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Archive for the ‘MATING’ Category

The Law Of Desire

17 Sep

The Law Of Desire – written and directed by Pablo Almodóvar. Melodrama. 102 minutes Color 1987.

★★★★★ 

The Story: A beautiful young man becomes disastrously obsessed with a film director.

The link between satire and melodrama has not been this close since the heyday of Dickens. They are really two sides of the same coin. And one of the links here is the notorious color scheme that Almodóvar employs to nest this tale and that brings to one’s eye a humor of disposition which is very hard not to be influenced by. You want to giggle.

If any problem exists in this film, or any other film of Almovódar that wishes us to take it seriously, it is that he has such a big heart that everybody is forgiven for everything in advance. This film comes before the discovery of Penélope Cruz, who embodies all these traits in her nature: big heartedness, drama, and the color scheme. So, while his films are wonderful to watch and be entertained by, we are foolish to ask ourselves to be deeply moved by them. This does not mean they are trivial or to be scanted; not at all; they must be seen, like the mobiles of Alexander Calder, lest we deprive ourselves of an important delight. You wouldn’t spurn Mozart because he is light-minded, would you? Or the films of Lubitsch because he is fun?

This story deals mainly with homosexuality and transsexuality, and is Almovódar’s first film so to do. The parallel plot involves Carmen Maura who was once the director’s brother and is now his sister. And the transsexual Bibí Andersen (not to be confused with Ingmar Bergman’s Bibi Andersson) plays the aunt. All this is very nice and disturbs, just as it is meant to do, our customarily acceptance of things.

The director is played with admirable restraint by Eusebio Poncela, and it is a pleasure to see him engage in passionate kissing scenes with men, for that is just the way men kiss one another when they are at it. His is essentially the Almovódar stand-in role, as you find in Broken Embraces, the man whose calling is more important than his love relations.

Antonio Banderas plays the mad youth. It is very nice to see him with his clothes off, for he is a fine figure of a male, and it makes his insane lust for the director real. And he also kisses back real good. But what’s interesting about Banderas’ performance is that he is playing someone insane as though they were not insane. What the actor does is to excuse nothing. He has that ghastly, religiously-crazed, prude mother to motivate him, and Almovódar needs give us no more than that. The story does the job for him.

What Almovódar does give us is a mountain slide of a finale, with plot heaped upon exposition scene as Pelion on Ossa. It is more rich desserts than we can digest at a sitting. But he does meet all the responsibilities of the genres of melodrama and satire, which he clearly loves, just as he loves nutso love-lust s in Duel In The Sun with its wedding of sex and slaughter as praise for life lived fully in a way that no one really cares to do outside of a movie, including Almovódar. What’s the moral of the opera?

There is no sacrifice one does not make for love – children, gender, life, sex itself. If it aint necessarily so, well then, that’s one reason we go to a movie to begin with, isn’t it?

 

The More The Merrier

21 Jun

The More The Merrier – produced and directed by George Stevens. Farce. To ease the housing shortage in wartime Washington, a young lady rents out her spare room – but finds herself with an unexpected roommate. 104 minutes Black and White 1943.

★★★★★

That  Peony Of An Actor, Charles Coburn is granted a full George Stevens’ close-up on his fabulous face right early in the picture, so that we may know how close to our hearts are meant to be to him. Later Stevens grants Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea similar close-ups. Stevens was sparing of and famous for these full-face close-ups. He granted Joan Fontaine and Douglas Fairbanks Jr them in Gunga Din and the most famous close-ups ever shot, those of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place In The Sun. On the opposite side, Stevens is also fond of shooting from outside through windows, which, though distant, has the effect of making us eavesdropper-voyeurs and therefore also intimate.

Coburn, an infallible actor, plays Dan Cupid to Arthur and McCrea, which is all we need to know to allow ourselves sit back and enjoy one of the most delightful comedies ever made. But what sort of comedy is it?

Yes, it’s verbally witty and it certainly has broad situations, but it’s not low comedy and it’s not high comedy. Actors never invest their lines with anything but normal human readings. No one wrings a line for all it’s worth. The actors don’t seem to realize that they are doing anything funny.

I’ll clue you in if I may. George Stevens filmed and directed the first movies of Laurel and Hardy. Now the comedy of these two did not fall into any previous movie category. They were not fast-moving like Langdon, Keaton, Chaplin and The Keystone Cops; they did not fall into the category of circus clowns. They were new and they were  inventing a different comedy, a slow-moving comedy. Stevens discovered a camera lens that could film Laurel’s pale eyes, and Stevens further opened up his lens to let these two work things out before the camera, as though the camera were not there. And that is the remarkable impression The More The Merrier provides, although, of course, for that very reason, you don’t realize it – unless like me you saw it when it first came out and several subsequent times since. It’s a Laurel and Hardy comedy without Laurel and Hardy.

McCrea is one of the glories of 40s films: this and Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story and other pictures of that era, ensure our continued enjoyment of him. He is tall, good looking, modest in his craft, and absolutely true in it, But, most important, his sexual energy is available to him, as is Jean Arthur’s to her. This means we have two of the sexiest comedy seduction scenes ever filmed – the scene on the stoup and the scene with the suitcase. The attraction simply works itself out before our eyes easily, naturally, as though we were not watching all the while. The two of them are so infatuated with one another they appear to be drunk. The sexual tension between them is as dear as it is exquisite. And it is hilarious.

Treat yourself to The More The Merrier. And invite anyone you know — after all, the more the merrier. It’s a family film about setting out for war. Garson Kanin wrote it. Stevens and the film were nominated for Oscars. Coburn won it for best supporting player. Stevens won the 1943 New York Film Critics Award for Best Director for it. Immediately upon editing it, he left for the North Africa Campaign – just as McCrea does in the film. Those were the times. And The More The Merrier provided the tincture of human joy that made them bearable.

 

 

A Place In The Sun

13 Sep

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

★★★★★

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

 

The More The Merrier

01 Sep

The More The Merrier – produced and directed by George Stevens. Farce. To ease the housing shortage in wartime Washington, a young lady rents out her spare room – but finds herself with an unexpected roommate. 104 minutes Black and White 1943.

★★★★★

That  Peony Of An Actor, Charles Coburn is granted a full George Stevens’ close-up on his fabulous face right early in the picture, so that we may know how close to our hearts are meant to be to him. Later Stevens grants Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea similar close-ups. Stevens was sparing of and famous for these full-face close-ups. He granted Joan Fontaine and Douglas Fairbanks Jr them in Gunga Din and the most famous close-ups ever shot, those of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place In The Sun. On the opposite side, Sevens is also fond of shooting from outside through windows, which, though distant, has the effect of making us eavesdroppers and therefore also intimate. Coburn, an infallible actor, plays Dan Cupid to Arthur and McCrea, which is all we need to know to allow ourselves sit back and enjoy one of the most delightful comedies ever made. But what sort of comedy is it? Yes, it’s verbally witty and it certainly has broad situations, but it’s not low comedy and it’s not high comedy. Actors never invest their lines with anything but normal human readings. No one wrings a line for all it’s worth. The actors don’t seem to realize that they are doing anything funny. I’ll clue you in if I may. George Stevens filmed and directed the first movies of Laurel and Hardy. Now the comedy of these two did not fall into any previous movie category. They were not fast-moving like Chaplin and The Keystone Cops; they did not fall into the category of circus clowns. They were new and they were  inventing a different comedy. Stevens discovered a camera lens that could film Laurel’s pale eyes, and Stevens further opened up his lens to let these two work things out before the camera, as though the camera were not there. And that is the remarkable impression The More The Merrier provides, although, of course, for that very reason, you don’t realize it – unless like me you saw it when it first came out and several subsequent times since. It’s a Laurel and Hardy comedy. McCrea is one of the glories of 40s films: this and Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story and other pictures of that era, ensure our continued enjoyment of him. He is tall, good looking, modest in his craft, but absolutely true in it, But, most important, his sexual energy is available to him, as is Jean Arthur’s to her. This means we have two of the sexiest comedy seduction scenes ever filmed – the scene on the stoup and the scene with the suitcase. The attraction simply works itself out before our eyes easily, naturally, as though we were not watching all the while. The two of them are so infatuated with one another they appear to be drunk. The sexual tension between them is as dear as it is exquisite. And it is hilarious. Treat yourself to it. And anyone you know. It’s a family film about setting out for war. Garson Kanin wrote it. Stevens and the film were nominated for Oscars. Coburn won it for best supporting player. Stevens won the 1943 New York Film Critics Award for Best Director. Immediately upon editing it, he left for the North Africa Campaign – just as McCrea does in the film. Those were the times. And The More The Merrier provided the tincture of human joy that made them bearable.

 

 

To Have and Have Not

20 Dec

To Have And Have Not — Directed by Howard Hawks. Drama. A man shifts loyalties from none to two. 100 minutes Black and White 1944.

* * * * *

Like a gold panther she moves slowly and deliberately through every scene, as though to move quickly would tip her hand. The humor that lies behind her calculation keeps her from being witchy, and Hawks presents her with the Walk-Around-Me scene which makes her sure she will not be possessive. But she will be loyal, and her becoming that is her arc here. Hawks or his wife Slim or the studio brought Bacall from modeling in New York and made of this girl with the unusually suggestive  good looks a star. When Hawks met her he told her to go off into a room for two weeks and practice lowering her voice, which she did. She came back a contralto. She was completely come-hither throughout and always keyed up. She  has a knowing eye and moves slowly at all times toward or away from her prey, much the same thing either way. She was something new in sexual effrontery. She was a teenager. It’s difficult to judge her skills as an actress here because she is so effective in everything she is confined to do. Like a very dangerous cat she is handled carefully. In just the same way it is difficult to judge Bogart, because here he is in a part well within his intense but narrow range, sardonic but truly humorous, taciturn, slow to anger, but terrifying when he does, and eyes gleaming with fear. When in danger he evinces perfect groundedness, a quick draw with a wisecrack,  and a superhuman aplomb. He’s perfect for the part. He performed many parts in film for which he was not particularly suited, especially after The War, but this is not one of them. The picture is a redaction of a Hemingway novel, via one of Hawks’ favorite screenwriters, William Faulkner. Bogart plays the owner of a for-rent fishing boat in Martinique, which is Vichy French during The War, and his character is established long before Bacall appears on the screen, in his relations with his drunken crewmember played by Walter Brennan, whom Hawks had used years before in Barbary Coast and would use often again. Brennan is brilliant in the execution of an imaginative parcel of tics and gimps, and is so screwy that we see that Bogart’s snideness does not exclude loyalty and courage in defense of Brennan and in defense of … loyalty and courage. It is not hard to follow the small story that ensues, although at times it is quite swallowed up by fascinating side-scenes between B & B. It is not about nostalgia as Casablanca is, but it resembles Casablanca in that it all takes place in a café; it involves the rescue of important anti-Nazi patriots, boasts, in Hoagy Carmichael, a seductive singer pianist, and even has the fine expatriate French actor Marcel Dalio, plus Bogey. A masterpiece of editing, beautifully lit and filmed by Sydney Hickox, for some reason it is impossible to not watch it. For, after all, what is this thing? Does one really care about any of these people and their ambitions? No. So why is it so engrossing? It is unanswerable. Its hold is a mystery. But what that means is that it hasn’t dated. Enjoy it once again.

 

 

Duel In The Sun

17 Sep

Duel In The Sun. Directed by King Vidor and William Dieterle. A half-breed girl is taken into a King Ranch type family in Texas and drives the boys wild. 2 hours 28 minutes Color 1946.

* * * *

It isn’t beautiful but it is gorgeous. Never have you seen Technicolor used so lavishly, or actors throw themselves, not exactly into their roles but all around their roles. You would think Gregory Peck would be miscast as a sexy male, and he is, but he’s surprisingly good as a prick. And Pearl Chavez, played by producer David O. Selznick’s wife, Jennifer Jones, you would think would be written shrewder, but she’s not, she’s just dopey. She throws herself around like a bag of onions and never really proves to the watching world why she was so sexy that Selznick ran off with her into the chaparral. So we take the lickerousness for granted, although she does convincingly writhe on the floor in an agony of sexual conflict. Lionel Barrymore consumes scenery by the platter, and he’s really wonderful as the grandee rancher because the character is so rude, but Lillian Gish as his wife is unable to overcome the character’s failure to get Pearl out of those slouching blouses and into a proper dress, which would have ended the picture right there. I saw it when it came out. I thought it was going to be a dirty movie, but it was just silly. Of course it’s greatly silly. And not sexy, because Lewt is mean, which Peck does well, and Pearl is stupid, which Jones probably was. The film is supposed to vindicate the itch between them, and so achieve a Phaedra-like stature, but its lust falls in the dust flat. Joseph Cotton’s easy-come-easy-go style as the good brother provides no sexual competition for Peck’s bad brother. Charles Bickford is touching as one of Pearl’s swains. Walter Huston makes hay of the fire and brimstone preacher (Huston is sexy, though old, because sexuality seethes through him; Peck isn’t because it doesn’t.). And Herbert Marshall is lovely as Pearl’s doomed father. The film is written like a Perils Of Pauline serial, in chapters and chunks, none which liaison into each other. It proceeds with a very badly written scene of misidentification, which is beautifully directed and shot, and so it goes, with one badly written scene after another beautifully presented. Selznick was so intrusive, reshooting everything, such that the film cost a lot more than his Gone With The Wind (Butterfly McQueen has a much larger part here); Selznick even has his name as the sole screen credit. So King Vidor quit when it was three quarters done, and the film was finished by commonplace director William Dieterle. But never have you seen such sunsets, as though the sun were having the duel with itself. King Vidor’s strong sense of things puts it on all four burners and a pot bellied stove besides. Why are you holding back? You must see it. It is the greatest bad movie ever made.

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They Live By Night

24 Aug

They Live By Night – Directed by Nicholas Ray. Young Romance Escape Drama. With the law barking at their heels, an escapee and a farm girl try for a better life. 95 minutes Black and White 1947.

* * * * *

The first film of Nicholas Ray and a good one. George Diskant filmed it noirishly, but it is not noir, it is Hollywood teen romance. But with a good script and with a powerful supporting cast on all levels, particularly Howard Da Silva who sports a blind eye somehow — he’s really something to watch as the shaky violent holdup man. But you can see excellence and power in every actor: in the tragic Helen Craig the foolish wife, in Ian Wolfe who plays the bogus preacher, in Will Lee as the screwy jeweler, in eager-toothed Byron Foulger as the motel owner, in Will Wright who plays the drunken farmer, in Jay C. Flippen as the sweet but violent ex-con. Each of these performances is strong, detailed, and eccentric, and the film is carried by them. As it is not carried by the leads Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger. O’Donnell begins well – surly, withdrawn, wary, rude – but before long she dies of saccharine poisoning. Why do actresses take that route? They begin salty and turn merely sugary. The part would have been perfect for a young Barbara Stanwyck, a lower class girl and ruthless, or Cissy Spacek, a hick. But O’Donnell is clearly a nice middle class miss, and after she gets out of her dirty overalls, she’s a right proper Hollywood glazed-over thingamajig and all reality is lost. As to Farley Granger he is quite miscast as a JD on the run. Granger was 21 when he made the picture, and he’s just a nice-looking, spoiled, middle-class NYU geek, with no liaison in the character between scenes and no underpinnings either in his own character or in imagination about the character. He plays everything manfully, though, but he is just too privileged to be imperiled. However, a good strongly written story carries them all forward and holds our attention with its unexpected narrative and its individual scenic fulfillments. The film’s a gem that shines brightly and entertainingly, even though and perhaps because it is made of paste. Check it out.

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Love Is News

29 Jul

Love Is News – Directed by Tay Garnett. Screwball Comedy. An heiress double-crosses a feisty reporter who has double-crossed her. 77 minutes Black and white. 1937.

* * * * *

What fun! What fun to see Loretta Young and Tyrone Power in their early twenties at the peak of their skills and beauty. Of the various blooms in the Hollywood bouquet, the values expressed by this sort of film are one of the most alluring still. You want to look at these two. You want to admire them. You enjoy them, and you don’t want them ever to grow old. You praise all the artifice around them because you know that such a wonderful fuss is right for them. You cannot begrudge their smashing clothes. You’re glad they get the lighting they deserve, and you wish them entirely well in all things. For you want love to be beautiful and to prevail, and never has this last want been so perfectly realized on film as it was in the comedies of the 30s. The story is a combination of Front Page and It Happened One Night, and its first class farce script offers the platform for comic relations between these two stars that are a treat to behold, and must have been a treat to perform, for they move together beautifully. As actors they free one another, they dare one another, and, most important, they argue with one another with complete conviction. The chemistry is artistic, a rarer thing in film acting than buffalos on the moon. While so young, they both had lots of experience as teen-agers, he on the stage with Cornell and she, already a big star in movies. They are Loy and Powell ten years before. They’re just simply talented as all get out. I love ‘em. You will too. So just pick up your white telephone. Dial Love Is News.

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The Taming Of The Shrew [1929]

22 Jul

The Taming Of the Shrew – Directed by Sam Wood. Shakespearean Comedy. An out-of-towner in town to marry wealthily hooks up with a harridan. 63 minutes Black and White 1929.

* * * * *

The first talking film of a Shakespeare play, this is also the first time (and the last time) Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford appeared together in a picture. They go at one another with bullwhips, which is less funny than the series of brilliant sight gags the film explodes with. (Tell me, please, how that business with the chair was ever done!) The screenwriter has balanced out the story rather neatly with the conceit that Kate, in order to reach a truce, by succumbing to his outrageous demands is actually taming Petruchio. The movie begins with the camera looking admiringly at the sets by William Cameron Menzies, and it ends abruptly and bafflingly by omitting the buildup scene to Kate’s submission speech. Pickford was a wonderful actor, but here she plays into her husband’s huge theatrical style and not to her advantage. Fairbanks throws his arms wide upon every occasion and tosses his head back and laughs longer than even his three thousand white teeth can lend reality to. If you handed him a cup of tea, he would do the same. But this style both suits the role and suits his limitations but does not suit Pickford’s genuine genius for realistic performance. Make-up gives her wasp-stung lips, and Costume wimples her head like the Mad Queen. She ends up visible as a character to us only when she shows her hair. The script is cut to include only its famous big set pieces, such as the moon scene and the dinner table scene. But that’s all right. The show is far more lively than the lumbering version with the Burtons. The Taming Of The Shrew a very great comedy, on three counts: It has dialogue that an actor can swing around like a cat by the tail; it has a supersonic plot; it has two leading roles that never misfire.

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Tin Pan Alley

04 Jul

Tin Pan Alley – Directed by Walter Lang. Musical. An inconsiderate song plugger looses his mate who runs off to become a stage star with her sister. 94 minutes Black and White 1940.

* * * * *

Alice Faye has the most seductive upper eyelids God ever thought of. She is sultry, easy, withdrawn, and has a magnificent bust. It is interesting to see her paired with Betty Grable who is the opposite. Grable is outgoing, open, eager, and everything is in perfect physical proportion. Actually, neither of these fine ladies is the focal character of this picture. That falls to John Payne, who it is difficult not to look at with wonder and amazement. For he is the most beautiful male imaginable. He first appears in the boxing ring dressed in so little that one can see what a strapping physique he had, broad shouldered, slim, and muscular. In this picture he remains clothed for most of it, and looks good in his suits, which work better than the Edwardian rigs worn by the ladies. (His face resembles that of Lee Pace.) Payne is about 27 years old here and at the peak of his masculinity. He has the perfect patined hair of the era. He has a sensual and flexible mouth, with dimples when he smiles. A wonderful nose. A beautifully shaped head. And so forth and so on, but the reason one cannot take one’s eyes off him is that all of this is backed up by a technique that is fluid, full of fun, and highly responsive. Watch him and Faye and Oakie sing a trio, to see what I mean. The show looks really well rehearsed, and that counts for a lot with this sort of backstage musical. Billy Gilbert sings the Sheik of Araby while the Nicholas Brothers do another of their stupendous dance routines. Jack Oakie in his pie-in-the-face style of acting brings the elan of the died-in-the-wool vaudevillian to the scene, and it’s most welcome in all its silliness. Boy, can he put over a bad song well! I have a strong fondness for Fox musicals. I like their color, and their emotional values, and I rejoice in Betty Grable, who was shortly to replace Alice Faye, to become the top box office movie star for 10 consecutive years. Gosh, was she engaging! There is a certain energetic vulgarity to Fox musicals that I appreciate, so different from RKO’s white telephone musicals and the family-value musicals at MGM. Anyhow this is a good example of the Fox genre. A good film to watch with the whole family.

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Ceremony

24 Jun

Ceremony. Directed and written by Max Winkler. Chekhovian Comedy. A young fool tries to run off with a to-be bride just before the wedding. 89 Minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

How does Lee Pace, without stealing, steal every scene he is in? He is a master actor, but that’s not why. A young man from Oklahoma, he plays an upper class British millionaire naturalist/filmmaker/star, and the English accent comes right from his bones, but that’s not why. He is tall and beautiful and sexy and young, has a fine rich speaking voice, and remarkable eyebrows, but that’s not why. No, the reason is, is that he is inherently a star, someone gifted with an inner character of soul which is meant to be seen and basked in, the same way you would bask in that of Joan Crawford or Joel Macrea or George Clooney or Edward G. Robinson or Rita Hayworth. They must be watched. You wouldn’t want to do anything else with them. They are there to be on the screen and stared at wondrously. So what you do with a star like Lee Pace is to be gaga, a little blinded, a little dazed. A surrender like that is such a treat, and its one of the reasons we go to the movies. Another is to place ourselves in the doings of such a story as Max Winkler offers us, with its rare mad excursions into side-room scenes in the lives of its five principal characters, played with juicy finesse by Uma Thurman, Reece Thompson, Jake M. Johnson, and Michael Angarano who is the focal character around whom all the other four swirl. I found his performance vexing. His face works as though he is chewing gum all the time, but he never is. As an annoying gnome, his miniscule grimaces are particularly prevalent at the beginning of the story, but as the story develops, the obsessive, greedy liar he is playing succumbs to the constant onslaught of well-deserved cruel truth, and the character almost becomes a human being. In character, the actor is truly nonplussed. He is knocked out, but will he ever wake up? This is an interesting trial for an audience, and a worthwhile one, because it keeps the narrative in suspense – asking both what will happen to this brat and will I ever come to like him? He is driven to steal a woman who is older than he is, who is out of his league, whom he cannot support, and who would make him a terrible wife. The script by Max Winkler is superbly surprising at all turns and corners. I think he is putting the kibosh on grunge comedy once and for all (if only). He has written (Four Weddings And A Funeral keeps coming to mind) – a comedy with the wit to make people real – that is his humor – and to make them sad – that is also his humor. Sad in the sense that every one of them is a sad sack, and funny in that every one of them is bright as all get out. Don’t miss it.

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Reaching For The Moon

19 Jun

Reaching For The Moon — Directed by Edmund Goulding. Musical. An inconsiderate tycoon looses it all in the crash as he falls for a millionairess. 71 minutes Black and White 1931.

* * * *

A musical curiously truncated by the removal of all the music. Irving Berlin’s pieces, too. But judging by what was left in, they must have been stinkersoos. Bing Crosby sings one of the remains. And a beautiful actress, Bebe Daniels, sings another. Even these we might have been spared. Except that Bebe Daniels, who made 230 movies in her lifetime, is an enchanting actress, I am riveted by her ease of attack, fluidity, musicality of delivery. If she appeared in films today she would be entirely acceptable and desirable. Wonderful eyes. I am in love. The script is raised above the floor by the presence of Edward Everett Horton who plays the mentor butler hilariously. Risque too in those pre-code days. His Mr. is Douglas Fairbanks playing a bumptious billionaire. Laughing perpetually, he races around after Daniels, crawls up the walls, slides down the flagpole and in general inspires her derision, until… until he speaks his true heart. Now never let two things be said again: 1] that he was not an actor; 2] that he avoided love-scenes. For he is superb in this scene, and no wonder it wins her. Fairbanks they say was at the end of his career and downcrest and frantic; they say he was not interested in talkies and grieved the loss of the acrobatic spectacles he made his name with, but…he was too old. He’s in his late 40s. He had only two films left in him. Fairbanks doesn’t sing, but the sets by William Cameron Menzies do. If you’ve never seen a White Telephone Movie this one will boggle your eyes. Check out that ocean liner, check out that nightclub. And check out those evening gowns, boys and girls. Wow, did they ever know how to drape a lady’s derriere. Sweet were the times. The film ends abruptly at its climax. Like this.

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Daddy Long Legs

10 Jun

Daddy Long Legs – Directed by Marshall Neilan. Melodrama. A mischievous orphan girl is helped by a mystery man. 85 minutes Black and White with Color Filters, Silent 1919.

* * * * *

Isn’t this what we’ve always wanted: an unknown benefactor who sees through our detractors’ faults and banks us and banks on us and appears at the end as…. Ah, yes. And so our Miss Mary plays the juvenile orphan on this path, but with many a digression into naughty pranks and hijinks, which solidify the stark disapproval of the matron – but that’s what matrons are for, aren’t they? Some of these antics read like vaudeville turns, for Mary Pickford trod the boards from small childhood in second rate theatre companies touring through Canada and the States, and there she not only learned her craft but the tricks of the trade. So she’s a lot of fun as the movie marks time with a close-order-drill of great energy and variety until it gets on with the plot, which has to do with social rank, of course.  She is really wonderful here, and why is that? Because she is a fine film actress, one might say a revolutionary actress. Everything is simple unselfconscious as only plenty of rehearsals can provide. She does everything immediate and small. She was the first actress in film history to ever have a close-up. And how right that is, for the entire character registers on her visage in response to the forces that beset both her and the orphans around her. You will be interested to see the costumes of the period. And how smoking played such a large part in film acting from the time film started until quite recently. Tobacco in all its forms was the greatest of all actors’ props. It was versatile, it gave something for the actor to do, it was expressive, it could define mood and power. It gave one pause. It gave one interruption. It gave one romantic liaison. Take a look at Daddy Long Legs’ use of it here. It rises like an infernal emanation from behind the back of that chair, like a volcano not yet disturbed.

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Stella Maris

22 May

 

 

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

* * * * *

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

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An Affair Of Love [Une liaison pornographique]

15 May

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

* * * * *

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

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Slightly Scarlet

21 Apr

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

**

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

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How Stella Got Back Her Groove

06 Apr

How Stella Got Her Groove Back – directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan – Romance. A twenty-year old male decides to mate with a woman twice his age, who is skeptical. 124 minutes color 1998.

* * *

It’s wonderful to see how much better an actress Angela Bassett became in the six years between this and What’s Love Got To Do With It? in which all she does is forced: forced smiles, forced fear, forced singing, forced sexuality. Here she simply settles into the part and enjoys unexpected ways of delivering it, and all praise to her. The movie is rubbish, of course, because the relationship between a twenty-year-old male and a forty three year old female here is patently flimsy, and everything everyone says against it is right. Of course there is a mutual sexual attraction between herself and Taye Diggs, who certainly is a beautiful creature. Indeed at one point his naked ass is offered up to our extended contemplation as twere a marital guide. He is also sweet and bien élevé and good in bed and chums with her son and is a decent human being too, but none of that is sufficient grounds for a marriage. For they have nothing in common culturally, financially, or conversationally, and the relationship has no spiritual foundation whatsoever. The result is a black and white value aesthetic, or, let’s calls it a grey and pink value aesthetic, since it presents black females as pink romantic fools, and those black females who are not romantic fools as grey killjoys. All of this is leavened considerably by a brilliant performance by Whoopi Goldberg as The Ribald Best Friend. She brings a quirky vitality to every scene she plays, including and especially her death scene. This wonderful performance makes the film worth seeing twice. Unless, of course, you can’t bear the idea of seeing it even once, as the diminution of the sexual intelligence of black women, and the delusional decoration of women in general, threatens to stupefy us in its blare of garish romance.

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Mad Love

28 Mar

Mad Love –– directed by Antonia Bird –– a young man falls for a nutcase –– 96 minutes 1995.

**

You cannot pick the lice of this picture fast enough to outrace their replacements. The script is the first louse in that it depicts what no human would do or get away with doing under the circumstances. The second louse is that the script gives us no characters, only premises conterfeiting characters: the girl is mad and the boy falls madly in love with her: this does not constitute character. For the third louse, we have lines no human would say. For the fourth, we have direction aimed to slant us to forgiving what is unforgivable and to find dear what is reprhensible. We also have a director who allows the principal actors to fake it. Which brings us to the fifth and sixth louse, neither of whom have enough substance as humans to hold our interest. Chris O’Donnell is not a bad actor at all, but he stands with Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey as unwatchable because the corners of his mouth naturally turn up in a constant smug self-satisfied smile. It’s not his fault, but I can’t bear to look at him. Finally, we come to the sixth louse, Drew Barrymore who gives a performance which she will live to be ashamed of if she lives to be as old as her grand-aunt, whose jaw line and chin she inherited, along with the high bridge of the Barrymore nose, and the family toleration for hackwork. Her performance here is infested with cheap choices, for she loads every scene she plays with a pitch for our sympathy. She was 20 when this was done, and her behavior is cute beyond recognition. Her miscalculation is to play innocence and pain, which, of course, must come across as self-pity, whereas she would have been smarter to play out-and-out fury, which would have produced sympathy. This brings us to the un-lice, Joan Allen as the mother. She has but one tiny acting scene, in a school psychologist’s office, with her husband, well-played by Robert Nadir. Allen gives him a look in which an entire family history is lodged. But this is but a great actress, calm and untouched amid a plague of lice.

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Holiday Inn

26 Mar

Holiday Inn — directed by Mark Sandrich — a songwriter starts up a country inn open only on holidays. To it comes a lovely young lady and his old vaudeville dancing chum and competitor for females. 1942 black and white 101 minutes.

* * * * *

With one exception, there is not a single dance in this piece which Astaire performs up to his standard, partly because his female partners are not on his level and partly because the dances are ill conceived. The firecracker dance is raggedly choreographed, and the dance in 18th Century wigs would have been better performed by Bob Hope. The one outstanding dance is the drunk dance, in which he is not so much partnered as accompanied by the lovely Marjorie Reynolds. This is to be watched, studied, and prayed before. The cast is top-heavy because the Paramount superstar Bing Crosby is in it. (They wanted Rita Hayworth to play the girl, but, with Astaire, that would have cost too much.) Crosby is a remarkable actor: everything he does and says looks improvised: nothing is: he is following the script to the letter. He had a droll insouciance and the amiability of the perpetual fraternity boy. He was a truly humorous person. And very cool. However when he sings, all this is cunningly wrenched into a song-style, and all the songs become subordinated to that style. So he never really sings to the actor or actress opposite him. Instead he produces this style and sings to that — out to the camera — out to his popular front. This means he is never really singing the words to the song: he is only singing to his way of singing a song; he sings renditions. Still, he is truly pleasing company, and the renditions are indeed winning and meritoriously skillful. The film is very well directed by Mark Sandrich, a really fine director of musicals, who had directed five of Astaire’s best RKO films with Rogers. Irving Berlin wrote or revived all the many songs — all barely serviceable — with three exceptions: Easter Parade, Careful, It’s My Heart, White Christmas. This where they come from and first appeared.

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Together Again

26 Mar

Together Again – Directed by Charles Vidor – Romantic Comedy. A widow tries to keep the flame but falls for the sexy sculptor of her late husband’s statue. 93 minutes Black and White 1944.

* * *

Irene Dunne is 46 when she makes this picture, and Charles Boyer is 45. There is a curious lack of sexual oomph between them. Charles Coburn is far sexier as the stout cupid leading them on. But then Coburn was one of the great film actors, a performer of admirable technical certainty and natural appeal. Boyer is given a final scene of great interest in a picture which is very well written as a comedy without guffaws. The trouble with it is that Dunne, while in a comedy, does not foster comedy around her and has no comic luster of her own To play comedy you don’t have to do funny things — Betty Hutton could do that. You don’t have to be inherently funny either. Although both things are nice, what you have got to have is the inner permission for things to be funny around you — Claudette Colbert had this. And Irene Dunne does not. The poor lady is a prig. She would really rather be a lady than a woman, a feature we often see later in Deborah Kerr. Here what we need is an actress to play the part of a woman with a high profile political position who inside is busting to cut-up. This would have been meat and potatoes for that mistress of the doppelganger, Ginger Rogers. Or perhaps that Queen Of Mischief Rosalind Russell. Or I’m-Trying-To-Do-My-Best Jean Arthur. Anyhow, Irene Dunne (who added an e to her last name — a touch of antique Royal Tone perhaps?) was, indeed, a performer whom the studios thought added “tone” to a picture. But what you get is a Helen Hokinson wannabe. There is no possible way any male actor opposite her could pitch sexual attraction in her direction. She does sing a bit in this film; indeed  Dunne was a professional singer, and is best when singing, because most honest and simple, for she does care about music, and music is never respectable. (Her “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in Roberta is just lovely.)  Boyer looks middle aged, but he is an actor who can rise to any occasion, and he is more acceptable than Dunne, who looks great but lacks the inner-madcap for the role. The film is beautifully mounted and well constructed and simply and clearly directed by Charles Vidor. An outline missing a content.

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Evelyn Prentice

26 Mar

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

* * * *

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

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The Ghost Breakers

23 Feb

The Ghost Breakers – directed by George Marshall – Comedy Mystery Thriller. That haunted island castle in the Caribbean must be explored! 82 minutes Black and white 1940

* * * * *

Bob Hope plays his usual boastful fool, and it is quite welcome. Here again he is sexually overreaching and heroically underachieving, floundering into shallows over his head. Hope is a master at the lecherous coward, (also played by Danny Kaye and Jerry Lewis and Charlie Chaplin and many others). No wonder he appealed so long to so many. In real life, evidently Hope was quite intrepid, going into battles zones to entertain the troops, but intrepidity and cowardice go hand in hand, else one would not know one from the other. I saw this picture as a little kid when it came out and the recollection of a woman side-stroking through swampy misty water holding her clothes over her head to keep them dry never left me as an example of practicality under pressure. Also the spooky castle remained with me and gave me nightmares. So did the zombie, my first in film. All these effects now have lost their power; thus the questionable practice of revisiting the past. Ahh, but the film still has its power to entertain. Its effects are low key and innocent but they give us a chance to recover from each while the next one waits in the wings. The film was re-made many years later with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, with the same director and the same sets, but this is by far the better version. Paulette Goddard, she of the dimples, is excellent here. Male or female, every actor who has dimples is a minx, and she sure is. Goddard was one of the brightest women in Hollywood, highly respected as a person, but everyone agreed that she could not act worth tuppence. I don’t know why. Here she’s good, attentive, game, unapologetic about taking off her clothes a couple of times — a good-time gal with a deep resource of pep and very convincing as a brash lass, up against Anthony Quinn at his most sexually dangerous, and adventuring into the haunted castle against all warnings. Go with her. You will be so pleased to be petrified. .

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Charley’s Aunt

21 Feb

Charley’s Aunt –– directed by Archie Mayo –– an 1892 comedy in which two Oxonians inveigle a pal to impersonate their aunt as chaperone for a visit from their girlfriends. 80 minutes black and white 1941.

* * * * *

Randy Skretvedt on the Special Features gives a nifty rundown of the lives and careers of every single person in the cast and crew. From this we learn oodles about Jack Benny, Kay Francis, Edmund Gwenn (whose deathbed words were, “Comedy is hardest”), Anne Baxter, Reginald Owen, Alfred Newman who did the music, Archie Mayo who directed it, and George Seaton who brilliantly adapted it for the screen. We are give such tidbit-info as that Laird Cregar was 24 when he played Sir Francis Chesney, the father of one of the 30 year old Oxonians. Cregar came on the set and announced to one and all, “To dispel any question about my preferences, yes, I am homosexual!” This in 1941; pretty good wouldn’t you say? I once played the part and I wish I had thought of his business with the cane. Watch for it. The play is unfailingly funny. It is the most popular English comedy ever written, and justly so. Jack Benny skedaddles around as the aunt, and his performance is on the level of Robin Williams as Mrs Doubtfire or Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie; that is to say nobody would be convinced that this is a female for one instant –– which in this case, unlike theirs, is part of the fun, since here everyone’s life depends on being convinced of it. Mayo’s direction is tip-top as he keeps things moving from brisk scene to scene, and Peverell Marly has filmed it exactly right to glamorize the women and deglamorize the men. Among the Special Features is a promotional short worth seeing, with Tyrone Power, just brilliant, coming on to have lunch with Benny, joined by a highly energized Randolph Scott (two of the most notable bisexual actors of  film). We’ve all seen Charley’s Aunt in the theatre, and we can now see it over again in our parlour, and over and over again. Good family fun, I should say, wot?

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The Man Who Cried

18 Feb

The Man Who Cried – directed by Michael Whyte – a man leaves a vicious wife and takes his son to seek his fortune. He finds love on the way. 2 hours and 31 minutes color 1993.

* * * * *

We ask for a movie to adhere to our moral biases in peril of bigotry. The man shown here is perfectly understandable. He is of a high moral character, for he knows that the effect his nature and appearance has on women may lead them to wish he was theirs, and he reserves himself. Ciaran Hinds is perfectly cast in the part, therefore. His masculinity lies deep, and so does the character’s. For his character, Abel, it is like a doom. Abel is honest and modest and true to himself; his beauty has not made him cold. He loves as deep as tears. Honoring the depth a male can love tells  the story. And it is a most human story, not the story of a philanderer or a bigamist, but the story of fidelity to love. This love is for his son as for a woman, and his tragedy is that he trades one for the other. This is a beautifully directed picture, in that its pace is at one with its narrative needs, clear, simple, and true. Kate Buffery is tops as one of the women. And as her sister we have Amanda Root, an actor of the first rank, here committed to all the harpy, Hilda Maxwell, is. It is a brave performance. Hinds and Root costarred in Persuasion, in a very different relation and as quite differently played characters.  The dvd is in two full-length parts and is well worth your patience.

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The FIghter

06 Feb

The Fighter – Directed by David O. Russell – Boxing Picture. Drawn between the force-fields of his family and his future, a failed fighter chooses. 115 minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

It’s a fight picture. Which means that it is like all fight pictures in the same way that all Tango pictures are about a certain form, each with its ritual moves, its setbacks, and its dazzling triumphs. However, it is unlike other fight pictures in that this picture is not about someone fighting against the odds in the ring, where one other person doesn’t want the hero to win, but against a crowd — a whole family and town of persons whose desire to have the hero win bids fair to having him fail. Those who love him love him too much to permit him to breathe. They all want the victory – for themselves – and every one of them is ignorant of that fact. They are led by the hero’s immediate family which is led by his volatile controlling mother who is also his manager. She is played to perfection by Melissa Leo, and it is a performance that never betrays the character by letting up on her strategies and her sentimentality and her willful ignorance. Leo never injects the character with a depth that is not inherent in her. She is the mother of seven daughters and two sons, and only one of those sons does she really love, and it’s not the fighter. It’s the older one, a balding palooka played by Christian Bale, in a showy role, an opportunity which he makes full and imaginative use of. The story is based on two real fighters, brothers, Micky and Dicky Ward — and Dicky, Bale’s character, is exactly like the mother, domineering and massively self-ignorant. The picture cleverly opens with him walking in glory with his brother past the local classes of Lowell Mass as though he were the fighter of the title. Even the fighter’s girlfriend eventually wants to control the fighter, played, in a perfectly cast picture, by Amy Adams, as a tough-minded barkeep. The problem is that the fighter himself will fight in the ring, but not outside the ring. He is not volatile; he is steady and withdrawn. It’s the hardest role in the movie to play, for, while Bale’s character tries the patience of everyone in the movie, Mark Wahlberg’s character tries the patience of everyone in the movie house. Eventually he has to get into the boxing ring with his own mother before he can stand up for himself. Mark Wahlberg gives a beautifully judged performance, but one so surrounded by the color and fireworks of the group that it may go unregarded, unrecognized, unrewarded. Yet Wahlberg is able to summon a resident dumbness in perfect response to the drubbing his family gives him. The film is beautifully directed, filmed, costumed, and set, but, of course, fight films depend upon editing. The fight sequences go well; there are three of them; but scene speed steals meaning from drama, and modern editing does our job for us such that we in the audience, being told what to do with every quick cut, are never allowed, any more than Micky Ward is allowed, to let things sink in long enough to register.  When Wahlberg finally seizes the stage the editing needs to become steady to match his energy, but it doesn’t; it remains volatile, and so the denouement is absolutely lost. Anna Magnani on camera must be edited one way; Henry Fonda another. But not here. Which means, we see the picture, we admire the picture, but in the end we do not care anything at all about the picture or about anyone in it at all.

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Anna Karenina

05 Feb

Anna Karenina — directed by Clarence Brown — Tragedy. A young mother married to a chilly bureaucrat is wooed and won by a high riding cavalry officer. 93 minutes Black and white 1935.

* * * * *

Frederick March had learned the secret of perpetual middle age, and he is no more a prince than my chest of drawers. He lacks the rash dash which John Gilbert had as Vronsky in Garbo’s earlier and silent version, which is in modern dress, and in which her scenes with her child are far more interesting than they are here with the dread Freddie Bartholomew. Vronsky requires an actor of Byronic allure, shirt open to the waist, a part perfectly suited to Errol Flynn, here being played by a businessman. Garbo plays it as though courteously exhausted by her marriage, whose doom she puts up with with a lovely and sincerely kind and interested social smile. She is unutterably beautiful, with her thick eyelashes and the astounding geography of her eyes, summoning everything from an exhausted interior. She does not look well in many of her costumes, though, and her hair-dos are an error. And of course the movie does not work because, for its transience, the love affair has to decline, and it can’t if it has never peaked, and it can’t peak if there is no lubricity between the two lovers, and there aint. The piece is over-produced; it looks foolishly expensive. as though all the Russian upper classes lived in MacMansions; Russian haute bourgeois interiors never had ceilings that weren’t there, nor were they that vast; after all, they had to be heated. Garbo does not play a beautiful woman; she, as usual, dismisses her beauty humorously as beside the point. Good. But I question the drone her voice takes on as one who has given up hopelessly before the play begins, making the performance appear a bit prefabricated. That is, I question her choice. The director Clarence Brown she liked because he managed traffic so well, but he’s an awful dullard, and the picture’s excellence, so far as it has any, is solely the product of Williams Daniels who filmed and lit most of Garbo’s films; the banquet scene, the ball, the movement of light across her face; the placement of Garbo in it; all the camera moves; all the angles; shooting from behind the harp, everything like that is not directorial, not Clarence Brown but Williams Daniels. Williams Daniels is the man. He is one really playing Vronsky here. He is the one madly in love with her. He was one of the great lighting and filming geniuses who ever lived. Garbo was a great actress and a great beauty and a great soul, and he caught it all, over and over again for us.

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Muriel’s Wedding

02 Feb

Muriel’s Wedding — directed by P.J. Hogan — a dumb Dora wants to be in the in-group, to which end she strives to be married, but she is such a mome no one will date her. She lies, cheats, and steals to achieve her goal. Good for her!  106 minutes Color 1994.

* * * * *

An Australian Georgie Girl, this ruthless satire on money, men, marriage, and mammaries brings into our welcoming sight the gifts of Toni Colette, as its forebear once did those of Lynn Redgrave. Colette brings to bear her wonderful bovine eyes and cowed head to play this moronic phony to the nines. She never lets up not getting it. Her cries of dismay are the dismay of the world and her cries of delight the delight of the world. So this is a really big conception for an actor. It’s a conception by an actor with nothing to lose and Toni Colette risks everything. For the difference with this ugly duckling is that in this version she is crowded out and nearly drowned by the other ducks. Colette makes her such an oaf that the brow-beatings bend her face to the mud but do not break her. Watch Colette “take it”, and come back for more. Into this concentration camp of cruelty rides Rachel Griffiths in rare form as a high-riding tomato, and it’s good to see her in one of her less nefarious sex-killer roles, for no actor male or female can threaten like Rachel Griffiths. This vengeful resentment is in play only later, as the story switches hands over and over. But until then, she displays a zest for fun and comedy and play that is a delight to see, and into it Colette dives with her, her character almost convinced that this fairy godmother’s rescue is real. See it, oh, see it!

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Dancing Lady

18 Jan

Dancing Lady — directed by Robert Z. Leonard — a backstage musical in which a hodgepodge  vaudeville company is drawn into feasability. 92 minutes black and white 1933.

Here Crawford is  27 and already too old for the part of a naive beginner. Her makeup is a mask over her red-head’s freckles and her eyelashes are hugely destructive to her character. But boy, was she gifted. Not as a dancer, of course, for her dancing is gauche. She flings herself about with no mercy for any of us, always looking at her feet. Nonetheless she holds the screen like nobody’s business. She had this great face, with enormous eyes, strong nose, and broad, flexible mouth with a stunner smile. She is a tower of human will in a part that requires exactly that quality. And you cannot take your eyes off her. And you root for her. And she is a very talented actress, to boot. Gable is another matter entirely. Like her, he was born exquisitely gifted to be photographed. The beautiful shape of his head is a treat to see, the way his face moves, the way his dimples operate, how the mustache gives him an upper lip, his long neck and broad sloping shoulders and slim physique, his deep gnarled voice — all these are gifts of god. But, boy could he act! He’s so skilled that it’s easy to overlook his superb ability for honest forthright acting choices which animate the house he is. Unlike Crawford whose acting choices are always noticeable, Gable’s choice are more inherent and so less noticeable. Unlike Crawford, he could actually play comedy; he could actually play parts that made a fool of himself. The picture here is one of many these two made together. In real life they had a long affair. And on the screen it shows and shows well.  He is all impatient resistance; she is all desperate eagerness. What a perfect match. The film is a backstage musical with huge incoherent production numbers of the Busby Berkeley stripe, and, mercifully, very little of Joan’s “dancing” — certainly not with Fred Astaire who appears with her in a couple of numbers well organized to disguise her limitations. The songs are by Burton Lane, so that’s nice. And Franchot Tone (one of Crawford’s real-life husbands) does his insouciant sophisticate on one side of the stage while the Three Stooges cavort and bonk one another on the other. (There’s a Three Stooges extra, too, if you like them, and I don’t.) Robert Benchley brings his fumbling into several scenes and the deco settings are grand, though Crawford’s costumes are overdone. This is not high art. It fact it is not art at all. So, from the title, don’t expect Cyd Charisse to round the bend and astound us with her gams and class and talent. You don’t expect great art from a supermarket generic brand. That’s not what you go for. You expect something that is filling without being in any way nourishing. Such is the experience of Dancing Lady. And. by the way, she aint no lady.

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Idiot’s Delight

18 Jan

Idiot’s Delight — directed by   Clarence Brown — a comedy about a pack of vaudeville players and assorted types trapped in a European mountain resort as WWII breaks out around them.  107 minutes  black and white 1939.

* * * *

Clark Gable. He had a foundation of great masculinity, great presence, and great authority. So we who grew up with him in his heyday overlooked what a superb and various actor in the technical sense he always was. He loved being an actor. He trained hard for it. He made sacrifices to learn it. He took it seriously. We who saw him in his film heyday did not know that. What we knew was his extraordinary natural foundation of masculinity, presence, and authority. But here one would have to say that Gable really carries the picture on his acting alone, because, while Norma Shearer is rather good in the Garbo take-off, which dominates the central portion of the story, the scenes which frame her impersonation are not properly prepared and played. Nor do the supporting parts, as cut from Robert E. Sherwood’s play, work well, although they are played by masters of their craft, the great Charles Coburn and the ingenious Burgess Meredith, both in thankless roles. Edward Arnold’s part is as baffling in its story line as is Joseph Shildkraut’s. Their roles lack narrative completion; that is to say, they have not been properly honored by the writers, editors or producers. Lynn Fontanne played it originally with Alfred Lunt in the Gable role, but Gable is much better cast, for he makes a marvelous rogue. And no one could brush off a needy female like Gable. But what is really present — and watch for it — are the moments when the camera is on him alone. Behind that handsome mug and that masculinity and presence and authority is an actor in full operation on all burners, responding with exactly the right feeling for the situation at hand. Watch the variety of incredulities with which he receives Shearer’s tall tales. Watch his eyes. And sit for a moment and consider how convincing a motive is his scepticism as a driving force to uncover her ruse; it fuels his sexuality and it fuels his love for her. And yet he holds it very lightly, as lightly as the straw hat and cane with which he performs a creditable song-and-dance vaudeville routine, backed by six blonds, one of them the lovely Virginia Grey. Gable carries the film, and it’s worth watching to see how he does it.

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One Hour With You

14 Jan

One Hour With You — directed by Ernst Lubitsch –– A musical in which two ladies vie for the bedroom of M. Chevalier. black and whitel [1932]

* * * * *

Lubitsch’s perpetual sense-of-humor-cigar is that sex is a jest that people inevitably loose their sense of humor over. The one who loses it here is Jeanette MacDonald. Now, I want you to listen very carefully to what I am about to say, for no matter what you may think of “old” films, especially this old, they possess a quickness of wit and heart to be found no place else. You may like or despise the hairdos and the decor. You may dismiss the frivolity, but you’d be a rash to miss any movie that begins with a line like this: “She was a brunette when I married her, and now I can’t believe a thing she says.” Again, in this piece we have the light-operetta style so suited to the non-singer. Maurice Chevalier appeared to sing. Of course he didn’t sing; he never sang his whole life long. He simply appeared to. So do we care whether he will jilt his wife and spend the night with that most forward of minxes, Genevieve Tobin? Perhaps not, but that is the entire point. Neither should his wife, Jeanette care. The world is a cocktail. Why not? If the world is not a cocktail, then how can you make a movie about the folly of sex? And what we mean by sex is sexual attraction. The act itself is best left to closed lids. You could never entertain points about that attraction unless your setting was frivolous. When the frivolous becomes the essential, you have something worth looking at. You have a way of seeing. You have a way of penetrating. You have a chance for latitude of view. You can relax. You don’t have to worry about making the rent. You can laugh. And, best of all, you can breathe like a human being once more.

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The Tourist

06 Jan

The Tourist – directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – an international thriller in which two casual acquaintances must elude their assassins together. 103 minutes color 2010.

* * * * *

An Angelina Jolie picture guarantees luxe. Creamy photography, svelte closeups, and the promise of ineffable lips. And so it proves here. This is not a picture such as Changeling, where she is required to create a character. No indeedy, that is not in her gift. What we get is Angelina Jolie once more in one of her power-beauty roles, and boy is she good at it. We see her walk down the street in a fabulous dress, and everyone makes way for her to the right and the left and everywhere else in the picture — which is an international intrigue show. She sits at a cafe table — and the entire film rotates around her, spies, detectives, gangsters. For what more could one ask? The film really delivers your money’s worth in the realm of elegant mystery suspense along the lines of To Catch A Thief– and set in Technicolor Venice, to boot! Grand Canal, grand palace, grand hotel – wow! Johnny Depp plays the stranger she meets on a train, and it’s good to see him play such a gormless chap, a Midwestern, community college math teacher. She comes on to him, and he doesn’t know what to do with himself, and which of us would? Depp doesn’t miss a trick in playing this part. This is high praise for an actor who has seemed to become over-exposed of late, and given to performances which have not been worked through properly beforehand or mistakenly accepted, such as the demon barber of Fleet Street. But here the whole film is a fancy latte. It cools off a bit at the end as it becomes under-edited. But never mind; that’s what happens with a latte. Until then, you sip slowly and in a civilized manner, and you don’t ask for anything more than to be beguiled by the tasty confection presented.

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Cowboy Del Amor

01 Jan

Cowboy Del Amor – directed by Michele Ohayon – a humorous documentary about a matchmaking business, for single gents interested in securing a Mexican bride, run by a cowboy – 86 minutes color 2005.

* * * * *

Ivan Thompson, who plays Dolly in Demming, New Mexico, takes us south of the border with various hopeful hombres. The whole situation would be grim were it not legitimate and were it not leavened by the charm and savvy of this natural humorist, the sole proprietor and bride prospector of the business. He is really to be met and savored. Because of him, this is one of the most entertaining pictures I saw all year, and certainly the best recent comedy – although it is, of course, a documentary. The technical talent who made it are storeys above the usual documentarians. It is superbly directed and shot and recorded and scored, and it is edited by none other than the great documentary editor Kate Amend. The situation of American men declining to marry American women and so turning to Latin American women is a product of American men finding American women “too hard to please,” perhaps, but it also has to do with the desire in certain American men for women to consider marriage a willing peonage. In two instances we see great physical attraction in play – but with Ivan Thompson, at any rate, it leads to bafflement in his own marriage, as though women, who he says are as beautiful as horses, were meant to be roped and corralled, and that’s the story. The documentary takes us into the homes and hearts of our friends in Mexico, and into the sweet odd moment of meeting one’s maybe-destined mate. A lovely film, respectful, perspicacious, and, because of Mr. Thompson, consistently funny.

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Trouble In Paradise

31 Dec

Trouble In Paradise – directed by Ernst Lubitsch — High comedy involving two international con artists who meet and match.  Black and white [1932]

* * * * *

Mind you, Lubitsch’s comedies don’t bring you the steak and kidney pie of realism. But if you can endure the faint afterglow brought on by the finest hock accompanied by the most exquisite of Viennese pastry, then you are invited to the party. Lubitsch had a directorial technique that engages the audience as accomplices in the narrative itself.  Watching Lubitsch one congratulates everyone including oneself. Billy Wilder who trained himself under Lubitsch said: “The key is to make it effective, but don’t make it obvious. Make it clear to them, but don’t spell it out like the audience are just a bunch of idiots. Just aim it slightly above their station and they’re going to get it. This is what I learned from Ernst Lubitsch. He had a real touch, a gift of involving the audience into writing the script with him as it was unfolding on the screen. In other words, he was not the kind of a director who kind of hammered it down and said, ‘Now listen to me, you idiots. There now, put down the popcorn bag, I’m going to tell you something. Two and two is four.’ He said, ‘No, just give them two and two and let them add it up. They’re going to do it for you. And they’re going to have fun with it. They’re going to play the game with you.'”  Here the game is the contest between the attraction existing between society thieves Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall conflicted by the moolah they separately might seize upon. Even the customarily nasty Miriam Hopkins is likable here, and Kay Francis, she of the beautiful arms and eyebrows, well, she’s elegant and generous, and perfectly matched with Marshall, who strikes just the right note as the suave amorous cat burglar. What is funny here cannot and must not be described here, since it must come upon you as a surprise. But let us say, the director masters the material by letting the audience master it too, that is by letting us in on the telling of the tale, and we dive in head first. There is no other choice. Trouble In Paradise is a seminal cinema work. It is thought of as the greatest high comedy ever put down on film. All writing and directing for the screen since its time flowers around it — if, that is to say, the comedy is humorous, the comedy of humans rather than the comedy of clowns. We are not talking about situation comedy here or cartoon. Because we are not talking about directing for broad effects. No – funny as that may be – this is tastier. It is not in the line of screen pantomime as in Chaplin or in screen acrobatics as in Keaton, either. Here’s what I mean: Lubitsch once directed a silent version of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan without using a single caption of Wilde, and yet Lubitsch created exactly the Wildean style on screen. Now I ask you. So, sit back with your better bottle of wine, and prepare to smile and, not just to be flattered but to join in the flattery yourself.

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The Smiling Lieutenant

31 Dec

The Smiling Lieutenant — directed by Ernst Lubitsch — a musical triangle with M. Chevalier at the center, set in some Grausarkian mitteleuropean utopia where such a thing is conceivable. A candy box plot of who shall eat the bonbon. Black and white [1931

* * * * *

What a madness! There stands Maurice Chevalier desired by Claudette Colbert on the one side and Miriam Hopkins on the other. It’s the same plot situation in One Hour With You — a Chevalier standard. He was touted as having irresistible charm, I expect, because there was so much in it to resist. That chimpanzee mouth. Those rollicking eyes. Those giddy shoulders. What he does have is a beautifully shaped patent leather head, broad shoulders, physical speed. What he has is accessibility to the scene and to the other actors, and this makes him flexible and responsive. He also had an insuperable confidence in his sexual attractability. Like everybody else, he adored working with Lubitsch — Garbo said Lubitsch was the only director of talent she ever worked with. The performance here is Colbert’s. She was French but did not speak with Chevalier’s gruesome French accent. But I shouldn’t say that, for it was part of his Gallic allure, supposedly, for indeed he spoke perfect unaccented English in everyday life, and his accent was purely for performances purposes. Anyhow, Colbert is so loving, so susceptible, so much fun, so kind, so pretty that one roots for her over and against the poisonous and spoiled Hopkins. During a parade, Chevalier has smiled across the street to his girlfriend, Colbert, but Hopkins, a princess passing in a barouche, believes him to be smiling at her. Trouble, my friends, ensues. The songs are minor and easy and work well with Chevalier’s song-speak style. The production is stupendous, the lighting velvety. Old George Barbier is marvelous as the king. Lubitsch is ruthless about the ruthlessness of sex. That is his great joke. That was God’s great joke upon us. That is why all actors thought Lubitsch was God — and maybe he was.

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That Uncertain Feeling

31 Dec

That Uncertain Feeling — directed by Ernst Lubitsch — an idle society bitch is bored by her husband and falls in love with a temperamental pianist. black and white – 1941.

* * *

This is a remake of a movie by Lubitsch himself, The Marriage Circle, and it failed at the time and fails still. Of course there is Melvyn Douglas who was a master at high comedy. An actor of great charm and zest and authority, three times Garbo’s leading man, Douglas brings his timing and easy masculinity into play and every scene he appears in comes alive around him. And Burgess Meredith, in the David Wayne role, as the spoiled other man, brings his quirky energy into the mix. But there is a rancid olive at the bottom of the cocktail, and that is Merle Oberon. The role requires the open and loving heart of a Claudette Colbert, and we get instead the gelid soul of Oberon. Her face is paralyzed as ‘twas by Novocain, a condition that happens to actresses who somehow fall into films but are not actors by calling or temperament. Kim Novak was another. There have been many. Oberon has a cold voice. She has none of the inner fluidity of deep humor that is a necessary ingredient in comedy. Nor does Lubitsch’s particular ruthless take on marriage work here. One cannot buy the glibness of the divorce. You’d need the hurt heart of Rosalind Russell for that. One cannot even buy the original marriage. And one cannot buy into Oberon as a beauty over whom men would go bonkers: there is no inner beauty in her, poor thing. Maybe in real life, but not on the screen. At least not here. But the fault is Lubitsch’s really, not just in casting her, but in making this leaden story enlivened, it is true, by occasional masterful moves of his comic genius, but not enough to carry the day. And after he made it, he said so himself.

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BlueBeard’s Eight Wife — I Met Him In Paris

31 Dec

Bluebeard’s Seventh Wife — directed by Ernst Lubitsch —  I Met Him In Paris — directed by Charlie Ruggles — black and white — 1937

* * * * *

Charlie Ruggles directs Paris and Ernst Lubitsch directs Bluebeard, and the difference is startling. Both directors have amusingly improbable scripts, both have big stars talents, but Ruggle’s film isn’t funny where it ought to be, and Lubitsch’s film is funny even where it ought not to be. Lubitsch is a realm unto itself. Somehow he could create a context where comedy — or rather humor — could flourish. The long astonishing opening sequence of Bluebeard is a case in point. You must remember that Gary Cooper was one of the world’s best-dressed men, tutored in it by the much older woman who kept him, the Countess De Frassio. So Gary Cooper enters a posh Riviera haberdashery and is accosted by a silly salesman to whom he pays no attention. What we notice is that Cooper, the least responsive of actors, is on the uptake right from the start and through the whole long sequence, which includes more parts that I have space to tell you of here, and ends with Cooper meeting Claudette Colbert and both of them throwing one another away. But my question is: how can Lubitsch get this usually unfocussed and self-indulgent actor Gary Cooper to bowl in the money alley? (He even used Cooper in, of all things, Design For Living!) Lubitsch was a kind of soufflé in which comedy could take place, and anyone who appeared in a film of his found comic grace awaiting them. Colbert is an expert high comedienne but even she, in the second feature, I Met Him In Paris, even Melvyn Douglas who is a deft comedian, and even Robert Young who has his own neat gifts in the craft, cannot make anything but a dull dish out of Paris. In it, though, we have a charming scene of Douglas and Colbert ice-skating, and I want your opinion: does Douglas look ridiculous in knickers, or am I mistaken and does he really bring it off? Lubitsch on the other hand somehow makes one complicit in the fun. He credits your intelligence and willingness to participate in the story as he tells it, so you become part of the telling. He lets you do your job as an audience. How satisfying! How rewarding! How hand-rubbingly droll!

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Ninotchka

31 Dec

Ninotchka – directed by Ernst Lubitsch – light comedy about a schoolmarmish Russian bureaucrat who come to Paris to straighten out three crooked countrymen and falls in love with a hat. I hour 50 minutes black and white 1939.

* * * * *

Garbo laughs, yes, but before that she brings onto the scene her basso profundo gloom, and it’s a smart move because of the big silly she finds herself eventually preferring to become. She said Lubitsch was the only director of talent she ever worked with, which is odd because she worked with Mamoulian and Boleslavsky and Stiller and Sjostrom. If she meant the result she was allowed to arrive at here, her remark is understandable. Garbo never did anything symmetrical with her body; she always chose to be at an angle. William Daniels who lit her understood she was better in three quarter or close up and not moving. All this works in her favor here, as she drops her famed droop and opens up into  the rich sense of humor and fun everyone who knew her said she had. If she wanted to be left alone, it was probably because she wanted to have a good time, and that is certainly what she does here in the company of Ina Claire, in a rare screen performance, which nonetheless does not make plain why she was and really must have been Broadway’s great light comedienne of her era. Melvyn Douglas brings his boulevardier humor and easy masculinity into Garbo’s view, and teaches her the inner virtues of champagne. This is Lubitsch’s home territory: gladsome Paris, Europe in a tuxedo. In fact it is his only territory. Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach play the naughty trio, and watch Garbo’s shift into friendship with them as she treats with them. Simple. But what an actress! There is a lot to be said about Garbo in films: how she had to be imitated and could not be imitated and what she understood about film acting that nobody has ever understood so well since, but here, just sit back and take pleasure in the pleasure of another time, another genius caught in flight by another genius for us forever.

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Annie Oakley

17 Dec

Annie Oakley — directed by George Stevens — a country lass can shoot the thorns off a rose at 50 paces. So she joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

*

This is a George Stevens production???!!! — the George Steven who directed Alice Adams and The More The Merrier and Shane and Woman Of The Year? Inconceivable! It is a movie devoid of distinction, except for the slight truth Preston Foster gives it as the boasting sharpshooter Annie loves. The script is so poor even Stanwyck looks like a bad actress, which she wasn’t. She was an actress of limited range and disposition, sure, but she had the common touch and a beautiful carriage and natural presence and surety of execution, all of which counted for a lot in her work — in any actor’s work. Sorry, but this film is puerile. One wonders at the aesthetic degradation studios felt they had to drag their audiences into in order to snare them. In real life, Annie Oakley was a woman of parts, smart and able and of fine disposition, and she had a long career. Why didn’t Stevens make a film about the fun of that? Stanwyck is able to convey Annie’s youth — as a teenager — but, of course, she is incapable of creating a character — why should she? — she already herself had enough character for twenty — and besides the script gives her so little to work on. And as to the director — oye! — who would have thought that he would one day direct A Place In The Sun.

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East Side, West Side

17 Dec

East Side, West Side — directed by Mervyn Leroy — drama about a society woman who finds her husband is stepping out on her. 108 minutes black and white 1949

* * * *

Cyd Charisse had an appealing lady-like quality to her, something modest and reserved. Also something inherently comedic, as can be seen in her ravishing poker-faced finale-dances in the saloons with Astaire and Kelly. Here she is less brilliantly dressed than the female star who is the addiction of James Mason in the picture, a sex addict helpless to stop himself. Understandable if the object of his compulsion happens to be Ava Gardner. Gardner really can’t act, and she knew it, and both things show. She was a very interesting woman off the screen, one hears, rather like Paulette Goddard was — direct, honest, and fun. Here, as usual, she is forced and broad and untrained, and it is painfully obvious in her scenes opposite Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck always had the common touch as an actress. She was a girl from Brooklyn and never lost her Brooklyn accent. She was tiny, had a marvelous carriage, moved fabulously, exuded physical strength, had great direct execution as an actress — everything was clear and ready — and she had an interesting alto vocal quality to boot. But the voice is somewhat flat and she is always all too ready with a response. She is canny as an actress in her few pauses, but she does tend to rush her lines and leaves most of her material unexplored for its details. (For a detail-brilliant actress see Geraldine Page.) She lacks breadth and range: she seldom played comedy, although she was a Good Time Charley at it when she did. But essentially her dramatic range even at high pitch is monotonous. She is peculiar in looks and in energy. She was convincing as someone who worked for a living, someone who did things. Here she plays a Park Avenue matron, which is, of course, ridiculous, but she gets away with it, not because she acts it or has to act it, but because every character in the story plays up to her as such, just as, for film after film, she is referred to as a beauty, which, of course, she was not. But she was someone whom we were all accustomed to, like Dick Tracy or Blondie. Into this Hollywood cocktail arrives the earthy and naturally humorous Van Heflin, with his lovely technique, who breathes an air of reality into the proceedings that nearly topples the picture. But he is a very adaptable actor and one who is appealingly self-effacing. The film is a fancy MGM production — pulp, of course, but, if one likes pulp, as I do, a show with a lot of residual merit.

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Lady Of Burlesque

17 Dec

Lady Of Burlesque – directed by William Wellman – a backstage mystery comedy about a hooch dancer and a couple of murdered canaries. 91 minutes black and white 1943.

* * * * *

Every student of film and every person fascinated by its craft could not do better than to watch William Wellman’s management of crowd movement in this back-stage whodunit. The set is spectacularly real in terms of its seediness, dusty props, crumby dressing rooms, and crowdedness. The film is alive with imaginative motion. Which stops dead when the inspector calls to examine the personnel and everyone has to gather in a dressing room that allows of scarcely any motion at all. So the movie lurches effectively between the hurly burly and hustle of the shows and the standstill of these scenes. Michael O’Shea plays the two-bit fool who woes the heroine and he is perfectly cast because he is lower-class at heart and so is Barbara Stanwyck, a Brooklyn girl from way back. She is not physically convincing as a Burlesque Queen; she does not have the aplomb or the powerful double-entendre of a Gypsy Rose Lee who wrote the story, but otherwise she is marvelous, for two reasons. She is a person of determination: her walk is like a naval destroyer moving across a duck pond. And she had the common touch. The burley-que life on stage was coarser than what we see here, but the casting of the girls with their snappy slang brings out the necessary, as do the costumes organized around their bodies not to reveal their sexuality but to astound by exaggerating it symbolically. A g-string tells less than a three foot hat!

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Baby Doll

04 Dec

Baby Doll — directed by Elia Kazan — a comedy about a nubile teen age girl, her drooling husband, and the cotton gin of a rival. 114 minutes black and white 1956.
★★★★★
Of the six great Kazan films, all made around the same time: A Streetcar Named Desire, Panic In The Streets, Viva Zapata, On The Waterfront, East Of Eden, it is the last.

Baby Doll is one of the funniest American comedies ever made, and it certainly is the most unusual – because it resembles the low comedy of comedia del arte and certain films of Da Sica and Fellini.

Completely the opposite of the starched and laundered comedies of Doris Day, those tense technicolor sundaes of that era, Baby Doll is a comedy based in actual humor, and comes from the pen of the finest ear in the English language since Congreve.

When Caroll Baker, asserts to Eli Wallach that she is not a moron by saying: “I am a måagazine-reader!” we are in the land of comic plenty.

And when the great Mildred Dunnock as the half-cocked Aunt Rose Comfort, picking bedraggled weeds in the unkempt garden, calls them “Poems of Nature” we are in poetry heaven.

Mildred Dunnock was nominated for an Academy Award for this performance, and she and the luscious Carroll Baker and the foxy Eli Wallach and the profusely sweating Karl Malden make the most of all that Kazan and the Deep South location and Tennessee Williams’ script and The Method can offer.

This is a movie to see over and over, over the years, and I have. An American classic!

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Indiscretion Of An American Wife

04 Dec

Indiscretion Of An American Wife – directed by Vittorio Da Sica – drama of a couple of grownups having to say goodbye in a railway station. 63 minutes black and white 1954.

* * * *

De Sica has an infallible comic sense. The entire picture takes place in a railway station, and he fills the canvas with absurd wonderful vignettes and intrusions. From the twelve year old boy to the 90 year old voyeur to the band marching to hail the arrival of The President to the ridiculous woman with the packages and the poodle. All this is spread before us as counterpoint and choral context to a tragedy. Unfortunately the tragedy does not ensue, for the simple reason that the passion necessary between the two characters burns only in the male. He is played by Montgomery Clift with complete conviction and intensity. You believe he loves her. You never believe she loves him. Oh, she is discomforted, she is upset, she is apologetic, she is various things, but she is never on fire for him. Jennifer Jones is the lady. And she remains The Lady, the wife of a producer who stole her from her husband and the father of her children, Robert Walker, with the promise of making her a big star. He then cast her as hot temptresses, women with names like Pearl and Ruby, whose illicit love-skills would drive even Gregory Peck to destruction, make even the righteous Charlton Heston’s stiff neck wobble. Naturally she is not going to play the thing she was: a two-timing wife, which is what she is cast as here. What she does here is a matron in a Dior suit. She is never indiscrete. Her uncertainty as an actress is touching. But pathos is insufficient for grand passion. Here as elsewhere she acts as though in a vitrine, holding herself as precious object to be gazed at behind glass. We know there is a longer version of this film, 90 minutes, with the original title, Stazione Termini –- Terminus in English, and the right title instead of this dreadfully wrong one. This is a version which was cut for American audiences and which failed to find them. Truman Capote wrote the English dialogue.

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Crossed Over

03 Dec

Crossed Over – directed by Bobby Roth — a novelist who has lost her son in a hit-and-run becomes friends with a notorious murderess in prison. 89 minutes color 2002.

* * * *

It but touches on things. How could it have done otherwise? I don’t know. The hell-realm of Karla Faye Tucker would be something worth looking at, but instead of going inside, we skip along on the stones of her personal history, but we never fall in, for the script misses itself. Very sad about her, good that she had a spiritual emergence. And then was executed. That was enough. The Diane Keaton character who persistently visits Tucker after her own son is killed by a hit-and-run driver is also given the once-over. Diane Keaton is an actor of genius; her recognition scene early in the picture is stunning. Maury Chaykin is an actor of the very first rank, and he offers a lot to Keaton here; he brings a sense of her reality in him, and so we do believe they are well married. But what we are given, instead of the collusion of Keaton and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Tucker, in a mysterious joining, is pat. The tears are pat. The sorrows are pat. The rapprochements are pat. Everything is routine. It is as though history must be honored over truth; as though this were not a drama but a documentary. Jennifer Jason Leigh is well cast as the murderess. She is an actor of great brilliance, whose career has collapsed because of a failure of voice production and trained actor’s proper articulation. One never understand the words she is saying. Nonetheless she is perfectly cast here, for the part needs an actress of no personal appeal whatsoever, and such she is. The film is well-directed and very well filmed. The prison mis-en-scene is uncannily right. But where is the power of a real story?

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Surrender, Dorothy

02 Dec

Surrender, Dorothy – directed by Charles McDougall – a middle class drama about a middle-aged mother hounding the ghost of her daughter – 86 minutes color 2006.

* * * * *

Well, an actress has to work, and when a highly professional big star like Diane Keaton is given full rein in a 20-day, low budget TV drama, watch out. This part should have been played by a Jewish or Mediterranean actress whose grieving style might make this story swallowable. But Keaton, an actress of genius, has, without rehearsal, only the liberty to quirk things up; forgive her, it is her only recourse, since she is miscast. The direction makes one suppose the director is a dullard, which he proves himself to be as he is involved in, count them, two commentaries, one side by side with Keaton, who has the decency to say little, although she does give some interesting clues as to her method, and the other with one of the greatest cinema-photographers in the world, Vilmos Zsigmond, who shot this picture. Anyone interested in how films are shot must dwell upon this interview. Because of the strength of his Hungarian accent, he is often difficult to understand, but don’t let that stand in your way. Do let Keaton’s costuming stand in your way, though. She descends on the summer cottage which her daughter has rented with friends, and, to the horror of those friends, she moves in and proceeds to put on her daughter’s clothes. But are they her daughter’s clothes? The wee bowler hat lets me know they are rather the costumer’s foolish submission to the Keaton sartorial style — the clothes the movie star Keaton would look, at the age of 60, cute in., and so the grotesqueness of the character’s impersonation is lost. All the scenes are beautifully shot and badly directed. The other actors are reduced to their default routines, and Keaton sometimes overacts, or turns things comic that are not. And what we are left with is a new mode of drama invented here for the first time: Cute Tragedy. But, if you can’t stomach the picture, check out the five-star commentaries.

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Burlesque

29 Nov

Burlesque – directed by Steve Antin – a musical about farm girl with hidden talent who comes to L.A and tries to break into Show Business – 118 minutes color 2010.

* * * * *

Cher is perfectly cast as a Burlesque Queen which is what she is and always has been. She is a National Treasure, so we must seize any opportunity that comes along to be in her presence. She is especially good in the first half of the picture in her relations with the extraordinary Stanley Tucci who has won so many Academy Awards it would not be fair to bestow another on him for this delicious performance, and the excellent Peter Gallagher, her former husband and present business partner. Cher declines in interest as the plot not just thickens but curdles around her, for she is in peril of losing her nightclub, oh dear, and Will Not Sell Out. The director should have told her that Tigresses do not weep. Otherwise the piece is very well directed and beautifully filmed, and one feels that a major musical is in hand. The duties of the plot eventually forbid this, of course, but at least we have Cher, in very good voice, singing two songs, the second of which is indecipherable because her enunciation is, as usual, blurred by her vocal production. However the principal player here is one Christine Aguilera, whose vocal quality is similar to Cher’s. She has one Big Number after another, and she is impressive, and these are set on a stage which it is conceivable could hold them. However they are show-off-edited, such that the cuts prevent any single number from registering, so you never can tell what the performer is actually accomplishing. One good part of that is that the off-stage stories are spliced into these numbers at times, which works for the stories if not always for the numbers. For by praising the feat, the editing distances us from experiencing the feat of such performances, and , by giving us canned admiration, forcing us out of  admiring it for ourselves. The dancers and singers are full of beans and beyond-talent, and that does satisfy. Burlesque, in the old days when there was Burlesque, was live-theater in which dirty-joke comics alternated with ladies who disrobed or almost avoided disrobing. In this version the numbers combine the dirty jokes with the witty songs and parodic dances, all of which is dandy. The only striptease is performed by Cam Gigandel who is our heroine’s beau, and who takes it off all the way at one point with great comic effect. He has a mighty fine figure and is a deft and imaginative actor and a good looking young man, perfect in his scenes, and perfectly cast. I hope he has a future. We need a great big smashing musical every year, and this year, this is it!

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The Next Three Days

20 Nov

The Next Three Days –– directed by Paul Haggis –– suspense thriller about a woman convicted of murder and her husband who is not at all convicted she did it. Color 2010.

* * * * *

Well, you may wonder if you are in your ripe forties and had the part Russell Crowe plays here how well could you play it? Not within a mile as well as Russell Crowe does, was my answer as I watched. He is in his scruffy three-days-unshaven mode here, and he is in the hands of rough story that carries us into its surprises without betraying our credulity. Crowe plays a man unexceptionally in love with his wife, well played by Elizabeth Banks, and the conviction he brings to his feeling for her is the carrying force of the film on an emotional level. This love is put to the test by his own foolish plans to rescue her which projects us into the level of action, where the film is never still, always thrusting us forward into its next frustration, calamity, conniption. Crowe is in virtually every scene, and his registration as an actor is sterling throughout. He is always on the emotional and physical money. The film, however, is grounded, not by this performance but by the writing and direction and playing of his son, who is quiet and calm and patient, and represents the unspoken value system of the piece therefore. True, the director takes us past certain improbabilities to reach its excitement, but they vanish swiftly as the plot parts and lets us in on it. Liam Neeson has one scene, and he is superb in it. Altogether a well-written, tightly told  action adventure piece, beautifully produced, costumed, cast, written, designed, and performed.

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Mad Love

19 Nov

Mad Love –– directed by Antonia Bird –– a young man falls for a nutcase –– 96 minutes 1995.

**

You cannot pick the lice of this picture fast enough to outstrip their replacements. The script is the first louse in that it depicts what no human would do under the circumstances. The second louse is that the script gives us no characters, only premises conterfeiting characters: the girl is mad and the boy falls madly in love: this does not constitute character. For the third louse, we have lines no human would say. For the fourth, we have direction aimed to slant us to forgiving what is unforgivable and to finding dear what is reprehensible. We also have a director who allows the principal actor to fake it. Which brings us to the fifth and sixth louse, Chris O’Donnell and Drew Barrymore, neither of whom have enough substance as humans to hold our interest. Chris O’Donnell is not a bad actor, but he stands with Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey as unwatchable because the corners of his mouth naturally turn up in a perpetual smug self-satisfied smirk. It’s not his fault, but I can’t bear to look at him. Finally, we come back to the sixth louse, Drew Barrymore who gives a performance which she will live to be ashamed of if she lives to be as old as her grand-aunt, whose jaw line and chin she inherited, along with the high bridge of the Barrymore nose, and the family toleration for hackwork. Her performance here is infested with cheap choices, for she loads every scene she plays with a pitch for our sympathy. She was 20, and her behavior is cute beyond human recognition. Her miscalculation is to play pained innocence, which, of course, must come across as self-pity, whereas she would have been smarter to play ugly out-and-out fury, which would have produced sympathy. She has become a better actor since. This brings us to the un-lice, Joan Allen as the mother. She has but one tiny acting scene, in a school psychologist’s office, with her husband, well-played by Robert Nadir. Allen gives him a look in which an entire family history is lodged. But this is but a great actress, untouched amid an infestation.

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Georgia O’Keeffe

19 Nov

Georgia O’Keeffe–– directed by Bob Balaban–– the tortuous relations between a painter and her artist/promoter husband –– 89 minutes color 2009.

* * *

Joan Allen –– is she not the premier actress in America film today? So you wonder why she would subject her gifts to the script presented here. She and Jeremy Irons can each carry a film to the moon and back, and yet there must be something to carry. Allen has the thin-lipped pinched, pioneer, poverty face (although O’Keeffe’s is a man’s face), so she can look the part. But that’s as much as she can do. The problem lies in the screenplay, drawn between documentary accuracy and the underlying taffy-pull of the love relations. So the script falls a-clunk between those two stools, and the actors are given no foundation. On one side, the documentation is inconsequential to anyone but O’Keeffe (the film does not get New Mexico light right), and, on the other, the love-relations do not develop, but decline into a stasis. Drama cannot breathe in what does not change. The film also falls flat because it falls in love with O’Keeffe in her every aspect. O’Keeffe has become a statue of liberty for the feminism of the 20th Century, but it is not possible to estimate the artistic merit of A Statue Of Liberty. She herself knew she was not a first class painter. Indeed she is barely a third class painter. This would have been an interesting premise for a film. We know O’Keeffe was cold, ruthless, and that she never thoroughly learned her craft is the first thing obvious about her work. Steiglitz was, on the other hand, a photographer of the first rank. He was also a lover of painting, and, as such, he promoted her. The film makers think of him as an impresario, like Diaghilev or P.T. Barnum, but he was closer to Sol Hurok, simply a presenter of art works in the right place. He was essentially a promoter – not because he was a flimflam man but because he loved other people’s work. Irons’ character is written to be always wrong, and Irons’ performance keeps falling to pieces trying to honor the mallet of this unactable opinion. O’Keeffe is made out to be right all the time, and Allen has the devil’s own job of negotiating this horror. Yet it is an exercise of our admiration to watch her do it. The collision of their characters would have been far more interesting minimilizing its data and maximizing the way she used him. A woman without conscience, who falls in with a man who is all about love, not knowing whether he loves her or the her in her work or her work as a work of her. A film can only tell one story. The story of the relations of Holmes to Moriarity and Watson is one story, not two. There are never two stories. Because, if you think there are, you can only create two hackney coaches which you cannot set off in the same direction at the same time.

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Easter Parade

14 Nov

Easter Parade –– directed by Charles Walters –– a famous hoofer chooses a bistro chorus girl to turn into his next dance partner –– 103 minutes color 1948.

* * * * *

Even with Edith Head doing the things, Judy Garland proved impossible to costume properly, a doom of her entire career. This was partly to due to the fact she not only was devoid of urbanity but she was also devoid of any show biz cache and she was short waisted and very tiny. What she exuded was The Rural, a quality that did not lend itself to haute couture or any kind of couture, vis the ghastly green velvet dress with the mink stole and all the others. Her best costume is a rust bathrobe with no makeup. Or the costumes for her comic numbers. From The Wizard Of Oz on she is rural, not because she was in that movie but because she is devoid of guile. She was very intelligent and quick and a lot of fun and talented beyond reason. Her gifts as an actress were remarkable: she is present, even when her deep brown eyes seem absent, responsive, imaginative, physical, ready, and always with a wellspring of humor about to burst forth. And with that rich hungry voice. Her acceptance of Peter Lawford as a pick-up in the charming song, A Fellah With An Umbrella, is a model of good naturedness, an actress’s choice that can’t be beat. The only element  defying this is an eyebrow make-up, here and always, unreal. Astaire is made in the first part of the picture to look like Stan Laurel because of a bowler and because he actually does resemble Laurel. His dancings are phenominal, as he sets the pace with a terrific number with drums in a toy store. Stepping Out With My Baby is a great song, perfectly orchestrated, yes, but take care to watch his footwork still on the stairs after his entrance. He is dressed in red and white, and while the second half of the dance is sabotaged by the costumes of the other participants and the dances they have to do in them, his dance is not elaborate, but his body is vitality itself. The picture is best in its first third, at which time you think it is one of the greatest musicals ever made. But that’s because all the jolly Garland and Astaire dances are there, but one: We’re a Couple of Swells, which is a parody of The Easter Parade itself. (If you ever wanted to know what Camp actually means, this song is it.) The musical stalls somewhat as it grows over-responsible to the plot of Astaire’s vindication regarding Ann Miller, his former partner. Miller, who is Olive Oyle in tap shoes, dances like a Tommy gun and is quite good as the vainglorious diva. Watch Garland, the most generous of actors, as she listens to Jules Munshin make the salad, and how her responses just naturally help that scene build. Pay attention to her separate and particular relation to the bartender played by Clinton Sunderberg, and the camera isn’t even on her. Very well directed by Charles Walters. Wonderful Irving Berlin songs. Astaire and Garland marvelous together. An Easter Bonnet!

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Day Of Wrath

13 Nov

Day Of Wrath –– Carl Dryer –– a young bride, a young son in law, an old preacher husband –– 1943 black and white.

* * * * *

Another version of Desire Under The Elms, aka Phaedra, aka Hippolytus, and so forth. In this version we have a powerful puritanical early 17th Century village minister and his good looking young wife and grown son back from college. Watch out! Here the chorus is supplied by the old minister’s mean even older mother very ably played by Sigrid Neiiendaman. As in The Passion of Joan Of Arc, Dryer offers up immolation as the fear point of it all. And that immediately gets the ball rolling, as a stout old lady is condemned, tracked down, tortured, tried, and burned to death as a witch by the corrupt minister. A very great actress plays this part, Anna Svierkkier, and it is delightful to realize that an artist of completely modern temperament, skill, talent, and urge was already an old woman in Denmark; I thought we’d have to wait for Geraldine Page and Kim Stanley for the naturalness of this level of approach. Dryer’s layout in the piece is curious, as all the men suffer the torments of the damned and are weakened by it, while all the women are completely without conscience or guilt of any kind, and are strengthened by it. The Day Of Wrath when it comes sure aint going to bother these dames. Made in Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1944, the Teutonic (puritanical) brutality is shrouded in the severe ruffs of the age of Rembrandt. But what we are drawn to here is Dryer’s various story-telling manias, the long, long tracking shot, the devastating close-up, the molded lighting, the leisure he afford his actors and the tale, the dire solemnity of treatment, and the sense you are watching a silent picture when you are not. Do not, I say do not, lest you suffer That Wrath When The Day Comes, buy a bag of popcorn to eat this one by.

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