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Archive for the ‘POLITICAL DRAMA’ Category

Metropolis

06 Dec

Metropolis – directed by Fritz Lang. SciFi. 148 minutes Black And White Silent 1927.

★★★

The Story: In a modernistic city controlled by an oligarch, his son enters the bleak world of the lowly workers to make things better.

~

Fritz Lang is in possession of a reputation for high art which leaves me stumped. When I read David Thomson on Lang, I don’t doubt the enthusiasm of what Thomson is saying, but I don’t see it evidenced in the films. I don’t see Lang as a telling director of actors. I don’t see his working with difficult or timeless subjects. I don’t see a visual style that is ever a narrative force in and of itself. He’s not a bad director, but it seems to me that his reputation stems from his professional associations rather than with his innate gifts.

Lang’s big name comes from his work in Germany — from Metropolis, M, two of the Mabuse films, and several others — from before 1933 when he withdrew his fortune and emigrated to France and Hollywood. The remarkable thing about those films is that they were all conceived not by Lang at all, but by a woman, Thea von Harbou who wrote them. She became his wife, and, both before and after her association with Lang, was the top script writer of German films.

Lang also had to hand various highly skilled technicians, and much of the critical attention to him stems from the presence of the spectacular sets in his work. He also had the creative genius of Gunther Rittau to conceive and execute the filming of the renowned special effects of Metropolis. And he, of course, had a remarkable cinema-photographer, who was to go on to shoot Garbo’s Camille, Pride And Prejudice, Tortilla Flat, Without Love, and Key Largo and end up – and then on to being hired by Desi for his inventiveness with cameras and to film I Love Lucy.  It is none other than the great Carl Freund. What we are seeing, it seems to me, probably belongs to all these people, rather than to Lang.

I feel Lang is a director without a vision and not much heart. I feel he is drawn to the obvious. Jamie Lee Curtis said, with pride, that her mother the actress Janet Leigh took on anything the studios threw at her. I feel Lang did the same, but with a mean streak. He directed because he liked to live well. His subjects are the psychological small potatoes of human life. A large subject, as here, he reduces to a maxim. On the other end of his spectrum for platitude he indulges in conflagrations, which is like someone who can’t get their own way having a tantrum. He sat by the camera, pressed the button, and whole sets would explode.

Metropolis establishes its cliché from the start, just as each and every modern science fiction movie does, by making the Metropolis a dystopia. The drive to hold onto the lineage of the dictator’s dominance is both enforced and undermined by a mad inventor who is able to recreate in a robot the love he lost years before to the dictator. She comes to life as a Duessa version of the Una version of the heroine who wishes to reform the Metropolis, and both of these, in identical dresses, are very well played by Brigitte Helm.

Lang nearly burned her to death in the immolation scene (he was never very good with actors). But he is here and elsewhere served well by his German character people and a zillion extras. However, on all available occasions demanding an impression, his leading man lodges his irises in the middle of his eye sockets and stares vividly, a  one-size fits all technique. He is like many Silent film actors who tend to rely on lots of mascara for their art.

It’s a film worth seeing, for it is felt to be the greatest film ever to be made in Germany, at one with the work of Beethoven and Bach. I don’t see it that way  — after all, it’s science fiction, a genre that forbids depth by very definition. It’s pulp made to appear important with lots of mascara. But you must make up your own mind. If you can face the delirium and live.

 

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.

 

Lust, Caution

28 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

I say no more. I have said too much.

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

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

Highly recommended for grown-up viewing.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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?

 

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.

 

The Ides Of March

13 Oct

The Ides Of March – directed and written (with others) by George Clooney. Political Thriller. 101 Minutes Color 2011.

★★★★

The Story: The office manager of a Presidential campaign learns about life from the great ones above and below him.

* * * *

I wonder if the failure of his performance will put a period to the rise of the career of a truly gifted actor. He is in the role that must carry the film. But the actor’s conception of or preparation for the role, or perhaps his being cast in it in the first place, or perhaps the director’s failure to establish the necessary grounds in the opening scenes, fails the film.

Instead the story and the dialogue have to carry this film. But they are not quite sufficient because they are just the outer story; the inner story is a change, a learning in the main character. None of the other actors can carry the film it; they are all supporting players.

The problem arises with the opening scene and continues with the scene soon after with a reporter. In the first scene he does a lighting stand-in for the presidential contestant, and recites lines of his oncoming speech. He does them listlessly, almost snidely. Then when he speaks to the reporter he avers his great and thorough belief in the candidate. She laughs at him. But he won’t have it. He elaborates his belief.

Okay, so why doesn’t it work? Because the character he plays must believe in what he says, with all his heart. However, the actor presents this character as a man whose heart is not in it. Yet the entire film depends upon his heart becoming re-educated, but since he heart is veiled to begin with, the story is devoid of human interest.

Everything else is quite interesting. All the other actors are in top form: Philip Seymour Hoffman as the campaign manager, Paul Giamatti as the opposition campaign manager, Evan Rachel Wood as a pretty intern, Maria Tomei, particularly as the reporter, Jeffrey Wright as an opportunistic senator, and George Clooney as the candidate.

Marvelously filmed by Phedon Papamichael and scored by Alexandre Desplat, one is held in bafflement as the subtleties of the main actor pass before one’s appreciative eyes. He is beautiful. He is unusual. It is a great leading role in a huge Hollywood picture. Because of him it doesn’t happen. It is a pity.

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Slightly Scarlet

21 Apr

Slightly Scarlet — Directed by Allan Dwan. Gangster Crime In High Places. A free lance photograqpher takes over a crime syndicate. 99 minutes Color 1956.

**

The great Robert Alton filmed this for RKO in colors that on the small screen smear. (Alton filmed the big ballet sequence of An American In Paris, so you know what he can do.) This film is sold as a noir, but it is not; it is a crime story, and, since it is not in black and white, how could it be noir? The presence of two redheads, Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl, commanded color, one supposes, but the story is ridiculous in color. And to prove it, the two women never seem to get out of cocktail dresses worn as street clothes at all times of the day. The garishness is without the strength you might find in a Fox musical, say, and the three leads, John Payne, Dahl, and Fleming were never stars; they were leading man and women; they were never asked to carry a picture, but just to throw their sex appeal in the direction of the stars who did carry it. Here, even the three of them together cannot carry the picture. Fleming is of the petrified wood school of acting whose doyenne was Marlene Deitrich. Her brassiere is, like her face, a stony sierra. Never have such peaks been scaled so perilously; they span continents. Arlene Dahl throws herself about like a frisbee seeking a catcher in the part of the mad sister. John Payne is handsome, sexy, dimpled, and lends his stalwart sensuality to a role for which none of those attributes are required. I thought I would never say these words, but where is Richard Widmark when we need him? Alan Dwan, who started directing films in 1911, briskly drove this ambulance to the ER. We forgive you, Allan; nothing could be done to save it; the patient was dead on arrival.

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The Valley Of The Hearts Delight

12 Apr

The Valley Of The Hearts Delight — Directed by Tim Boxell. Historical Drama. A reporter becomes imperiled when he tries to solve the kidnapping of his lover’s brother. 97 minutes Color 2006.

* * *

Fury was the title of it when it was made by Fritz Lang with Sylvia Sidney and Spencer Tracy back closer to the day when its actual events changed the name of The Valley of The Hearts Delight in California to Silicon Valley. To avenge a kidnapping, a mob seeks to string up two innocent men. But also the Valley newspaper owner played by Pete Postlethwaite and certain local politicians want this also, in order to whitewash the Valley’s glorious name as quickly as can be. Bruce McGill plays the father of the young man — about whom the writers have cast an unnecessary shroud, since it is clear that he is gay, and that he picked up the kidnapper thinking it was a chance for sex. It all happened at the time, as the saying goes, and I will not confuse you further by telling you what actually did happen. A feeling of amateurishness pervades the direction of the piece. To recommend it, let us point to the presence in it of a beautiful 1933 Studebaker convertible. Gabriel Mann is a lovely actor, although a little too razor pressed for a small town reporter on the make. Still, the costumes are period and smile all the way through. I smiled too, but not always with unveering delight in its valley.

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Harry’s War

31 Mar

Harry’s War — Directed and written by Keith Merrill. Political Farce. A young postman inherits his Aunt’s Anti-tax campaign, and makes of it a national explosion. 97 minutes Color  1981

* * * *

Geraldine Page? I don’t believe there is a biography of the greatest actress on the English speaking stage of her time. What do you make of that? I think what is to be made of it is that there is nothing identifiable in her work, by which I mean nothing one can identify with. The first thing you notice is her odd voice, very strange, isn’t it? It’s placed high and back in the throat, and it sounds like thrift shop china being thrown at a wall. An expert might question its production, which seems to have no constant foundation in the diaphragm, and it also sounds like she is swallowing air as she speaks. But she certainly was an actress of giantess power, which means, not that she was beyond technical difficulty or failure, but that, still and all, she had counties of reserve all around her inside her. This would have put her in line for the great classical roles of Greek Tragedy, Medea, Clytaemnestra; but no; she had every piece of equipment to do them, but a vocal one. I once saw her with her husband Rip Torn perform Lady Macbeth.  In a huge long red braid down her back thick enough to moor a liner, perhaps designed after Ellen Terry’s in the same role, but Page’s performance lacked normal background of temperament. This wasn’t a person going crazy; it was a neurotic play-acting, which means the role had no place to go. Partly reduced in force because her husband, through no fault of his own, was a talent much smaller than hers, she played under his performance. And the performance was, naturally, vocally inadequate to the text, which was really the problem, and why, as a rule, she did not play Shakespeare — Gertrude or Volumnia, say.  Anyhow none, of this counts here, as she plays an oddball political maverick who takes on the IRS. She’s lovely in many moments and many passages. Just watch her achieve her objective in each scene. She not only gives her all, she is a spendthrift. She is never less than fascinating, arresting, spectacular, and generous. As to the film, who knew the IRS is authorized to carry firearms? It’s the story of an old woman, Page, who is brought low by the IRS, and whose standard is raised by an adopted son. Edward Herrmann plays him, and he is perfectly cast, and is a wonderful actor entirely, sensitive, various, and with an internal good one does not see in a principal male actor these days. Dingie Elisha Cook adds a good deal to the brew. But the picture grows cruder as it proceeds, until it almost becomes a silent film reduced to pure (i.e. impure) action, the problem being that the opposition is made too obvious in the form of Donald Ogden Stiers and Naomi Jens as the IRS bureaucrats gone mad. They make nasty, nasty eyes. We are so far from believing all these characters that everyone, tax avoiders and tax collectors, end up looking like Republicans.  Indeed, after two weeks of its 1981 release, it was pulled from circulation by the IRS who objected to its negative view of their sensitive selves. It has hardly ever been seen since. See it now.

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POWER

25 Mar

Power— Directed by Sidney Lumet — Political Drama. A power broker takes on a loser and turns him into a saucepan full of popcorn. 111 minutes Color 1986

* * * *Watch Instantly

Richard Gere is and always has been so badly spoken that he seems crude in everything he plays. This lends him the luster of the cheap, for which he has been cast these many years. It disguises the fact that he is an actor of considerable sensitivity. The love scene between himself and Julie Christie is a case in point. Of course she is the most alluring woman in the world, so who could fail? He is excellent as a political power-broker and the power-broker world is fascinating. Gene Hackman does a wonderful character involved in a slapstick public drunk scene. E.G. Marshall is, as usual, priceless, and Beatrice Straight is as usual florid.

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Cast:

Richard Gere, Julie Christie, Gene Hackman, Kate Capshaw, Denzel Washington, E.G. Marshall, Beatrice Straight, Fritz Weaver, Michael Learned, J.T. Walsh, E. Katherine Kerr, Polly Rowles, Matt Salinger, Tom Mardirosian, Omar Torres, D.B. Sweeney, Donna Hanover

Director:

Sidney Lumet

 
 
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