum. Still, there is pleasing suspense in just how the two heroines will be reunited. For OUTSIDE is the girl Riley, whose thumbnail bio we are given from birth to introduce the human qualities she was born with and contains INSIDE.

INSIDE, from her first glimpse of air, Riley is possessed of and is possessed by a quintet of forces and tendencies, Grief, Rage, Paranoia, Revulsion, and Joy. Joy alone is female. Joy is Riley’s default position, and so Joy womans the controls.

But something goes wrong, and she and Grief are zoomed into a region separated from those controls and, to save the day for Riley, must get back to where they belong, a journey more picaresque and fraught than any one ever had getting back to Tara or There’s No Place Like Home.

On their way they enter many a curious station, The Warehouse Of Memory, The Palace Of Imagination, The Compost Bin Of Experience. They meet up with Riley’s imaginary childhood friend, Bing-Bong, with whom they try to jump The Train Of Thought. He’s a lot of fun, too.

I say no more, save that, as in Frozen, it was good to see two female heroes before us, and no romance. The idea of animation entering the mind was overdue, although it has always been present in Bugs Bunny without saying so. Best of all I liked the wit of the drawing and the script. If the film confuses movement for zest, that is the temptation of all cartoon.

So much was included it was hard to note what was missing, which was the presiding character of Attention – that which discerns the INSIDE with the OUTSIDE. But perhaps that was left in the hands of the audience for a job, which, with no applause, we all did accurately and with care.

 
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Posted in COMIC ACTION ADVENTURE, DRAMEDY, FANTASY, PERSONAL DRAMA, SUSPENSE

 

I’ll See You In My Dreams

05 Jun

I’ll See You In My Dreams – directed by Brett Haley. 92 minutes Romantic Drama 2015.

★★★★

The Story: A middle-aged widow moves through her days happily, her routine interloped by a romance with a handsome stranger.

~

I’ve seen Blythe Danner most of her performing life, starting with her playing young romantic leads at Williamstown with Frank Langella and Mildred Dunnock. Her acting energy was never teeth-clenching dramatic. A soft allure surrounded her and was taken for granted by the roles she was cast in as the natural focus of sexual attention.

This halo has stayed with her throughout her long career. She is an actress whom it is understood must be given so much that she has not earned. Everyone – everyone – expects her to be the focus of romantic attention.

What I am describing here is, of course, the quality of a type – the true leading lady.

The looseness of our expected attributions to her are embodied in her vague, carefully unkempt hair. She is an actress who is expected to give little and does so give. She is naturally elegant, and this is brought forth sternly by the three bridge-playing cronies who surround her, all of whom are short and homely. Her clothes hang on her easily. She is one of those women who always looks so svelte you never know what their figures actually look like.

The romantic interest is brought on by Sam Neill, in a role which is marked, of course, by machoistic shallowness. He plays sexual confidence with a self-satisfied and knowing smile which reduces every move he makes to smugness.

At any rate, it’s not about him. It’s about Blythe Danner. And, sure enough, she is both the one you are given to watch and the one you do watch. Some women are like that on the screen. Catherine Deneuve is such an one. For all the attention I bestow on Blythe Danner is done knowing she is – unlike her daughter Gwyneth Paltrow – cold. To act she sometimes moves her mouth. Incorrectly. Why, then, do I root for her? It’s because she’s so lovely.

The theatre was packed. It’s still packed. The actor I loved in it was Martin Starr as a diffident pool guy. The script is badly underwritten, and yet Starr makes everything he says true and funny. But this is not a story about young people. For there is an audience for stories about and for people who are over 24 years-old.

To see Blythe Danner for me is to rest in the expectations and hopes of my youth, as though, this time, they might be met. I gaze upon Blythe Danner’s complexion, which at 72 is unmapped by time, and wonder if only she had the right husband, maybe me. That is to say, we have all of us who ever saw her, and see her still, to give her only as much as what her coolness dares inspire, a focus for our own vanity.

 
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Posted in Blythe Danner, Martin Starr, PERSONAL DRAMA, Sam Neill

 

Whiplash

20 Mar

Whiplash – written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Drama. 106 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: At a New York jazz conservatory, a young drummer is brutalized by his teacher.

~

Whiplash is an essay on teaching. J.K. Simmons is to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for it – although it is not a supporting role. It is a leading role as by nature of the material it has to be.

However, setting that aside as a failed fait accomplis, the story succeeds in presenting a tyrannical bastard whose uses his position as teacher to run riot over those in his care. The story fails on another ground, however, which is to make plain that the teacher he plays is insane, wrong, and lying. And that there there is no advantage whatsoever to endure or outlast his tutelage.

J.K. Simmons plays the teacher who bullies and slaps his pupils. They are all males and he revels in homophobic put-downs of them. He calls them faggots and cocksuckers never calls them anything else. “Okay, ladies,” is his greeting when walking in the rehearsal room door. He is capricious in his treatment of them and widely contemptuous. His encouragement of them is to shame them.

We have had enough of this sort of teacher in our lives. The lie they tell us is that they are behaving vilely toward us for our own ultimate betterment, that we may exceed ourselves in high art. They are reducing us to tears and fear and zero self-esteem, they say, so we may surpass ourselves and become names to be reckoned with. It is a complete lie. What they are doing is seeking dominion, and that is all they are seeking.

We have had enough of such teachers. We have enough of such teachers as Madame Sousatzka. We have had enough of the tyrannical behavior of Sanford Meisner, the overbearing queening of Stella Adler, and the brutality of Kim Stanley when she taught in New Mexico. Their purpose was not to liberate their students to the full potential of their talent but to reduce them to an audience merely – an audience which they as actors no longer or never did command.

It is exactly the same as the motive of Adolf Hitler, whom as we know had no strategy whatsoever for what he was doing in Europe, save to dominate it. We see it in his speeches and his acts. And they succeeded. To what good end? None.

Likewise, in Whiplash the virtuoso performance that we see is not that of the drummer who is badgered and nearly killed by the demand for subservience. The virtuoso performance is that of the actor playing the teacher. His domination dominates the show and creates it.

And it must be understood that such a performance can only take place when the actor is given the chance by the script to reduce another human being to ashes. As with Hitler, so with Professor Fletcher. So with Bette Davis in her heyday at Warners. Not only in seizing dominion over the set, but in her actual life, and not only there, but in her big virtuoso fliteing scenes when she tells some male character off in a movie – scenes written especially for her – and thrilling to behold. Thrilling to imagine that we ourselves might tell someone off just like that. Wow.

Better not.

Egomania run rampant. Humans playing God.

Not a good idea.

Not good for whom?

In Whiplash we are not asked to examine the question what effect this might have on the person doing it. The life and art of Bette Davis disappear for the last forty years of her life. What about that? No. What we are asked to behold is the effect on the student. This the film makes clear for a while, but finally does not make clear.

Does the student ultimately benefit by his teacher’s brutality? Or not.

The young man is cast and played admirably by Miles Teller.

His lesson, from all this though, is what?

Does he triumph at the end because he has been browbeaten? We don’t know. All we know is that he takes over the orchestra itself by starting up and setting the beat for a Carnegie Hall number as Professor Fletcher is announcing it to the audience. But what is the action here?

Is the drummer proving the teaching method to have been fortifying to him?

Or is the drummer acting separately, independently, and apart from it?

All we see is the action by the drummer, which is to seize dominion from the conductor, Fletcher. That’s all we see.

So is he doing to Fletcher what Fletcher was doing to him? Is he beating Fletcher up in public?

Of course, the drummer seizes power over the moment, the band, the conductor on anger. And he plays the drums on anger.

For only anger can do this. Only anger can fuel a display of dominance. Only anger can Hitlerize over the pupils of a Sanford Meisner or a Terrence Fletcher or a nation.

The pretense on display before us, which is that Fletcher then recognizes the drummer’s sovereignty and partners up with it, is bushwah. Dominators do not twin. They are solo acts. As the drummer is a solo act.

Is the drummer’s solo also toxic? Also a feat of egomania? An act of ruthless self-indulgence?

Is human anger always toxic?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Depends.

It is useful to set this rendition of teaching next to another presently before us, that of Kevin Costner in Mcfarland USA.

Yes, the coach there makes the boys exert themselves beyond their current level. Of course he does. That is what coaches do. And the coach he plays has been demoted to the outpost of Mcfarland because of an out-of-control anger.

But that is not what we see in the coach now. What we see in him now is steady application of long-distance running drill fueled by encouragement – not by demeaning the team, not by calling the boys faggots, not by reducing them to humiliation, tears, and fear. The actual dominion in that Chicano community is that of the mother serving Costner his food in no uncertain terms. The dominion is family. The moral of the story is that the race is won – in the Carnegie Hall of cross-country running – not by the best runner but the worst runner of all. And everyone benefits.

When pianist Sviatoslav Richter hitchhikes to Moscow at age 19, he has been playing the piano all his life but has never had a piano lesson in his life, but he goes there to play for Russia’s greatest teacher Heinrich Neuhaus. Richter auditions. Neuhaus whispers into the ear of the person next to him. “I believe he is a genius.” Richter stays in Moscow and, being without funds, camps out for a good while by sleeping in Neuhaus’s apartment under the piano. And Neuhaus kindly teaches him the few things Richter has yet to learn. He turns out to be the greatest classical pianist of the last half of the 20th Century.

That is a story about how a great teacher deals with talent. A hard home, under a piano, yes, but not a hostile home.

But the great fact about teachers of art, cruel or kind, is that they presently learn that not one student in a million has any talent at all. What students get out such schooling is an immersion in a sport or art which will enrich their lives forever – and better their lives too for the effort and the victory of the effort. And what the students will learn of craft may indeed aid them to become but to become no other than competent amateurs, devoted aficionados.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Not a thing. But to listen to J.K. Simmons as Fletcher talk about his great purpose in battering his students, to hear him compare himself to someone who by throwing a brass cymbal at a player turned that player into Charlie Parker is be asked to swallow a consummate arrogance as a consummate kindness. It is not a kindness. It is the reverse. And it has nothing to do with teaching. It is the reverse.

J.K. Simmons is the virtuoso artist here, not the young man who plays the drums. For Simmons is given the anger scenes to play, and, even when they are not anger scenes, anger is what the character desires to run and will contrive to run given any cue whatsoever. Rage is the touchiness of an absolutist agenda. Rage is the frustration of an inflexible expectation.

Almost all of this the script delivers to us and so does Simmons. All save the writing, playing, and direction of the final lie in the jazz dive toward the end, where Fletcher reveals his holy strategy to the drummer.

This is not played as the hollow hyperbole of an absolutist agenda that it is. It is played as the Greatest Ideal In All Teaching – just as all absolutist agendas are presented. Granted Simmons as an actor must believe Fletcher’s doxology is true, good, and necessary. But what the player and the script and the director have not given us is the empty inhumanity in Fletcher his behavior is meant to supply or disguise. Fletcher weeps at the death of a talented musician he once taught. What he tells his band is that the young man died in a car accident; what actually happened was the young musician committed suicide. Brought on by Fletcher’s hounding of him. What a phony!

We are offered a good many things by this film, however. And it is well worth seeing. Not because of the violence Simmons is able to body forth so well – after all he is a first class actor ripened up by Oz for such roles. Rather it is also well worth seeing for the handling of the material itself in its display before us, the pulse of big band jazz playing, the mis-en-scene of a music school, with its dank corridors and uninviting ambiance – enough of a counterpoint to encouragement without Fletcher’s tyranny present.

Miles Teller is a lovely actor as the drummer. And in his hands and those of the cinemaphotographer we get a full experience of the dynamics of drumming itself.

The movie also tells its larger story well and honestly. It won Academy Awards For Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing. And, of course, Best Supporting Actor. You will not disagree.

 

 
 

Cake

09 Feb

 

Cake – directed by Daniel Barnz. Drama. 102 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A woman, badly traumatized and scarred, sets everyone’s teeth on edge, as she resists all conventional California remedies.

~

Does this sound promising? I hope not. Drama is not frozen custard. Nor should it have to end in warm and fuzzy, Steiff, panda-bear hugs.

Instead we have a brilliant performance by Jennifer Aniston of a brilliant script by Pat Tobin, and what more do you want? Do you want a gum-drop heart?

Well, this is not a candy store movie. This is the sort of movie Bette Davis pioneered for us, so let’s honor our heritage and place Aniston in our trove of cultural treasures where she belongs. We have a great female American actress here; let’s pay attention!

Long the most skilled of light comediennes – so skilled, indeed, that it is obvious she could play anything – now takes on this mordant drama of a woman who chooses to be coldly sardonic rather than take cheap cures.

There are no cheap cures for what has happened to her. I won’t go into it, because I don’t want to spoil the unfolding of the tale which develops with a narrative expertise teased to ripen before our inexperienced eyes. You have never seen anything like this before. Don’t worry. In this movie, for you too, there is no cheap cure. You will hoe the row.

There is no actress alive who can calibrate a performance with the mastery of Jennifer Aniston. You must behold it to behold it. Her timing, her inflection, her command of the interior valor, her willingness to be mean – all pay off in telling a story whose sole instrument is the character itself.

Adriana Barraza plays her housekeeper, chauffeur, and bodyguard. Brilliant casting. Brilliant performance.

Wonderfully directed.

I wish I could tell you more. But I don’t wish to. I wish you to go yourself and see what Cake tells you all by itself.

 

The Story Of Emile Zola

25 Nov

The Life Of Emile Zola – directed by William Dieterle. Biopic. 219 minutes Black And White 1937.

★★★

The Story: A famous writer mounts a polemic against the injustice of a Jewish Army officer falsely accused of treason.

~

The word Jew is never mentioned. But it is seen written down on a list. From this we are able to deduce that Dreyfus was scapegoated to Devil’s Island for years – for his taste in  neckties perhaps?

Idiotic. And forced. Forced into silence by the Hollywood style of the era, which ten years later would produce Gentleman’s Agreement, which the Jewish moguls in Hollywood begged Daryl Zanuck not to film. Zanuck had been turned down at a Hollywood country club because he was Jewish; he wanted vindication; he filmed it anyhow. And he wasn’t Jewish at all.

Here we have the same cowardly, goody-idealism and naiveté of approach. Here everyone is wide-eyed and jejune, everyone’s eyeballs stuffed with white bread. In contrast to this, the execution of the material is coarse, one big bang scene following upon the one before, like a rhino in a puce tutu jetéeing en pointe from one Alp to the next. This is the Warner’s bio-style of the ‘30s. To call it crude would minimize its delicacy.

The piece is overwritten wherever it can manage, and the actors tend to fall into the trap of that, which is to say, they emotionalize. You have to watch Henry O’Neill and Harry Davenport neatly underplay their parts to appreciate the peril of such a script. As Cezanne, Vladimir Sokoloff himself barely escapes with his life, but has a lovely reading of his exit line when Zola asks for him to stay as a reminder of the old days: “You can never return to them, and I never left them.” Gale Sondergaard, with her poisonous smile, can’t help herself but emote, although she has one lovely moment in court, and even the magnificent Louis Calhern has trouble keeping his corset on. The script writers should be spanked.

The problem is that the script is mostly exposition and narrative. Because it jams in Zola’s life from age 22 to his accidental death forty years later, the dramatic scenes are foreshortened and perforce glib. In playing scenes that are purely expository or narrative, an actor’s temptation is to goose them up with emotion to provide them with human interest, but the emotion involved is generally ungrounded or generalized or forced, and the humanity resulting becomes spurious. The audience has to sit through this pretension in order to endure The Story Of Emile Zola. It’s a story that has it’s value, to be sure, and, although I don’t know from the placard which opens the film how factual the screenplay is, there is certainly a general inauthenticity in the enacting of it.

Muni took it on just after his Louis Pasteur, for which he had won The Oscar. It had the allure for him of playing another good guy, a hero of history, someone to admire, a ”moment in the conscious of mankind”. After playing parts like Scarface, Muni may have come up against the problem Cagney had after playing public enemy number one – the frustration inherent to be always shooting men and slapping women. For Muni, Zola’s story might prove another perfect antidote – on the surface of it: Emile Zola! What a mensch!

However, the question one must ask of a performance is: is this a credible human being?

Here, for me, the answer is no.

Jerome Lawrence in his book on Muni recounts Muni’s preparation for the role: how he researched Zola’s gesture, his pince-nez, his tummy-tapping, his ancestry. Muni was a great master of stage makeup so Muni prepared the makeup for the part four months in advance. He grew his beard and hair to the length they would be at the end of the film; the beard would be shortened as he youthened to 22. Thus the film had to be shot backwards. The Westmores, the makeup and wig family at Warners, met with him and photographed Muni over and over to perfect the makeup for each of his four ages.

All of this is interesting, but all of it is surface. Muni made his living in the Yiddish theatre playing old men from the time he was a teenager to age 33, so he was a master of stage whiskers. And I notice as I watch that I am more interested in the whiskers on him than I am interested in Zola himself. Actually, I thought the whiskers were pretty good, but false.

In fact, I believe the whiskers may have sabotaged the performance, for obliging Muni, at 42, to start filming Zola at 62 may have tricked him into believing that acting-for-age was called for to distinguish him at that age from his younger versions still to be filmed, so Muni makes him somewhat doddering. A sort of foolish, fond old man, and cuddly. The result is that I never believe there is a real person there, but only A Noble Personage-who- is-sometimes-rather-dear.

If you consider the texture of the performance, you can see that Muni’s craft as an actor leads him often to a specious and superfluous craftiness. He seldom fails to overdo. He seldom keeps it simple. His idea is to entertain us with his acting and for us to like him. His performance might work all right on a New York stage. But here, inside it all, I do not detect a recognizable human being. Opposite him, as a corrective, Joseph Schildkraut must underplay even his own shouting. Muni did not win the Oscar for this. Schildkraut won it.

One wonders why. A put-upon Jew? If so, the award supplies an irony to the anti-Semitism which the movie timorously avoids.

Why see this film? A number of reasons: To Have Seen It. To experience the very interesting oddity of a French courtroom of the 1890s. To consider the whiskers the many male actors wear, for it must have taken the makeup people three years every morning to get these men into their muttonchops and mustaches. And to see Muni deliver what William Dieterle called an uncut, six-and-a-half minute tablecloth speech in the courtroom at the end, which he does simply and well.

The film was highly praised by critics. Why? Zola was the Bernstein and Woodward of his day, a whistleblower for all time, and like Zola, the reviewers too were journalists. Muni won the New York Film Critic’s award for this one, and the film won the Oscar for best picture of the year. Also for best screenplay.

Oscar Wilde knew both Dreyfus and Esterhazy. Esterhazy, the real traitor, Wilde found to be charming, Dreyfus dull. “It is always wrong to be innocent,” was his conclusion, and in this, as in all things Wilde was not wrong.

 

Synechdoche, New York

21 Nov

Synecdoche, New York — directed by Charlie Kaufman. Drama. 3 hours and 23 minutes Color 2008.

★★★★★

The Story: A theatre director’s wife leaves him, and the rest of his life is lived out unmoored.

~

The director has begun his career by presenting to the world his King Lear, And why not? The boulders of that play are about us and upon us since the day Shakespeare wrote it, and any playwright must operate with it in the shadows like a gift one day to be honored. Kaufman has honored it early with a masterwork. It has been taken to be such by others, and you might number yourself among them if you take the journey into Synecdoche.

The work “New York” localizes it in a way I do not understand, except as a synonym for a terminus or graveyard. But I don’t dally with such terms, so forget I ever said it.

Other minor matters bothered me, but not at the time. I learn that the main character has married again, but I had no sense of that from the film, and when I learned it from the extra features, I thought it must be with the Samantha Morton character. I was wrong.

The other thing I did not grasp was that there was an Armory within an Armory, and that some scenes were played in the one and some in the other.

But none of this mattered to me at the time. None of it impeded my pleasure and interest.

The word “dream” is used, incorrectly it seems to me, in relation to this piece, for what I see is always grounded in realistic psychological everyday experience. The film’s story is the working out of the life of an individual who comes undone when his wife leaves him inexplicably. From then on everything you see is everything he does internally until the day he dies, which he also does, many years later. It is just like you and me.

Not to speak anything more about this momentous story, lest I defuse its excitements and turns, the wife is played beautifully by Catharine Keener who is always riveting, always fun, and we wait for her return all the way through the film.

I cannot stifle my cries of appreciation for the work of Emily Watson, who is just marvelous as an imported actress, as are Michelle Williams as a greedy, starstruck actor, Hope Davis as a bigtime human-potentialist, and Tommy Noonan as the director’s double. Samantha Morton plays her early scenes externally, but once she ages, she is great.

The leading role, and he is on camera always, is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He plays the role scene-to-scene. For there is no other way to play it. It is a story in which the arc of the character cannot be given by the actor, but only by the treatment of the material by the director — and Kaufman does not supply an arc. Unlike in King Lear, madness does not wake the Hoffman character up.  So, no arc; unless you can say Hoffman goes deeper to sleep.

Instead, the arc lies with the audience’s eventual acceptance that the external emotion and the internal emotion are all on the same visual level. Which is right: we experience, or at least I experience that they are all one thing, one collection, one synecdoche, life as a defeated bouquet.

The moral of the story? The human spirit is insufficient air for an artist’s ambition that work can be his salvation and reality.

Do see it. Hoffman is just gorgeous in it. It is his most personal performance of all.

 

Osaka Elegy

06 Oct

Osaka Elegy – directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Drama. 71 minutes Black And White 1936.

The Story: A young working woman tries to raise money to pay off her father’s debt and becomes the object of abuse and scorn.

~

Two things.

Mizoguchi demonstrates:

First: women exist in a culture which abuses them. No further point need be made about it by Mizoguchi, since what he shows makes it self-evident. It isn’t that his leading actress is particularly sympathetic as a performer that makes this telling. It is rather that she is a bit silly, a bit foolish, a bit selfish, a bit vain. But she is a human being, and she does not deserve to be treated like something else.

It is also true that the female is also capable of delivering abuse, even our heroine, and surely the battleax wife of her boss. Gender is not the weapon. Money is.

Second: This complicated story is delivered to us in style so revolutionary it is difficult to imagine that it was filmed in 1936. It is a style which seizes one narratively in long continuous shots, and set-ups which rivet and enliven the drama and the characters. The placement of figures in a scene, one near with his back to one, another in a distant room.  One muttering about morality, while stealing money from his children, and over there, the prig of a son he’s stealing from, devouring his greedy dinner.

Mizoguchi serves his actors well. And they are wonderful. But the remarkable force of Mizoguchi’s story-telling camera is the real source of revelation. We do not have master shots, followed by two-shots, followed by closeups, in the prescribed Hollywood style. But something different and distinct. It does not call attention to itself, because the truth it reveals is greater than its technique in doing so.

Here’s a master new to me. I wish I were able to speak less clumsily of him. But here’s a director I intend to study, enjoy, immerse myself in, and learn all I can from.

Although he had made many others before this, this is said, by him, to be his first accomplished film.

 

 

 

Frozen

14 Feb

Frozen – Disney Cartoon Fairy Tale. 102 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

The Story: A crown princess’s hands emit destructive cold that nearly kills her sister, who is quarantined from her, until both are released at great peril and cost.

~ ~ ~

I seldom see cartoons. I loved the old ones, Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, but the drawing went off and the music declined, and, although there were always a few interesting monsters, I stopped being interested. Except as a dutiful father, I seldom went. But people said I should see this one.

I can’t say that you should see it. Mind you, it certainly has remarkable sequences, which I shall forebear from describing lest I spoil them for you. But animation does many things superbly. It can conjure like nobody’s business, and it can produce spectacles of three dimensional perspective that ordinary film cannot touch.

What is remarkable about this film is its fidelity to its theme. And its surprise ending. (Although I shouldn’t tell you there is one. For then there will not be such a surprise.) It keeps the cold coming in icy displays of imagination. It never warms up. And we like it that way. In fact, it gets colder and colder.

Like most such full-length cartoons it is a bring-em-back-alive story, a most satisfying genre. And it has parties of minor characters that certainly give full value for a cuteness you would not abide in a regular film. It has a delightful mascot snowman. It has a comic Norwegian shopkeeper and a gaggle of gnomes, an endearing reindeer, and a Nordic setting full of curious detail including a castle of dreams and a palace of gelid power. The songs are undistinguished.  But all the parts are well written and acted especially by the younger princess who is quite brilliant and real. Moreover, it is a story in which two young women take the leads, so what it lacks in innocence it makes up in drive.

The facial animation is shockingly real. It is an amazement to behold. The mouth and the cheeks operate in character all the time. The only difficulty is the eyes, which are like Keane portrait eyes, pop-eyed with the pitiable. Why this decision was made, I cannot tell. It is so grotesque and off-putting to me that I fear to recommend the film for fear you will come over here and punish me as much as I was punished by it.

However, if you are curious about what animation is up to these days, you will be entertained and informed while you are both.

 

 

 

 
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Posted in COMIC FANTASY, COSTUME DRAMA, PERSONAL DRAMA, SERIOUS FAIRY TALE

 

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen

15 Jan

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen – directed by Frank Capra. Drama. 88 minutes Black and White 1933.

★★★★★

The Story: A girl from a nice New England family is kidnapped by a Chinese warlord.

Nils Asther is certainly one of the more fascinating actors of motion pictures. The actor he puts one in mind of is Garbo. Like Garbo he was Scandinavian, and like Garbo he was very beautiful, and unlike Garbo he was called The Male Garbo – although in a way she was also the male Garbo. In any case, he is a power of subtlety as General Yen (oh, rightly named!) hankering after Barbara Stanwyck. He wears a brilliant make-up, achieved by shaving his eyelashes (which caused his eyes to bleed) and a viperish mustache. He smokes a cigarette so you know exactly what six things he is feeling at the moment, and you presently come to care about his soul, which is his main resemblance to Garbo after all. His eye make-up is so severe he never blinks.

For we are in the arena of miscegenation, and there is no doubt about the story playing upon our inner horror of mating outside our race. We wait out the story to see if it will take place. Oh, horrors! Can a white girl from a proper old New England family actually give herself to An Oriental? We are not dealing with preaching what is Politically Correct here. The film starts with the fine actress Clara Blandick laying it out flat: “They are all tricky, treacherous, immoral. I can’t tell one from the other. They are all Chinamen to me.” So we are immediately thrust into in the underground of our own natural prejudice.

The great character actor, Walter Connolly makes his film debut here in a ripping role, that of a scallywag financial wizard finagling the General’s power. His acting, his presence, and the writing of his part keep tipping the scales not just backward and forward but everywhichway, so our expectations are all a-tumble.

The great cameraman Joe Walker, who filmed many of Capra pieces, brings glory to the screen. His camera placements and lighting are a university education in camera craft.

The only difficulty is that Stanwyck is miscast as a girl from an upper crust New England family, for she is nothing of the kind and does nothing even to suggest that she is. She is common. Stanwyck brings her fabled honesty to the part, which she did all her long life, but that is not enough. But sometimes it was just enough, as here, but she never played deeply with accents, never learned character work. She brings herself at the moment. She started as a dancer so she brings physical certainty to her roles. There are never two things going on. If she says yes and really wants to say no, the “Yes,” will sound like “No.” She is without ambiguity, uncertainty, or subtext. But she is steady on. She has a fine voice for film and a face camera ready in any light and under any conditions. And, a rarer thing than you might think, she is an actor with the common touch. She never blinks either.

The film is magnificently produced. It cost over a million to make. It was the first movie ever to play at Radio City Music Hall (where it failed), and Frank Capra said it was his favorite film. The material is surprising and real, and the treatment unforced and free. It certainly is one of the most interesting films of the ‘30s.

 

Shame

12 Jan

Shame – directed by Steve McQueen. Drama. 101 minutes Color 2012. ★★★

The Story: A handsome thirty-year-old ad-man pursues sexual release in every spare moment, and even in some that are not.

It’s beautifully filmed and shot and acted by performers of the first order. Carey Mulligan plays his sister exquisitely. James Badge Dale has the right-on-the-money, live-wire inventiveness of Cagney as his boss. Nicole Beharie stuns us with her telling performance of the co-worker who dates him.

And Michael Fassbender is stuck with a misconceived main role. On camera, getting up naked, going to the bathroom, screwing, we get nothing from his character that we need from a good story, although we get everything we could possible expect from a good actor.

The idea that an individual’s soul and psyche can be transmitted to film without words is not feasible. The words would be interior. But we here instead have only the skim of his addictive actions. The Lost Weekend did not make this mistake. Addiction does not speak for itself. For in its isolation it is highly aware of the consequences and rituals of its deeds. Hell is never quiet.

The mistake may arise from the notion that film is mainly a visual medium, a medium of physical narration, a mistake perhaps arising from its visual charms and possibilities. Or a mistake falsely and callowly taught in film schools. Sometimes no speech is needed in film, true. Sometimes no speech is needed in written fiction also. But the inner verbal process is always needed, and “pantomime” (a technical term for the actor’s physical manifestation) has its limitations and things it cannot show or do. Perhaps the error arrises out of undue adultation the great rhetoric of Silent Pictures.

But Silent Pictures were not silent. In them people are always talking. Just because you cannot hear them does not mean you do no understand what they are saying. You know exactly what they are saying. For Silent Film actors are physically engaged in what they say and they respond to what is said to them – just as actors do in talkies. Just because we cannot hear them or read their lips does not mean we do not know what they are saying. No. And of course there were the placards. And of course, to spell things out, there was far more music in Silent Pictures than in talkies.

In Silent Pictures pantomime played a part which it still plays in film, by every talking actor in every scene, although the Silent Film actor might telegraph things a bit more. This did not hinder the realistic acting of Gloria Swanson or Mary Pickford or Laurette Taylor. Their styles are quite modern.

But, to take the silent craft of Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, Harry Langdon as the dernier mot on screen narration is a modern folly, since it is to disregard that they were not actors but clowns and always playing against the settings. And clowns never speak. Film actors must speak. While it is true that in film actual words must be wordless, words are not extraneous, but half the job, and story must provide them. At least in certain films, and Shame is one of them.

Shame starves us of the words needed to grasp what the character is going through. But a raw description of the story reveals there is no opportunity for it. The sister is thrown away as relevant only to the convenience of the brother’s exterior life. The character she could provide as a confidante is lost. And the film is without monologue.

Instead, are we expected feel what he is going through simply because he runs in the rain or gets blown in a gay bar? I’m sorry, it’s not enough. We are supposed to experience his shame. But we don’t. Through no fault of the actor, it is never articulated. For shame is a human emotion that exists with words always. It is always something we are telling ourselves or are hearing others tell us. It is never readable as a gesture, as a sex act, as a run in the rain.

The sex addict story still needs to be told. The director is a good director. He also wrote it. What a shame. Someone still needs to write it.

 

Miss Sadie Thompson

20 Nov

Miss Sadie Thompson – directed by Curtis Bernhardt. Drama. Quarantined on a South Seas island a dance-hall girl and a man of the cloth battle it out for their souls. 93 minutes Color 1953.

★★★★

It’s stupid of me to suggest that the screenplay needed to be rewritten from scratch. For here it is 60 years later and the wench is dead. But do you ever get the feeling of a lost opportunity that must be corrected, and you know exactly how to do it?  Somerset Maugham’s story Rain was done on Broadway by Jeanne Eagles, and then in a silent with Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore, a talkie with Joan Crawford and Walter Huston, and this with Rita Hayworth and Jose Ferrer.

The original story begins with a long introduction of the missionary. The stage play starts with scenes with the owner of the Pago Pago hotel and his native wife. This version begins with a bunch of rowdy Marines, bored and hard up for female companionship. It plays like a stock version of South Pacific. You never believe them for a minute. They bray. And they pray. And they bray. The problem is that the director establishes no balance, pace, or variety with these men nor is it afforded to Rita Hayworth when she arrives as a tourist off the freighter that is to carry her to a job on a farther island.

You never believe the reformer/missionary and his cortege either, because they are not given enough screen time. They are interesting people, and Maugham knew they needed to be revealed first and fully. For the story is the conflict of two passions, one for perfection and the other for pleasure. Each passion contains a flaw fatal to it as they play themselves out against one another. In the Swanson version, the missionaries are established (by Raoul Walsh who directed, wrote, and starred in the role now played by Aldo Ray) as a bursar collects their entries for his autograph book, and we learn immediately from the pieties they indite therein the intensity of their persuasion.

This version is actually filmed in Hawaii, which brings a proper tropic to it, and which Charles Lawton, who filmed it, sustains in the interiors shot at Columbia. “The Heat is On” which Hayworth dances is beautifully filmed in the atmosphere of sweat, tropical rain, and the mist rising from hot male bodies watching. Her dance, her very presence in a film is worth the price of admission and the time. And I wanted her to be directed better, this is true for the film itself, which was a bowdlerized version cut down to fit the Hays office, women’s clubs, the Catholic Church, and other groups who crossed their legs about it. Didn’t work. Hayworth’s dance is so steamy that the film was banned.

Swanson brought to the part her long skills as a film actor in serious parts (which Hayworth did not have) and her abilities as a natural soubrette, which is how Maugham wrote her. Hayworth is no soubrette, but she unleashes herself on the part admirably, and, being Hayworth you care about her, even as you recognize how her beauty and joie-de-vivre will get her into trouble. Hayworth is the most subtle of the three actresses who played Sadie, she is the most sexually powerful, she is the most convincingly flagrant. In her performance is a performance greater than the one the director had the talent to give her. Maugham said she was his favorite of all the Sadies. She’s mine too. And why? Rita Hayworth is that rare thing, an actor you actually automatically want to root for.

 

Home At The End Of The World

23 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

The Grandmaster

11 Sep

The Grandmaster – written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. Drama. Two master martial artists are drawn to one another, though they are both sworn to duel. 130 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

See it by all means in a theatre now. For is a film of such resplendent beauty, subtlety, and distinction that you must sit back in the dark of a vast hall and let it play itself out hugely before your amazed eyes. You mustn’t wait until it comes into your mere parlor.

It is not a story about athleticism or about martial art, but about character and martial artists. Their dances are performed to music, and are shown in flashes, not of bodies bashing one another, but of slices of hands, scraps of wrists, flourishes of robes and fur. You would not want to see the actual moves. What you do want to see is the result of them. A body crashing through a window. You do not want to see technique. What you do want to see is the half smile of the executant.

What you want to see is beauty, and this you see in every frame, every face, every costume, every setting, and in every delivery of them to your astonished and gratified eyes. Beauty stirs in the puddles and the reflections of the gates in the puddles, in the waiting snow on the bough in the battle in the blizzard. And why should you see this? Why is this being offered? Because inherent in it is the dignity and discipline inherent in life lived – not necessarily this Chinese way – but inherent in life lived in many ways.

To establish that dignity and that openness, we are given as The Grand Master the face of Tony Leung, one of the most beautiful faces ever to bless the screen. And the face of Zhang Ziyi, whose mouth enchants as once enchanted the mouth of Janice Rule. You cannot but be lost in the beauty of these two faces, for their beauty expands and vibrates into a latitude which only movie faces of this beauty can do, and we are given plenty of opportunity to dwell upon them, for they are filmed close-up, still, often, and well.

Beauty has no moral. It is an arena to itself. Go. Bathe in it. You owe it to yourself. I say you do. I say you deserve it and you have always deserved it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broken Embraces

04 Sep

Broken Embraces – written and directed by Pedro Alomodóvar. Drama. A film director changes his profession after becoming blinded and losing the love of his life. 128 minutes Color 2009.

★★★★★

This is badly titled, isn’t it? Coitus Interruptus would be closer, but the Spanish language has a striking coloration than English cannot translate.

Anyhow the embraces are plural, which coitus interruptus is not. For there are two embraces cracked by the blinding of the director, both of them the loves of his life, one being with the flabbergastering Penélope Cruz and the other with his calling as a director.

The effect of all of this on himself and those around him – his Gal Friday and her son – is momentous. And I’m not going to talk about any of that, for I never tell the story of a film to you, for I will not betray you. I trust your susceptibility to what I have to say to make clear those values I can speak of without undermining your surprise and the human need in you for participation in the deep deed of narration. The story is not mine to tell. It is the director’s to tell it, and yours to open yourself to it, which in this case I urge thoroughly to do. You need, as I do, to be told a story. But you need, as I do, to be told it by the right person. Not I, but Almodóvar is that person.

I can point out the coloration spread before us by the director, particularly marked, wouldn’t you say, in the story of a man who is blind.

I can also mention how the loss of the sight – no, I won’t point that out at all. You will know it for yourself when you see it before you.

Do so. For who is it that does not make a point of seeing any new movie of Pedro Almodóvar? Is there such a ninny breathing God’s air? Don’t you want to be in kindergarten again, playing with poster paints on those big sheets of paper? Don’t you want to hear tales of love and loyalty and princesses lodged in ogre’s castles? Have you no passion? Have you no waking dreams? Have you never seen Penélope Cruz in her home territory even once and not yearned to revisit her there once again?

Almodóvar treats Cruz’s first appearance before the director, Lluis Homar, as Charles Vidor treats Rita Hayworth’s before Glenn Ford in Gilda – as a never-to-be-banished bedazzlement, a sudden looking up at him from amidst the double bed of her fabulous hair – certainly a resource of her talent and beauty and interest – like Anna Magnani’s hair or Clark Gable’s – one of things that hold us to the screen.

The film is beautifully acted and cast, with one exception, which is that of the leading role of the gal Friday. The part is not a tragic role, but a romantic role, that of a woman holding patience in place for many years. We need to see much less of her feeling than of her precious hoarding of it.

Here we are in the house of full scale melodrama, with all of Almodóvar’s variety of humor, to appreciate which, make sure to watch the extra features for one of the funniest actor monologues you will ever have the privileged of witnessing. Go to, my friends, go to. See it and be seen by it.

 

My Mother’s Smile

25 Jun

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Guilt Of Janet Ames

09 Jun

The Guilt Of Janet Ames –– directed by Henry Levin. Drama. A WW II widow searches out the five men her husband’s death valiantly saved and learns the truth about herself from one of them. 83 minutes Black and White 1945.

★★★★

Casting a movie. How do they do it?

For instance, of the great stars of the Golden Age of Film from 1930 to 1950, how many could actually portray intelligent women? Judy Garland? No. She was an intelligence and a rich one, but she was not intelligent. Paulette Goddard? No. She was a delightful minx, but you would never put her at the head of a finishing school. Barbara Stanwyck? She could play a shrewd woman, but an intelligent one? Ginger Rogers? Maybe. Irene Dunne? Absolutely. Katharine Hepburn? Why not. Claudette Colbert? Positively.

Casting has something to do with acting ability. But has first to do with an actor’s essence. It has to do with something inherent in them. Intelligence has something to do with IQ, perhaps, but has more to do with an inherent approach to life. Rosalind Russell was certainly one who could play an intelligent woman.

And did so, and does so here, opposite Melvyn Douglas, who has some sort of corner on authority rare to be found in leading men nowadays. The two are well sorted. For they are both intelligent and their talents match in scale. Douglas is earnest and focused and sensitive to what’s coming towards him. And Russell structures her performance to a certain order which it will be Douglas’s task to break down. For that’s the story.

It’s a quite interesting film, because it is the ur type for the Film Noir. That is to say, there is something wrong with each of the characters and it manifests as a disconnect to and hangover from the War. Shell shock is what PTSD was then called, and women on the home front experienced it too. They grew bitter and loveless, and quite right too, and then, as now, the men drank too much and went under. The film is not Film Noir but it is what Film Noir is about.

The picture is remarkable in the scheme of its story, but also in the use of schematic sets. This is the first film I have ever seen them used to such an extent. Later you find them in Red Garters and Dogville. And it was frequently used in Golden Age TV, and may have first found prominence in the sets for Our Town. Here they are used in hypnosis sequences in which Russell visits the survivors, Nina Foch, Betsy Blair, and Sid Caesar.

Another remarkable ingredient, making the film a really memorable visit, is the long and hysterically funny monologue Sid Caesar does as a nightclub act, an astonishing and delightful display of comic genius. As you watch him, you will not believe what is happening before your eyes.

But it is happening. And, surrounding it, the film and the story provide solid and unexpected satisfaction. Rosalind Russell and Melvyn Douglas and Guilt. What a combo!

 

Secret Honor

22 Mar

Secret Honor –– directed by Robert Altman. One Man Show. Richard Nixon already nuts goes nuts justifying himself. 90 minutes 2005

★★★★★

In a bravura performance Philip Baker Hall gives a rendition so varied, witty, unaccountable, rash that one wonders from start to finish how anything so miraculous could be taking place before one’s very eyes. It’s sort of the Grand Canyon of acting, or maybe Pinnacles, or maybe it is simply beyond compare.

So the fun of it is now, to see what might be wrong with it.

It is actually the record of a stage piece Hall performed in Las Angeles, Ann Arbor, and eventually New York.  And the first thing to note is that the performance is a mite too big for the camera, which is to say that the reality a theatre audience supplies to a piece played in front of its many-eyed multitude, the camera itself asks to suit up differently into its tiny aperture of a lens.

It is not that the stage reality is false, but that in a camera, acting must be supplied in a different way for the audience to complete it — because the movie audience completes acting in a different way than it completes acting on a stage. Here you will see the rubric of stage acting in full panoply, which always sacrifices a degree of reality for the living audience itself to supply, for every stage actor knows that the theatre audience has its own job in telling the story and in competing the character’s reality.

But the camera cannot supply reality. The camera is not human and cannot complete a performance. So the actor must back up and supply it all. With film the audience is not multiple but instead always the audience of one, the camera lens –– and filtered through its tiny glass hole to the audience of one in the parlor or the many-eyed audience in the picture palace, if the actor’s reality cannot be registered as details of breath of which not one is sacrificed, the performance will not register at all –– or shall look monstrous or actorish or bad.

Garbo understood this. Garbo understood that what the camera was seeing was what was happening inside her lower back, and rising up inside her spine and out. It did not matter what her part was or her costume was or her lines were. What Garbo offered was the inner physical location of her ironic soul, not metaphorically but as an actual physical locale in her. And this could be experienced by anyone who saw her, and went on seeing her, despite the falsity of her vehicles.

It is not that the movie actor must play things smaller for the camera lens; not at all; the performer can be very large in his performance. It is rather that movie acting calls upon a different area of the actor’s instrument. Indeed, sometimes the stage performance itself uses the movie-acting set of strings, and when the stage performance is filmed, there is no difference whatever between the two.

In the case of Philip Baker Hall, we have stagecraft acting at its most remarkable. It is not virtuosoism for its own sake, nor is it self-indulgent even once. It is still astonishing. It is flabbergastering. I cannot imagine how he achieved it. But it has not been recast for the more lurid lens of the camera. So one watches it from a distance which one would never be able to sustain watching it in a theatre, without rushing up the aisle and out and calling the cops. In a theatre it would be so strong a performance one must engage with it or die. Hall describes the fact that some theatre audiences would start to sigh when Nixon sighed, pant when he panted, inhaled deeply when that is what Nixon did. Oh, believe me, as a performance it is huge, but its hugeness is not the hugeness of the screen. One sits back in wonder and amazement, a stance one never could have achieved watching this as a live performance in a theatre.

Hall makes no attempt to look like Nixon, except for the always all-important matter of the hair and something hunched at the back of his collar, but one never doubts for a moment that this is Nixon. Nixon who is a madman thinking it is president of the United States, the madness consisting of the fact that that is exactly what he is. He strives to be, he agonizes to imagine that he is the thing he actually is. Nothing could be screwier. Or more disgraceful. We get the whole story in hiatuses. The blurts of a creature who cannot finish a sentence. The manipulator manipulated. And now trying to manipulate himself but only finding a puppet on too many strings as subject. He is pitiful — so pitiful you can’t pity him.

Philip Baker Hall is not a small actor, in the same sense that Edward G. Robinson was not. His personal presence is wide and deep, his voice is singular, rich, meaningful. His face is a conquest of the actors’ needs. He was born to act. If he were cast as a small man, as a nebbish or a creep, he would be a nebbish and a creep, but the work would still be huge. You can prove this to yourself. For in Secret Honor that is exactly how he has been cast. Nixon in the Checkers speech was a little boy begging. And this is Nixon begging to be heard, still begging, begging to be heard by a history which by its hearing him he hopes to revise. This is Nixon at his most disgusting and therefore most real. And therefore almost most forgivable.

Nixon himself was a very bad actor. People voted for him because of that. Kennedy was a very good actor. People voted for him because of that. The only difference between them is that what Nixon actually was was visible behind his atrocious performances before us: a scrambling rat, and with Kennedy his inner drama is completely screened. All of this Philip Baker Hall captures in his capable fist and releases before us with astonishing skill. If you want to see him entirely different in an entirely different role, see him In Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film Hard Eight, which he plays power incarnate, opposite Gwyneth Paltrow and John C. Reilly. In Robert Altman’s Secret Honor he plays power disincarnate. Power deconstructing itself all over the floor. Power trying not to discover that it never existed.

The Special Features are quite fine. Hall gives a long interview. Nixon newsreels show us the poor man – always in flagrante of course –– and Altman himself does the commentary.

The only thing that doesn’t work in Secret Honor is Altman’s use of the video monitors as cutaways from the performance, for it never tells a story or lands as a plus to the character, and besides no cut-aways were needed. Who wants to take one’s eyes off of such a piece of work as Hall with such generous genius provides us?

Otherwise the film is a model of how to capture a stage performance, particularly a one-man show, in a cinematic way such as to erase quite completely its stage locale with an audience watching, and supplant it with a setting so probable and unquestionable that a camera in motion in it can bring before us, without demur and with full distinction, a priceless piece acting art.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Two Lovers

18 Jan

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

What is the quality that defines an ingénue?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Laurel Canyon

10 Jan

Laurel Canyon – directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Sex Drama. Conflict arises when an uptight young doctor and his fiancé move into the house of his libertine mother. 104 minutes Color 2002.
★★★★
“Do I have to review this film?” I whine. “I only watched it because of Frances McDormand. If I write it, I’ll have to pigeon all over Christian Bale, and I don’t want to pigeon all over anybody. What’s wrong in this actor?”

It has been pointed out that he has no sense of humor of any kind, and that certainly seems to be the case. But perhaps it is also true that, an Englishman, he should not be playing Americans. Or at least it seems so, since this particular character looks like he learned his personality from watching TV acting. Did the character do that or did the actor do that?

The problem, for me, is that there seems to be that within Christian Bale that cannot play a character who can be trusted.

He is brilliant, powerful, and adept, but this so dominates his energy that it supervenes all other character needs, such as being affectionate, loving one’s mother, or one’s brother – which is why he was so perfectly cast in The Fighter for which he rightly won a supporting Oscar. He cannot be trusted. All the more so, since Bale’s humorless solemnity and self-seriousness seems not that of the character he is playing, but a form of artistic arrogance. Watching him, we feel always up against the ingrown vanity of his craft. He seems always self-tragic. I find it sickening. I also question it as true. True as an introvert.

For is this character an uptight introvert? Or is not his fiancée the uptight introvert? Yes, she is. And what seems obvious in his playing his character as an introvert is that he actually is not one at all when, at a certain point, he flies into full blown rage against his mother, played by Frances McDormand. This outburst looks far more natural. Otherwise he sits there responding by twitching his mouth and making-the-masculine. For Bale is brilliant in extrovert scenes – although the power of their acting this one with McDormand is lost by being shot with them moving down hotel stairs, and by a failure of the writing to let them really face off.

McDormand is an astonishing actress and more than holds her own against Bale’s real power. She brings fully integrated character forth for us, an L.A. record producer, doing dope and screwing and running a band’s recording sessions as an accomplished executive, biting and hospitable, smiling and baffled. She is completely convincing and funny as can be. The film succeeds largely because of her.

But the film fails in terms of the sexual values the script exposes. For it assumes these values are up for whim or will. But they are not; sexual values are not learned; they are inherent. Men don’t learn their sexual code from Cosmo or from other males. They are born with it, like any other genetic code, so the idea that Bale could have a flutter with the Israeli doctor, played beautifully by Natascha McElhone, who rolls her gorgeous eyes at him, is nonsense. It is a non-starter as a dramatic premise. Other different codes display themselves, McDormand’s and that of her singer boyfriend, beautifully played by Alessandro Nivola. And they too are inherent.

But the real problem with the script is that the conflict between the mother and the son is never run to a thorough battle and thus to a convincing truce. Indeed we are falsely forced in another direction entirely. Because of the overture of his eating out his girlfriend which, for some reasons, precedes the credits, we are forced to know that Bale is sexually competent, which makes no sense, since he finds his mother’s nature and her way of life intrusive. She does not intrude but to him her very existence intrudes. This matter is not settled by her shy admission at the end that she loves him. It works no better than his intern scenes in the hospital, for one would no more trust Christian Bale as one’s therapist than one could trust his Bruce Wayne to lurch toward honor and social restitution as a character the only properly cast quality of the actor being those fang-pointed wings.

 

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?

 

Autumn Reunion

30 Jun

Autumn Reunion – directed by Paolo Barzman. Drama. 40 years after The War, three survivors meet again and face facing the past. 1 hour 39 minutes Color 2007.

★★★★★

What a beautiful film for us! Told to us at once carefully and imaginatively by editor Arthur Tarnowski, photographer Luc Montpellier, and director Paolo Barzman, it is the story of the price of survival on those who survive and on all who surround those who survive. When they were children Gabriel Byrne and Susan Sarandon were interned in an extermination camp way-station outside Paris, and taken under the wing of a teenage man, now grown old into the person of Max Von Sydow. All three of them by ironic chance have survived, and now they meet again on the farm of survivor Susan Sarandon in Quebec. The farm and the lake beside it hold them in a subtle vast embrace. Sarandon is a grandmother now, and the little grandson and his father, her son, stay with her there with her husband, Christopher Plummer, the college professor she married when she was his student, years before. This gathering brings into the surface the dire effects their internment had and the cruel damage it also discovers fresh means to cause. Plummer is the pivotal character of this group, Sarandon is the focal character, for she has kept alive the damage of the camps and made her life’s work the message of that damage to the world at large, sacrificing her marriage to that task, for both her son and husband suffer from her mad devotion. Each person in turn rises like a great wave out of the calm refuge of the farm and clashes with each of the others. I like everything about this movie; I like the production design by Jean-Francois Campeau; the house is just right; I like the music by Normand Corbeil; always apt – but what I admire most is the acting of these four. When I see Bette Davis’s films after All About Eve I see that she has nothing new to show me, I see the life of her skill decline by insisting on staying the same. But here I see four actors long familiar to me who still surprise me, and in the case of Plummer, an actor I ordinarily do not like, achieve not just wit but humor. They have grown. No. They grow before our very eyes; there’s no past tense to it. It is happening right before us. In acting, mastery knows no end. These four are at ease with its great difficulties. Refresh yourself with the spectacle of their accomplishment.

 

The Collector

28 Jun

The Collector – directed by William Wyler . Suspense. A nouveau rich young man traps the girl of his dreams in the cellar of his country house. 1hours 29 minutes Color 1965.

★★★

I want to praise it highly, for it is the film of a director – The Best Years Of Our Lives, The Little Foxes, The Letter, Roman Holliday – whose work I respect and enjoy, but the film is not as good as it would have been had the script been better than it is. Aside from two minor characters, the wonderful Mona Washbourne being one of them, it is a two-character piece. But the problem lies not with their casting or playing, but with the limited range they are forced to perform in by the script, or rather, the single story element in it they are allowed to respond to. For their choices for capture and escape are merely sexual, merely romantic. This means that the playing field between the two never has a chance to open up into any other dramatic possibility; they never find a common ground other than sex; they never come together as ordinary human beings, discussing Butterflies, say, or one’s preference for scrambled eggs as opposed to eggs over easy or whether they like to sleep on their right or their left side or what they dream of when they do. What we are given instead as the entire thing that divides them is the difference in their social classes, and this is presented as an absolute which neither can breach. And with this polemic the author, John Fowles, strangles the story, which becomes a repetition of identical roadblocks, whereas when people find themselves trapped in the Army or on a life raft or in a 12 Step meeting, no matter what social class they come from, they do find common ground, and in doing so an arena of accessibility, friendship, and accord, in which the need in the girl to escape can tempt her with the opposite, as can the need for the young man to keep her. So the film becomes a set up, a scold rather than a true story, and thus fails. Cast as the two are Samantha Eggar who is super as the red-haired young beauty who is kidnapped. Her casting is obvious: she is lovely, young, and a good actor. The casting of the young man is strange however, but for that very reason it works. No one is creepier than a creepy Englishman, and the person they have cast in this role was the sexiest young man in England at that time, a young man so beautiful and inviting, a sort of James Dean of The British Isles, that he could have any lady he desired. He would be the abducted, rather than the abducted. Terrence Stamp plays the part completely against his natural endowment, without ever making it grotesque to do so. All he does is hold his head to one side, do something odd with his hands, pitch his voice into a Roddy MacDowell alto, and button one too many buttons of his suit. Somewhere he finds his inner prude in order to always find reasons to both keep and repel her. If only she had really fallen for him, ah, what a strange and devastating story that would have made. Would he then be the one trapped? We’ll never know. The music is by Maurice Jarre, and is the best. It was shot in Hollywood by Robert Surtees, a great photographer shooting sets that don’t quite work as real, and by Robert Krasker in England which does quite work as real, because it is.

 

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.

 

Keeper Of The Flame

10 May

Keeper Of The Flame – directed by George Cukor. WW II Melodrama. A gigantic American hero dies and a foreign correspondent tries to uncover the truth about him through questioning his wife.

★★★

To say George Cukor was a so-so director is not to stretch the bounds of praise. He had no sense of narrative proportion. He so loved the beauty and truth of actresses that he lumbered his films with scenes lengthened to glamorize them. For he loved women. What he did not love was men and women. He had no sense of the sexual energy between them, and you will find that most of his films are not about mating. This one certainly is not. So, as a follow-up of Woman Of The Year, by a director who certainly loved men and women, George Stevens, it is a baffling folly. However, in glamorizing Katharine Hepburn it is a triumph – one she carries admirably. With her carved visage, slim figure, and large hands, she is a goddess, not in the sense of a deity but in the sense of something carved out of stone. Indeed she enters the film draped by Adrian, in white like sculpture. It is one of the great opening scenes for an actress ever shot. And that is because the great William Daniels is filming it, lighting it, and choosing the floor-up angle to exalt it. The creator of Garbo in silents and sound, he is a photographer who could make every movie he shot look like a concerto. You’re not consciously aware of it, but each scene in the picture becomes alive and important because he is filming it to make it look like a Greek Tragedy. Which Greek Tragedy? The one in which, as E.B. Browning once said, Cassandra smells the slaughter in the bathroom. It is pointless to expatiate now how this picture could be improved (only to warn the viewer parenthetically that the idea of a fascist threat inside America during WW II was hooey). What one can say is that Hepburn plays all her scenes quietly, her cheeks held still, her sometimes grating volatility left outside the door. She exudes a convincing, mysterious and necessary calm. Excellent is what she is. And for that we can credit Cukor. Spencer Tracy plays the world-famous reporter, her part in Woman Of The Year, and again he is up against Hepburn’s devotion to a cause greater than anything that could lie between them. As in Woman Of The Year with Dan Tobin, she is almost under the control of her assistant Richard Whorf. Both men are played as fruits, which confuses their treachery with their sexual orientation, a combination which is truthful to neither. Are we supposed to hate fruits because they are treacherous or hate traitors because they are fruits? You see the absurdity of the matter. A strong supporting cast is put to abuse; Frank Craven as the doctor, Stephen McNally as the investigative journalist, Margaret Wycherly as the balmy mother of the great man, Howard Da Silva as the doorkeeper whom he saved and who hates him, Percy Kilbride as the smug yokel, Forrest Tucker as the great big jock, Donald Meek as the meek little hotel manager, and Audrey Christie as the newspaper dame whose sexual sallies tell us Tracy is not interested in women of any kind at all. During production, Hepburn and Donald Ogden Stewart the adapter fought badly over this story’s treatment and she won. Too bad. She fancied herself as a writer, but if you read her autobiography, you can see she was not one at all. As with Summertime and other ventures, her interference in the area of story are almost always wrong. It comes out of her desire to control, also known as, wanting to make things better, but in her case it springs from a fear at no place evident in this fine performance, which ends with one of the longest monologs ever to be given to the temptation of an actress to venture out upon. As she emerges from the shadows to do it, Tracy retreats into them. And William Daniels, quite right, has his way.

 

A Separation

04 May

A Separation — written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. Drama. Life as it is, consequent on a couple’s wanting to separate, who can’t. 123 minutes Color 2011.

★★★★★

The Oscar for the Best Foreign film, thank goodness, and one wonders, first at its astonishing freedom of expression, and then, how come we would have to go to a foreign film to find out exactly how we ourselves behave. I see no English speaking film with this degree of grit, truth of performance, revelation of the human condition of people of any nation, anywhere. The only difference between the people of Iran and us is that some of the females wear a chador; the men dress like me or the guy down the street. The story is an everyday one. The wife of a couple wants to leave the country in order to make a better life for her eleven year old daughter, but the husband refuses to leave with her because he is responsible to care for his senile father who lives with them. I never tell the stories of  movies, and I won’t tell any more of this one, because the value of it registers only through the human colors revealed by its progress; our relation to those colors is what the story actually is. Like the great opening scene of Marlon Brando in Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind, it opens with its characters pleading their cases directly to the camera which acts as the magistrate and therefore us, the audience, and we are thus invited right into the squabble of the story with all its disarrangements, revelations, shifts of truth and human bearing. In terms of acting, what we see here makes Method and Meisner acting look like vanity. It is futile to speculate how such actors are trained in Tehran. Evidently they are not victims of a repressive theocracy. And it is futile, because the result of their work has nothing to do with our yearning for the ideal which the good looking or sexy looking actors Western acting offers us. No. Not here. Here we are unsullied by idealism. This acting affords us a different value entirely: pure participation. Seeing this picture, I realized I was seeing something I had longed to see all my life in film – something that film could provide better than any other medium: the seething truth of the ordinary. I do not go a work of art to be entertained, but to entertain something. And this director/storyteller seems to have set aside his desire to entertain, if he ever had it, but to give us people we can read, and the result is that I dive in and entertain myself vastly. I rejoice in this pleasure. Unlike the couple in the film, we are a perfect match.

 

A Serious Man

13 Apr

A Serious Man — written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Drama. 109 minutes Color 2006.

★★

This is a Woody Allen movie without Woody Allen – but with the characteristic Coen cruelty of temperament which Woody Allen mercifully does not possess. That cruelty was arresting in early pictures such as Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing, and in Fargo held at bay by the presence of Frances MacDormand, an actor whose real humor displaces all such pretentious nonsense – pretentious because the Coen brothers have done nothing to earn such cruelty. For them it is simply pretend, a pose, a fad, like wearing a neckerchief to tell folks you’re a cowboy. This story is a Neil Simonized Job story of an ordinary middle class Jewish college teacher beset by every woe imaginable. It is very well acted and produced and directed, of course. However, I found it tiresome because the teacher is written as a schmuck, a man who can never speak up for himself not just because he is surrounded by loudmouths but because the part is written that way – which is not good enough. I don’t mind a character being bulldozed; I don’t mind Bob Hope being bulldozed by Bing Crosby, but in A Serious Man I don’t believe it. I believe the Coen brothers think it’s funny or tragic or both, whereas it is simply phony and annoying. If you are infuriated by a fly, get out of bed and find the fly swatter. Of course, there are some telling characters, who, while not real outside of a cartoon, give value for your buck: the neighbor lady with the mummy eyes and the wife’s boyfriend. But his search for counsel or consolation with his rabbis is a put up job. He is never really looking for God, nor does he stumble upon God, nor is he even tempted by God. He goes to temple as one goes to a barbershop, as a form of social neatness. The Coen boys have not had much to offer for many years now. I have seen all their movies, but I have, I believe, now seen all I am going to see.

 

The Deep Blue Sea – 2012

04 Apr

The Deep Blue Sea — directed by Terence Davies. Romantic Drama. A woman gives her life for a man who loves her but not exactly as she wishes. 98 minutes Color 2012.

★★★

Its leads are three very good actors, of whom two are miscast. I saw this play with Peggy Ashcroft in London in 1953. Then I saw it in New Haven with Margaret Sullavan. Then in the first movie with Vivien Leigh. Now here with Rachel Weisz. Of the first three actresses playing Hester (shades of The Scarlet Letter?) only Ashcroft had the chops for the part. And all three actresses were over 40. A Phaedra story, the boy friend, associated with the husband and betraying him, must be much younger in years and energy. It’s important that all this be so, for it represents the last chance the woman has for great love. Their age difference makes her situation teeter on the brink, for if she loses that love, she will be a middle aged woman with no skills and no access to polite society, on her own in the world and no chance for love again. So to cast Rachel Weisz in this part is to lose all of that, for she is a 30 year old beauty with many years of beauty before her and she is smart and interesting. She is much too young for the part, and the boyfriend is the same age as she is. So it is with astonishment that I discover that Rachel Weisz is actually over 40. But, boy, oh boy, she does not appear to be. So what we have here instead with this actress is a woman who probably has never known sexual desperation, for she is an actress so beautiful she can pick and choose, and one who cannot or does not choose to carry the physical requirement for the part which demands exhaustion, shoulders and spirit too bent with the wisdom of the facts to be able to go on living. Also miscast is Simon Russell Beale, another good actor, but one who possess no competition for the Weisz character; he is too old looking; he is too white bearded; he is too out of shape. And he is also presented as a disloyal mama’s boy in scenes very well played by Ann Mitchel as dame bitch – scenes not in the play and accorded to the film only to demonstrate his unattractiveness to Weisz, his wife – the result being that his character is a foregone conclusion as soon as he appears, and presents no force in the play. This is one of several miscalculations on the part of the director/rewriter, errors which make his part incoherent, since he is presently presented as a kindly person indeed. The entire drama then must fall on the boyfriend and on Weisz. The boyfriend is played by Tom Hiddleston who is 30, and he is well cast, but we are not given anything in the script now to suggest what the Weisz character would see in him, save that he is young, good looking, and a great lay, none of which add up to a grand passion on their own. Kenneth More, who played it with Ashcroft and Leigh, brought to the character a lot of fun, a naughty energy, the lawlessness of a gambling rake and libertine, a big difference from the stuffy world of Judge Sir William and Lady Collyer from which Hester has come. But the real difficulty with the story would seem to lie in the material itself: a Grand Passion ending. In a Grand Passion one is in love not with the other, but with the feeling of passion inside oneself. A Grand Passion is the desire to possess the life of another, to devour that life, to have that life become one’s own. It is very convincing. And means you cannot call your soul your own – which is why you wish to die from it. But none of the characters have any inkling of this. Each in his own way wants it to be over, that is all. So one looks upon this passion here, which is photographed as through a veil or film, with a certain impatience and remove. We experience enormous empty spaces between these characters, unexplored by the script and director, but symptomized by the pauses between the lines. He has taken depth for granted. But we cannot. And he ends the story incorrectly with Weisz standing at the window of a bright new day, when the original play closes as it began with her stuffing the door with rags so that the suicidal gas she is about to turn on again will finally kill her.

 

I’ll Cry Tomorrow

29 Mar

I’ll Cry Tomorrow — directed by Daniel Mann. Drama. A young stage performer takes her first drink and all is lost. 117 minutes Black and White 1956.

★★★★

As singer Lillian Roth, Susan Hayward flails about in the first half of this film and then comes alive in the second as a charming drunk. Hayward was one of those repulsive actors — Shelley Winters, Jack Palance were others – who are grating in everything they do, especially in parts in which they are called upon to be sympathetic or endearing. If you want to see what endearing really is, take a look at the Story Conference short in the Special Features which brings us Lillian Roth herself in 1933, a delightful beauty with good clear eyes a fine voice and a spirit you can fall right into. Hayward physically is stiff as an actress and gesticulates rampantly and meaninglessly as she sings, whereas Roth, when she sings may use the same bold gestures, but they suit her and are natural to her.  You can always see Susan Hayward reaching her marks on the soundstage floor. She is never motivated; she is always driven. She is perpetually locked for a fight. In fact, her energy is so pronounced it is masculine – despite the fact that she has a good figure and a pretty face. Both these are enhanced by Sydney Guilaroff, whose perfect hairstyles for her bring a great deal to the character – as they do for Jo Van Fleet, another repulsive actor, who plays Hayward’s stage mother. Of course, Jo Van Fleet is a very good actress, and just how much better than Hayward is determined perfectly in the great confrontation scene between them. Our belovèd Margo and Eddie Albert, Ray Danton, and Richard Conte support the actress, who improves as the drunk scenes loosen her up, invite her to be flexible and less actory, and even funny. Much head tossing goes on as she hits and rises from the skids, but there are other scenes – especially those in AA – which are simple and moving. Daniel Mann directed actresses toward Oscars – Shirley Booth, Anna Magnani, Elizabeth Taylor – and there are times here which justify Hayward nomination for it that year. Hayward would have taken as her cue to play unpleasant characters onscreen that permission given by Bette Davis who mastered the art and paved the way. There are times in this gritty performance which must bow to her powerful predecessor in thanks.

 

 

D.O.A. [1950]

09 Mar

D.O.A. [1950] — directed by Rudolph Maté. Crime Drama. A businessman finds himself poisoned, and he has only a short to find out why and by whom. 83 minutes Black and White 1950.

★★★★★

Two world famous photographers made this, and made it well. Ernest Laszlo actually shot it, while Maté directed it. So it’s well worth seeing. Not noir, but shot as though it were, of course, for that was cheap and fun. It’s star, the poisoned, is played by Edmund O’Brien. It’s not easy to think of him as a leading actor. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Charles Laughton version, he is young, slim, handsome, and luscious as the poet Villon. But that’s not how we remember him. We remember him like he is here, as a guy with a cockeyed face, stout, jowly, pompadoured, and never-could have-been-handsome. And yet here he is, as he often was, in a leading role and eventually to win an Oscar. You have to ask yourself how this could have come to pass. But then all you have to do is to place him next to Pamela Britton as his gal Friday. What do you get? He is a born film actor. She is not a film actor at all. And it’s true she was actually a road company touring actress in Broadway musicals, and her technique is exactly that. Which is to say infuriating. Always over-extended, falsely vulnerable, routine. Always counting on the role rather than the character. You wonder how O’Brien could have endured long scenes with her, but he plays them as a human sacrifice. For, while the story is marvelous, the screenplay is over-written, and so we have, for instance, a long, wordy love-scene that would make you rather die of poison than marry the girl. But the story itself is well told, though it should have been cut by those European directors. When you think what makes a top director, you must turn to those who rewrote what they darn well pleased the morning of the shoot: Hawks, Walsh, Stevens. That’s what pushes them over into greatness. Something emerges on the sound stage that day that is more real than what is on paper. Dimitri Tiomkin scored it with his usual slow marches and swells, so we are never left in doubt as to what we are to feel. If you see it, tell me this: in the scenes where O’Brien learns he is poisoned, would he not better have played it completely the opposite to the way he does? You see, instead of watching him, I watched the doctors who are watching him, and they are doing nothing but watching him. Suppose O’Brien had gotten much stiller. A drinker and a philanderer, I think he might have become baffled or thoughtful, or very quiet somehow. Just a thought. The actors’ choices…mmm… particularly in a script where the emotion is extended over long passages of dialogue. Is the first qualification for a screen actor the ability to be a quick study? I wish someone would do a quick study of the matter. Quick studies: Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Henry Fonda. Slow study: Jimmy Stewart. Help me, someone! Anyhow, D.O.A. is not a waste of time, and if you’ve run out of noir, take a gander, why doncha?

 

The Devil’s Own

05 Feb

The Devil’s Own — Directed by Alan J. Pakula. Thriller. A young man on a revenge mission boards with the family of a cop, who has to choose between his friendship with the lad and his hatred of what the lad stands for. 111 minutes Color 1997.

★★★★

I don’t know if Harrison Ford ever knew how to act, but he certainly has forgotten how by the time he plays this character. He “acts” by “playing stern”. He does this by scowling and drawing down the sides of his lips and staring. That is to say, he makes faces. Too bad, because the result is that his vis à vis, given nothing to play with, takes every trick. The vis à vis in this case is the brilliant Brad Pitt, an actor whose every response seems right. As opposed to Ford whose every response seems righteous. We are presented thereby not with Ford’s character being tortured by his own perfection and the lack of it in others, but by an actor who never questions the foundation of and impossibility of such a rock-faced contrast. Harrison Ford has no way through his own fixed method, and no suggestion of one. We are faced with thickness. Brad Pitt, however, is all wit, susceptibility, openness, and so he makes the most unlikely situations plausible, although in this he is certainly helped by the editor. After all, it is a story with guns going off and no one getting hit. So with no one for Pitt to play against the film lies flat, save when we see him. We side with him wholly and throughout, which is not what we are supposed to do. At first it seemed that the film was set in Ireland, since the opening has everyone speaking the tongue; it was only with forced effort that I understood it to be taking place in Brooklyn. Pitt is running guns to Ireland and is lodged in Harrison Ford’s home. When Ford finds out what he is up to, oh dear! Because of Ford’s acting choice, the wrap-up goes for naught. The supporting people, particularly Treat Williams as the gun middleman, are excellent, and, this being Pakula, the production values are first rate. See it for Pitt – always worth our appreciation in lower-class roles.

 

It’s A Wonderful Life

06 Dec

It’s A Wonderful Life – Directed by Frank Capra. Comedy/Drama. A home-town man teeters suicidally rather than bankrupting himself and his fellow townsfolk. 130 minutes Black and White 1946.

* * * * *

Clint Eastwood remarked how violent James Stewart was in the Anthony Mann Westerns he made in his late middle age. But they are nothing to compare with the rudeness, insolence, insult, and threat he delivers in this supposedly down-home performance of a would-be suicide learning about the life he has lived before it is too late. The insanity with which he throttles the foolish Thomas Mitchell is terrifying. He is violently mean to his children (as indeed one must be at Christmas to have a really meaningful Yule.) But the picture as a Christmas Classic probably looms as large as it does for the same reason that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol does – because of the Scrooginess of Stewart, as George Bailey, followed by the ghastly death-threat visions before he mends his ways. Jimmy Stewart is remarkable in the role, and except for the final scene of the sanctimonious, Deus ex-macchina rescue by the townsfolk of Bedford Falls, where there is something wrong with his singing and his smile, we have a great performance by a master of his craft. It is said that the film was not successful in its day, but I’m not so sure. I saw it when it came out, and I remember it vividly. And both it and Stewart and Capra were nominated for Oscars that year. Or perhaps there is not something wrong with that final smile. Perhaps what I see behind it is a hangover of his own nasty brush with the afterlife. Stewart had been away at war, one of the first big stars to enlist, and he bravely piloted more bombing missions over Europe than was good for any mortal man. Everyone was changed by The War, and what changed most in Hollywood was the virtual inability of its male stars to play comedy any more. Tyrone Power had been marvelous in light comedy; so had Henry Fonda; so had Stewart; George Stevens never directed another one, and screwball comedy never really returned. They came back from The War changed men. Solutions now weren’t so easy as they once were in Capra’s great, good-hearted comedies of the 30s. Capra never made a convincing comedy after World War II, and his career petered out. Here however he is in the last chapter of his topmost form. Every scene is beautifully written, every scene is perfectly begun, played, ended, and edited. Like Normal Rockwell’s paintings, what is illustrated here – and It’s A Wonderful Life is essentially a genre painting and an illustration – is the value of the truth of American community, which is that we must get along with people quite different from ourselves in personal style, race, and national derivation, and that to do so is to survive by the only means possible for survival: love. Love is what needs to survive. And love is what survives us. To make the illustration clear Capra does exactly what Rockwell does: he makes his humans almost caricatures. Like Rockwell, Capra’s characters live in gawky motion, and their gesture is strategized in the direction of endearing folly. All this is still true of America and Americans. Forgetting love’s survival through cooperation and public service and remembering it again is our national drama. This is what makes It’s A Wonderful Life the one film of Capra’s that will not date. To force the illustration, Capra has cast the story perfectly: first with Lionel Barrymore, the perennial Scrooge of radio in those days, as the meanie Mr. Potts, and he eats the role alive. Then with Ward Bond as the cop, Beulah Bondi as the mom, Donna Reed as the feisty wife, Gloria Graham as the town gal of questionable morals, Henry Travers as The Angel Clarence, Frank Faylen as the cabbie, Sheldon Leonard as the bartender, and a huge heterogeneous cast of townsfolk. It’s A Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie.

 

J. Edgar

26 Nov

J. Edgar – Directed by Clint Eastwood. Biodrama. The personal and official doings of the unstoppable force of the founder of the FBI. 137 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

The music which Eastwood composes and chooses himself is beautiful, as usual. And the sets (Bumstead’s demise has not diminished this in Eastwood’s work) are first class. The camerawork keeps things dark, for most of the story takes place in interiors, but when the period is the 1920s and earlier what we are shown does not look like those eras but like a film trying to make us believe we are in them. The story moves back and forth in time, quickly, which is not a problem, but there is only a pictorial, not a thematic connection between a racetrack now and a racetrack then, which is why some audience members have found this editing baffling. From the start, every one of Eastwood’s films has been revolutionary in subject matter. But every one has endured a narrative failing of some kind. In each film is a flaw which derails the development of the main character in relation to the material. Here the problem lies in a bifurcation which on the one hand tells the story of a man who sacrifices his personal life for his career, and on the other is the story of a man who comes to the end of his imaginative power long before he comes to the end of his willingness to leave office, and so like Quaddafi and many another, becomes paranoid, vicious, and a liar. Leonardo Di Caprio plays J. Edgar Hoover. And this poses a deeper problem. Hoover was a fascinating careerist, but there is nothing particularly interesting about J. Edgar Hoover himself; he is not an attractive person – physically, intellectually, or spiritually. He was a dogged professional whose ideas and accomplishments ran out with World War II. After that he became the usual martinet, with all the usual and very dangerous failings and bents. Di Caprio is also not a very attractive person. He is not someone who, like Edward G. Robinson, can just be himself and enchant us. That is why he is not a true leading man. He is, however, a brilliant character lead, and if you wish to see him at his best see Total Eclipse, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Celebrity, and Blood Diamond, and leave the rest alone. My hunch is that Di Caprio is essentially introverted, and great only in characters who are not introverted, but are rather characters of high volatility, and Hoover was not that. For J. Edgar he certainly has worked on a vocal pattern, but that pattern just keeps him trudging through the doxology of the role, “I intend to save America from its direst enemies!” The story tells us that J. Edgar Hoover turned out, like Quaddafi, to be an assassin, but in Hoover’s case an assassin of reputations. All meant to bolster his own. But De Caprio is too close in tenor to Hoover himself to make him interesting. His relations with his right arm Clyde Tolson were probably not sexual, for two reasons, one being that Hoover was not a particularly sexual person, he was a monk of work, and the other being that in those days it would have been far too dangerous to his reputation and to that of the FBI had that ever taken place and been found out, which it certainly would have been, for it was just the sort of evidence Hoover collected to use against others. The redoubtable Judi Dench plays his mother who knows the truth and warns him. I don’t know why she is cast; she’s very good, but Lady Hoover is what we get. I don’t believe, as in Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, that Eastwood or his screenwriter or Di Caprio understand the first thing about the pulls and refrains of homosexual attraction. Here we have a story which might, like Brokeback Mountain, have moved us. But it doesn’t. The man who is supposed to be dying before our eyes is already dead from the start.

 

Boys Town and Men Of Boys Town

11 Nov

Boys Town and Men Of Boys Town — Directed by Norman Taurog. A Catholic priest in establishing a boarding school for delinquents in the middle of Nebraska comes up against his financial and personal nemeses. 96 minutes Black and White 1938.

* * * * *

The male movie stars of the 1930s were more beautiful than the female stars, and also more homely, and there is a good reason for it: the Great Depression.  Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney wore Common Man faces and had the common touch. The very plebian Irish mug of Spencer Tracey was Metros answer to the trend, and one wonders what Boys Town would have been like made at its obvious place, Warner Brothers, home of the gangster film. For Boys town is about proto-gangsters whom a well meaning Catholic Priest Father Flanagan took under his wing and for them established a series of farms cum schools which prosper and protect young males to this day, irrespective of race, religion, or ancestry. Warners had some tough crooks, but here the JDs are turned into gutter roses by a shoulder pat. They are played by group of Hollywood child actors so vicious in their technique that they can burst into tears at the drop of clapper. Never have so many cried so much for so few reels. They should have put glycerin on the camera lens and have done with it. Perfectly cast as a solid priest, Spencer Tracy won his second Oscar in a row, and you can see why. Tracy never oversteps the mark by emotionalizing his ideals or sentimentalizing the trites he has to utter.  Fascinating to watch, he is an actor who has carefully compartmentalized himself and gives everything short of the mawkish. His authority derives from the fact that his body is well grounded, and his performance depends upon his responsiveness, rather than his aggressiveness, such that we somehow believe it when others get their Irish up and all he has to do is repeat a request three times in a row for opponents to flutter to the ground as wild leaves before the mighty blast of October. Both movies are on one disc and both were made on the campus of Boys Town and both are worth seeing. Not least for the performance of Mickey Rooney as his enemy in the first and his ally in the second. Rooney has two qualities, one, confidence, and two, a quality so rare that few great artists possess it – Eddie Murphy, Bugs Bunny, Johann Sebastian Bach – drive. So potent is Rooney as a screen presence that for the second film his role of brat gangster must be divided in two. The older he got and the more his status as a star diminished, the greater the actor Rooney became.  He and Olivia de Havilland are the only surviving movie stars of the 1930s, she the ideal Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s A Mid Summer Nights’ Dream, and he, “Oh what fools these mortals be!” naked in a tree, the Puck of Pucks.

 

 

 

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…And Spring

28 Sep

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…And Spring – Directed by Ki-duk Kim. Drama. 95 minutes Color 2004.

* * * * *

Under the vigilant eyes of Old Monk (Yeong-su Oh), Child Monk (Jong-ho Kim) learns a hard lesson about the nature of sorrow when his childish games turn cruel in a story that’s divided into five segments, with each season representing a stage in a man’s life. This exquisitely filmed drama is entirely set on and around a tree-lined lake, where a tiny Buddhist monastery floats on a raft amidst a breathtaking landscape. What a lovely piece. It does a body good to see a story told in this manner. And it did my body good too. For it commands attention at the same time as it embodies peace, stillness, and the range of human truth that therein prevails. Treat yourself. Watch it.

With: Yeong-su Oh, Ki-duk Kim, Young-min Kim, Jae-kyeong Seo, Yeo-jin Ha, Jong-ho Kim, Jung-young Kim, Dae-han Ji, Min Choi, Ji-a Park, Min-Young Song

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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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Higher Ground

04 Sep

Higher Ground – Directed by Vera Farmiga. Drama of the Spirit. A thirty year old woman in a religious community comes to grip with her beliefs. 109 minutes Color 2011.

* * * * *

Vera Farmiga  puts one in mind of our beloved Jill Clayburg. She has the same beauty, openness as an actor, humor, feminine grace, spontaneity and daring. It is a pleasure to be in her company, and one feels secure in that company. Her performance here is lovely. And, while the film is about her character, every actor around her is lovely too. It is a pity that the bigoted Berkeley audience I saw it with laughed at some of the characters of the religious community, because the director, also Farmiga, does not ridicule or demean them. They are treated honestly as folks who are truly engaged with the beauty, especially the musical beauty, and community of their faith. It is a faith, however, which pastes communal belief on every soul, but Corinne, the character Farmiga plays, awakens more and more to the fact that her own soul is not being seen, particularly by herself. She is lost in the charade of avowing a God who never visits her, and it troubles her. Her family and friends are all immersed in this one-size-fits all religion whose orthodoxy is not a resurrection but a recipe. And yet that community is as deeply engaged in that faith as they can be, and they are to be respected for it. In this world it seems it is the men who suffer most, because they adore their wives and yet have nothing to say to them. Corinne’s father, her husband, and her best friend’s husband, are clearly in agony and are helpless. I recommend the picture highly. Farmiga knows how to open up the camera to the actor and the actor to the camera. I have never seen a story of this type told before. Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story did not have the depth and common interest of Higher Ground, for it was about medical versus religious work; its conflict was not about her profession of faith but whether she should become a professional in it; its main character was remote, in an order, whereas Farmiga is just a mom sitting in a station wagon going nuts because of a God who does not come the way they say He should. One feels for her. It is everything.

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