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Archive for the ‘ROMANTIC DRAMA’ Category

In Name Only

06 Oct

In Name Only – directed by John Cromwell. Romantic Drama. 94 minutes Black And White 1939.
★★★★
The Story: Out fishing, a young woman finds herself attracted to a handsome man on a horse, but he’s married and his wife would rather kill him than release him.
~
Carole Lombard tended not to make “serious” films. She felt a responsibility to her studios to make money for them, and her comedies were perennial hits. She made George Stevens’ “Vigil In The Night” to get an Oscar and she’s darned good in it but she wasn’t even nominated. So you might think that a film with this title, particularly one with Cary Grant, would be a 30s comedy, but it aint.

It’s a serious romantic drama, and well worth seeing because everyone is good in it. Grant is an actor seamlessly adaptable to any genre. He is so victorious in tuxedo comedy that one supposes this film might turn into one, but it never does.

Kay Francis plays the calculating wife, and, in its way, she is the most interesting character – or almost. For what motivates a human being to trick someone she does not love into marriage and then clutch it to her forever? I don’t mean the outer motivations of money and place, I mean the inner motivation, the inner human contraption. Only an actor could truly display such a thing, and Kay Francis reveals glimpses of it.

But of course, Carole Lombard and Cary Grant have the focus of our hearts. And Grant is at his handsomest – although, oddly, his sports clothes are of the wrong material. Why is that? Was this before he brought his own clothes to his roles?

Lombard’s misery at being his mistress is completely convincing, as is the sexual energy between them. Lombard was an actor of clearly defined decisions. She always knew how to tell her story clearly, using a single small detail. The audiences of her day appreciated her for this.

She has that wonderful female quality of the comediennes of her era – and all of them had it – Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy – they were game. They were up for some fun. They were game dames. Women who were ready to take a chance. To throw themselves into it – whatever it was. It’s not a quality you find in modern film comediennes, good as some of them are.

 

Bardelys, The Magnificent

27 Sep

Bardelys The Magnificent – directed by King Vidor. Silent Swashbuckler. 90 minutes Color Filters 1926.
★★★★★
The Story: A philandering blade, on a Cymbeline-bet to marry a certain lady, falls for her on sight and is almost hung for his pains.
~
What we see here is John Gilbert as a quite good actor.

Good?

Really?

Watching Queen Christina, who would have guessed? There, he looks like a high-strung ham.

Here, however, everything he does is geared to bodice-ripper style but played in the lowest key. He simply lets the tinpot gesticulations of the plot zoom around him, while he stays real. Smart actor. Too much makeup on his eyebrows does give their whites a gluttonous glare of intensity, perhaps, but otherwise he is light and easy, convincing and fun.

He rescues himself at the end with a series of spectacular aerial acrobatic feats, ala Douglas Fairbanks, worth waiting for. In the meantime, he has the fair Eleanor Boardman, (soon to marry King Vidor, the director). She is lovely, real, unusual. Worth seeing her acting and her spirit.

In a different way, the same can be said for Roy D’Arcy. Now there’s a villain for you. The eye makeup astonishes. Covering his eyebrows with flesh-colored tape, he pastes tiny upward slanting brows and below them the suspect balcony of a moustache, and below that the poisoned stiletto of a goatee. In silents, even in late and technically advanced ones like this, actors sometimes still used stage-makeup. What terrifying teeth! What a loathsome smile he generates with them! What a captivating gift is his! Repulsive. Silent films were his onion. Don’t miss him.

The story, of course, is tosh. But it is wittily over-costumed, and the sets, which look like sets, are hyperbolic – just what this sort of material requires. Amid a flurry of unconvincing duels with sabers, the film contains a number of famous scenes. The love scene in the punt with the swans floating past the weeping willows is justly renown.

This is MGM at its most expensive. The great William Daniels, who photographed Garbo and right up to Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, lavishes the talent of his lighting on every scene.

Check it out for your revision of Gilbert’s gifts. Gilbert almost married Garbo. He married Ina Claire for fifteen minutes. Marlene Dietrich saved his life in her usual manner. Dead at thirty-eight, alas. His daughter by actress Leatrice Joy, whom he also married, talks about him movingly, and the extras include two well informed commentators.

It’s a King Vidor film, so it has the power of true sexual attraction in it. The film was thought lost until recently. Its discovery and reconstruction is a wonder and a treat.

 

Song To Song

27 Mar

Song To Song – directed by Terrence Malick. Romance. 129 minutes Color 2017.
★★★
The Story: Boy meets boy, boy meets boy’s girl, boy steals boy’s girl, girl leaves boy for girl, girl goes back to boy and boy, and then just boy.
~
Roony Mara is the Cleopatra of this fable, which feels like a personal story from the director’s life. Roony Mara? Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite monotony. She is the least mysterious, alluring, fatale of female creatures. Why any director casts this sphinx without a secret in major roles of sexual attention by everyone in the cast is not visible to the practiced eye. Or does lackluster have a luster all its own? She orphans everything she plays. A want of fire illuminates her.

She drifts as drift others through multiple and shifting plate-glass palaces and lowly cottages. Their interior furnishings are as empty as their interior lives. These settings wander as characters wander, with no fixed motive, no fixed affiliation, and no fixed income. How the hell are these people earning a living?

At the top of the heap stands a creepy billionaire record producer played by Michael Fassbender. He promises people careers in show-bizness, but he gives them the bizness. And he never unzips his fly for sex, so you know how dissolute he is.

A song-writer of ordinary talent is played by Ryan Gosling, Fassbender’s new best friend and first betrayed (The music business may be a stand-in for Hollywood.) Natalie Portman turns up as a gorgeous waitress also promised a rock-star role. And, in fact, there is Val Kilmer who once played a rock star again playing a rock star, this one in his stout fifties. Cate Blanchette plays Gosling’s rebound. Bérénice Marlohe plays the juicy lesbian. And somewhere lost in all of this is the great Holly Hunter.

Two things might be noticed about Malick’s method.

The first is that his is essentially a silent film method. You have to use an ear phone to hear what little dialogue there is, whereas, in silent film, lots of title cards tell you what it’s about. Here title cards take the form of voice-over.

Malick fell into the voice-over habit with his first film Days Of Heaven, when the little Bronx girl was coaxed into making the story clear by voice-overing it. Voice-over derives from the false notion that film is predominately not a spoken medium. With Song To Song, what you see is not a talkie.

Here we have “The Meaning Of It All” voiced-over, and it’s flaccid and tepid and vapid and vacant. However, unlike silent film, Malick’s words are devoid of humor. And in Song To Song there are no songs.

The second thing is that the acting is improvised. And this is always a mistake. When you make actors improvise a play, you make the actors write a play. Therefore, in an attempt to make things look natural, they look unnatural. In fact, they look hammy.

It’s a hamminess that is the reverse of over-acting. It is the hamminess of under-acting. Desultoriness and inertia emerge on the one hand, and on the other the actors’ choices look actorish. The actors’ choices look not what humans would do or what characters would do, but what actors would do.

Better leave them to act. Particularly with a director at once so icily controlling and lackadaisical as Malick. Indeed, at one dull spot, I noticed an actor listening intently while another actor spoke, and I realized it was Holly Hunter just doing her job.

Despite Malick’s elaborate narrative, Song To Song is rudely simple. He does get her in the end.

 

M. Butterfly

12 Nov

M. Butterfly – directed by David Cronenberg. Romantic Drama. 101 minutes Color 1993.

★★★★★

The Story: A French bureaucrat in China falls in love with the star of the Chinese opera and she becomes the love of his life, until he turns on her, and turns again.

~

The central fact of M. Butterfly is the love-of-one’s-life love beyond which, for those who have experienced it, exists nothing of importance.

One who has experienced this wakes to the core of the film for its surpassing value in exploring, portraying, honoring the matter.

And you believe it. You believe that love is the love you once knew too.

What is questionable about the film is does the character who falls in love with the opera star believe that she is a woman, when we in the audience all know that it is being played with steadily ruthless seduction by John Lone? We know he’s a male. But the bureaucrat does not know it. For he never sees his butterfly naked.

Inside the story and carrying it and exfoliating it are the great arias of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly with their heartbreaking rapture. It was the greatest love that Cio-Cio-San ever knew and ever hoped to know. And the same holds true of the French bureaucrat. For in the film, the roles are reversed.

The finale of the film consists of a big bravura piece by Jeremy Irons who plays the finally imprisoned bureaucrat. In it, everything that has repelled him when he finds his lover’s true gender turns into an acclamation of the love itself, The great feat: love. For it was never a question of seeing his lover naked. That was not the issue, startling though it may be and was. Not lover naked – but naked love. Naked love. That’s what we see and know.

Here it is in all its force and necessity.

 

 

 

Winter Meeting

29 Jun

Winter Meeting – directed by Bretaigne Windust. Melodrama. A WW II hero courts a well-to-do spinster and breaks down her barriers to love. 104 minutes Black and White 1948.
★★★★
In its day, the picture was not successful, in the sense that other Bette Davis vehicles had been, which does not mean it lost money. It was concurrent with Davis’s huge salary boost to over $10,000 a week, and she is worth every penny of it if quality of performance is any standard. She is wonderful from beginning to end. It is not one of her bitch ladies, such as she crowded out her career and her talent with by playing for the last 40 years of her acting life. It is a quiet performance of a subdued intelligent woman; her transitions from mood to mood, from reception to speech, are an acting lesson to behold. She is always present and she is always free.

She talked about this film as the turning point of her career. One wonders what she meant. Did she mean she no longer looked young enough to hold the screen to a romantic possibility? She certainly looks great, though: she has lost the weight from her pregnancy. Davis had her first child when she was pushing forty. She was a tiny woman and extra weight showed on screen. Here she is svelt and limber. She walks with elegance and ease. Her training with Martha Graham shows in every move she makes, both physically and emotionally.

The top-of-the-line Warner’s staff backs her: Max Steiner does the score; she is beautifully dressed, and Ernest Haller once again masterfully lights her. Janis Paige and John Hoyt and Florence Bates support her.

But Davis said later that she should have gone to Hal Wallis and told him to shelve the production because it wasn’t working. What she meant by that may have related to James Davis as her leading man. They couldn’t get the actors they wanted, so they used an unknown. But, seeing it now, James Davis works OK. He’s not a conventional Hollywood handsome guy. He’s massive; his eyes are dark, recessed, and unreadable. He looks like he’s going to off the deep end, and that works fine, for indeed he is playing a troubled soldier hiding more than one bad secret.

In the course of their association, they have long talks, and these are intelligent explorations of their lives both now and before. Her tiny figure next to his mass is arresting. She is a much better actor than he could ever have become, or rather his style is that of a cowboy, so that you know that they would never really mate well, even had it all worked out between them, which I hope I do not betray your expectations by whispering to you that it does not.

But here she is at the peak of her powers, which in her case was very close to the end of them, and she is grand to watch, an honorable practioner of her craft.

 

The Constant Nymph

02 May

The Constant Nymph – directed by Edmund Goulding. Romance. 112 minutes Black And White 1943

★★★★

The Story: An adolescent girl has a crush on a classical composer who is a friend of the family.

~

She was a licensed pilot, and, after a flight from their grape ranch in Indio, she and her husband Brian Aherne were tired and decided to eat out before going home. They stopped at Romanoff’s.

In a nearby booth was Edmund Goulding, who had directed Grand Hotel, Dark Victory, The Great Lie, and knew Brian Aherne who was also English. Since Aherne had played the lead in The Constant Nymph in 1934, Goulding thought that Aherne might help with the casting of the female lead in the remake. Joan Leslie and others had been considered. He wandered over to their table.

“Sit down and join us, old boy,” said Aherne. “And, er, this is my wife.”

“Jack Warner wants a star, but she has to be consumptive, flat-chested, anemic, and fourteen,” said Goulding. “It’s impossible.”

“How about me?” said Aherne’s wife.

“Who are you?” asked Goulding.

“Joan Fontaine.”

“Oh my god, absolutely right!” Goulding ran to the nearest phone to call Jack Warner, and Fontaine was confirmed the next morning.

Fontaine had played Rebecca and Suspicion (the only Oscar winning performance in any Hitchcock film), and she would be nominated for The Constant Nymph.

Goulding was generally considered to be a genius director, and that is never more apparent than in his direction of this film. He rewrote a lot of the script to its advantage. His sense of the mis-en-scene, especially in the first half, is remarkable. The frocks on Joan Fontaine are by Sears-Roebuck, which is right, and the gowns on Alexis Smith are by Orry-Kelly and are  royal – indeed, one of them looks made from a bolt-end of Bette Davis’s metallic dress in Elizabeth And Essex. The lighting and camerawork Tony Gaudio did for him, the production by Henry Blanke and Hal Wallis which guaranteed Warner’s top talent, the sets, all make for a first class entertainment. As supporting actors, we have Peter Lorre, Alexis Smith, Dame May Whitty  and Charles Coburn — whose mere appearance in any picture is a comic situation in and of  itself.

But his handling of Joan Fontaine is what is most remarkable. For she is here as she had never been before and would never be again. She had generally played and would go on to play wan heroines and milksops, a series of vapid Rowenas. But in this film she is a lively teenager, tearing around the house with her sister, with her hair anywhichway. I could not believe this tedious and strained actress could act this charming, vivacious, spontaneous jeune fille. The picture is a wonder because of her. She always said it was her favorite film. It is the best thing she ever did.

With complete authority, Charles Boyer carries the part of the composer which he is probably too short, fat, and old to play. But he is entirely seductive, as usual, with his wonderful eyes and sensual mouth and deep and resplendent voice. Boyer is a great actor and enormously popular in his day – which, in this case, means an actor backed up by great internal vitality – such as, for instance, Tom Cruise.

Boyer’s score is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, but the music side of the story does not work because it is gauche. But this is overridden by Goulding’s direction. His sense of setting and decor. And his handling of actors.

Aside from Fontaine, notice his handling of Alexis Smith, a cold actor, whom Goulding makes sure we see a different side of here. The same is true of Lorre and Coburn. Both are at first obnoxious and both we eventually root for. Indeed, we come to side with all these characters – he has written and directed them in the round — a great feat for a director.

Yes, everyone in Hollywood thought of Goulding as great director. But his Bette Davis movies, for instance, are not great as movies.  So where are his great movies?

Here’s one.

Perhaps one’s enough.

 

 

Carol

31 Dec

Carol – directed by Todd Haynes. Drama. 118 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★

The Story: A Park Avenue woman takes up with a shopgirl and she with her in a relationship whose seriousness jeopardizes their lives.

~

The idea that this picture is about a lesbian relationship seems besides the point when actually watching it. For the environment of its story is also the story, and to define the movie in genital or sexually deviant terms seems vulgar and beside the point.

The relationship progresses in slow stages, but these stages are rendered through the lens of the setting of such love itself, not directly, but indirectly. The surroundings, that’s what we see and want to see, because the film makes us recognize surroundings as the kind permission and very condition of love – we who have ever known such a passion as is before us here. Unacknowledged setting is the sine qua non and soil of passion.

That is to say, the film is rendered through and as two simultaneous and converging stories, the more important and potent of which is that such love generates itself into being in half-tones, is experienced through doors partly closed, looking out car windows none of the landscape of which has any registration but has carrying power in that it provides the mundane context of Cupid’s wings gently fluttering out of sight behind His back all along. It doesn’t matter what it is.

The banal is the secret doily of love’s Valentine. The ordinary. The every-day. How cigarettes are needed, run out of. How a sales supervisor in a department store can create the very prison of disapproval on which such love will be forced into flower. How a child’s nurse must be reprimanded with a forbidding tone of voice.

The motels, the diners, the friends of the family – things of no importance actually provide the screen and fortress behind which and before which passion plants itself and thrives.

I stopped reading the novels of Janet Highsmith years ago, so I have not read this one. But I suspect the one fault of the film is in the screen writers being too respectful of one of the two women described in the book. Cate Blanchette plays the older one, the Park Avenue lady, and is superb. Rooney Mara plays the shopgirl, and she is good too. The trouble is that she is written as a little grey mouse, and it won’t do. It probably did well enough in the book. But the film needs a different contrast of types, one in whom we can take some interest. For our interest should be the same as Cate Blanchett’s – we’ve got to see what the heck she sees in her! It needed to be either written differently or cast with an actress with a strong personal quality – think of a young Julie Harris in the role – or both.

The film is majestically directed. Haynes’ sense of the ’50s is 100% better now. I lived through that time and I know. Beautiful Packards and Lincolns. Perfectly costumed. Perfect settings. It is shot with noble beauty by Edward Lachman, who also shot Haynes’ Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce. Exquisite.

Carol is worthwhile watching for everyone with an adult within them.

 

I Know Where I’m Going

12 Sep

I Know Where I’m Going – written and directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Romantic Drama. 91 minutes Black And White 1945.

★★★★

The Story: A young British lady sets off to a Scottish island to marry a millionaire.~

It’s a very famous movie, highly popular world-wide, and one of a series these partners would bring out over the years, among which are Stairway To Heaven and The Red Shoes.

Wendy Hiller in her early glory plays the young lady, and she is an actress always easy to root for, because she’s so open-book and easy to read.

She is supported by a cast of interesting English and Scottish actors – for much of it was shot around the islands which it is about, and with a number of down-to-earth locals, plus a strong dash of English stage talent, among which is the startling young Pamela Brown.

I won’t tell you the story, because it is a fairy story dealing with a young lady who fancies herself to be a princess, and you know you have to experience such tales yourself and in person, or they don’t count.

But as you watch, you might take note of Roger Livsey who plays a Scottish laird. He is what in casting terms is called a leading man. And what a leading man does is support the star. The story is not about the leading man; it is about the star, in this case Wendy Hiller.

But just watch what Livsey does and does not do. From the moment he appears he presents himself in those aspects of the male which are perfect, which have no flaw, and which the star must awaken to. That is to say, he presents himself as loving her. And he does that by emanating the male courting energy – lyrical, attentive, caring, protective, devoted. He does not say anything, he does not do anything. He does not roll his eyes or gesticulate. He does not grab the dame unfeelingly like John Wayne, and he does not ogle her meaningfully like Clark Gable. They are stars; they can what they like. But Livsey is a leading man. He is masculine, is decent looking and has an interesting brown voice. His is a demonstration of male love evinced without a word. It is how men love women. It is a way that women seldom notice.

Because women are always looking for something else, something they have read about, or something their father didn’t give them, or something they have seen in the movies. But what a male really has to offer a female is just this, just what Livsey brings to the role, and all subsequent male love offerings partake of and come from this.

In doing this Livsey does only this. So that, as an actor, he is without eccentricity, defect, quirk. And that is what he is supposed to be, because those would interfere with the focus on the female star and her transition and her story. She has them, not he. He has character, wit, humor, grace, and the calm to act in a crisis. But all of that is only to support the story of the star. It is a true leading man performance, and a model of the type.

 

Forbidden

19 May

Forbidden – directed by Frank Capra. Drama. 83 minutes Black And White 1932

★★★★★

The Story: A small down librarian heads for the high-life and finds true love.

~

Imperturbably soigné is how we usually see Adolphe Menjou, tailored so perfectly you don’t even notice it – except here we peer under the togs and find an actor of chance.

He had moved from playing betrayed and betrayer of husbands in the Silents, and now in the Talkies, we find a character with perfect diction and a well placed voice. All of which is to the good when his tuxedo gives out to a warm heart inside it. Surprise, surprise!

An unusual love story, pre-code, in which that heart is given to his mistress, played by Barbara Stanwyck, whose heart is also true. But Menjou can’t marry her, or won’t, he says, because he is already married to a woman he is indebted to. Perhaps it is the case that he can’t divorce and remain a successful politician. In any case, what we have is a story that rings true in its execution at every turn. All I know is I care for both these people and have not a single word of advice for either of them. All I can do is watch.

A triangle is completed by Ralph Bellamy as a muck-raking journalist, with a mean streak that gets wider as the years elapse. It’s not his usual thudding part, and he is very good in his crudeness, energy, and drive for Stanwyck’s hand. Surprise, surprise!

The story takes them through the years. They age. And things get worse for all of them as they do. Surprise, surprise!

Each scene is beautiful Their romance at night horseback riding on the beach is one of the most stunning scenes I have ever seen in a film. And the big confrontation filmed outside in a downpour is emblematic of the hardship true lovers will put up with to be with one another. Again – no surprise –  because all of it filmed by Joseph Walker.

And, also no surprise, it is written by Capra’s standby Jo Swerling.

Stanwyck is interesting, vulnerable, raw. When speech fails, Capra uses her as Silent actress, and she never gets it wrong, too big, too broad, too much. Always just right. She was one of those actresses who was greatest when young. Here she is 24. Her name is now above the credits. It will never find itself anywhere else.

She and Capra made four films in a row together. Then, years later, Meet John Doe, a collaboration of masterworks, as fresh and true in their execution and playing as a glass of milk at dawn.

 

 

The Temptress

25 Jan

The Temptress  — directed by Fred Niblo. Drama. 117 minutes Black and White 1926.

★★★★★

The Story: A gorgeous woman, married to a jerk, has an affair with a dam-builder from the Argentine, to which she follows him, to dam-busting seismic disturbance for all.

Greta Garbo is the most sexually voracious actress ever to have appeared in film.

Her films are all the same. She has been kept by older men or beset by unwanted suitors, too old, silly, callow, married, dense, young. They come upon her and desire her wantonly. They betray all their scruples for her. She laughs, treats them like children, and doesn’t let them off the hook because they pay for her fancy apartment. She keeps them dangling. Obviously no one is the right one. They appear in uniform, with medals, naked, clothed, in rags. They present her with diamonds, furs, and food. Nothing turns her head. They tire her. She makes her living on them. Until there swans into view some young man, so pure, so devoted, so delicious of aspect and potential, that Garbo, who has spurned Dukes, walks over to this young man, seizes him with one hand by the back of the head, grabs his chin with the other, drapes her body upon him, leans her face down over him, puts her mouth on his, and drinks and drinks and drinks.

This skill as an actress she had when she was twenty, when she made The Temptress, her second film. The vamps, such as Nita Naldi and Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow, were all dark and tiny wild gypsy bitches. Garbo was a lanky blond, and she was not a bitch. She was a master flirt, but also second-by-second sensitive, open to the subtlest influence, inner or outer. She was simply a lone operative in the big-time world of men with nothing but her female wiles to survive on, and an acting instrument strung like an Aeolian harp.

She brought to MGM the caché of class. She was the top money maker there. As Louise Brooks said, as soon as Garbo appeared in films, every other Hollywood actress had to exist in relation to her. She was able to do on screen what no other actor was able to do before or since, and no one knew exactly what it was. When the war came, MGM did not know what to do with her. They had exalted her in their own eyes. This was stupid and unimaginative of them. It was quite simple, for Dietrich and Lamar and Bergman went on playing Europeans in war stories. Garbo was still a big money-maker – her last film, too. The war cut off her European audience, which was huge. And her American popularity in the sticks had waned, in part due to the number of fancy costume dramas she appeared in, and a certain distance she had created for herself on screen and which was created by her studio as well. She drew a circle around herself and acted inside it, as Brando was later to do. Who could imagine actually wooing her and marrying her? Adoring her, yes. Keeping her, or trying to, yes. But who could imagine actually settling down with her? Her eyes had gone private. So to stand next to her and do the dishes?

Stiller, her mentor from Sweden, began this film, was taken off it, and although it was reshot, he may have coached her here into the Garbo we came to know playing these parts. For it does not seem quite yet to exist in her first film, The Torrent. 

Anyhow here, in The Temptress, she is  young woman, not even of age, and already in full possession of her technique, which originated in her lower-middle back and travelled north. She made it up in the shower. She was already That Thing, Greta Garbo. Cary Grant did the same. They made something up and let it respond in accordance with the scene they were presented with. It was indissolubly manufactured and real at once. William Daniels said that Garbo made love only to the camera. True, and we wouldn’t have wanted her to do anything else. It means her real love-affair, her most intimate sexuality, is actually with us.

 

 

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.

 

The Princess Bride

03 Sep

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is all as you wish it.

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

 

 

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.

 

Butterfield 8

24 Mar

Butterfield 8 – directed by Daniel Mann. Romantic Melodrama. A promiscuous model falls for a married man and sacrifices her all. 109 minutes Color 1960.
★★★
Unutterable junk.

The script is so bad that everyone tends to overact to fill in the blanks. An example is the barroom scene where Elizabeth Taylor stabs her heel into the toe of Laurence Harvey’s shoe. Her delivery is unnecessarily nasty; a woman that beautiful never has to be nasty; as an actress she is in error, as she tended more and more to be as time went by.

Our Liz was a person who never lost. For Elizabeth Taylor, losing was a factual impossibility. She doesn’t have to lift a fist, only her little finger. The question is, What is she winning? And even, as here, when the repartee is flimsy and the moral motive phony, all she needs to do is keep it small. She has moments in the movie, but they are all quiet moments. Her failures as an actor come when, as when she reveals her thirteen year-old molestation to her pal, Eddie Fisher, she emotes. This was not what her instrument was designed by God ever to do well. Elizabeth Taylor is one of the greatest of all film actresses when the emotion and the body are contained. Here, however, she embarks on a career as a dramatic actress. Here she turns in the direction of Martha and The Shrew. She never really recovered. She won an undeserved Oscar, and she knew it.

Nor did she recover as a human. Everyone who saw the film at the time – and everyone did (on a $2.5 million cost the film earned $7.5 million)  — realized they were watching a woman of 28 on her fourth marriage, each one of them notorious, the mother of three young children, playing out the role of the femme fatale everyone took her to be in real life and came to this movie to see if it was so. The film confirmed it. They did not know that a woman in her position has to marry her lovers.

Taylor didn’t want to make the movie, because her character originally was made out to be a call girl, which in the present version she is not quite.

She also found Laurence Harvey to be a vain jackass and the director Daniel Mann a jerk. But she never held an animosity long, although Harvey is completely miscast opposite her and would no more be a graduate of Yale than would one of The Three Stooges. A New Englander? No. He retains his English accent, his lizard visage, and his icy eye. All this adds up to a minus.

The  cast is a mishmash; you never believe a single one of them; they agree stylistically in nothing. And since the script is atrocious, none of them can find a basis in reality for what is before your unbelieving eyes. Big Broadway actresses Betty Field and Mildred Dunnock are hauled in to play their one note apiece. And even the great Mildred Dunnock, as Taylor’s willfully dumb mother, plays at a pitch slightly above the needed, in a part that is ill-conceived and vacant.

I watched a days shooting and had lunch with Mildred Dunnock, Sidney Guilaroff the famed hairdresser, and Elizabeth Taylor at the Gold Medal Studios in the Bronx as Butterfield 8 was made. Taylor was real, gutsy, curious, savvy, and bright. She was not vain about her looks. She also was clearly unphotogenic. Sitting across from her at the cafeteria table, you have never seen anything so beautiful in your life. And that is what the public came to see. They had grown up with it. Velvet had become Helen of Troy. The face that launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium now had to be observed as it enacted the next chapter of its strong and fervent destiny.

 

 

The Last Station

05 Feb

The Last Station – directed by Michael Hoffman. Biodrama. 82 year-old Leo Tolstoi, both novelist and utopian guru battles both sides of his work, and flees the fray to fall ill in a railway station, while the world watches. 112 minutes Color 2010.
★★★★★
Five stars for Helen Mirren who plays every scene all out, God bless her, and who makes Sophia Tolstoi the heroine of the piece without contest from the start.

Several factors mitigate toward this mistake, and they all lie in the blame of the director/writer. He does not have a clear intention as to the story he is telling. If it is about love, well then, we know what everyone else loves, but what does Tolstoi love? Does he love the idea that his noble work will go on after he dies, and so takes his royalties of his life and work from his wife and children and hands them over to the chief administrator of the Tolstoi legend – with its hortatory texts, its communes all over the place, its passionate socialistic practices and platforms, and its vast and statuesque reputation and influence – Gandhi learned passive resistance at Tolstoi’s feet.

If so, we are never given a single instance upon what that influence was based that so many should abject themselves before it and follow him and it with unswerving and self-sacrificing devotion. In an attempt to avoid the trap of portraying a genius, the director/writer has portrayed him as a plate of potatoes. But what are people, what is the whole world responding to? Never does Christopher Plummer, who is wonderful in the part, ever have a single line that would suggest this was a man of revolutionary ideals.

The second error the director makes was either to cast Paul Giamatti as the administrator or to allow him to play him as a heavy from the start – forever twirling his mustaches like the villain from the old play. No, we must believe in the administrator’s innocence, his noble motives, and the purity of his ideals. If we don’t trust and back him, then Helen Mirren is without competition and the story is a foregone conclusion.

The third error is to have cast James McEvoy as Tolstoi’s tyro secretary. He is never believable. To the same degree as he was believable in The Last King Of Scotland is he unconvincing here. He is hammy from start to finish, making big scowling eyes like Barrymore. He plays too knowingly a character who knows nothing.

This leaves us with Christopher Plummer as Tolstoi. Sixty years ago I saw him in Stratford Ontario In Henry IV with Jason Robards as Hotspur and the two of them again in A Winter’s Tale, and I saw him on the Broadway stage in Arturo Ui, The Lark, J.B.; he was nothing more than a conventional actor with a good voice, cold. But he has grown with time. The older he gets the better he gets; he is almost a different actor entirely. May he live long and often.

Leo Tolstoi was the greatest writer of death scenes who ever lived, and his own surpassed any he ever wrote. The movie misfires by not knowing what it is about, and scanting the farcical elements of its finale which Tolstoi, great humorist that he was, would never have missed for a minute. Too bad. The movie is well filmed, beautifully costumed and set, and completely convincing as having been shot in Russia, which, of course, it was not.

 

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.

 

Elegy

16 Jan

Elegy – directed by Isabel Coixet. Romantic Drama. A celebrity professor of 60 and a student fall in love, and try for some history together. 112 minutes Color 2008.
★★★★★
Five stars, because of Penélope Cruz’ performance, with its fluidity, freedom, and accessibility. What a wonderful talent she has, what a beauty of spirit and form. But there is something wrong with the script or the story or with Ben Kingsley as the professor. Let’s start with him, because the film’s subject is so gripping and so beautifully told by the director, that I want to end with that, and get the questionable part out of the way first.

“I am here,” the last line of the script does not work nor does cancer as a dramatic tool. For the professor is a man who won’t commit. So, if the woman is dying of cancer the question of quitting her is no longer moot. Of course he can commit to her: she’s not going to live long. So if the cancer scene at the end is meant for us to believe that he finally does commit, it fails. It is not even strong enough to be ambiguous.

As to Kingsley’s performance, good as he is, he is not a film actor of the order of freedom of brilliance of Cruz, and what that means is that we never see in him the possibility that he might commit. So, for us he is without inner conflict. He is only one thing, non-commital. The character, however, has an open heart. He loves her. To be willing to feel such a love is already to commit, for it is to be taking an enormous risk. Kingsley is able to “act” love, but never to be in love. We never see the other side of his refusal.

However, setting all this aside, as I hope you do, the film is a thoroughly adult treatment of the subject of love. It is not about love’s approaches or love’s departures, but about love itself, what it looks like, how it goes. Abetted so ably by the brilliant supporting playing of Dennis Hopper, Peter Sarsgaard, and Patrician Clarkson, the film took my respect and interest and care all along.

The film is very badly titled, irrelevantly titled. It is set in New York City but filmed in Vancouver, so its atmosphere is more drenched than New York’s is, but that hardly matters as the picture unfolds behind its drawn shades and we are let into love’s unlikely clearing in the woods once more. It is not an elegy. It enlarges its subject with the life Cruz brings to it and my hope things will work out and the energy of my attention to those workings. I hope you will agree.

See it.

 

The Sandpiper

07 Jan

The Sandpiper – directed by Vincent Minnelli. Romantic Melodrama. A free spirited single mother living in Big Sur, California, must surrender her young son to a private school and its headmaster, an Episcopal ministr, to whom she, before long, surrenders herself as well. 117 minutes Color 1965.
★★★
Shoddy in concept and in execution, this was the first film Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made together after their marriage. It mimics their resounding affair. She draws him away from another woman, played with lackluster efficiency, as best she may, considering the script, by Eva Saint. In The VIPs, he was drawn from his marriage to Taylor to another woman. In Cleopatra she drew him away from his wife. Their work in film tended to create their personal lives, but in that sense, life did not imitate art; art killed life;and life art. Everyone said she drew him away from his proper work as a great classical actor. Wrong. He was a classical actor but he never was, and he knew he never would be, a great one. No, their film lives intermingled in the huge public imagination about them and made their souls change. People who can write their own ticket, tend to go nowhere. This film is an example of their arrival at that locale.

Essentially, she is the better film actor, and therefore the better actor. But her acting was instinctual with her, and as she grew older, her instincts failed her as she failed her life. Here she seems barely competent at times – but nobody else does either, except Burton. The pomp of Richard Burton’s voice carries him through the role on one level, and his shamefaced eyes carry him through it on another level. There is no third level to the part available. All levels are unfair to the word superficiality.

Vincent Minnelli, a stickler for detail, had, of course, fifteen years before, directed Elizabeth Taylor in Father Of The Bride and Father’s Little Dividend, in which she shone. But here the execution looks slapdash and hurried and under-rehearsed. The ghastly thing about it is that it was written by the producer, so, of course, nothing would be changed. One supposes that Elizabeth Taylor accepted it, yes, of course for the money, but also probably because she was 33, and had to make hay while the sun shone upon her youth and beauty. She was no dope. But here her scenes which should be touching and yearning and caring, are not properly held in mood and framing by the cinemaphotographer. Everything looks phony and worked up. Even the party at Nepenthe looks forced – with the sort of “earth-dancing” that never went on there. This is shocking, for Minnelli had a great sense of his extras; he gave them tasks and characters; you can see that so clearly in The Bandwagon – but not here. Taylor is an actress who needs a velvet setting like a gorgeous ruby. Like Garbo, she’s a trophy actress who, because of her remarkable looks, needs protection. Minnelli gives her none. Instead he plays to her weaknesses, which are to allow her to force emotion out, rather than in, and to fail to curb her physicalization of them which is the result of that forcing. Taylor’s acting instrument can only be played by her when it is contained. She is not a virtuoso actor. She is a concert grand, but you must not play Liszt on her, Elizabeth. You are that rare thing, a romantic actress, but you were not meant for all romances. As voyeurs to their romance, we all went to The Sandpiper with our wives in those days and wondered at our marriages as we did so. For, looking at Taylor and Burton in it, we asked ourselves, Are they missing something?

 

The Quiet Man

11 Nov

The Quiet Man –– directed by John Ford. Romantic Drama. An American returns to Ireland, falls for a beautiful woman and must fight to make her his own. 129 minutes. Color 1952.

★★★★★

We get three fairy tales for the price of one. To exploit them, John Ford loads us with his usual bunk. John Wayne plays the man Ford wished he were, and the movie gives us the Ireland Ford wished it were: instead of the starvation, dirt, and violence of it that drew his own forebears to Maine, we get The Emerald Isle and Ford’s St. Patrick’s Day parade of all its clichés before our eyes. Swathed in “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” “Danny Boy,” and “The Kerry Dancers,” we drown in the sentimental blarney of The Auld Sod – with one exception: the film was actually taken in Ireland itself and with actors who actually were Irish. For it is of such a green and such a melodiousness of tongue that one’s worst expectations are swerved by.

That’s the Ford’s first fairy tale, sentimental fantasy of Ireland that Shaw, Wilde, O’Casey, and Joyce deplored.

The second one is a real fairy tale, but one in modern dress, and that’s the one in which a wounded prince enters a kingdom and wins the heart of the princess. Naturally, the princess has a wild boar father-figure who won’t let her go. And the princess has a wound as well, which is that she is the immediate relation of that wild boar, and is one too. So it is a taming of the shrew story, to boot.

The fairy tale immediately before us, however, is the fairy tale of a Hollywood movie, which has its own regulations and sentimental holdovers, played out by actors of heroic mold and legendary beauty, force, and charm. And for this purpose Ford has placed his alumni before us. We have Barry Fitzgerald who takes us a long way into believing that alcoholism is cute. Mildred Natwick plays the spinster Goddess of the town. Ward Bond, as the local priest who actually narrates the fairy tale, and actually gives sporadic evidence of what a good actor he really was. George Ford plays the town sage. And Victor McGlaglen plays the dumb galoot Boar-King whom the prince must kill.

What draws us to this gallumfry? It is the fulfillment of the crazy idea that there actually could be before us a romance played by John Wayne in which, when he kissed the girl, we did not desire to crawl under our theatre seats in horror. He is never less masculine than when kissing. But, in fact, he and Maureen O’Hara seem to have something happening between them. He has wonderfully acted scene, for instance, in which a thunderstorm arises to symbolize the wild sexual passion of O’Hara – but instead of taking advantage of her, he takes responsibility for her. He’s just great. And their kisses are shameless and fun.

They are two handsome people to be sure. Maureen O’Hara, as usual, is called upon to play the fiery red-head, but she does not fall, as she often did, into the trap of being not just high spirited but bad tempered. This is partly due to the fact that anything you could scream at the moronic Victor McGlaglen sounds like a lullaby compared to what he really deserves.

She also comes up against and matches the force of John Wayne’s patience, which is a force of nature never to be overthrown. He also carries the fastest grin in the west. It’s fast because it’s perpetually internal. It presents him before us with a ready philosophy of life, one which is quizzical, kind, long suffering, and gentlemanly. His sense of humor and his patience are one single thing. He is sedate of movement and of speech, a peaceable person, slow to punch. He is an actor who does not fare well with longer than three sentences in a row. So he stands for a taciturnity and much else that we might admire in ourselves did we possess it to any degree worth taking credit for.

This grin and this patience and this deliberation of movement move this actor into scenes like a ploughshare – which is to say they give him genuine authority. And, while Wayne may be biased and stubborn, he is no fool. He weighs matters well. He was a quick study as an actor – and what did he do between takes? He played chess. From all this we made him a great movie star, and no one was more justified to be one.

So he and O’Hara well satisfy our curiosity and our desire for their romantic connection. They are neither of them in their first youth when they play this, but Wayne still has his fine figure and O’Hara is sufficiently messy to convince you that they are not too long in the tooth for such romance, but just at the right age after all.

The movie is less offensive than other Ford pieces. One looks for Ford’s famous eye, but that search is challenged by the brilliant green of the countryside and by the authenticity of the village itself, which was built on the Republic lot and the old Gene Autry ranch in the hills. You believe they are all in one place.

Ford blocks the movie like a musical without songs. His sense of comedy is from the silent film, and does not work in sound, for it is stagy, always forcing us to find it funny, but we never do. His notion that affection between males emerges only after fisticuffs is at once homoerotic and ridiculous. His sense of small group shots gives us his infallible tableaux, although his sense of crowds is non-existent, for he handles them as just a gaggle of people waiting to react when the stars ride by. And he uses eager Irish town folk as extras, a strategy by a director that invariably produces sudden shyness in them. But the narrative is brisk, and the fairy tale of the prince and princess moves along at a fine trot.

Wayne is set an impossible task –– to get the gold from the dragon, Victor McGlaglen. McGlaglen’s hold on it is as crazy as O’Hara’s refusal to relinquish her dream for it. So there are two crazinesses whose stories must be beaten to death here, since logic will not make them sound. It ends in a donnybrook, of course. Classically comedy ends with a marriage and a dance, but here the dance is between two males, which is odd, don’t you think?

Anyhow, as usual with Ford, whatever he does badly he does well, and we ourselves complete the film by putting down the greeting card it takes the form of as the expression of a black-hearted man pretending to a heart of gold, and our forgiveness that it is human after all for him to have wished that he had one.

 

A Place In The Sun

13 Sep

A Place In The Sun – produced and directed by George Stevens. Romantic Tragedy. A young man aspires to love and success and is waylaid. 122 minutes Black and White 1951.

★★★★★

Seeing Elizabeth Taylor aged 17, as Angela Vickers sail into a mansion, you know she belongs there and you want to belong there with her. For Angela Vickers takes it all for granted. Like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, she has money in her voice. She has the silver chinks. She has everything and she gives everything, so the film naturally and inevitably slants towards her. Shelly Winters as the working class trull is given the opposite: neither sex appeal nor charm nor sympathy. She is brought into performance from beginning to end like the melted ice cream she serves and seems to be enduring morning sickness from the start. A self-pitying, sulky, nauseous look distorts her visage, a quart bottle of platitudes ready to pour. Washed around by his mother, Anne Revere and the two young women with whom he becomes involved, Montgomery Clift as George Eastman is a piece of driftwood shoved by every eddy. His body is flaccid and stooped. His face stares at us and reveals nothing but the hurt he might feel for a passing dog. His beauty registers as great but uneventful. One can read anything into his beautiful eyes, or nothing. For he cannot seem to summon any temperament. But the story is his, and so one reads, not George, but what happens to him. He stands there while it happens, not a character but a circumstance. His entire story, that is, points to Angela Vickers, as the only visible point of life, and the picture aims at what she promises to us all by her very existence on earth. Eastman is a character fostered by a magnate uncle who recognizes his resourcefulness; nepotism aside, George clearly could have succeeded in business on his own merits. And finding work he can do well and rise by is enhanced by his relations to Angela Vickers who has the sureness of her effect on men to go out for what she wants, as she does from their first big scene. We see her willfulness and her will,. We would call her spoiled, but she isn’t because she’s so kind, so happy to be alive, so generous, so gravely honest, so bright, and above all so loving. All the fun in life is lodged with her, all the beauty, all the romance. And never before or since on the screen have these qualities been so resplendently visible. Our hearts go out not to Clift or Winters, but to this wonderful girl, and to her baffled sadness and the life-long love that like a melody sings through it right to the end and beyond. Taylor’s performance throughout is gloriously right, natural, spontaneous, and her final scene is one of the greatest pieces of acting ever filmed, the finest piece of acting she ever did, and the most lyrical. Indeed, the whole film plays like something sung. It brings into being a beauty wider than either of the two beautiful faces of its leads or their romance. Did he kill her? Is he guilty. The priests says yes, of course. But the film says that the question is irrelevant. For it says that his love was a life experience so great that death is not in competition with it at all. Guilt, death, they are not even the same frame. Life has an inherent celebration in it, despite everything. Revealing this to us makes A Place In The Sun the most deeply life-loving film ever made. And the most beautiful.

 

Hope Springs

12 Aug

Hope Springs – directed by David Frankel. Drama Lite. A husband and wife enter marriage counseling at cross purposes. 100 minutes Color 2012.

★★

This is graham cracker sherbet; it should not have been brought into being by any of its practitioners. It is a piece that lies its way towards a significance it ought never have pretended to. It is no better than the cheapest television bunk, gooey, prefabricated, and lost. Meryl Streep plays a woman who has married young thirty years go, but Meryl Streep is in her 60s, and so is Tommy Lee Jones. Why they cannot play their ages is a mystery. Why don’t they say it was 40 years ago, which it would have had to have been for them to have married young. The folly of whose vanity is in play here? And nothing can carry it, since Meryl Streep overplays her part, so that I was shocked by her telegraphed opening moves, where you immediately know not just what sort of empathy is being prescribed by her for you to feel, but, worse, what sort of pity. As for Tommy Lee Jones, his work is uneven. No. Incoherent. He begins by playing Mr. Gruff with Streep or playing Mr. Blatantly Rude when confronted with Steve Carell who plays the MFC therapist, but Jones plays anger the same old way he always has done, which is not just to say that he does not bring anything new as it is that what he brings is wrong, unimaginative, unthinking, uncreative. There is nothing, I suppose, he could do anyhow against the foregone conclusion of Streep’s performance. Anyhow, Streep is a leading actress but she is not a leading lady; she does not have either the personality or the ruthless charm for that category. She is an actress of milky consistency who needs to be poured into a foreign recipe into which she can be lost. Here she is just playing some sort of nice lady, the supposition being that only some sort of nice lady would ever put up for thirty years with the cruddy crabby Jones. In the last half of the film Jones comes up with some comic quirks which serve to throw the part off track but also onto the track along which it should have originally been run. What could these film-makers have wrong with them? Not only are Streep and Jones miscast as married, the two characters have never been intimate, except when the word “intimate” is used as a euphemism for fucking. They have nothing in common. They are temperamentally inconceivable together. So the standard  by which not the resumption but the initiation of “intimacy” in this marriage is not that they have an ordinary meaningful conversation but that they fuck. A marriage with no intellectual, spiritual or congenial mutuality is regarded as triumphant if they are able to get off together? Well., that’s all the writer and director have to offer us. But why bother to even be impatient with this American junk?  It’s the same old routine franchise-art Hollywood has foisted towards us for since the 1950s.

 

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.

 

Alice Adams

31 Mar

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

★★★★★

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

 

 

Becoming Jane

02 Mar

Becoming Jane — directed by Julian Jarrold. Romantic Drama. Desperate pressures to get her married beset a lovely 18 Century bluestocking eventually to become Jane Austen. 120 minutes Color 2007.

★★★★

Set here in Ireland acting as Berkshire and perfectly cast as a late 18th Century place, one feels absolutely at home in the rough, peeling-painted, rectory-cum-farm of the film’s landscape, which never fails one second of this film’s footage to look right. What does fail is the sound and sound editing. The music, which is excellent, is always too loud, never more so than in the ballroom scene early on when not a single sentence of the dialogue can be heard above it. The actors do not help, either, for they believe, perhaps, that wit depends upon speed of utterance, and it does not. The elaboration of syntax, upon which much of the wit of Austen and the age depends, requires a careful mouthing. A tasting. A lingual pondering. Like wine. And dare I say it? – a drawl. It cannot be spit out like shot. Oscar Wilde was not at all like Noel Coward. And this is the age of Byron, behind whose drawl massed the power of his position and the greatness of the style of Don Juan. Ian Richardson knows the truth. His buffalo brow of disapproval looms like a dark eave over his enunciation of sentences of death. American actors think wit requires speed. Sometimes it does. But only for arrows. Austen’s zingers even when brief are instinctually weighted, tremendously elaborated shafts sent over the immense distance of a banquet table. These the actors tend to pipe or whisper. Not good. Certainly Maggie Smith understands this as she pecks apart her opponents with her chicken head beak and eyes wider than judgment. Her character relishes speech. For her, for the English, not just language, but speech is a consummate and delicious sterling silver tool. Perfectly cast, the film is also beautifully arranged for our enjoyment by the director and costumer. Anne Hathaway could not be bettered in the role of Jane; she has the intelligence, the strength of a love of independence, and no sense that she is using her looks to land a mate. She never flirts. She also understand speriod style. James McAvoy, on the other hand, is required to use his looks, and he is suitably combed and brushed and decked, and plays the part with no frippery extras but with great earnestness. (One wonders if he will ever graduate out of the category of jeune premier.) You quite believe the attraction between the two, which counts for a lot, although it does not directly feed the real plot of the film, which is how this enforces a literary imagination in the making. Julie Walters is grand as the mother of the daughters, particularly in her big scene hoeing potatoes, and James Cromwell as the minister has just the right looseness of attention to suggest his failing bank account. It is a film whose ending does not work. It needs the same ending as Splendor In The Grass: two lovers see one another after fifteen years, and it should break your heart. Instead of which it dissipates into the sentimental distraction of his having named his daughter Jane. Responsibility to historical accuracy shoots it dead in its traces. But by that time, a pretty good film is over.

 

Come And Get It

06 Jan

Come And Get It — directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler. Romantic Drama. A proto-lumber-tycoon deserts a girl and twenty years later falls for her daughter. 96 minutes Black and White 1936.

* * *

When Sam Goldwyn recuperated from his operation and saw the footage Hawks had shot of Edna Ferber’s novel he hit the bedpan, which flew into the fan, and Hawks walked out. So Wyler filmed the last quarter of it, and you can’t really tell, because the great Gregg Toland was filming it, and he controlled the art of the thing. What Goldwyn didn’t like was that the first of the dual female roles had been turned from a mousy barkeep to an impudent chanteuse with a mind of her own, a Hawks type, and Goldwyn had given Ferber promises. The girl is played beautifully in her first major role by Frances Farmer. She’s a cross between Maria Schell and Jessica Lang (who later played her in the movie Frances), and she is very good indeed. She’s a glorious milkmaid, as both the mother and the daughter. As the mother she ends up with Walter Brennan, an actor of great imagination, in the first of his three Oscar winning roles. As the daughter she ends up with Joel McCrea, who, as always, is excellent in the comic scenes. The one she does not end up with is Edward Arnold who has the lead, in what would have been Hawks’ King Lear. But Arnold does not have the latitude for a role this size, and his performance illustrates the weakness of perpetual determination as an acting method. He has his guns and he sticks to them; the problem is that they are guns. He plays out the role, but we never sympathize with his folly, as we should if we are asked to witness it. (Hawks originally wanted Spencer Tracy, who might have been marvelous.) Remarkable and famous scenes in this picture make it worth seeing and studying. Robert Rosson who was Hawks’ frequent second unit director went to Canada, Wisconsin, and Idaho and took the amazing logging sequences with which the picture begins. And there is a spectacular branagan in a saloon with round steel table trays being skimmed into mirrors and clientele. And, of course, Toland’s camera work is a study in itself.

 

 

My Week With Marilyn

27 Nov

My Week With Marilyn – Directed by Simon Curtis. Romantic Drama. A young gofer on his first job in film is taken by, in more ways than one, the movie star. 99 minutes Color

* * * * *

The elevator was being held. I waited. There was no one in it but me. I waited. Then they came in. The door closed. I wanted to and did not want to stare. She had the complexion of a marshmallow. She looked tall. She wore ski pants and a patterned, heavy, Nordic wool sweater up to her neck. She was gorgeous. She said to Arthur Miller, “In my pictures I don’t chase men; I get chased,” to seal his backing for script changes she was wearing these clothes and these heels and this make-up and bringing this husband along to insist on. They got off on the floor of Kaye Brown their agent at MCA, where I was a mailroom clerk. I rode up to my own floor, realizing that this woman had the mind of a cash register. She was no fool; she knew her business; she knew exactly what she was doing. She did not even sound like the powder-puff she played to such renown. The film she was talking about was Let’s Make Love, her penultimate effort. This side of MM is not particularly on display in My Week With Marilyn, but Kenneth Branagh, in a brilliant turn as Laurence Olivier, says the same thing – that she knows exactly what she is doing – so don’t be taken in by her help-me act, and don’t excuse the infuriatingly non professional behavior she evinces, and always evinced, as a film actor. Not long after the elevator, I was writing a column for Look Magazine and had to take pictures to Celeste Holm’s apartment for approval. She had acted with Monroe and had just seen The Misfits at The Roxy, a huge picture palace in New York. “You could shoot moose in there,” she said, meaning no one was going to it. “And she can’t act.” But Olivier also says she’s a greater film actor than he is, that next to her in the screen he looks dead. And Judi Dench, marvelous in the marvelous part of Dame Sybil Thorndike, says that Monroe can act in films better than anyone else in the movie, including herself. It’s instinctual. Celeste Holm didn’t know it, but she meant the same thing. For Marilyn Monroe could be on the screen in such a way that you could look at no one else while she was there. And it wasn’t an acting trick. Or rather it was an acting trick, but one from real life, as she generated that molested 12 year-old wanting more and not wanting more, and thus surviving. When I was in Korea she came, and the men who saw her returned to base surprised to be not in lust with her but respectful and fond of her. “You never heard such applause in your life!” she said to her husband. “Oh yes I have,” said Joe DiMaggio. All of this is present in this delightful film about her relations with a 23-year-old 3rd assistant director beautifully played here by Eddie Redmayne. But none of it would work were not MM played by Michele Williams, who captures Monroe’s glee, her wit, her kindness, her cruelty, her sense of fun, her fear and nervousness, her sexual game, her physical appearance, and her inner emanation – that almost childlike glow she imparted which so allured and charmed and melted us all, and still does. Monroe, like Angelina Jolie, was a power beauty. You watch her in order to be petrified into a statue of Venus with no arms to protect yourself. Williams conveys this perfectly and perfectly embodies the sadness that lies on the other side of such a deification. In all other respects the film is first class, and so are the actors, charming in their roles: Zoë Wannamaker, Derek Jacobi, Michael Kitchen, Dougray Scott. You come out of it knowing Monroe as you never knew her before, and she’s well worth knowing, as a young man in his first job understood, either making The Prince And The Showgirl with her for just one week or going up an elevator with her for just one minute.

 

Portrait Of Jennie

16 Sep

Portrait Of Jennie – Directed by William Dieterle. Ghost Story. A bum artist becomes a genius through visitations from a long-dead girl. 86 minutes Black and White 1948.

* * *

An actress of minute talent, Jennifer Jones loomed large in the films of the 40s, and my tendency is to dismiss her, as it is to dismiss Gene Tierney, as an actress without content, and it’s not fair to what talent they do possess. I always felt Jones was rather dopey, and yet she’s pretty good here and perfectly cast for two reasons, because the girl, after all, is a ghost and has no content, and because the picture was produced by Jones’ husband David O. Selznick. Selznick was a producer, but he was actually an auteur. He was a man of robust energy, great charm, appeal, generosity, honesty, experience, fun, and skill, but once a picture was in train he became a horror of intrusiveness.  Interfering, writing, rewriting, reshooting, redirecting, memoing up the wazoo, riding his people like a slave driver, with no consideration for anyone – what was he up to? In every case what he was up to, without knowing it, was making the picture about himself. He did not want to make a picture, he wanted to be the picture. His most famous example of this is Gone With The Wind: Scarlet O’Hara is exactly like Selznick himself – charming, ruthless, sexually without morals, ambitious, overwhelming, fun, attractive, in love with the wrong person, and so deserving you can deny nothing to him. Scarlett’s story is Selznick. Each of his films was like this, and Portrait Of Jennie is another one still, although by the time it is made Selznick had come to the frayed end of his stories. Each human being has more than one story in him, and this one is the story of a man who creates an ideal girl and how she in turn makes him creative. This is what he had done in his actual life. Moreover, Selznick casts as the girl the woman he had stolen from her husband and made his magical mistress and muse and movie star, Jennifer Jones. Here he even sets her up with a story with her very own name, Jennie. Jones has to travel in a year from age 12 to age 25, and she does it well right up to the clumsy finale. She uses the trick of keeping her mouth open to suggest ingénue appeal, but she does it good. A supporting cast of astounding strength is asked to atlas-up this edifice of a feather: Ethel Barrymore with her voice of pained patience, huge eyes, and old amusement, the greatly lively Cecil Kellaway as the art dealer, David Wayne as a bright mick, Lillian Gish as a nun, Florence Bates as a heartless landlady, Henry Hull and Felix Bressart. They’re all just fine. Selznick often used Joseph Cotton in his films, an actor of deeply suburban genius and no rival sex appeal whatever. He is most carefully miscast as the artist.

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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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The Reign Of Terror [The Black Book]

31 Aug

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

* * * *

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

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La Notte

13 Aug

La Notte – Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Drama. A couple married for some years accompany one another in three places during one 12-hour period in Rome. 115 minutes Black and White. 1961.

* * * *

Movies that start with two people getting out of a car and walking up to a door make my heart sink. It means the director is desperately in want of imagination for the merest resources in establishing a locale. What if the movie had opened on the face of the dying hospital patient? What if one of them had be in the room already? Anything but a car stopping, parking, people getting out, going up to a door. And the film suffers from just such a want of imagination. The couple wander through the boredom of their marriage and their company with one another, rich, heedless, unfeeling. Marcello Mastroianni and Jean Moreau – two more watery, affectless actors could not have been cast in these roles. They are not “bad” actors, but they are actors devoid of temperament, and so are the characters they play, and I would have found it tiresome to accompany them, but that things unfold: from the hospital, they separate, and the wife wanders through the slums of her newly-wed days (although somehow she has got a lot of money), and he is drawn in to have sex with a certifiable nut. She seems to be a mere adjunct of her marriage, which is all the more apparent when they go together to a publication party for him, and then to the shindig of a billionaire, with a lot of folks drifting through the luxe. The billionaire wanted what he’s got, but he wanted it when he was twenty. He forgot he would be old by the time he got it. His 18 year-old daughter is played by Monica Viti, a wonderful actress, whose bones Mastroianni tries to jump, but you sense he doesn’t have the juice, nor does his wife for a bloke who drives off with her for a hot screw. The party scenes are marvelous, as is the depiction of the inert ennui at the heart of every marriage. And the film ends with a scene on the billionaire’s golf course, with Marcello lying on top of Jean and trying to make it with her, while she keeps saying to tell her that he no longer loves her. It’s a great scene; it must be a famous one.  But don’t tell me all the world is like this.  No, only that small slice of caviar pizza that Antonioni knows only, though sometimes he sure does know how to serve it well.

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Adam Had Four Sons

31 Jul

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

* * *

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

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All This, And Heaven Too

23 Jul

All This, And Heaven Too – Directed by Anatole Litvak. Women’s Romance Drama. A mismatched royal couple takes into their palace a governess, despite all warnings to her not to enter therein. 2 hours and 23 three minutes. Black and White. 1940.

* * * *

She enunciates every syllable as though her tongue were pinking shears. Jack Warner sent down messages to her to cut it out. She didn’t. But he was right. No one talks that way. And such antics bring into question not what sort of an actress Bette Davis was but was she an actress at all. She had very little training when she left John Murray Anderson’s drama school to go off to play stock. She had appeared in lots of movies by the time this film was made and won the two Oscars she would ever win. She was 35. She was in her heyday, which would end with a triumphant clang in 1950 with All About Eve. She had come into films in the early 30s and made her way to Warner Brothers where she made a series of films that enraged her. She was always enraged. Sometimes it was hidden, as here. But it is still implicit. In the clipping of those clipped syllables. Was she an actress, or was she someone who was just so mad it carried a force-field around her that others called stardom. Was that anger what her female audience actually wanted to see, acting be damned, for she surely was a woman’s film star, and as such made a mint for Warners? Here she plays a governess of four children, and she says she loves them, and everyone says she loves them, but it looks to me that she is just doing a favor by being nicer to them than their dreadfully neurotic mother (a Bette Davis role), played with all out saliva in an Oscar-nominated performance by Barbara O’Neil, who had just come off playing Scarlet’s mother in Gone With The Wind. Davis has opposite her here one of the few strong male actors ever to appear with her, the great Charles Boyer. Davis never has a real moment in the entire film. Except one. Watch for it. It comes at the end of the long candle-snuffing scene. Litvak said this film, got lost in the decor, gagged by too many candelabra. I don’t think that’s the trouble. All Bette Davis’s films of this era are like this, like Hamlet. They are dramas about a single person; when Hamlet is not on the stage, everyone is talking about him. So here. Underlying everything, an ego swollen by anger mobilized to hide the fear that her own natural talent was insufficient to the task. All her fabled confidence is bravado.

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Under Capricorn

11 Jul

Under Capricorn – Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Costume Melodrama. An early 19th Century rake from Ireland is sent to Australia where he cleans up the marriage of a childhood friend and noblewoman now married to a rich peasant landholder. 117 minutes Color 1949.

* * * *

Not a suspense story, but rather one more along the lines of Rebecca, the story of a marriage threatened by a dark past, it is a film which rewards study. It was filmed, as was Rope, in long takes, looping through rooms and circling around and around, and it also involved the longest monologues you’ve ever heard, and it is good to hear them. The great Jack Cardiff filmed it, so it is velvet in motion. Looking wonderful in Regency costumes, Michael Wilding plays the playboy younger son out to make his fortune if he does not have to raise a sweat to do so. His long face moves so curiously that it’s rather hard to understand his craft as an actor, particularly when so many of his lines are rushed, as is the way with English actors of that era. It has five principal roles, three English, one Swedish, one American. Cecil Parker, Margaret Leighton, Wilding, Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman as his drunken wife. And it becomes obvious what is wrong with that mélange. Joseph Cotton is what is wrong, and it throws the entire film. He is miscast. He is supposed to be an ex-Irish stable boy who has married a milady, Bergman, well above his station. In the film, he is the one who suffers most, because of this class difference. But we never believe for a minute that he is a peasant. His opening moment is wonderful, as he enters a bank with a well-earned ruthlessness that has given him character. But he looses that thereafter, and ends up being just a middle-class American. Neither he nor Bergman tries for an Irish accent. Bergman always felt the public liked her Swedish accent, and she was right, they did. And Cotton just speaks American. Class accents are enormously important in distinguishing caste; Margaret Leighton is the only one who knows this. But the problem is that Burt Lancaster is not playing the part. (Of course there were no Michael Caines or Sean Connerys at that time.) Bergman plays her usual put-upon dame. She has no fight, she has no moxie. She never evinces the dash attributed to her. Being a victim was also what she figured her public wanted. She brings her peerless complexion to the character and a world-class charm in scenes with Cecil Parker. But the rest of the time she is making pastry. She brings a steady emotionalism of the role to bear, but was she ever deeply engaged emotionally in any part she ever played? In a way, I’ve got to hand it to her. There was something in her limited artistic imagination that allowed her audiences’ imaginations to fill in the blank. However, I found the film fascinating as a study of Hitchcock’s story-telling devices. Under Capricorn has been much maligned: notorious for not being Notorious. Instead, think of Rebecca and enjoy.

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The Thief Of Bagdad

19 Jun

The Thief Of Bagdad – Directed by Raoul Walsh. Fairy Tale. A daring thief of old enjoys his calling no end, until the end, when he learns his lesson. 2 hours and 31 minutes Black and White With Color Filters Silent 1924

* * * * *

The style is Silent Gestural, with the body cocked back and the arms thrown wide and hair tossed rakishly. There are no small gestures, there are only gesticulations. And Fairbanks is an excellent actor in this style. No pose he strikes does he strike too long, and he knows that the purpose of the style is to provide the narrative with an exuberant foundation. This is one of the great silent films because of his keen acrobatic sense of himself in film, because of his fine physique which is bare to the waist at all times, and because of the irrepressible impudence of the character he makes for us. All this is played against sets of unheard of magnificence and spectacle, elaborate, yet quite spare and because spare, surprising. It is the film which launched the young designer William Cameron Menzies, and the sets are revolutionarily entertaining, as are the highly imaginative and varied costumes by Mitchell Leison (later to become a director). So in a sense there is not an ounce of spare flesh on either the actor or the settings, and these elements works brilliantly together. When you are not entertained by the one, you are by the other. Arthur Edison (who later filmed Casablanca and many another masterpiece) held the camera. But it is Fairbanks’ vehicle or rather he is its vehicle, as all this whizzes by this speed demon of a character, who never walks when he can stride and never strides when he can fly. After a bunch of establishing escapades, all of which are comic in a way which only silent pictures can make them, he sets out to woo, since after all this is a fairy tale, the princess. Never mind what happens then; we know there are dread feats to be faced. With his narrow glittering eyes, he accomplishes them all. He’s very good in love scenes: he’s perplexed, which means he doesn’t know whether she loves him or not; in nothing else is he uncertain. And opposing him is the Mongol Highmuckymuck aided by the princess’ handmaiden, played by the great Anna May Wong, who slinks. Fairbanks, however, bounds – with bowed arms always swinging in determination, so how can he lose. In the meantime, never have you seen such headdresses as on the men: hats the size of skyscrapers, turbans the size of hot air balloons, all towering above Fairbanks to make him appear like a boy, which at 41 he was. Raul Walsh was a master director of extras (see The Big Trail), and here he has several thousand, so it’s well worth waiting to the end of this, Fairbanks’ longest film, to see them moving through Menzies’ fantastic sets as Fairbanks wins the day.

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Stella Maris

22 May

 

 

Stella Maris – Directed by Marshall Neilan. Melodrama. A sequestered rich girl wakes up to the reality of life in her love for a man also loved by a poor orphan. 84 minutes Black and White Silent 1918.

* * * * *

If you can accept the rubrics inherent in silent pictures as entertainment of a kind, you will likely have a good time with this film. The requirements of story-telling in silent pictures are different from what we have become used to in modern films, and the stories told, while, like ours, still melodrama, are executed on a different level of value, since, let us say, in black and white films, values themselves are more black and white. So patience with the unfamiliar is called for to enjoy what is before us. What is priceless is what the actors do within these confines, and Mary Pickford is an extraordinary example of genius and charm in dealing with them. Here she plays Stella Maris, a Happy Prince character preserved from the woes of this world because she is crippled. The character would be intolerable were she played for pathos, but Pickford plays her as happy, open, and without calculation. You never feel sorry for her. You only want to be in her company. But Pickford also plays another character, the orphan Unity, in one of the shrewdest portrayals I’ve ever seen an actress attempt, for she gives Unity a hunched shoulder which makes her appear also crippled. Standing together in the film, you would not believe they were being played by the same actress. Homely Unity’s inner life in no particular resembles that of pretty Stella Maris’s. Neither in appearance nor being are they the same person. And the actress is completely realistic and in the moment with both. Mary Pickford was the most popular female film star of her time; she was also the most brilliant businesswoman ever to work in Hollywood (She founded and ran United Artists); what is more important still, she clearly was one of the greatest actresses of her era.

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An Affair Of Love [Une liaison pornographique]

15 May

An Affair Of Love [Une liaison pornographique]– Directed by Frederic Fonteyne. Romance. Two strangers arrange to engage in anonymous pornographic sex, and then proceed to engage in the consequences. 1999 Color 78 minutes.

* * * * *

The charm of these two characters stands-in for the scenes between the sheets which mercifully are never shown. The only time we go there displays a mild and playful reversal of roles leading to a recess of activity. What is important is that in each of them what is released by the other is this very playfulness, a childlikeness. The entire story is told out of the bedroom. The entire story is told in terms of their unfolding freedom in showing themselves to one another. They become so happy with one another that they even believe they can read one another’s minds. The pornographic paradise each desires can only be played out in cinematic terms by their having fun in a cafe. It’s exactly right. Which is to say, the pornographic paradise does exist, but in film it can only be fully shown outside the bed. In actual pornography, no consummate historical attraction ever exists between the participants, only the mechanical momentary attraction. In real pornography, the sex may be intense but it is always gotten up for the occasion, like a child at Halloween. In real pornography no one is ever embarrassed. But in An Affair Of Love, embarrassment is the first order of business. And then paradise leads to paradise, and the picture is the record of the founding of those paradises. A worthwhile entertainment in exploration.

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Water For Elephants

24 Apr

Water For Elephants — Directed by Frances Lawrence. Romantic Drama. A young man finds himself drawn to a female circus elephant and the elephant’s female mahout. 122 minutes Color 2011.

* * *

The best English speaking circus film I know of is Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tightrope. I had hoped to find a better one here, but I didn’t. Kazan’s film focuses upon the circus world itself, its filth, its color, its performers, its hard work, its living conditions, its prejudices and superstitions, its meanness, its generosity, its equipment, its grandeur, and its magic. There we find a world exotic to us, a hell realm and an imagined paradise in one, and in Elephants whenever the camera shows this side of things our interest is piqued. But here the focus is on the Romance, but the Romance is pink cotton candy. Perhaps this is because the two romantic leads are miscast. They both lack the idiosyncrisity, strength, and energy of vulgarity. Reese Witherspoon’s hair is never out of incredible curl, and the young man is colorless. Both are good looking enough, and while one believes from their not unskillful playing that a mild attraction exists between them, it is never to the degree big enough for a big top. This is the fault of a story polluted by the effeminitization of Romance writing. Standing between these two dolls is Christoph Waltz; he plays her husband, the mad owner of the circus. His smile, full of saliva and not one drop of joy, occupies the entire cinemascope screen from one end to the other. Whenever he appears, this becomes the circus, and we have seen it before, in Inglorious Basterds, where its ivory munched all Europe. It seems less suitable here, an exaggeration vying with an exaggeration, the circus itself. It’s not fair to judge a picture because it’s not the same as another picture, for this is a Romance film and Tightrope isn’t. However, I did not care a fig whether the two of them got together or not. It is well directed and magnificently produced; Rodrigo Prieto filmed it beautifully. Jim Norton is excellent as the drunk foreman and Mark Povinelli as the dog trainer, but the only individual I really cared about in this film was Rosie the elephant. She was my darling. I’m not good at predicting what will happen in a film, but here I knew that Rosie would wipe that smile permanently off his face as soon as they met. Predictable is not what a circus should be.

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Summer and Smoke

04 Apr

Summer and Smoke — Directed by Peter Glenville. Love story. A spinster letches for the ne’er do well boy next door. 93 minutes Color 1961

* * * * *

As a critic, I wonder what good it does to bring to the front things that cannot be remedied. Here, the lighting often fails its needs, and the director should never have been hired, or shot soon after. The leading man is out of place and league. But this movie contains one of the greatest love scenes ever filmed, ever written, ever acted. It also records the performance of it that brought the play out of the obscurity of its original failure on Broadway, and thrust into prominence both the play, the theatre, The Circle In The Square, and the actress who played Alma and plays it here, Geraldine Page. The play lends itself to one’s imagination as one sees it in a theatre, but the scriptwriters have coarsened these references by literalizing them. The director, who is English, has no sense of the atmosphere required for this material or how to diminish the staginess of his performers. Laurence Harvey is right only in his opening scene, for he has none of the juice and charm that would make this character bearable and understandable. And he should be understandable, for Tennessee Williams has done again what he did in Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; he has created a female protagonist whose tragedy is that she puts on airs. Why does she do this? Because, like all of us, at one time or another, she so wants to be someone else, someone whose heart is a little taller than the arrows shot at her. She wants to escape the stern facts of her circumstances. This makes her an isolate and a tolerated mockery. It makes her the sort of phony no man wants to be around. Geraldine Page is able to work this character just short of putting our teeth on edge. With desperate hands she clasps her body as though it would fly apart if she did not. She seethes with the sexuality she has to gainsay in order to sustain her act, but she longs for its release if only the young man would stop carousing. You can see the character in Page’s eyes, which are wide open and which are so true to the feeling, to the longing, to the passion in Alma’s being. It’s astounding that she can do all this opposite Laurence Harvey, with his tight, narrow temperament, and his bad Southern accent, a role made thankless by the actor’s lack of blood, a role perfectly suited to Jack Nicholson back in the day. Yet the great scenes unfold between them, carried by Williams’ superb writing and Page’s profound grasp of this woman’s needs. I never saw Page do it on the stage, but when I asked Mildred Dunnock what she thought of Page in the picture, she said she felt Gerry had lost her lyricism in the role. I should have asked her what she meant, and I repeat it here as a lighthouse for actresses to come. But I cannot do anything now except to say you must see this remarkable performance of this remarkable character in this remarkable play.

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Closing The Ring

31 Mar

Closing The Ring — Directed by Richard Attenborough — Romantic Drama A 70 year old widow comes to terms with her past love. 117 minutes Color 2007.

* * *

Shirley MacClaine sabotages this film by employing the same unnecessarily nasty and bitter energy she has employed for the past thirty years in playing characters, and by asking us to believe this rudeness constitutes a human. The problem is not so much that she has used this energy before; the problem is that, as with all neuroses, nothing lies behind it, for it has forsaken the real. Neuroses is often interesting, because it sometimes displays flashes of truth, and MacClaine certainly began her career this way. But terminal cuteness, a family trait, may have ended her. For now, one observes there is nothing behind the nastiness for one to hope for, to latch onto, to root for. The nastiness is not only unforgivable and out of character, it is uninteresting. It is certainly not entertaining, for where a character should be, there is simply a blank paten, a flat metallic stencil, and the notion that anyone could find this person overwhelmingly lovable must be to also question the sanity of the lover. So the actress wrecks the story by a wide miscalculation or, more likely, by an inveterate laziness. One must believe that the character loved and loves, but one never does. All one gets is that she despises the man she married instead of the one she loved, for that is all the actress gives and perhaps all she has to give. Christopher Plummer, for all his experience, probably doesn’t know how to act. His daughter knows. He should watch her carefully. Pete Postlethwaite has a large role as the go-between of the 50 years span. Now there is an actor who gives one pause. What is the cause for his harshness and bluntness to his young assistant? Postlethwaite always has this reserve of possibility in his character work. He is never hammy, he is always clear, definite, and a cause of wonder. But the real reason to see the film is to see Martin McCann, the young man who finds the ring of the title and who is the innocent and eager catalyst of all trouble that follows and all that follows that trouble. Brenda Fricker is, of course, wonderful as the blowsy old tart, his grandmother. The problem arising from the promise to love after death is an interesting premise. But the task of putting a grand passion on screen is probably the hardest thing to do for a writer, actor, or director — and, indeed, it may be impossible.

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Evelyn Prentice

26 Mar

Evelyn Prentice. Directed by William K Howard. Pulp. She is the wife of a lawyer too busy to pay her much mind, so she commits an indiscretion. 78 minutes Black and White 1934.

* * * *

Myrna Loy is something to behold! Those huge wide-spaced eyes made up to a fair-thee-well. And those clothes! — wow! Such a lovely lady, already pretty much cast as the perennial devoted wife by now. A huge star, though, in the 30s. And here she has top billing. If you don’t expect a picture of this era to be a picture of our era, you won’t expect caviar to be cabbage. It’s an artifact of its time. Beautifully lit and filmed and costumed, and with William Powell nifty and droll in double breasted suits, the story is gripping — and it is a story — and it does wrap up after about an hour. This was Rosalind Russell’s first film, and you can see they did not know what to do with her yet. Everyone in it is good. It’s as smooth as whipped cream. Don’t expect shepherd’s pie.

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