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Archive for the ‘HIGHLY RECOMMENDED’ Category

The Pacific

16 May

The Pacific – various directors – produced by Tom Hanks & Steven Spielberg. 10 episode mini-TV series – drama 8 hours 15 minutes 2010.

★★★★★

The Story: Three marines and their comrades fight disease, filthy weather, bullets, burial, and the fanatic Japanese in the Pacific theater of combat of WWII.

~

I was 12 years old when The War ended, and I remember it well. But I remember mostly the European theater, because my parents were from England, and because Hitler, as an Aryan, was, to me, a more defined monster than the Japanese Hirohito, and because I lived on the East Coast nearer Europe.

But we certainly heard about the Pacific War, both on land and sea, as the troops stepping-stoned from atoll to atoll until they finally hit Japan on Okinawa.

I cannot recommend this series more highly than to say it is so convincing a picture of the guts and gore of war you may find it difficult.

I served in the Army during the Korean War, shipped there during the armistice. So I knew one ghastly feature of it – its tedium. The close quarters with other males for long periods of time has its merit and its murder. It brings out the worst and the best. And none of it is really anyone’s fault. It’s the situation that makes men nasty, hard, cruel, and violent as well as, in those same men, loyal, gentle, humorous, and true.

I knew none of the cast, but I was glad to see, once again, how wonderful our American actors are. I believed every one of them. I believe all I saw and could not imagine how the film-makers managed to recreate the massive landings and battles on those islands. But it sure gave me a picture of what those battles were like and what those men had to do to survive and prevail.

I take the series as a part of my education. And it is also a documentary drama of real soldiers, whose actual names are used, whose reflections we hear from them, and whose stories gripped me from beginning to end. I recommend it without reservation.

 

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?

 

Paddington 2

03 Feb

Paddington 2 – directed by Paul King. Children’s/Grownups/live/animation. 103 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: A young bear, adopted by a London family, has adventures and misadventures as he seeks to stop a wicked theft.
~
Paddington, came after my time and came after my daughter’s time, so I missed Paddington 1, and if you count the book, I also missed Paddington 0.

What sin of omission I have committed to be omitted from the treat of this personable orso I cannot imagine, but I must be a good boy now, because now I am given him, and I take him to me and everything that brings him to me.

These include the greats Joanna Lumley, Julie Walters, Sally Hawkins, Brian Geeson, Imelda Staunton, Eileen Atkins, Tom Conti, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Bonneville – and, as the villain of the piece as a divo actor, that scalawag Hugh Grant.

They delight me, and they all know how to act with a little bear who, of course, is added after or before or at some other time – a little bear who looks not like a bearbear and not like a teddybear but a movie bear – and in so looking looks like all those actors aforementioned look. What a charming miracle!

What delighted me was the wit of the problems set and the wit of the solutions offered for Paddington’s predicaments. The wicked actor Grant plays is broke and looking to replenish his purse with swag whose whereabouts were coded in an old popup book. He fails, naturally, but the contortions offered in his wickedness and Paddington’s escape from them are fun and more fun.

If this all seems dated and preposterous, well, just watch the jests as they unravel — and how they all knit together as things move on. The message of the picture is that there is no plight that people, if they have big hearts, cannot get one another out of, provided they pull together and have a seaplane.

What a delight are the sets and places and the power of animation to outrival Special Effects or spectacle in engaging me, and out of the preposterous create in me the believable! I smile as I write this. It’s a film to love watching. Watch it.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH COMEDIC, COMEDY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Imelda Staunton

 

Phantom Thread

22 Jan

Phantom Thread – written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Drama. 130 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: An artist suffering from mater-philia becomes inspired by a young woman who, to cure him, must practically kill him.
~
What are the force-fields inside an individual which draw a human to force-fields inside another – and how can they be made to fadge, converge, and agree?

The execution is suave. The picture luxuriously filmed, perfectly cast, marvelously directed, impeccably scored, ideally set, fabulously costumed, vividly acted. The setting is some fifty years ago when London was a fashion center and its focal character, Reynolds Woodcock, was the most renown women’s designer of the time.

All that is window-dressing, albeit superb, but the picture must have it in order to explore the sub-surfaces which are its true subject.

Woodcock in a once-in-a-lifetime-draw to a young waitress with a figure perfect for his clothes, spirits her away to his home. She falls for him. But when she does, he finds her annoying, and we soon see his interest in her is neither romantic nor personal. He has made her his muse. But she has no other interest for him.

He lives in a household and work-world entirely female. And he admits that his first and main muse was his own mother. Indeed, she is the phantom thread with which he has woven his life into what he is: a gourmet monastic, and that mother will reappear as that phantom.

His sister runs his business, has his number, and knows that his strength comes from women – from their mother, from herself, from various women he lives with, from his battalion of seamstresses, and from his clientele. Such strength as he possesses lies in the brilliant, shocking, chilly genius of his dresses.

But the young woman he has carried off comes from an even colder clime. She sees that, in order for him to love her, she must mother him, and in order for that to happen she has to rescue him from peril. And to do that, she must create the peril.

Have I already said too much? No. Find out for yourself. Go see it.

As it starts, the film is slightly overwritten, as characters explain themselves in ways they wouldn’t and we don’t need them to. One day someone must do a study of the accents used. And the film will only half-satisfy because the default position of the woman’s psyche is left unattended to. So the plot remains a mythic scheme stumbling towards a finale that does not exist, a stream with no pond to feed. But never mind that. The satisfactions available in it outstrip its wants.

And it is played by a group of sterling, deeply experienced actors, who are a pleasure to behold. Vicky Krieps plays the young woman who sees through Woodcock; her performance is a treasure. Lesley Manville plays his sister; her performance is a treasure. Harriet Sansome plays a Barbara Hutton type about to marry a Porfirio Rubirosa type; her performance is a treasure. Every performance is a treasure.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays the designer – at first with the too-knowing smile of a man no woman he has set his sights on can resist – and then he just plays him. His is the story of a cool man whom to wed a good woman must first cremate. Day-Lewis, a great cold actor, is well cast as this gelid gent.

Day-Lewis is not a romantic leading man. He is a character-lead, but the part is close to a leading man role, yet here, by his mastery of the technical acts of fashion design, the actor skirts the category: how pins are applied, how cloth is moved and discussed, how scissors close on a fabric, how a sketch-book is held, the way he wears the clothes he wears and that he chooses to choose them (I want those magenta socks), and the infantilism of the Divo – all that which, through deeds, decodes the obsession in him that blinds him to what he cannot more greatly adore. It is a performance consummated sheerly on the level of behavior.

But Krieps is an actor and a character who takes him on, and, boy – even cooler than he – does she ever! She realizes the foundation in the maternal in him is too strong to collapse but to crack its depths she must bring out another and different female side lying beneath the maternal, to dare to release an even greater muse, the normal. With the gentlest of drills, she embarks on a mining operation seldom seen in film.

For the story of Phantom Thread – the overthrow of the default position of an individual or a relationship – the reference is Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Have I said too much? Yes, I have.

Find out for yourself. Go see it.

 
 

Call Me By Your Name

19 Jan

Call Me By Your Name – directed by Luca Guadagnino. Homoerotic-drama 132 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: A doctoral candidate comes to assist a professor for six weeks, and the professor’s teen-age son falls in love with him and he falls in love with the teen-age son.
~
He who has loved and not lost has not loved at all.

First love never ends.

These are the regulations our bodies have set down for us, and wonderful and terrible are their truths.

The American Ph.D. candidate, played by Armie Hammer, is all virility and dispatch. The teen-ager, played by Timothée Chalamet, lingers in that truce of time called adolescence. Hammer is fully confident and at home in his body. Chalamet’s body is scarcely formed. We know that he is drawn towards the hunky candidate because he gazes wonderingly at him, as does everyone. We have no idea if the interest is returned by the hunk, for the two of them bicker and grouse.

But the young man opens half his shell to reveal the pearl. And the hunk responds as though nothing could be easier or more normal, and he goes for it, albeit gingerly, with the respect due to his boss’s son.

We are flooded from the start with full frontal photographs of Greek statuary. At one point such a statue is raised from the Mediterranean grave of an ancient trireme, and we see its beauty and its powerful genitalia.

But we never see the genitalia of the two lovers – male genitalia, that focus of curiosity, activity, and power. Or the object of ridicule, revulsion, and shrugs?

Why don’t we see these two males make love to one another’s’ privates? Because they’re movie stars? Or out of a sense of prudery? Or because the theme wishes to attend to “other” erotic values? Or we would be “descending” into pornography?

We have seen Mark Rylance in full erection and penetration in the 2001 film Intimacy, so we know what a movie star’s member looks like in full erection and action. Here, we can only suppose that the genitalia on hand would be shameful, meager, or flaccid, and so they remain unrevealed for reasons too many and too silly to contemplate. So, the sexual act is turned from to gaze at trees outside the window.

But those two actors, Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet sure do enjoy kissing one another; they sure do have a grand old time making out. And because they had a good time, I sure did have a good time to watch them have a good time. And because they had had a good time I believed them and took the significance of their affair under advisement because the story told me to. I believed that the love of their lives was taking place.

I wanted to believe it in order to offer it the tribute of my envy. As does the father of the Chalamet character, well played by Michael Stulhbarg, who, at the end of the movie, sits his young son down and spreads out the table cloth of his son’s life in its good fortune and riches.

After such love, there is nothing but a fire in a fireplace to look into. The fire is not the fire we have been asked to witness. A fireplace is outside of one.

The inside fire does not leave. But the warmth of the mating does not last, although its power to burn does. Mundane geographical distance removes that warmth.

Scorched recollection is the price we never stop paying for great love.

A lifetime of tears, would we say, is its inevitable and fair exchange? The fireplace of a fire that will not quite go out.

 
 

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.

 

Picture Snatcher

10 Aug

Picture Snatcher – directed by Lloyd Bacon. Newsroom Comedy. 87 minutes Black And White 1933.
★★★★★
The Story: A crime lord goes straight to a newspaper to go straight, leading to his becoming an ambulance chaser-photographer which is almost as bad as being a crime lord.
~
Picture Snatcher is the key to Cagney. If it is not the best performance he ever gave in movies, I haven’t seen a better.

It’s perfectly directed by Bacon and shot by Sol Polito and edited by Bill Holmes. top craftsmen at Warners. Warners made pictures about low-life, and this is one, but that didn’t mean those films didn’t get Waldorf-Astoria treatment.

You’ve got to see the film, because Cagney is just so good. I didn’t like him as a kid. It felt like I was growing up with a bully. And there is that element in him. But essentially, Cagney’s technique is grounded in fear, by which I mean the automatic defensiveness of the little man with a Thompson Machine Gun personality. You can see it melt from time to time as he meets up with this or that honey or hitch.

Cagney’s fear gave him technical confidence, and from that springs his awareness to improvise physically – so you never know what he is going to do next! This makes him interestingly dangerous. It also makes his technique reliable and at the same time fresh. For instance, watch for the moment when he dashes into a telephone booth to call his girl. The instant before he dials, he scoops the coin return to scarf a forgotten dime. Only Geraldine Page had this capacity for detail in running performance.

Cagney’s musical theater technique, which was the ground for what he did in films, may have originally been learned on the streets of New York. It was so installed in him that it prevented him from playing his parts in any other way. He had only this explosive technique to stand on. Playing a priest, you could always sense the Tommy Gun under the aub. I feel it’s rather tragic, because he wanted to play different roles. He could not do it. He couldn’t play them differently.

Certain artists can do practically anything: Schubert and Mozart. Other artists find their niche and mine it. Chopin, for instance or Piazzolla. Nothing wrong with it. Wonderful, in fact. Cagney: in his vein. See him here at his best in it.

 

Dunkirk

06 Aug

Dunkirk – written and directed by Christopher Nolan. WWII Docudrama. 106 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: The Germans surround Allied armies of 400,000 on a beach in Belgium with no escape, while a flotilla of smacks, little yachts, and pleasure boats strike out on the high seas to rescue them.
~
I lived through The Depression, Hitler’s rise, World War II, Hiroshima. When the war ended, I tied tin cans on the back of my bike and raced up and down the boulevard hollering with joy like everyone else. I was twelve. I lived in an English household. I remember The Blitz; we had a handsome British soldier lodged my bedroom, Captain Byatt. And I remember Dunkirk.

Oh, the surge of heart we all felt for fellow Britains for courage and nautical skill and resolve! Wow! It was hard to believe they’d brought it off, but they had! It seemed each boat had taken upon itself to sail over. As though those Sunday fishermen all had a mind of their own and it was the same mind. It was the largest armada of small boats ever to set sail on the sea.

The film showing this crazy escapade is wonderful in that before special effects production, the film we see could never have been made. I am thankful for seeing scenes otherwise too complicated to stage and too expensive and too dangerous.

The film is told in three narratives.

The first is the spectacle of the army trapped and holding off the enemy, and lined up on the beach, waiting for rescue ships which do not come, and when they come make big fat targets for submarines and Luftwaffe.

The second story is that of Royal Airforce pilots in three Spitfires who fly over to supply air cover.

The third is the story of a father and son and local boy who set out on their pleasure craft and head for Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers.

All of this is wonderful and beautifully done.

Kenneth Branagh plays the naval Commander leading embarkation from an exposed wharf and Mark Rylance plays the father at the wheel of his boat. These two anchor the film with known faces and known energies. All the rest of the large cast is played by actors one does not know, and they therefore become the anonymous soldiers and citizens who actually lived it all out.

What I miss is the sense of a communal effort. For the first of these stories tells the through-story of a single young soldier and his adventures harrowing and heroic to get on a boat to England. So much time and attention is given to these complex miracles that the greater miracle, that a hundred little vessels set out to save him is lost. Did save him. Brought him and 400,000 others by the skin of their teeth and the seat of their pants back to the sceptered isle, in a hundred bobbing boats.

This error is so elaborate and interesting and spectacular in its chapters that we do not tear our eyes from it, but the fact is that it eats up film time from the real story which is that the English people gathered their resolve under the national resolve of Churchill to collectively save this soldier, and we only see one strand of it, Mark Rylance’s in his old pleasure cruiser.

Rylance is wonderful, so is everything seen, taught, told. I hope never to forget the sight of the Spitfire seen from above as it wings its way silently over the beaches across which the Armies queue on their way to the water.

I saw it at an Imax on recommendation, and, while I don’t know therefore what Dunkirk would feel like in a lesser projection, I enjoyed it. I had never seen Imax before. The world had never seen a Dunkirk before and might never see such a thing again. If I were you, I would not miss the chance.

 

Padre Padrone

02 Aug

Padre Padrone – directed by Paolo & Vittorio Taviani. Drama. 114 minutes Color 1977.
★★★★★
The battle of a father to overlord his son to lifelong enslavement and ignorance against that son who hears a song from afar he recognizes as his own.
~
Ruthless.

I like films ruthless about what they show. As a corrective to the flaccid films that ruled the ‘50s of my youth, I required transgressors like Brando first was.

Now, late in life, I come upon one of the great films of that era, by brother-directors whose work I have never before seen.

How does an individual survive the abuse of a life? No. Not survive. But emerge, not with a white flag, but with a rag of his own devising, coloring, conception, and will? Waving on a crooked stick, he holds it aloft as he clambers out of the ditch.

This story takes place in the upper hills of Sardinia. Shepherd people live nearto rude survival. Their temperaments male and female are violent, cruel, unforgiving, unchanging. The mother tortures the boy, the father beats him almost to death. No escape across those stony hills is in view nor in view of anyone else around. No examples of dropping out, hitting road, or carving a future of one’s own.

This is Italian neo-realism at its most forceful and grainy. It, like the films of Robert Rossellini, is executed with care, predication, rigor. Nothing careless here. Nothing cheap or underdone. It is as consumate as a Freed Unit musical at MGM – but in style and treatment, of course, it is without gloss or relief. I feel I am there. I feel I am actually seeing it. I am walking through it, and it is walking through me. I cannot stop it or bring aid to it.

It won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. It won world-wide praise and attention. It is a relevant and immediate and gripping today as when it was made. Beautifully restored by the Coen Brothers.

Acted by masters. Costumed, set, lit, filmed, directed by masters. Entertain yourself with their power and their truth.

 

The Immortal Story

25 Apr

The Immortal Story – written and directed by Orson Welles. TV Drama. 58 minutes Color 1968
★★★★★
The Story A multimillionaire pays for a man and a woman to enact a sailors’ age-old sexual fantasy.
~
This is said to be Welles’ last completed film, and a very good one it is. Of course, it contains Welles’ usual tropes, which reflect his hobby as a magician, in that his films are defter than the eye that watches them, and thus, always sinister – in that they are all left-handed, and contain a touch of evil – at least what he enjoyed to be evil.

So many books about Orson Welles. To plumb his mystery and to represent some or other aspect of his character or genius elsewhere dismissed or unobserved. Yet he was probably simpler than supposed. And probably thought of himself so too.

The thing about Welles is that he is essentially a virtuoso radio actor. By which I mean, he reigns by means of his voice. Virtuoso radio acting and with that voice supported his stage ambitions as a young man of an energy so superabundant and inventive that everyone stood aside for it and served it – there being nothing else to do with it except resent it. He retains that voice in film, life, and Lear which I once saw him perform in a whale chair.

The thing about Welles in all his doings and roles and life is that that he must be The Main Event or he is nothing. He will withhold his toys; he will not play.

From the time he was a child he had been treated as The Main Event. By his father, foster father, teachers, and because he had a retarded brother. His voice and remarkable appearance confirmed it. Adoration, adulation was his from the start and forever. So that his survival depended on everyone treating him as The Main Event, and he rewarded their expectations or prolonged their expectations to the point of death and after. Indeed, if he is not The Main Event, he is impotent. With his great height, weight, voice, reputation, and bearing, as soon as frustrated he becomes a huge baby – effrontuous, verbally violent, refractory. The problem of, with, and for Orson Welles is that he had to be The Main Event, and in movies he was not. In movies, the one who makes the movies is The Main Event. In movies, The Producer is the Main Event. Neither writer, director nor star, not, never Welles but The Producer.

His rudeness to producers is legendary. His inability to get good money from them is epic. His career cascaded from the moment he left the cutting of The Magnificent Ambersons to save South America from the Axis in WWII – an even bigger main event than Ambersons. He never recovered from that folly.

His life in film and his entire life depended upon producers and the money to be extracted from them – humiliation enough – and in his neurosis in realizing his dependency on them and in realizing their realizing that they, not he, were The Main Event, we see him squalling and peevish and recalcitrant toward them to a mortal degree.

He made his films under budget, but seldom in time for the producers who owned them to release them to theaters in time. He cut and he recut his films – for months, for years. He delayed to give them to the producers who owned them and whose money had enabled him to make them.

He is the most suicidal of all screen persons.

Caught in the machine of himself, he goes on and for years dies, at work on the next project and the one after that.

His life is a wonderful spectacle. As endearing and innovative as a child, each in turn, the brat and the baby emerge from within him, never at war with one another, but always at war with his life itself.

The Immortal Story is a beautiful film of a beautiful story beautifully told. Isaac Dinesen wrote it, and Welles was in and perhaps never out of his Dinesen adoration period.

In it, Welles, in full stage make-up, plays a cold, old millionaire living in 19th Century Macao. His secretary, cast and played perfectly by Roger Coggio, elicits the help of a local woman, Jeanne Moreau, to play the part of the wife. Welles himself hires the beautiful young sailor, Norman Eshley, who will sleep with her.

That is enough for you. For you must see it. See it for the object of beauty it is, with its incisive score by Eric Satie, its brilliant set decoration by André Piltant, and the miraculous camera work and lighting by Willy Kurant. Of course, since Welles is The Main Event always, much of this comes from his fecund imagination and restless hands. There he is stationing his massive edifice in vast chairs. Pontificating, prodding, prominent. A Main Event.

Welles is in all things The Manipulator. All his roles are like this– on camera, off camera, in reality, and in his dreams. He does not know how to be anything else but the manipulator. Magician and puppeteer of himself, he offers to the world his rich love of its riches one of which was, most certainly and to our undying gratitude, himself.

 

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp

14 Dec

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp – written, directed, produced by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Comedy. 2 hours 43 minutes. Color 1943.

★★★★

The Story: Sixty Years of advancing pig-headedness in the life of a British military professional and his loyalty to love of every kind.

~

How privileged I am to watch another super-duper movie in a row. This Pressburg/Powell offering was controversial in its day because it envisioned a friendship with a German military officer while WW II was being waged at the same time as it showed an old-fashioned British military professional who had a hard time adapting to modern warfare who was friends with him.

The Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger Siamese Twins wrote, produced and directed collectively The Red Shoes, The 49th Parallel, Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus, I Know Where I’m Going, and a number of other remarkably watchable pictures. This was Emeric Pressburger’s favorite and is among their best. It has on some lists been called the best English film ever made.

Martin Scorsese, whose style was influenced and informed by Michael Powell’s style, introduces the film and appears in the documentary on Powell. Powell’s wife became and remains his editor. Every director in the world has learned from P/P.

Scorsese says Roger Livesey is his favorite actor and Anton Walbrook is his next favorite. My favorite is Anton Walbrook and my next favorite is Roger Livesey. And every actor in the world has learned from these two.

Livesey plays a young, virile, rash officer whose adventurous spirit takes him to Germany, where he meets the love of his life, played by Deborah Kerr, aged 22.

He also meets his future best friend, a German Officer played by Anton Walbrook.

If you want to know anything at all about acting and how it is done, watch Walbrook here deliver a long monologue in one shot, no interruptions, no outside dialogue. Simple, internal, and both slow and quick simultaneously. He does not milk it. He exists inside the shell of a hopeless situation, which nothing he can do or say can change. Pressburger wrote it just like that. And just like that Walbrook delivers it. I watch it nearly falling off my chair for fear Walbrook will not be able to negotiate it. And in that complete him and become him.

Roger Livesey is lovely as the Colonel Blimp character, an old duffer in his nonage, a romantic husband in his middle age, and a bashful fool in his youth.

The cameraman on the picture was the great Jack Cardiff, the Michelangelo of Technicolor, so you are ravished by eye. The script remains consistently witty and endearing. And, despite the title, Colonel Blimp never dies. Thank goodness!

I don’t tell plots or stories of film because it spoils the surprise. Be prepared for this one to go on a bit after you thought it would end, and then go on some more. But its length turns out always to be agreeable, sufficient, and necessary. Don’t miss it, my dears.

The extras that go with it are tops.

 

The Man Who Understood Infinity

18 Nov

The Man Who Understood Infinity – directed by Matthew Brown. BioPic. 1 hour 48 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: A mathematical genius from India is almost beaten to death by the math department of Cambridge University.

~

In the old MGM days biopics spelled out their story with great big letters, A B C. Their plots required neither understanding, thought, or interpretation. Only acceptance. We were supposed to swallow them whole. We were supposed to digest them by rote, since that was they way they were written and since no other option was available, save, in the end, skepticism that whoever made this film maybe didn’t get their facts straight.

The writing of such biopics prohibits those scenes of conflict known as drama. What they offer instead is tableaux. That is their narrative method. In these tableaux actors must paralyze their power to act in order to mime as best they can what is constant brass. For the emotion of these stories does not depend upon actions, actors, or even characters. In tableaux there is no emotion. Or whatever emotion the music can eke out of us. There is only the rigid formality of responsible biographical information. They are about big names and require great stars to stand there and just do them.

Such biopics constitute an actual form. Many biopics follow it. The pauper-genius makes his way into the chambers of power and is met with scorn, ridicule, banishment, deadening doubt, and so forth. But someone allies himself with him, and, against all obstacles, he wins out in the end. It is a victory scathed by bitterness because of the price required to achieve it, which sometimes almost includes his mate.

This form is called the story of the underdog. And two actors of great grace and fluidity, Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, constrain their imaginations to fit into the corset of the form in this one.

Deadening doubt is what Irons is allowed to play against Patel’s Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young impoverished nonentity who arrives from Madras at Cambridge where Irons’ Harold Hardy is a don in higher mathematics. Hardy has invited him there from India. Ramanujan is a completely untrained, unschooled conceptual genius. His mathematical formulas envision the answers to problems no one has ever solved.

Hardy demands proofs of Ramanujan’s routes to the formulas. Ramanujan resists. Toby Jones stands by. Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell gives droll advice. And Ramanujan’s luscious wife has to stay in India thinking herself forgotten because her mother-in-law never delivers Ramanujan’s letters to her.

Audiences are biddable. They paid their ticket; they don’t stalk out.

Because there are other benefits here besides dramatic or narrative ones.

One of these is the setting of Cambridge in the midlands and the quad and rooms of Trinity College.

Another is the presence of these two actors who are vivid by nature.

Irons is not here in his virtuoso mode. He is a character hoping to save himself from the peril of disgrace by forcing his doubt on a perfect flower. That, to Hardy, mathematics itself is a poppy makes doubt grate on his wonder.

Dev Patel – he of the Slumdog Millionaire, he of the Marigold Hotels – grips one, as he always does, by the honest vitality of his being. Nothing about this actor is forced, which is a wonderful thing to see in a human. So we sit in our seats and allow the ceremony of the plot to take place before us as it has so often done before.

Dev Patel’s existence as an international star makes this story possible. Ramanujan was a great man. But who would have heard of him had not Patel been alive just now?

It’s wonderful to hear about Ramanujan. To see his name for the first time.

To see Patel fortuitously frame and make this name a name again. To type it out here, over and over, as someone who is now never lost.

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, BIOPIC, Dev Patel, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Jeremy Irons: acting god

 

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.

 

True Detective

12 Apr

True Detective [Season 1] – directed by Cary Joji Fukunga. Police Procedural 8 Part HBO Series. Color 2014.

The Story: Two incompatible cops are assigned to solve a strange crime.

~

The film is a remarkable collation of production, writing, design, filming, direction, editing, and acting. With one exception.

Matthew McConaughey is not that exception. For if you ever wanted to know what power in acting looks like, here it is! Power does not require scenes of vocal range, emotion, or physical display. It may include them, but the sense always is that the artist is nowhere near the limits of his technique, but that the range accessible to that technique is without limit, given the material at hand, the canvas at hand, the occasion at hand.

Seeing him one would never make the mistake of supposing that McConaughey could sing opera or play King Lear. He is an actor who never tries to dupe us into believing that he is greater or other than he is. There are more kinds of great actor than Daniel Day-Lewis.

For, watching him, nothing comes to mind but the desire to continue to do so. We are not distracted. Instead, we sense we are in the presence of a rare opportunity an actor of rare and minute focus, of tiny gesture, each one emerging from his guts in a part perfectly suited to him.

Inside the actor one senses latitude without boundary, which means: the ability to release the material as he wishes, a fastidious rendering of the role’s structure, a sense of the proper size of the role, a sense of a cunning relationship to the architecture of the story as a whole. He understands the period. He understands the rubric of film. He understands the decorum of the character. He can create the titanic with perfect silence. Large or small in his effects he is relaxed. As an actor he is operating out of freedom and in freedom. So all this appears easy.

It is not the same for Woody Harrelson. Harrelson is in a less gutsy role but a more emotional one. But Harrelson is given to a grotesque grimacing with his lower jaw. It is hard to watch and impoverishing to the performance. What is odd is that concurrent with this facial gesticulation is a good actor at work. He is not mugging, but it looks like mugging. Harrison is full of emotion, but releases it through a tic, which someone should be kind enough to ask him to stop. One turns one’s eyes from him, until McConaughey has occasion to call his character a moron, which, unfortunately is what the actor looks like!

It’s too bad, but it does not ruin a story that proves what others have said that the best film drama these days is on cable series TV.

If True Detective is typical, mini-series TV has also changed acting style. No longer speeded up by commercials or by a two-hour time limit set by cinema owners, actors now have space to slow down and open up their work. Golden Age Hollywood Crisp acting is nowhere on view in these mini-series. Nor is modern TV acting or movie acting what we see. No, rather it’s a style of acting with latitude of range, time, and silence. In its spaces we sit and contemplate the vast paradoxes that the art of acting has to reveal about human nature. No one on earth has a greater sense of this than actors.

I understand Season 2 has a different story and performers and that Season 1 is complete in itself. By all means, see True Detective Season 1.

 

The Devil And Miss Jones

15 Feb

The Devil And Miss Jones – directed by Sam Wood. Proletarian Comedy. 92 minutes Black And White 1941.

★★★★★

The Story: A group of department store employees, protesting for a union, unwittingly take into their fold the owner of the store.

~

Gee whiz, what are you waiting for! Get on your pony and order up this proletarian comedy with Charles Coburn as the millionaire who spies on his employees, and Jean Arthur, the store clerk who unwittingly befriends him.

This kind of story was a staple of the age of The Golden Age: My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, most Frank Capra Comedies of the era, and any story where some penniless person gets to be the spouse of the boss’s favorite child: You Can’t Take It With You, The Bride Came C.O.D., It Happened One Night, Vivacious Lady, and a spate of screwball comedies from the era.

It was a great age for comedy, and, boy, do they still satisfy. They hold true now more than comedies made now, because the difference between the rich and the poor, the plutocrat and the working stiff are, once again, as marked now as then.

Charles Coburn can really play anything. He never shortchanges a role. He is never without resources. His person exudes a comic potential with every breath. He doesn’t need a situation; he is a situation. Watch him, as the children’s shoe clerk, fumble right and left, the look on him of dignity lost in the face of the preposterous. He is one of the great film character stars of the era; he can carry a film, as he does here; he can steal a film, as he does here.

But check Jean Arthur out as she creates three different ways, to clobber him over the head with the heel of a work boot. Everything she does is open, intentional, and sparse. She is incapable of a false move. Or an unappealing one.

Robert Cummings’s forte was light comedy, and he is at his best moment in his acting life as the rabble-rousing love interest of Jean Arthur. Watch his scenes on the beach and in the courtroom. Everything he says uses the forward energy which was his milk.

All these actors are at the top of their game. They don’t mug; they don’t gesticulate or exaggerate; they don’t reach for laughs or wring them to death. This kind of acting is called comedy of character and is played with the bodies of the performers as personalities, not clown bodies or situation comedy bodies. It’s not entertainment of gag or guffaw. It requires the great fluidity of perfect willingness. Master acting is required. Coburn was nominated for an Oscar and was to win one not long after for The More The Merrier.

The picture moves forward on roller skates. The camera is held by the great Harry Stradling Sr. And the writing is brilliant, surprising, and real: Norman Krasna. Treat yourself. Indulge yourself. Let yourself go. Place The Devil And Miss Jones before you.

 

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

14 Dec

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – directed by Alison Klayman. Biodoc. 91 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

The Story: A world famous artist also works on human rights in his native China, much to the chagrin of the government and for the love of the Chinese people.

~

I have recently and for the first time seen Gandhi, and in doings so was reminded of Ai Weiwei whose calm and whose shrewdness match Gandhi’s in so many ways.

Weiwei’s artwork is striking and different and rich. Much of it, because of its vast size, is executed by assistants. Gandhi sat and spun cloth.

These men’s utterance is simple, authentic, and direct. Their moves are crafty and bold. For instance, after being released from arrest Weiwei is not allowed to speak to the press or give interviews. What does he do? On the way into his home, he speaks to the reporters. All he says is, “The terms of my parole forbid me from giving interviews,” but look how many times he says it. Of course, he says it to every reporter who says anything to him. But what a proclamation against gagging, what a fire alarm against loss of free speech! And consider how thoroughly it was televised when it happened. Of course, within a few weeks he is talking out again.

I can’t recommend this documentary more firmly, not just because of his art and his work, but because we experience him as a personality, persistent, simple, true. How rare! What a privilege to visit with him here.

 

 

 

 
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Posted in Biodoc, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

Room

07 Nov

Room directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Drama. 117 minutes. Color. 2015

★★★★

The Story: A mother and her young son live in a room; the world is also a room.

~

If you don’t know what this movie is about before you go, well then, neither did I, so I am not going to tell you now. I am going to say: see it.

The first half of the film is an extraordinary piece of movie writing and making and acting, almost entirely confined to scenes between Brie Larson the young mother of a boy Jack just turned 5.

Larson plays her part as a woman with a high morale, which is to say she does two things: she plays against her character’s circumstances, which is essential considering the circumstances, and she plays it dry-eyed. Modern actresses have the tendency to turn themselves into aquariums. This is both unprofessional, inartistic, and counter productive in high dramatic roles — indeed, in any roles.

She is met gesture for gesture by the performance of one Jacob Tremblay as the 5 year-old son. His is one of the most remarkable child performances I have ever seen in my life. The script gives him a big range and he seizes it without compunction. You must see him.

The second half of the film is less well written. It concerns the response of people, even family, who must engage with those who have come from a set of circumstances so odd that no conversational routine will breach them. People don’t know how to behave at these times. It’s understandable. There’s no language for it. But it also presents a problem for the writer, which here has not been met, and certainly not on the level of the first half.

So in part two we get B-Grade TV-writing – a digressive scene, for instance, with the press, and a finale with big fat music tying up the package with a big fat ribbon, and, of course, a dog.

This second half introduces a very interesting character played by William H. Macy, the grandfather of the boy. His prejudice against the boy should be the subject of the second half, instead of which Macy is banished, and we get a cheap and easy recovery, which, considering where we have been, is insulting.

However, the boy’s grandmother is played by Joan Allen, an actress of impeccable discretion and power. Her presence in a picture makes it always worth seeing. Watch her in her early scenes – how dumb the situation would make any human being. Not noble: dumb. A wise choice for an actress, because true.

Taking into account what I have said, consider it recommended highly. Go.

 

For Colored Girls

05 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bridge Of Spies

27 Oct

Bridge Of Spies – Directed by Steven Spielberg. DocuDrama. 141 Minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A Russian spy during the Cold war is caught, tried, found guilty, which he was, and imprisoned against the day when he might be traded for an American spy caught by the Russians, a day that soon befalls.

~

Steven Spielberg serves us up another of his Civics Lessons, which he has treated us to for the past twenty years: Schindler’s List, Amistad, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, Flags Of Our Fathers, Letter From Iwo Jima, Empire Of The Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, and now Bridge Of Spies. In each of these he gives us our money‘s worth, and if you don’t think so, you don’t know what your money is worth.

They are richly produced, earnest, valorous, and thorough. There is entertainment value in all these qualities, but the entertainment value of these pieces is not limited to these values. And Spielberg may be getting better as a filmmaker for making them. There is usually something wrong with Spielberg’s endings. But Bridge of Spies escapes this failing, barely.

If you are interested in such things, Bridge Of Spies also presents us with a lesson in variation of acting styles. Tom Hanks plays the lawyer sent to defend the spy in court and eventually to barter his exchange. It a perfect example of one actor, Hanks, playing a role, and another actor, Mark Rylance playing a character.

Hanks is a skilled and judicious actor, likeable and devotedly bourgeois. He brings to the role a notable probity, vital for the role, and rare in actors nowadays, although once evident in Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Joel Macrea, Spencer Tracy. He, like them, is droll in humor. As an actor he gives us every reassurance.

Mark Rylance, raised in America who has made his career on the British stage, is different artist entirely. His job is more acute than Hanks’. Hanks can ride the attention as the principal player, the hero. Rylance has to forge a way of making our attention to Hanks worthwhile. He does this by a series of alienation effects – dull dress, a sniffle, a tick – so that you are turned off by the character at first – in order that you may generate a change of view about him as the movie goes by. Otherwise he would be an object of merchandise, and of less value and interest to us as the exchange piece for Francis Gary Powers, our spy pilot whose plane the Russians shot down.

These two opposing styles do not conflict with or grate upon one another. Nor do they dovetail. What they do is suit the character situation which the story presents, which is that of an ordinary American working to defend the life of an odd duck. A duck so odd, indeed, that it is impossible to read him at all. Which is to the story’s advantage. For, since we know nothing of Rylance’s character, his character begs nothing either from us or from Hanks, except what is common to Hanks and us, mystification. We have zero back story for him. But, boy, does that pay off, since it declines to engage a false sentiment to root for him. Hanks allows Rylance’s character to be as he is. The probity Hanks works from is that of John Adams defending the Boston Massacre British soldiers. Every person deserves a fair trial. The entire ethical level is allowed to play out on the acting level. They are masterful actors who can play their opposing techniques together seamlessly. Every actor deserves a fair performance.

Another thing, if you are interested in acting: ask yourself the question: in the scenes with Hanks and Rylance, which one always has the upper hand? And how does that come about?

Think about it when you’ve seen Bridge of Spies, which I know you shall do. And let me know what you think.

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted in Directed by Steven Spielberg, DOCUDRAMA, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Mark Rylance, Tom Hanks

 

Everest

14 Oct

Everest ­– directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Docupic. 121 Minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: Four commercial climbing expeditions join forces for the sake of safety as they take their clients up to the highest elevation in the world.

~

Well they certainly found the perfect actor to play the lead. Jason Clarke, an Australian actor, brings to his role the requirements needed to hold the entire story together. Because there is that within him that allows you to believe that he holds the entire expedition together. It is he who has the foresight to see that five expeditions cannot embark on the same day, and gets three of them to join with his group. This actor exudes the compassion, expertise, and common sense which makes us go along with him on what is, after all, a $65,000 ticket to a thrill for the climbers.

The film takes us into the depths of the mountains, and I wonder how they ever managed to film it. I was astonished. I was held. I kept learning. I felt present on the spot.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays an expedition leaders, a rapscallion. And John Hawkes plays a climber on his last chance to make it. Josh Brolin plays a climber addicted to mountaineering. The great Icelandic actor, Ingvar Eggert Sugurösson plays a leader who never uses oxygen and who does jim-dandy without it. He alone is clean-shaven, which helps his performance, for it is often hard to tell one character from another, since all the men wear beards which cooperate with the snow and the oxygen-masks to disguise them. But you can identify the characters by their parkas. And the director makes the back-and-forth of the perils they meet as clear as can be in all that white.

The female actors are particularly strong. Keira Knightley as Clarke’s pregnant wife, Robin Wright as Brolin’s. Elizabeth Debicki as the base camp doctor holds the fort with the wonderful Emily Watson who plays the base camp manager. What a treasure she is!

I won’t tell you the story, because I did not know it myself when I saw it. But I surmised that things did not turn out well for all these people, or the film would not have been made. It’s beautifully done. The mountain itself looms above it all, deciding who will live and how and who will die and how.

The peril is threefold. Steepness. Oxygen deprivation. Cold. I am a cold person, so the last of these interested me most, in that some of the characters are clearly more comfortable with cold than others.

Of course, by cold, I do not mean nasty, narrow, cruel, prudish, or mean. Cold is a temperature of love of life and a latitude for moving through it. Hot blooded people are colorful, bold, and tempting. But the cool ones love the reserves in themselves, and the path therein to their souls and their callings. So I like snow. I like ice. I like to witness the perils inherent in them. The perseverance. The melt.

Also, I saw it in 3-D, which helps, I think. Anyhow, I recommend it, as, of course, I do the film itself.

 

Vigil In The Night

23 Jul

Vigil In The Night – produced and directed by George Stevens. Medical Drama. 96 minutes Black And White, 1940.

★★★★★

The Story: Two nurses try to escape their pasts in a cruel and dangerous profession.

~

The five important pre-War directors in American film – George Stevens, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and John Ford – all were permanently affected by it, as were the actors who went.

Robert Montgomery, Tyrone Power, James Stewart, Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, Clark Gable engaged in dangerous action in The War. Sweet Kid Galahad, Wayne Morris, flying a Hellcat off the aircraft carrier Essex, shot down 7 Japanese planes and contributed to the sinking of five Japanese ships. As did the whole nation, all came back solemnized by The War.

Before The War, George Stevens made comedies such as Swing Time, the best of the Rogers/Astaire musicals, Vivacious Lady with Jimmy Stewart, The More The Merrier with Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, Gunga Din with Cary Grant, and Woman Of The Year, the first and best of the Tracy/Hepburn comedies. During The War, George Stevens filmed Dachau. After The War he never made another comedy.

So the pre-War Vigil In The Night comes as a surprise in Stevens work. It is serious. It is an ER melodrama such as we have seen many a one on TV, set in the nursing profession, with Carole Lombard in a role of the sort she was never known for.

The highest paid actress in Hollywood at the time, she ordinarily played lamé women of a highly volatile disposition in slapstick comedy. Here she is burkad in nurses’ caps and scarves and aprons. She appears to wear no noticeable lipstick or eye makeup. Because she had a scar on her left cheek, her face has a heavy, but matte, foundation. Her blond hair is seldom visible.

The story is from a novel by A.J. Cronin, who, like Keats, Stein, Maugham, W.C. Williams, was a medical doctor, so, written from the inside, the movement of the material rings true as narrative.

If Vigil In The Night had been a masterpiece, the film would have been a masterpiece. But unlike Stevens’ A Place In the Sun and Shane, no visual or narrative power on the part of the director can budge it beyond its convention of well-ordered melodrama. Its convention is honorable and solid, of course. It is narrative-driven. But it cannot escape the many corners of its own story. This story holds the film firmly in hand, and the only escape from it is the question that arises in the viewer as to whether the leading nurse will renounce her profession of nursing for marriage to the doctor who is in love with her.

This is the sole drama for the audience. All the rest of the drama is elected to the screen, moved forward there, resolved there. In Vigil In The Night, there is nothing for us to do. In Shane and A Place In The Sun there is everything for us to do. In A Place In The Sun, the power of the film lies in the director’s ability to leave an immense part of the story literally in the dark, at a distance, over there, for our delectation and voyeurism. To Watch it, a huge amount of imagination is called for, as to watch Shane. To watch Vigil In The Night no imagination is called for. The plot suborns it all.

The astounding thing about it, this being so, is the director’s handling of the material: the almost silent-film opening with its Bela Lugosi music, the angles of the camera, the overhead shots of the operating room, the director’s movement of the cast through wards, his placement of personnel, his characteristic use of windows through which to shoot, the taciturn handling of a bus accident so that, in not quite knowing what is going on, we experience the confusion of the episode, the management of every scene to make it unobtrusively interesting and right for us, shooting the child’s rescue through the slats of the crib, his arrangement of bodies in light, his ability to tell the emotional story through stark movement. From the point of view of treatment, Vigil In The Night is a masterpiece. Otherwise, not.

He produced the film, under the fine, overall production of Pandro S. Berman at RKO with whom he had worked successfully before. And as usual, he edited the picture himself. The only blight on the film is Alfred Newman’s music, which sentimentalizes emotion by supplying sentiment already there. Stevens’ soft spot for polemic also peeks out here – a trait that was to sink him years later.

What you have at the center of all this are four main characters: Carole Lombard as the career nurse, Brian Aherne as the honest hospital physician who must fight the head of the hospital board for healthier conditions, Anne Shirley as Lombard’s sister who doesn’t belong in nursing at all, and Ethel Griffies as the hospital head matron of nursing.

In scene after scene, through imaginative shifting of points of view and position Griffies holds the story in suspense as to the question of whether Lombard and her sister Anne Shirley can escape or redeem their pasts.

Brian Aherne, the archetypical leading man, is an actor of lyrical rather than dramatic strain, which perfectly suits the sexuality of the character he plays, since he needs to not claim Lombard without her express permission. Stevens films him with his eyes lowered in one scene; unusual for a camera to dwell on an actor like that; it suits the character perfectly.

As it should and must, the film retains our engagement because of Carole Lombard.

What is it about her? There was always the sense she was a madcap amateur, with the voice pitched too high.

Not so here. Here she is entirely under wraps, and one is given latitude to respect what she does and is. Quite simply, quite obviously, she was that rare combination of an actor who was both truly beauteous and, behind that, truly appealing.

With her hair concealed, the planes of her face emerge, and they are something to behold. Large, wide-spaced eyes. Mobile mouth. High cheek bones. A long, delicate jaw-line. Slender figure. And the voice, for once, placed low. Regard the slight movement of her exquisite brow. The features are severe; what lies behind them is not.

Technically it is a part hard to do without pushing and thus betraying the virtue we are expected to credit this character to possess, which is that of self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, a capacity for grueling, dangerous work, command in emergency, nobility. None of these does Lombard “play.” We are left to supply them, and we do, willingly. Thus we root for her. She herself makes nothing of them – and makes nothing of making nothing of them, as is right, for they would be already part of her character’s nature, and she and the director knew that the muscle of the story and her movement in a scene did the job. Lombard keeps it simple.

She had chosen the part because the wanted an Oscar. She had been nominated for My Man Godfrey, but she was not nominated for Vigil In The Night at all, and you can see why: the part goes nowhere. No alteration is available to her from beginning to end; no arc. She is superb in it, but superb is all she can be. Still, she is a perfect vessel for Stevens’ direction. Had she lived, one wonders if he would have used her again, as he tended to do with actors.

Stevens tells and lets the actor tell the emotion of the story with movement alone. By this I don’t mean grimace, expression, gesticulation. What I mean is that he makes the dynamic of the scene itself move the actors, not emotionally, but physically, to tell their story. You know what they feel by where and when they walk, how closely they stand to one another. For Stevens, emotion is narration, narration is actor placement, placement dictates scenic content. Stevens was the cameraman of Laurel and Hardy, and knew that their power lay not in jokes or in what they said or in slapstick, but in the collection of drama available inside the wider context of each scene they played. It had to do with the quite careful but unforced allowing of comedy to emerge – you find this over and over in Stevens’ comedies.

You find it here. Finding it here might not be enough to lure you to see this film, but Vigil In The Night is more than a text for screen scholars or students. It is master work by a great film artist. It is a masterpiece of directorial and acting entertainment in which every resource available to render the material for us has been engaged, invented, imagined.

 

Off The Map

05 Jul

Off The Map – directed by Campbell Scott. Family Drama. 108 minutes Color 2003.

★★★★★

The Story: The difficulties of a family living on the edge at the edge are exacerbated by the arrival of a tax man from the IRS.

~

One of the great actors of my heart is here, and what puts her there and here?

Unforced excellence.

Vladimir Horowitz: forced excellence. Artur Rubenstein: unforced excellence.

Glenn Close: forced excellence. Joan Allen: unforced excellence.

Here she allies with a good script, an unusual story, fine direction, art direction, cast, costuming, filming, and the landscape of northern New Mexico, all of which she fits into with an ease that seems long-standing.

New Mexico is not part of the United States, of course, so who should enter into the world Joan Allen’s character inhabits but the IRS. That world is one she and her husband have forged in a high desert wilderness to live self-sufficiently: no phone, plumbing, electricity, money. They live from barter, cunning, and what they find at the town dump.

They live in a house of their own construction. They live clean and they do just fine.

Outwardly. But inwardly tensions hum – not because of lack of love or the want of an indoor toilet. Their 12 year daughter is itching to split. Their best friend is going to buzz off and get hitched. The father and husband languishes in a six month’s catatonic depression.

Have I told you enough to lure you? A little more may help: the best friend is played by the redoubtable J.K. Simmons, the husband by Sam Elliott, the annoying and resourceful daughter by Valentina de Angelis , and the IRS man by Jim True-Frost, to see whom is to love whom.

True-Frost plays the teacher/cop in The Wire, and it was great to see him play this major and pivotal character who treks in on foot to this remote holding. Of course, the focal character is the mother played by an actress of such genius you don’t even realize she is one.

Her simplicity of detail. Her ability to pay attention without drawing attention to the fact she is doing so. Her bearing inside her personal space, which lends conviction to operating in a way of life her character would be long accustomed to. I list no more. You can find her virtues for yourself as you watch what is, in fact, an ensemble piece.

In aid of which I have to stop here, lest I go on to praise and thus give away the unfolding and nature of this generous and unpredictable story, the aptness of the writing, the understanding of the direction by Campbell Scott, and the enchantment of New Mexico.

Find it. See it. Enjoy the dickens out of it. Let me know how you liked it.

 

Results

12 Jun

Results – directed by Andrew Bujalski. Oddball Comedy. 105 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A colliding romantic trio circles around a physical fitness gym, until two of them bump the other one off and realize the inevitable.

~

Four great actors working today give me the cue for adoration. They are Allison Janney, Lee Pace, Joan Allen, and Guy Pearce. I eagerly trace them to their latest. I am predisposed to rave them. I am prepared to sit back and allow them to prove me happy.

Guy Pearce is the most essential of these, in the sense that his presence in supporting roles always turns the key to the dynamic of the story. What he brings that no one else can bring is a conservation of energy through which the role as written can make its mark on the story for the audience. But sometimes he is give a great big dolloping leading role, and such a role we have here, and I pray you do not miss it.

He plays the completely brain-empty proprietor of a physical fitness gym. He spouts nothing but the most steadfast clichés. It is quite wonderful to hear him vocalize the human potential babble which is the vision of his firm. As an actor he never relents. He never falls back on a roll of the eyes or a pitch for empathy. He is ruthlessly the character itself.

Backed by three wonderful actors I have never heard of, we get Pearce in full force of his gift for give and take. It is an actors’ jubilee.

Cobie Smulders plays his star trainer and sometime squeeze. She is absolutely marvelous. And so is Kevin Corrigan as an orphaned nouveau riche, and Giovanni Ribisi as the slime bag lawyer. They are all backed by a fully written script with characters so fleshed out you simply never know what they are going to do or say next.

The writer staged and directed them, and while it is my usual caveat to speak against the possible success of such a pairing, here it works like gangbusters. The direction and filming and color and cutting look patchwork – but that is the basic ground of alliance for these characters. None of them fit together. As romantic couples you could not possibly suppose any of them would get along for two minutes.

But the richness is: what the hell are most married couples doing together anyhow? Can you really understand why two people are so joined? What do they possibly have in common? What keeps them together all these years?

You’ll sort it out for yourself in the coffee shop afterwards. I so enjoyed it. I wish I could be there to hear you did too.

 

The Salt Of The Earth

10 May

Salt Of The Earth – directed by Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Documentary. 110 minutes Black and White and Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: Sabastiäo Salgado, young Brazilian economist in London picks up a camera and becomes the world’s greatest photographer of indigenous peoples.

~

What an eye!.

And what an eye he gives us to see what he means us to see!

Black and white photography differs from color photography in that color photography tends to reach out to the viewer, while black and white photography asks the viewer to enter in.

So we find the world’s depths reflected over and over again in this display of the renowned photographer’s black and white work. We see him from the time he starts out through his many long travels until the present time when he is 71, man of great feeling, a big masculine presence, and an undeviating talent.

We see him and his pictures from various trips to Africa, the drought regions, the refugee cities, the genocide roads. We see his photographs of the spectacular African gold mines with their ant-like workers scrambling by the thousands up and down quarry walls. We see New Guinea males with their penis cones dancing in the sunny heights, and we see the Amazonian tribe of naked Indians with their lip spikes hunting sloths high in the jungle trees.

The work of this this man is clearly inspired by the muse of his smart and able wife, and certain expeditions, to film Siberian walruses, for instance, are shot by his grown son. But the main presence for him is the German film-maker Wim Wenders.

Wenders talks to him, and Salgado talks to us back, in full close-up. Wenders himself creates with those close-ups a black and white depth of investigation rarely to be found in film, or in any human being, for that matter.

The film’s final sequence offers a complete surprise, which I shall no further hint at. But even without it, one has the feeling of being in the company of a human who has spent a worthwhile and loving life.

 
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Posted in DIRECTED BY Wim Wenders, DOCUMENTARY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

An Honest Liar

03 Apr

An Honest Liar – directed by Justin Weinstein & Tyler Measom. Documentary. 93 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A magician and escape artist campaigns against phony spiritualists and gives us his long life, 86 years, with many surprises, twists, tricks, and teases.

~

A second documentary about a vibrant man in his 9th decade graces our current attention.

See them both. See Seymour An Introduction, the story of the great piano teacher Seymour Bernstein, and catch this one too.

James Randi is a dynamite man, full of virility and wit and drive. He runs away from his Canadian home as a kid and joins the circus. And before long he starts to master Houdini’s escape feats, surpassing them in many instances. Over the years it gets filmed. But at 50 he decides to retire, for he nearly drowns – not dangling over Niagara Falls in a straightjacket, which we also see him do – but in another straightjacket in a tank which failed. He is similar to Seymour Bernstein in this who also retired from the performing stage at age 50, from wounds to his soul and his body.

At which time he sets to expose charlatan faith healers and spiritualists. And we see all this on camera recorded over the years. Many times a guest on Johnny Carson where he entertained mightily, and a frequent foe of Uri Geller, whose methods he exposed, Randi develops a salty, savvy style which he retains to our delight right now.

Two big surprises await you as the documentary closes, and you will be moved and gratified as they emerge.

I felt enlivened by this remarkable man, so volatile, so pungent, so entertaining. So honest.

 

 
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Posted in DOCUMENTARY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

Seymour: An Introduction

02 Apr

Seymour: An Introduction – directed by Ethan Hawke. Documentary. 84 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: Hawke memoirs the life and work of the great classical piano teacher Seymour Bernstein, 87.

~

What do we have here but a visit with a fountain!

He sits and talks with his friends, his students, his director. He plays – and plays divinely – in the great romantic repertoire – in which he concertized successfully until he was 54. Giving up the concert stage once he had passed beyond his fear of it and his dislike of its commercial restrictions, he turned to a long life of teaching. So what?

So his students love him, and we love him too, as he takes the details of half-keying the the approach to a Beethoven sonata or the minutiae of the first chords of the Rachmaninoff 2nd and opens them up to the young ones about to play them in public.

His approach to music is as his approach to life, generous, telling, devoted. He envies no one. He honors the honorable. If music is a divinity, we must hear it from someone like him. What is in his eyes is so simple, so loving. As we see him in master classes elucidating the mantra beat of a Mozart piece and suggesting when to let go the emphasis on a repeat.

When to let go of the emphasis.

So life goes too. What applies to the left hand resounds in the right. And we have a sense of a life unified, no longer compartmentalized, but rich, talented. and fun.

He is happy to think he helped get Clifford Curzon knighted, and we are treated to a delicious recital of Curzon, who was his teacher. And we are also treated to a run-down of the playing of that nut-case Glenn Gould whose eccentricities were more interesting than his Bach.

What we get here is a kindliness crowning a great art. What we get is an earned wisdom, which it is our privilege to sit at the feet of. To hear him go through the pianos in Steinway Hall to find the right one – well, did you ever think you would find yourself this close to a master? And just hear what he says about it. Just hear what he says about pianos.

And, finally, just hear him play the final movement of the Schumann Op 17. Playing it, and explaining it, and playing it.

So, my dears, don’t hold back. Betake yourself to Seymour. He’ll be glad you introduced yourself to him. And so will you.

 
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Posted in DOCUMENTARY, Ethan Hawke, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

Nightcrawler

23 Mar

Nightcrawler – written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Crime Satire. 117 minutes Color 2014

★★★★★

The Story: A petty thief steals his way into The Profession Of Paparazzi Of Gore.

~

The two best male performances I saw for 2014, and in perhaps the two best films, were Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler and Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler.

For once the writer of the screenplay has not botched the direction of the picture by forgetting to leave all that stuff out or by not having listened to someone who cast a cold eye beforehand, as Zanuck used to do. For the screenplay is masterful. And the direction is masterful. And the music is particularly masterful. And the casting is masterful. And the filming is masterful. And the playing is masterful.

Why would you possibly deprive yourself of this? Is it because it deals with ambulance-chasing video-vampires who sell their spectacular footage to the TV stations every night? Is it because it is a satire with no laughs? An exposé of how we drool over roadside kill and the crimson-dripping misfortunes of others? How the front pages fix their starshine on murder, misery, rape, crime, and sexual exploitation? If it bleeds it leads.

This is the motto of the studio head played by Rene Russo, so well cast by the director, who happens to be her husband. It is good to see Miss Russo back in business on the blockbuster screen. She plays this well-written part with all the humor, reserve, and savvy in the world. Boy, is she good!

The movie is, however, entirely the province of Jake Gyllenhaal who plays the smarmy but effective video-cameraman. He has lost 20 pounds to play the part of a sort of Zen master juggernaut of the night. Lithe, quick, unreadable, he has made of this character a stern robot, mouthing maxims from career manuals and community college TV management courses. He never speaks ordinary English. He is always a quote. It is an astonishing tour de force for an actor, for even when he breaks out of this humorless, manipulative mummery, he is, behind it, nothing less than insane. This we know.

So the suspense is: what will become of this nut? Will his sidekick, well played by Riz Ahmed, get shafted? Yes, but how? Will Russo outlast our Jake?

Gyllenhaal’s face is sculpted to a skin and a bone. With a little queue on his head, he is an ascetic of slime. If he is not human, it is not because he is insane, not because he is relentless, but because he is without fear. It is an emotion unknown to him, and his being without it gives us ourselves in our ghoulish eye which would gaze on death without horror. As though we were training ourselves for a genocide. A sweet immolation of everything and everyone. An eager 42-caliber finale served up as a free sample at any supermarket you go to at all.

Worth seeing, my dears.

 
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Posted in CRIME DRAMA, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Jake Gyllenhaal, René Russo, SATIRE

 

The Wire

19 Mar

The Wire – various directors. TV Series. Color.

★★★★★

The Story: A Baltimore cop moves through the worlds of the waterfront, public schools, newspaper publishing, and politics to bring a drug cartel to justice

~

Well, now I’ve seen it all.

And so I must bid a fond farewell to certain characters. I say “to certain characters,” rather than to the story itself, for I found the characters more taking than the stories abounding.

The seasons are five. One story deals with the lives of stevedores on the waterfront. A second with the public schools. A third with the world of politicians. A fourth with that of newspapers. Laced through these are stories of the drug business on one hand and on the other stories of the police who seeks to dismember them.

All of this set in the city of Baltimore and shot there.

The star of the series Dominic West, an English actor in perfect voice for an Irish- American cop, I liked very much. He’s good looking, sexy, interesting, and a darn good actor. His Jimmy McNulty has a rapscallion-eye, and the daring to inaugurate rash plans, but we learn he does not really possess the imagination to execute them. A flaw.

For this he needs the doll-house-furniture-maker cop Lester Freamon, played by the inestimable Clarke Peters, also English, whom we shall see again in the producers’ Treme, as chief of the New Orleans Indians. He’s an actor who has to function around machines yielding delicate information – he it is who runs the wire taps – and it is a credit to his skill that you believe everything he does in relations to them. He brings the undramatic alive.

Deidre Lovejoy is the great looking DA who outsmarts the politicians, the judges, the police, and she is always a welcome sight in the doings. Frankie Faison also reappears in Treme in a similar role of a corrupt functionary, and he is just wonderful in this sort of part. Also in Treme, Wendell Pearce, with his easy searching eye, is a comfort to civilization as Bunk Moreland, McNulty’s chum.

As drug lords we have the perilously handsome Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, the brains fronting The Barksdale drug consortium. He is sorely missed when he leaves the story, as are J.D. Williams as Bodie, who leads the street hawkers. I began by disliking him and ended by rooting for him. As, at the last moment, I rooted for the incomprehensible Felicia Pearson playing the gender-unidentifiable Felicia “Snoop” Pearson. Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, the ex-policeman now high school teacher played by Jim True-Frost, grows on one too. Proposition Joe, the local drug connection with the waterfront smuggler, The Greek, I also much miss. How could one forget him. He is played brilliantly by Robert F. Chew. Michael Kostroff is super as the drug lord’s lawyer, Levy. And we have Aiden Gillen as the newly elected mayor of Baltimore an actor perfectly suited one day to play that other unworthy worthy, George W. Bush.

One hopes to see these actors again and often.

But the three characters I’ll miss most are Bubbles, the shopping cart salesman hop-head, played with wide-eyed wonder by Andre Royo. What a wonderful actor. How fascinating he becomes! How real!

It is he I will miss most, along with Michael K. Williams as Omar Little, the efficient, highly ethical sawed-off-shotgun-toting robber of the druggers.

And the boy who protects his three brothers as best he can from the fates awaiting them.

For the most part the main story lodges in front of the background of a U.S. Senator’s overthrow and the entrapment of the drug kingpins. This main story is the feud between Omar and a newcomer to the Boston Drug field, one Marlo Stanfield whose icy eyes execute everyone around him who blinks the wrong way. His presence directs the style of seasons four and five. To watch Jaimie Hector act him is fascinating because of his perpetual petrifaction. He shall not be moved. His two eyes are beautiful and not quite even, which gives him a gaze of incalculable power.

These actors, in parts a little more well-written than the stories which house them, hold my attention, curiosity, and care. This is why I watch their stories to their outcomes so loyally. A series like this affords us full immersion. And here, as later in New Orleans’ Treme, the city of Baltimore allow us to visit and explore streets and scenes and persons we would know nothing of, perhaps even if we lived there.

Many interesting conclusions are to be drawn, many significant inferences. For all these worlds are worlds of double-conscience. And none of these worlds are familiar to me in any way whatsoever. If they are veracious, and I sense they are, it is a view of America harsh, but worth all the entertainment the series affords.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

15 Mar

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — directed by John Madden. Screwball Comedy. 82 minutes Color 2015

★★★★★

The Story: The lively young owner of a hotel in India wants to expand his operation and get married at the same time and also continue to adore and serve and praise his elderly clientele and also….

~

What are doing sitting here reading this! You should jump up at once and grab your family and friends or just yourself and go see this inspiriting comedy of mismanagement.

It is fueled by the effervescent and insatiably charming Dev Patel, who performed the same services for us at the First Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a season or so back. He gambols through the piece like a gazelle. What an actor! What a silver-footed turn-on-a-dime comedian! What a sunburst of delight! I’m going to see it again.

So to save myself time in order to rush to do that, and to save you time too, I shall shorten this review by saying only that, like the first, the second film is a tonic!

Patel operates in the foreground of the fidelities, infidelities, careers, and Brittle British exchanges of a witty script fortified by the playing of Maggie Smith as a lower caste Scottish accountant, Bill Nighy as a duffer of frail memory who must fill his purse with lectures of tourist sites whose details escape him, Judi Dench who adores him from afar and then nearer and nearer, Diana Hardcastle as the bewitching straying wife of Ronald Pickup.

Celia Imre is the lascivious lady wooed by two maharajas, David Strathairn is the deciding executive of the deal, Tina Desai is the delicious almost forgotten bride-to-be, Shazad Larif is the stiff competition. Richard Gere, with his low class accent and high class wardrobe, is the dupe who dupes the dopes.

It all ends as comedy always should with a wedding and a dance.

All this in the flaming color of India!

Hasten my dears. You can’t do better for a comedy just now.

And when you come back, tell me you adore me!

 

The Duff

13 Mar

The Duff – directed by Ari Sandel. Comedy. 101 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: The cutest boy in high school tutors the most unlikely girl to stop being a Designated Ugly Fat Friend.

~

Wow! It’s good to see people new to me up there, so skilled and entertaining and likable.

Mae Whiteman is the Designated Ugly Fat Friend of two dream-chicks in high school. Robbie Amell plays her dream-boat boy-next-door pal who tutors her to be a glamorpuss, Ken Jeong is uproarious as the faculty adviser on the school paper. And we have the incomparable Allison Janney as the jilted mother who finds Her True Calling.

I sat back and loved this comedy. Yes, it has to do with teenagers. But, oh yes, it is brilliantly played by these actors. So funny. So quick. So smart in their craft. So willing to entertain.

You know by now that I love the comedies of The Golden Age. They still entertain 60 years later – some of them – and, while it is as true that The Duff is played with the humor of the age we live in just as the comedies of The Golden Age Of Film were played in the humor of that time and world-set, so The Duff too will amuse our human understanding and settle our desire for entertainment 60 years hence too, I do suspect.

I went to see it for Allison Janney, of course. I cannot do without her. She is necessary to me as fresh water. And no more than fresh water does she disappoint.

For Allison Janney is the champagne of fresh water!

 

 

Cake

09 Feb

 

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wonderfully directed.

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

 

Mortdecai

04 Feb

Mortdecai – directed by David Keopp. Action/Farce. 107 minutes Color 2015

★★★★★

The Story: A highborn British scoundrel and his delicious wife deploy their expertise in pirating a stolen Goya.

~

Oh, oh, oh. Go, go, go!

For I shall go three times myself. For – oh, my dears – it is the funniest film you have ever seen or listened to. At least this year. At least don’t bother hoping for anything better. At least this year. Unless they make a sequel. At least this year.

The screenplay is witty beyond measure. The language positively rejoices one! If you want dandy lines, don’t despair, come here! If you want your attention alerted, don’t weep for sorrow, let your brains be restored! Here lies succor. If you want to experience the full range of comedy, high, medium, and low in one costly banquet, pray step this way.

If you enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, and thought you would never meet its match again, well you were wrong! For this director knows, as Anderson knows, and I have no telling how they both doth know, how to fashion fine film farce. The speed of it! The connivance with the audience of it! The exploding of disbelief of it! The snippety snap of the editing of it! Where are you going to go for such fine fare save to this Dorchester of comedies, Mortdecai!

Now you may have lost faith in Johnny Depp by now. I know I had. I had never thought to see him do a piece of good work again. But – a-ha! – not so. For here he is in full actor fig! From the moment he wiggles that calamitous moustache I am rising from the floor from laughter to witness the next twitch.

This nasal vestment is the principal plot factor between himself and his much smarter wife, played by – oh, pray before you say those words – that church of charm, Gwyneth Paltrow. She is gorgeous, self-possessed, full of heart, and she loves our Johnny madly but not too well – for she cannot endure or overlook the moustache.

Which sits on his chops like a venomous beast from the bottom of the sea. Their escapades together and separate have to do with some masterpiece or other, for they are in the stolen-art-game. Gwyneth is there to outflank him and save the whole day, while Johnny is there to get into trouble with Those Of Overweening Greed, such as Jeff Goldblum and his nymphomaniacal daughter who want the Goya for themselves and who are willing to do mortal harm to our Johnny.

Fortunately our Johnny is a pusillanimous ninny (pusillanimous is a word which is applied never to low-born, only to high-born cowards), soooo, he is likely to oft come near mortal harm, but bound to be saved from it by his body-guard played by Paul Bettany. They are the Jeeves and Bertie of action/adventure comedy. Paul has so many notches on his belt, women tear off his britches on sight.

We have before us Depp’s best work since Jack Sparrow, and just as funny, original, and rash. Depp dares the camera to miss a single detail. The lowering of an eyelid. The raising of an eyelid. The lowering of an eyelid.

He has made a rare caricature of this plummy Englishman, a first drawing of a type now given the breath of its first public spanking, yet recognizable to us from all we dared not say or think.

The trick in it is to arrange a parity between this cartoon and Paltrow, who is not a cartoon. How do Depp and Paltrow go about – from such disparate technical poles – making the love story hold? It’s mainly Paltrow’s job, and while I don’t know how she does it, the movie does depend on her in the matter.

Oh, my dears, my darlings, my beloveds, do go and delight yourselves. What more can I tell you? What more pipe you to it? Don’t wait for Johnny and Gwyneth. Lace up your boots! Be quick! Be nimble! Be beguiled!

 

The Normal Heart

24 Jan

The Normal Heart – directed by Ryan Murphy. Docudrama. 133 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: AIDS comes to the notice of a group of young men and a female physician, who gather together to do something about it.

~

The Normal Heart and Selma resemble one another in showing us the backstage drama of two adamant men who fought for equality in America. Larry Kramer fought for public recognition of the AIDS plague, which was sidelined by indifferent politicians as trivial. Martin Luther King Junior fought for voting rights for those whose right to it had been sidelined by indifferent politicians as trivial. See them both, why don’t you? You’ll get a bracing dose of contemporary history.

To cast the disagreeable, in-your-face screamer Larry Kramer one would have thought of a young George C. Scott or Al Pacino. One would not have thought of the panda Mark Ruffalo. He is so agreeable. So malleable. So soft. But there he is firing with all canons.

And Kramer’s methods alienate those near to him in the cause, both because he is obnoxious and because they believe his methodical throwing of vitriol in his adversaries’ faces will dampen the cause of recognition and action on the part of the government and the press. He is perhaps more incensed by the dismissal of homosexual humans than of sick humans, I’m not sure.

It’s a story whose tension hangs between, on the one hand, the character of his brother, who acknowledges the Kramer character as almost, but not quite human for his homosexuality and on the other hand the human loves dragged to an early and ignominious grave by a disease which was deemed unimportant because it was seen as exclusively and merely gay. The crossing over of this brother, beautifully and memorably played by Alfred Molina, to the love common to all is the resolution of all the barriers, public and private, which we see marked out before us, as AIDS is demonized, misunderstood, and dismissed, as it crawls to a place at the table.

Julia Roberts is excellent as the first clinician to take note of and treat the disease and to report its symptoms and recurrence. I particularly liked Jim Parsons as the office manager who makes the revolution practical. The nervous breakdown risked by all who did the work is beautifully performed by Stephen Spinella.

Larry Kramer’s was a voice crying in the wilderness of his own side. Martin Luther King Junior was the same. Proactive both, their methods were different, and neither cause would have prevailed using the other’s means. Their greatest enemies lay within their own camps. King orated, Kramer ranted. Kramer made a huge unpleasantness. He is one of the vile heroes, like Oedipus – people of extremely unpleasant character who nonetheless lay down their lives to move the human race forward one step, and do so. We – and by “we” I mean the world – are all in his debt.

 
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Posted in Alfred Molina, Gay, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo

 

Selma

09 Jan

Selma directed by Ava DuVernay. Biopic. 128 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: Martin Luther King Junior and his colleagues invent the negro voting rights movement in Alabama.

~

We all have to see it, because it comes as close to the story as a still picture. No flickering television newscast of those days captured the immediacy of what my fellow Americans inflicted on one another and endured in the battle over the constitutional right to vote. But this picture is allowed to show and to linger on these matters. Down the cheeks of the black protesters now we see blood flow. They nearly died of what was done to them. And some of them did die. “They”? They are us. We did it to ourselves. How could we have!

The film also takes us inside the backrooms and kitchens of the movement as great ideals are strategized with ordinary decisions. The empty egg cartons are on the shelf. Someone has to make the marchers sandwiches. These folks lived in plain houses, Martin Luther King Junior among them. The inside story is not grandiose, but real and strained and ambiguous. The film makes us privy to it.

For there are marital difficulties. And there are rival civil rights groups. And there are incendiary personalities, Governor Wallace and President Johnson, for two. These require big scenes in small confines. The parish houses of churches. The interior of a Chevy. The double decker bunks of a children’s room. And they also require the expanses of the White House offices, the spectacle of capital buildings, and the steel structure of a big bridge. The vision and the get-down detailed enactment of the vision.

David Oyelowo plays King, and I believed him every inch of the way. King in real life and at the time was not someone I was drawn to, but up close, as in this film Oyelowo brings him to me, I honor King now. And I honor the actor who plays him, as I do all the others, and the treatment of the material by the writer and director.

For this is one of the great American stories told greatly. It is story that still goes on, and it is well that we face its contents still. The campaign for American human rights for all is far from done. This film is a serious and useful piece of it. Bring yourself to it.

 

 
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Posted in HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

The Gambler

03 Jan

The Gambler – directed by Rupert Wyatt. Suspense Drama. 111 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: A man gets in over his head and owes a fortune to three men who mean mortal business.

~

Mark Wahlberg is a wonderful actor.

What does that mean? It means that I look upon him and wonder. I contemplate his visage, his emotion or his emotion held in check or his delivery or what his mouth is or what his eyes are, and I wonder.

What does this mean to me? It means that both of us are in exactly the right places, I in the audience doing what I am supposed to be doing and he is up on the screen doing likewise.

Various things fall in his favor as an actor. First, he seems to have learned on the job, a good way to come into the craft. Second, his essence is working-class, which in this role would seem out of place, for he plays a college English professor and the son of a millionairess bank owner – yet his presence as such is without contradiction because he has conceived the role as beyond circumstance. Irony is the razor edge of death. Third, his male energy does not prevaricate. It stands there giving him, along with his medium-height and tone, the common touch. And finally he knows how to be before a camera such that both the camera and the audience can participate being there with him.

I felt he should have had the Oscar for The Departed. I felt he should have had the Oscar for The Fighter, but the withdrawn character he played was neoned-out by the electricity of Leo and Bale. He’s a first class screen actor. Will someone please hand one to him?

The picture is beautifully directed in terms of narrative intrigue. The director allows every actor forward into their talent. Jessica Lange, always a touchy actor, holds herself in strict check to play Wahlberg’s mother. John Goodman is filmed half naked, which grants us the power of his mass and the mass of his intelligence. Brie Larson holds us as the student taken with Wahlberg. Michael Kenneth Williams makes great book as the black money-lender. Alvin Ing is the still point of a knife in the role of a Korean gambling king. Richard Schiff plays a tip-top scene as a porn broker.

Every scene counts. Every scene is delicious to look at and never distracts with that fact. The music is mad and neat. It is perfectly cast. It is elegantly written. Grieg Fraser has filmed every scene color-right, and the unusual frequent use of closeups brings us into the situation every time. Production design, art direction, costumes, editing – all are unexceptionable.

The Gambler is the best movie I have seen all year.

Oh, this is the second of January, isn’t it! Well, you know what I mean. Take a gamble. See it.

 

Synechdoche, New York

21 Nov

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

The Oyster Princess

21 Oct

The Oyster Princess and I Don’t Want To Be A Man — written and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Comedy. Silent Black And White 1919/1920.

★★★★★

The Stories: A petulant rich girl defies custom and finds a mate.

~

The Lubitsch Touch is the external expression of the sense internal in what he does that sex and marriage and love are random, arbitrary, and capricious. That they are not so much a form of love as a form of greed, and as such somewhat ludicrous. Indeed, they are not even sexually oriented, for here we have the short film I Don’t Want To Be A Man in which the heroine, to have a good time, dresses up as a male and goes out on the town, where she meets her guardian, who kisses her rapturously and repeatedly as a male. Of course, he is tipsy, but that only means that liquor is a permissive for what is more easily inherent. When the truth is out, they kiss again as girl and boy, and she marries him without a qualm. “Without a qualm” is the secret. The fixed masculinity of certain males is the determined safeguard against what inwardly all males know: that the sexual machinery has no particular gender necessarily in mind. It just wants sex. It just wants an outlet.

All of this is a great tonic. It helps. The Lubitsch touch is a touch on the body that, as we watch, the body recognizes without being actually touched at all. The touch is freeing. And sex is light, fun, and forgivable. Indeed it is never to be blamed to begin with.

The Oyster Princess was one of Lubitsch’s big hits, and rightly so. It involves a spoiled brat rich girl who smashes everything in the house because she is not married. This is played by the same actress of I Don’t Want To Be A Man, a role which would be brought to perfection in time by Carole Lombard, indeed finally in Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be. To say the present actress is a little crude would be an exaggeration, for she is very crude, so she’s a bit hard to take. Things don’t really smile up until the impoverished prince and his adjutant appear in the picture. Then we see Lubitsch seize the screen. He enjoys the two-dimensional symmetry of silents, and the joy of preposterous excess, which sex promises and sometimes delivers. I keep wanting him to make comic use of all those spectacular stairs, but he goes from crazy balls to insane banquets to ridiculous drunk scenes, instead. How does he do it? Easily.

How does he let off all those drunks with a light sentence? Watch him park them.

How does he let off this idiot adjutant? Watch him let him slip the knot.

How does he deal with that massive father? You’ll be impressed.

Anyhow, the comedy of silent films is the most fundamental human comedy, because it is based on the music of the human body admitting everything, including the mute effect of speech on our depth of grasp. And we do have the inter-titles, for sometimes the human body needs to be spoken to to know the truth. And accompanying us in this romp, a jolly musical score on the piano right in our livingroom.

 

 

Marketa Lazarova

18 Oct

Marketa Lazarova – directed by Frantisek Vlácil. Historical Drama. 162 minutes Black And White 1967.

★★★★★

The Story: Clans feud in the dark ages in Czechoslovakia.

~

What does the word “great” mean?

What does it mean when it means nothing less than the most it can mean?

Let’s put it this way: this film is on the order of Beethoven’s 9th.  King Lear.

It is on the level of the best films of Tarkovsky, Rossellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Mizogichi, Satyajit Ray.

I don’t think I need to go on any further about it.

Great is the comprehending of that which is beyond comprehension.

I like that kind of thing.

The sublime. The profound.

The Grand Canyon.

Marketa Lazarova.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seven Chances, The Balloonatic, Neighbors

12 Oct

Seven Chances, The Balloonatic, Neighbors – directed by Buster Keaton. Color and Black And White, 1920 and before.

★★★★★

The Story: A young man will inherit seven million dollars if he gets married by 7 that day.

~

Do you want to owe a debt of gratitude? Do you want to thank God on your deathbed that you used your time well, in one respect at least? Do you want to be the happiest you’ve ever been at a movie?

Buster Keaton is Circle du Soleil all rolled up into one. He was, he remains, the greatest humorist ever to appear in motion pictures. He is the paramount physical comedian to have appeared before the public. He is the muscularly strongest person ever to have acted before cameras.

You will see feats that will astonish you. You will not be able to believe your eyes. You will certainly not believe that one person could do all this without stand-ins, stunt men, or special effects. You will laugh yourself sane.

Keaton understood the wit inherent in the two-dimensionality of film, how what comes on from the left goes off from the right, and in between these two events takes place farce. The going, the action, the leaving constitute farce. The thousand deaths of farce are hilarious. For the flatness is death. And it deserves and wins our triumphant laughter at his triumphs.

We face the flat surface of the screen. This is a comedy which is funny because it reflects that part of life which is without dimension. This is comedy without depth. That is its depth. You do not reach into it. It reaches out at you at all times. If you want depth, wait, at some point or other you will see into Buster Keaton’s eyes.

Here he must run around and find a bride before dark. He asks seven. Then seven hundred ask him. What more does one need to tell of such a merriment?

Attached to this full length film are two two-reelers, The Balloonatic in which he goes up on the top of one. And Neighbors all shot on two sides of a tenement backyard fence that splits the screen.

And who will benefit from your watching these gems? Your entire family will. You will. You will be happy and you will die happy for having been so. And I?

It is to me you will owe the debt of gratitude, along with Buster Keaton, for having participated in your dying of laughter.

 

Osaka Elegy

06 Oct

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

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

~

Two things.

Mizoguchi demonstrates:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Sweet Charity

15 Sep

Sweet Charity — choreographed and directed by Bob Fosse. Musical. 147 minutes Color 1969.

★★★★★

The Story: A good-time but naïve dime-a-dance girl hopes for a better life and falls into many comic and confusing situations.

~

Shirley MacLaine is not an actor I much like, and so I keep waiting for her make a misstep here, and then I stop waiting, because she is really remarkable as this cockeyed optimist girl who continually finds herself outclassed by the men she stumbles onto.

To perform it the actress might play off of her own innocence as Giulietta Masina did in the part which was written for her, in her husband Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and play it as a charming, ingrown, shy, child, which worked real well for Masina.

Or what Gwen Verdon did which was to play it with Broadway-patented false naiveté, which would have been workman-like and freed her for the dance marathon her husband Bob Fosse created for her in the part.

Or the actor would play her as a raving extrovert, dancing down the street with glee, and speaking her mind as she sees it wherever she lands. This it seems to me is by far the more dangerous of the two possible approaches. And MacLaine negotiates its perils easily.

She was at that stage in her work that she understood something about screen acting which she has since forgotten or dismissed, which is the virtue of being unforced. So everything that comes out of her mouth, onto her face, and off of her body registers as honest, sudden, unpredicted. Whatever she does is right, and often unexpectedly funny.

MacLaine was never a musical vocalist; one doesn’t go to her for that. But she more than sells the songs on the surfboard of her enthusiasm, projection, and physical investment. As a dancer, she is right up there with the phenomenal Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly.

The result of all of this is that she is highly entertaining throughout. And since the work is focused on her solely, since she is in every scene, both our eye and the camera are justified by being on her every minute.

Except for “Big Spender” Cy Coleman’s score lacks lyrical interest, but Dorothy Field’s lyrics supply the deficiency. Neil Simon’s book is drawn out unduly, and the choreographic showcase, which it is, extends the film even into the realm of a parody of New Age spirituality, with Sammy Davis Junior miscast as a guru and inadequately used even then. It’s cluttered and advances the story not an inch.

Nonetheless, Fosse is a master of sleazy choreography. And his directorial manner is striking. The film sustains itself with MacLaine, Fosse, and most important with Robert Surtees who filmed it so magnificently he proved that nothing can date a masterpiece.

 

I Know Where I’m Going

12 Sep

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

★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Most Wanted Man

10 Aug

A Most Wanted Man – directed by Anton Corbjin. Spy Thriller. 122 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: Working against the clock, a team of rogue spies attempt to corner a terrorist funding operation.

~

Why do we think of Philip Seymour Hoffman as a great actor?

What is the source of our satisfaction with him?

What does he bring to us that other actors cannot or do not wish to bring? And why do we not care to ask him to bring what other actors bring?

Why do we sit back and wonder at him?

One thing he brings is extremes we would not wish to show to anyone.

By extremes I mean a extremes on either side of the human psychological and emotional range. In this case, a dull doggedness and on the other hand a scathing rage.

And another thing that he brings is a separate person up there.

For surely as I sit back and look at his customary unruly beauty, I see a German functionary working his task of high level espionage. I have seen Hoffman before looking just like that, but now and once again playing a character I recognize as never seen before.

There is an actual person up there on the screen.

There are very few actors in the world who can do that.

Certain criticisms about the story of this film have been made. Before I talk about them, let me say that it is brilliantly filmed, directed, and acted. On the one side, we have extreme actors Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright and on the other a cast of international actors of the first water. The difficulty lies in the story not making clear that Hoffman is an obsessive. Obsessives differ in that they have no outcome in mind. Obsessives just want to complete the cycle of the obsession.The one thing we know about Hitler is that he had no purpose beyond the next obsessive act. So if Hoffman’s character is an obsessive, that is to say a pure executant, we need to know it all along and every other important character needs to discover it to us in scenes. I haven’t read the John Le Carré novel; I don’t know if the scenes are there. But here, while the tension is keenly entertaining, there is a defect to us in the writing of a film otherwise superb.

In the tracts of Zeami (1363-14440), the Shakespeare of the Noh theatre, he writes, “If the actor sees old men walking hobbled by ague, with bent knees, bent back, and shrunken frames, and he simply imitates these characteristics, he may achieve an appearance of decrepitude, but it will be at the expense of the ‘flower.’ And if the ‘flower’ be lacking, there will be no beauty in the impersonation. The ‘flower’ consists in forcing upon an audience an emotion which they do not expect.”

Over and over again, Philip Seymour Hoffman has brought forth for us those ‘flowers’. Honor him.

Here he is finally, after all. This will be the last chance to see him up there before you on the big screen. It is a place where he belonged. He’s big like a Rubens is big. Witness him there. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Grand Canyon is one street over. Quit dawdling. Get off your barstool and go.

 

Calamity Jane

05 Jul

Calamity Jane – directed by David Butler. Musical Western. 97 minutes Color 1953.

★★★★★

The Story: A wild and wooly hoyden from Deadwood, Dakota, plays superwoman to Wild Bill Hickock.

~
If ever a performer and role collided triumphantly it is Doris Day and Calamity Jane.

Here we have her notorious pep, deleted of her starchy virtue, and elevated to a jig on a bar.

Day began as a dancer, and she is a good one, and the choreography designed for her is perfect. She is game, athletic, and lithe. She can be tossed around like a kite. She is vigorous and full of fun. She hasn’t a vain bone in her body nor one that isn’t limber.

Day was an amateur with the uncanny ability to throw herself into a scene like there was no tomorrow. This means that the selection of her resources is narrow, since it consists only what full emersion offers to one in danger of drowning. Which is to say, tension or thrashing about. But not here. Here all this works for her. The foolish tomboy turns out to be just her speed, in a velocity generally reserved for Betty Hutton.

She opens her mouth and sings with a natural brass in her vocal chords that has big carrying power, and a catch of emotion she probably can’t help, but which would be better supplied by the listener than the singer. She has perfect diction at full volume, and it seems her displayed singing technique has no borders. She is different from many pop singers in being able to negotiate comic songs – different from Sinatra who was not good in musicals because he crooned, which means that he sings legato, everything is slowed down, and so comic songs, of which musicals mainly are constituted, fail with his voice around them.

Day is right on top of those comic songs, and every single song in Calamity Jane is one, but one. “A Woman’s Touch,” is an example of her ready attack on a song – this a duet with Allyn McLerie – but “Just Got In From The Windy City,” and “Whip-Crack-Away,” she sings with zest and a joy that is real. Calamity Jane came out when I was a soldier on the front in Korea, and “Secret Love,” played over and over, had a painful meaning for me, quite separate from the movie, the meaning being a declaration of something that could not be declared. Her version, her way with it, is to declare it. Wow.

Howard Keel, opposite her, is relaxed, confident, humorous about himself. He has a big baritone, and he means what he sings. Tall, dark, and handsome, Howard Keel fit perfectly opposite every single leading lady he ever played with: Betty Hutton, Kathryn Grayson, Jane Powell, Doris Day, for some.

For the sheer entertainment of two performers ideally suited to doing what they are doing, with one of the best lyricist/composer combos ever to make songs together, Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Fain, you’ll see there isn’t a single missed beat or one too many.

I saw it when it came out. It’s better than it was before.

 

The Two Of Us

18 Jun

The Two Of Us – directed by Claude Berri. Family Film. 87 minutes Black And White 1967.

★★★★★

The Story: In occupied Paris, a little Jewish boy endangers his family’s safety by his antics and must be farmed out to a rural family whose grandfather is virulently anti-semetic.

~

It’s hard to say anything more about this enchanting film. One doesn’t want to give away any of the events, for to preview any one of them would be to spoil the surprise of it.

One can say that the great Michel Simon, that beautiful actor and beautiful human and beautiful man won well deserved awards for this performance. It’s a flower in his buttonhole.

And the youngster is a grand master of impishness and cleverness. If you don’t love him, you don’t love anything, and you must stand in the corner until you do.

I would love to tell you how he was discovered, but that is the right of the director, who narrates it in the Extra Features. It is Berri’s first feature, and a little masterpiece.

I call it a family film, because it is about a family. Indeed it is about the real meaning of the word “family,” and let me know if you don’t think so.

It illustrates the truth of art that the cutting of a gem is entirely dependent on what is left out.

Enjoy yourself. See it in company. It’ll make a family of the whole bunch of you.

 

 

 

Springtime In The Rockies

04 Jun

Springtime In The Rockies – directed by Irving Cummings. Backstage Musical. 91 minutes Color 1942.

★★★★★

The Story: A Broadway star flees from the unsteady attentions of her fiancé and dances off with a cad to perform at Canada’s Lake Louise, which is somehow invaded by Brazil.

~

There are sixteen reasons for the focus on the Latin American market in this musical. The first one is the wartime need to confirm South-Of-The-Border friendly relations in order to keep the Axis out of the Western Hemisphere. The other fifteen are that island of repose, Carmen Miranda.

For here she is friends, in all her comic electricity, her big heart, her fanatical hands, her inexplicable and perfect enunciation, and her hips. She appears before us at all times on heels which are stacked as tall as she. She delivers her good natured malapropisms with zest and shrewdness and conviction. She brings every scene she is in to life, and she would exhaust us if she were in any more of them.

We also have Betty Grable at her best, and this is one of Grable’s best musicals. As usual she is better in her early scenes because the writing and direction is fresh, and because she was left to her own devices. But she is one of the most outgoing of performers – the most widely skilled of all the female musical stars of her era – generous and loads of fun.

As a dancer she is a power in a body. She moves with miles of technique around her. She dances with John Payne in a thunderstorm and is brilliantly inventive and right. In the finale, she appears with him in the most beautiful dance costume she ever wore – bare shoulders and turquoise sequins from her bust to her hips, then half fringed to her thighs and fully fringed to her calves. Take your eyes from her if you can.

She is essentially a comedy dancer. Cyd Charisse was one too, but Grable is quite different, so that, unlike the poker-faced Charisse, you cannot take Grable seriously in a solemn tango with Cesar Romero which Hermes Pan has choreographed for her in a misguided attempt to imagine she has the port de bras of Ginger Rogers.

Charlotte Greenwood does her usual high kick number she – which she has done in many musicals and whose merits I have never understood. Jackie Gleason has moments of his characteristic authority as the agent. Harry James, who married Grable, is mercifully whisked off stage when he is not playing the trumpet. And Edward Everett Horton plays the millionaire butler always so necessary for these musicals.

The Whitman Sampler plot of these Fox musicals is before us, and carries us in any direction that appeals to the eye. It does not much matter. For Grable is an actress of wonderful application, as witness her delightful scene with Miranda in the powder room.

Entertainment is the order of business – and why not? Sample it, whydoncha? It’s not fattening and it leaves no bitter aftertaste. Indeed, no after of any kind. And taste was never the issue to begin with.

 

Footlight Serenade

03 Jun

Footlight Serenade – directed by Gregory Ratoff. Backstage musical. 80 minutes Black And White 1942.

★★★★★

The Story: A chorus girl is wooed by an egomaniacal prize fighter who won’t take “Not tonight, Joe,” for an answer.

~

Victor Mature is a gas as the prize fighter who is so full of himself, he can’t see that Betty Grable does not have eyes for him at all. It’s a wonderful piece of comic acting by an actor who at other times performed excellently with Grable, and certainly with Rita Hayworth, but here he takes the cake. The screen comes alive when he jolts into view.

And he is extremely funny.

Unlike Phil Silvers, who is a cactus desperately trying to flower. And he is also playing a cactus who is desperately trying to flower – but he does not have the chops to distance himself from the role sufficiently to see that it is exactly like himself. It doesn’t work.

But never mind that. He races around promoting the fighter for all he isn’t worth. And the fighter is opposed by the droolingly handsome John Payne, whom Grable really loves. Payne is always so at ease as this sort of curl-on-the-forehead hunk that you can’t take exception to him. His masculinity is a treat, and he strips down real good for fights with Mature and a jolly song with Grable on a parapet of an apartment roof.

James Gleason, Prime Minister Of The Slow Burn, is the producer hooked into the caprice of a prize fighter starring in a dance musical when the fighter can neither sing nor dance. And a blond Jane Wyman plays Grable’s sidekick. She supposed to be sardonic, but you feel she just wants to sing and dance, at both of which she was superb and alive! A missed chance.

But with Grable in the piece, we have no need for another female talent at all. Grable is a master of comic song and dance. People raved about her perfect legs and cute figure and she sure had ‘em, but Grable’s open face and delight in playing the fool, moment by moment, is one of her most endearing gifts. It’s an early musical for her, and her strokes are a little broad, but she lands her lines perfectly, and carries herself through the masher maneuvers of Mature with skill and smarts.

Grable was one of the great screen entertainers of all time, and I still find her so. She was unusual in that she had the strength of the chorine with the vulnerability of a custard. On screen, stage, or nightclub, she was dear to her audiences as long as she lived – because she was hard-working and you could see into her. The dances are by Hermes Pan, Astaire’s co-choreographer, and Pan dances with her here. He had great respect for her talent, and it is justified by what she does for us still.

She, like the others, were masters of that most essential of all dramatic modes – Frivolous Entertainment. They had the talent for it with every move they made, and the cast of this piece is crammed with them. Open The Fox Talent box and this is what you got!

 

Forbidden

19 May

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Rain Or Shine

07 May

Rain or Shine – directed by Frank Capra. Backstage Comedy. 88 minutes Black And White 1930.

The Story: A madcap, double-talking circus manager is caught between his love for the pretty circus owner and his love for the circus which needs saving.

★★★★★

~

There is an elephant here. Here and there is an elephant. Here, there, and everywhere there is an elephant. The elephant is the circus itself, which needs an elephant to move it around and to provide comic weight. Very Funny.

Because  — also very funny — the light comic weight is carried by one Joe Cook whom no one has ever heard of, but who was the star of the Broadway musical of the same name.

Capra threw out all the music and focused on Cook, who is certainly worth the camera. He is a master of circus double-talk and con, and his sequences with his stooge Tom Howard are on a The Marx Brothers plane for pataphysical loonyness. They are doubly funny because you have never seen these characters before.

Capra was a master of crowd scenes like none since, so the handling of the material seems completely up to date, as does that of cinemaphotographer Joe Walker – particularly when Cook, to save the circus, embarks upon a series of acrobatic acts that make one’s jaw drop with delight and incredulity. Cook is a Cirque du Soleil all rolled up in one. Wow!

What makes Capra still modern? Still admirable? Still funny?

His narrative foreshortening, for one. He moves things along with an intelligence which trusts ours intelligence to catch up, and we are flattered and join in. Also Capra’s care for The Actor: everything Capra devised was meant so the audience could enjoy The Actor. And so two-scenes are kept in play instead of the folly of back and forth closeups, and you really get to understand what is going on in people. Capra had a steady crew of cronies who worked with him, and you see their credits and welcome the smartness of screenwriter Jo Swerling again, just as you see a drenching rain scene in every film and wonder how he will get his players out of it once more. Also Capra’s big heart, which shades and colors everything.

Is that enough?

It’s enough for me.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a masterwork of this director of great Americanness. Rain Or Shine’s an early one. Underlying honesty is our forte, a beckoning to the truth of the matter, a condition discovered when justice is balanced between folks. To righten the scales, Joe Cook performs an act of comic sabotage. It is nothing to the one Capra himself inflicts as he let’s loose a stupendous grand finale. How would anyone dare! Although anything less entertaining in the end would be unthinkable, un-Capra-like, unfinished.

 
 
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