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Archive for the ‘GENRE’ Category

The Sisters Brothers

08 Oct

The Sisters Brothers—directed by Jacques Audiard. Western Color 121 minutes 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: In gold rush days, four men, determined to kill one another, meet over a mother lode.
~
There’s nothing like a movie to do it for ya! On a big screen! In a theater with others! For the drama! For the spectacle, the dash, the color! For the ticket to see if it’s worth it! For the satisfaction when it is!

Here we have four males driven by their separate dispositions such as to torment us as to whether their encounter can shift the natures of any of them.

The chemist, Riz Ahmed, is an activist seeking to revolutionize society.

The tracker, Jake Gyllenhaal, is an overbred flaneur seeking fulfillment.

The assassin, Joaquin Phoenix, is a bloodthirsty maniac.

The mediator, John C. Reilly, is a warden wanting different employment.

The last two, Reilly and Phoenix, play the Sisters Brothers, a partnership made in hell, because inescapable. Paid killers in Siamese-tandem.

The forces of their natures lead them to take baths only in dirty places. But they ride through fields of flowers to get there. Through yellow lands. Under mountains made for prayer, of prayer.

None of this we see them notice, until the end, when one of them fools us all.

One’s interest never jades watching these contrasts. One sees them through the magic camera of Benoît Debie whose shots throw one into the spectacle as a necessity. Radiant, right, surprising—and the same can be said of the editing by Juliette Welfling. If these two don’t win Oscars for this I’m a cow.

The director, Jacques Audiard, who co-wrote it, caught Gyllenhaal, Reilly, and Phoenix at the top of their game, which means you do not know what to expect of them and so seek to know them better, and think you can, but can you?

You sit on the edge of a suspense so keen you haven’t even witnessed it before. Is Ahmed a con-man? Are they and all of Dallas being duped? Can our altruism root for him, him with his big clear eyes? Or will that too get conned? We feel our trust teeter as the story teeters.

The film unfolds as broadly as the landscape it covers, which is Oregon and Northern California. The story’s excitements are constant, and its surprises are long in coming but just. We never expect them but are never betrayed by them.

We have many great Westerns in the canon. Is this another?

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, WESTERN

 

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

05 Feb

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – directed by Mike Nichols. Drama. 132 minutes Black And White 1966.
★★★★★
The Story: A college history professor and his wife host two newcomers to the faculty and engage everyone in a battle royal for marital survival.
~
Elizabeth Taylor was untrained as an actress but as a child took to it like a duck to water. By the time of this film she was the most experienced film actress of her generation but had long moved out of that rare category and her true forte of a romantic actress into the dramatic category. It is a great loss to movies, for Taylor from a fifteen-year-old up through Giant had a capacity for film acting never seen again on screen – sad, fun, loving, kind, tender – as perfectly strong as perfectly beautiful and at home in being such.

I had lunch with her during Butterfield 8. By that time, she had three children, was in her fourth marriage, and she and I were both still only in our mid 20s. She was a young woman with a big nut and had to work responsibly to meet it. The film roles available were not up to her; they were simply what was available. Over our tuna salad I suggested Nicole Diver in Tender Is The Night as one more Fitzgerald heroine perfect for her. “Eddie and I want it,” she said, “but David owns it and he wants Jennifer to do it, and she’s too old.” Getting good parts was not simple.

As an instinctual actress her very instinctual not-so-private life may have dictated the sort of films she wanted to do or would be believable in or be offered. Perhaps marriage to Mike Todd had coarsened her. She was no longer the romantic girl of The Last Time I Saw Paris. So, while she could write her own ticket, what actual destinations were available?

People came to Elizabeth Taylor’s films to mark the progress of her beauty, inner and outer. No one ever, off screen or on, got more attention. On screen she was gorgeous. Off screen, so beautiful, I could see she was actually un-photogenic. But by Butterfield 8, everyone knew everything that could be known about her. The inner beauty had largely disappeared. So, and with all of that, plum roles did not come along every year. But one did in 1966 when she played Martha. If she had to campaign to get Giant, and she did, she certainly had to campaign to get Martha, and to get Burton hired. It was the perfect film for Bette Davis who was the right age. Taylor twenty years too young, 31, but, stronger than dirt, got it.

I saw the original Broadway production of Virginia Woolf. Uta Hagen, also highly experienced, had a raw coarse texture as an actress. She was very good and right for the role. Arthur Hill was completely believable as her scholarly, refined, and more powerless husband. I recall George Grizzard’s Nick as a tennis coach, but he actually teaches biology, and I don’t recall Melinda Dillon at all, which is probably right, since the character tends to paste herself against the wall to get out of the way of the melee.

Taylor is miscast. She doesn’t look 50, but, more importantly, she does not have the instrument, the technique, the training to play it. Instead she plays Martha as though she had an “idea” of what Martha’s character was. But Martha is not a character; she is a figure in an allegory. Besides, since she is not within Taylor’s aesthetic realm, Taylor can’t really play her instinctually. Instead, she flings herself about in the role at fishwife pitch and gets all the swearwords wrong. Elizabeth Taylor was built for survival; it is her virtue and her vice; the same is true of Martha. Taylor drew on her own strength for survival, but Martha drew only on her own weakness. Martha is weakness miming strength. Either here or elsewhere, Elizabeth Taylor was never that.

But in certain ways Taylor is well cast. Martha is fundamentally Taylor’s specialty, a trophy-wife role. Also, Elizabeth Taylor had a rowdy, cackling sense of humor that worked well for the part. And her performance certainly has its moments. What I remember when I first saw it was a crying scene at the end in which she wept for her soul. Seeing it on VHS now, there is no such scene. Instead, Taylor has a finale on the window seat, and in her eyes is nothing left, which, considering Taylor’s eyes, is even more astonishing.

Still, she is fundamentally miscast. “Elizabeth Taylor is too beautiful a woman for any of that to have ever happened to her,” my wife said to me. “A woman that beautiful has other strategies at her disposal.”

But ya gotta hand it to Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, she does not play the beauty queen; she flings herself into the role like a bucket of slops tossed out a window. And she won an Oscar for it. And I have no criticism of the fact of that.

George Segal is best in the stupidity and naiveté of the guest. George Grizzard, of course, exuded intelligence and class – which gave the play, in the reduction of his character to a klutz, a secondary strong dramatic undercurrent. You don’t get any of that with Segal, but it doesn’t matter. Segal is a klutz to start with. What you get is Segal’s big heart in conflict with the unethical seduction of his ambition, both playing against the want of seduction in his wife.

Sandy Dennis, in her looney, abstracted, tricksey way, works perfectly for the mentally and intestinally fragile wife, Honey, and deserved the Oscar she got.

Richard Burton, it is said, was miscast. I’m not so sure. Yes, he is miscast in the sense that, unlike Arthur Hill, obviously Burton always has power to spare, and you don’t need that to play George, but it doesn’t stand in Burton’s way. It sometimes comes out when Burton employs orotundity to carry passages – always a mistake. But we must remember, at the end of the play George always has one power left, to demolish the frayed bridge of the marriage. He will declare the inviolable secret of a certain love between them to be
false and he will kill it. Burton with his hold on his power or Hill with his want of power – no matter – George will smash the delusion. Hill quietly pulls the switch. Burton quietly pulls the switch.

With it gone, what do each of them have to live for with one another? What do husbands and wives have to live for? Without their old fabrications?

We do not know.

They do not know. That’s the risk George takes, and in that lies the greatness of the play.

In the Burton version, we see him place his hand on Taylor’s shoulder to reassure her of the future. But there is no known future and maybe no future and who knows whether reassurance is a requirement to endure it?

The difference between the play and the film versions is that on Broadway the play is thrust forward and takes precedence over the performances. In the movie, the stars take over. To such a degree that Mike Nichols seems not to have coached Taylor away from her gaucheries and not to have forbidden that godawful wig. But no matter. Either way, the play prevails by swallowing its own imperfections as it goes.

The material itself would seem to be about alcoholic excess. But it isn’t. For in this case, there is no truth in wine. The play has the power not of alcohol but of vitriol whose extremes push the four to the bourne of their self-delusion and over its cliff.

The thing that keeps you going is the thing that is killing you? Yes? You agree? But still, are you really willing to sever and surrender the most cherished and most ingrained operational prevarications of your relationships with yourself and others?

52 years since I first saw Whose Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and didn’t understand it either time. Was it too startling to understand or I too young? But now that I understand the the poison it prescribes for a cure and the ritual of decapitation it demands for survival, would I actually risk outliving my own suicide? Would I surrender even one of the superannuated life-strategies I once found vital?

 

Le Week-End

24 Jan

Le Week-End – directed by Roger Michell. Marital Dramedy. 93 minutes Color 2013.
★★★★★
The Story: A 30-year anniversary honeymoon, brings a sorely alienated couple to Paris for a weekend.
~
First of all, it’s a grown-up film. By which I mean to say that it is a film for anyone who is or ever might want to be grown-up.

Marriages are discarded like Kleenex. So you wonder how this one has staggered along so long. They arrive in advanced-bicker. The sex bed is dead. He’s a drooling fool, and she’s no fun anymore.

Walk through their lives with them as they frisk their way through Paris, tossing their budget to la brise. Spearing one another with love’s unwanted darts and prickles. Defying the law. Escaping the law.

In the midst of these skirmishes, Jeff Goldblum appears like a deus macchina out of a cloud of his own glory, to draw them into the realm of the sacred which, of course, includes a huge apartment, a grand feast, and lots of money. He performs perfectly in a part in which he is perfectly cast. He is so real, down to earth, gutsy, and fun you forgive him all he has that you have not.

The couple are played by Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent. They are beyond praise in their allowing themselves to be in their threatened, ill-fitting, middle-class selves.

Marriage after 30 years, a vast wasteland in which they still vividly cavort, they bring to us a comedy-drama down to the bones. The drama is the moment-by-moment living before our wondering eyes the unedifying truth of this relic of a marriage combined with the suspense: can this marriage survive and, if possibly, how? How?

But this is how marriage is. Maybe. Or something like it. Maybe. This is what one signed up for. And there were good reasons for it. Weren’t there?

 

The Shape Of Water

14 Jan

The Shape Of Water – written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. Thriller Fairy Tale. 123 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: An Amazon river god is imprisoned in a U.S. research installation, where he is tortured and threatened with dismemberment until a cleaning woman nurses and rescues him.
~
Of course, fairy stories are true. Myths are true. Allegory is true. That’s how come they last and carry weight in the spirits of children and indigenes. What “true” means is that fairy tales and myths and allegory mimic the inner procedures of the human psyche. The reason fairy tale and myth and allegory endure is that their method of communicating the most important human truths has never been supplanted.

So we see the kindness of the cleaning woman to be the real food she offers the creature, along with hard-boiled eggs.

But what use has this scary creature? The use is, as with all gods, that they never die. What goes with that territory is that they can heal death in others. Mercury, the god of thieves, medicine, tricks, and messages, is the winged avatar of this still, but Hindu religion is crammed with others. In all cases, they heal.

Not always in the way you might want, and in this case the healing teeters perilously before it is revealed. For the god has taken the shape of a merman, and his aspect is daunting. He is played by 57-year-old Doug Jones, lithe, sensual, sudden.

I can’t think of an actor who might have better played the cleaning woman who becomes his mate. Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito (which in English means “exposed” or “transparent”) opens her character up not just to him but to her colleague played by Octavia Spencer whose every word one always believes and so it is here. Over a movie house which seems to be playing forever the same B-Toga epic, Hawkins lives in generous neighborly conjunction with with a commercial illustrator whose style has dated him.

Richard Jenkins does him perfectly. He is the artist who cannot make a difference, the old fool, The Failed Father Figure Of Fairy Tale. Rather like the sad king with the unmarriageable daughter whom you find all the time in those stories. Either she herself or someone beyond unusual must rescue her from the doldrums of the kingdom. And in this case, the doldrums are enforced by a vicious tyrant played with his usual perfection by the handsome, hard Michael Shannon.

Mortal stupidity swirls them around – by the American military bureaucracy typified by Nick Searcy as the general in charge of everything – and by the Russians who want to steal the merman, and whose plans are foxed by Michael Stuhlbarg, who who plays a scientist/spy bent on saving the merman.

So you see, you have a full complement of forces, modern and fantastical, to urge our attention and our loyalties on.

The film is beautifully filmed and imagined. Just what you want for such a tale.

And what is it that you want?

What you don’t want is to be told. So both the merman and the cleaning woman are mute and must, nonetheless, make themselves perfectly understandable to themselves and to us. We see that it is not hard to do.

What you really want is resurrection.

And that’s what the picture provides.

Enjoy yourself. See it.

 

Yojimbo

23 Jul

Yojimbo – directed by Akira Kurosawa. Samurai Action. 110 minutes Black And White 1961.
★★★★★
The Story: A yojimbo, or strong-arm for-hire, exploits his employers in a small town at war with itself.
~
It is the perfect war movie: at the end, no one is left standing. The town is turned into debris and cadavers. The only ones alive are two old guys, the coffin maker and the barkeep. And the God of War, who movies on to the next battlefield.

Greed, lust, envy fuel the feud that drives the townsfolk to take sides. Commercial control starts it all. When it’s over, the only artist in town, a drummer, emerges beating his drum blindly and murders the last survivor, an act from which he reappears covered with blood and drumless. For, you see, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, the wife of Mars, does not survive war propaganda.

Toshiro Mifune plays the God of War, as a disreputable samurai of no renown who wanders into the embattled village. Once there, he sees his job as a strategy that everyone in town shall destroy everyone else, without his having to do the fighting. From the Olympian distance of a high tower or through the crack in a wall, he observes the mayhem he causes.

But he betrays his method by coming to Earth and saving the life of a young woman, her young husband, and their little boy. For this error he is beaten almost to death.

Finding recuperation in a temple, as a God should, he returns to the village and wreaks death all about, and leaves.

It is a film whose story is organized with a minimum of exposition and a maximum of movement. Mifune has scarcely a line to speak. But he is the focus of the mystery of what the outcome will be and how it will be. We wait. Suspense is our treat.

Mifune plays the character as an individual with a sense of humor unusual for a Mars figure. He does not present his warrior as a Gary Cooper character, but as a rapscallion who will lie, cheat, and steal to forward his plot and to assess its players. Resolute without being an absolutist, we never know what to expect as his fate, any more than we know what trick he will come up with to salt the wound of the next surprise. Clint Eastwood would take this story and this character and invest it throughout his career with gutter ethics. Mifune does not have to reach for that. His sense of humor is his six shooter.

Mifune and Kurosawa made 16 films. Is this the best? From the first twitch of his itchy shoulders to the last, Mifune is captured by the great camera of Kazuo Miyagawa and by Kurosawa’s ruthless sense of effects. The actors astonish. The guts of art have been equaled but never been surpassed.

 

Cafe Society

07 Sep

Café Society written and directed by Woody Allen. Romantic Dramedy. 96 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: In 1934, a young man leaves his NYC family to work for a big-time Hollywood agent and to fall in love with the great man’s secretary.

~

Steve Carell continues to be new to me. He is faster than the script of Woody Allen, and whenever he comes on, the screen saturates with something happening.

Take a gander at the look in Carell’s eye when after two years he sees his former rival for the young woman Carell has married. “See! See! See what I’ve got! What you don’t have!” the glint in his eye says. “I won. You didn’t.” it says. So we are in the pleasure of witnessing an actor of imagination. And we are also in the pleasure of the only actor who is sharp enough to take his character to a depth beneath the facetious on which all the other players are stranded. Carell’s playing cuts through to an actual human being under the quips, jests, comic verbal and plot situations, and beneath the satire in which it is almost impossible for the other actors not to be captured and stalled.

For Allen’s script does not pass beyond the ceaseless twitches of his jokes. His jokes never stop. And the terrible thing about his jokes is that they are laugh lines intended to generate no laughs, because they are actually lines of comedy of character not comedy of gags. But here Allen makes characters only for satire. He is in a frenzy of satire. This frenzy makes for monotonous company after a time, just as, after fifty years, Woody Allen’s wishful nebbish is monotonous.

Alas, because here we have a great love story – but with no depth, and a lyricism talked about but never heard, except on the impeccable sound track, where Larry Hart’s mordant lyrics supply the deficiency. Here we have a version of Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet marries Paris and Romeo marries Rosaline. What then happens to poor Romeo or poor Juliet, when they still love one another all the time?

Because of the consistent jocular style, no growth is possible with the dialogue. Nothing can happen but the next jest, nothing can get beneath it the next comic stammer. The drama drowns in a monotony of wit.

The promise of this material goes unexplored also because of the casting of the two young people. Because of his terrible carriage, I have a hard time looking at Jesse Eisenberg. I suppose he can’t help it, but neither can I. He also falls into the film actor’s trap to indicate response by doing something with his mouth. Actually, he can act. I just don’t want to see him do it.

The leading lady Kristen Stewart on the other hand orders her technique lukewarm from TV. Minutely hammy, her response range is canned. Starvation follows our every swallow. Hers is the role two men from the same family fall madly in love with, and one wonders how come. She’s so doughy, so uncooked. What do they see in her? What does she see in herself?

Having said every unhappy thing I can say about the film, I certainly have nothing left to say but see it. Woody Allen wrote it, and he is still a national treasure. Santo Loquasto’s art direction is beyond great: the places he takes us: the bars, the palaces, the dives, the nightclubs of the ‘30s! The costumes of Suzy Benzinger are smart and vicious and fun. The supporting actors are tops, among them Parker Posey as a practical materialist fashionista, and Blake Lively as the witty Rosaline character.

It’s a romantic Dramedy, but don’t expect it will move you. It’s a marvelous story, even though Woody Allen stifles the drama with a joke every time an actor opens his mouth. Proceed to the movie house. But proceed with caution.

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DRAMEDY, Steve Carell

 

Éxtasis

24 Jun

Éxtasis – directed by Mariano Barroso. Comedy. 93 minutes Color 1996.

★★★★★

Four seedy small time crooks topple into the big time when a famous director adopts one of them as his son.

~

He is full of the juice of life, good to look at, and talented as all get out. Javier Barden at 26.

It’s remarkable to see him as an actor even early on his career making up a character taken right off the streets of Madrid. Take a look at the walk he has given this bloke. Take a look at the quirky personality he has ascribed to him. He seems to have started out as one of the most serious yet entertaining actors on the screen and twenty years later still is.

Playing the leader of the gang at full throttle, the story takes him into the lair of a multimillionaire director where he presents himself as his son. The real son is one of Barden’s gang, but the father has never seen that son. Complications arise when the director decides to make the Barden a stage super-star . Complications exponential themselves when Barden decides to really be that son and also to be that star.

Moreover, the play he is to appear in is the famous Calderon masterwork, Life Is A Dream, which deals — in a Pirandellian dance — with such switches.

It’s a delightful comedy, whose twists I decline to discomplicate for you here, for they are all up to you to enjoy when you see it.

And Barden, if you like him, and which of us does not, is a treat to behold in his early manhood. Gifted beyond measure, handsome beyond measure, big-hearted beyond measure.

Go look.

 

The Missing

24 Feb

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Inside Out

21 Jun

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Birdman

03 Nov

Birdman – directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.  Dramedy. 119 minutes Color 2014

★★★

The Story A one-time movie star rehearses for a comeback in a Broadway play, and various calamities ensue.

~

It’s a maze with no center. So one’s fun in it leaches away, as this dawns on one. And we become bruised by the way the story fails in its loyalty to us. For what we have, instead of a tale of something, is pigtails that octopus out on all sides and seize on nothing. We have the main actor and we have his stage competitor and this actor’s live-in lady and the main actor’s former wife and the main actor’s present mistress and the main actor’s grown daughter and the main actor’s best friend, and we have a play cobbled together from fiction by Raymond Carver, and we have a vengeful theatre critic. And the main story so trails off into unnecessary and thin expositions of these personages that it loses any coherence or any sense that there is a main story and a principal concern for us to latch onto. What’s at stake? Is it Will the show go on? Is it Will he get back his wife? Is it Will he commit suicide?

A possible story might have been: can the main character act? That is to say, Can he act brilliantly? The best acted scene is one in which he must come alive when a replacement actor brings it to brief vivid life. Edward Norton plays this replacement, and Norton is an actor in full command of his instrument. But the main character?

So the story might be: Can the main actor act just as brilliantly on opening night? That might be the story, but it doesn’t seem to be, for the success of the opening night performance depends upon a fluke that has nothing do to with acting. Besides, the main actor is played by Michael Keaton, and he is up to his old bagful of tricks and tics and twitches. So since we see Keaton is not a great actor himself, we never know what we are supposed to think about the acting of the character he is playing or how we are supposed to respond to him. The result is we never identify with the character. It’s a failure of treatment on the part of the director. Even the play he is in looks like a bad play, but one isn’t sure. Besides, we as an audience want a story to follow. We are filched of it.

We are also given scenes extravagantly unnecessary. For example, the film begins with Keaton meditating in his dressing room in full levitation, so we know he can fly; we don’t need this shown again until the end. On the other hand, we have scenes missing. The character Edward Norton plays is sidetracked cheaply into a dubious relationship with the daughter, and dropped from the story cold. We are left with the marble quarry of Michael Keaton’s charm. It becomes colder the more the director pays attention to it.

Norton is very good in his part, and so is Zach Galifianakis as the friend, and Lindsey Duncan as the deadly critic. The picture is shot so fluidly that it brings pleasure even to the missing pleasure of the film as a whole. We are given lots of narration but no story. Lots of icecream but no cone to carry it in.

At the end, there was no ovation. Everyone stood. To exit. Defeated.

 
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Posted in DRAMEDY, Edward Norton, Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis

 

Nobody Lives Forever

31 Oct

Nobody Lives Forever – directed by Jean Negulesco. Grifter Drama. 100 minutes Black And White 1946.

★★★★★

The Story: A G.I. comes home to his former crimes scene and heads for a multi-million dollar scam.

~

John Garfield, perfectly cast as both a G.I. and a criminal. It’s his way, which is always the same way: the sensitive tough-guy, Bronx marshmallow. Very lovable. Very understandable. These are qualities which come with some actors and don’t come with others, and they determine work. Work in two ways: casting, and the way he executes scenes. For out of these qualities spring choices in handling scenes. The acting craft holds outlets for these people. They are not ordinary, these people. They have vitality, presence, and looks. They have in them that which wants to be seen. So in discussing acting in relation to them, it is almost impossible to view them dispassionately. It is almost impossible to define the skill with which the tiger dismembers the faun. What is first, mainly, only possible, is to experience being impressed. That much is sure.

Like them or not, there they are up on the silver screen where they belong. With him and always opposite him are all the other members of the cast, all as vital. George Coulouris as the sleazy crumb horning in on Garfield’s grift. George Tobias, as always comical as the almost useless sidekick. Two comical thug fools, in James Flavin and Ralph Peters. His two-timing, slapable canary played by Faye Emerson at the peak of her beauteousness. And the astonishing Walter Brennan as the pickpocket guru. All these are contrasted in their comical or threatening positions to him and to the only one who is not threatening, but is lovely, Geraldine Fitzgerald playing the widow they mean to cheat. Fitzgerald’s performance makes the film work. She is smart but justifiably ignorant; she falls in love with Garfield and you believe it; she registers everything quietly and truly. Don’t miss her. She lets you perform the part with her. Garbo did the same.

The film’s finale is handled somewhat clumsily. But otherwise the film is beautifully directed, which is a question of values attended to in a way noir does not often offer. W.R. Burnett (author of Little Caesar, High Sierra, This Gun For Hire, The Whole Town’s Talking, Scarface, The Asphalt Jungle) wrote it.

Give it a viewing. Let me know how you liked it.

 

Maleficent

22 Jun

Maleficent – directed by Robert Stromberg. Fractured Fairy Tale. 97 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: A fairy queen jilted, takes out her resentment on the jilter’s daughter, giving rise to unforeseen circumstances.

~ ~ ~

The Disney Imagination that has gone into this can be seen by looking into one big Keane painting child’s eye. It is exaggerated in its content, yet it is too big even for its content. Sentimentality with bling.

But we must set that aside if we are to remain in our seats. Even though, as usual with Disney films, we see the details become lost in the speed, we are at least afforded one thing to gaze upon steadily and with reverence, and that is the visage of Angelina Jolie.

Once again she is one of her PowerBeauty roles. Not too many actresses have the fortification to manage such parts. Our Liz, of course, and Garbo, who did it without exerting any power. But Jolie brings forth the blaze of her beauty as a weapon fit to crush all who dare to look upon it impiously. Ah, the Jujitsu of her eyes! It is a treat which movies alone afford us.

Angelina Jolie is an actress much limited to such roles, and when you see her in a part such as in Changling, it is clear she does not have the technique to manage it. But here, as Maleficent, she is on her home field, and, boy, is she good. She gets to be hot under her many collars but brings touches of wit and reserves of humor to the role, which often consists of her standing still in a huge cape and horns and being gazed upon. A little “hm” of commentary now and again brings all the fun we need.

The rest is spectacular displays of special effects and animation, with a dragon emitting more fire from its mouth than Bette Davis, and a flying scene that’s a humdinger.

The story is just like that of The Rover with Guy Pearce – in a field of hell, someone who hates someone else comes to love that person. Children may be frightened by the hell, but so what? If Disney had been afraid of that, he would never have made Snow White.

Janet McTeer does the narration. And Imelda Staunton flapdoodles about as a maladroit  fairy. And as to the rest – well, it’s all Tinkerbell tosh – but still, a little of that is good thing sometimes, especially when Angelina Jolie is just the medicine that helps the sugar go down.

Everyone is seeing it, and, although I didn’t, I should think it’s better to do so in 3-D than not.

 
 

The General

02 May

The General – directed by Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman. Farce. 107 minutes. Black and White Silent 1926.

★★★★★

The Story: A railroad engineer, turned down by his lady friend after failing to be taken into the rebel army, thwarts the Yankee takeover of a key railroad engine. 

~

I balk at writing about this picture because the word praise is insufficient to it.

If you enjoyed Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel you will see where it comes from and what is to be learned from The General at the same time as being entertained by it.

Full frontal exposure is how film farce must work, and Keaton knew this. He grasped the two-dimensionality of the motion picture screen and reveled in it. So when something comes from the right, it must flee from the left. The actors’ responses must  play into the camera and out to the audience as though the audience knew all along.

It’s the greatest chase film ever made. He employs masses of extras as armies and stages the most expensive special effect to that date: a train falls through a bridge. Except, it’s not a special effect. It’s actually done.

And Buster Keaton is clearly performing the daredevil, life-on-your-line stunts, one after another. He was the king of the pratfall; no one has ever approached him in this.

Farce is sudden, bold, mechanical. It works like a choochoo train, and the picture takes place in, on, and around a famous engine, The General. A great deal of farce depends upon our seeing what the main character does not see, and Keaton is a master of this gag. For while he sustains super human exploits and athletic feats of derring-do, he is also a sacred innocent. He is caught up in the folly of circumstances and responds to them humbly. It makes him one of our greatest screen actors. He has the Great Stone Face, but it is a stone curiously sensitive and readable. You always know what he is feeling, despite the rigor of his visage. For his eyes are large, beautiful, and subtle.

You see how Keaton makes me babble. I have no hallelujah large enough for him.

I suppose he is the greatest performer/entertainer ever to appear in film.

Will that do it? If not, shoot me.

No, no, not in the foot, you fool, you’re supped to misfire, over there, where that man with the fat ass stands. So he can fall on Buster. And Buster can skitter out from under, just as fatso is about to land on him.

My version had a second disc of extra features, all of which are fascinating, particularly a reel of Buster Keaton’s many dealings with railroad engines, streetcars, buses, and autos. A gem dangling from a diamond.

 

Mirror, Mirror

23 Apr

Mirror, Mirror — directed by Tarsem Singh. Fractured Fairy Tale. 105 minutes Color 2012.

★★★

The Story: The Wicked Stepmother seizes the spotlight and Prince Charming as well.

~        

Of all the actresses ambitioned to play Scarlet in Gone With The Wind there were only two who would not have been ridiculous, Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh, and for the same reason: they both possessed the temperament of hellcats, and they alone had in their skill kits a sense of period.

Exactly what that is, is hard to declare, except its absence is notably present in the performance of Julia Roberts as the Wicked Queen, for she seems to have no sense of the genre in which she is performing, a costume drama at the least. She dismays by adopting the cracked ice of condescension, an amateur choice which wrecks the role at the outset by giving it no place to go.

Julia Roberts – no one can say they knew her after she was a pretty woman, because, now of a certain age, she is still one. But for years she coasted along on the white sailboat of her smile. To do that all she needed to do was be a gal. But that won’t wash any more, and she is now cast in character parts while having no actual skill at playing a character. All these years I waited for the genius of her brother, Eric Roberts, to break through – a mistake on my part to be sure. Now I want his sister to discover her craft.

Less harm can be done to the film by her, because the style of Mirror, Mirror begins in Fairyland Camp, and somewhere along the line shifts across into Bullwinkle Land. That is to say, it becomes dialogue-dependent rather than style-dependent, and the dialogue is vernacular. So, when the prince appears, one soon sees that the actor does not have a prince in him and does not have the pronunciation of one either: the word “adieu” is, by Princes, pronounced “adyou” not “a-do,” so the poor actor fails in his opening sequence. Fortunately the character he plays is a jerk, so it does not matter much, except that it too defies the necessary tone and doesn’t create one of its own.

And in a piece like this, tone is essential. Because without it you can’t really buy into the enchantment. Moreover, the written style and the acting style are in rash countermand to the visual style, which is glorious. The sets, the costumes, the wigs are lavish — imaginative and surprising and fun — as are the narrative conceits. Visually, it has the right tone.

As do the animation and the special effects, particularly that of The Beast – a terrific griffon. Snow White is right for the part, a lovely young actress, Lily Collins, and she is assisted by Nathan Lane as a pusillanimous courtier and by seven sexy dwarfs, all of whom are jolly good and all of whom survive the mishmash nicely.

Of course you want the Queen to be thwarted, and you want Snow White to save herself with her magic dagger. And you love Snow White floating through the snowy woods in a billowing May dress, and the Prince in his floor-length coat swashbuckling about is a treat that never palls. You root more for the visual effects than the characters, but you are let down that, despite the film’s stated promise, nothing new about that wicked queen has been revealed, either by one mirror or by two.

 
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Posted in FAIRY TALE, Fractured Fairy Tale, GOTHIC ROMANCE, Julia Roberts, Nathan Lane

 

American Hustle

04 Jan

American Hustle – directed by David O. Russell. GrifterFlic. 138 minutes Color 2013. ★★★★★

The Story: Complications pile on complications as the characters of the characters execute and sabotage and execute and sabotage themselves and each other in a super-sting operation.

~

Everyone has phony hair. And yet the motto of these dodgers is, “From the feet up!” meaning everyone has to be authentically committed to the ruse at hand.

False hair’s a wonderful image, redounding on each character’s flaws as the story unfolds. Bradley Cooper has tiny pin-curls to make his black straight hair curly and cute. Jennifer Lawrence has a baroquely streaked blond coif, always in flirtatious display. Amy Adams has ringlets manufactured down to and included in her décolletage, which is always arrayed for us, and, in its bra-less excellence would, we fear, be on array upon her presentation to The Queen. Jeremy Renner’s pompadour has a pompadour. And Christian Bale has a comb-over so complex it requires a combination. “From the feet up” – means until-but-not-including the crown of the head, which, of course, leaves everybody uncommitted.

The story is told in big long fully developed scenes that you can glom onto and relish, and the writer/director lodges the story not in plot but in the plot’s being directed by the divergences of each main character’s character. Jennifer Lawrence, in a particularly well-written role, makes her contribution by always being right by making everyone else wrong, doing one thing and saying another. Amy Adams levels her battleship intelligence on the false target of swindling her way into love. Bradley Cooper is shredded by his own intensity, which is blind. Jeremy Renner, the only sympathetic character among the bunch, loses his way in the byways of honest ambition. And Christian Bale, who is not quite on target with his character, is shot in the foot with his own rifle – which is firing blanks. As an actor he alone misses the innocence of his character, and innocence is important for all these fools, because, as Oscar Wilde said (and Oscar Wilde  was never wrong), “It is always wrong to be innocent.”

Is the story too complicated to follow? No. Is it engrossing? Yes. Does it have its legitimate surprises? Yes. Does it betray its audience’s credulity? No. Is the story well and unusually and strongly told? Yes. Are the scenes daringly played? Yep. Do you experience being entertained? Yes. Are you seeing some of the best acting in your life? Absolutely. Does it stick to your ribs into the lobby? No. Have you wasted your time? No.

2013 is strong year for male performances, and Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper look good here. And so do Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. The cast is great, but as ensemble, since there are few ensemble scenes to speak of, that is not the draw, but, performance by performance, you can’t do better. And the whole shebang is wonderfully and humorously told. It is one of several important GrifterFlics this year: The Wolf Of Wall Street runs side by slippery side with it in local theatres. See ‘em both. Tell ‘em Bruce sent ya.

 

The Wolf Of Wall Street

03 Jan

The Wolf Of Wall Street – directed by Martin Scorsese. BioPic Black Comedy. 189 minutes, Color 2013.

The Story: The rise and rise and rise of a sharpie-broker to the heights of wealth and disorder, and the outcome in ultimate wealth and disorder and gullibility for all.

★★★★★

I was disappointed to read in the credits that The Wolf Of Wall Street was based on someone’s life, for it is such an imaginative movie, I expected it to be as made up on the spot as the many dodges it chronicles. It is the wittiest movie I have seen in ten years.

It starts with a 26 year old Leonardo DiCaprio being put in a trance by Matthew McConaughey, a trance in which he remains for the duration, and in that trance enacts the dance of greed and more greed (in the word “greed” the “more” is silent), until at the end we are shown the whole world to be in an obsessive trance, too.

McConaughey’s fugazi-cadenza of the fairy dust of Wall Street opens the piece with a The Gambler’s Creed. It shows that capitalism, meaning brokerage investment (meaning stock and bonds), is silly. For it is based on a cheap thrill. To which one and all must be addicted. Meaning entranced. Get Rich Quick is the silly thrill.

The film is a must. For the writing. For the mastery of execution of the director. For the performances of the McConaughey, along with Rob Reiner as Belfort’s irascible father, Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife, the beauteous Joanna Lumley as her aunt, and everyone involved, small part to major. Jonah Hill is the co-star, and his scenes put one in mind of the early work of Scorsese in Raging Bull, as does the acting work throughout, with its ruthless improvisations and trash talk at will.

Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor of deep shallowness as a leading man, brings his thin-sliced white bread and slather of profound character-acting talent to bear on the part of the cavalier investment broker on the make, and gets up on his hind legs, and his abilities shimmer throughout the picture and hold our interest at a fascinated distance, as he continues his compulsion to trick the customers into speculations from over-the-counter penny stocks, which no one may profit by but him. He gives us a deal of rash playing. The entire performance is flavored into reality by the fragrance of a Bronx accent.

The law bears down. This does not dissuade him from drugs, sex, and high-rolling.

But why go on? Why spill the beans, when it is such a pleasure for you to see them topple out on your own? It is because of Scorsese’s dab hand with this material that you must  attend, and for DiCaprio’s in playing it out with him.

Is it the best film Scorsese has ever made? Could be.

You tell me.

 

Salome

17 Nov

Salome – directed by William Dieterle. Biblical Epic. The king of Galilee and his queen are in mortal conflict over the rant of a desert prophet, but whose side will their daughter take? 103 minutes Color 1953.

★★★★

What sands, what scimitars, what sanctimoniousness!

John the Baptist on a soapbox in the dessert preaches not salvation but sedition. That is, he defames Queen Herodias because she has married twice — which is hardly prophetic, since she has been married to Herod for twenty-five years.  It seems rather hard of John. And what is worse the poor actor who has to spout this rigmarole is ill equipped for the chore. He plays it with his blue eyes constantly raised to the second balcony. Ya know what it is? It’s a bunch of hooey, that’s what it is. And it’s so aggravating, ah, if only someone would come and behead that actor – and – oh, blessed chance – whadyaknow? – someone does. But I won’t tell you who.

Into this Biblical thingamajig we have four good actors, in major roles, and all at their  professional best.

Judith Anderson with her voice of an old Chevrolet reprises her peculiar-relation–to-daughter-figures number from Rebecca.

Then we have Charles Laughton, one of the most inventive actors ever to draw breath. As he is warned against the prophet. watch him hug the pillars like a baby. Watch him put the make on his step-daughter. Watch him respond to each of Salome’s veils as they drift off of her. Watch how he agrees to Herodias’ request. He is so marvelous, you would suppose him to be playing one of the greatest roles ever written. Well, actually he is playing Herod, so perhaps he is.

Then there is Stewart Granger, who is handsome, sensual, humorous, intelligent, sensitive, and has a delicious speaking voice. Professionalism can do no more. For there again you see an actor completely convinced; the role is of a Roman Centurion, at ease in the role and also in a little white skirt. Every time he is on screen, your morale goes up. With his grey-at-the-temples look, he is well cast opposite superstar Rita Hayworth.

For, oh dear, she is twenty years too old for the part. Salome has to be a fifteen year old girl, and Rita Hayworth was well into her 30s when this was mounted for her. She, of course, is wonderful, as good an actress as you get in movies, you get behind her completely. And her dance of the seven veils (we get to, but not past the seventh) is sensational. Her power to taunt and entice was unequalled. And her dance is all about those kind of illicit, illusory invitations. Worth the price of admission.

Also worth for the costumes, by Jean Louis. They will take your breath away. C.B. DeMille never had things so wonderful on the human form. Nor did he ever, as Dieterle did, shoot 18,000 feet of exteriors in the Holy Land. Nobody had ever done that, and they are very interesting. Indeed, no expense has been spared on the production; beautifully shot by Charles Lang; sumptuous, even dazzling; and, apart from those four performances, another reason for seeing Salome.

 

Downton Abby, Season 3

18 Jul

Downton Abby, season 3 – various directors. Period drama, 8 part TV series. Will the great house fall or will it not fall? Color 2012.

★★★★★

Is it based on George Stevens’ Giant? It is largely the same story: enormous holdings are  invaded by the younger generation with ideas of their own and with tolerances intolerable to the masters of the spreads. Bick Benedict is the American Robert Earl of Grantham, and The Riata the holding comparable to Downton. Outsiders and lower-class folk interlope into the families, and Robert and Bick must learn new ways, or succumb. Members of the families marry outside their station, and always hypogamously. And everywhere the ranching and the farming are impressive.

Anyhow, here we have another topping season of one’s favorite characters, acted by a first class cast. I won’t summarize the story, why should I? Once you start it, two seasons back, you tell it yourself as it goes along. This version does contain the killing of two major actors, but be it far from me to reveal who. (One of them got a job in a Broadway play, and so must die. Serves that actor right.)

The clothes gain in brilliance and beauty and cut and tailoring. The makeup. The direction. The writing.

Oh, wait, the writing. This version includes the presence of Shirley MacLaine, and writing of her part is all wrong. Why is that? Because there is nothing dramatic at stake with the character being brought in. There is no question in the MacLaine character that she will provide the money. She cannot, even if she would.

Vilely costumed and wigged, her entrance is a put-up job. The scenes she plays are also not well written in terms of the other characters. All Americans are thought of as vulgar upstarts by the aristos of Downton, and perhaps by the author Julian Fellowes as well. Indeed she is even given the Jewish name of Levinson, although nothing is made of this. Her daughter, The Countess Cora, beautifully played by Elizabeth McGovern, is the finest lady in the Abby – so how could she have such a woman for a mother?

To play the part, Shirley MacLaine, who actually as a person is vulgar, is hired, I imagine, in order to confirm this view of American vulgarity. And she does. Therefore the play, even on the level of character surprise has nowhere to go when she comes on.

Nor does anything witty or rare arise in the playing of MacLaine with the other characters, such as Mrs Crawly or The Dowager. Their scenes together are not filmed as matches.

Nor indeed can MacLaine actually act them. She has no timing. It is as if she cannot act at all any more; doesn’t even know what acting is. To all reports she is great off-camera, but on camera she is inexplicable and a mess.

But this is a minor error. The rest is tops. Of course, you will see it. It is not a question of volition. It is inevitable as birth. If you were born, then sooner or later Downton Abby lies before you.

 

Emma

18 May

Emma – written and directed by Douglas McGrath. High Comedy. A young woman tries her pretty hand at match-making, with unexpected comical results. 121 minutes Color 1996.

★★★★★

Yes, a timeless comedy. And in a rare version of it, the director/writer of Emma has reduced a novel of over 600 pages in which nothing happens at all, which has no plot, no story, and which all we are concerned with is who is visiting whom next – and which, once taken up, it is impossible to put down.

For here we have, in Jane Austin’s hand, the creation of a character in Emma of Shakespearean veracity.

You read along, and you cannot help but love her, because she always means well and she is always absolutely wrong. From the point of view of character creation, Emma is a masterpiece of human life, someone who simply stands apart from the novel and walks around through its pages as though she wrote them herself, foibles and all. Like Falstaff, Emma has a life of her own.

Two exceptions worth making to this highly entertaining film.

Ewan McGregor is not only badly miscast; he also, one after another, looks terrible in his costumes And he also cannot play the part. The part of Frank Churchill is the best looking male in the story: he is devastating to women; he is high-spirited, he is dark, he is slender; he is beautifully turned out, he cuts a wonderful figure; he is lots of fun. But McGregor is accoutered in a hideous blond wig, his clothes are dowdy and don’t fit through the shoulders, he is frumpy of temperament, wants joi de vivre, wants mystery, and, in short, is so clunky no woman would look twice at him nor any man envy him.

The second exception is that the story does depend upon Emma’s falling for Churchill, sign of which gives her true love long pause. This movement is omitted, and so when Jeremy Northam must question it we have no idea what he could mean.

Otherwise the film is a gem. Otherwise if there is anything to forgive it is not worth noticing. We have Phyllida Law, a study as old Mrs Bates, Polly Walker perfect as the reserved and beauteous Jane Fairfax, Juliet Stephenson hilarious as the society-bitch Mrs Elton, Sophie Thompson as the impossibly voluble Miss Bates, Greta Sacchi kindness itself as Mrs Weston (née Taylor), Alan Cumming as the worry-wart health-nut Mr, Woodhouse, Emma’s father, whom she so much resembles. And Toni Colette, an actress who probably can do no wrong, as the gullible teenager Harriet Smith.

But the jewel in this jewel, the heart of its heart, is the big-hearted Gwyneth Paltrow, perfect.

Until Gwyneth Paltrow, no true ingénue has appeared in film since Audrey Hepburn.  Until she retired, Hepburn played with the energy of it , even in dramatic roles, such as The Nun’s Story, for she was never a dramatic actress. But Gwyneth Paltrow finally, also, had the perfect collection of ingénue attributes, yet, after her two wonderful comedies – and ingénues must be introduced in comedy – Paltrow embarked on serious dramatic roles much more demanding that those which Audrey Hepburn took on after Sabrina and Roman Holiday. Paltrow’s two comedies were this and Shakespeare In Love, both high style costume pieces, and both requiring an upper class English accent.

But what are the qualities of the ingénue?

Many actresses have played ingénue roles without being true ingénues: Helena Bonham-Carter, Susannah York come to mind.  For someone has to play them. The ingénue is most often the second female lead, playing opposite the juvenile or jeune premier, both just under the leading lady and leading man. Thus: Hero in Much Ado About Nothing and Bianca in The Taming Of The Shrew.

But what does the true ingénue, Audrey Hepburn and Gwyneth Paltrow, have in common that  the others do not have?  What makes them true ingénues?

Well, both are tall, slender, and have long necks, and are elegant of mein. Both in private are clothes horses and on screen wear clothes well. That’s  nice, but they alone do not do it.

Both have charming, well-placed, cultivated speaking voices. Both are bright. Both are sexually innocent. Both are pretty in a way no one else is.

In both instances, they have radiant smiles.

And both are under or appear to be always 21.

But, most important, both are fresh.

And both have real big hearts.

They do not play second leads. They play leading roles because they are rare.

They are absolutely for some reason adorable, for, as soon as you see them, you fall in love with them as you would with an enchanting child.

This is the reason to see Emma. To see a magical young girl whom you have no will to resist being charmed by.

What a treat for you.

Gwyneth Paltrow this year was voted the most beautiful woman in the world. She is now 41. That freshness still remains. And – the most beautiful woman in the world because so endearing for having – its so obvious – the biggest heart you ever saw.

 

Iron Man 3

04 May

Ironman 3 – directed by Shane Black. Comic Book Adventure. The Iron Man irons things out. 130 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★

Robert Downey Junior is suave, witty, and sexy, and his enemy, Guy Pearce, is suave, witty, and sexy. So the question is not whether one will best the other, but whether charm will best demolition.

For the skies, the earth, and the waters are laced with explosions, collapses, blasts, mass burials, attacks, and not a policeman in sight. Oh, Good!

In all this, I can only give praise to Downey, who is so cool as to be cryogenic. Nothing fazes him. He rises from every blitz with perfect aplomb. He always has a jest to impart and it takes no fall from high places to make him dizzy beforehand. He also has the astounding ability to make pins drop at certain moments with the reality of his response, as for instance with certain women with whom he is at the same moment absolutely sincere and absolutely false. It is very endearing of him. He is such a prick you cannot but let him off scot free, particularly with that wonderful actor’s face of his with its flexible mouth and huge black eyes that are always begging forgiveness. And all that bounce! He’s our Dark Angel, isn’t he? Valuable….

He is paired at various times with that marvelous actress, our belovèd Gwyneth Paltrow, who always arrives in a film role followed by porters bearing enormous quantities of luggage, all Vuitton. Don Cheadle, a welcome presence here as elsewhere, backs up Downey as a military person in charge of just what we never know. Ben Kingsley earns another deposit in our continued respect for him, as The Most Evil Person In The World. Dale Dickey gives a fabulous turn as The Wife Of The Man With The Files. And Ty Simpkins refreshes the entire film as a little boy with a crush on our super-hero.

But none of this and no one —  save perhaps the gifted Guy Pearce who is fascinating and fun as a businessman rogue — none of this and no one is given enough screen time and anything like a scene that we may dwell upon before the screen once again is splashed with visual violence.

The story, if there is a story, seems completely out of control. It takes the form of a smash and a splat. And the plot gathers no strength in its reins when it arrives, very late at the party. Until then, we are raped with the spectacle of calamity upon calamity, and none of them moved me or scared me or more than distantly entertained me, although they are very pretty even when they are hard to follow. And they are hard, for they are edited so spastically who can register them? It is the way with such films. We are not supposed to follow them. We are supposed only to be impressed. The problem is that the effects are impressive without making any real impression. Except for one marvelous air rescue that is really quite simple and a treat. But what we have here is a story in which no one is in peril, which means an adventure story without an adventure – meaning without danger. The explosions are too cataclysmic to threaten anybody.

You sit back and you haven’t wasted your dime. Not a bit. The actors are somewhat wasted amid the monotonous detonations, some of them internal.

Nor can we forgive the stifling excess by claiming it is a comic book, and meant for the mentality of boys. Of course it is. That’s why one goes. But that does not exactly excuse incompetence, does it?  Or maybe it does – if that’s the true subject here.

Yes. That must be it. It is a blockbuster about how everyone flops! Trouble is you never know what they were trying to do to start out with!

But still, it is impossible, it really is, it is impossible, to really dislike it.

 

The Magic Bullet Of Dr. Ehrlich

18 Mar

The Magic Bullet of Dr. Ehrlich – directed by William Dieterle. Biopic. A German/Jewish doctor revolutionizes hematology and immunology. 103 minutes Black and White 1940.
★★★★★
Why I adore to watch Edward G. Robinson I simply do not know. Richard Burton said of him that if the most beautiful man in world and Edward G. Robinson were on the same stage together, no one would look at the beautiful man. He is my favorite actor. And he was one of the superstars of his era and his studio, Warners, along with a couple of other odd-looking blokes, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.

Robinson’s presence and authority, his ability to focus deeply, his ability to instantly switch course, his waking eyes which wake you up, his distinctive voice. Yes, all of that. But perhaps it is the simplicity and directness and immediacy of everything that he does. There is also his courageous heart, his kindness, his humor, his ability to take-it-in.

I don’t know. There is just something about him.

You would have thought he would be, like Charles Coburn, a hugely popular principal supporting actor. But no. He plays the lead always. The story is always about him. It is never about Coburn.

This is one of those biopics the era specialized in and that informed us, if not educated us, about Madame Curie (Greer Garson), Sister Kenny (Rosalind Russell), Gentleman Jim Corbett (Errol Flynn) et al. Dieterle directed some of them, and directs this one well.

The story of this remarkable laboratory scientist – who advanced microbe-dyeing so that a specific disease, such as tuberculosis, could actually be diagnosed by an ordinary physician; who pioneered the vaccine for diphtheria, who discovered the first specific for syphilis – is fairly accurate, and at all points riveting.

What makes it so is the photography of James Wong Howe. Every angle, every scene, every movement by the actors is held in narrative coherence and importance by his camera. He makes the picture exciting and he, in fact, tells its story. And he never intrudes.

Max Steiner did the score. The film was co-written by John Huston and boasts a list of supporting players so deep no modern film could equal it: Otto Kruger who is quite touching as Ehrlich’s best friend, Donald Crisp, Sig Ruman, Donald Meek, Henry O’Neill, Harry Davenport, Louis Calhern. Maria Ouspenskaya, a really bad actress from the Moscow Art Theatre, performs her usual portentous teeny grand dame, and Ruth Gordon doesn’t seem to know what to do as the housewife and mother of Ehrlich’s children. But, if you really want to know what great acting is in all its magnitude take in the great German Shakespearean Albert Bassermann in the role of an early unbeliever in Ehrlich.

Anyhow, I found all three acts of this picture thrilling. For me it didn’t date, because I am of that date. If this picture were made today, it couldn’t be half as good. Like Steinbeck, it was of its time, and has not lost its value for all that.

 

Mona Lisa Smile

31 Dec

Mona Lisa Smile – directed by Mike Newell. Chickflick. A new art instructor at Wellesely College for women finds herself up against unquestioned traditions. 117 minutes Color 2003.
★★★★★
Julia Roberts as an academician is beautifully miscast on the grounds that her popular consistency won’t know the difference. After all, how many of them went to Wellesely to begin with or have even heard of it? The marble-like conservative nature of the institution is sufficiently pigeoned-on to have closed it, and it is a wonder the filmers were not sued. Or maybe they were.

But our Julia prevails. She soldiers through a role for which she has not the slightest cultural depth. She reminds one of Joan Crawford with her broad mouth incapable of a subtlety and her big staring eyes. And inwardly you can see how much she enjoys being a star. Their instruments are quite different, however. Both are calculating performers. But Roberts is more at ease in her work; her assurance arises not out of her ego, but out of a sense of fun and of absurdity. She can play comedy at the drop of a hat, and Crawford could not play it at all. She is neither a masochist nor a sadist and Crawford was both. Roberts is an actress of seventeen smiles, Crawford of two. They are both wonderful. And they were both sometimes miscast.

But the script provides various resorts for Roberts, such as the fact that she expects perfection from everybody, or rather that she expects everybody to be an already finished work of art. She gets her come-uppance, thank goodness.

And in this she is helped by three typical students, Kirsten Dunst who plays a controlling marriage-aimed student, Julia Stiles who plays a young woman on the fence between marriage and a career, and Maggie Gyllenhaal who plays a free-loving girl, co-dependent to unavailable men.

The film has many nice touches and a real feeling of a small New England campus in the 1950s. It is interesting to revisit those times and consider how true or false the film is to them. It is a feminist screed on one level, which is just fine by me, since it is a blatant exposure of the small and very commercial expectations young women were steered toward in those days – and little did I know. I went to Columbia: Barnard was different.

And I wonder at the casting of the picture. It’s been ten years since it was made, and looking at the three leads, Dunst, Stiles, and Gyllenhaal, it is clear what their destinies as actors would be. The first two would go on; maybe they had some talent; Stiles certainly had a beautifully placed voice. But only Maggie Gyllenhaal would go on to be a star. For there she shines, with her sexiness, her intelligence, her deep humor, her wisdom, her flexibility, her charming happy face, and her big heart: the paramount soubrette. Talented as all get out. The first two I would not avoid seeing; they have not wronged me; the third I would make my way to see with relish. And I do.

John Slattery and Marcia Gay Harden and Marian Seldes and Juliet Stephenson are fine in supporting roles. And the picture is not pat. It wisely turns on itself in a way that is helpful to one once it is over.

 

Pleasure Unwoven

17 Dec

On Amazon, visit: http://amzn.com/B00AA59P5G to read Christmas Day In The Morning, a jolly holiday tale for the whole family. And get your free Kindle application to boot.

Pleasure Unwoven –- Kevin McCauley. Lecture. A student of addiction, Mr. McCauley presents his case for the Disease model of addiction by tracking its structure. 70 minutes Color 2009.
★★★★★
Kevin McCauley makes it easy and attractive for us to register his analyses by presenting them as he moves through the spectacular landscape of wild Utah and by unexpected visual examples.

He offers us the Choice model first, a model with the moral weight attached to it which says that because addicts can “choose” to not take their drug-of-choice (as the saying goes), they are morally reprehensible for choosing it. Put a literal gun to the head of the addict, and the addict will decline the drug. Yes, of course he will. Point is that there is no literal gun to the head of an addict, so his example does not fully illustrate the argument, and it becomes a sitting duck when the time comes to refute it. No, not a sitting duck. A decoy duck.

But he then to prove the Disease model of addiction he tracks the brain system which creates the infrastructure of addiction. This is his bias, and why not? The brain patterns and the hormonal influences which direct and confirm those patterns he clearly and effectively illustrates for us, and they are important, for anyone who is an addict or who is concerned with the phenomenon of addiction, to follow and to know. And, indeed, they do prove that addiction is a disease.

That it is a disease helps to legitimize its treatment and take addiction out of the realm of criminal or moral conduct. After all, no one chooses addiction as a career choice, but that is what it becomes for the addict. McCauley also makes a useful distinction between behavioral addiction such as gambling and sex and addiction to substances, such as to drugs and alcohol.

He also limns in the peril of cross/addiction, such as to food with sex, or marijuana with cocaine, our taking up one when the other is sober, and then see-sawing back. His illustration of the number of these addictions and their substances is astonishing. Relating damage to the middle-brain and outer-brain and their symptoms he proves his “disease” denomination (although I feel the term “disease,” is not as helpful as it would be to say “condition,” like diabetes, one which requires a daily remedy). All this is good and useful.

What he does leave out from his consideration is the cause of the repetitive nature of addiction. Yes, the brain pattern gets established, but what part of the brain makes it compulsive –– returning over and over again, despite our wanting to stop?

The answer lies in the phenomenon that we survive by compulsion: the heart beats compulsively, the breath breathes compulsively, the digestion digests compulsively. Compulsivity makes us live. Behavior-addiction and drugs enter into that system of holy compulsivity and pollute it to a point where we can barely live. However, while compulsivity is not addressed by McCauley’s excellent clarifications, many important matters are, and the film of him giving them to us is absolutely worthwhile.

 
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Posted in Addiction

 

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.

 

Argo

27 Oct

Argo – directed by Ben Affleck. Docuthriller. The staff of American Embassy in Iran is seized, but six escape. A CIA agent determines to spirit them out by the bizarre means of imposturing them as a B-level Hollywood sci-fi film crew scouting locations. 120 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
Ben Affleck plays the agent and carries the film’s strong script by being able to convey the ability to tolerate his own uncertainty of success, all along the line. From the time the U.S. government first realizes the six are, unbeknownst to the Iranians, holed up in The Canadian Embassy and starts hatching escapes, each one worse than the one before, it finally ends up with the best of the worst, devised by Affleck. He is pals with a famed Hollywood make-up artist, played by John Goodman, who is always a welcome presence, and Goodman enlists a superannuated director, played by Alan Arkin. Both of these expertly supply the comedy, for the three men have to come up with a script and a shooting schedule and an announcement bash to get the film, Argo, in the papers, so it will sound real to the Iranians when the time comes for Affleck to go Tehran and attempt the caper. Affleck has directed a first class suspense thriller, and lets us see the point of view of the hiding six, the government who okays it, the last minute changes of plan and favor, much as it all must have happened to everyone back in the day when President Carter was stuck with the horrible embarrassment of the situation to the U.S., and the peril to the majority of the Embassy staff, who remained imprisoned for 444 days. Affleck is great in the part, the music is good, the script is nifty, the color is suave, and you wonder how they ever managed to film all those crowd scenes. How’d they ever do it! Terrific. And educational too: I never heard of this daring escape before. Did you?

 

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark — The Guy Pearce Papers 4

18 Oct

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark – directed by Troy Nixey. Horror. Refurbishing an old mansion, the designer fails to pay attention to his little girl who has opened a Pandora’s Box in the basement. 99 minutes Color 2012.
★★★
When a horror movie drags you know it does so because, from a paucity of imagination, it must pad out its plot by repeating itself in Act III. This the screenwriters have done here, inflicting their fault on Guy Pearce. He is the interior designer who so wants his house to appear on the cover of Architectural Digest that he pays no attention to his little girl’s horror stories about the little creatures she has released from their primordial well in the basement. But this is all that he does, until he witnesses them himself and takes steps. Katie Holmes plays his live-in girlfriend who actually does believe the little girl’s story, but is brushed aside by Pearce. Except that his “Not now” never develops further; it never develops, for example, into a rage and impatience and frenzy more frightening than the creatures emitting from the heating ducts in the skirtingboard. He is given neither the lines nor the scenes. So his redemption when it comes comes as small beer. The sad thing is that the production is absolutely first class. The house is marvelous, the music is too. The tiny, vicious, wingless bat gnomes will scare the liver out of you. Pearce is at his best here. Watch the way he goes up the stairs, so swift and confident you know he has done it a hundred times before. He turns on his heterosexuality like a light bulb, with the ease of an eager grin. His American accent, once again, is right on the money. But the failure of the script to support his gifts tries one’s interest. Here’s how a horror film works: you take a little girl who is a horror and you allow her to come in contact with a second horror. That’s how it starts. Where it needs to go from there is that a third and greater horror still, in the human form of her negligent father, appears to imperil her mortally at the infected claws of the second horror. Can he save himself from himself and so save her? That is the question. It is never asked. Because Pearce is never allowed to become the greater horror still.

Guy Perce plays a Leading Role here. The little girl is the “star” because the story is about her danger and because she is given the most screen time. I use the term “star” in quotes because a star must shine like a diamond into which one must wish to dive. It is not a matter of beauty, it is a matter of being. For Elizabeth Taylor was a great beauty but also had this quality.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Guy Pearce: ACTING GOD, HORROR

 

Mad Men — seasons 1 – 4

21 Aug

Mad Men. TV Series. Life in big time New York advertising in the heyday of Madison Avenue in the 60s. Color 2007 to the present.

★★★★★

It begins so feebly in terms of direction, script, writing, costumes, interesting characters, period, business reconstruction, and with one exception, performances, that I could not imagine what the fuss was about. It was good to see Bobby Morse after all these years up to his invaluable mischief, but John Slattery seemed vacant in the part, which needed someone like Robert Preston or James Garner or William Shatner, or some actor with a good deal of imaginative sparkle behind him. One hoped he would ripen into the role with time. Elizabeth Moss as the little Catholic secretary from the Bronx who aspires to better things, seemed an interesting choice to play a character who remained usefully mysterious. She was, and she remained, always incorrectly costumed. In fact the designers get the female costumes wrong throughout, since everyone looks like they never wore their costume before and never would again and since the costumes mostly do not arise out of what women in business or home wore as everyday outfits. Women of that period on low salaries did not have a new dress every day. They wore skirts and blouses. January Jones is particularly the victim of this failure, since she prances into each scene caparisoned in bouffant dresses zinging with petticoats, which no one would wear in the home. As an actress she does not hold my interest nor does her attraction to her husband have any content, even sexual, no matter what is said. She is a character who bases her survival on appearances, her own particularly, and after she discovers her husband’s peccadillos and her idea of his appearance is shattered, she is reduced to playing relentless reproof. There is nothing behind her, not even an actress. However, it seems the actress is so good at it that it calls into question one’s ability to separate the actress from the role. Is her want of temperament a function of her part, or is it a deficiency in the performer? Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell seems perfectly cast, and his nastiness encourages one to watch further; he also can act like a June bug, so that’s okay. The leading actor, Jon Hamm, seems quite wrongly named since he is the opposite of a ham, for he seems to have no response mechanism as an actor at all. This plays into the secrecy of the character, and one notices that he is very good in the office scenes, where he can bust any man’s balls with a flick of the bitchdick of his mouth. But, if I buy it, I buy it reluctantly. He’s the sort of actor who either disgusts me or leaves me cold. I don’t want to watch his turtle eyes, I don’t want to watch his corseted mouth. I don’t buy the power of humorless taciturn males. I am repelled by his seductions — more than no one ever saying no to his wink, everyone must say yes, whether he wink or no. His struggle with his secret life lacks depth because the secret does, and once I meet her I wish the actress who plays his first wife had a lot more to do. His handsomeness is technical: he just looks like an advertisement for something. The settings seem all right, although they leave me with no sense of being in New York City exteriorly. And I am not convinced about the agency life at all. I worked on Madison Avenue in exactly the same size agency as this one, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, at exactly this time. There was no liquor in the offices, that I remember, not much womanizing, and while we all smoked we never did so to this degree. I have a friend who worked in a similar agency in Detroit (Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac – accounts just as big as General Mills which I worked on), and she says the cigarettes, liquor and womanizing in Mad Men are absolutely accurate, so somewhere they were. But what bothers me most is the lack of work being done. Our work areas were full of activity. I was a copywriter, and there were deadlines to meet and product obligations to be served. The excitement and paperwork and fear are missing here. This leaves us with the only person towards whom we can extend our hearts, curiosity, and allegiance, Joan Holloway, played by Christina Hendricks. At Dancer, Bud Greenspan had a secretary of her appearance, so I accept the physical type. Joan is the sort of female every man imagines himself to be not man enough for. For whether they are sexually attracted to her or not, because of her appearance, they take themselves as obliged to be in sexual relations to her. Hendricks makes her Joan a deep-hearted woman, Madame Wise, competent beyond all living expectation and easily so. Because of her stature, Joan appears tall, whereas Hendricks is 5’7”, but it is the carriage she has given her that gives her that. She both stands tall and stands asymmetrically. When she is viewed from the rear, she walks with a measured stride, her arms crossing in front of her. In the way she arranges for Joan to carry her head and shoulders, I am reminded of Louise Brooks, the movement of whose dancer’s shoulders moved everything in her being and drew you to her nature. Similar here. Hendricks’s hair is red and worn up, over a small head, with a rich expressive mouth and large wide-spaced eyes, a plus for any actress. She holds this head with great self possession on a long strong neck. The conduct of her head for this character instructs us in dignity, variety, and power. Hendricks makes of Joan a person with spine. For it is her rendering of Joan that draws one’s attention, respect, and care from the start, since, although masterful, Joan is overlooked in the power she obviously possesses for the power she might possess if allowed to. She alone is really vulnerable. I long for her to play Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. And I long through all four seasons for this character, Joan, to be given a chance, given attention, given the focus of episodes and scenes and story. So far it has not happened. But what does happen is that everything negative I have said about the other actors and this series on first impression dissolves as either irrelevant or corrected. I become compelled to see every episode; I set other things aside; I want to know what is to become of them. It is not just a case of the actors getting to be really good, as John Slattery by the second episode becomes, it is rather that they were good from the start. If the characters didn’t interest me, now the characters do. How this comes about, I cannot say. Can you tell me? I am become but one of many Mad Men fanatics. Surely by now the secret must be known.

 

The State Of The Union

18 Jul

The State Of The Union – directed by Frank Capra. Political Drama. A self-made millionaire runs for president and ruins himself morally. 124 minutes Black and White 1948.

★★★★

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. She was a remarkable personality. He was an unremarkable one. She was a thoroughbred racing down the track with the blinders on. He was a garden variety Joe shambling along taking it all in. She was quick thinking and controlling. He was withdrawn and deliberating. Energetically they made a perfect couple because they could see into one another and you could see them do it and you could see that they didn’t mind being seen doing it. Theirs is a transparent cocktail. So a film with them presents, before one looks at it, the promise of a union that puts pat to one of the great American hatreds, snobbism. She was upper class, he was lower. They are equal opposite parts, and there is a democracy to them as a given. Knowing they are together in a film means we are to be presented with that common vision of fairness which is at the heart of the American character and vitality. Their popularity is the popularity of the audience themselves. The homogeneity of the heterodox, they are the melting pot itself. They are one from many. Claudette Colbert was slated to play the wife here as she was also slated to play Margo Channing in All About Eve, and, while she is a marvelous film actor, it is impossible to imagine these parts being played by anyone but the actors who did play them. Katharine Hepburn is particularly suited to this part if you consider her from the point of the enneagram, for her point is One, the one who is born right, and Hepburn’s is a woman who never veers from her sense of what is right, This sense drives the entire plot of the film, and without it the film would lack the foundation it possesses. Hepburn’s playing is superb – light, quick, agile, responsive, and natural. She is right without being righteous. She is most profound when funny, as Ones are, which makes her being right digestible, and she is most untrue when emotional which Ones also are, which makes her weeping scenes merely lachrymose. Hepburn seems to think that weeping is the Great Thing That Acting Requires, but when Hepburn tears up, her character goes out the window. Otherwise everything she does is on the money, down to the smallest detail. Just beware the trembling lip, folks. When she starts getting noble, head for the exits. Spenser Tracy, who plays the husband two-timing her, commands his part like a skipper; virtually every detail is believable. He’s funny and true, convinced and convincing, and it’s largely his film. The script from a Broadway success, feels jammed with repartee and wisecracks, overwritten and forced. Capra is a great director of crowd mayhem, but everybody yells a lot and delivers noble orations. It’s a bit thick, with a thickness made viscous by Victor Young’s taffy score. Angela Lansbury is but 22 when she plays the hardheaded, lascivious newspaper magnate who is having an affaire with Tracy and who instruments his presidential bid. The maturity of her bearing is almost sufficient, but she is helped by her costumes by Irene, and particularly by her hairdos by Sydney Guilaroff, who also does Hepburn’s hair and does it brilliantly, for this is not one of Hepburn’s slacks roles. Adolphe Menjou plays the campaign manager tellingly and Van Johnson, in one of his great sardonic roles, plays the press agent. Capra made few films after the war, for after the war America was no longer corn-fed. But if you like the writing of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The Newsroom, The Social Network), as I do, you will be very happy watching The State Of The Union.

 

 

Snow White And The Huntsman

17 Jun

Snow White And The Huntsman – directed by Rupert Sanders. Fairy Tale Escape Action Adventure. A ghoulish queen strives to eat her fleeing stepdaughter alive. 127 minutes Color 2012.

★★★

The problem with live-action fairy tales is that they sink under the specious particularity of the naturalistic, to which by temperament they are alien. A fairy tale is like a very important dream. It is an external narration of an internal contraption. It is parsed out into characters, such as the queen, the witch, the dumb third son, the cunning daughter, the dragon in the gold, the prince, and so forth. Reading them or listening to them we know we ourselves are these things. Even though not externally, our identification is absolute and therefore hypnotic. These are the inner paths, the inner adventures and floorplan of the psyche. They are wise and cautionary stories, and they are absolutely true in the largest sense of the word, since they must be embarked upon and lived out, but they have nothing to do with realism as a style – and realism is a style which live-action cannot avoid. That is why the true film medium for all fairy tales is animated cartoon. In this picture, for instance, which is very well done, beautifully cast, expensively made, very well played, directed, edited, filmed, and scored, we at one point witness Snow White with dirty fingernails, a completely unnecessary and, in fact, counter-productive detail for the meaning and carriage of the fairy tale of Snow White, but inevitable since she has been slogging through the wilds and falling down in mud before our eyes. So there is a sense when watching such films of a remoteness forced upon us by an incorrect medium. When there camera rises high above her collapse in The Dark Woods, we see her lying screened behind the tall branches of the trees far below, and we see that, despite their cruelty, her vicissitudes protect her. That is because we are at that moment witnessing the scheme of cartoon. With fairy tales, live-action rules out identification. There’s too much unelectable detail. Disney’s version was correct. The theater would also be correct. Opera would be correct. Aside from this failure which is nobody’s fault and everybody’s fault, the pictures is beautiful in every scene and sense, rare in its display of nature and anti-nature, by which I mean the queen’s costumes. Charlize Theron plays her, and her character is given many scenes. Set before the days of face-lifts, her step-queen’s political and magical powers depend upon the retention of her looks. With her oceanic beauty, Charlize Theron really is the fairest of them all. But she is also the older sister of a brother who is clearly in his fifties, while she herself is Charlize Theron. She’s wonderful in the part, and her playing of her death scene is imaginative and unusual. The film never fails to interest and never succeeds to fully interest. It is extremely intelligent and completely obtuse. But it is not a waste of time. And as set forth it certainly supports the activism and the vitality and the cunning and the stamina of the female of the species, right along with the males who help her escape and eventually come to follow her.

 

Hysteria

10 Jun

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

★★★

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

 

Gentleman Jim

03 May

Gentleman Jim — directed by Raoul Walsh. Sports Drama. An Irish roughneck boxes his way to the world championship opposite Francis L. Sullivan. 104 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★

“What am I watching this thing for?” I ask myself, for I am full face with a type of picture I am familiar with and which thank goodness is no longer made. The over-the-top smiles and paste-thick Irish accent of Alan Hale cues the question. Oh, yes, I remember now: it’s a movie made in a period when immigrants from Europe were more recent than they are today, a period when we didn’t have the word “ethnicities,” but the word “nationalities.” We didn’t have the word “media,” but in those days there were German language newspapers, and Yiddish and Chinese newspapers, and “Abie’s Irish Rose” was the popular radio show. People were just over from the old country and felt their security depended upon living near one another and loudly holding onto the mores of their motherland. I am first generation myself. John Ford’s films were slathered with an Irishness that no longer exists, and this of Raoul Walsh is also. In the mid 1950s “nationality” dissolved, replaced by the sectionalization of popular music, but until ten years after The War, everyone listened to Bing Crosby, who no longer exists either, although Frank Sinatra does, whose popular territory is certainly bounded with a frontier of nationality. Such nationalist immigrant films as Gentleman Jim are long gone. Barry Fitzgerald is unthinkable today. But I stuck with the film, which is remarkable in several ways. Low-life, high-life, comedy, family drama, action, romance, farce commingle with Shakespearean ease. The huge fight crowds in pre-Boxing Commission days are fabulously unruly, for no one could direct films of mass mayhem like Raoul Walsh. They lend enormous excitement to the fights. The bouts themselves are brilliantly filmed, and it is clear that Errol Flynn is performing them, no easy feat, since Corbett, the father of modern defensive and strategic boxing, had easy feet himself and danced his partners into exhaustion. It is one of the best fight films ever made in terms of the events themselves. Outside that everything is hearty – a blarney shattered by such films as Raging Bull, Someone Up There Likes Me, The Set-Up, and especially The Fighter which put pat to the notion of good healthy family support for their darling of the ring which Gentleman Jim promulgates like a jig. Flynn is perfectly cast in this part, one of many he would play in Walsh’s films. He is highly energized, impenitently boastful, lithe, strong, and Irish as Paddy’s pig, although actually came from Tasmania.  He is very good, and well supported by Minor Watson, Jack Carson, Arthur Shields, Rhys Williams, and William Frawley. As with all Walsh’s films the foundation of the action is romance, but Alexis Smith is incapable of suggesting the sexuality underlying the lady’s interest in Corbett. She is always the lady, never Judy O’Grady. Walsh wanted Rita Hayworth or Ann Sheridan, either of whom would have been better at it. But the key player in this is Ward Bond — so loud and clear for John Ford so long that we never knew what a fine actor he was. The key scene of the film is his reconciliation with Flynn; his sweet shyness is riveting. Going from the brash slugger, Francis L. Sullivan, to the beaten world heavyweight champion, he makes Sullivan into the foolish titan he was. Flynn’s lines about Sullivan’s lying in bed that night, lost, is marvelous piece of film writing. I was born the year Corbett died in the town he lived in, Bayside, Long Island. Corbett Road, I was familiar with. His fights took place in the 1890s, but everyone in the country knew who he was. This was Errol Flynn’s favorite film, enormously popular in its day.  You might check it out to see why.

 

Blackbeard, The Pirate

28 Apr

Blackbeard, The Pirate — directed by Raoul Walsh. Swashbuckler. A beautiful woman conceals a treasure from a bloodthirsty pirate who is concealing it from another bloodthirsty pirate. 99 minutes Color 1952.

★★★★

Robert Newton, he of the twitch, the wink, the tic, the double-jointed gesticulation, commands the screen here and yar-me-hearties his way through this film’s tics, twists, winks, and gesticulations. The plot is a galumphry of costume jewelry, as is the treasure which Linda Darnell carries about her person, which is stupendous. Stupendous eyes, stupendous lips, stupendous décolletage, oh my goodness is she something to behold. Really at the peak of her beauty, the galleon rocks a little every time she appears in one of her unlikely outfits. But Darnell, with plenty to meet the eye, was a very good actress, from the time she started as a teenager from Texas, in Blood And Sand where she and Anthony Quinn and Rita Hayworth are the only credible performers, next to the flaccid work of Tyrone Power, who very well might have made this picture, too, save that no first class swashbuckler would wish to play opposite Newton who slashes every actor to bits with the scimitar of his scene-stealing eccentricities. Keith Andes would be the victim of Newton here, but he stands up fine against him, and one wonders why Andes did not have a bigger career. Actually Newton seems to be acting all by himself most of the time, which means his performance might be bushwhacked by a shrewd character actor, and such an one exists in the form of Skelton Knaggs, a devious lackey, who pickpockets the camera in every scene he appears. Newton’s furbelows extend right down to bows in his beard, but this smart little performer undoes every one of them. Irene Ryan plays Darnell’s loyal disloyal maid; Alan Mobray a worthy, Torin Thatcher Sir Harry Morgan, William Bendix the first mate, and Richard Egan the hero’s chum. Raoul Walsh, who directed Errol Flynn to fame in similar high-seas Spanish Main costume pieces is the perfect director for this material except that Newton’s presence in it makes the vessel list to the starboard, founder, and sink. Walsh directed whatever they threw at him, which meant that, unlike Hawks or Hitchcock or Stevens or Wyler, his art suffered from the relentlessness of the bad material of major studio movies of the 50s on. Walsh could supervise rewrites well, but making something better does not mean making it good. Although romantic foundations always ground his stories, for seven decades Walsh triumphed in action films, some of the most famous ever made. While we don’t think of him as a director of comedies – Jack Pickford said of him, “Your idea of comedy is to burn down a whorehouse” – but comedy is always the chaser in his pieces, and Blackbeard, The Pirate is no exception. Walsh was a master entertainer. If that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get. I like it myself. I think you might too.

 

Two-Lane Blacktop

25 Apr

Two-Lane Blacktop — directed by Monte Hellman. Road Picture. Two cars race across the U.S. to Washington D.C. 102 minutes. Color 1971.

★★★★

The resuscitation of this film appears like King Tut’s tomb, for it is presented with all its golden burial items: two discs, with extras, and the full screenplay, and a booklet of reviews and notices and appreciations of yore. I did not see it when it came out. The first time I saw Rudy Wurlitzer who wrote it we were both stark naked in the locker room when we were undergraduates at Columbia together and the last time I saw him was in his place on East 14 Street (am I right?) where a very pregnant Viva was banging at his door unceasingly. This piece and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid had received all sorts of interesting attention, (“Rolling Stone” articles hardly qualifies Two-Lane Blacktop for underground classichood: After all, the screenplay was publish in its entirely in Esquire), and envy won the day, and I declined to attend. This was foolish, for the film is simple and good. I am not quite sure it should have been made in color, but it is. But I also stayed away because James Taylor was in it, and I objected to singing stars in high drama, although I saw Pat Garrett which had two of them, and Rudy and I talked about that too, but more of that elsewhere. The James Taylor music was of a younger generation, and my romantic days were over, and I was bitter, although there was a song, “Fire and Rain,” sung in a big plain style that moved me wholly then, although I didn’t know who was singing it or who had written it. I figured James Taylor was a mellow fellow, and also Jello. I figured he was too accessible. And I didn’t like his nasty face. You see, I was wrong all along. With his young man’s voice, James Taylor (an enneagram 6, I do believe) is still doing what he did then; he has not evolved – but that’s because he was born evolved. He was born as what he was meant to be – a voice — although he certainly has husbanded his gifts – and here he is only 22, and he doesn’t sing at all. What is there to object to? I’ll tell you what. He is not an actor, and there are two other principles in the piece who are not actors either. They can’t speak lines. Regarding cars, you never believe a word that mechanic says about engines. What you do believe is his and Taylor’s taciturnity. But it is a silly bias to imagine that people who are quiet are more profound than those with a lot to say. The trouble is that there is one real actor in the piece, and it is so noticeable such that when Warren Oates appears everyone else disappears, because he really belongs up there and the others don’t. Wurlitzer has written a marvelous part for him, the part of a know-it all fabulist whose dreams of grandeur and great accomplishment actually formulate the story and underpin the truth of the piece. I was held by it. The director is extremely shrewd in his disposition of his “performers”, and it is his pleasure to wring many variations on his theme, turning it inside out and upside down without ever betraying its integrity. Everything in Two-Lane Blacktop seems just and fair – and also eccentric since it is a picaresque adventure in which Dulcinea goes along for the ride. The picture is better now than it ever could have been before because it is free of the trappings of its fad — the hollow halo of its alternate lifestyle. All my annoyance is gone. If yours is too or was never there to begin with, take a ride with these four. There’s something here to learn, and, like me, you could do a lot worse. By the way, the extra disc and bonus materials are fabulous — the best I have ever seen offered for a film.

 

Gunga Din

12 Apr

Gunga Din — produced and directed by George Stevens. Comic Action Adventure. 117 minutes Color 1939.
★★★★★
George Stevens was 17 when he jumped over the wall of the Hall Roach Studios. What he found on the other side was a Western, Rex, King Of The Wild Horses, and its sequels. As assistant cameraman he went off into the rugged mountains and made up movies, and ever after he said that the Western was his preferred genre. What this gave us is, of course, Shane but it also produced The Greatest Story Ever Told, shot in those settings and Gunga Din a sort of Eastern Western, situated in spectacular mountains and in a frontier fort and a remote town, and with a host of bloodthirsty savages.

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, authors of His Gal Friday, wrote the story, which, naturally therefore, has one of a trio of soldiers of the Raj wanting to get married and the other two sabotaging his immanent retirement by engaging all of them in putting down the Thugees, a tribe of native killers – read The Taliban.

To say there is a plot to this were to rearrange the meaning of that word, for the movie is one thing after another, a comic scene at the fort, followed by a big battle scene, comic scenes back at the fort, another battle scene, another comic scene back at the fort, and so forth.

The battle scenes are as funny as the comic scenes, for Stevens had learned gag comedy at The Roach Studios so the movie resembles Indiana Jones, or rather Indiana Jones resembles Gunga Din, for Jones kept up with Din by aping it in scene after scene. Stevens’ visual imagination in devising interesting and entertaining slaughters was unequalled. They involved thousands of actors and, to insure no one was hurt, they had to be carefully imagined, very slowly rehearsed, then repeated a bit faster, then faster still, then shot at full speed.

But Stevens also knew what to look at with his fort scenes, where the comedy depends not on gags but on the expressions on actors’ faces. Each of the sergeants – Douglas Fairbanks Junior is Scottish, Victor McLaglen is Irish, and Cary Grant is Cockney – has rich comic scenes to play, and from the start they are all involved in comical branagans. Grant has his lust for booty, McLaglen a darling elephant, and Fairbanks the milksop Joan Fontaine.

Stevens knows exactly what to look at with his camera, which is manned by the great Joe August, who even gives us an in-tight Place-In-The-Sun closeup of Fontaine. Abner Biberman and Eduardo Ciannelli play the outright villains outrightly. And Sam Jaffe is just lovely as the waterboy, Gunga Din, a middle-aged man who saves the day and who is the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s poem from which the picture is loosely derived. They originally wanted the great child actor Sabu, so Jaffe said he played it exactly as Sabu would have, and he’s just marvelous.

Alfred Newman’s music is rousing, and the thousands of troops on the parade grounds and threading through huge mountains is spectacular. Cary Grant is especially gratifying in, for him an unusual, lower class part and also a dopey one. There are comic effects on his face you will never see from him in any other film. All you need do is sit back and look at him to be entertained. He was lower class in origins, and it shines through with a warm, particular and special wit.

Stevens seldom moves his camera so the adventure takes place without intrusion, and he seldom used reaction shots, so the energy between actors is never broken. It is one of the most “complete” films ever made, and remained a George Stevens’ favorite.

The film has never been out of circulation since its immensely popular first showing in the year of the movie miracles, 1939.

 

Mirror Mirror

07 Apr

Mirror Mirror — directed by Tarsem Singh. Fractured Fairy Tale. The wicked stepmother seizes the spotlight and Prince Charming as well. 105 minutes Color 2012.

★★★

Of all the actresses who desired to play Scarlet in Gone With The Wind there were only two who would not have been ridiculous in the part, Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh, and for the same reason: they were not alone in possessing the temperament of hellcats, but they were alone in having the skill in their kit to bring to the part a sense of period. Exactly what that is, is hard to declare, except in its absence. Its absence is notably present in the performance of Julia Roberts as the Wicked Queen. She seems to have no sense of the genre in which she is performing, a costume drama at the least. She also astonishes and dismays one by adopting at once the cracked ice of condescension, an obvious and amateur choice which wrecks the role at the outset by giving it no place to go. Julia Roberts – no one can say they knew her after she was a pretty woman, because, now of a certain age, she is still one. But for years she coasted along on the white sailboat of her smile.  To do that all she needed to do was be a gal. But that won’t wash any more, and she is now cast in character parts while having perhaps no actual skill at playing a character. All those years I waited for the genius of her brother, Eric Roberts, to break through, a mistake on my part to be sure. Now I want her to discover her craft. Less harm is done to the film by her here, because the style of it begins in fairyland camp and shifts to Bullwinkle somewhere along the line. That is to say it becomes dialogue dependent rather than style dependent, and the dialogue is vernacular. So, when the prince appears, one soon sees that the actor does not have a prince in him and does not have the pronunciation of one either: the word “adieu” is pronounced “adyou” not “ado”; the poor actor fails with his opening sequence. Fortunately the character he plays is a jerk, so it does not matter much, except that it defies the necessary tone. And in a piece like this, it is the tone that must engage. Without it you can’t really buy into the enchantment; moreover, the script and these performances are in rash countermand to the visual style of the picture, which is glorious. The costumes are the last masterpiece of  the late Eiki Ishioka and must be seen at once. The sets, the wigs are lavish to a degree, imaginative and surprising and fun, as are the narrative conceits. As is the animation when it occurs and the special effects, particularly that of The Beast which the crew has made into a terrific griffon. Snow White is quite right for the part, a lovely young actress Lily Collins, and she is assisted by Nathan Lane as a pusillanimous courtier and by seven very sexy dwarfs, all of whom are jolly good and all of whom survive the mishmash nicely. Of course you want the Queen to be thwarted and you want Snow White to save herself with her magic dagger. And you love Snow White floating through the snowy woods in a billowing May dress, and the Prince in his floor length coat swashbuckling about is a treat that never palls. That is, you root more for the visual effects than the characters, and you wonder that, despite the film’s stated promise, nothing new about that wicked queen has been revealed either by one mirror or by two.

 

The Greatest Story Ever Told

13 Feb

The Greatest Story Ever Told — directed by George Stevens. A prophet appears in the ancient Middle East and is believed and followed and then beset by political superstition.

3 hours and 19 minutes, Color, 1965.

★★★

It is not fair of me to review this film, for I have not seen it in a movie theatre, but only on my TV, which, while it is fairly large, cannot do justice to the size of the screen for which it was made. When Stevens was asked to choose between Panasonic and super-Panasonic, he chose the latter, although only two such cameras were available. Others were soon found. And the film was made as a story dependent upon its narration for a huge broad screen. Stevens had been a cameraman for years before he became a director, and he could combine the integrity of his material with the size of the canvas upon which he painted. The sort of the story and its telling were intrinsic to the size of the screen. The one had to do with the other, and to see this film on a TV screen is simply for most of it to fail to register as story. Or so I imagine. It may not be the Greatest Film ever made but it must be the most gorgeous. After research in the Holy Land, Stevens made it in remote Arizona settings which resembled that land of long ago. The flooding of Lake Powell was halted so it could be filmed as the Sea of Galilee. The settings are vast and panoramic and are meant, I believe to buoy up the power of the actions on the screen into a spiritual or at least other world dimension, and this I think they may succeed in doing. The individual scenes are made with Stevens’ unerring sense of beauty; he was inspired by famous paintings and their lighting; many interiors are dark and mysterious, lit for chiaroscuro and for effects which his simple camera setups were primed. Max Von Sydow is fine as Jesus as an actor, but no one else comes up to be as good as to be even bad. Great actors like Van Heflin look as uncomfortable in their sandals as everyone else; God, their feet must have hurt. The crowd scenes are just like all Hollywood crowd scenes, a lot of people shaking their fists in the air at the same time unconvincingly. No one is at home their costumes. The actors pause portentous eons between syllables, except for Jose Ferrer who mercifully picks up all his cues and for Claude Rains who gets on with it also. Charlton Heston is well cast as the humorless John The Baptist and delvers his lines through his stentorian teeth like a baleen whale in a vomitorium. Sal Mineo is marvelous as a cripple who is able to walk; his is the best performance in the film and probably of his career. Sometimes the old sermons are moving, but the picture does not seem to be, except once, when Sydney Poitier picks up the cross from Jesus’ stumbled back and helps him along with it. Much of the heart of the film seems to be kept at a distance, a beautiful distance, true. The miracles are all off to one side, never shown; only their effect is shown. The effect of Jesus on his apostles is never shown, always granted. Eventually, the film got out of control, and Jean Negulesco shot the Jerusalem street scenes and David Lean cast and shot the Claude Rains sequence. Alfred Newman scored it with ancient instruments, his own score, and Handel’s Messiah which is quite grating. Some day if I have the chance I will see this film in a movie house. William Mellor, Stevens’ favorite photographer shot it, and there isn’t a scene in it that isn’t rapturously beautiful. From a camera point of view. Whether from a human point of view and a narrative point of view, I wonder.

 

The Dark Half

25 Jan

The Dark Half — directed by George A. Romero. Horror. A college professor moonlighting as a horror story writer is pursued to the death by his doppelganger, his own nom de plume — 122 minutes color 1991.

* * * *

Julie Harris, costumed entirely in lunatic fringe and puffing a meerschaum pipe to boot, plays the college crony crone of our hero, and it’s lovely to see how Harris, a big star with big leading roles behind her, can right-size a role like this and bring to it no more that it will bear, while still giving full value. The original Sally Bowles in I Am A Camera and Frankie in The Member of the Wedding and Abra in East of Eden, here plays a small supporting role: watch, you young actors, what this feels like and how this is managed: no larger, no smaller than ordained: perfect. My view of our hero though is that Timothy Hutton cannot carry a movie, and it is not because of lack of talent or variety of skills with that talent, for his range is certainly demonstrated here. It is as though somewhere in midstream he loses his grip on — I don’t know which — the part the role? A certain doughiness takes over, as the bread starts to rise and then collapses in on itself, as though he could not seek deeper than his instinct. At 31 or so, he’s certainly good looking, even beautiful, and he’s certainly come a long way from Taps, and he certainly has acting in his blood. Nonetheless, this is one of the best pieces of work of his I’ve seen, and his double header as the evil twin is droolingly good. The work of Stephen King always repels me: we’ve a disaffinity of temperament. Always about some male writer, Depp, Richardson, Hutton, Caan, always some remote place in the Maine woods, always someone out to get him and take over. Although over-discursive, here, this version of the theme interests me more than usual: the writer himself as the psychopomp into the hell-realm, not just the wrens, although I liked the wrens a lot.

 

 

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.

 

 

Easy Virtue

09 Sep

Easy Virtue – Directed by Stephen Elliott. High Comedy. The scion of an upper crust British family brings home his American wife. 96 minutes Color 2008.

* * * *

Noel Coward’s (aged 25) drama of class snobbery is updated in diction and tone to the present day, although still set in the 20s. All that works just fine. Colin Firth, not an actor I much admire although there is nothing not to like about him, plays the veteran of WWI who fiddles with a motorcycle and keeps mum while his highly controlling wife makes life miserable for one and all. Kristin Scott Thomas plays her brilliantly. It’s the Gladys Cooper part, you understand, and we are to learn rather late in the day that she objects to the young wife because she really wishes to keep her son home because the estate is failing and presumably he can save it. But it’s a phony excuse, for the reason she is a bitch is the same as any woman is, because she wishes to blanket all the sexual energy in her bailiwick.  Some of Thomas’ lines are lost in the rush of British, a common error of English actors when scurrying through the heady regions of contempt. But the real reason the piece doesn’t work is that the American is played by Jessica Biel who is neither attractive nor fascinating and plays the character with no sense of inner style, one way or another, whatsoever. You need a modern Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, Loretta Young in the part, but, I guess there are none. The Extras are informative and fun. The direction is excellent. The costumes are tops. The fabulous houses in which it was shot are worth the visit, and so is a fox hunt and a great tango scene, in which Firth takes the floor. He is very fine in the dance and in the part, there and elsewhere, and I may start to warm up to him after all.

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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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Slave Of Love

09 Aug

Slave Of Love – Written and Directed by Nikita Mikhailkov. High Farce. A silent film company in the 20s goes on location with a nitwit star and learns something from her. Color 1976.

* * * * *

Singing in Rain set in the Russian Revolution. A marvelous piece, acted and directed to perfection. It is not a propaganda, but quite the contrary, I wonder how they got it produced at all, it is so daring. It’s a sound picture in color set during the making of a schlock silent picture with an airhead superstar actress. If you are interested in acting styles, here is a perfect example of Russian character work for comedy, wrought to extremes of amusement for us — the sort of acting Chekov wrote for: the man who always has a crick in his neck, the actor who always giggles when he exits, the tubby who secretly tries pull-ups between desserts. You’ll see. The amazing finale is treated like an action sequence from a silent film, and it works like gangbusters. Real life is not so far from a picture show after all. Enjoy it.

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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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Son Of Fury

10 Jul

Son Of Fury  Directed by John Cromwell. Costume Romance. The heir to a great English estate vows to take his rightful place presently occupied by a selfish Uncle. 94 mintues Black and White 1942.

* * * * *

In those days, the male stars were more beautiful than the female stars, but the female stars were better actors. Joel Macrea, John Wayne, John Payne, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable were gorgeous guys, and the most gorgeous of all was Tyrone Power. His looks were black Irish with Garbo-long eyelashes – along the lines of George Clooney, except Power, of course, was better looking. Clooney has one advantage over Power in that Clooney is now alive and Power is not, which means that Power is no longer seen as sexually attractive by those who grew up with him in the 30s, people whose sexual development is simultaneous with his own. It’s what makes a star and keeps a star a star. In Power’s case, he also had talent, but, because of his scripts, it was banked – right into Zanuck’s account, for Power was the biggest star at Fox. Zanuck assigned him role after role the same. You can see the responsibility a superstar of that era had to meet by the dumbing down of their range, while George Sanders and Dudley Digges especially savor the scenery. Diggs really has a good time; playing a mercenary lawyer, he gobbles up the camera like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. In the scene Power has the want; Digges want is to deflect the want, but just imagine what Digges comes on with in this scene. Sits behind a desk the whole time, and plays, not a particular action or want, but rather a way of life, all-powerful and impressed by nothing. What a perfect choice to make to play the key moment in the scene. And later on, to make his entrance into court and dress himself in court. Also check out George Sanders’ opening moment when he has to oblige a ruthless close-up to tell us that his long-lost nephew has been discovered. His response is conventional; what lies behind it is the genius to have created the energy of a man who enjoys his own greed. And that, not his technique and not his want or intention, is the force that drives the truth of the moment into life. And so we have the great character actors of the movies doing the same thing forever and also in this film, Henry Davenport as the loving gramps, John Carradine (who was a bad actor but an understandable one), and Elsa Lanchester (who is also a bad actor, because self-conscious of her effects, but believable here). And Tyrone Power was just such a type-cast actor. He played the Tyrone Power type, and film after film duplicated the format, including an early childhood, here played by little Roddy MacDowell, completely devoid of sentimentality, firm in his energy, and fascinating to watch in his withheld ruthlessness. Power was a master at mediating the unbelievable lines he was given in these costume shows. He never overplays his hand, and so the lines sound believable. It is not that he believes in them, so much that the decency he summons plays off a certain challenge to carry him through them. He was a romantic actor par excellence, which means that his sexual instrument is not lustful but lyrical. In wooing a lady he is not rapacious but fun and kind and heart struck. Bolder with Frances Farmer as milady and more bowled over by Gene Tierney doing a South Seas hula-hula, but always respectful of the lady. If you can look beyond his mesmerizing beauty, into his eyes you can see how he comes alive and in what ways. The direction by John Cromwell is discrete, the filming by Arthur C. Miller is narratively helpful, unintrusive, and, in the London rather than the South Seas scenes, spectacularly convincing, as are the fight scenes between Sanders and Power, for they are cunningly performed by bewigged stunt extras.  The score by Alfred (too-many-violins) Newman is intrusive, the exact opposite of Power’s presence, and the perfect model of what not to do while performing balderdash.

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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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