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Archive for the ‘PERIOD’ Category

Son Of Saul

10 Jun

Son Of Saul – directed by László Nemes. WWII Tragedy. 1 hour 47 minutes. 2015.
★★★★★
The Story: A Jewish slave working in the gas chamber of Auschwitz goes to extremes to find a rabbi to say Kaddish over an adolescent boy whom he says is his son.
~
What makes a film great?

Ruthlessness is one quality. Ruthlessness of Carol Reed’s Outcast Of The Islands and Odd Man Out, Kazan’s East Of Eden, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Here, this high virtue is achieved by the camera never leaving the point of view of the main character; the refusal to let a music score dictate value; each actor must speak his native language; no detour of melodrama or comic relief allowed; no modern comment, religious bias, prepackaged pathos, straining for sympathy, and no irony; refusal to soften the color scheme; keep the viewer inside the prison; in the audience take no prisoners.

Audiences around the world have gone along with this masterpiece for this very ruthlessness. Without it, the film would into enter the category of grand Guignol or Horror and be therefore less horrible and therefore unwatchable.

As it is, it is difficult. But I trusted everything I saw. Even at its most grueling, I respected it, knew I must go through with it. Although I hated to see what it looked like there, still that’s the way it was, and it was important for me to know. For I lived through The War and well remember what we learned in Europe that spring of 1945, and what Life magazine then and George Stevens’ camera later showed.

For here I finally see what went on, how routine it was, and how clumsy. I believed every minute of the camp and the ovens and the behavior of the Jewish slaves who had to gas their co-religionists and clean up after them by burning them and by tossing their ashes by the shovelful into the river.

The main character is perfectly cast and acted, and so is everyone else. Both the main action of the story of finding a rabbi and the secondary action, having to do with the slave rebellion and escape, propel the main character towards our hopes. Direction, filming, sets, costumes – I praise every aspect of it without exception.

So does everyone else. For it won The Best Foreign Film in the Oscars, The Golden Globes, Palm d’Or at Cannes and prizes all around the globe in many other places and nations. Indeed, Son Of Saul is said to be the most awarded debut feature in the history of cinema.

In 2015 Birdman won best Oscar. Next to Son Of Saul, Birdman is nothing. Films forgotten tomorrow lie in heaps around the feet of this film. It stands next to those of Satyajit Rey, Kurosawa, Ophuls, Renoir. You owe it to yourself to see it, and, more, important, you owe it to the film.

 

The Pacific

16 May

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Novitiate

05 Dec

The Novitiate – Directed by Margaret Betts. Drama. 123 minutes Color 2017
★★★
The Story: With no outside pressure, in fact directly in the face of her mother’s disapproval, an eighteen-year-old girl enters training to be a nun.
~
Divided of purpose, unlike its heroine, the film loses its attack on the subject through its casting. The great Melissa Leo? Miscast? Let’s see.

Fortified with an enormous technique, distinctive looks, and a particular and well-placed voice, Leo always offers someone definite. Good. She plays the Mother Superior as unnecessarily strict. The Mother has taken her very identity from the generations-old and rigorous disciplines of her order, and now Vatican II, with its slackening of ritual and custom, threatens that identity.

But the split in the story lies just here. For the Mother Superior’s obsession with her order precedes the introduction of Vatican II into the story and one might say has nothing to do with it.

“Are there any questions?” she asks the fresh novitiates. A hand is raised. “Go home,” she coldly says. “You must not question.” But the point is or ought to be that the obedience Mother Superior offers might be a value worth our attention, yet Leo’s cold playing throws our chance for that out the window along with the novitiate she has just discharged. Because Leo is draconian, we align ourselves against her and whatever she may stand for. The performance leaves no room for doubt in the novitiates or in us the audience, for, just as they do, we need the suspense of doubt to engage with their plight.

If the words had been said kindly, we would have had a chance to wonder about the values Reverend Mother offers. And to remember that, at times, unquestioning obedience is good for our souls. If the Mother Superior is played as a martinet, we are robbed of the drama of our own decision in the matter.

Perhaps the part appears to be written that way. Perhaps Leo was told to play it that way. But playing it that way dismisses the disciplines of nuns as the malpractices of sadists. Wasn’t there more and other to their practices than that?

We hear Leo lament that Vatican II declares nuns will no longer wear medieval wimples and indeed are now ordinary people. And when the film proper is over, we read that 90,000 nuns left the church. (I go on a yearly silent retreat at Santa Sabina, one such former priory.) Well, if the neighbors don’t look up to nuns as special, what is the use of remaining or becoming one. And if your spirituality in its delicacy cannot be part of and protected by walls and encouraged by the modest idolization of an order, how is a young woman to make a life’s work of devotion to God at all?

The story splits. If it were not already split by a lesbian explosion in the novitiate, Sister Cathleen, whose bone fides in a genuine spiritual calling prepare us in no way for this disruption. Margaret Qualley in the part holds our attention by remaining a complete mystery.

Leo is marvelous in all she does, but I wish the director had asked her to do something else. She holds us in our seats – but for the wrong reason.

The supporting people also hold us in our seats, particularly Julianne Nicholson as Sister Cathleen’s earthy mother, and Dennis O’Hare’s masterful fun delivering his ultimatums as an experienced and lets-get-down-to-business Archbishop.

The life of the celibate eremite is almost lost to Christian religion. The choice to withdraw forever into the gated cloister merits and requires protection, support, understanding and – why not? – respect. So where are these young people to go for the quiet, lifetime contemplation of God? Where? Many recent films have blared out the scandal of sexuality in The Church. Good. But will that stop it? Were those films meant to stop it?

Yes, they were. And in the process they seem to have damaged the structure for holy calling itself, as here, in The Novitiate. It’s a topic still worthy of a film worthy of it.

 

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

05 Jul

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – directed by Nagisa Ôshima. WWII prisoner Of War Story. 123 minutes Color 1983.
★★★★
The Story: The Commandant of a Japanese prison in Java falls in love with a British prisoner.
~
As in In The Realm Of The Senses, Ôshima deals with love’s wildest extremeties.

He is a director of simple means. He does not inflate; he does not relate. The story unfolds before one’s eyes in eminent visual narrative and in scenes in which all is present that needs to be and nothing else.

So much for his skill.

The camera captures performance like no body’s business, and everything seen convinces and holds.

Four main characters work out this material, and three of them are not actors, but hardworking, earnest, gifted amateurs. Each has a world of performance experienced in him. But of the three one becomes an actor, Takeshi Kitasno, the famed Japanese comic, who sets down in it naturally, as comedians often do when they are called upon to act – Jackie Gleason being the most renowned example of this I know of. Somehow or other Kitasno does so too.

Two world-famous rock stars play the main characters.

Tyuichi Sakamoto plays the slight, powerful, Shinto-devoté commandant who falls in love at first sight with a spiritually-freer-than-he handsome blond prisoner.

Sakamoto’s job is to repress everything. For an actor, repressing means trying to hold back going to the bathroom. You squeeze. And the credit you hand this first-time actor is that you side with him because he is in so much pain. You believe in the frozen rapture of his discipline, his ethos, his meditation, his sword-play. There is not a moment uncorsetted, until the moment of letting go happens to him, and we see him feel the greatest ecstasy he has ever felt combined with the greatest shame.

David Bowie is not an actor, but he buckles down and works his part. In other arts, we have seen David Bowie as a performer of his own fascination. And why not? He is magically beautiful and he is endowed with enough neurotic eccentricity to scrub an ocean. He is, like Robert Downey Junior, one of the angel/devil beings, born to entice and to bless and to know it. He is shameless – good. But his eyes are always in charge. So it does not matter what Bowie’s face reflects. The character is inert. The inner actor is missing. This prevents us from moving towards him as a human.

This is often the way with non-actors. The idea that non-actors are naturally free and spontaneous is delusional. What is needed from them – and many notable stars do not possess it – is the lit candle of the calling. Bowie can be the part, yes – but Bowie cannot play the part.

Such is certainly not the case with Tom Conti, an actor of choice. In interviews, he criticizes himself for too much “acting” in this film, and at times it is true, but he has the ability to respond to an imaginary situation imaginatively, situationally, not as a performer or star or personality, but as an individual meant to act in it.

We have many fine prisoner movies. I would not number this one among them. Burt Lancaster is a bad actor but he is an actor, and so The Birdman Of Alcatraz works. Acting is a high calling. David Bowie is a gifted performer, but forming and acting are not the same thing, and we all know the difference. David Bowie is beautiful. In acting, beauty does not cross the bridge. When we find the candle of the actor lit, no matter how many beautiful creatures stand near it, Edward G. Robinson is whom we will look at always.

This film is a fictional account of the war experiences of Laurents van der Pos. Accompanying this film is a biographical documentary of Laurents van der Post worth more that the film itself.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH REALISTIC, HISTORICAL DRAMA, PRISON DRAMA, Tom Conti, War Story, World War II

 

Army Of Shadows

11 Jun

Army of Shadows – directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Spy Drama. 2 hours 25 minutes Color 1970/2009.
★★★★★
The Story: Hairbreadth escapes dog the ground commanders of the Maquis, the French Resistance in WWII.
~
Impeccable.

As I left the theater I heard someone surprisedly say, “The picture never shows what those in The Resistance actually do.” What is also true, however, is that the result of whatever they did was of high danger to the occupying Germans who pursued them ruthlessly and to the death for it.

It is also surprisingly true that virtually all of those shown as leaders of the French Resistance are middle aged-people you would never take to be important spies and renegades at all. This inspires bafflement. Where is young Harrison Ford? Where is ever-young Tom Cruise?

And an additional advantage is that the actors who play them are unknown to one –at least to an ignoramus like me. I’d never seen Paul Meurisse, Lino Ventura, Claude Mann, Christian Barbier, Paul Crauchet. That means that one has no preconception as to how the story of their characters will develop or end and no idea what to expect from them as one watches. They are perfect strangers one experiences for the first time and finds one’s way into.

In France, each of them was a prized star, as was Simone Signoret (a German/Polish/Jewish/French actor who during The War took her mother’s name, Signoret, to survive deportation). Signoret plays Mathilde, the mastermind on the ground, a great woman, although in real life the wife of just some shopkeeper. Signoret’s visage with its huge, wide-spaced eyes and flexible mouth is one of the most striking of movie faces, and here it is used in various disguises – the rich widow, the head nurse, the dull housefrau, the blowsy tart, as Mathilde wends her way through enemy lines. Signoret often played grande or petite coccottes. Where are her grande amoreuses; where her Léa de Lonvals of yesteryear?

All these unknowns add mystery, surprise, and wonder to watching this film, which depicts extreme actions but focusses on the responses of the characters to those actions and is executed with rare acuteness, economy, and choice.

Melville was a participator in The Resistance. It was a perilous calling. And his great first film, The Silence Of The Sea is a stunning account of the resistance on the ground. See it. See this too. Army Of Shadows is a rare treat. Miss it under peril of the scowl of the Cinema Gestapo!

 

The Immortal Story

25 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is the most suicidal of all screen persons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Man Who Understood Infinity

15 May

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Missing

24 Feb

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Serena

31 May

Serena – directed by Susanne Bier. Period Melodrama. 109 minutes Color 2015.

The Story: a young married couple in the early 1930’s Tennessee Smokeys strive to make their lumber business thrive against inexplicable odds.

~

A film virtually without merit, save for costumes, sets, locations.

The movie is a melodrama (which means a drama with music), because the music barges in wherever it must to supply the deficiency the actors are not providing. The direction is so stagnant one handily drives a 40-mule-team through the pauses. The director and writer fall into the fad that moving pictures demand mostly motion and little dialogue, and if movie reviews required the same I should leave off here. But humans talk. And they also respond. But here we have the two principal actors dead in one another’s water.

Bradley Cooper does not have enough personal interest to hold one’s attention on the screen as a leading man, along the lines of, say, Joel McCrea or John Wayne. As a leading man, he is empty. This might serve him well as an actor in another sort of role, but as a leading man he can do nothing more than look the part. He is the sort of hunk, such as Rory Calhoun, perfectly suited for the minor banalities of B-Westerns.

However, as a character actor, he might be something else besides, for his work in American Hustle is fun, original, quirky, and startlingly exact. As it is in Silver Linings Playbook. But not here. Not in American Sniper, either, where, maintaining groaning platitudes, he plays, as here, a vacuous man. His failure in Sniper’s failure as a film is partly due to a script which leaves unquestioned the lie of the brainwashing his character let himself in for. In and of himself, Cooper is a lead pencil. As an actor, it’s a good thing to be, but not in part such as this in Serena that needed Robert Preston. As a big lug, what he might thrive in is comedy of character. And I’d like to see him do it.

Jennifer Lawrence on her part falls into the same category of being miscast in a role that requires an actress of open sympathy, which Lawrence is not. She is entirely composed of mineral. This works well in Winter’s Bone and in American Hustle, and suggests she too is not the leading lady type. I don’t care how much “acting” she does, if you can’t care about her, she’s not right for the part. Here she plays the part of a young woman on the verge of being unhinged. Not our Jennifer. She’s not made of shale; she’s made of marble. Winter’s Bone is entirely about situation. Any actor, even one you don’t like, you’re going to root for in that situation.  But Serena is not situation tragedy, and Lawrence is ill-served by it.

Certainly as an actress she is treated badly by the director. She has two crying scenes; they are technically proficient, but she evokes no sympathy. She is obliged to play the big vacuities and improbabilities of the part which is without an arc, episode by episode, each with no relation to the next. In between them, the director has her staring blankly and asking us to fill in where the music does not. It’s hard to dwell upon her. She has a mean face. How much better it would be were she slotted into the Lizabeth Scott parts of noir villainesses. Or Mockingjay! Hey! She’d be real good there! Has anyone thought of her that way!

All of this might somehow have been pumped up into life had we understood why on earth all the villains in this melodrama were out to get these two. Don’t both leads have blue eyes?

As to the audience, you could have shot moose in there. You could also have shot Cooper and Lawrence and gotten away with it nicely.

 

 
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Posted in 1930s, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, MELODRAMA

 

The Three Sisters – Olivier version

10 Apr

The Three Sisters – directed by Laurence Olivier. Tragi-comedy. 2 hours 45 minutes Color 1970.

The Story: Three young women stranded in a provincial garrison town long to escape.

~

Mildred Dunnock once said to me, “The English know what acting it, but they don’t know how to do it.”

She was speaking about the English acting of this era and type and she said it at the time of this production, which was the same time that she herself acted with Olivier. How was that, I asked her. “Oh, he was up to his old tricks.”

He’s up to them here and it infects the life-style of the production as a whole and fixes its virtues and its lacks. It is a style in which the actor exists in an impenetrable circle. You might say Brando did the same. He did. But Olivier, creates the circle, not outside himself but inside his character. And it is a character which is built on appearance. As though appearance could provide content. The circle is empty.

So we have Olivier in padding, to suggest that The Doctor has grown portly with sitting and reading the paper. We have Olivier in wonderful facial hair, which looks real. We also may have Olivier in a new nose, for he loved to build them. But we also have Olivier in his disgruntled walk, his gimlet eye, his quick turns of head, and his bite.

All this brilliant surface is at one with the fact that the women’s wigs are sensationally good. So are the costumes, with the exception of Irena, who is garbed in pale blue, and needs to be in darkening shades of green. As a color, blue never turns bad; green can.

We have big vocal control from the actors, but poor diction, so that most of the actors drop the last consonant of lines and words, such that we do not quite know what they are saying, or such that our effort to find that out diminishes our response to what they are saying. Joan Plowright is particularly guilty of this. She has a big vocal range combined with careless enunciation.

What’s great about this version of The Three Sisters acting is its finish. We are in the presence of actors absolutely at home in their parts, long installed in their lines, and bodies, and costumes and sets. But, as my friend, actor John Hutchison remarked: “It looks like a museum piece.” For this is a production which resulted from a big success at The National, which toured for a good while with Robert Stephens as Vershinin. For a short time, Alan Bates took over the part when Stephens fell ill, and went on to make this, the last movie Olivier would ever direct.

Of course, Stephens would have been ideal for the part, with his neurotic masculinity, height, and danger. Bates cannot bring that. What Bates brings is his deft timing, both physical and vocal, and the bearing in him, common to English actors, that everyone is acting all the time, on the stage or not. He is also physically beautiful in his beard and uniforms.

And sometimes acting very well, so that Bates’ beautiful, large, wide-spaced eyes can register his love for Masha as he announces it to her. You can see it happen. And Bates can render melodiously the philosophical monologues, with which the play abounds, those songs of the soul with which Masha falls in love. He is lovely in the role.

Masha, who becomes scandalously hot for Vershinin, is played by what is surely the coldest actor on the English speaking stage, Joan Plowright. I remember seeing her in Ionesco’s The Chairs and The Lesson at The Phoenix in New York when she was just starting out, and her most signal characteristic, a pronounced indifference, kept her at remove from the passionate and physical vitality of those plays, as it has always done with her, and does here.

Joan Plowright is always like an understudy playing a part whose necessities some other actor has established, and, boy, does she stand-in for the role here. English acting requires blind obedience from the audience to supply everything the actors omit that is demanded from the scene played. It requires preparatory admiration. It requires respect for fussy technique. It requires the collapse of everything but the maintenance of the indoctrination that this sort of acting is good.

And this may be good. First because it may be the only way the English can bring these plays forward to audiences at all, wrapped in cellophane. And second, because it may supply the audience with the distance of surrender necessary to grasp the overall and operatic impression the play offers.

I say operatic, because in part the play is as operatic as Shaw. It reads and plays like a series of arias and duets emitted by characters all of whom stand apart from one another.

Arias meant to impress the audience, not the other actors.

Which means that you feel that none of the actors’ lines actually land inside any of the other actors. Which means than nothing happens. And nothing happening means nothing builds.

And nothing building means that the architecture of the play is foresworn.

For the architecture of The Three Sisters is plain. Four Acts. Each one offering a momentous event. Each one offering a hope and then a new and changing relationship to that hope.

Act one, the event is a Saint’s Day party for the youngest sister, Irena. In this production, no one prepares for it, no one sets out decorations or arranges flowers, no one dresses up for the special day. The hope is that the three sisters will move back to Moscow from this rural village where they have been cast away.

Act two, the event is a carnival. Here again, no excitement about it, no sense that it is a Mardi Gras preceding Lent, no dressing up, or particular ritual. Here the sense needs to be about the giving-up-for-Lent-or-for anything-else or about postponing this hope for Moscow, temporarily. It needs to be reflected in the style of the monologues, just as it is reflected in the contents of them. But of this, nothing.

Act three. The event is a fire. The whole town is burning to the ground, but here we have no sense of what is burning down, the peril to them, or the actions they take to relieve it. The words are there for it. But not the energy. The action of Act Three is: the hope for Moscow burns down. Again, it is in the monologues; again not acted, not directed.

Act four. A farewell. Farewell, finally and irrevocably to hope for the future and for everyone. The lines carry it. The performances do not; they are sculptures without living bodies within them.

 

Sviatoslav Richter said one must play Brahms as though every note were farewell. And certainly hope’s slowly turning around into a farewell to hope, a looking forward slowly turning into a looking back, a paean to the future slowly turning into a dirge about the future, a promise into resignation of all promise, are the very substance and structure of the play. We are asked to experience and by experience to know the life and death of hope. This is the great play which embodies the capacity and career of human aspiration. The fact that our lives do not turn out as we envisioned them. But, I, as an audience, do not feel from the actors any resonance with this common human theme.

It is no secret. Inherent in that farewell, is the first line of play, which announces that the birthday of Irena concurs with the death of the father of the sisters.

So what prevents them from slipping out from under that death and taking off for Moscow?

The failure to act.

Through fear?

Through social style?

But here, the failure of the characters to act becomes confused in the failure of the actors in the play to act. You might say that the actors act all over the place. Olivier acts up. But that’s not the same thing.

These parts are frightfully difficult to do. They require all the sense of period style shown here, but they also require superhuman alertness. Superhuman alertness because all the characters are lazy. All of them lounge about reading poetry. Or making it up. And then quoting it. They are ourselves. We all do that. In our minds. The disease of suicidal postponement, hope disemboweled on the operating table of Doctor Chekov.

The Doctor, which Olivier plays, is the most actively lazy person on stage, and the one most actively aware he is. He is ignorant of his own profession and of everything else in the world, except the scandal sheets he reads, and the irascibility he can achieve when drunk.

And yet the actor playing him not only cannot say the lines in his sleep, but, on the contrary, he must play the part with an awareness of his character’s own awareness. And this Olivier does not have.

Chekov called his plays comedies because his characters see themselves for what they are. Likewise, the actors must know and embody that no matter what their characters say, no matter how passionately or tragically they feel, no matter how high they aspire, they are futile and they know they are. The actor playing The Doctor must see himself seeing that folly, that inaction; so must they all. And this act of super awareness must drive each of them about that stage like pinballs. They each really must be searching for something on that stage each time they appear. And that’s not what I see here. I see poise and pose. Not bad things at all for theatrical presentation, and a good foundation for Chekov’s upper-class flaneurs, but only nice shoes, not the whole outfit.

 

Some day they will re-release on DVD the Actors Studio version of The Three Sisters. It is a conglomeration of styles, which the Olivier version is not, and the great Kim Stanley as Masha, while she cannot actually play anything above the truck-stop class, brings to the stage a steamy frustration delivered into a book of poems mean to quell it. I have seen The Three Sisters played in Russian by The Moscow Art Theatre.  I have seen The Three Sisters with Olympia Dukakis as Olga and Louis Zorich as The Doctor. Zorich’s vitality and humor is a perfect foil for the Doctor’s laziness and prevarication – which proves that you can cast these parts in various ways, making Plowright as Masha not actually miscast at all.

The difficult riches of The Three Sisters I witness as I watch this version again. So I come to give everyone their turn. I see how fluid Ronald Pickup is as the unloved Baron Tusenbach. It is a performance which would register more if it registered more on the actors around him. The production is filmed marvelously, for it is a company piece, and we need to know who is in earshot of whom on a filled stage. The groupings remind one of Sargent at his best.

In Act Two Derek Jacobi plays his brother as a temperamental, nervous martinet. (In the Olivier style.) His important scene with Ferrapont the deaf old servant is misplayed. We never feel how talking to someone who cannot hear to be poignant and representative of all of these people, none of whom really listen to one another, but each of whom spouts forth, while all the time not walking the talk.

In Act Three, when the whole town is burning to the ground, the level of relationship to this event is virtually nil, even to the needed degree of overlooking it. Olivier is really good in his solo drunk scene, which he does without accompaniment. The actress plays Irena such that virtually not a word she says is audible: crying-scene-self-indulgence and swallowing air. The big scene between Natasha and Olga goes to waste because the actress playing Olga weeps in capitulation from beginning to end. But it’s written as an out-and-out argument between the two, an argument which Natasha wins with a fusillade of vulgar vituperation of the kind Olga has declared she cannot endure and does.

Also left out of this production is any relationship to the passage of time of day. The First Act takes place at lunch. The Second Act takes place in the evening. The Third Act takes place at 3 AM. And the Fourth Act takes place around noon. No registration is taken by the actors or director for any of this. It’s not a literary matter. It’s a theatrical matter. It’s an unnecessary omission.

The Fourth Act is so beautifully set by the designer one is prepared to forgive much. And the arrangement of the scenes by the playwright almost forgives the rest. It is a Brahmsian farewell on all sides. One watches Olivier do it, and one sees that he is doing what he has almost always done. He is not playing the character; he is playing an actor playing the character. The good thing about this is that the actor he is playing is one of a certain daring and imagination. The bad thing is that the character is dead.

Most of what Irena is saying is still inaudible, and Derek Jacobi acts the part as though he did not need to be in it to do it.

He is not an actor of much imagination and of no daring at all. The brother is weak. The brother’s weakness is that he is distracted by fancies, such as gambling, violin playing, his ghastly wife, and finally his brats. He is distracted most of all by his boredom. Jacobi realizes none of this. We should all love the brother, as do the three sisters, because there is something endearing about his weakness; instead we are indifferent; his piques grant us so little.

Joan Plowright has the great farewell scene with Vershinin. Our hearts should break for her. But there is not enough for us to land on in the performance for us to do that, because Plowright executes Masha, as she does every character I have ever seen her play, as an abstraction; that is to say, as a figure which she need only touch down on with a few dots, lifted up and abstracted from the page. Abstraction in acting is usually reserved for older actors, whose right is earned by their years of acting experience and of life.

Of course, Plowright is very watchable. As with Bette Davis, say, it makes her naturally conspicuous. One attends to her, no matter what. She draws focus. Not by anything she is doing to seize it, but by a natural inheritance. The same is true of Olivier. One looks towards them automatically. They were born to be attended to. And then one looks towards them for a sign of life. This one does not often find.

The Three Sisters is a very great play, if only from the point of view of its construction, which is extremely strong. You can tell that, maybe, because it takes its time. If you want to understand construction in art, listen to the music of Franz Liszt.

I suppose all the parts are winning roles, although the most difficult, I believe would be Masha’s cuckolded husband who must announce, despite all sensory evidence, that he is “content”. And none of the parts would be easy to play, right down to the exact strategizing of the deafness of Ferrapont. One could go on as to what the play is about or for, how it reflects modern human life and has not aged. But those are matters for an audience to expose themselves to in person, not on the printed page. My criticism is that this version does not offer enough for the audience to expose themselves to. Not enough rises to the surface to catch us, ere we drown. Drowning alone would make us live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: STAGE ENGLISH, Derek Jacobi, ENSEMBLE DRAMA, FAMILY DRAMA, Joan Plowright, Laurence Olivier, Period: 19th Century

 

Three On A Match

18 Mar

Three On A Match – directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Drama. 63 minutes Black And White 1932.

★★★★

The Story: Three grammar school girls stick together as grown women, even more so as one of them goes to the dogs.

~

What is important about this film is not Bette Davis’s cute figure in a bathing suit, nor her part, which is as peripheral to the story as is Humphrey Bogart’s and Glenda Farrell’s and Edward Arnold’s. All three of these make the same impression they were always to make: Bogart as a man to take into account, Farrell as a woman knowledgeable in her own sensuality, Arnold as Humpty-Dumpty pushing everyone off the wall.

Davis plays the least colorful of the three women and the one least connected to moving the plot forward. Joan Blondell plays the light-fingered jailbird who goes straight and marries the boss. We see Davis in the secretary pool at an Underwood, and she really looks like she knows how to type well, for she really did know. One can believe she is a secretary. Later she becomes an au- pair with Blondell in scenes at the beach with a tiresome tyke one wishes they would drown.

Ann Dvojak has the leading role, and Davis, aged 23, could probably have played it beautifully. The point is that Dvojak is excellent and that this is the sort of part that women were getting before 1934, not just wild-assed women who grab men into their beds impenitently and salt their lives with pleasure, but women’s issue parts. These were the pre-Code days of great parts for women which Mick LaSalle writes of in Complicated Women, his celebration of the actresses of this era, their talents, their roles, their films, before the Code put all such roles out into the woodshed for a whipping.

While they lasted, Davis never participated as a leading actress in these sorts of films, although she was of an age to. This is her twelfth film. She is not exactly starting out. Warners still did not know what to do with her. They threw her around like chicken feed. And she knew it.

The sort of parts she fought to play depicted just this sort of woman, women living their lives to the full. They didn’t have to be prostitutes to do it. They could be society women of the sort Norma Shearer played at MGM and Ann Dvojak plays here.

Davis fought for such roles, but Davis fought for what did not exist. Such parts were not mounted after 1934. After 1934, women must suffer for their pleasures or die. The closest Davis could come to such a part was the sexually predacious wife in Bordertown and Mildred Rodgers in Of Human Bondage, who is a tart. She had made 21 films by then, none of them giving her the meaty roles Ruth Chatterton, Constance Bennett, Mae West, Mae Clarke, Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, Ann Harding, Miriam Hopkins, and Barbara Stanwyck played. Davis was good friends with Jean Harlow, but she never got parts like Harlow got. The Code flattened them.

In Three On A Match, Davis is still a Harlow peroxide blonde. Her old chum, Joan Blondell, from New York acting school, has the second lead. Davis is on the sidelines where she doesn’t even look convincing smoking a cigarette.

 

The Imitation Game

24 Dec

The Imitation Game – directed by Morten Tyldum. BioDrama. 114 minutes Color 2014

★★★★

The Story: An odd duck of a mathematician becomes the goose that lays the golden egg when he breaks the German Enigma Code, thus hastening the end of WW II.

~

Many BioDramas just now. Selma, Wild, Rosewater, Foxcatcher, The Theory Of Everything, Unbroken, and this. Why is that?

The reason is that no one can write film drama. At least not for the silver screen. Drama has been swallowed by junk food, Blockbuster Candy. Drama has been subsumed by SciFi, Horror, and GagComedy. Drama has been gorged up by theatricalism and special effects of Action Adventure. All non dramatic genres. Drama has been devoured by series on paid TV. Besides there are too few grown-up stars to play it. To come close to making a “serious” film,” then, make a BioDrama, instead. BioDramas look dignified when the Oscars loom.

And even in BioDramas we have the foolish action sequences, as here, when haymakers fly and bodies are thrown against computers. One knows those people wouldn’t behave like that. For the English a stiff upper lip was Sufi practice.

But that is the worst of it, for, while the movie is not well directed, it is well conceived, and it has a story natural to it.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays him well: Alan Turing, a quirky lot, was the finest mathematician in England, though young – though most mathematicians show their genius only when young. He enters into the top-secret task of breaking the unbreakable Enigma code, and to do it builds what seems to be the first computer. His off-putting personality is not one to inspire overpowering amity for him in his crew, however, until the only female mathematician, well played by Keira Knightley, induces him to loosen up.

The breaks in the team’s bad luck are well recorded here and we root for them all as the code yields itself to them. How exciting!

But the breaking of the code must be kept secret. And another secret must also be kept: Alan Turing is an active homosexual. To reveal either secret would be against the law.

This is a fine and bitter story. You yourself when you see it will experience the killing imbalance in the situation. And when you do see it, you will experience also the excitements of science in the moment of breakthrough, just as we did in the old days with Paul Muni in Louis Pasteur, Edward G. Robinson in Doctor Erlich’s Magic Bullet, and Greer Garson in Madame Curie. A tedious persistence in the task precedes those thrills, but therein the drama also lies. We want so much for mankind to take a step forward. And when it happens we take it too, even in a movie theatre.

Charles Dance is particularly fine as The Adversary as is Mark Strong as the M-5 intermediary. They both threaten very particular harm. But the wireheads win through.

Except do they?

 

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1

23 Nov

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1 – directed by Francis Lawrence. SciFi. 123 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: A young woman is unwillingly enlisted as the symbol of an underground movement to overthrow a tyrant.

~      

I have never seen such a film before. I have never been to one of these series films, partly because I am not interested in SciFi as a subject of any depth of drama or intelligence of scope and also because I am not interested in violent and mechanical action as a film style. I went to this one because it would be one of the last times to be seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman on the big screen. His appearance is rationed, he looks bad, and he does everything beautifully.

As do Joanna Moore as the president of the insurgents, Stanley Tucci as the evil interviewer, Woody Harrelson as the clever reprobate, and the always praiseworthy Jeffrey Wright. They cannot make a mistake, and they never appear to be slumming. Far from it: they seize every scene they are in with just the right grip. As does Donald Sutherland with his refulgent white hair belying his swinish interior. Only Elizabeth Banks seems out of place here: she seems to be playing a transvestite fashionista or something. Her character seems out of place, which is fine, but her performance also seems out of place, which is not fine. She doesn’t appear to be someone who should be doing this.

The main burden of the story lies with Jennifer Lawrence, who evidently has been in earlier versions of this series. She is not pleasant to look at and she is not pleasant. Moreover, her choice as an actor seems to be to play shellshock. I question it. She seems continually benumbed by something. In the past, she has had great success in playing marginal characters, but for her to play a heroine, a focal character is perhaps not her métier. But the story is hers.

And, for me, the interesting thing about it is how slowly, how leisurely it moves, how scenes are developed, how matters are discussed, how interior toward the characters the pressures of the story are aimed. I sit back in my multiplex armchair and stretch my legs into the aisle and watch in great comfort as this long, slow, story engrosses me – not just because of the satisfactions of its occasional and quite sensational blaps and gallooms but because Story in itself should sometimes invite repose, acceptance, trust, and the ease of the treat of a very expensive entertainment before one.

I took my pleasure, I may tell you. I did not feel cheated because I knew nothing and expected nothing. However, I realized as I left that what I had been watching was one of those Flash Gordon episodes I used to see back in the ‘40s, at the Saturday matinee – a cliff-hanger a week – and that I had started myself on the Perils Of Jennifer. And that I was bound to see the next one, and the one after that, praying only that Donald Sutherland will reach the end of the series before the end of his life. And mine.

 

Orchestra Wives

05 Nov

Orchestra Wives – directed by Achie Mayo. Back Bandstand Musical. 98 minutes Black And White 1942.

★★★★

The Story: A young woman marries a trumpet player with a touring band and lasts.

~

If you want to see The Glenn Miller Band in full force in one of the two movies Miller made before he died in WWII, here you have it and him. He’s a good actor, and the band is allowed to play their full versions of big hits such as “I’ve Got A Gal In Kalamazoo.” This is the grand finale, and it’s placed there because it is performed by a dance act which no other act ever could follow. That is to say, of course, that is danced by the Nicholas Brothers. Ann Rutherford, into her nineties, reminisces about the shooting of this sequence. She says you could not fit a sardine into the sound stage when they shot it; everyone on the lot came to watch. Fayard Nicholas tells how Daryl F. Zanuck would come down and watch rehearsals, and how Fayard was worried to show him an unfinished piece, but Zanuck said he wasn’t concerned because The Nicholas Brothers always did good work for him.

They sure do it here. And The Fox Contract Player Treasure Chest is opened up to reveal the presence of Gale Evans, Harry Morgan, and Jackie Gleason – none of them even credited, for some reason. Another group of contract players just above them at the time, Mary Beth Hughes, Virginia Gilmore, and Carole Landis play bitches, opposite the super bitch Lynn Bari. Cesar Romero in impeccable suits plays the smarmy but ever-affable piano player of the band chased by alimony-hungry wives, and that excellent actor Grant Mitchell plays the father of the heroine of the tale.

She falls under the spell of the trumpet playing and gorgeous masculinity of George Montgomery. He had a face, unlike Carole Landis’; his is filmable at any angle and in any light. To humanize his looks, they do have a character eccentricity to them, and he does not look well in hats.

Opposite him and playing the leading role is Ann Rutherford. She is not an actor who can carry a film any further than apple pie can carry a banquet. She plays her attraction to Montgomery as a form of coma. The sexual eagerness which all the other orchestra wives have for him is circumcised from her performance, and so the film sags when her character lies in the accustomed comforts of such a film.

But the film comes back to full life when the songs by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon are sung. They are wonderful songs: “Serenade In Blue,” “People Like You And Me,” “Bugle Call Rag,” and the really great, “At Last.” These are sung by the stars of the Miller band, Ray Eberle and the saxophonist Tex Beneke, The Mondernaires, and Marion Hutton, who looks so much like her sister Betty Hutton, you’d find it distracting were she not so good. If all this is not sufficient, adding one more notch to your collection of the Nicholas Brothers’ film work will be.

 

Mame

04 Nov

Mame — directed by Gene Saks. Musical.  132 minutes Color 1974.

★★

The Story: A free-thinking New York sophisticate suddenly becomes the guardian of her eight year old nephew.

~

This is the musical version of Auntie Mame, a play which Rosalind Russell made her own and which she was too ill to make the musical of. A shame. Because Lucille Ball plays it here, and she is importantly miscast. Rosalind Russell had hidden weapons. Lucy’s weapons are pasted all over her. Auntie Mame is a highball. Lucille Ball is beer.

Lucille Ball is in her early sixties when she does this, which would have been all right, but, because she desired not to look what she is, she is horrible to behold! The plastic surgeons have mummified her. The wigmakers have stretched her skull skin up into a ponytail. The spectacle of her face, a puss which we have all found endearing, and which has been the chief tool of her outer clown, has resulted in Lucille Ball playing the entire part in a Lucille Ball mask. It’s so sad. It’s so unnecessary. And it is unwatchable.

When you look away from the star, which is the only sane counsel, you may notice Bea Arthur playing a sort of Tallulah Bankhead, as Mame’s best friend. But she isn’t given enough camera time, and when she is, the writing is too broad and the direction broader. The last part of the story doesn’t work. It never did work. It was too bad mannered.

It is pleasant to see Bruce Davidson as the boy grown up, and John McGiver as the stuffy guardian (we actually tend to sympathize with). And eventually the proceedings are given a shot in the arm by the zest of Robert Preston who sings and dances and steals the show, right and left. What investment he had, what wit, what genuine virility. He departs midway.

The songs are good but they are laid waste by over production, as are the sets and costumes. Beekman Place apartments never looked anything like Mame’s. They are much more interesting, and, had one of them been approximated, its confines would have lent pressure and force to the songs, which are pretty good. Beekman Place had taste. And a certain kind of taste, for it was and is a co-op for millionaires. Built in 1929 Beekman Place refers to this structure, rather than the neighborhood around it. The Rockefellers, Aly Kahn, and Huntington Hartford lived there. And, it was built after The Crash which takes place in all versions of Mame, the first of many anomalies, good taste being the first, from which the sets are eon light years away.

But never mind that. Never mind the movie either. I wish its composer had been better served. I wish we all had been better served. With a Manhattan, which was what was on order, instead of Blatz.

 

 

Nobody Lives Forever

31 Oct

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

 

Fury

18 Oct

Fury – written and directed by David Ayer. War Story. 134 minutes Color 2014.

★★★

The Story: Tank warfare in World War II against Germany is the challenge which five tank members face.

~

The word cliché has become a cliché. For respect must be assigned to it as describing something importantly human. Important because humans use and become clichés so readily. For clichés are based on thoughtless, automatic repetition. Just as our heartbeats are. And so perhaps there is that in them which assures our safety and our immortality.

It is a case of a writer directing his own script – always a perilous thing to do – for a director cannot distinguish what should be cut, or what should be de-emphasized, or what is not so hot.

What’s not so hot in Fury is the power the director ascribed to what we have all heard and seen before, as though we could only entertain what reassured us. Fill in the cliché:

A: The stalwart leader of the troop, perfect in all his strategies.

B: The beardless recruit who will develop five o’clock shadow.

C: The beastly bully who turns into a cupcake.

D: The ethnic type, braver than Ajax

E: _________________________________________________

F: __________________________________________________

G: __________________________________________________

The result is that one feels nothing for this group of males. One feels everything for the situations in which they find themselves and the blistering, bewildering jump of war. But of the main characters? – nothing.

This is a shame for the subject is fascinating, and the workings of tank warfare a novelty. At least I had never seen a film devoted to a weapon so confined. All that is very good.

And the actors are very good too. Their regional accents are too thick, but who could surpass them? Michael Peña as the Mexican driver, Logan Lerman as the raw recruit, Shia LeBoeuf as the cannoneer, and especially Jon Bernthal as the bully. Brad Pitt at 51 is excellent as the sergeant in charge of them. It’s interesting to see him in a mentor role. He is so good a playing fools, that one hopes he does not have to abandon comedy for the gravitas of such parts – at which he is, here, nonetheless, excellent.

There is an interesting scene in the movie, in which he and the raw recruit intrude into the apartment of two young ladies. And into which the other men also intrude. The effect is overdone. But it’s too late now, isn’t it? War isn’t fought like that any more. It isn’t fought for love or for hatred. It’s valor wasted on oil. Monotony of emphasis is also a cliché. What we need is maybe this director. And maybe Leo Tolstoy to give truth and human humor and the particularity of actual war experience to the poor soldiers before us, instead of these holdovers from the days of Paramount Pictures of 1945.

 

Calamity Jane

05 Jul

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Immigrant

02 Jun

The Immigrant – directed by James Gray. Tragedy. 117 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: A young woman is snatched from Ellis Island and forced into prostitution by a man who competes with her favors with his ne’er do well cousin.

~

The Immigrant would be an important picture-going experience, except for one ingredient which cancels it out as such and leaves one merely shrugging.

It is beautifully produced. The costumes are apt and evocative. The filming and editing are tip-top. The direction of crowds, the engagement with real settings cannot be surpassed. The casting is…

Yes, the casting.

Setting aside the secondary roles of Polish immigrants and Irish cops which are perfectly cast, we must bow down as well before the casting of Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. No two actors in the world are more suited to play opposite one another than these, because they are the two most rash actors on the planet at the present moment.

On the one hand we have Phoenix’s construction of the pimp as a man of almost priestly quietude and intent – except when he is madly drunk. Phoenix gives but one indication of his extremes, until the big scenes at the end – exactly the way to strategize the role. His awkwardness as the m.c. in a girlie show is the perfect choice.

Opposite this is the extrovert Renner, who plays an illusionist who is a suave public performer. And what a beauty Renner is to look at! What eyes! What physicality! Where Phoenix offers you nothing to empathize with, you fall for Renner on the spot. He captures the Mercurial instability of the character in a snap. Phoenix’s instability as a character is of another flavor entirely. They are both masters of the extreme.

The fatal damage comes in the playing of Marion Cotillard whose performance clogs the piece to a standstill. What is she up to, you wonder? What is she shooting for? She plays “helplessness.” She plays “innocence.” She plays “placidity.” That is to say, she plays qualities – instead of playing actions. What is her character is doing is saving her sister and  is laid out by the dialogue, but you never see anything stir in Cotillard’s performance in that direction and in aid of it. She is inert.

Ever since playing Piaf, Cotillard has been doing this sort of dumbshow acting, as though, seeing the situation her character is in, the audience will “feel” her response to it. That the audience will fill in the blanks. That the audience will empathize the contents into being. They won’t. They’ll feel cheated. They won’t be fooled. They won’t care. They’ll suspect her of stinginess. They’ll suspect her of artistic stupidity. They’ll suspect her of vanity and self-indulgence. Opposite two such extreme actors, an actress cannot coast or play against the grain or abdicate. She cannot play a trick. If she does the result is narrative incoherence, which is what we have here.

Less is not always more, but less than less is a monstrosity. Cotillard in a film is a sabotage not waiting to happen. This film is demolished by her.

 

Belle

18 May

Belle – directed by Amma Asante. Costume Drama. 109 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: A mulatto girl becomes the heiress of a great 18th Century British fortune and goes into politics.

~

“What a great big lovely movie!” I said to myself when it was done, and so it is. Produced in the best Masterpiece Theatre manner, with grand costumes in immense mansions and slightly postured dialogue delivered in the style of low emotional tremolo when feeling is required, it delivers full value as a costume drama.

A costume drama is a drama with no drama, only certain posits foregone. Will the mulatto daughter heiress marry right and well? Will her adopted father who is Chief Justice of The Realm come out on the proper side in the case of the drowned slaves? Will society ever accept her, illegitimate and chocolate as she is? Of course, of course, of course is the answer to these questions even as they are posed. And why?

Because no one is deeply engaged in any personal drama at all. People weep and shout, but so what? Is there ever a matter, inside any main character, which is virtually undecidable? Is there a character defect in any one of them (as there is, say, in Emma), that is tragic or virtually tragic? Is there a situation that goes deeper than a code or a social necessity or a decorum? Not really.

As it stands it might be but isn’t Tom Wilkinson’s story. For he, as the Chief Justice, is the one who may or may not set the entire world on a different course on the matter of slavery. But he is not given the scenes that would cut inside him as to how this momentous case reflects out from his relations with the black niece he has harbored. Certainly she is played well by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as is his wife played our belovèd Emily Watson, and his sister, Aunt Mary, played by the redoubtable Penelope Wilton.

But the forces of Costume Drama are arrayed against any such drama. And the story is handed over to the black girl, who actually is given nothing in the writing inside herself to play against. For the expectation is that, though an heiress, she can never marry, but must, like her Aunt Mary, become the spinster chatelaine of a vast estate. Oh horrors! Why is a woman’s fortune so meagerly thus! But, really, what we need to see is the real attractions there might be in becoming just like her aunt. Instead she is presented as the perfect heroine, fetching, pretty, bright, courageous, and startlingly adept at Scarlatti. And, of course, offered the handsomest man in the picture as a beau. He is very good. His name is Sam Reid.

Still, it is a wonderful picture of its kind – like Spielberg’s Lincoln – an overview of a single historical event – involving slavery — although less of a character study. You will not be wasting your time to see it; not at all; you will be informed and heartened. And finally know that slavery is wrong? No, that something worse is wrong: blind-heartedness. Blind-heartedness is wrong.

 

The General

02 May

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

★★★★★

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will that do it? If not, shoot me.

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

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

 

The Railway Man

30 Apr

The Railway Man – directed by Jonathan Teplisky. BioPic. 116 minutes Color 2013.

★★★

The Story: A middle-aged couple’s new marriage is about to be sabotaged by the history of the husband’s prisoner-of-war experience under the Japanese.~

It is excruciating.

In two senses. One is that the film shows the screaming brutality of the Japanese, their demented rage, their maniacal beatings, their sadistic torture. I lived through that era and remember well “those dirty Japs,” and I wonder now how it was possible for a whole people to behave this way. Now that I say this, I must also say that I got this information from what I have seen in war movies at the time – and this one. But still, inside the Japanese then was the capacity of wolverines. A viciousness so extreme it may be, as suggested by one of its perpetrators here, that it came from their being told that the Japanese could not lose – a lie that triggered the chaos that comes from a sense of unbridled power.

It is excruciating also in that all this is prolonged by a narrative style that asks us to fill in blanks, which we do not have sufficient identification with the characters as given to do. But the real excruciation is the way it is filmed, which is in a sort of perfumed haze, so that nothing is quite immediate. It is as though the whole thing had been slipcovered in makeup like Joan Crawford. It is very pretty and you can never quite get to it.

The story tells of Eric Lomax, a young British radio operator taken when the English army surrendered Singapore. He becomes a car mechanic but conspires with his fellow prisoners to assemble a radio to listen to broadcasts. When the Japanese discover it, he takes responsibility. They torture him to tell what he was broadcasting. He is caged, water boarded, beaten. Over and over. That he survives is astonishing.

A back and forth narrative works well. The corny staging of the resolution does not work well, but is still affecting, and a great moral lesson inheres in it. But it does not inhere in the movie, because the movie lacks internal life. The structure does not correspond to the outer story. The marriage is set aside as a narrative force, for one thing, and for another Nicole Kidman as the wife is miscast. The wife needs to be more ordinary. Kidman, of course, is good, but the part needs to be played by an actress with a broader foundation.

The young Eric Lomax is well cast and played by Jeremy Irvine; he has something of the mouth and the speech pattern of the older Lomax. But, as the older Lomax, Colin Firth is a dead hand. I do not see anything in Colin Firth. He is an actor who just stands there and expects you to do something about it. I do not find him permeable. I do not find his face interesting or sensitive. I do not understand what others see in him or why he should be up there before me. I cannot be for him; I cannot be against him; I find him inert.

And I do not gladly fill in his blanks, nor the enormous spaces between speeches, nor the narrative lacunae in this remarkable story of a moral, brave, and resilient human being.

 

The Wind Rises

07 Apr

The Wind Rises – created by Hayao Miyazaki. Animated BioDrama. 126 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

The Story: From the time he was a boy, Jiro Horikoshi desired to design airplanes, and after a long apprentice and during a long romance, he eventually designed the Mitsubishi  A5M and then the Zero.

~

Well, this renowned animator takes us along by the allure of his cells and scenes, as we wait for the next and the next, each one as satisfying and striking and telling as the one we have just seen. What’s next? What’s to come?

It is the biography of a rather naïve male, who never gives up his quest, and in that quest has no obstacles except the material ones of an industry starting from nothing and with nothing. Cloth planes, no design foundation, the want of proper engineering.

Miyazaki show us is all the angles and the experiences of a young man who, like David Copperfield, is the blank outline in which we may place ourselves to endure the drama, the waiting, and the love affair.

He gives his Japanese hero and heroine curly hair and large round eyes, so they never quite look Japanese. They are faceless creatures, and we recognize Jiro mainly because his white suits are often tinted lavender. He would be vapid, save that he is defined by what he does, and so we enter into him, not as a character, but as a role enacting a story.

But the startling crowd scenes, the remarkable air shots, the crazy planes invented around him give me enough entertainment to beguile me along. I do not feel a thing is missing. Indeed, I have never seen such intricate splendor.

The vast politesse of the Japanese is demonstrated for me also. Because the film is animated, I can witness this aspect of Jiro and the Japanese character and cultural style. I can see the good of the bowing, the waiting, the respect, the formality. I can see the human usefulness of it.

I recommend this film as an uncommon pleasure.

 

 

 

The Monuments Men

09 Feb

The Monuments Men – directed by George Clooney. War Drama. 118 minutes Color 2014.

★★★

The Story: A WW II mission to save works of art destined for destruction should the Nazis loose.

~ ~ ~

If ever a movie sank more solemnly under the freight of its miscasting, I have yet to see it. Art museum directors, curators, scholars, educators, archivists — George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Bill Murray, thou never wert.

If John Goodman was not obviously such a good actor, he might be convincing as a sculptor.  And if Jean Dujardin were not so helplessly charming one might root for his loss from a profession we never grasp. This leaves Bob Balaban, who might pass for an academic in the world of world art, Hugh Bonneville as a former drunk, Dimitri Leonidas as the German-speaking Brooklyn Jew, and Cate Blanchett who is thoroughly convincing as the Jeu de Paume curator who kept a record of the stolen pieces.

All the others, wonderful actors though they are, exercise their noble craft as best they may, imagining that the good will which backs our affection and admiration for each and every one of them will supply the deficiency of their being in the wrong parts entirely.

George Clooney is the main culprit. For he is producer, writer, actor, and director. It is as a writer he is first to be stripped of his medal. For he has given the men the most routine of male chat to move things forward. Silent strength – you know the sort of thing – stalwartness in red, white and blue. I once worked in the high-testosterone History Of Art Department of Yale in the early ‘50s, and the chat was not that.

As director he lets his actors go where they will, as they will, each of them basically falling back on their star masculinity to perform their roles for them. As an actor, Clooney reverts to his casual, laid back, insouciant manner, and lets tacit charm muscle a job which has no place in it. Damon falls back on his Everyman quality, Murray on his piquant personality; both are irrelevant.

As producer, the picture cost 70 million – although how so blandly round a figure is come at one wonders – and it made what is essentially a small movie about a large subject, into a large movie about a subject which is invisible.

For Clooney sermonizes that these works of art must be saved from destruction and returned to their owners because they are the golden fruit of Western civilization. Everything we are fighting for! A great “accomplishment” which must not be lost. What vulgarity! What nonsense!

The only reason these works of art should be saved from theft and destruction, much less returned to their owners, is their priceless and inherent beauty. All these rescuers were chosen for their dedication to beauty. But “beauty” is a word never uttered by Clooney nor by anyone else. It is as though the word “beauty” were unmanly. The entire adventure operates under the cow pad of this omission.

 

 

 

Her

29 Jan

Her – directed by Spike Jonze. Psychological Romantic Drama. 126 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

The Story:  A thirty-something divorcé starts up a love-affair with a perfectly formulated human who is a voice on his computer.

The premise may seem so repellent as to keep you away. But the execution of it is so arresting you will remain riveted to the screen. And the reason for that is the voice is that of Scarlett Johansson who delivers the best performance of her life, a piece of work made more wonderful because she never appears before one, for Johansson’s physical appearance and mimetic awkwardness has been a detriment to her creamy advantage all along.

You will also remain riveted because, when you are not, you are riveted by your own mulling of the matter at hand. These recesses come up whenever the writing declines to the tropes, diction, and obligations of soap opera. For, alas, the director is also the writer, and when this happens a picture usually tends to fall foul of a want of critical acuity and an absence of slapping self-indulgence on the fanny. The divorce-papers scene between the man and his soon-to-be former wife is such a scene. It is not necessary, and it does not ring true, unless the two participants are stewed on daytime drama and their emotions are quotations hiccupped up from it.

The acting is helpless not to imitate these TV styles of histrionics. Joaquin Phoenix falls into the trap of the unnecessary smile, the puerile giggle, the senseless smirk upon which soap opera actors lean with toppling weight to flesh out the vapid moment and lend it a smear of good will. Amy Adams, as his chum, is no less a victim of the style. But it’s not their fault. There is no other way to play junk save as junk, unless you are Garbo – and, don’t worry, Garbo smiled a lot! That’s not the problem. The problem is the style. The style turns everything silly — silly without being funny. But that’s only sometimes. For:

However. And there is a big however here. We still have Joaquin Phoenix, who is the most sensitive actor before the cameras today, and we have Amy Adams who is as versatile as her hair-dos. And we have Scarlett Johansson, speaking endearingly, intelligently, gamely, with him. We have the ups and downs of their courtship. We have the surprises of her development as a character, as a human, as a spiritual possibility – and she is the only character who has these traits – and so the picture never flags. We are kept poised for the next interruption of her into his life. We are poised for the next unexpected. And it always captures us unpoised.

The story takes place in some unset time when all humans seem to conduct their lives in talk to earphones. Where writing folks’ billets-doux is parceled out to love-letter-professionals. Where jobs involve TV productions in which housewives fuck refrigerators. Where automaticity reigns.

Is Love a Machine? Is Romance a Fabrication? Companionship a Contraption?

Except that people remain absolutely themselves. Human. Real. Baffled. And yearning.

I should go see it, if I were you. It is the most unusual Hollywood film I’ve seen all year.

 

Mata Hari

25 Jan

Mata Hari – directed by George Fitzmaurice. Turgid Melodrama. 89 minutes Black and White 1931.

★★★★★

The Story: A beautiful spy sleeps with and plans to run off with the enemy.

It’s quite stupid. The writing is scenically dead. But no scene in which Garbo ever appeared is dead. Each scene is perfervidly alive. She is 24 yet she is older and wiser than anyone else in the neighborhood, which includes, as usual, Lewis Stone, who is quite inert, as he often was playing opposite her. Stone has the George-Brent-foible of imagining that to come alive opposite a female star would be to pull the rug out from under her, not realizing that great female stars depend on the surprising and advantageous occasion slipping rugs provide. His woodenness is at one with the balsa of the script.

So here we have her already in power as the fatal woman who drives men wild and who  murmurs to their adavances, “Later.” Lionel Barrymore is one such dumbstruck dumb cluck, and sweet Ramon Navarro is the antidote to him. He’s a Russian pilot carrying messages back and forth to Moscow. She is a spy intent on intercepting them. Barrymore is the military go-between betraying his nation. It all takes place in Paris, and Garbo dances, or, one should say, prances about in skin-tight, gold, toreador pants. Indeed she is never without weird far-Eastern rigs and odd chapeaux. To see them is not to believe them. She is more manly than any of the men. Which is maybe why they throw themselves at her glittering boots. From whose vicinity she nudges them humorously aside.

Mata Hari, in the film (although not in real life, for she was married and the mother of two and over forty) was a woman alone, as was Garbo, and Garbo frequently played such women, women getting by through superior intelligence, daring strategies, consummate allure. Whatever tools that come to hand to promote their survival, her characters seize upon with the ready address of a hardened feminist. Garbo almost never plays a mother. Is almost never actually married, and never happily. In her roles she sleeps her way to the top or has done so. In the enneagram Garbo, a high Virgo, would be not a sexual or social, but a survival type. And perhaps her screenwriters were helpless not to conspire with her vaunted solitude and yet, in blind addiction made role after role of that solitude, a corset that limited her to the range of the isolate. MGM kept her playing these fallen women, fallen, though somehow still unavailable.

This sort of part, Mata Hari, was crazy for Garbo to do, but maybe she felt it would be a change of pace. After all, she was the top actress, the top moneymaker at the top studio. Adrian was doing the things, Douglas Shearer was recording it, Cedric Gibbons was to design it. The director had a reputation for taste and being good with women – yet Mata Hari is not well directed, and the continuity is lousy. But, of course, that is not the point, for it was extremely well filmed – by William Daniels, whose great lighting created her, for herself and for us. This is the period when Garbo does not let anyone on the set, including the crew. The scene is surrounded by black screens. Occasionally Thalberg alone stood far off in the shadows. He watched in admiration, amazement and respect, as we do to this day. Yes, the story is preposterous. But watch it and see how Garbo conjures something out of nothing. Into this grotesque shell of a production, this pearl.

 

The Temptress

25 Jan

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Tonight And Every Night

26 Nov

Tonight And Every Night – directed by Victor Saville. Musical. Starring a loyal American girl drawn to leave by her romance with a Canadian flyer, still a London musical theatre stays open during the blitz. 92 minutes Color 1945.

★★★★★

Baz Lurhmann, in an Extra Feature, describes Rita Hayworth as a big tall girl.

Actually she weighed 120 and was 5 feet 6. She gave the impression of being tall because her male dance partners, Astaire and Kelly and others, were short, and because of her long, slender arms and legs, and because her rib cage was straight, and like many dancers, her hips were shallow. This gave her more of a long, tubular, model figure.

Jean Louis her designer at Columbia Pictures said of her, “She had a good body. It wasn’t difficult to dress her. She was very thin limbed, the legs were thin, the arms long and thin and beautiful hands. But the body was thick, She also had a belly then, [She was pregnant by Orson Welles.], but we could hide that.”

Jack Cole, who did her choreography, said, “She did not have a good figure, but she had beautiful breasts, beautiful arms and the most beautiful hands in show business …. As a young woman she was always a much more beautiful person than she photographed ‘cause they did really icky Columbia make-up for star ladies, with that too hard glossy mouth.

“She was a wildly good humored lady to work with, and she worked very hard. Not that she was wildly talented, but she was wildly suited to what she was doing at the time she was doing it. She was the sum total of a group effort – the way they dressed her, made her up, wrote for her, what she did with it, was a group job. What separates her from similar studio products is this inherent erotic thing of her own.”

So Sammy Kahn and Julie Styne will do the songs. Rudolph Maté films her in a way that gathers her up and continues to film her in a way that produces the Hayworth as we will come to know and admire. She will have a top supporting cast: that emerald lavaliere of an actress, Florence Bates will play the eventual Judy Dench part, Lee Bowman is the leading man, Marc Platt does a sensationally funny dance audition number, she has a couple of delightful cockney charwomen to give it a London lift. And Jack Cole will do her choreography, and go on to do it for her signature dance in Gilda. 

“You couldn’t treat her like a dancer – she could dance, but you couldn’t put that burden on her, she didn’t go to class every day .… I got to know what she could do facilely .… With Rita it looked like she really could do it, and more. There was the effect of ‘stand back I’m going to move now.’”

Since the dancer scheduled to do “What Does An English Girl Think Of A Yank” sprained his ankle on the day it was to be shot, Victor Saville asked Cole to dance it with her himself. He felt ill suited to the character, but there was nothing else to be done. “So I rehearse with Rita a couple of times around and we’re ready to start. Well, baby, I don’t know what hit me, when they turned the camera on. Monroe was the same way – when it was for real, it was like ‘look out.’ For this first shot …suddenly this mass of red hair comes hurtling at me, and it looked like ninety times more teeth than I ever saw in a woman’s mouth before and more eyes rolling, and … you know, she was the most animated object ever.

“Rita always did it for real – she always gave more than she got.

“We got along good, we liked each other, Rita knew I was very understanding of what she could and what she couldn’t do. She was very good humored and disciplined. If it was in her to do what you asked of her she’d do it very well and with energy, unlike some.”

These remarks by Jack Cole are from John Koball’s astute book on her work, Rita Hayworth, Portrait Of A Love Goddess: The Time, The Place, And The Woman”. I quote it because it helps tell you what you are looking at. Which is why I write these pieces for you.

Here we have Hayworth in a jolly good part in a book musical, shot in glorious 3-strip Technicolor. The color scheme is rich and quiet. The songs are light and the numbers odd. The plot is unusual. You’ll see.

For, all around, it is one of her most entertaining musicals. She is absolutely lovely.

 

My Gal Sal

22 Nov

My Gal Sal – directed by Irving Cummings. Period Musical. American songwriter Paul Dreiser struggles from the rural Midwest, through raree shows, and into the arms of a beautiful musical star. 103 minutes Color 1942.

★★★

Like Victor Mature, the movie is a big lug. It is also A Gaudy Fox Musical, first meant for Alice Faye, then for Betty Grable, but finally made with Columbia-import Rita Hayworth, and Gaudy doesn’t suit Rita Hayworth, because she is already gaudy enough, with her dazzling smile and power to seduce.

It is also true that Fox musical numbers were usually comic numbers, and they don’t work well for Hayworth, since they are not in her proper range.

Finally, while Hayworth lip-syncs her songs well, she is not actually singing them. Only two major musical comedy stars of that era actually could both sing and dance well: Grable and Garland. Ruby Keeler did neither well, though she did both continually, as though talent for one or the other would one day break through.

What Hayworth did better than any of them was dance her particular dances. Only one of them works at all well for her here, a ballroom number, choreographed and partnered by Hermes Pan, and even here the costume is a demerit. Still and all, watch her port de bras. Her arms are lyric. Pan said she had the most beautiful hands he had ever seen; her upper-body carriage is always emblematic; she had a goddess in her shoulders.

But she does not prevail over the stupidity of the musical numbers staged for her. A movie of the previous year, Strawberry Blond, at Columbia is a much more heartening film. Again, she plays the title role, and it is of the same period and features the same sort of barber-shop songs – although in Strawberry Blond, the music is a constant background, not hitting us in the face like a fly ball as it does here. Besides, that was directed by Raoul Walsh, and this wasn’t.

Phil Silvers, with his personality of a merry cactus, has a couple of good scenes, The lovely and talented Carole Landis plays an early girlfriend of Mature. James Gleason is the cheating music publisher Mature makes rich.

Indeed, as you can see, we are generally in the realm of Gilded Age con men, and all the males of the film, save for the constipated Bruce Cabot, fall into this category. Mature is the con man’s con man. And his playing two pianos at once in a medicine show he works is spectacular and fun and odd and endearing – indeed, an act of genius. Mature was a big hearted galoot and game, and these qualities were a fine foundation for his career in films. As an actor in his craft he is without particular interest. You might say that even interesting roles didn’t lend him interest. He could do it and do it full out, but he lacked the artistic intelligence and imagination to create something marvelous – unless playing two pianos at once is imaginative and marvelous – and you know something? – I daresay it is!

 

Strawberry Blond

21 Nov

Strawberry Blond – directed by Raoul Walsh. Period Comedy. A bad-tempered dentist falls afoul of a beautiful woman and a con man. 97 minutes Black and White 1941.

★★★★★

A Whitman’s Sampler of 1910: beer halls, high button shoes, brass bands, barber shop quartets, and Irish wildness.

Perc Westmore did Rita Hayworth’s makeup and discovered that her hair was so abundant that she could never wear a wig. But he dyed it to make her the title character, which she carries off beautifully. This is her second A-film, having just made Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings. She is very young. She is flabbergasteringly beautiful. She is perfect as the phony flirt and even better as the rolling-pin wife of Jack Carson.

James Wong Howe upgraded every film he filmed, and you can see it in this one, which otherwise might have been a Fox Betty Grable musical. He colors scenes with shadow, the play of leaves across a face, and this gives them a romantic importance which they actually inherently possess and need.

For as with all of Raoul Walsh’s films, the love story grounds the project. Walsh tells the story imaginatively and crisply, as usual, and his actors are on the mark – free and liberal in their choices. It is entirely without the crass Irish sentimentality you find in Ford and McCrary. Walsh was great with actors. He did not watch their scenes; he only listened to them off-stage. The great stage director George S. Kaufman did the same. If the truth was heard, it would be seen. The result is the actors shine. And this is Walsh’s favorite picture.

It is James Cagney’s film, and he abounds; scarcely a scene he does not appear in. He was after a change of pace, and balked fiercely about doing this, until Hal Wallis and Jack Warner offered him 10% of the profits and brought in the Epstein brothers to rewrite it. It had been a stage play and then Gary Cooper’s only flop. They switched the milieu from the Midwest to New York City, where, of course, Cagney belonged.

Cagney is a curious actor. He acting personality is one who wants to be ahead of the game. This means that he is not actually a responsive actor, since he always has his fear for the possible in mind. His definition of acting was: “Look ‘em in the eye and tell the truth” – which is fine if you are a machine gun. So I find it hard to acknowledge his talent; I do but I find it hard to. His headlong “personality” worked well here, since he plays a man consistently duped. He was high-waisted, long legged, and short, and carried himself  step-dancing tall at all times, which is nice. His scenes with Alan Hale as his Irish blarney drunk father are scrumptious. Hale is just terrific in the part, and Cagney plays along with him almost bursting out laughing at Hale’s inventiveness.

But it is Olivia de Havilland who carries the film. She is full of mischief, sweet, pretty, and real. Raoul Walsh’s acknowledgement of the truth of her love is the waking moment always. James Wong Howe films her like the bonbon she is, full of flavor, rich, molded to a shape, and toothsome. The passage of feeling across her face validates this charming comedy, and carries its value as an entertainment right to this day.

 

Great Expectations [2013 version]

11 Nov

Great Expectations – directed by Mike Newell. A young man is snatched out of the lower classes and thrust into the role of a gentleman. 128 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★

Dickens is an author of immense imagination, and while it is perfectly easy and obviously attractive to track his characters and situations down to his biography – ingénues with names beginning with E, for instance – the greatness of him lies in a world which his words create and that has nothing to do with current events or his own life at all.

Pip is one of those characters who is a white paper outline, a figure meant for us to fill with our own selves as we pass through his crises. And actors can be quite bland in such roles. It is rare to find Alec Guinness in such a part, but there he once was. And now it is nice to find both the romantic leads of Estella and Pip played by actors with some character to them and some real responsiveness, not settling to just stand there and let us do the work.

A lot of Dickens depends upon his treatment of characters in what they say, and this is garnered to this film, thank goodness, for they do not do the melodrama-speak the plots and the times adored, no; they speak quirkily, unexpectedly, endearingly.

A lot of Dickens depends upon the supporting players; Great Expectations is rich with them.

The trouble now is that all subsequent versions must compete with the David Lean version of 1946. In making his nasty-eyes, Ralph Fiennes does not bring anything special to Magwich, and is certainly less horrifying than Finlay Currie was in the sudden terror of his first appearance. Fiennes is probably miscast. As Jaggers, Francis L. Sullivan is almost equaled by the work of the current and wonderful actor, Robbie Coltrane, a man of similar mien and girth. Sally Hawkins is all wrong as Pip’s mean sister. She is played as though a crazy woman, whereas Pip’s sister is really just an ordinary example of British child-rearing. Olly Alexander is better than John Mills as the jolly, generous, eager Pocket. But Helena Bonham Carter is over-costumed perhaps to compensate for her inappropriateness in a role forever haunted by the calamitous Martita Hunt as Miss Haversham. What Bonham Carter is doing in this part is baffling. She lacks power and therefore credibility.

But the story is so wonderful to visit and revisit. It is one of the great novels of literature because of the great vibration of its inherent ambitions, which we all have: to get back at those who have wronged us; to become sudden princes; to be allowed the love we love. These and their frustrations and barriers and disappointment are rich in Dickens. So we watch the TV version, in which we receive such satisfaction to actually see Bentley Drummle kicked to death by the horse he is beating. And we see, in the modern version with Ann Bancroft disgracefully out of place as Miss Haversham, but the enchanting Gwyneth Paltrow as an Estella we can actually believe in.

There is always something wonderful, and there is always the wonderful story.

 

Cony Island

21 Oct

Cony Island –– directed by Walter Lang. Period Musical. A vulgar saloon singer gets mentored into Broadway by a con man who loves her. 96 minutes Color 1943.

★★★★★

Betty Grable remains the greatest female “entertainer” of movies. She remained on the top ten box office stars list for ten years, one of the few actors and the only woman ever to do so.

It is easy to write her off. Oh, yes, she was all tarted up in spangles. Yes, her hairdos were mad confections and her costumes Technicolor flamboyant.  She played low-class dames from show-biz, and she was famous for her legs. She was the star of mere Fox musicals. She lacked class. MGM was more high-tone. Fred Astaire never danced with her.

Well, Hermes Pan, who choreographed Astaire’s sequences with him, choreographed this film and dances with her here. In his view, she and Rita Hayworth were the best of the female dancers. He could give her an elaborate sequence and was amazed that she could copy it immediately! “Honey, I’ve been doing this since I was eight.”

She was a good singer, she had a complexion that Zanuck demanded always be shot in color, she had a living-doll figure, with a subtle sensual hip action natural to her.

She is equaled only by Judy Garland, a performer of enormous actor-intelligence, who had many of the same qualities as Grable – one being, a wicked camp humor. Neither were ballroom dancers — those were Rogers, Hayworth, and Charisse — but Grable in her way was just as much fun.

Grable was a superb film actor in the Musical Mode, which has its own acting tropes and requirements. Within this mode, she clearly can do anything, and as such she is one of the greatest film actresses who ever lived. Oh how dare you, you might say, Bette Grable was not Garbo. But it would smarter to say, Garbo was not Betty Grable. Betty Grable  is fresh-as-a-daisy, highly responsive, giving, funny, emotionally susceptible. She could be frequently wrong-headed and often embarrassed. Fox gave her stories to suit her bent and nature, because she was unchallenged in her craft, talent, and appeal. In comic dancing, which most of her numbers were, she has no rival. Watch her for her speed, delivery, imagination, and self-parody.

Grable’s energy is essentially volatile but longing to settle down. She chases men, which Garland also did and which Monroe never did. Grable has a big open expression, is vulnerable to being hurt, is eager, and the most obvious thing about her is that she always plays someone hard-working. She’s in rehearsal; she’s got to step for a living; she’s a vaudevillian with a lot of shows to do a day. Betty Grable, unlike Alice Faye, has not got a lazy bone in her body. She’s a good singer, but can’t coast on the power of her singing, like Faye and Garland. But inside, she is naturally musical. She loves music; it’s so plain; it’s a treat to see it – it’s a physical entity with her like her cute figure and full lips. It’s in every dance she dances.

When she is on screen you cannot take your eyes from her. This is not just a result of the solo position of her numbers or that she is the lead. It is the inherent talent to draw focus. Her like-ability makes her a great star, and the fact that, behind the sequins and feathers, she is unpretentious, good-natured, innocent, accessible, and real. It makes her the pin-up of World War II and the top female star in the world. She deserved it and still deserves it.

Cony Island one her many hits, is a piece of Gilded Age froufrou.  It begins with four rowdy musical numbers in a row, topped by Charlie Winninger singing Who Put The Overalls In Mrs Murphy’s Chowder. No, it aint refined, but boy is it good! There are two kinds of vulgarity, one is empty and one is full; one is flaccid and one has vigor, one gives you a belly ache and one gives you a belly laugh. Neither type have any taste, but the second type, to which Betty Grable and her films belong, sure is tasty. Indulge yourself. She’s like an icecream soda. You’ll end up refreshed.

 

The Grandmaster

11 Sep

The Grandmaster – written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. Drama. Two master martial artists are drawn to one another, though they are both sworn to duel. 130 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

See it by all means in a theatre now. For is a film of such resplendent beauty, subtlety, and distinction that you must sit back in the dark of a vast hall and let it play itself out hugely before your amazed eyes. You mustn’t wait until it comes into your mere parlor.

It is not a story about athleticism or about martial art, but about character and martial artists. Their dances are performed to music, and are shown in flashes, not of bodies bashing one another, but of slices of hands, scraps of wrists, flourishes of robes and fur. You would not want to see the actual moves. What you do want to see is the result of them. A body crashing through a window. You do not want to see technique. What you do want to see is the half smile of the executant.

What you want to see is beauty, and this you see in every frame, every face, every costume, every setting, and in every delivery of them to your astonished and gratified eyes. Beauty stirs in the puddles and the reflections of the gates in the puddles, in the waiting snow on the bough in the battle in the blizzard. And why should you see this? Why is this being offered? Because inherent in it is the dignity and discipline inherent in life lived – not necessarily this Chinese way – but inherent in life lived in many ways.

To establish that dignity and that openness, we are given as The Grand Master the face of Tony Leung, one of the most beautiful faces ever to bless the screen. And the face of Zhang Ziyi, whose mouth enchants as once enchanted the mouth of Janice Rule. You cannot but be lost in the beauty of these two faces, for their beauty expands and vibrates into a latitude which only movie faces of this beauty can do, and we are given plenty of opportunity to dwell upon them, for they are filmed close-up, still, often, and well.

Beauty has no moral. It is an arena to itself. Go. Bathe in it. You owe it to yourself. I say you do. I say you deserve it and you have always deserved it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. and Mrs Smith

01 Sep

Mr. And Mrs Smith – directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screwball Comedy. A young married couple find out they are not married at all, and all screwball breaks loose. 95 minutes Black and White 1941.

★★★★★

After Rear Window and for the next 20 years of his professional turnout, sad but true, Hitchcock grows incompetent as a director, but this film is his second Hollywood picture after Rebecca, and incompetency is nowhere visible.

He has a crackerjack script, and two of the most engaging and popular light comedians of the era in Robert Montgomery and Carol Lombard.

Montgomery is pure puff pastry. He is masculine, sexual, even lecherous, and keen. He maintains a demeanor of mischief  behind even his more earnest pleas for the hand of his erstwhile wife. You can always see him think, and he is always willing to be happy. So he combines intelligence and an easy-going nature. You can always see how smart he is, and therefore how dumb.

Opposite him is Lombard, who has a fine figure and who wears clothes beautifully and is perfectly willing to look foolish in them. She has a cold face and icy cheekbones – a fat woman’s face really – but she has such a big heart she carries all her contradictions before her like a prize bouquet. She can turn on a dime. She is a creature of many moods and sudden twists, not all of them wise. She is like a bird aflutter. Which suits this role perfectly, for she is determined to make her marriage fun.

Lombard was not a particularly accomplished actor for most of her career, nor a particularly gifted one to begin with, but she learned how to place her voice, how to free up her body, how to throw caution to the wind and wax sentimental, how to display her wiles. So that by the time she is making this film, her craft is virtually inherent. She has, to start with, what all great comic actors must have: she is big hearted and forgiving. By this time, she has become what her reputation promised she was, an accomplished comedienne. Her performance in this picture is only exceeded in brilliancy by the one which followed, To Be Or Not To Be, her last film.

She is one of the most generous of all actors. And you can see this on display as she supports Gene Raymond’s prolonged drunk scene. Raymond has the Ralph Bellamy/Rudy Vallee role of the the thud, that is, the best friend who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t curse, and has a mother. Lombard gets him squiffed. And Gene Raymond is hilarious as, rising to his great height, he seems about to topple over at any moment. He ventures one lickerish look at Lombard, and you will fall off your chair laughing.

Hitchcock keeps the silliness ripping along licketty split. The sets look real and appropriate. Indeed, the entire movie takes place in enclosures, cabs, cabins, apartments, offices, which present no escape route for anyone and promise civilized sex as the only denouement for all the comic confusion. Hollywood Golden Age comedy at its best.

 

King Lear [Orson Welles, 1953 Omnibus TV Version]

11 Aug

King Lear [Orson Welles TV version] – directed by Peter Brook. High Tragedy. To retire with his cronies, an English King divides his kingdom, and the two daughters between whom he partitions it drive him to his death. 83 minutes Black and White 1953.

★★★★★

I saw Welles play King Lear at The City Center in New York, and he was quite inaudible – a grumbling old stage thunderer – magisterial and hollow.

Orson Welles was inaudible in many film parts – deliberately inaudible, evincing by that a grand contempt for the piffling project he was in and for acting and for the actors around him. I later came to realize he was neither a stage actor nor a movie actor nor a TV actor, but a radio actor, having to and eventually choosing to achieve all his effects vocally. He had voice of great depth and plangency, and he fancied it, and he thought that such a voice, if used as a bravura instrument, was all that acting needed to be for him, that such a voice was sufficient to play any part whatsoever. Many actors with natural or highly developed voices do the same.

But I find this boring. Misguided. Arrogant. Especially, in basso voices, such as Welles’, it leads to incomprehensibility. The words tend to become drowned in the tumult of ocean. The character as tuba.

Welles’ voice doomed him. He was too famous for it. He, like Reciter-Actors such as Richard Burton, foundered on the rocks of vocal vanity. Vocally his Macbeth, his Othello, his Falstaff are all the same: deep without depth: orotund: the deep sounds shallow.

But Orson Welles’ TV-Omnibus King Lear is another matter entirely. You understand every single thing he says. And part of the pleasure of this is one’s sense that Welles loves this play, this poetry, in just the right way, which is to say humbly. He also knows it so thoroughly, so inwardly, that you sense the actor knows it truly by heart. It’s a wonderful rendition.

He brings the great mass and height of his body to bear without bullying and augments it with a big long nose, which removes from his face the piggy quality it ordinarily had and the visage of a demonic elf, and sets him above all lesser noses. He gives himself patriarchal eyebrows, which erase his own which were those of a mountebank and mere magician. He wears a Neptune beard and hair, which turn him primordial. We are in the presence of a terrible old king before he even opens his mouth, which actually happens at once, since the Edmund/Edgar subplot is banished from this production. Removing the first scene, which justifies the children’s behavior to parents who treat them as no parent should, still does streamline the play for TV length. It’s all right. We are not really asked to concern ourselves with anything other than the central performance.

Alan Badel plays the Fool; Natasha Parry, Cordelia; Arnold Moss, Albany; Bramwell Fletcher, Kent; Beatrice Straight, Goneril; Margaret Phillips, Regan; Michael MacLiammóir, Tom A Bedlam; Fredrick Worlock, Gloucester. And. aged thirty-eight, as the four-score-years-and-more King Lear, Orson Welles. A great Lear, a true investment by the actor. Miss him at your cost.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: STAGE ENGLISH, HIGH TRAGEDY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, MADE FOR TV, Orson Welles, ROYALS, Tudor Costume Drama, WRITTEN BY: William Shakespeare

 

The Last Metro

29 Jul

The Last Metro –­– directed by Francois Truffaut. Backstage WW II Drama. A Paris theatre company holds together during the German occupation. 131 minutes Color 1980.

★★★★

The presence of Catherine Deneuve in any film whatever guarantees attention to it, just as her presence in it guarantees attention to herself. She is a woman with no sex appeal save that she seems to have none; males are captivated by the challenge of their own bafflement, apparently.  And, even with persons she is making out with, she evinces no sexual interest or energy towards anyone else. She is neither attractive nor attracted. So it is no wonder that Gérard Depardieu has no eyes for her.

She is thought of as beautiful, a claim discounted by that chin. And perhaps it is her consistently soigné manner and her consistently marvelous yellow hair and that she is consistently photographed as though she were beautiful that leads to the general belief that she is so.

But, of course, I do not find her so, and that is because, as a dramatic actress she lacks fire, she lacks temperament; she gives so little to her craft it creates a detriment, a hollow, which also adds to her so-called attraction, I suppose, but it doesn’t interest me, and I have no respect for it. She seems inert, a sphinx without a secret.

That is, until I saw her in Hôtel des Amériques, which she made with the great actor Patrick Dewaere, and in which she plays broad comedy and is screamingly funny. She is, in fact, a brilliant light comedienne miscast in a career of dramatic roles, such as this one. Sad.

The movie itself is quite entertaining, because of its photography, general production, crispness in the telling, and Truffaut’s eye for subordinate characters, which, given that this is a theatre company, means we are confronted with some unusual types.

But, while the story is well told, it is not well written, for such reasons as that a romance between Depardieu and Deneuve is tagged on at the end and arises out of nothing we have witnessed. And also because neither she nor Depardieu have real passion either for the theatre as a calling or as a business. As with her relations to her Jewish husband, she is doing her duty.

The film also is in lush color, which certainly suits Deneuve’s makeup and complexion, just as it suited Betty Grable’s, but it defies the gritty black-and-white truth of World War II in starving, domineered, occupied Paris. Both she and Depardieu play characters that seem to have no personal necessity save to play the parts in the movie in which we are seeing them. The film holds one almost to the end, which is a tribute to its power to entertain, if not to explore. In France it received all the major awards. Which is natural, since it congratulates the faith, fidelity, and fortitude of the French during trying times. And who can gainsay it. Will they survive? That is the tension. The answer? They will.

 

Broadway Melody Of 1940

19 Jul

Broadway Melody Of 1940 –– directed by Norman Taurog. Backstage Musical. 102 minutes, Black and White, 1939.

★★★★★

What is the critic’s job? Praise or blame? Curse or bless? Give credit or give frowns?

What difference does all that make now?

Perhaps it’s just to notice what is there.

So, in the case of a critic really interested in the craft of acting, when looking at a performer such as Eleanor Powell, what does one do?

Watching her dance is like watching a songbird sing. She does it with a technical zest that has miles to spare. Nothing that even approaches difficulty is what we appreciate while watching her perform the impossible. She would rather dance than eat. She is dance compulsion.

As an actor, is she in line with her costars, George Murphy, Fred Astaire and Ian Hunter?

You bet she is. And she is always in the mode of performance which light musical comedy prescribes, particularly as she is involved with a master of it, director Norman Taurog.

A friend of mine said to me today that Fred Astaire was a terrible actor. So wooden. I suppose that’s a common view, I don’t know, but if you think so, then give yourself the chance to be disabused and watch him, not as he is “acting,” but as he listening to someone else. Watch him in the best-friend relations he creates with George Murphy. What I see in Astaire here is a man virile, alive, and full of fun. He also had the most beautiful eyes.

Astaire was Mr. Finesse. If you imagine he is a bad actor, that may be because there is hardly a moment when he is not dancing when acting, such that his animation might tend to side-line his words and make them, because they are irrelevant, sound forced. But just take a look at what he does after the fatal telephone call, when he blurts out something he ought not to have.

Was Frank Morgan a good actor?  Here he is a staple of the absent-minded old hoodwinker, such as we just saw him be in The Wizard Of Oz. Can you figure out exactly what he is doing? Without imitating him, which would perhaps not be hard, can you do your own version of what he is up to?

Well, perhaps I sound scolding. See it, for the fun of it, as I just did. Astaire has a phenomenal solo – imaginative, acute, down to earth.

Eleanor Powell – she of the pleated skirts and pneumatic smile – dances on point here in a hideously costumed ballet, and she is not at her best. Alas, she was also an acrobatic dancer, which is dance at its most foolish because most contorted to amaze. But, when she and Astaire dance, they have done the choreography together, and she is just grand – never more so than the finale of Begin The Beguine (the whole score is by Cole Porter) – in what is the most astonishing, fun, celebrated and electrifying tapdance duet ever filmed.

Don’t miss it.

 

Sylvia Scarlett

16 Jul

Sylvia Scarlett – directed by George Cukor. Grifter Romance. Unruly disguises rule. 90 minutes Black and White 1935.

★★★★★

I like all grifter dramas, stories about people gulling other people out of their eyeteeth. Here Cary Grant is the principal con-man, and of course he is first-class at it, and has a lot of fun bringing his good old English carnival shill energy into it.

He is aided and abetted by the great Joe August who filmed it and by the brilliant trick-writer John Collier who was one of the three adapters of Compton MacKenzie’s novel, and it runs well as we hook into Edmund Gwenn and his daughter disguised as his son, as escapees from consequences in France to the luckier shores of England where they fall under the tricky Grant and the dubious spell of a musical hall chanteuse sexpot Dennie Moore. To earn a quick buck they become travelling vaudevillians. Then Brian Aherne turns up to derail the scams by becoming the object of the love interest of Katharine Hepburn, who up until this time is disguised as a boy. Her competition with Aherne is played by The Countess Natalia Pavlovna Von Hohenfelsen (whose biography would make your hair curl or uncurl, depending.)

Well!!! – as Jack Benny so eloquently put it.

The conglomeration travels on unexpected tracks at the start, and this is welcome – but, when romance insists on elbowing in, the movie looses it fascination, energy, imagination, and fun, and turns routine.

What is not routine is Katharine Hepburn as a hobbledehoy! For as a boy she is quite different than what she appears to be as a girl. As a boy she is quite convincing. As a girl she is quite unconvincing. As a boy she is swift, daring, direct, and true. And you really believe she is a boy. As a girl she is arch, sentimental, coy, extravagant, and meretriciously phony. You never believe in her at all. As a boy uninterested in romance, you swallow her whole. As a girl making goo-goo eyes she is a wretched fraud.

So when is she acting?

And when is she just playacting?

And why?

As a boy, Sylvester Scarlett, she delivers one of the greatest acting performances ever laid down on screen.

As a girl, Sylvia Scarlett, she gives one of the worst.

Don’t miss it. Hepburn was one of the great personalities of The Twentieth Century and one of the great things. The movie has a bunch of rewards and the biggest one is Hepburn acting more naturally as a male than any other male in the movie.

 

George Stevens Seminar — The More The Merrier

21 Jun

By the early 40s Stevens could write his own ticket. Harry Cohn begged him to come to Columbia, saying he would never bother him, he would never even speak to him, if he would only come there and work. But Stevens said that he would value Cohn’s experience and point of view, and Stevens did go, and Cohn did not bother him.

He was to make three pictures there with Cary Grant, Penny Serenade, The Talk Of The Town. and The More The Merrier. The last of these, however, did not have Grant in it, thank goodness, for he was not available, and it really needed a middle-class regular American Joe to play Joe. (Could Grant ever play a character called Joe?) Instead it had Joel McCrea, who Katharine Hepburn said was in the same category as an actor as Bogart and Tracy, and so he was.

Jean Arthur made three pictures with Stevens, The Talk Of The Town, The More The Merrier, and her last picture, Shane. She  was tiny, but unlike most tiny women actually looked good in clothes. Like Margaret Sullavan and Kay Francis, she had a catch in her voice, but that wasn’t all that was appealing about her, for she was naturally endearing and a highly susceptible comedienne.

Stevens was eager to get into WWII, for this was 1942. He left for service before The More The Merrier opened at Radio City Music Hall, as had his other two Columbia Pictures. Like them, it was an enormous critical and popular success.

WWII took Stevens into North Africa, into the Normandy Landing, and eventually to Dachau when it was first liberated.He took color movies of it, which we have to this day. The only color movies of it.

When the War was over, he came back to Hollywood and scheduled a comedy with Ingrid Bergman. He couldn’t bring himself to make it. Katharine Hepburn always scolded him for not making comedies, for which he had such a gift.

The War had changed him.

The More The Merrier is the last comedy he ever made – and one of the best.

It’s a model for study, for camera arrangement and for directorial latitude to allow natural human comedy to arise between and on the faces and in the bodies of performers. The director has to have tremendous strength, patience, and the ability to watch in order for this rare and essential relation to arise. Perhaps no one has ever done it better than George Stevens.

 

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.

 

 

The Guilt Of Janet Ames

09 Jun

The Guilt Of Janet Ames –– directed by Henry Levin. Drama. A WW II widow searches out the five men her husband’s death valiantly saved and learns the truth about herself from one of them. 83 minutes Black and White 1945.

★★★★

Casting a movie. How do they do it?

For instance, of the great stars of the Golden Age of Film from 1930 to 1950, how many could actually portray intelligent women? Judy Garland? No. She was an intelligence and a rich one, but she was not intelligent. Paulette Goddard? No. She was a delightful minx, but you would never put her at the head of a finishing school. Barbara Stanwyck? She could play a shrewd woman, but an intelligent one? Ginger Rogers? Maybe. Irene Dunne? Absolutely. Katharine Hepburn? Why not. Claudette Colbert? Positively.

Casting has something to do with acting ability. But has first to do with an actor’s essence. It has to do with something inherent in them. Intelligence has something to do with IQ, perhaps, but has more to do with an inherent approach to life. Rosalind Russell was certainly one who could play an intelligent woman.

And did so, and does so here, opposite Melvyn Douglas, who has some sort of corner on authority rare to be found in leading men nowadays. The two are well sorted. For they are both intelligent and their talents match in scale. Douglas is earnest and focused and sensitive to what’s coming towards him. And Russell structures her performance to a certain order which it will be Douglas’s task to break down. For that’s the story.

It’s a quite interesting film, because it is the ur type for the Film Noir. That is to say, there is something wrong with each of the characters and it manifests as a disconnect to and hangover from the War. Shell shock is what PTSD was then called, and women on the home front experienced it too. They grew bitter and loveless, and quite right too, and then, as now, the men drank too much and went under. The film is not Film Noir but it is what Film Noir is about.

The picture is remarkable in the scheme of its story, but also in the use of schematic sets. This is the first film I have ever seen them used to such an extent. Later you find them in Red Garters and Dogville. And it was frequently used in Golden Age TV, and may have first found prominence in the sets for Our Town. Here they are used in hypnosis sequences in which Russell visits the survivors, Nina Foch, Betsy Blair, and Sid Caesar.

Another remarkable ingredient, making the film a really memorable visit, is the long and hysterically funny monologue Sid Caesar does as a nightclub act, an astonishing and delightful display of comic genius. As you watch him, you will not believe what is happening before your eyes.

But it is happening. And, surrounding it, the film and the story provide solid and unexpected satisfaction. Rosalind Russell and Melvyn Douglas and Guilt. What a combo!

 

Lust, Caution

28 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

I say no more. I have said too much.

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

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

Highly recommended for grown-up viewing.

 

Emma

18 May

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

Two exceptions worth making to this highly entertaining film.

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

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

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

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

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

But what are the qualities of the ingénue?

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

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

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

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

In both instances, they have radiant smiles.

And both are under or appear to be always 21.

But, most important, both are fresh.

And both have real big hearts.

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

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

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

What a treat for you.

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

 

Blackthorn

20 Apr

Blackthorn – directed by Mateo Gil. Butch Cassidy has survived and twenty years later wants to leave Bolivia to visit Etta Place’s son, but is waylaid by a suspect Spaniard. 102 minutes Color 2011.
★★★★
As an actor Sam Shepard can carry a film, but in this case he cannot carry it far enough.

And that is because of the construction of the narrative. If we learn only at the end that the Spaniard is a nefarious character, we feel cheated as an audience of the loyalty we have bestowed on the destiny of these two characters. And there is no reason for it.

We should know the Spaniard is a nefarious character from the start. Sam Shepard as Butch Cassidy, disguised as Blackthorn, should not know it. His tragedy should be that his long, deliberate, and pseudonymous isolation has caused him to become ignorant of the truth of the world. And our participation as an audience should be our suspense waiting for the truth to be disclosed to him and how he behaves at that moment. And it should also result in some change in his romantic attitude regarding his twenty-years after planned visit to his “son.”

But there are other faults with the script. First: is Etta’s child fathered by Sundance or by Butch; were they both involved with her, and how come?

Second: how was Sundance mortally wounded?

But, third and most important: we are given no clue whatsoever, either in the playing of Shepard or in the script, that Butch has a moral bone in his body. We hear that in the old days he and Sundance only stole from the rich, but that may be a legend. Butch’s final action must come out of a code which is never offered to us, so once again we feel cheated. Will Butch be pulled toward the money or toward his code when he learns the truth about that Spaniard? That should be lodged in our suspense early. As it is, Butch’s code springs upon us at the last minute like a rattler.

The Spaniard is beautifully played by the beautiful Eduardo Noriega. Stephen Rea is quite wonderful as a degenerate Pinkerton laying in wait for Butch all these years. His character and his scenes and his playing of them are all extra to the story, but they shed a light, they bring a life, they supply a dance, essential to our beguilement. As does the flabbergastering scenery of Bolivia where principal photography took place.

 

Streamers

04 Apr

Streamers – directed by Robert Altman. Drama. Six soldiers search and weigh their sexuality. 113 minutes Color 1983

★★★★★

Robert Altman became known and remained successful for big cast movies such as M.A.S.H., Nashville, HealtH, Gosford Park, Short Cuts, Ready-To-Wear, and A Wedding. He is less well known for his filming of stage plays.

These are not records of stage productions, although sometimes they involve the original casts and usually involve small casts. They are renderings of the theatre pieces, but are as a rule shot on sets made and lit for filming. If you like Altman’s touch and are interested to witness the sort of performances actors rejoiced to be able to achieve in his pictures, then (apart from  Beyond Therapy, which he confessed not to relate to), these stage versions are entertainments well worth your attention: Secret Honor, A Prairie Home Companion, The Company are some of them.

Another is Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which was a big hit on the stage where he directed it and because Cher was in it and because it concerned itself with the last days of James Dean and maybe also because it dealt with cross-gender. The cast was brought over into the movie and it was an even bigger hit. Immediately after it was made, Altman filmed David Raab’s Streamers.

Various descriptions of this film refer to it as a Vietnam War piece, which is strange, since its subject from beginning to end is homosexuality. It takes place in a sparsely inhabited barracks where three rookies in the Air Force await their next assignment, which might be Vietnam. Around them cavort their sergeant and his comrade in arms on an epic bender.

The three men are young and their concern is their sexual relations to one another, but they are too young and too callow to do anything more than approach the subject and circle around it. Is that guy who is so fey actually a sexually active homosexual, or is he putting on a show? Is that other man, or is he not, willing for me to broach the topic of my feelings for him? What does it meant that I am so homophobic?

Playwright David Rabe has captured a perfect moment in the career of male sexual identity: the inchoate moment. All these young men seem to be virgins, unwittingly announcing their inexperience by the center fold pinups inside the doors of their lockers. None of them wish to be labeled as queer. They may wish to dabble. They all are curious. They are all afraid of being labeled, and they are also afraid of being curious.

The force-field of these tensions build to a point of ignition which is set off in all three acts by the intrusion of a black madman in their midst, someone crazed by his self-pity for his doom as unemployable and unlovable. The explosion ensuing is stunning.

The cast won the Golden Lion at The Venice Film Festival. I give it a Golden Lion here.

 

 

Together Again

11 Feb

Together Again – directed by Charles Vidor. Romantic Comedy. The square mayor of a small town falls apart over the sculptor she hires to make a statue of her former husband. 93 minutes. Black and White. 1944.
★★★

Irene Dunne is 46 when she makes this, and Charles Boyer is 45. Those were the days! They had grown-ups in movies.

The title is a publicity scheme to announce the re-mating of the stars of the big women’s weeper Love Story. However, there is a curious lack of oomph between them here. 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. 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, natural appeal, and lots of juice.

To play comedy you don’t have to do funny things – Betty Hutton had this. You don’t have to be inherently funny either – Rosalind Russell had this. 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; so does Clint Eastwood. And Irene Dunne does not. Cary Grant said she was delightfully funny on the set, but on film she seems to be a prig who would really rather be a lady than a woman, a feature we see in Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr.

Irene Dunne (who added an “e” to her last name, perhaps as touch of antique Royalty) was a performer whom the studios thought added “tone” to a picture. But “tone” is at variance with Dunne’s role, which is that of a high profile politician longing to cut up. What you get instead is Helen Hokenson, so there is no possible way an actor opposite her could play sexual attraction in her direction.

She does sing a bit, and Dunne was a true 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. See her in Anna And The King Of Siam. Or see her in George Stevens’ I Remember Mama or his Penny Serenade. In a certain kind of role, she is a seriously dedicated actress and very worthwhile.

The film is beautifully mounted and well constructed, and simply and clearly directed. If you like the old studio, A-movie production values, there is much to enjoy here, for they, more in black and white movies than in color movies, tell the story as much as the script tells it.

Why is that?

Because black and white engages one’s narrative imagination and color supplants it.

 

That Certain Woman

07 Feb

That Certain Woman – directed by Edmund Goulding. Women’s Pulp. A widow raises her baby while men two-time their wives for her favors. 93 minutes Black and White 1937.
★★★★
Claptrap. Edmund Goulding wrote and directed it, and it shows. The plot is ruthlessly confined to coincidence. No sooner does one melodramatic catastrophe befall than the telephone rings to report another. No sooner does Henry Fonda resolve to run off with Bette Davis than Fonda’s wife appears in a wheelchair in Bette’s apartment. Get it?

Davis acknowledged this falseness, but she also liked Goulding’s treatment of her as a star, rather than a prominent member of a cast. She also liked the glamor close-ups of her, executed by the great Ernest Haller, who filmed her many times in the years to come.

Bette is in her late 20s when this film is made, and it did establish her as a star in the sense that her stories were now to be all about her: which means that when the camera was not on her, everyone was talking about her. She is also housed in an apartment and gowned by Orry-Kelly in clothes of a glory which as a private secretary she could never have afforded. Still, it is nice to see her in them, isn’t it? And all, and I do mean all, of the male sexual attention is directed at her, and the entire story hangs upon this supposition. Whether you find Bette Davis sexy is not the point; she is always, always highly sexual.

And she is for one of the few times in her life given a co-star, in Henry Fonda, equal to herself – for Bette Davis was the only female star of her era seldom to act opposite a man equal to herself in power. You could strike a match on George Bent, and he  wouldn’t notice it. Whether this was an economy on the part of Warners, or a recognition that she was making movies only for women, or whether it was thought she was masculine enough in her power already, she is asked from now on to carry virtually all of her films alone – a precarious burden for a female in those days. Nevertheless, from this point on until she left Warners, she made a fortune for them carrying it.

As usual she is given great support and a high class production. Max Steiner does an undistinguished score, but at least he does it. Donald Crisp plays the stiff-necked tycoon in his usual righteous manner, that is to say, in a manner fit to bore the toenails off of you. Henry Fonda, in an unusual display of aliveness for him, plays the playboy son like a happy monkey. It’s a great way to play it, and worth seeing, since Fonda’s usual manner as an actor is steady/withdrawn. Fonda’s character is a weakling, which is unavoidable, but at least Fonda is having fun being one. He is also heartbreakingly beautiful at this stage of his life. With Fonda as the volatile one, Davis plays the quiet one, and, actually, this suits her. Until the plot goes melodramatically berserk, her responsiveness, particularly to Ian Hunter, as her doting boss, is a model of fine, quiet, spontaneity. Hunter is really good in his role, and is perhaps the only one one cares about at all in all this.

Davis as an actress is an interesting presence and always entertaining, but, in a picture like this, which is over-written, which is plot-heavy, the space for the actors to react is reduced to a nubbin. Here we have The Noble Style Of The Thirties, which consists of the actors “giving speeches,” always in a high pitched voice, with a rapid delivery stained with the red, white, and blue of pained self-sacrifice. You will recognize the trick. It is no longer employed by actors. But that is because there are, thanks goodness, in movies now, no more Noble Roles.

 

A Good Woman

08 Dec

A Good Woman – directed by Mike Barker. High Comedy. A woman of mystery turns up in Amalfi and immediately arouses gossip since it appears she is being kept by the recently married husband of a highly proper young woman. 83 minutes Color 2005.
★★★
Lady Windermere’s Fan was made famously by two famous directors, one with Ronald Coleman by Ernst Lubitsch in 1925, a silent film renowned for its mute success despite Wilde being the most verbally distinctive of writers; again in 1945 by Otto Preminger with Madeleine Carroll, George Sanders, and Jeanne Crain. The play was clearly ripe for a redo.

No, it wasn’t.

Although the play itself would be unworkable as a movie, the writers have kept Wilde’s structure, but lifted Wilde’s japes and jokes from other sources and flattened them to fit the lips of 1930’s socialites wintering on the Mediterranean, and the only actors who can get their mouths around them properly are the two old troupers who form a chorus of snipers and scandalmongers and tipplers, Roger Hammond and John Standing, and aren’t they fun!

The beautiful English actor Mark Umbers plays the now Americanized (the once Arthur and now Robert) Windermere (no longer a lord) and his wife (no longer Lady Windermere) is played by the seventeen year-old Scarlett Johansson. Johansson is a baffling presence in film, and although she comes to this one with a good deal of experience behind her, it does not show. Her voice is flat and badly placed and seems uninvested in meaning. Her heifer eyes register a wounded stupidity. She moves clumsily. She does not wear clothes well. Of course, her skin takes the camera so well, you think she must be God’s gift to the movies; I give her back unopened.

She is matched by Helen Hunt, who plays the intriguing adventuress, Mrs. Erlynne. Hunt is also American, and she too has the wrong voice for the part, oddly pitched, high, flat, and eggy. I like her face a lot, but, with its thin lips and sunken cheeks and hawk-like nose, it is likely to be miscast as that of a femme fatale. She has too much plea in her timbre. She does not have the inner puma, she’s not a wild animal in lamé, she does not have the sexual certainty to promise. She looks well in her clothes, with her beautifully proportioned, slender figure. And she is a good actress, so she makes the most of everything opposite Tom Wilkinson as Lord Augustus.

Wilkinson is the only real character we care about here. The part, a much-married playboy now in high middle age, is made much larger than in the play, in which he is presented as one of Wilde’s dear old fools. Wilkinson has several good scenes with Hunt, and with the two geezers, as they and the old trouts of leisure snipe at the scandal and inflate it by examining with vitriol eye that corpse, the institution of marriage.

But to really enjoy Lady Windermere’s Fan, one must read it. I do so in a first edition of it, old now, with its odd intestinal cover with three gold leaves, Elkin Matthew 1893: Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Play About A Good Woman. Indeed: a play about goodness of many and various stripes and kinds.

 

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

08 Dec

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo – directed by Mervyn LeRoy. WWII Drama. Four months after Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Dootlittle’s B-25 squadron mounts the daring bomb attack for which the airmen know they do not have sufficient return fuel. 138 minutes Black and White 1944.
★★★★★
What you have is a script by Dalton Trumbo who hypothesizes every scene into what he ideologically wishes it to be, so the script always floats slightly above the actors’ heads. They have to reach back into their Sunday School pageants to play it. But it does give Trumbo leeway for the scene where two men discuss whether they actually hate the Japanese and what it feels like to kill civilians. It’s good the scene is there at all, since it would have been a matter of discussion among troops. So “Anti-American” though; so Dalton Trumbo; so HUAC. After all a War is on! Loose lips sink ships! As usual with Trumbo, it feels at once startling and pat. An honestly acted liberal rant.

Not to be missed are terribly acted romantic scenes of Phyllis Thaxter who grinds every scene to a halt by her sparkle; she narrows her eyes and just glimmers away. You want to slap her. It’s a wonder Van Johnson can perform opposite her at all. You look at him being convincing and crown him with a halo: that he could act opposite Phyllis Thaxter and not gnashed his teeth once.

Spencer Tracy walks through the Doolittle role with his commanding presence merely. When you see him in the cockpit of his bomber in leather flight jacket, you want to laugh, and put him back in his suburban easy chair where he belongs and never left, not once, to do a little research about how it feels being a pilot.

But he has little to do, save deliver a few gritty speeches, and the film is well worth watching for the actual bomber training of these men, at the actual airdrome they did it in, and the tiny practice runs they performed of those huge wretched bombers in preparation for taking off from the minute flight deck of the U.S.S. Hornet. So quickly after Pearl Harbor too!

And we see the actual takeoffs on that day, for it was filmed at the time. They’d been spotted by a fishing boat and had to leave many hours too soon and farther from their targets, thus reducing the return gas in their tanks. We see the actual approach to Japan. We see them see Fujiyama. We see them skim low over the paddies. We see the actual bombing raid. All of this is thrilling and valid. For we are seeing the actual footage of it

Then we see how they had to fly to a base in China, which only one of them actually made. China was Japanese occupied at the time, so when the bombers landed or crashed, their crews were either taken by the Japs or hidden by the Chinese and spirited away to secret airfields where lovely and ever-resourceful DC3s flew them off in the nick of time.

The story focuses mainly on Van Johnson’s crew, among whom we find the refreshing face of Robert Walker, a terrific actor here and elsewhere. A big team of Oriental and American actors ably acts it, including Don DeFore, Robert Mitchum, Leon Ames, Benson Fong, Hsin Kung, Ching Wah Lee, Ann Shoemaker, Stephen McNally, Bill Williams, Scott McKay, Selena Royle, Alan Napier. Most of these appear in the adventure and escape in China. Harold Rosson and the great Robert Surtees filmed it. It is action/adventure as its most documentarian and thrilling.

 

The Diary Of Anne Frank

28 Nov

The Diary Of Anne Frank – produced and directed by George Stevens. Tragedy. Eight people hide in an attic while vicious enemies roam the streets to find them. 180 minutes Black and White 1959.

★★★★

As a film it has lost nothing to time; indeed it takes on power by its set decoration and photography, for both of which it won Oscars. And these are the important Oscars for such a film, since they give to it the feel of documentary. Shelly Winters also won one, and Joseph Schildkraut, who had won one in 1937, who is marvelous, was not even nominated. Lou Jacobi and Gusti Huber, as Mrs Frank, had done it with him on Broadway, and their performances are fresh and strong. Diane Baker and Richard Beymer play modest characters with modesty; every moment tells; we never lose them; we never stop caring about them. With Winters, as an actress, her uncertainty tends to push her art. This makes her always intrusive, and so she is often cast as a pushy woman falling apart.

The use of the Cinemascope camera here in cooperation with a three-storey set, divided by verticals like bars, and the use of full eight-person ensemble scenes bring great strength to what is a director’s movie, which it had to be, since it had no stars and since the material is plotless and storyless, which it had to be, since it actually is a diary. So the direction is purely presentational and as such brilliant beyond expectation. We are never aware of “the direction;” nothing is showy; everything in honored that ought to be.

The difficulty is that one cannot identify with the actor playing Anne. She’s inhumanly pretty and she’s too old. She is never thirteen. In fact the actor was twenty, which is an entire time-zone away from thirteen. And there is something else wrong in that she looks like what she was, a young fashion model. Anne Frank was not a cover girl, but this young woman is a glamor-puss. (To see the part perfectly cast, see the television version.)

I don’t know what Stevens had in mind – a combination of Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn? Did Stevens think to draw focus to her because of her looks? Did he see her as a great new discovery? The problem is you don’t know what you’re getting when you hire an unknown inexperienced actor. Anyhow, the problem is not that she is a fashion model, but that that she relates to a camera in a fashion model way, a way quite different from a movie camera relationship. She knows exactly how to present herself “beautifully,” but that talent is irrelevant to Anne and disconsonnant with her as well. She is so pretty that she has long known how to use the charm of her looks to get what she wants and to get away with behaving as she wishes. Anne Frank was always “behaving” but to do so she had to summon something deep within her defiant nature quite different from the easy victories of a fashion model. Anne Frank was not “pretty,” and the scene where this beauty-actress has to fish for a compliment about her looks is preposterous.

Besides, Anne Frank was a truly funny person; this actress is not. Mind you, the young woman who plays Anne does everything well; she has a right to be proud of her contribution and her work, but, through no real fault of her own, the result of having her in it at all, is that, instead of what we do with the Anne Frank of the book, we have no one to get behind as a human, no one to identify with.

Tremendous vitality pressing outward from inside a difficult girl is the inner truth of the outer truth of the vitality of these eight people caged just because they are Jews inside that loft. Inside a tiny diary is hidden away, as are hidden these eight, the right to live! The injustice of the closet is the mark of this story’s greatness; the movie captures it and us. It is the greatest movie about being closeted ever made. It has not dated. It will never date.

 
 
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