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Archive for the ‘ACTORS MALE’ Category

The Merchant Of Venice

13 Sep

The Merchant Of Venice — directed by Cedric Messina. Melodrama. BBC TV Play Of The Week
★★★★
The Story: An heiress disguises herself as a young lawyer to evade the death sentence of her fiancé’s friend — by a vengeful moneylender.
~
Charles Gray, with his voice like the curtains of a great opera house, plays the title character of The Merchant Of Venice, and quite right too, since the play is all about riches.

Or is it?

Launcelot Gobbo, well played by Bunny May, seeks to convince his blind old father that he is his very own son — but fails. As likewise blind Justice and blind Cupid also fail. Or are perhaps never put to proper trial.

For this production makes of the Venetians what they truly are — figurines of Venetian glass. And they are costumed as such to perfection — save that codpieces obviously don’t do well as penial prows on glass.

The play is Shakespeare’s usual admixture of modes, for the writing of the money-lender Shylock is garbed not in glass but gabardine. And so the jarring conflict of literary styles creates its own conflict amidst the conflict of the characters. The playwright refuses to allow you to know what to expect.

The greatest Shylock I ever saw was George C. Scott’s in Central Park. He played it as a Lower East Side kike in full oi-vey Hebe accent — which he allowed himself or obliged himself to do because he himself was Jewish. Frank Finlay plays in a lower key, nothing Jewish about him except what he says of himself.

This works well enough — the part is foolproof since its style is always earthy and no one else’s is. So his defeat by glass figurines has its irony in the spectacle of stone shattered by glass. It cannot fail.

The boys of Venice are fraternity boys. Their courtships are swift and lacey. They are based on nothing firmer than rash impulse, their loyalties to one another always a mite stronger to their mates than to their mates.

There’s a truth to engagements in such frivolity of choice. It’s a fairy tale and fairy tales are true.

Maggie Smith presents Portia as an adherent to ancestral law as, rueful of her duty but loyal to it, she honorably outwaits the fairy-tale plot of the courtship of the three caskets. She plays the great courtroom scene simply and directly. As the millionaire heiress she is made up like a porcelain figurine — which is right for the role — and as the young lawyer in court appears to wear no make-up at all. It’s all done with wigs. It’s a good performance, and she is well-cast for it.

The great duets — the ring duet is rushed — and the “on such a night as this” duet is unclear. Which is too bad, for we want to hear how glass sounds when singing.

But we don’t go to Shakespeare — the most heterogeneous of writers — for perfection. We are in it to endure the mélange of ourselves. So we’d best put up with what we find.

 

Journey’s End

25 Aug

Journey’s End — directed by Saul Dibb. Drama. 104 minutes Color 2018

★★★★★
The Story: Soldiers entrenched in C Company headquarters await a German attack whose exact hour they know. They respond accordingly.
~
Of course, Journey’s End is the most renown work of art emerging from WWI.

Since its first success, the play has been done continually, particularly in all-male schools. A number of movies have been made of it. Its great virtue, in its time and still, is its power as stark reportage. The man who wrote it, R.C. Sherriff, had lived it.

I do not apologize for not telling plots or story lines. The material is famously strong, so I relate no more about it than I would about Hamlet.

The role of Stanhope, company commander, embodies the insanity that it is impossible for a human not to internalize in a situation of perpetual, unavoidable peril to himself and those he is responsible for.

I recommend Sam Claflin’s performances above all others.

Every other performance is on his level, summa cum laude.

It is perfectly filmed by Laurie Rose and edited by Tania Reddin.

Director Saul Dibb has the ability to capture performance. Directors who can do it are rare — Jean Renoir, George Stevens — at least on this level of tension, which is as high as Greek Drama.

I like ruthless truth.

It is a necessary film.

 

The Children Act

26 Jul

The Children Act — directed by Richard Eyre. Drama. 105 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: A woman faces herself in areas of her life because of the one in which she is most conscientious — as a British Children’s Court judge.
~

When I watch actors in the certain way I do — which is in a state of incomprehension and wonder about their ability to do what they do at all — although for many years I myself have been a reasonably successful actor of principal roles on the stage and in film — I sometimes also wonder what some of them are doing up there at all. Some of them don’t seem to be actors in any sense of the word. Christopher Reeve. Kim Novak.

But when I see Emma Thompson, here in the role of a lifetime, as the family court judge in The Children Act, I am struck by the fact that she is a person doing exactly what she was meant by God to be doing — being an actor so you can’t tell.

Come see for yourself.

In The Children Act there is nothing to distract you from her by elements not up to the high standard in which she belongs. Everyone rises to the occasion.

Jason Watkins, who plays her clerk, her husband played by Stanley Tucci, and the young man whose life she must adjudicate played by Fionn Whitehead bring conviction to the story by being convinced. Stage director Richard Eyre, cinemaphotographer Andrew Dunn, editor Dan Farrell, costumer Fotini Dimu, and composer Stephen Warbeck enliven a film which never cheats, always honors the attention it grips, and fulfills a story whose expectations surprise.

The Children Act is a film for grownups. An entertainment which plays up to our hungry intelligence and teases our moral gauge.

The title, The Children Act, refers to an Act Of Parliament which reserves the duty of judges to find in favor of the child in medical cases.

But the story has a wider spread.

For The Children Act is law, and law is mechanical. The machinery of law has driven and influenced Emma Thompson’s judge in other areas of her life. It has influenced her marriage and it has also invaded her capacity to greet properly the consequences of her judgments.

Emma Thompson plays a character who goes by the book. Restrained, confined in her human interests, regimented in her day, inexpressive to those close to her, save to preserve her distance from them, she is, nonetheless, eloquent in her professional life. And she has an almost inhuman talent to pay attention.

Emma Thompson’s face has been with us for decades. She is now, at 61, in high middle age, every fracture showing. We have grown up with her. She is one of those movie stars, now too few, who live among one’s household gods, as one of the lares and penates that reassure one that certain best and lasting virtues still do live.

I am an eighty-six-year-old man, and when I ask myself, “Bruce, who would you like to be when you grow up?”

I’ll tell you who. I say, “When I grow up, I’d like to grow up to be to be Emma Thompson!”

 

The Untouchables & The Upside

06 Jul

The Intouchables – directed by Olivier Nekase and Erik Toledano – Dramedy – in French with subtitles – 112 minutes Color 2011.
★★★★★
The Upside – directed by Neil Burger – Dramedy – 126 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★

The Story: a quadriplegic billionaire hires a black parolee as his personal helper.
~
Remade in Telugu and Tamil and in Spanish and in English and in Hindi, this is generally seen to be the world’s most popular French film ever made. And it is not hard to see why.

First of all, it has two marvelous parts, one for an actor who scarcely moves, the other for an actor who never stands still.

I knew nothing of any of this when I found it in my Netflix mail, for I had somehow ordered it, never having heard of it.

When it came on, oh dear, it is in French, and my English subtitles are not on. Cantering along on my laziness, I thought I would watch it without understanding a word. Could it be told by pure physical action like a silent film?

It could. But the next day I saw it from the start with the subtitles on.

For what caught me was the performance of Omar Sy. I was fascinated – yes, by his hemispheric smile – but also by his physical style which is also hemispheric.

He won the French Oscar for this performance, and it brings home Marlon Brando’s adage that, in movies, if the actor’s contents are true it, it does not matter how broad the expression is.

Both films are worth watching.

The Intouchables being both the first film from the original documentary is the better. The Upside, in American English, expands certain scenes for comic purposes as it expands others for other purposes, but the first time one experiences such a story is the treasured one.

The two films are cast in obverse. An actor of smaller features and an admirable internal technique, Francois Cluzet, plays the quadriplegic and adopts, rightly, a minimalist attack to turn the glow of the character bit by bit out of the dimmer and on into full illumination. A smart strategy when set against Omar Sy who has big features and who is in full illumination every inch of the way.

In The Upside, instead of the broad facial effects of Omar Sy, Kevin Hart acts the helper smaller. Also smart. For Bryan Cranston – an actor of broad facial effects, indeed with a visage so mobile, it appears that he ought never to appear off the legitimate stage – plays the immobile quadriplegic.

Bryan Cranston is a fine actor, but a cool one, which is why it was right that he should be asked to carry through the arduous twists of Breaking Bad. It’s not a part for a nice guy. Or for a baddie. But not for a warm chap either.

As a consequence, in The Upside the chemistry between the men never clicks. Both screenplays tell us it does. The title Intouchables means: Can you possibly enter into the heart of one unlikely man with an injection from the heart of another? Can a breeding take place? And the answer is Yes. In both men, we sense it only in The Intouchables.

In The Intouchables, the billionaire lives in a Paris palace, which is more fun than the penthouse of The Upside. In that palace the entire staff disapproves of the black helper. In that penthouse, all that obstruction is condensed into one thankless role, beautifully executed by Nicole Kidman.

Which film to choose?

Well, do what I did, maybe. See The Untouchables in French. Then see it again with English subtitles. That is all you need. Full value guaranteed.

 

Gone With The wind

24 Jun

Gone With The Wind – directed by George Cukor, Sam Wood, Victor Fleming, Alfred Hitchcock*. Costume Drama. 221 minutes Color 1939.
★★★★★
The Story: A spoiled determined Southern belle takes on the prewar South, The Civil War, The Reconstruction and jeopardizes her entire love-life in the process.
~
I saw Gone With The Wind in 1939 when it first came out. My mother took my brother and me to a matinée at the Roosevelt in Auburndale on Northern Boulevard, Queens. In the intermission, a drawing won you a piece of thick white china with a double red rim.

I have seen it maybe four times since.

I remember the first time because of the film’s longueurs. I didn’t understand the history, and of course I was not interested to understand the love stories. I was six. But I understood the characters, and I understand them now in the same way as then, for they are clearly drawn.

Belle Watling was a woman outside society, but of big heart. Mammy was also of big heart and a firm disciplinarian who understood tradition better than anyone. Prissy was a foolish fish flopping about. Laura Hope Crews was an overstuffed bird with discombobulated feathers who never stopped cheeping. Thomas Mitchell was the impractical loving father. Harry Davenport was a big hearted and practical spirit. Ward Bond was a dumb cop. Barbara O’Neil was the serious practical mother. The O’Hara sisters of Anne Rutherford and Evelyn Keyes were squawking, jealous jilted sisters. Leslie Howard was the milksop aristocrat focus of all love attention. Olivia de Havilland was the benign spirit. Rhett Butler was a virile charming gunrunner crook. And Scarlet O’Hara was the vixen about whom all the others circled.

The rest of it bored me.

But what I did also understand, and this was all I understood on a gut level, was the huge change from the pastel organza of the sunny and lazy life of Tara, Twelve Oaks, and The Old South into the serious hard-working, and dark red rep décor of The Reconstruction.

The next time I saw it was also a matinée. At the Bayside, Queens. I was preteen. Those were the days I left a movie to stumble into the daylight but still be in the film, in its values and color and mood and lesson.

This time I knew it was a great film, because I knew it was all about Melanie Wilkes. It was about goodness, and how it prevails over selfishness and self-centeredness, with its love and its kindness. What had not gone with the wind was the strength of that gentleness. Oh, if only I could be good! Seeing Olivia de Havilland I thought I could be. I was mistaken.

If I ever saw it again in a movie house, I don’t remember. It’s a wonderful film to see in a picture palace, because of the reach of its history, its settings, its human content, its character types, and its length. Indeed, its very intimacies are spectacular.

The third time I saw it, I knew it was all about Scarlet and about home.

I saw it again yesterday in my little old-peoples living room on VHS tape.

The color had bleached into yellows. And this time I felt the falseness of the production scenes with their painted drops. The film is well produced, though, the musical theme remains moving, everyone is perfectly cast, Hattie McDaniel remains a wonder.

Things that stirred me before now didn’t, such as the keen folly of Thomas Mitchell’s death and Oona Munson’s speech. Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler, though from Savannah, does not speak with a Southern accent. The famous boom shot of Scarlet crossing the open-air hospital of wounded Confederacy soldiers registers as phony, because neither Atlanta, nor any other city, ever had that wide an expanse of dirt as a street. It had once set me agog. No more.

But this time, yesterday, now I knew the film was brilliantly about a dysfunctional relationship.

And a perfect illustration of one. It was not about Scarlet’s misguided love for a man who might lust for her but never love her. Or rather, that was just the flimsy foundation of just how badly two people could contrive to get along, which was the real story unfolding. Scarlet and Rhett always said or did the wrong thing to one another at the right time.

I’ve loved my versions of Gone With The Wind. None of them are amiss. I recommend the picture to all. Clark Gable, for once, looks wonderful in period costumes, a mountain of masculinity, his humor charmed by the selfish hell-cat Vivien Leigh so aptly gives us. Two survivors who adore that quality in one another.

Does she win him back when, on another day, back in Tara, she figures out how to?

Why, of course she does.

• Did you know — Hitchcock, who at the time was under contract to Selznick to make Rebecca, story-boarded the Ward Bond scene with the women tatting as they await the results of their husbands’ raid on the encampment. Check it out. It’s a perfect Hitchcock suspense scene.

 

Nicholas Nickelby

03 Jun

Nicholas Nickleby – directed by Douglas McGrath. Period Dramedy. 132 minutes Color 2002.

★★★★★

The Story: A multitude of coincidences and outrages and improbable persons converge to thwart and encourage a nineteen-year-old to care for and save his sister and widowed mother from destitution, derangement, and doom.
~
The recipe for a Dickens pie is to cook the first comic characters early and let their tang fade as the villains appear and let the villains fade as the romantic leads cinch the finale. Sprinkle Pathos Persons over the crust and devour.

What this means – but, fear not, the plot will out – is that love conquers all. It may as well, because the love interest here is played by two young beauties, Charlie Hunnam and Anne Hathaway.

The problem is that romantic love in Dickens is more a function of pity than sexual drive. Sex drive in his romantic leads is pictured more as feeling sorry for someone. Lovers are drawn to one another on rafts of compassion splashed with the lesser rain of pathos. Thus – real– but not quite real.

This means that the meanies and clowns dominate our interest.

So that Christopher Plummer’s brilliance as Old Man Nickleby astonishes us with his perfectly distributed sang froid, while the travelling theatre impresario Mr. Crummles of Nathan Lane fades under his nutty general good-heartedness – not without leaving behind a vivid memory of his wife played to a T by Barry Humphries inhabiting Dame Edna Etheridge as his grandiosely burbling and blindly devoted wife.

And the early villains fade behind the later ones. Jim Broadbent plays the defective school principal Wackford Squeers all out, and, boy, is he frightening! – as he should be – and, if he is not excelled in cruelty to children by his wife, done by Juliet Stevenson, that is because we are too blinded by the brilliance of both actors to distinguish one meanness over the other. You wonder how it is possible that English actors dare to body forth persons of such characteristic English vileness, but here they are, no holds barred.

But such is Dickens plenitude, that he has lots to spare as one richness is supplanted by the next.

The lubricious Sir Mulberry Hawk is given to Edward Fox to personate and bring to ruination, but he too disappears under the pustules of his disgrace, while Tom Courtenay as Plummer’s insolent coocoo-clock butler bores through his tippling to save the day for one and all.

You find Jamie Bell as Smike – the crippled dogsbody of the Squeers’ Dotheboys school and confidante of our hero, young Nickleby who kidnaps him away from it and saves Smike from being beaten to death. He dies beforehand, though.

The moving picture medium suits such a character as Smike because his painful lameness becomes visible there, so it carries an impact unwitnessed on the printed page, even those of the impressive Dickens. Likewise true of the Tweedledum and Tweedledee characters of the Cheeryble brothers played by Timothy Spall and Gerald Horan, masterfully bewigged for the roles – or role. Hello. Goodbye.

Because of the great entertainment value of Dickens’ material from its start as a serial in a magazine, then into a 600-page novel, Nicholas Nickleby has charmed its way into drama before now, as in the filmed 8-hour stage version.

But you cannot beat this 132-minute movie for its writing and casting and fully realized parts. It contains Christopher Plummer’s greatest film performance. The scar of his handsome, cockeyed face presents a temperament seized with the discretion of a rapier never drawn, always sheathed, always covered with blood. I love actors, let me say it again: I am always at a wonder how they dare to admit to the light of day that they have in them persons so vile.

Or so foolish. Or so funny.

Of course, no smart actor thinks his character is vile or foolish or even funny.

Every actor must take his character as the one vital to embody and preserve the highest of human values for all God’s eternity!

Those values, in their rainbow scope, are available to the reader or watcher of Dickens. Film nowadays may be interloped with an exclusifying crudeness, but the values of Nicholas Nickleby are real and do exist and are abroad in the air in their conflict with one another still. One place we go to appreciate, remember, and take sides with them, in and for our souls and hearts, is in the work and the fun of Charles Dickens.

 

Brooklyns’ Finest

03 Apr

Brooklyn’s Finest — directed by Antoine Fuqua. Cops&CrimeDrama. 132 minutes Color 2010.

★★★★★
The Story: Three cops imperil their souls in crime-prevention in three different ways.
~
If you want to enjoy Black History Month in rich dress, watch Brooklyn’s Finest, for it gives you top-form acting by all hands, but particularly by Don Cheadle, Ellen Barkin, and the great Wesley Snipes — fortified by the direction of black director, Antoine Fuqua.

Antoine Fuqua is one of those for whom the animate world exists — one of those rare directors who can capture performance — not just of actors but of places and things. And situations.

Antoine Fuqua directed Training Day, a film of honorable regard, and it is fascinating to see Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar for it, not appear as the lead in this one. Washington would have been cast against type as an ordinary grunt cop, grizzled and bushed, in his last week before retirement. Unheroic, and not even an anti-hero, the character is now miscast with Richard Gere, who, like Washington, is too good looking for the part, but who also does not possess the banality of a human whose daily drudge has not risen in his own and the eyes of his fellow cops above the routine of a milkman. It is a role for John C. Reilly.

Gere does beautifully with what he and is not and seizes the freedom to be so efficient in the part that you forget he is miscast. I take this as due to Fuqua’s direction, the script by Michael C. Martin, and Gere’s own love of his craft. All praise to him and them.

The point of this review is that the writing is first class, the direction is first class, as are the score, costumes, sets, editing, filming. All this feeds with diamonds the actors, such that none of them have ever been better in anything.

Ethan Hawke (also in Training Day) is the sleaze-cop stealing drug-bust loot. His face of a Juvenile, that usually stands against his credibility in mature parts like this, photographs finally as diabolical. It suits Hawke’s smug mouth, Mephistopheles eyebrows, and the inner nerve of his instrument — his braggadocio. So, finally, in a film, you do not stand outside of him with his privilege but pitch in with the hopeless desperation of the situation he finds himself in with his wife and three children and with his nasty streak in full array.

Lily Taylor plays his wife, tumescent with child. For the first or at least seldom time as an actor she does not ride her nag, but understands the power of a part’s being on the periphery. Her actor’s work is humble and just. She understands she is playing the part of a character focused elsewhere than the policework plot, but rather on her crowd of homemaking chores and on whatever her sacrifices to them that might entail. She’s wonderful.

As is the much under-used actor Ellen Barkin. Here she plays the ruthless police boss. She gives a rendition of such excruciating intensity that, although it is a supporting role, I want to see the entire movie again to watch her enact it.

Then we have Don Cheadle wedded in danger to Wesley Snipes. Cheadle’s default position as an actor is his tapioca heart not much on view here, I rejoice to report. That gentleness, that brown, soft-eyed withdrawal of danger into the warm canopied bed of a masculinity that would harm no one, has been his customary aura as an actor. And a beautiful one, too, and not on view here, as he seesaws almost imperceptibly between loyalty to his best friend and loyalty to his job as an undercover cop missioned to destroy that friend.

Another under-used actor, the great Wesley Snipes, plays the vice-king, a Terror Of The Earth or at least of Brooklyn. He again brings to the screen his danger and his sense of the immediate. In playing the immediate, the actor understands that one must always be one split second ahead of it.

How does an actor play that he does not know that?

Watch Brooklyn’s Finest and see if you can tell.

Engage with our finest A-A talent — our cultural heritage made right now — a Black History’s treasure shining its silver on today’s very table.

 

True Detective Season 3

10 Mar

True Detective Season 3 — created, written, directed, produced by Nic Pizzolatto. Police Procedural 8 Part TV Series. Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: Detective partners can neither solve or shake the case of a little girl who has mysteriously disappeared.
~
With a figure suited to pornography, still at age 46 or so and like many males of his complexion who have stayed in shape, Mahershala Ali can stretch the ages he can play, as he does here, from, let’s say, thirty on the one hand, to let’s say seventy-five.

His success doing this, aside from elaborate makeup upon his heart-shaped face and useful costume changes and wigs, would not happen if some fundamental difference did not arrive in him to change our view of his character and his view of the world.

His character, young, begins as contemptuous and driven. Contempt is achieved by his keeping his eyelids half-closed, eyes averted, in a position of constant dismissal of all about him.

As an old man, those eyelids widen eyes with a wonder almost blind. Contempt gone. As to the drive, the character has arrived at the destination he was driving to when he was thirty, and therefore Ali sees to it that he is just stuck there: he is no longer driving: he is on automatic drive.

All of this works in behalf of the story it illustrates. Mahershala Ali throws in bandier bandy legs when he is older, and he and his partner detective move more creakily. (Actually, old people tend to walk slower not because their joints are stiff so much as they dread to fall down.) Does this interest you? It does me, because as soon as I saw him in Moonlight and The Green Book, I went on a Mahershala Ali bender. Wow! What is this? He mesmerizes one because of the recesses of his focus.

I read a little about him and find that he was once a professional basketball player, which makes me grasp why he is an actor with such perfect aim. Cary Grant started out in show business in the United States by waking on stilts in Coney Island and became an actor renowned for his balance.

The Arkansas State Trooper detective Mahershala Ali plays is unapproachable as a person, but as a professional he is uncanny in his hunches and tracking skills, so he fits right in with Stephen Dorff who plays his detective partner.

Indeed, the Mahershala Ali character is seen largely through the Dorff character’s eyes. Stephen Dorff’s performance has great carrying power in the matter as does the beautiful performance of the beautiful Carmen Ejogo who also distributes Mahershala Ali’s character to us by her response to it as his wife.

As to the story, True Detective adheres to the rubric for high-style detective fiction laid down years ago for our guidance by Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle before him that at no point shall we understand anything of what is happening. The plot will supply us with stupefying complexities, and we will continue to watch in the hope, never fulfilled, that all will come to a rational conclusion.

If you watch the new British TV Sherlock you will be treated to the same befuddlement as Doctor Watson’s, therein amplified by a camera, editorial, and narrative eccentricity of a brashness which dazzles as it beguiles.

Quite right too. The suspense of high-style detective fiction consists in the audience being suspended in its own utter stupidity. God exists in the decoration of wisecracks with which Raymond Chandler nails his truth, and without the high style of this décor, this stance, this wicked plasticity, nothing in the story here or there would bewitch, even once Mahershala Ali’s presence has secured one’s place before the screen.

So see it.

It is of the caliber of True Detective Season 1, with its astonishing performance by Matthew McConaughey.

It is 8 episodes, beautifully mounted, in country.

You would never watch a film this long, but it’s not a film this long. Episode-form is a separate form, and narration in episode-form is particular to the form, such that you can do nothing but watch it over days or weeks or years as it comes.

And it has a long, unexpected Lisztian ending. Be patient. No one knew how to end a composition like Franz Liszt.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Carmen Ejogo, DETECTIVE STORY, Mahershala Ali, Stephen Dorff

 

Brian Banks

21 Jan

Brian Banks — directed by Tom Shadyac. Courtroom Docudrama. 99 minutes Color 2019.

Hitchcock founded his career on stories of the wrongfully accused, and this film gives us the suspense and emotional catharsis of the form.

It also resembles this year’s Just Mercy because it parallels the work of the Alabama Innocence Project with the office of the California Innocence Project in freeing the guiltless. In most cases the prisoners are still in prison and on death row. But in Banks case, he was convicted when 16, served five years, was freed, and, adding pressure to the tale, Banks was already running out of time to prove his innocence before the deadline of his parole ran out.

Aldis Hodge plays Brian Banks, and he looks as young as 16 when he is shown to be 16, and as old at 27 when he is shown to be that. His has the physique to be a football player, the physical power to convince us he would have played in the NFL, and the courage to act the part to its full measure. He is well cast.

Greg Kinnear plays Justin Brooks, the lawyer heading up the California Innocence Project, as Michael B Jordan played Bryan Stevenson of the Alabama Innocence Project in Just Mercy, where Jaimie Foxx played the black man convicted — but the stories vary widely in their details, their characters, their flavor and their telling. For Brian Banks is told in a good old-fashioned, classical manner that carries us along on a ride through the interesting scenery of the legal horror story of the case, on a journey thrilling and fresh, although we have all taken it before.

Xosha Roquemore dazzles the story to a standstill with her playing of the young woman who lied Brian Banks into prison. Melanie Liburd is lovely fun as the young lady who fosters him when on parole. Dorian Missick is completely sympathetic and understandable as the parole officer who must abide by the rules. Sherri Shepherd as Banks’ mom aces her cinching speech. Morgan Freeman, ever-the sage-mentor, produces in us our customary but still welcome and fresh satisfaction with him.

But the performance that carries the balance of the tale is performed by Greg Kinnear as the head of CIP. As an actor he is able to be resolved in the smart decision to decline his help to Banks, and because of the honest way he plays this smart and dedicated man you have to agree with him, so that you never know whether Banks innocence will ever be established by the one lawyer able to do it. Pay attention to how the actor presents invisibly but clearly a resistance ever silent. The entire suspense of the story lies with this factor in this actor’s hands, hands he never tips, and he does not betray us. He’s just a man with a cause, close to but parallel with Banks’ cause.

I liked him and the picture a lot. Unlike with Just Mercy, the racial question of this picture hides itself in the inability of many black folks to receive legal justice because they can’t afford it. That wrong is still prominent and should be restored, so that the Innocence Project of various states can in honor retire.

Brian Banks is one of a fresh flowering of recent dramas skillfully engrossing us with how much black lives matter.

I want to see them all. I invite you watch with me.

 

1917

20 Jan

1917 — directed by Sam Mendes. WWI drama. 119 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: Two British soldiers are given the mission to warn a distant battalion not to engage the Germans in battle because it is a trap.
~

1917 is the name of the story, but it might as well have been called 10am to 11:59am, Friday, August 8, 1917, for the film is presented as one single action lasting the duration of the picture.

This is not a stunt, because 1917 delivers to our unavoidable eyes the inescapable fact that no escape from war is possible, particularly not for the viewer. 1917 accomplishes this impression by passing the viewer by the hundred corpses of those soldiers who lie rotting about and by the cadavers of towns and farms and homes and trees and fields. And they present war’s inescapability by the temporary escape-thrill of a race to hand-deliver a message to warn the British to escape a German trap.

Their flight though enemy lines offers the illusion of escape because it is so frightening for us the audience and so frightening for the two participants. They pass through trenches of soldiers also trying to escape not war but the tedium of war and the postponed peril of war — by playing chess, reading, writing home, gabbing, drinking, and sleeping. We whizz past these soldiers in British trenches, as the two corporals whizz by them on their way out of the dirty maze of those trenches and up, into, and across the promise of death intervening between their headquarters and the British front line, where the duped battalion faces the German trap.

In the very pitch of excitement of their mission, we witness the last escape soldiers make from war as they are balked by a sergeant gone mad.

The physical appearance of the film is beautiful, the score is wonderful, as is Roger Deakins’ photography. The director has made one error. The two actors who must race to the rescue of the battalion are unknown to us as is everyone else shown, but, alas, two world-famous actors put in cameos at the start and finish. The officer who sets the message in motion is Colin Firth and the one who finally receives it is Benedict Cumberbach, and their presence is garish, as the movie suddenly reeks of the greenroom. But each scene is brief.

The two soldiers are perfectly played by George MacKay and Dean Charles Chapman. The barriers they face are inexhaustible, but each difficulty is written unconventionally such that our surprise fosters respect for the truth of the perverse at play in war.

The escape from death does not let up. We humans love war because — by killing so many of us humans — it wakes us to the sleeping fact that death does not let up.

1917 stands equal in rare excellence with the WWI films of Milestone’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Renoir’s Grand Illusion, and Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory. Whatever you do, a picture palace is where you must see it, which you must do whatever you do.

 

Just Mercy

19 Jan

Just Mercy—directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Docudrama. 147 minutes Color 2020.
★★★★★
The Story: A law student volunteers in the Alabama prisons and, after he earns his law degree in Harvard, comes back to Alabama to free the wrongly accused, his first case being a thorny one.

Docudramas stand tall in recent releases. Boy Erased tells of the experience in and liberation from a homosexual cure institution. And here Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson join forces to fight for the liberation from an institution of a misprision of justice so ruddy its racial suppression had to be fast, sudden, final, and resolutely colluded in.

We don’t go to such movies to see character development or even depth of motivation. All those are “given,” — meaning tacit — meaning the audience must supply them — and indeed the audience wants to do just that. It knows how to. Each audience member is watching this dramatization of a piece of history in order to be informed, to follow gratefully history’s deep complications, setbacks, casualties. We do not watch Hamlet for Danish history. And we do not watch docudrama for the kind of high tragedy Elsinore delivers in Hamlet.

No. Docudrama offers a great and different drama for our interiors in tension, urgency, inspiration, education, concern for the living or once living. I Want to Live with Susan Hayward is a more harrowing audience experience than Star Wars. We go right into the gas chamber with her and all the delay and clumsy ritual attached. We die for her. We weep for her human suffering, for she was once a living being. Docudramas enlarge our compassion. And we leave the theatre determined to ally ourselves with the right side, take up causes in conversations and marches, write to our representatives, or back up our stirred ideals with contributions. And when the curtain comes down, we applaud all those involved for having the guts to tell the truth finally.

Just Mercy fully lives up the potential of the form.

Mind you, docudrama acting performances do not as a rule have an arc. Characters do not necessarily start somewhere and slowly and eventually end up internally somewhere else. Here they certainly do not. What you have here is an actor, Michael B. Jordan, who remains stalwart throughout — and that is as it should be. He is an actor who can hold the screen like nobody’s business — with his fine carriage, spacious face, sensitive instrument, and keen, open, direct gaze in which so much can be read because nothing is forced or imposed. All he need do is remain before us to convince of his firmness of purpose. As an actor he makes everything — the merest furrow of his brow — as small as he can — which is also correct — for it induces the audience to put themselves in his shoes.

Brie Larson plays his second in command, and the opening position the actress assumes of adherence to her cause encases her in the easy strength of loyalty to the business at hand. No hanky-panky, here but always at work toward the realization of justice for the wrongly condemned. It is a performance of humor and refusal to steal a single scene. No character development here, either. For the character remains as she started, and if the character did not, there would be no story to tell. Kudos to her.

Jaimie Foxx as the death row prisoner is less reserved, but the role clamors for emotion and tempts him into it, which ever and ever deprives the audience of feeling it themselves. Actual his change comes early in the story and his character remains constant afterwards.

I won’t disbar myself from your love by describing the great scenes, but, besides these, there are super-duper performances. Tim Black Nelson in a very well-written part as the false witness —is he up for an Oscar for this? Rafe Spall as the D.A. you want to strangle but it’s always too late; he walks around inside the role so that you never know where he will finally come out from it, if at all. Ted Huckabee as the sheriff holds the insolence of his position in wise reserve. Hayes Mercure creates a story without words of a prison guard who finds his lost humanity as the great case of righting the wrong unfolds.

Docudramas provide a great theatrical experience all their own. Each member of its audience creates in themself the response system particular to the form. Arcing inside each member are the emotional eyes which know how to see this form, experience it, enjoy it, weigh it. Those intestinal eyes are bent upon the form in ways which in some ways do blend with those which Hamlet requires, but they are essentially a system all their own.

Bryan Stevenson was the young lawyer who came back to Alabama with a mandate to free the unjustly condemned to death-row. 135 prisoners have by now and by his efforts been freed from that malign fate — many of them accused on racial grounds — to become cases of bitter and frustrated freedom, as did Walter McMillian.

The fight does not end with this movie or his deeds. And this movie revitalized us in the certainly that Stevenson’s fights are all our fights and thrill us to engage in.

 

Right Of Way

16 Jan

Right Of Way — directed by George Schaefer. Family Drama. 96 minutes Color 1983.

The Story: Their grown daughter is called to her elderly parents’ home where she learns of their determination to commit suicide.
~
They were born in 1908 and so are well into their 70s when Bette Davis and James Stewart pair up for this last hurrah.

Actors love to act, and therefore tend to go on acting. Sometimes it does not much matter the material, and the premise of this one is good, but, alas, the writing is not good.

Poorly realized dialogue leave the two actors with no glories to rise to save their delivery. Unlike the actors of our own, the actors of their era were renowned for their delivery — which is why they were easy to imitate.

In the case of Jimmy Stewart, a master of his craft, what his delivery delivered was his vulnerability, the awkward hem-and-haw of the bashful male. This stammer opened up a reality in him of a wrestling with principles threatened by his own unwillingness to harm anyone on the one side and on the other by the resolution of those principles through that struggle into temporary inner oak. His technique made him fluid, and he is so here.

He is affectionate with Davis, convincing as a husband, and, even at the pitch of anger, soft-spoken always. In shooting Two Road Together, John Ford, who preferred taciturn heroes, sat back in speechless wonder as Stewart made hay with his verbose character — and why was Ford so dumbstruck? — because James Stewart could make any line funny. That talent has no exercise here. The subject is serious as suicide.

Bette Davis’ delivery is blunt, emphatic, and authoritarian. It is her stand-in for all the parts she played from the age of forty. Her character is written exactly as difficult as Davis was in life. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She doesn’t even suffer gladly gladly. Bossy though she is, her voice is pitched high and plaintive. She sounds like a pleading child — and a nasty one at that. She flattens her lines as if to flatten the scene, the situation, and the other characters with them. Her performance is one step above amateur.

How then is it possible that she comes alive as an actor in that long conversation scene with Stewart? The film is worth seeing just for this passage. You will recognize it when it reaches you. Two actors simply playing with one another in the scene’s moment-by-moment. Natural as air. A jewel.

Neither actor expresses much physical vigor, a quality both were known for. And one wonders if this depletion were chosen or involuntary. Has age filched all their élan vital? Hard to believe. Opposite them Melinda Dillon operates on a level of vitality whose truth castes the two senior actors somewhat in the shade.

The movie is a museum piece. I enjoy museums. I always go.

 

Bombshell

04 Jan

Bombshell—directed by Jay Roach. Docudrama. 108 minutes Color 2019.

The Story: Females rouse and band to denounce the malfeasance of a TV studio head.

The story is less interesting as a current scandal involving well known persons, than it would have been as a simple story on its own. I was confused by its presentation — too many blonds all at once — and by the rat-tat-tat of brief scenes with so many participants I could not register them. I expect the writer felt he had to grant every bird on the perch its moment of urrent-events-fame, but each bird flew away too fast for me to care who they were.

What is interesting is the uprising of one woman, then more women, and then especially the queen herself against the king.

What is interesting is the human capacity to rise, resist, and overthrow oppression.

And what is interesting, nonetheless, is the resistance in the oppressed to join the revolution that would liberate them.

That is a battle not socially dramatic but internally dramatic.

In this picture Charlize Theron plays that queen. I did not recognize her. I kept waiting for her to appear. The character on the screen, whom the camera followed, I took to be a holding move—but it was Theron all the while.

She is unrecognizable— thinner than before, her face still as stone, her cheeks sculpted, her eyes impenetrably black. They exuded competence, confidence, collection. Her makeup must be marvelous, but how can you tell? It’s not noticeable like that of Aileen Wuornos whom she played in Monster. Nor is her character sympathetic, as Aileen was. Here she is not makeup-disguised. Here everything comes from the inside. Here she is reserved. Charlize Theron’s dimples, her generous smile, her gleeful, conniving eyes are nowhere evident. And yet one respects this character — Megyn Kelly, the superstar newscaster — whose very nature would draw audiences to her because she is inherently trustworthy.

So if you want to see why Theron is put forward this year for all the awards in her field, take in this movie. Charlize Theron gets 5 stars. If you love fine acting here it is: a masterpiece of interior lighting.

Surrounding her is Nicole Kidman as the first revolutionary, Margo Robbie as the most recent victim, John Lithgow as the molester, and in a wonderful turn as his Jewish lawyer, Allison Janney.

 

Marriage Story

10 Dec

Marriage Story—directed by Noah Baumbach. Comedrama. 2 hours 16 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: A professional business couple come to grips with themselves.
~
Well, if you’re interested to preview the Oscar winners for best actor and actress this year, watch Marriage Story to see Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver exceed themselves in it.

Both are wedded not to one another but to their calling, and both are stubborn as all get out.

That’s the situation but the execution of it by the writer who wrote it and the director who directed it, who happen to be the same person, liberates these actors, as he does the situation, so that truth be told on a scale and with an intensity seldom witnessed on the screen.

We are not talking about dead end kids here, but already accomplished middle class professionals on their way up to be established. So, for me, the ground is familiar. They are talking a tongue I know.

I saw the picture on Netflix last night. I am an ignorant person, for I thought it just came out at the local. Indeed, as you read, it still plays there. Maybe they have to release pictures in theaters by New Years to qualify for Oscars. Be that as it may, nothing is lost in watching this movie at home, for it depends for its impact less on the wide-screen spectacle movie screens prefer, but rather on a different sort of spectacle, that offered to close-ups.

And that really pays off as I see it on my iMac. For the writer has written at two points long monologues for his actors, the first delivered by Johansson to her shrink. I had never thought much of Johansson as an an actor, until I saw her do a short character part or two, where she surprised me. But now—wow—the director dispenses with that drain on our attention, the reaction shot, and lets the camera stay on her through the entire speech. He gives her to us wholly. I was so happy for her. Here was an actor at her best, here was an actor at the peak of her craft, here was an actor doing what she hoped one day to give when she started years ago.

Adam Driver’s turn comes later which you’ll recognize by your shock when you come upon it. He is one of those actors who, like Edward G. Robinson, one cannot take one’s eyes off of. Why? He is not homely, he is not handsome, he is not sexy. He is that rare thing: mysterious. It is lodged in the space he keeps still between his sometimes narrow eyes and his rich thick lips. You never know what he is feeling until it cheekily surprises you. Here he is in peak form.

Everyone else plays it for satire and are at the top of their game too: Laura Dern’s Hollywood lawyer, Alan Alda and Ray (Liotta particularly) as other Hollywood lawyers. All credit to all.

And all credit to the audience whose understanding, delight, and attention this ruefully truthfully told tale its director and writer honors.

 

Mary Of Scotland

01 Dec

Mary Of Scotland—directed by John Ford. Historical. 123 minutes Black and White 1936.
★★★★
The Story: An attractive young queen assumes her throne only to be bullied by everyone.
~
Mary of Scotland as a monarch is not a good subject for drama, although Mary Stuart as a person is so tempting that even Schiller placed his great talent at her disposal. I saw Eva Le Gallienne and and Irene Worth (and later Signe Hasso) do it in Tyrone Guthrie’s production at The Phoenix. It is a play frequently revived. It is based on a confrontation between the two queens Elizabeth and Mary that never (as politically inexpedient) could have taken place. And of course there is the opera Maria Stuarda of Donizetti, based on the Schiller. Schiller had a massive talent for extensive confrontation scenes of a romantic order. And they have a certain carrying power in his play. Shakespeare wisely stayed clear of the subject, even when his patron, the king, was Mary’s son, James. Maxwell Anderson, however, riding his over-stuffed studio couch of talent into the ditch accomplished a traffic jam.

What’s the problem?

Mary made unwise decisions. If we had a good play about her today, it would resemble the decisions the present queen of England is seen to make in The Crown: every single decision Elizabeth II makes is wrong. But her string of errors holds the story of her reign together.

But Mary was also a creature of determining bad luck, which Elizabeth II is not. And bad luck is a subject that cannot be dramatized. While if ever an actress was born to overrule bad luck it was Katharine Hepburn, even she cannot do it. Dudley Nichols, an able screenwriter if there ever was one, cannot do it. Pandro Berman has produced it magnificently, but that merely detours the problem. And, of course, John Ford directed it with his crude sentimentality and his robust love of men doing manly things this time in kilts. They execute them in close order marches, singing in brave choral unison, amid the screeches of bagpipes.

Frederic March as the sexy rash warrior Lord Bothwell is miscast although he assumes the position with all the will of the matinée idol he wasn’t. Frederic March cannot assume a role perfect for Errol Flynn. March’s real-life wife Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth falls into the same trap that snared Bette Davis in the role: playing the queen as a waterfront thug.

Katharine Hepburn alone carries the film, which is all over the place. Alone among the actors at least she is not over-costumed by Walter Plunkett. Sometimes she plays in the Noble Mode of her era and choice, but often she is touching, not because she can generate at will that left-eye tear of hers, but because Mary was flustered and muscled by her Scots lairds. She assumed a throne whose rule of a child-king had been in the hands a regency of men too accustomed to having their own way, and her assumption was ignorant, incompetent, and incorrect. But to see Hepburn helpless has its appeal.

She is supported by the brilliant filming of Joe August. If you want to learn something about how to shoot this sort of royal hooey (Game Of Thrones), watch Mary Of Scotland. Watch how his camera holds his actors in its embrace, caresses them with black, searches their faces in fade-outs.

When I was eighteen I lived in Oundle and visited the next town over, Fotheringhay, where Mary was held by Elizabeth in house arrest. After much delay, Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant. But when Mary was beheaded and fell dead, a commotion bestirred her garments. Then it was discovered she has secreted her lapdog in the voluminous sleeves of her dress.

It’s a telling detail of a woman too trivial to grasp the reality of her royal situation. A child woman, of course, Hepburn could play but only as a hoyden as Jo in Little Women. Still she looks lovely in the role and acts it with all the restraint necessary to an actor baffled by a role of a sexy woman once played on Broadway by the least sexy actress of all, Helen Hayes. That is to say, into the basic material nothing fits because the basic material for drama is not there.

Hepburn is not box-office poison, but the material RKO gave her in those days was. Or perhaps her arrogance in thinking she could overcome that material by force of personality was the poison. Hepburn was not an actress who could shape material to her own ends. That was not within her genius or appeal. She could do a lot. She could not do everything. Still if you love or admire her, as I certainly do, here she is in the least heroic role she ever played. And it is worthwhile to see how she keeps her seat in the role to ride it right off the cliff at the end.

 

The Irishman

01 Dec

The Irishman—direct by Martin Scorsese. Crime Drama. 3 hours 29 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: An agèd Mob hitman/thug/bodyguard recalls his professional life as the favorite sponsee/liaison of two big business potentates, one a union leader, one a gangland don.

Robert DeNiro plays the leading, title, and starring role here, Frank Sheeran. What he learns from the first mentor, the don, played by Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino, don of the Buffalo Cosa Nostra, is mastery of keeping the peace both in himself and between warring factions. What he learns from the second, Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the largest union in the world and played by Al Pacino, is to urge such peacekeeping on his volatile boss every minute of the day.

The picture unfolds at 3 ½ hours but never stalls, never bores, never repeats.

It is essentially a string trio for viola, with Pacino playing the violin, Pesci playing the cello, and De Niro the viola. Despite its chamber-work-compression of instruments, its scale is widespread in its localities, while remaining detailed in those settings. It holds forth all over the country on the one hand, and on the other it counts on intimate closeups of the three stars. We range from the gigantic to the particular with no conflict of style. This is because the development of relations is forefront at all times and throughout.

As to the acting, that is another story. Pacino and DeNiro never play their characters. Despite the blue eyes, you never believe De Niro’s character’s background is Irish/Swedish from Pennsylvania. You never believe Pacino’s character’s background is Irish/German midwestern. Both of them present as lower-class New York City Italian first-generation, with accents and mannerisms to match.

As such, each of them uses the same acting techniques and styles they have developed and employed for upwards of 50 years. No concession is granted to the parts they play in terms of nature, class, region, or background. This has partly to do with their understanding of the limitations and securities of their basic techniques, and partly to do with the denial of Method Acting Training to emphasize language or voice training of any kind for actors.

On screen, De Niro and Pacino are not like Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa. For such is not within their talent and interest. Rather Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa are like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. So Pacino and De Niro in those parts is not a matter of acting at is greatest reaches. It is a matter of casting. Their performances present zero surprises. As character actors give Pacino and De Niro an F. As movie star actors give them an A+.

For they engage their roles, if not their characters, full bore. As an audience you fully set aside their lacks, overcome as you are by the strength of their technique, its torrent and delicacy. Pacino thrusts his Hoffa forward with every eccentricity at his muster, and you go along with it because it is required for us to witness Hoffa as not just difficult, but so difficult as to be impossible, and so impossible as to be doomed. This sort of acting is the hand Pacino has dealt himself under the table for years.

Right before our eyes, likewise, De Niro, ever since The Deerhunter, has lodged into his face that rictus which he wishes us to be taken for stress, eyes aglare with threat, corners of the mouth drawn down. Nonetheless, it provides his Frank Sheeran with the cover and restraint necessary for the crises he faces, and it gives to his loyalty the black shiny surface of honest patent leather. It also gives him the cover to perform that impressive phone conversation, executed quite properly with the trick of making it hard for him to breathe. Struggling for breath would happen to any of us thus circumstanced, the whole body almost closing down to survive what against its own nature he must avow in that call.

Of the three, Joe Pesci’s playing as the Godfather, god-father, and god/father is different from the volatility one associates with Pesci’s work in the past. None of that former crazy, wild, out-of-control rashness is on view. Every hint of danger and unpredictability is reduced to just one wild horse in the corral instead of a herd of them. Careful, just, reasonable is what he gives us, and his is the best performance of the three, because not only are the character and actor Italian so his physical metaphor works, but his conviction, common sense, and kindness have the enormous carrying power of the subtle. You look into his eyes, and you understand everything his character does and must do. Pesci’s Russell Bufalino does nothing out of evil, cruelty or meanness, but only for what is best for business, that is to say for the protection and benefit of the largest group of people.

Indeed, you might say that The Irishman is the secret files of the personnel departments of two big businesses. You might think this would be tedious. It is fascinating, because of Scorsese’s treatment of the material, his attention to detail and to his sticking to what he knows best—and his ear for it.

The principal defect of the picture and what accounts for its length lies in the failure of the script to distinguish what hit-men do. They eliminate people in advance of or in response to revenge. Or they eliminate people who are in the way. We do not see this distinction made in the film because so much attention is given to revenge-hits, whereas Hoffa’s disappearance was an instance of the latter. He was a mad dog threatening a whole village. He was in the way.

For, towards his end, Hoffa threatened Union hegemony and the conduct of its vast pension funds. He didn’t see what a threat he was both to union business and to Mafia business or recognize what the Mafia would do about it.

Big business directs the story as a whole. But The Irishman is a story worked out in terms of the relations between its three main characters. All three have big hearts. At the end, the business story and the plot of these big-hearted relationships converge to make the crisis. But it stops short. The crisis is never developed.

There is a scene missing.

The crisis is simple:

Can you murder your best friend?

Is is kinder to put your belovèd ailing dog out of its misery or should you let unfriendly disease slay it?

Nonetheless, while a dog may be man’s best friend, your best friend is not a dog.

Can you murder your best friend?

Is it better that Frank murder Hoffa because, according to the code, it is more loving, it is more honorable, it is more loyal?

Hoffa/Pacino is in the way.

As the servant of two masters, will De Niro remain loyal to his best friend, Pacino, or will he remain loyal to his father, Pesci?

Can you actually hold a gun and deliver two shots to the back of your best friend’s skull?

Can you murder your best friend?

The writer and director have not seen this complex matter plain. And without the focus of a great confrontation scene fully mounted, the film lacks a KO and spreads itself into 3½ hours.

And, without it, The Irishman falls short of the great category of a high tragedy which is its proper sphere.

(Although, if it had attainted high tragedy, it is possible that De Niro does not have the talent to perform it.)

Still the film is worth seeing, because every scene, every shot is choice. If Scorsese has failed to tell his drama well, Scorsese has not failed to tell his story well.

As for the rest, Anna Paquin is telling as the daughter who sees through the lie of Frank’s life. She’s underused in the part, which would be the central for the scenes left out.

And it’s lovely to see Harvey Keitel at work again.

The movie is beautifully cast, produced, acted, and set.

Who does not bow before editor Thelma Schoonmaker has neither manners nor sense.

Also praise be to those who aged and youthened the three men’s faces as time planed or chiseled them. None of this bothered me or detoured my attention. I invite everyone reading to a like infatuation.

For Scorsese has not just dealt a hand of cards. He has dealt four hands. And they are beautiful, as one by one he plays them out, card by card, before our eyes so privileged to see them.

 

The Laundromat

27 Nov

The Laundromat—directed by Steven Soderbergh. Crime Dramedy. 95 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: The mad fairytale of the notorious off-shore tax evasion con is danced into floodlit glare by its perpetrators and victims alike.
~
Here we have a that rarity, a comic polemic, apt, imaginative, convincing. How well directed? Perfectly. How written, edited, costumed, set, and designed? Perfectly.

As to the acting, all the actors should be shot.

And why is that?

Because how could any of them exceed in excellence what they triumph as here?

The piece takes on the illegal, devious, cheap, and costly scam of off-shore tax shelters. 60 billion tax dollars lost last year to the common weal, stolen and stashed by America’s corporations.

I mean, how small can you get? How vile, how cheesy to cheat one’s countrymen of education? Food? Care?

Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman play international profits isolators, Banderas from Latin America and Oldman from someplace Teutonic, Tweedledum and Tweedledee in perfect sync. Believe me, they are believed to be must seen. Which means you dare not miss the black comedy of their grift, the irony of their alibis, their slippery sloping mealy-mouthed lying tongues. They play other parts as well, all in aid of mendacity and moolah.

Meryl Streep?

I leave you to wake to her particular genius again. We keep falling asleep about her. She keeps waking us up.

Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer—all in top form. Clear, cogent, creative.

This is on Netflix and was produced for Netflix.

Tip top entertainment. Which induces us all to rise to the occasion, I should hope.

 

Il Postino: The Postman

10 Nov

The Postman (Il Postino)—directed by Michael Radford. Drama. Color.
★★★★★
The Story: What could a world renown poet and his postman possibly have in common?
~
Every other male on that island is a fisherman, but our hero is no good at that, so when a part-time postman job comes up for a man with a bike, he bites.

The poet Pablo Neruda has taken refuge from political terror in Chile in a remote house on a small Italian Island. To bring him his mail, our postman bikes up the mountain road every day to his door.

The town is fascinated by the presence of this great celebrity—as famous for his politics as his poetry. Our postman understand his village, but is not political, not worldly nor widely read. He presently comes to ask Neruda’s help.

What’s the wonder here?

The wonder is the confluence of two styles of screen acting. It is a mesh so seamless you would not suppose two styles even exist.

The first is the style of the great French film actor Phillippe Noiret. He tells us in the bonus material that he based his portrait on Neruda never crossing his legs. Which, in terms of the rubric of acting, means that his Neruda is never at once remove from any situation or person, that he is always open, never posed. Noiret’s acting style is what was said of Mildred Dunnock’s: so experienced it looks fresh.

The second style is that of the actor in search of a style. Massimo Troisi, which is to say a famous belovèd comic screen actor obliged to stop being funny and start relating to other characters according to their dramatic status. This works because, since he and everyone hold Neruda in awe, the story requires that his character’s job is to find a way to enter into Neruda—into his house, into his talent, into his values—in order to to let Neruda into his. It is the story of one man learning from another, the character with no experience dissolving into reaching out for the experience of the other.

Troisi’s performance of this character is so taking that one supposed Troisi had never acted in his life before. It is breathtakingly new. The Zen beginner beginning before one’s very eyes. There is nothing like it in all cinema. You might suppose he was an amateur, someone they dragged in off the street, and blessed him with the perfect role. How happy this character makes me!

This film was loved in its day and is lovable today. Don’t miss it. Draw all those you love into a screening. After a bit the subtitles will not disturb anyone. Open-heartedness has never been so simple, so easy, so available, so beautiful.

 

Pain And Glory

08 Nov

Pain and Glory—directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Drama. 113 minutes Color 2019. ★★★★★
The Story: A renown film director in retreat from his calling faces the remote and nearer past.
~
Why do we watch with unvarying attention this film which has no plot and no discernible story?

Whatever can be said about the director’s treatment of his material, it is too integrated to sit back and grasp. So too the writing. The editing. Of course Almodóvar is also a film director, but who cares enough about that or him to situate him in place of the character up on the screen?

Do we care whether he will ever direct a film again? Perhaps it lodges as the only issue for suspense, but does it matter to us as we see that particular actor play a director called Mello? Do we care about his hypochondria? How silly and self-indulgent all that seems, just some sort of alibi. Do we care about his increasing drug addiction? Of course not. We all intuitively know that addiction is not a subject for drama any more than it is a proper subject for therapy, since addiction turns humans into robots, and drama is not a subject for robots but for humans.

And so it goes.

Why are we placing our unvarying interest in this film as we watch it?

The cause is a combination of all the forces above aligned by the director—set design, cinemaphotography, editing, and writing—to entertain us so richly we cannot pay an attention to them that veers away from the energy and eyes of the main character and the actor who plays him, Antonio Banderas.

Will I spoil the surprise ending for you by telling you the film has one? That last scene tells you why all the issues above are begged. It also thrusts you back into devoting one’s respect for the actor where it is due and intended.

Banderas is an actor, like Richard Burton, always on reserve, always holding back, indeed so used to holding back that it does not occur either to him or to you that he he is holding back. And that is the story of his character’s nature, as we see it unfold and not unfold before us. Reserve is Banderas’ habit. Which he wears like a habit.

Indeed, there is a homosexual content to this film that you never suspect for a minute until halfway through it emerges as natural as dawn.

All we know about this character is that he suffers. And we also know not why but that in his circumstances we too would suffer. Until we see, one by one, his causes for suffering dissolve into non-issues.

Which does not mean they are not real.

They are. Banderas makes them so. We participate with him in cooperating with this film with the attention to it that makes it fine.

Also, of course, there exists the strength of the garish palette of Almodóvar. So, for a time, I allow myself to live in a scab-red kitchen and amid the blatant chromolithographic forces of his pictures which scatter from our notions of such subject matter the impression that reality must be banal to be true. No, their reality is as solid and vivid as their colors.

The title of the film provides this is as the first fact to be faced. So is the presence of the vivid Penélope Cruz. Pain is not the way to translate “dolor”. “Sorrow” is the translation. No one is in pain here. Everything is recoverable.

There is much to say about this film and the films of Pedro Almodóvar, and I have here said none of it. I leave those words to your conversations with your friends after you have enjoyed yourself in its spell.

 

Moonrise Kingdom

27 Aug

Moonrise Kingdom—directed by Wes Anderson. Slapstick Comedy. 94 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
The Story: A twelve year-old girl and boy run off into the woods together and a whole town seeks to find them.
~
Glad to see this from its start to its finish, for me it is as though Buster Keaton transmogrified himself into a technicolor camera and let loose a whopping good fable. Actually Moonlight Kingdom is It Happened One Night updated to 1965, and It Happened One Night was actually The Taming Of The Shrew 1591 updated to 1934. I am watching a movie with an animated cartoon aesthetic, except the aesthetic is belongs to Wes Anderson rather than Looney Tunes. Spectacular silliness.

For Anderson is not so much funny in what he says as in how he shows. And the acting style the actors hop onto is Anderson’s odd bandwagon of straightfaced dedication to the preposterous and necessary. The pictorial symmetry of the camera opens up my brain, as though both my eyes were finally and concurrently put to separate use and flattered so to be. As a story teller he compliments and complements me at every turn.

Here we have Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, and Bruce Willis to chase the children through the woods, and every one of them knows exactly what tone to pitch.

They are helped by a posse of a zillion boy scouts and a hurricane and Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, his Noah’s Fludde, and a fanciful score by Alexandre Desplat. Indeed I experienced the movie itself as a duet between the movie itself and its score.

Moonrise Kingdom is candy from one’s childhood, the kind I hadn’t tasted since long ago, the sort I didn’t think they made anymore. It put a smile on my face. It puts a smile on my face to search for the words to send you its way.

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

18 Aug

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?—directed by Richard Linklater. Drama. 130 minutes Color 2019
★★★★
The Story: Is this woman going insane?
~
What do you want from a movie?

The world!

Yes!!

And, if you can’t have that, then Cate Blanchette.

And here she is playing another different, difficult woman. I say “different” because you may remember Bette Davis. Bette Davis never played difficult women. She played impossible women, and they were all the same because she played them all the same, wonderful as she was. Blanchette’s are distinguishable from one another. Because she doesn’t play them all the same.

That she plays a genius here is not the difficulty. But it’s interesting.

Two things about it are interesting. The first is that you believe it. And the second, which has to do with the story, is: what does she have a genius for? And how is that joined to her madness?

Behind this lurks the deleterious narrative motive that this all has to do with +metoo issues, and also that these can be wrapped by a very small package of dialogue. The problem is, to begin with, *metoo issus can’t be wrapped up at all. First because they overflow the strings which they include. And secondly because +metoo issues do not pertain to this material.

This is the story of a woman who is chewing off her own tail by mocking the world around her. The director tips the odds against that world—which is not fair to the audience—but, by so doing, what harm is this woman doing herself, even so?

She is consuming herself alive, and this is the fascination of the performance and its mystery.

So what will save her?

To me the answer is imaginative and visibly wonderful.

Blanchette’s acting has great passages, if that’s worth a ticket to you. And she has
fine support in Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, and Laurence Fishburne, lovely actors all.

Be warned: the film enters an architecture of human difficulty not spared to females only.

 
 

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

29 Jul

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood—directed by Quentin Tarantino. Grand Guignol Dramedy. 161 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★
The Story: An ambitionless stunt double does his TV star friend a big fat favor when the Manson Family enters the premises.
~
Here’s the spoiler. Brad Pitt does not die at the end and ought to. Because if he did, his movie star best friend would be in character to aver nothing happened so as to amble up Sharon Tate’s drive to angle with her husband, director Roman Polanski, for a movie part. The comedy would not just be finito but finished funny.

Barring that, barring that the film goes on a bit long at the start, it succeeds as a wild escapade into early TV Hollywood and the stunning mechanics of TV acting then and now. In this, Leonardo DiCaprio is funny indeed, or at least the situations he is placed in are funny and he rises just high enough to the brink of those situations to reap the wit the director had in mind. Astonishing.

You would think Tarantino hated Hollywood movies, for he wreaks a rare satire on them, as one would upon a dumb seduction from one’s foolish past. Tarantino is remorseless. And for this reason we want to see what he does. Quentin Tarantino is Gilbert and Sullivan with, instead of music, blood.

He does what we dare not do and says what we dare not say, overkills all when we would wish to but would not be sufficiently skilled to. The entire film is set up to display our gory tongue. We watch caught up in the bloodletting which is the film’s finale and the excuse for it.

And, gosh, we watch agreeing with his violence in its every extremity. We wield Tarantino’s dismembering rapier deliciously. The young women are brained and burned alive, and not only do we cheer, we want more: more gore, more gore. We are on the side of Brad Pitt against “those Hippies!” Every available ambition of impotent resentment is summoned in the audience, as Tarantino prepares us as a chef preparing a chef d’oeuvre. We are the feast itself.

The film is an open invitation for audience members to disgrace themselves, and we all do!

But the thing is that, after all, it’s just a movie, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t.

Movies this good aren’t just a movie.

Are they?

 

BlackKlansman

25 Jul

BlackKlansman—directed by Spike Lee. Comic Spy Drama. 135 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: A black and a while men play Cyrano to one another as they infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
~
Of course! The vividness of Spike Lee’s energy and eye! The narrative imagination of Lee! The color behind the color! Lee’s launch of subjects and themes into their rashest limits! Why would anyone want to resist?

If it were not for the disappointments! If it were not for the infidelities to his medium! If it were not for his arrogance!

Stunning is Lee’s presentation of the speech of Stokely Carmichael before a gathering in Colorado Springs in the ‘70s, and brilliant Lee’s offering to us the impression of it upon those black folks listening.

What’s brilliant on the screen becomes recognizable. What’s not brilliant becomes a rut. What’s brilliant about this scene is the performance of a brilliant speech brilliantly by the actor Corey Hawkins and the simplicity of the camera in giving it to us.

What is also brilliant is the slow montage of dark close-ups of black faces, faces only, impassive, motionless, disembodied, as they absorb what Stokely Carmichael is saying. Of course those faces are not new to Carmichael: their hair-styles are already open to his views.

But what counts is that we see no emotion in their eyes. The story by their stillness delivers to us the contents of Carmichael’s speech directly, which we as the audience, also an audience, get with our own impassive faces impressed by what we are hearing, as though hearing it for the first time, which for many of us we are.

The hairdos of the black listeners may be wrong, but their faces, impassive as ours, allow us to be one with the moment a movement emerges. The movement goes on, or its content does. That’s a fiction good as a fact.

What are the obstacles in black folks as a whole which prevent their success?

If there is an answer to this question, the question is not even broached by the film.

What it gives us instead is the incompetence and silliness of the Klan. And David Dukes its leader, discretely played by Toper Grace, does not hate black people, as all the local Colorado Springs Klansmen must do: Dukes loves blacks: he simply wants complete segregation. In this, he is at emotional, polemical, and political odds with prejudice of any kind. Funny without saying so.

The story the film tells is how Dukes’ clan was duped by a well-spoken black police detective into encouraging a white detective who took the black man’s name to become an Intelligence wire inside Klan headquarters.

What a funny story! What derring-do! What cleverness in a black officer to lead the investigation and eventually thwart the assassination of the black student leader.

But the movie goes off track by becoming a tract. And which tract? There were so many black tracts in those days. It is as though Lee wished to to leave no outrage unpresented and thus to accommodate them all. To accommodate none would have been right.

The young actress called upon to play an Angela Davis-type organizer is called upon to deliver a line of racial argument as conversation during her wooing by the main character, and this tract falls flat, either because the actress is incapable of making it real, or because it is badly written, or because Lee cannot manage to be creatively behind it in this film, where it does not belong, even though he has clearly felt it was necessary and funny. It is neither. And we lose the story in the side-lining of this irrelevant romance.

Lee has the bad habit of collapsing a fictional story into documentary. He introduces Harry Belafonte to tell the story of the the public dismemberment and incineration by a mob of a backward black boy said to have make a pass at a white woman.

Belafonte-and-the-story is enough. But Lee ornaments the scene with black folks holding placards of postcards sold from photographs taken of this ghastly event combined with the horrified on-camera responses of those listening to it and turns the story into a protest march, and the point is lost. We, before our screen, not the audience of black folks in the film, are all the audience needed for that story. Without our audience-job, we are left with nothing to participate in, as Lee, does everything and so steals the movie from us.

Why mention these things? Because with them, they sabotage our faith in the story, whatever that is.

Whatever that is, Lee has cast the good guys and the bad guys perfectly. And they play their parts perfectly. Alex Baldwin as a proto-bigot undergoing the train wreck of recording a TV speech seizes the available satire by the scruff of its neck and shakes it for all it’s worth.

But Lee is even more favored in his principal players. First in Adam Driver as the stand-in for the black klansman. His part is the best written part in the film, and he fills it to the brim and over.

John David Washington is perfectly cast as Ron Stallworth, the black Colorado Springs Intelligence officer who in real life actually performed the neat feat of infiltrating the Klan as his white double played by Driver. Washington knows exactly how to seize the comic opportunities Lee has given him, from patting his Afro at the start to dancing a wild jig in Lee’s dancehall version of the stage shows of black singers then. Washington has the inner nature for the part, which must be played as he does play it on the comic brink of a well-spoken tongue-in-cheek interloper into the world of white bigots.

I write this way that you shall be fairly warned of the perils and pleasures awaiting you for a film you must see, because of the director’s unique imagination and visual vivacity. His spirit.

All film is entertainment. That we should entertain the contents of a work of art for a time is what the entertainment value of all art means. To entertain must be a film’s foremost concern and intent. How to do that?

Sometimes Lee forgets he is making a film, and thinks he is in a pulpit, forgetting that pulpits are boring, for their threats are redundant thunder. Never mind that. Lee is still in a film. Our job is to love the dickens out of him and to continue to pursue the valuable delights he has made for our inspection and glee.

 

The Last Black Man In San Francisco

15 Jul

The Last Black Man In San Francisco—directed by Joe Talbot. Drama. 121 minutes Color 2019
★★★★★
The Story: Two friend join forces to bring to fruition the dream of one of them.
~
Movies vital to be seen this year fall in line immediately behind this one.

White cinema coasts on by on the glib zeitgeist of its fads. Black films are more interesting and more necessary. They have available to them a greater range than white films because their characters have more at stake, so their situations reveal more, explore more, and offer keener human truths.

The premise of The Last Black Man In San Francisco is simple as pie. It is illustrated everywhere but spelled out nowhere.

This starts at the quirky beginning of the picture which reveals a San Francisco I have never seen, vistas never come upon, streets unknown to me, and I live here. Even if one did not live here, the spectacle of these places would disorient one, as would the behavior of the people shown and the way they are shown. So from the start we are in the hands of a director whose treatment of his material we have not experienced before and do not surrender to readily, as our trust in his storytelling is alerted, challenged, and beguiled.

Two black males pitch in on a task. Yes. But what we see play out before us is the lack of any foundation for young black males to prosper. They are reduced to pipe dreams, street corner braggadocio, and the rant of preaching. That is to say to hot air. That is to say to jive.

Don’t we know the pipe dream these two fellows shoot for will fail? Not because they are black, but because of the law of the land which has inherent in it a reasonable justice. But still, does one not believe that these two young men, if they put their heads together, could really accomplish something? But will they? What’s the obstacle? And is it insurmountable?

The obstacle is that black folks in this country are treated as immigrants. They are treated as newcomers without the welcome. They are treated like unwanted interlopers. The difference between the way blacks are treated and the way actual immigrants, from Central America, say, are treated is that blacks of this country have for so long a 400 years already paid their dues that they have no natural response available to their lack of welcome but the impoverished retreats of insanity, ghetto, or crime.

The two men here are native sons. They are not babies but are at least thirty. One is a butcher by trade and another a nurse. Both have dreams, the butcher to bring to life the world around him in drawings and plays—a perfectly valid vocation—the other to realize that that heartfelt dream and first and most basic need of all immigrants once they arrive, which is to make a home.

But they are denied the foundation for it. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the foundation for it. This is a foundation of air. But it is a true foundation nonetheless. That is why is it called a foundation. As is a foundation of expectation that they may establish a home. That too is a foundation of air. Upon such foundations is American grounded.

But is hot air all these two men are to be allowed?

Outside of the rigid spectacles of sport or song, do ordinary black folks deserve no better than base pay? Or worse than immigrants, must a racial past or complexion open to them no hope for their future and admit them no latitude?

None of this does the film pronounce out loud. But the foundation of spirit denied them—that is the hidden enemy facing these two ordinary men. They are not gangsters or drug dealers or hotshot academics. Not bright, not special. But exactly the ones we want to see.

The modern American black male cannot make his way, because he is treated as not yet a citizen. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if doled out remain unexperienced to black folks as a custom of the country, just as it would be to anyone. It is also unknown to those who deprive others of this foundation. And black males themselves do this to other black males, and, in this, the black dance with a white world remains a dance of concrete.

These are my underlying notions about the film, none of which will induce you to see it. But, listen to me, the film is impressive. Perfectly shot, directed, edited, with remarkable locations and set decoration. Ideally cast and impeccably performed in every part. Full of vitality, imagination, and constant interest. It is a masterful entertainment because of what you will find inside you as you see it.

What must draw you to see it is that its story and way are unexpected.

Unexpected in all areas in which I have praised it.

Its impression on me may in no way resemble yours—except it is bound to be aesthetic. It is bound to be your response to witness a beautiful thing.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Danny Glover, Directed by: Joe Talbot

 

Maudie

24 Jun

Maudie—directed by Aisling Walsh. Biopic. 1 hour 55 minutes. Color 2017.
★★★★
The Story: A crippled girl as the housemaid of a bad-tempered fisherman becomes a renowned painter.
~

Ethan Hawke is an actor less interesting than the vehicles in which he appears. His intelligence in choosing those vehicles has kept him before the public far longer than his talent warrants, but, God bless him, it has also brought those vehicles before a public that without him would never see them.

This is no small credit in his favor. So is the fact that he has kept his movie star figure. And he seems to have all his hair. Good.

My difficulty with him lies partly in the smug conformation of his mouth. And partly that he employs his mouth like a footman opening the front door as though he were lord of the manor. He uses it to semaphore thought, attitude, emotion, which tumult is always a sign of bad acting.

In this piece he uses his mouth to retain a vantage point of gruffness which is with us through thirty years of story. This is the Harrison Ford/Woody Harrelson School Of Acting. One never gets behind the gesticulation of the mouth. Yet here he is, holding the fort for an actor better than he, in this case Sally Hawkins.

Sally Hawkins plays Maudie Lewis, a young woman dismissed for a physical deformity, since her feet don’t work as others’ feet do and she has a cruel arthritis. She becomes the housekeeper of his tiny house, and, in time, despite his abuse of her, she become a renowned painter.

She’s an odd duck, and, while Hawkins overplays her, as a written character Maudie is impudent and fun, which saves her. Hawkins performance of her is also saved by the same thing that somewhat sinks her performance, Hawkins’ mastery of detail. This excess of detail is designed to pull in pathos, which is unwanted as a narrative fuel in this material, because the film is not about their relationship or about her so much as it is about how art, in this case painting, takes over the lives of everyone connected with it.

It is a rare movie for this reason. Most movies about painters have to do with the inadequately understood greatness of an artist. Fiddlesticks! It is not the painter that is of importance, it is the paintings, and these do not require a dramatic film of any sort.

The drama inheres in the fallacy that the big mean husband is in control, as he claims, over the poor trembling wife. He demands absolute leadership as the owner and head of the house and the male and healthy. And it looks like the weak cripple female must succumb and follow and abide.

But the drama behind this display of violence and subjection to it lies another drama, which is not stated even once but which subconsciously claims our interest, and that is the drama not of “Who leads?” but of “What leads?”

This being a movie of a certain length, mustn’t the woman lead in the final reel? Mustn’t the poor-put-upon cripple have her day? Mustn’t the underdog rise triumphant?

It’s a natural assumption, one born out of the convention in many movies. We expect it. We wish for it. But what lies behind this surface drama is the truth, not that love prevails between these two backward misfits, which it does, but rather that the love that prevails is Maud’s love, not of him, but of her soul’s relation to painting, that is to say of work, that is to say of her sacred calling.

This is the drama that unfolds like an unanticipated flower. Its theme is never stated. And this tacit suspense is what grips the audience as they await for what they do not know. For what really leads is Maud’s campaign to paint. That’s what leads and that’s what follows, all the way through. The battle in the film is not the battle for love, but for leadership, not of male over female power, nor of the power of one character over another, health over disability. The husband thinks he’s fighting Maud, but he’s not. Maud is not fighting him. She’s fighting to paint, but never tells. So he is outflanked.

This leader-theme seems to emerge unwittingly under the director Aisling Walsh’s hands. She tells Maud Lewis’s story well: the house is convincing, the landscape is convincing, the other actors are convincing, the story is convincing, and Ethan Hawke himself has passages in which he too is beautifully convincing. There is not a moment in which one’s attention is not held. We enter a small world from which emerges a large and radiant beauty.

The signal error of the film is that we never see Maud Lewis’s paintings plain. The color pallet of the film is muted. But the color pallet of the actual Maud Lewis paintings was brash, bright, and gay. Her pictures should have been brought forward at the end, boldly once, so we could see them in their vigor, vividness, and truth. What an unexpected, indeed astounding contrast they would have made to the dull brutality she endured and the dire pressures of her relation with her husband.

Still, the film’s value transcends its defects by miles. Those defects stand out in this review, but they do not stand out when you see the picture. Instead you rejoice in what is there, just as Maud did in her paintings when she made them.

 

Double Indemnity

03 Jun

Double Indemnity—directed by Billy Wilder. Crime Drama. 107minutes Black and White 1944.
★★★★
The Story: How dares the wife of a man who detests her collect twice the amount of his insurance when she and his insurance agent kill him?
~
The odd thing about Double Indemnity and the stalling point is that an inquest would have revealed at once that Stanwyck’s husband died from strangulation and not by a fall from a moving train. What were the writers, Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder thinking of!

So in other ways also is the rug pulled out from under this much praised and revived picture, for you never believe for a minute in the sexual attraction of Stanwyck and MacMurray. Perhaps that’s what’s so perverse about it. You are told to believe it, so you set the matter aside as understood and move on. This is perhaps intended—a sexual absence participating in a list of uncertainties to throw the viewer subtly off-balance at the same time as seizing attention as to their outcome.

A glimpse at the 1974 color version of this, based on the 1944 screenplay, reveals one basic certainty about the film, which is that its watching depends upon its being in black and white not color. And that Edward G. Robinson possesses a command of a cigar that Lee J. Cobb could never even dream of.

What this also leads one to realize is that black and white is probably necessary for all noir, for black and white is always grey, and color never is. So the true star of the picture is the cinemaphotographer John F. Seitz. For it is he who lit and filmed it such that we as audience enter into the mind-set of the material’s shadows, risks, lusts, greed, and duplicity, all in grey in many shades and stripes. As audience you are inside the body of a deviant mood. Even the sunshine on the street shows a boy pitching a ball to a girl batter. How bright, how innocent, and how free from ulterior motive. And yet how inverted. For in the movie, the male is also not batting the ball, the female is. Walter Neff enters the house and imagines that he is hitting homers, whereas the lady on the landing with the towel and the sunglasses in her hand and the gold anklet actually chooses his pitches.

Likewise, both MacMurray and Stanwyck wear wedding rings, MacMurray’s band perhaps to be useful to repel overly ambitious bed-partners, and Stanwyck’s laden with a jewel the size of a Buick and big enough to drown her in her own pool. Wedding rings: strange courtesy between these two in their hardboiled courtship.

MacMurray is called upon to play the tough-mouthed lothario, Stanwyck the fast-talking dame—both voices of the great Raymond Chandler who co-wrote the script with Wilder. But the idea of MacMurray being a tough-tongued lothario is absurd. Lying behind it and lying every inch of the way in him is the biggest sexual sap of all Hollywood leading men. Inside himself, McMurray doesn’t know the first thing about sex. it’s part of his charm. It’s what he was always cast for.

Chandler’s voice on their tongues confuses the film even more with its sardonic edge. The audience never knows where to settle itself as it watches, and this remains true of the picture no matter how many times one has seen it, and I saw it when it first came out, so I have a lead on everyone.

Another confusion for the audience is that Stanwyck plays her part scene by scene, with no overriding arc. Her acting leaves no traces. This means that the actor can invest as truth fully in every lie her character tells. So the audience never knows what the real truth is. The only truth she reveals is her shock just before the trigger is pulled that kills her. She never imagined not living forever.

MacMurray, on the other hand, has a different task, which unlike Stanwyck, is to carry the film, for he is never off camera, and the story of this picture is his. You also believe everything he does, but in a different way. And why? Because he’s just a big handsome galoot with broad shoulders who, because there is a pot of gold at the end, mistakes Stanwyck for a rainbow.

MacMurray is a man who doesn’t know his place. Colbert and Lombard, who were his usual co-stars, were out of his class. meaning above it. Stanwyck is also out of his class because she is beneath it. MacMurray reads their sexual connection as an equality, and it is not. MacMurray and Stanwyck made other films together, before and after, for which they were better suited. But here their ill-matching adds a confused and perverse interest to their so-called passion for one another. As you watch, you never know where you stand. Or sit. Or walk, as you try to draw a conclusion.

The conclusion of the film clarifies one strand, which is the relations between MacMurray and his immediate boss in the office, played with unerring alacrity by Edward G. Robinson.

Is their affection for one another honest or dishonest? Much play has been given to the idea that it is homosexual. This, of course, is impossible. It is honest, not homosexual, but it operates at an off-angle. It is rather the affinity of team players, one an ace athlete, the other the coach. Or it is the fondness of natural male friends but of different generations? Anyhow, the idea that a genital ambition lies behind this is unwarranted, misleading, and spiteful. Humans come to love those they go to school with, go to church with, volunteer with, live near, or work with, and this is the latter. It must be remembered that in this film the word “love” is written by Raymond Chandler, and therefore it includes in its spelling the reverse.

The subordinate, MacMurray, has it over Robinson because Robinson is too passionate a workaholic to light his own cigars. So instead of suggesting you drool over a gay subtext, let’s point you in the direction of those cigars. Robinson seems never without one, and what an adjunct they are to his genius. They keep him in actorly motion. They provide power and point. They conduct whole scenes like a wand. They lend triumphant confidence to his orations. He is a master with a Dutch Master.

Stanwyck and Robinson and MacMurray were the highest salaried people in the world. At the peak of WWII, the scathing truth of the war was that Rosie The Riveter dismissed females’ supposed lack of the ruthless acumen, mind and finesse needed to win a war. But momism refused to die—to this day Disney keeps it embalmed.

The mental conditioning that gave rise to film noir was that, post WWII (The War is never mentioned in this film.) the American imagination withdrew women from the home-front and put them back in the home, and any divergence from home is to be considered perilous to democracy and to the world as a whole.

Because World War II had flatly disproved the notion of female frailty, woman were now willing to kill in order to denounce the lie of the limit of their power. To embody this outrage, the tiger-woman in the anklet of film noir came into being.

Euripides put women on the stage as not to be underestimated.

Film noir put women right back on that same stage—Medeas, dangerous when wet. Dry Stanwyck’s character off with the bath towel she first appears in, Phyllis Dietrichson is a woman who would never desire to have children. There’s no mom in her. And as to her place in the kitchen, spurn anything she cooks up for you there. She lives at the other end of the spectrum of survival which is Death. As an emblem, Phyllis Dietrichson (Son Of Marlene Dietrich who never had a son) is not the psychology, but the righteous zeitgeist of women, then and now.

Double Indemnity is a perfect example of move-as-machine. You get caught up in the uneven gears of plot, casting, and performance into which the brilliant photography sidles you. Which is to say, it is a movie driven by the trance of its photographic appearance. Whether we know it or not, and we do not know it, any more than Neff and Dietrichson do not know anything they do not know, its photography is the chief, true and overbearing entertainment of Double Indemnity. Its photography swallows us whole. It is wonderful to be so lost. Such film photography is with us still, and I hope always will be.

 

Morning Glory

19 May

Morning Glory—directed by Roger Michell. Comedy. 117 minutes Color 2010.
★★★★★
The Story: An eager-beaver producer scrambles to save the sinking ship of a famed TV show but comes up against a gristly superstar and a soured anchorwoman who do not believe she can do it.
~
One longs to sit down and sing her praises. She when young would have been given the leading role here, now played perfectly in a quite different manner by Rachel McAdams—that part: the scatterbrained, young woman on the rise.

Instead, Diane Keaton plays a senior anchorwoman on the oldest and most decrepit morning show in the world. It is a position by which the character has has reached the peak of her talent, ambition, and capacity. This means that she is playing, not the daffy subservient one, a part in which she was equaled only by Goldie Hawn, but The Long Established Star.

Watch her, a master of detail, create this individual without a word. How she pulls the hair on the sides of her face to make it frame it into perfect symmetry for the camera. How she applies an improvement of lipstick at the last second. How she arrives in shameless curlers for a conference with the crew. How she smoothes her figure for promo shots with her co-anchor. How she somehow arranges her inner being to show us how this woman gloms onto her Life role. How she accepts her position will never get better and respects that fact, so never gets above herself.

We have seen Diane Keaton for many years. Better in comedy, we would conclude. And that’s quite all right, because comedy has given her longevity. Comic parts are still written for senior actresses to play. Comedy. therefore, has her still before the cameras in principal roles. Comedy and her glorious smile.

And that her face does not seem to have endured any tell-tale procedures. Procedures that are meant to make actresses look young succeed only to make them appear immortal. In the way zombies are immortal.

And Harrison Ford’s face seems also to have escaped the sculptor’s knife. It’s crumpled as an old boot. He has never been better in anything than he is as the prideful, mean, grouse of a once-famous newscaster, choked by nineteen Emmys and a taste for vintage scotch. To see that face in action is To Witness The Ogre—a lion roaring at a petunia.

The story focusses its attention more on him than on Keaton because its actual focus is the ambitious, workaholic, blabbermouth Assistant Producer who tries to rescue from extinction the oldest morning show of all. She is able, devoted, and a little slip of a girl. Keaton succumbs to the new producer early on. So the main body of the story turns its attention to the stand-off between Ford as the old, retrograde superstar and the new girl in charge of him.

Rachael McAdams does her full justice. One thing you may notice about her seizing of that justice is that the story gives McAdams full opportunity to enter the role with her whole body at all times. She runs when she could walk. She is never still even when she should sleep. She makes love on the fly. She is physically obsessed. It is a great example for all actors of the absolute need for full bodily engagement at all times of the person one plays.

For some actors this comes naturally as rain. Jeff Goldblum walks—and you just want to sit there and watch. He’s not doing anything but walking in the way he normally walks, but that‘s why he’s a star. You want to watch such humans. You don’t want to miss a thing.

The movie does not fall into the shallow trap of linking either women up with the Harrison Ford’s character. We have instead Patrick Wilson as the juicy neighbor who sees through McAdams’ gaucheries and woos her still. He has something of the way and look of Paul Newman, so it no wonder he succeeds.

Beautifully directed by Roger Michell and perfectly written by Aline Brosh McKenna, perfectly edited, costumed, cast, cut, produced, and set. Morning Glory succeeds on all levels, including not resembling the Morning Glory movie of 1934 that won Katharine Hepburn her first Oscar, also playing a show business wannabe.

Instead, taste Morning Glory, a light comedy, as A Special on the menu.

One wonders how long such skilled players of light comedy, so important to weekend film-going, will still fill theatres when blockbusters and smaller screens have filched audiences from the multiplexes. What will happen to such comedic talents as Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Jennifer Anniston bring us, when movie houses are the best place for us to love them?

Even though I saw Morning Glory in my own house.

Where I strongly urge you to gather soon and enjoy it too, whether I am home or not.

 

The Preacher’s Wife

28 Apr

The Preacher’s Wife—directed by Penny Marshall. Comedy. 123 minutes Color 1996.
★★★
The Story: A church nears receivership and when its preacher asks God for help and an angel arrives, the preacher disbelieves it—but his wife and the angel get along all too well.
~
Thank God for movie stars. By this I mean Denzel Washington.

Lying in the background is The Bishop’s Wife, in which Cary Grant was originally cast as the bishop but preferred the angel as the better part. David Niven played the bishop and Loretta Young the wife.

Now Loretta Young really knew how to be a movie star. That is to say, she knew how to glow. So the original version had three movie stars while the present has but one.

Courtney B. Vance is a good actor, but he is not a movie star and he is not an actor who is inherently funny, as was David Niven. Certain actors have that ability. John Wayne’s humor was an inherent wryness, Cary Grant’s an inherent slyness, James Stewart’s an inherent preposterousness. They could make any word sound droll they wished.

An empty comic hammock here must thus be filled by able supporting actors—Jennifer Lewis as the dread mother-in-law and Jennifer Devine as the lecherous church secretary in love with the fat bus conductor: “Lord, put that man under the Christmas Tree…if he’ll fit.” Gregory Hines, as the satanic real estate investor who own the church property, is jim-dandy.

Apart from the direction which lacks any touch of wit and the writing which lacks premeditation of the audience’s wit, the difficulty lies in the casting of the title role.

The difficulty is not that Whitney Houston is neither a natural nor a trained actress. The difficult is that she is a demonstration.

I look at her and I wonder. It is not that she is empty. That would be something. Mahershala Ali is empty, and out of that emptiness he spins characters. No. The problem is that Whitney Houston is vacant.

Reading up on her, I see she starts young as a church singer. As a teenager she is a recording backup singer. By her early twenties she is an enormous recording success.

The success is based upon her mezzo-soprano, which is strong and versatile—not particularly beautiful in any of its many ranges but remarkable for its litheness. As a young woman, she has huge hits, earns big money, and tours worldwide.

It’s a sorry story. Sorry because there is nothing else to the story. She hasn’t a chance in hell. She doesn’t garden. She probably doesn’t read. She probably has no education. Outside of her church singing, she probably has no cultural background. Her name heads a charity, but she does not seem active in public service. She does not jog. She probably does not cook meals. She probably has no conversation. What you see before you is a human being who has developed no personal resources. As to a spiritual life, which might have kept her safe when a girl, it does not transplant to show-business which lofts in altitudes above and far away from the spires of its cathedrals.

This is a terrible life for a human being. Not fatal, but perilous.

In addition, in Whitney Houston’s case, one of the problems with it lies in the voice and the use of the voice. Its predilection and foundation lie in the virtuosoism of gospel singing.

I don’t like virtuosoism. You see it in acting—Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger, Glenn Close—and you hear it in Whitney Houston’s singing.

When you look at her in song, her eyes remain the same throughout the song. She shines. She smiles. She has wonderful teeth. She is a pretty woman. But she is emotionally unconnected to the words. She relates only to what her voice can do. So the pleasure you get from her singing is not musical—because at once-remove from music. It is the pleasure of her demonstration of what her voice can do “to” the music, the pleasure, if it is your pleasure, of virtuosoism.

And I pity her.

She died a terrible death before she was forty. And when I see her standing there singing, I pity her most.

I pity her because there is nothing lying behind her singing, in her singing, under her singing. The lofty tricks her voice can perform received praise upon praise. Oh, yes, her melisma was bankable. But I look at this lovely young woman, and I do not wonder she took to drugs to fill the vacancy of her fame. What an easy mark she must have been.

No one is to blame, nor is she to blame. But it’s so obvious.

Denzel Washington paid her 10 million dollars to appear in his film. There is no way that either the drugs she was devoted to at that time or the price she demanded could lead to anything but to blind her from the ability to play the character she is hired to play, the wife of a preacher.

When you watch Denzel Washington, you can see an acting technique at work. He gathers the scene in his arms and his immediate response to it is performance. He is dressed entirely in silver, which does service for the habit of an angel, but all his acting needs is his body’s present apprehension. There he stands inwardly open. It is so simple. It drives the words out of him, yes, but the placement of his being is what is memorable. The use of his interior is what is memorable.

Art is a gutsy craft. It counts on the vast, powerfully telling, and superior intelligence of the instinct of the belly. Instinct is rarely virtuosoistic. Because its manifestations are so readable, it only needs to be virtuosoistic when the character is virtuosoistic, as in that passage in Training Day when Denzel Washington briefly takes on the conventional virtuoso voice of the black thug—the demonstration of the fallacy of which devastates his character right in front of the eyes of everyone.

Someone needs to get ahold of these singers and mentor them before their lives vacate them. Someone needs to warn them that, outside their time on stage, their time needs to be filled with a world neither show nor business. Left-over time to fill. Hard for any of us to make good use of. Hard to distinguish one fun from another. And the ego of the diva is larger than that of any king. No one seems to have learned from The Rose. No one seems to have seen Bohemian Rhapsody for what it is. No one.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Denzel Washington

 

The Mustang

19 Apr

The Mustang—directed by Laure-de-Cleremont-Tonnerre. Drama. 96 minutes Color 2019

★★★★
The Story: an enraged convict in for murder with no experience of horses must train a wild mustang.
~
Sentimentality is the coinage of gold into innumerable copper pennies Thus The Mustang follows the order of horse pictures since their start in silent films. The human rescues the horse, the horse rescues the human, the human rescues the horse. It’s a good format, overburdened here with a musical score and bum writing.

What’s interesting first and last is the authenticity of everything else. The Mustang seems to have have been made in a Nevada desert prison. The mustang rescue mission seems to be manned by actual prisoners. The horses seem to be real wild horses. Bruce Dern is actually that cranky trainer.

That is to say you never believe the characters are actors or that the cells are sets, or that the animals are doing tricks. One feels one is there then. This presence with-and-among never declines.

Indeed, Matthias Schoennaerts an established Belgian movie star, but one new to me, seems to not have been cast but to have been dragged reluctantly out of some gutter to stand in for the surly furious prisoner.

When will he break?

He’s tall and muscled and paislyed with tattoos. He wont talk. He scowls. He shovels shit. That’s it.

But, boy, does he give you your money’s worth. Because the strength that validates his violence tells his tale—it is the same strength that backs the violence of the horse.

This is a tale of inescapable setting. You might be able to dive off Alcatraz and crawl to shore, but no one could cross that desert and live. You live in the cramped cell, the cramped dining hall, the cramped showers with men who are no longer free but seek to free their souls despite it. And you live in the temperament of the horse, who has patience for nothing but freedom, but finds it in marriage to this man.

The material substance of the film is better than the artistic substance. Yes, but the material substance enrapts the eye and carries all the necessary value, and it is plenty.

Does the prisoner’s character break?

All expectations for the usual horse film fall apart as he does.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Matthias Schoennaerts

 

Hotel Mumbai

31 Mar

Hotel Mumbai—directed by Anthony Maras. Disaster-pic. 125 minutes Color 2019.

★★★★★
The Story: The Taj, a vast luxury hotel floats in confident calm, until 2008 when terrorists enter the hotel, and the clientele and staff must save their lives or burn to death as the terrorists murder them and set fire to it.
~
This is a disaster film such as Towering Inferno, or the many disaster films of the ‘60s which followed it. Of course, Hollywood had produced many good disaster films—King Kong is one of them—and they put you through the wringer. Hotel Mumbai is another such, with this difference: it really happened! Which makes Hotel Mumbai all the more thrilling.

Opening in 1903, and the first hotel in India to be electrified, it contained 560 rooms and 44 suites. It was vast, 5-star, luxurious, and hated by the Pakistan terrorists who planned concurrent attacks throughout Bombay that day.

The film takes us into the rash luxury of the establishment—1600 staff including 44 butlers, with its floating staircase, and sitting flabbergasteringly right on the Arabian Sea—this offense to Muslim penury was the cherry on the sundae of the terrorist devastation of Mumbai, that center of Indian finance.

The movie takes us right into the guests and the staff, all of them beautifully played.

Armie Hammer, an American with a Muslim wife and child, seeks to protect and save them as the terrorists mow down everyone in sight. Jason Isaacs, playing the dissolute Russian tycoon, musters his manhood to rescue a woman he might otherwise buy outright. The local police defy their inadequacy to confront those weapons. The hotel master-chef, beautifully played by Anupam Kher, herds guests and staff hither and thither to keep them out of harm’s way. And one of his minor stewards, a family man who has left his pregnant wife with their infant daughter at the laundry where she works, finds the gumption to lead like a good shepherd all those he can find away and into hiding from the gunmen.

The great warren of the hotel provides the chambers and back stairs and secret corridors and unknown passages to keep his charges slipping away from their ministry to kill everyone and die, which eventually the terrorists do, in their own mess, screaming hollow prayers. 167 people are murdered. But in its own way the hotel itself saves the lives of the guests. And the staff, whose mission is to serve those guests, elevates that mission in a rescue attempt of unquestioning cunning, character, and courage.

This is a great story. And Dev Patel is well employed as the steward. He is in a beard because he plays a Sikh, but his luminous eyes tell story after story without a word said. It’s a part which brings the volatility and immediacy of those eyes into play, as they had been in the Marigold Hotel movies and Slumdog Millionaire. A great endowment, an actor’s eyes. Large, seeking, and interior—Dev Patel’s eyes carry the story of the disaster in them at every moment. Through them, we know what it is like to be there.

Yes, Hotel Mumbai puts you through the wringer—but it’s good to be put through it, especially now–when the fundamentalism of democracy purports to battle fundamentalism to the death.

Fundamentalism and absolutism and authoritarianism go together in America and in the world. No matter what religion, no matter how exalted the tenets of belief, no matter how peaceable the prayers or benevolent the creed, all religions are of the same violence who proclaim a monopoly on God, and all do.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, Armie Hammer, Dev Patel, Jason Isaacs

 

The Wedding Guest

23 Mar

The Wedding Guest—directed by Michael Winterbottom. Romantic/Crime. 94 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★
The Story: A contract kidnapper travels to a provincial wedding to do business and falls in love.
~
The Wedding Guest. How to begin to list its wonders?

Since there are only two wonders, let us begin with India. But since there is nothing to be said about India that cannot be said in less than sixteen volumes of 1,000 pages each, let us button our lips. For, if we begin to read of a subcontinent so crowded with subcontinents as India, we shall leave out other subcontinents and become lost in the crimson corridors of shame and the pied passages of confusion.

Seaside paradise, urban squalor, golden domes, landscapes of eternal desolation, colors within colors within colors—India has no end of photogenic worlds. Each shot here is framed as by an accidental intrusion of the rare vitality of all that lies about available to the blinded eye. We rush to see movies made there.

The second and final item on its list of Wedding Guest wonders is Dev Patel.

He has moved away from the irresistible ebullience of his wild-boy parts in the Marigold Hotel movies and Slumdog Millionaire. Lest he turn into Mickey Rooney, he had to. So we have Lion and Chappie and The Man Who Knew Infinity.

It is quite clear that Dev Patel can carry a movie in his left rear pocket. Of course, I keep waiting for him to break into his India-wide smile and dash toward some fresh recklessness. But here he plays a man with no visible past working towards no visible future, so his brow must be furrowed. For not only is escape from the law serious business, but he has in tow a young woman of uncertain character—is she a cat, is she a mouse—and a dirt bag for the man lusting after her.

At 28 and at the peak of his masculinity, Patel towers over everyone. At 6’1¼” he seems as tall as the great American actor Lee Pace, 6’4” whom he resembles in many regards. They both have abundant dark hair and startling eyebrows, and what audience could defy the magnet of their eyes. Both actors are lanky and strong and agile. They do just fine bare. As actors they are physically complete for stardom, by which I mean one wants to look at them no matter who else is around. We make what they are to do, say, feel, and know important. Expression ripples across their faces like water over brook stones. Their voices are rich.

As to the actors’ inner instruments, you feel each could play Hamlet. and ought to do so at once. You feel they could do musicals and, of course, they have.

Patel is constrained somewhat by the role he plays here, because he goes from one momentous matter to the next with no interlude. Will he break out of his stern intent to walk east toward safety or west toward romance?

He is given good cause in Radhika Apte, as the bride-not-to-be. She has something of the look of waywardness of Mackenzie Davis which keeps the audience both in their seats and off balance. Even when she does the expected you don’t expect it. Jim Sarbh is marvelous as the dog’s-breath boyfriend.

As to Patel, we never see him behind his determined eyes. It is as though there is a scene missing. A door of loneliness needs to open in him so we can see that no one lies behind it but the stencil of a loneliness. We need a vision of his insides so we can care with passionate illogic about him, and no such vision is given by the story, cutting, director, or actor.

I go to all of Dev Patel’s films. He is soon to open in a movie about the terrorist attack on the Mumbai Hotel. He is to appear in a version of David Copperfield. Such a wonderful actor, will he play Macawber, will he play Uriah Heep or Betsy Trotwood? He will probably play the evil stepfather Murdstone or, even better, the irresistibly fascinating Steerforth. He could play all of them at once. I’m a fan. I shall go to find out!

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, ACTION/ADVENTURE, CRIME DRAMA, Dev Patel

 

Everybody Knows

11 Mar

Everybody Knows—directed by Asghar Farhadi. Whodunit. 2 hours 21 minutes Color 2019

***
The Story: a big family gathers for a fine wedding, when a crime occurs that snares everybody in its net.
~
What great big loud fun Spanish nuptials!

It goes on for a time. All our characters are established and aren’t they great! You think you’re in a film by Jean Renoir!

Then the crime occurs.

What happens then is the film goes on for 2 hours and 21 minutes as the rug is pulled out from under our interest. and our loyalty to it. And how does that come about? How does the author and director manage to go about disengaging us from film, crime, characters, all?

He does it by not know when to shut up. He wrote what he directed—always a dangerous duet. The director falls in love with everything he wrote and the writer falls in love with everything he directed, and the audience is left with nothing whatsoever to fall in love with. Every variation on his themes is included, written to the maximum of histrionics and, because he is the director, the actors must perform that way.

Here we have the beauteous Penelope Cruz who brings to the screen once again the fulness of heart, body, and talent Sophia Loren used to please us with. She is the mother of two children, a boy of eight and a girl of seventeen. The wedding is attended by her former childhood beau, played by Javier Bardem, who never fails to intrigue. They and everyone else are perfectly cast.

One problem arises with the title of the movie: everybody knows what?

Well, there is only one thing to know: the father of Cruz’s daughter. And, since there is only one thing to know we all know that it must be Bardem. So we know from the start what we shouldn’t. And knowing it pollutes our suspense.

Trouble is you always suppose he knows it, too, for when the crime befalls, he alone behaves like father.

But does his character know he’s the father? No, he does not! We must be wrung with impatience to witness as he is wrung to witness what every character and every audience member watching knows from the start.

Oh, dear, I’m coming close to falling into the same trap the director fell into—the plot! I’ll never extricate myself if I write another paragraph.

Well, one more paragraph. It’s beautifully shot. And Bardem and Cruz are wonderful. So if you enjoy seeing them play in high style, see Everybody Knows. If not, wait until Bardem shaves his beard and he and his wife find better work together. For in my heart, where they do belong is where they and my heart deserve better. Still, to watch them here, critical acumen relinquishes itself into the comforting certainty of their gifts, for they represent an order of talent of such inevitability that, even if one had a wish to, it is virtually impossible to analyze it. So, if you go and when you go, tell me I’m not wrong.

 

Abraham Lincoln

09 Feb

Abraham Lincoln— directed by D.W. Griffith. Biopic. 97 minutes. Black and White 1930.

The Story: A child is born, falls in love with a pretty girl who dies, becomes a raconteur, lawyer, debates the issues of the day, jilts his fiancée on their wedding day, becomes President, moves into The White House with his bad tempered wife, conducts a war, is murdered at a theatre.
~
This is a first sound picture about the Civil War which those who had lived through it could hear. It is a Classics Comics Civics class lesson. It touches base with all the already salient points.

Every camera set-up is beautiful. But stalled. Probably because the microphones of 1930 could not move, the camera setups never do. So scenes, while perfect, look posed.

This matches the posed style of the acting. Each actor’s voice gazes off into clouds of white grandeur. Ian Keith as John Wilkes Booth tenses his eyeballs and declaims like the histrionic blowhard we are told Booth was. Kay Hammond is simply peculiar as tittering Mary Todd. Una Merkle’s pecking voice begs the question of romance with her monotonous poetical recitative. Griffith had a good eye but a poor ear.

To look at silent film acting today is to find it was more often modern than it was old-fashioned. The female actors particularly—Pickford, Bow, Davies, Talmage—are realistic actors in the modern sense. Their stories date but their work does not date.

But Griffith’s actors are of a different style. They stuff themselves with the big gestures of the theatre, just as they did in his early films. Griffith was evidently not interested in acting or didn’t understand it or felt the big gestural style he had always used was right. So, because it is emotionally and visibly stagnant the movie mainly plays as a series of tableaux. It could have been rescued by the performances.

Raymond Massey, Henry Fonda, Daniel Day-Lewis have played Lincoln, but Walter Huston, the first to so in a leading role in a full-length sound film, is the one perhaps best suited to Lincoln. He brings to the part his six foot height and his forthrightness. He brings to everything he plays and to this Lincoln that rare immediacy to the audience which none of the other Lincolns possess. Nor do they possess Walter Huston’s uprightness, even-temper, fair-mindedness, and gentleness combined with rugged masculinity and a vocal technique that releases something deep in him. The classical singer, his sister Margaret Carrington trained Huston, a cheap vaudevillian, into a legitimate theatre actor when he was thirty-seven, a vocal training which also released in Huston, more than in any other actor to play him, Abe’s foundational quality: honesty.

However, Huston too plays in The Manner Orotund! Its cloud-capped nobility filters these qualities from the needful eye.

United Artists produced it beautifully, nor is it over-produced—so the interiors are just right. The battle scenes and military parade scenes are vivid and real and terrible. They are important for any director to behold so as to see how good things are done.

Lincoln was an enormously entertaining person. People gathered around him at parties because he was so much fun, and the movie includes a good many moments of Lincoln as he tells stories and jokes. Stephen Vincent Benét, who wrote the Civil War epic poem John Brown’s Body, wrote the script, were are told, so he knew the territory as well as anyone, but, about whomever it was that actually rewrote it the film’s big historical inaccuracies make one wonder.

This was Griffith’s first sound picture. He made one more and never made a full length film again. One can understand why. As a young man, Griffith had opened up the potential of the moving camera. He also understood the size of the screen to hold epic subjects. But he was a martinet who lacked a sense of humor and drank. Not a good combination for a director. Particularly one embarking on a fresh medium—sound—a year after The Crash, on a subject that needed something more intimate than a stereotypical version of a life everyone already knew. However, it was a box-office success.

The film was originally almost two hours long. United Artists pared it down to ninety-seven minutes. The shorter version is the one I saw.

 
 

Mary Poppins Returns

21 Jan

Mary Poppins Returns—directed by Rob Marshall. Musical Comedy. 2 hours 10 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★
The Story: Though threatened with eviction, the Banks family of London take on a former nanny, who arrives with heavenly solutions in her carpet bag.
★★★★★
~
Reassurance reigns with the fresh face and person of Lin-Manuel Miranda biking around London putting out gas lights as the picture opens. What is it about him? Well, there were no gaslights in 1930’s London, but we forget that with the forthright, honest face of him, easy, simple, unforced— singing. And then the song, which is open in style and a welcome-mat to one’s hopes that the rest of the songs will be as accessible.

Few of them are. Generally the songs are over-written, cramped with verses whose wit is too quick to register, more adult than Gilbert and Sullivan, and not nearly as pretty. Kids won’t get it. Adults won’t wonder why: they won’t get it either.

The dancing of them is incorrectly shot, feet unshown, and so elaborate in choreography and rapidly cut, one does not have time to sit back and enjoy a thing.

This forced-feeding goes on throughout the film as muscal episode after episode is dolled up and stuffed with special effects that detract from the good-hearted message of the film which is: use your imagination. But imagination withers under the rain of these over-imaginative special effects. Under water we go. Up Big Ben we scale. High in the sky we fly. A bore. Because? Because they leave nothing to the imagination. Special effects dictate enjoyment, they do not necessarily provide it. Each musical number wrestles us to the floor and puts a stranglehold on us. With the command for us to surrender to it, the film does all the entertaining for us, leaving us with nothing to contribute to the joy.

The original Mary Poppins movie gave us breathing space and several songs our little daughter could sing. And I could too, and still can. The Return supplies us with no such air and and no such airs.

But it is delightful whenever all of this is not happening. Which is most of the time.

David Warner, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep all show up and bring the zest of their 10-20-30 pacing.

The faces new to me are really good: Ben Wishaw as the father-inferior beset with eviction, Emily Mortimer as his appealing sister and Wishaw’s three children Pixie Davies, Nathanael Sahel, and Joel Dawson—along with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Noma Dumezweni as the wicked bank owner’s staff.

My heart swelled a number of times as the Banks folks extricated themselves from the threat of becoming homeless—a situation millions experience today. Will the spoonful of imagination-and-good will help the medicine of expatriation go down? Alas, our modern-day refugees do not have the help of a magical nanny parachuting from the sky to answer that question.

I liked the first version of Mary Poppins, but I prefer this actress’s interpretation of Mary Poppins to Julie Andrews’, whose singing forces us to be pleased with it. Emily Blunt’s Poppins is not easy to take, maybe, but more understandable, more formidable, and more sly in her determination to ease the characters and us into the mind-set that imagination can win the day.

I recommend the film to everyone. The banks versus the Banks—I know whom I’m rooting for—every time! Same as you.

 

The Green Book

11 Jan

The Green Book—directed by Peter Farrelly. Comedy. 2 hours ten minutes 2018,
★★★★★
The Story: An elegant black Jazz pianist hires a white bouncer to chauffeur his Cadillac on his tour of The South in 1962.
~

The story is Driving Miss Daisy backwards: the cranky passenger in back now is black, while the beleaguered driver up front is white.

In some ways it’s better than Daisy. The Daisy character is seldom played fully for the comic yenta she is, while here Viggo Mortensen milks every laugh within his reach as the tough Italian American, way out of his cultural depth in associating with the elegant society pianist played by Mahershala Ali.

The Green Book is the hotel list for black folks travelling in the South. This provides the two with comic adventures, but the entertainment of the film lies not so much with those adventures or with the relationship of the two grown men but rather with the brilliance of the two actors in capturing the human truth of each character as they skirt that relationship.

We live in an era of wonderful acting, but these two excel themselves. Mahershala Ali sets one at the edge of one’s seat by the chill with which he invests Don Shirley. The forbidding, contemptuous elegance of James Baldwin glimmers from his reachless back seat. It is a bravura performance executed without a flourish.

In the front the eyes of a slob roll at each spur of instruction. Hauteur is met with ham-handed wisdom. Viggo Mortensen startled me. I had no idea he had this comic range or range of characters—which happens to be the same thing in this case.

The material is beautifully managed by the writers and the director Peter Farrelly. The movie won the best film award at the 2019 Golden Globe Awards and best screenplay. Ali won for the best supporting actor. I grieved for it, since it is a leading role and since Mortensen’s was past any other performance this year save Ali’s.

If the function of criticism is praise, the word for the work of these two artists is “Alleluia!”

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen

 

Vice

07 Jan

Vice—directed by Adam McKay. BioPic. 132 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: A debauched dropout’s wife badgers him to get ahold of himself, and he turns himself into the most powerful, influential, and corrupt Vice-President the United States has ever known.
~
I sat baffled for the first hour of this film in wait for it to start. What I was watching was one fleeting exposition scene upon another—as though the writer/director Just Wanted To Get It All In. He threw details of history into my eyes like confetti, and he did not stop in the second half. By the end I realized I watched a fancy, dizzy civics lesson.

This treatment of Vice derives from the quick, cross-cutting technique of Jules Dassin’s Naked City by the cinemaphotographer William Daniels who won the Oscar for shooting it, and Paul Weatherwax who won the Oscar for editing it that way. The cross-cutting served up excitement for a long police chase across Manhattan’s Williamsburg Bridge, and it had an objective: the murderer.

Vice has no objective.

Or perhaps the objective is to show Dick Cheney to be the rat and murderer we all already knew him to be.

That’s not enough for me.

It means Vice is biased against Dick Cheney from the start. In its very title, it betrays the character imbalance that generates drama. In place of that we have collage. What’s there skips by with the merry glibness of a stone across a still pond. Nothing sinks in.

For there is nothing to sink into, because Dick Cheney is an unprosperous subject for a drama to begin with. He is a closed book. He never reveals himself verbally or emotionally. That is his professed strategy. So Christian Bale who plays him, through a makeup as vast as Eddie Murphy’s in The Nutty Professor II, is reduced to small motions of Chaney’s lips, out of which what little emerges is never the truth.

What is the real story here?

The film is adept and clever. At its close, it shows Cheney speaking to the theater audience to claim that he made America safe from terrorism, because that is what he was elected to do and that is what his job was.

It is a lie. For Chaney was not elected to office, any more than the tail of a dog is elected when you adopt a dog. Chaney simply was on a ticket with George W. To get there, he strong-armed candidate Bush such that, when he was elected, Cheney would be in charge of Foreign Affairs and other branches of presidential office never before assigned to a vice-presidency.

Bush knew nothing and knew it. He knew he was massively unqualified, gauche, and immature for President Of The United States. He feared to look bad in the job. He wanted an informed buffer. He wanted a trainer, someone whose chops would protect him—someone whose leash could drag him in this direction and restrain him from galumphing off in that direction. That is, Cheney could barricade Bush from showing the world his incompetence. What Bush didn’t know was that this meant someone who could do the job for him—for, because of Cheney, Bush never learned the job. What W. also got was a hypnotist. This he didn’t know, but Cheney knew it. Cheney made him sit, roll over, and bark.

But that Cheney was Bush’s stand-in was no secret—because Cheney’s exercise of his power over Bush was obvious to the many people around them. Just as everyone in the country knew Bush was an ignoramus—whether you believed it or not, it was obvious.

When Cheney was an habitual, jail-bait, trouble-making drunkard, his wife wrung his neck. So Cheney gave up potation for Potus. To Cheney it didn’t matter that he was not president. What he was interested in was getting drunk—instead of beer—on power. Indeed, to sustain such power, you had to remain alcoholically sober, as Nixon failed to realize. Cheney’s story is the displacement of one high by another. With Dick Cheney, we had a drug-addict running this country—the drug being power—and even worse—an addict with a stone heart.

And without ethos.

Cheney mistook military might for power. He mistook influence for power. And he mistook bullying for power. He also mistook the thrill of power for power.

Those are the small potatoes of power.

Power means freedom.

The ethos of America is not based on military might, which has no ethos. It is not based on land, which has no ethos. Nor is it based on religion or money, though each do have an ethos.

America is based on democracy. The ethos of democracy is deeper than those of religion or money. Democracy has so great an ethos that as a foundation for government it makes the ethos of religion and money, unnecessary, false, and forbidden. Conscience consciousness of this is the law of the land.

When Cheney turns to the theater audience and claims he was doing the job the voters hired him for, he lies. He did jobs he was not hired for. He interloped and declared war. When he said he made America safe against terrorists, he lied. For thousands of our soldiers lay dead on the sands his lies to us lead us to. He lied when he uttered the word America for, he did not care a fig about America.

One thing that Bale is able to make clear is that Cheney was a stupid human being. For all Cheney knew was the fear inculcated in him by his wife’s threat to stop being thrown into the drunk tanks of Wyoming jails. She stupefied him with the influence of her whisper, just as he stupefied the brain of that poor sap George W. Bush.

The ethos of America is stronger than people like Dick Cheney. I’m not worried. I am not going to waste my time accusing him or asking others to.

People with good judgement of character don’t vote for tickets like that or for tickets such as the present one.

Vice is obvious and flat. Everyone in it does a fine job. Tyler Perry as General Colin Powell, Steven Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as W, and Amy Adams as Mrs Cheney.

In fact, Lynne Cheney’s story, it seems to me, has a lot more promise than that of her husband, locked in the penitentiary of his life. For all that’s interesting about Cheney is the jail of the lie he ended up condemned to. But far more interesting is the woman who turned the key that took him from one jail and put him in another.

 

The Mule

03 Jan

The Mule—produced and directed by Clint Eastwood. Drama. 116 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: His business wrecked by the internet, a 90-year-old man becomes the most reliable drug runner in North America.
~
What a neat story for an actor in his ninth decade to star in! And the picture certainly retains its interest when Clint Eastwood is on the screen.

And it loses interest when the two secondary themes surface, of [A] the campaign against him of the Feds. And [B] the campaign against him by his long-abandoned family.

Every fifteen minutes or so these themes reappear, each time with the same material repeated:

[A] An Agency honcho crabs at G-men, Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña, that they must provide more and better drug busts for the Washington Office.

And [B] Dianne Wiest and her daughter crab at Clint for not showing up For All Those Years.

So the fault in The Mule lies not in the stars but in the writing. The writers have composed The Mule out of a handbook for screenwriting, a which says Thou Shalt Create A Character by write-by-the numbers psycho-analyses. But a daughter’s resentment does not make a character of her. All it does is smear the screen with it when the actor appears, and let human truth go begging. Every secondary character in the movie stands trapped in the mechanical inertia of such stencils. Poor Michael Penã does nothing but sit in a car like a car.

For an actor of Michael Peña’s talent, humanity, experience, personality, and age, he and we need more than just that he is the father of four children whom we never see. And Dianne Wiest incessantly bids for our pity as the abandoned wife because the script gives her nothing better to do with her mouth. We have a flash of Gene Hackman, an old acting chum of Eastwood, back into circulation to steal a scene from his friend, but he would have fared much worse had his role been a sunburst instead of a cameo.

Bradley Cooper, as the cop set to catch Eastwood, does just fine because behind Bradley Cooper’s quite ordinary masculinity lies a sense of humor in wait to appreciate whatever he is faced with. A sense of humor is a great tool for an actor (it carried John Wayne right up to his death). And in a role written with no reserves for the character to engage, humor thus becomes the reserve suitable for any occasion.

Eastwood brings the great advantages of his 88 years to the role of the robber. One of those advantages is that he too old to suspect of a crime. And too old to imagine dying. The man has gotten away with 90 years of life, he surely will get away with the rest. Of course, Eastwood’s presence on screen has always been baffling. You cannot but watch him and wonder why.

His acting is not one-dimensional. His acting is non-dimensional. It has always been so, and, indeed, its lack of dimension accounts for his stardom. He presents to us a hollow which we ourselves must fill. And we get sucked into it, simply because it exists, and because we are trained to be seduced by any film before us, a quality inherent in film itself. We do not go to a film not wishing to be taken in. That the hollow we are taken into is not deep does not matter: we are gaga from the start.

Eastwood is convinced of his mule-job, all the more so after he executes it so successfully that with his share of the loot he becomes a public benefactor. And so we the audience root for him not to be caught. Eastwood’s work as an actor is so simple that it carries the film, just as it has done for years. His acting swallows scenes whole without his even having to chew them.

Exactly why the drugs are run into Mexico rather than out of Mexico is unexplained. But Eastwood drives his pickup, holds his own with bandits, sings along with the radio, and as an individual is so much at home in himself you cannot help but want to be in his company.

Sad that he did not wait until he had a better script, for this one has a promising premise. Peter O’Toole lucked-out at a similar age with the script for Venus, a movie in which every supporting actor shines. Instead of which, in The Mule (which should be titled Hemerocallis or at least Day Lily) every supporting actor is made dull by dullness.

I hope this role does not end Clint Eastwood’s acting and directing work. He, like his character here, has been a workhorse. But we never have the sense that Eastwood loves to act, and his directorial style is so laid back it seems devoid of temperament.

I happen to like his laid-back style a lot. It gives me the space and time to enter into the landscape of a place or situation or character and digest something. Of course, Eastwood’s work seems so lanky and relaxed and dispassionate, I wonder why he does it. The music, as always in his films, is first class, and maybe that’s where his true love lies.

Anyhow, I hope he does not get an Oscar for acting this part. He might deserve one, I don’t know. But if he does win one for acting, then I bet he’ll close up shop in Carmel and go home, and I don’t want him to.

I don’t want Eastwood to end. In The Mule he ends up planting day lilies, which is what the character loves to do best. It is a bad prayer to ask for a person to go on doing what he does not love to do best. So, if it is so, I wont.

Instead, I’ll just end up here and plant day lilies myself

 

At Eternity’s Gate

01 Jan

At Eternity’s Gate—directed by Julian Schnabel. BioPic. Color 2018
★★
The Story: Farmed out to Arles and asylums, Vincent Van Gogh battles with loneliness, his neighbors, and Gaugin—again.
~
While they are still alive, most artists receive the attention they deserve. That is because their work deserves the attention their work deserves. The celebrity accruing to the artist himself is gravy slopping over the bowl of his works’ good repute.

An ironic poignancy hovers within the aura of Van Gogh’s ghost because he became world-famous pretty soon after he died from an accidental bullet from two kids playing cowboys and Indians with real guns. So much work, so little attention, so few pictures sold. It’s touching.

He was picked on by the local school boys and by the locals in general regarded as peculiar, which he was. Our hearts go out to him with the thought “If Only I Were There To Save Him!” “If Only He Had Lived A Little Longer!” “If Only Folks Then Could Only See What We Now See!”

But he looked odd, he behaved oddly, and his work appeared odd—so how many of us would really have realized his worth—or imagined his price which ranges now in multimillions?

Such suppositions tempt the compassionate imagination in all of us. All the more so because much of Van Goh’s work has not dated. It is still strong. Like Emily Dickinson’s poems, and Michelangelo’s sculpture, the world partakes in it of the primordial, recognizable to the guts of anyone who lays eyes on it. Renoir, Lautrec, Degas are no less valuable because they have dated because people don’t look like that anymore, but Van Gogh’s people never did look like that, and, like Monet, the vast body of his work depicts Nature. So his subject matter makes it easy to live with.

The film is terrible. I went to it because Julian Schnabel’s films are on my list to be seen. The real problem is the subject. Did Van Gogh ever need a single film about him? Or a film to redress him? No one could be more well known.

But here as well, we have artists talking with one another as they never do or would have done, holding forth on High Artistic Matters, Issues Of Cultural Reform, even politics, when, even if such discussions were reported in letters and memoirs, they now make for lousy dialogue. Van Gogh telling why he paints registers as A Speech. That Gaugin and Van Gogh may have said certain things at one time, does not make those words dramatic. And the cultural importance of the two artists is in no way embellished by accurate reportage in footnotes overheard.

The film is shot in stabs of hand-held cameras. It’s awfully hard to watch.

Van Gogh did not paint in stabs. His paintings are highly organized. They are focused by an internal beam so keen it is recognizable by anyone who sees them. He was not spastic, and his paintings are not spastic. They are sane. Their chaos, when chaos is their subject, is always fully realized. And if it is not fully realized, that is because the painting failed, as paintings will sometimes do, not because his technique was random, frantic, indecisive, or hand-held! Van Gogh was a master of the close-up, the middle distance, and the horizon line. Gateway To Eternity is a movie terrible to watch about a painter whose paintings are wonderful to watch.

That the script and the camera work make a mess of the film, leave the actor Willem Da Foe drowned. Da Foe has a good deal to offer Van Gogh. Da Foe is older than Van Gogh was for Da Foe, like Van Gogh, has done a lot of work. He has the right figure, his face looks right in a red beard. He is even of the right national extraction. When we see Da Foe in the fields wearing that wide-brimmed straw hat to keep off the maddening sun, we see Van Gogh himself sallying forth to find a subject.

I think the problem with those who make Van Gogh films is that they want to give Van Gogh the recognition he did not get when alive. We feel the same way about John Keats and Oscar Wilde—if only they had lived longer! But the problem for such film makers as Julian Schnabel or Vincente Minnelli is that they are confused between two recognitions. They want to right a wrong, they want to recognize an artist who wasn’t recognized in his day.

But is that what Van Gogh wanted?

Did Van Gogh want to be recognized?

Or did he want his work to be recognized?

Maybe both.

But there is a difference.

For every person in the world wants to be recognized. Not necessarily on a world scale. Not necessarily as a celebrity. Not necessarily as an artist. But as a human. Every child wants this. Don’t they?

Van Gogh probably wanted it too. As a child wants it.

But to confabulate fame for the artist with fame for the art is is to fail the distinction. And is the deciding fault of every one of the too-many films I have seen about Van Gogh. They are hazy about their subject.

Nothing can remedy Van Gogh now. Because he doesn’t need it.

Van Gogh was erratic. One would have had a hard time being around him. But his painting is not erratic. His painting’s subject may be The Erratic. That may be not a quite different matter, but it is a different matter.

Schnabel’s film seems empty and amateur.

Are Julian Schnabel’s films always about the unrecognized? The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Before Night Falls, Basquiat.

Perhaps.

And on the subject he has had great things to say.

But perhaps, on the subject, he has nothing further to say.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Directed by: Julian Schnabel, Willem Dafoe

 

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool

03 Nov

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool—directed by Paul McGuigan. 106 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: A faded American film star has a great love affair with a young actor in her rooming house, becomes part of his family, and is welcomed by them when she grows ill.
~
Elia Kazan declared female actors were more daring than male actors (with the exception of Marlon Brando). He was referring to Mildred Dunnock, Jo Van Fleet, Geraldine Page, and, in her way, Vivien Leigh. Had he worked with her, he would have also meant Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool.

She is at the top of her bent—which is pretty high as acting goes, and acting goes very high. She does not miss a measure. She bares all, or enough for anyone to take her as fully exposed as the character of this woman.

That the film is based on an actual film star, Gloria Grahame, does not matter if you do not know Grahame’s work. The treatment of the character has the truth of fiction rather than the mere verisimilitude of fact. And Bening does not do an imitation of Gloria Grahame. She simply plays up her tragic failing: her vanity. It was Grahame’s vanity that caused her, when young, to have such extensive plastic surgery done on her face, to make her beautiful in a way she never could be, so that her mouth became frozen with dead nerves—and her major film career ended because of it. Bening does nothing with this, thank goodness.

But, boy, do you see the in and out and up and down of this character in Bening’s gleeful attack on the role. If you love Bening, you must see the picture. She has that rare capacity of an actor to surprise and not surprise you. She not-surprises with a smile of shocking loveliness, but what lies around it and behind it and instead of it is what truly surprises.

Jaimie Bell, who in 2000 danced into our hearts as Billy Elliot, the boy who would dance ballet, is exactly in balance with Bening—meaning he has to be off balance a lot of the time because Bening’s character is. He’s tops. Bening’s character is in her late 50s, Bell’s in his late 20s, and the unlikely bridge over that 30 year span is absolutely convincing to behold in its strength and fun and rarity.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is beautifully told, directed, filmed, and cut. It even has the incomparable Julie Walters again playing Bell’s mother. As soon as Walters appears on screen, in no matter what, you know you’re really in for it. She does not disappoint. But the film’s leading performance is Bening’s. She’s a much better actress than Grahame, whose range was narrow—although it’s interesting to see Grahame come alive in Man On A Tightrope, just to see what she was willing, for once, to have a great director, Elia Kazan, make of her.

 

A Star Is Born 2018

01 Nov

A Star Is Born—directed, written, composed, produced by Bradley Cooper. Musical. 136 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: A catering waitress meets a singing star who helps to turn her into a singing star, while, because of his alcoholism, his own star fades.
~
A Star Is Born is a poor title for this material, since we never sense we are dealing with anyone close, in any sense, to their birth.

No actress who has ventured into this part has been a beginner, either in show business or in life. When Janet Gaynor did it in 1937 she was 31 and had already at 21 won an Oscar, Judy Garland in 1953 was 31, Barbra Streisand in 1976 was 34, and Lady Ga Ga in 2018 is 31.

They were all ten years too old for the role of an undiscovered beginner—particularly since musicians are generally discovered young, as each of those actresses in real life were.

Lady Gaga is up against some pretty memorable guns. She cannot match the charm of Janet Gaynor. She cannot match the lovability of Judy Garland. She cannot match the vocal prowess of Barbra Streisand. Although she is inherently a better musician than any of the singers, she is not young and from the look in her eyes, never was young.

As a show-woman she is in the line not of a pop singer but of Madonna (“madonna” means “lady) but is a better singer and musician than Madonna. As a show-woman, of the four women she is the most striking, daring, and original, but not in this part which has nothing to do with Lady Ga Ga on evidence on TV. Instead she remains a squat, olive skinned, Italian-American Joanne Germanotta with eyes that have already seen beyond everything they happen to be looking upon.

Keeping Lady Gaga in this incarnation, when everyone knows that Lady Gaga is at her most endearing, most real, and most vulnerable to our interest when she is most transvestited. Only when most artificial, most gotten up, most bewigged is she truly revealed.

Being a lump of ordinary neighborhood does not work for this material, even as a starting point. Garland, Streisand, Gaynor were never ordinary. But Inherently Joanne Germanotta is nothing special. What is special is her sense that something wild and bizarre must be constructed to frame and paint on its canvas that which can embody a soul for all to see and delight in as universal to us all. But this is not the story of the caterpillar, Joanne, drawing out of herself that true beauty and butterfly Lady Ga Ga. Therefore, alas, Lady Ga Ga is not in the film. Instead Joanne Germanotta is. And no one is born.

The only thing that carries her performance in A Star Is Born is that, as an actress, she is as good as any of the others who have played the part.

The film is misnamed also because her emergence as a star is not the real story of the film before us. The real story of this version takes place in the relations she has with her established singing star husband. That relationship begins and is played charmingly by her and by Bradley Cooper who produced, wrote its music, wrote its script, acted it, sang it, and directed it.

So, you would think he would take care to present his own character on camera properly and to ask someone to correct his acting choices

But for the last three quarters of the film, Cooper disappears. He disappears because the camera does not look at him full in the face. He disappears because he mistakenly plays Mr. Maine as inverted, introspective, reserved. He plays everything into his lap. But A Star Is Born is not a comedy in which shyness might be fun. Of course also, Maine is also an alcoholic, and alcoholism is an ocean in which one is invisible while standing right there. So the real story is lost in the disappearing act of its male star.

I made sure to see it in a picture palace, but the Dolby Sound drowns the voices of each singer, such that not a word they sing is discernable. Or else the actors speak in under-articulated whispers or in whispers their mikes could not articulate. You may as well be deaf as to attend.

If you want to see a marvelous movie about a singer who rises from ethnic obscurity to birth as a star, see Jersey Boys. It’s about Frankie Valli, and is a much better film as film. Better as to the approach to the music. As a musical. The music’s audibility. The thru-story of the characters. The relationships. The acting of everyone in it. And the ability of director Clint Eastwood in executing the material to slowly win the audience’s engagement such as to make our seduction into it part of the story as well.

None of this is true of A Star Is Born 2018. A star is stillborn is the obvious, unfortunate, bad joke finally required.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Backstage Musical, Bradley Cooper

 

The Sisters Brothers

08 Oct

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

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

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

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

The assassin, Joaquin Phoenix, is a bloodthirsty maniac.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Bookshop

17 Sep

The Bookshop—directed by Isabel Coixet. Drama. 112 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: A WWII widow opens a bookshop in an English seaside town and finds herself the focus of intense drama for survival.
~
In The Bookshop two renowned actors, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson find the roles of a lifetime. They do not disappoint.

As the film passes, one wonders why the widow remains, but the film answers the question as it is being asked. The camera plays upon the rain, the shrubs, the view, the byways, the sea. And with these glimpses we know she stays because the town is so particularly beautiful.

Emily Mortimer plays her wide open. She moves into, through, and past the local bureaucracy and against all rumor and logic opens her store. She hires help. She becomes known to the townsfolk and to the matriarch of which who regards her ambition with sterling silver spite. Patricia Clarkson plays this British grand dame as to the manor born. It could not have been played as well by an English actor, for not one of those great ladies would have played her without the comment of a point of view, which always includes the humor of forgiveness.

Clarkson provides none, and in doing so reveals the underside of the character wholly. For, without the humor concurrent with a point of view to excuse her, we must witness the presence of the venom within the fang.

Our heroine’s side is taken by a seething recluse, played by Bill Nighy. You feel his intensity will make the film celluloid curl and ignite. His gazes burns towards the young widow with rays of repressive ice. She is, to herself as to him, out of bounds, so instead of sending him the latest edition of Jane Austen, she sends him wild-assed Ray Bradbury and wins his favor and allegiance.

The bookshop owner is played by Emily Mortimer, an actor new to me, and one of that breed of leading English actors, Colin Firth is another, whose eminence is due not to their particular talent, skills, or temperament but rather to their simple ability to stand before the movie audience and provide an outline into which it can place itself unwittingly. She is very good at this. She is an actor who offers no difficulty but the seduction of a pleasing neutrality.

The film is beautifully directed, edited, and written. And necessarily narrated by Julie Christie. Like Moonlight it will probably be the word-of-mouth picture of the year and end up with awards (which have already begun) that will surprise nobody and gratify all.

 

The Wife

08 Sep

The Wife – directed by Bjorn Runge. Drama. 103 minutes Color 2018
★★★
The Story: A renowned novelist prepares to accept The Nobel Prize for Literature his wife has written.
~
Glenn Close plays her as a lady nothing could perturb. She’s miscast.

Francis MacDormand was originally to have played it and would have brought to the character the subtext of an individual capable of being duped because she was inherently unstable or co-dependent. Duped by the privilege of being allowed to write at all and be published. And duped by the hot flesh of the professor who seduces her as a partner in sex and crime.

But writing and publishing are not the same thing. And the screen writer does not honor or even seem to know this distinction.

Close says he is merely her editor. It’s not true. She rejects his editing. For, actually, her husband gets her published under his name because he is Jewish and a male and therefore supposedly “in” and therefore because he is a sort of agent/front-man who puts his name on her work, she is spared the drama of publisher’s rejection and the calisthenics of literary business. She sequesters herself from her family and writes, while nobody knows of the forgery.

Why then does her grown son find her behavior so unnatural, when, he himself is a writer and all writers do exactly that? Writing is a job. It requires a room of one’s own and working hours. Why does he accuse her of that? It doesn’t compute.

The script and the performance of Close are blotted with such anomalies. And Close allows the story to be carried by a smile so broad and fixed we cannot swallow it after a time as being anything but condescending.

Close and her cheatin’ hubby wait out the night for him to be announced as the winner of The Nobel Prize For Literature. When it comes, no indication is given, as they trampoline the bed, that there is an unbalance. Nothing speaks in their eyes. Close plays it as a grand dame who voluntarily corsets her power and likes it and approves. Close plays it like a duchess.

Jonathan Pryce perfectly creates the character of a crude Brooklyn Jew, and behind such a façade anything might be hidden and denied. He’s on the make. He always has been. Of course he’s gleeful to win. But she? She who has actually written the books? Her glee is as unreluctant as his. In fact, as written, there is no way the early scenes can be played. They defy subtext, and none is offered. On and on they go. Through flashbacks of his infidelities and now to his infidelities to come. He is allowed to fuck someone else’s body and she is allowed to write someone else’s books? The tradeoff doesn’t compute. Writer’s cramp would have seized her long before the finale.

Close’s performance coasts on the current Women’s Movement. The Wronged And Abused Female is the sleigh she smugly lays back in and rides. So until his comeuppance, she waits her moment for a nice big fat scene to play—when we’re supposed to feel partial to her as a poor wronged woman.

The truth is they both are crooks.

Christian Slater is perfectly convincing as the popular biographer pushy to sign Pryce on—willing to strong-arm his way into a contract because on the eve of the Nobel award he has guessed the truth. And Elizabeth McGovern is highly effective in the key scene where she inculcates Close in the folly of a female hoping to write anything worthwhile and get the attention a male would get.

One wonders what on earth Close will continue to write when the film’s story is over. How will her famous style not betray her previous con? The question shoves the story over the cliff into the preposterous.

Two recent films promote the same story. In Big Eyes Amy Adams played the woman who painted the Keane kids with their creepy pop-eyed peepers, and Christoph Waltz played the husband. And soon to come, Keira Knightly will play the title role in Colette, whose husband, Domenic West as M. Willy, published her first four books under his name and collected the royalties and spent them.

Of course, Colette’s story is more interesting than the two others because Colette actually was a genius. And because, while she was still young, she beat down the door she had allowed herself to be locked behind. She eventually obtained the rights to her early work, and of her later work, Julie de Carneilhan, Gigi, Cheri, The Last Of Cheri, These Pleasures, Sido and My Mother’s House are among our great literature.

Colette’s indentured service is a fascinating story to know about. Whether it is a great story to watch on the silver screen we shall see. The story of The Wife is not. Glenn Close is not really playing a writer. She is playing a polemic.

What is the key to such stories?

The key is: at what point and how did the artist realize her talent was viable? For if each of these young women knew she had talent, still none of these women yet knew that talent was interesting to a multitude. That is to say that her work was commercial. That is to say that she could make enough money from it to free her from a corrupt marriage and set her name down on a title page.

How did they wake to this?

That story I would like to behold. Not that the con happened, but how the artist came to realize she was richer than the counterfeit she herself had willingly, happily, lazily, and self-indulgently once allowed herself to commit.

 

Broadway Melodies of 1936 & 1938

08 Jul

Broadway Melody of 1936 & 1938 – directed by Roy Del Ruth. Musicals. Black And White.
★★★★★
The Stories: Where is the leading female dancer going to come from for the Broadway producer’s first show?
~
Robert Taylor.

We became allured.

Here he is in the plum of his youth, 1936, aged 24, a good actor and completely accessible – which establishes him as someone an audience wants to watch.

For what does an audience do to make a star?

In the audience it is the inherent desire to dive into somebody more admirable than themselves – or more noble, more detestable, more beautiful, more adept, more funny, more something. And to do that one must be allowed to stare at that person in a way real-life ordinary modesty never permits but that movies do.

This happens at virtually the first glimpse of Robert Taylor.

Wow! – what a beautiful male! – beauty – with its untouchable advantage – human survival made easy!

An easy masculinity, too – a passport which – male or female – we all all wish we could own.

And so we become fans. Which is to say we, unbeknownst to him, start going steady. We write fan letters so he shall know it. Or we don’t. We simply buy tickets to see how we’re doing around hm.

Soon we become enamored, we lose critical discretion, for we are engaged. We can’t help ourselves.

The unwitting habit of loyalty weds us to him in a sort of morganic marriage. Marriage. which means we put up with anything – any alteration, miscasting, loss of skill, or scandal. Old and beat up, our star still lodges, and, also inside us, a fidelity remains as a memento of an aspiration felt when both his body and our own were young.

For years our bodies will remain faithful to that first fresh impression, keep seeking it whenever we go to see him– that impression stamped not always in the first movie, but soon enough – Roman Holiday for Audrey Hepburn, A Place In The Sun for Elizabeth Taylor, his early comedies for Tyrone Power.

The movie-goers’ eye awakens, and our spirit reaches out for something true. As in Robert Taylor in Broadway Melody of 1936. Here, he is, more true than he will ever be again.

It’s partly the casting. He plays a Broadway producer – that is to say, no one with any ancestral ties – a free-floating, natural-born businessman with the easy self-assurance of a man used to himself, one with no particular fear of failure, his body relaxed and his responses spontaneous. His mouth, smile, eyes, gesture, emotional shifts are immediate, ready, unself-conscious, and devoid of vanity. His response to other actors is fresh and right. He a young man of breathtaking beauty, but one who knows how to husband it ethically and isn’t fooled by it. We like to watch its play across his face. To follow it we become a following.

All this would disappear from Robert Taylor’s instrument as he was cast in noble roles of he-man, hero, and morally elevated Westerner. The intelligence of his instrument quickly fled. So did his sense of humor. Five packs of cigarettes a day dissipated his looks. He will in l937, be miscast, for instance, as Garbo’s young lover in Camille, for the part requires, among others, the quality of a sexually fresh boy, which Robert Taylor probably never was. A 25-year-old male that good looking has long since not been a boy.

Nevertheless, here he is in Broadway Melody of 1936, an actor of 24 yet of such ease of being it is no wonder he entered the aesthetic souls of audiences his same age who stood by him through the years.

He was never a bad actor, but he became a lesser actor. Here, he is nothing of the kind, and the story – although Jack Benny, the radio humorist is starred – is about Taylor and his maiden effort to mount a Broadway show. It is backed by a rich tootsie who has eyes for him. But no dice! His gaze is fixed on dancer Eleanor Powell, whose maiden voyage into leading roles this is.

What can be negatively said about the film can be said about every female in the piece: Sydney Guillaroff has not yet been hired by MGM to do their hair. The women are hair-doed in skull-gripping sausage curlettes, unbecoming to all, particularly to Powell, whose Dracula dog-teeth, small features, and large flat face require international espionage to be properly revealed.

Everything else about Broadway Melody 1936 is neat! Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed do the songs, the same songs they will do again in Singing In The Rain and In Broadway Melody of 1938.

In Broadway Melody of 1938: same Broadway producer, same gal dancing her way to stardom. Same backing of a blond bitch. Same Buddy Ebsen galumphing around as a Vaudeville rube. Same writers, Sid Silvers and Jack McGowan. Same brilliant editing by Blanche Sewell. Same impeccable direction by Roy Del Ruth. Francis Langford and Robert Benchley and the stifling Sophie Tucker appear in one film or the other. Una Merkel with her pecking voice wittily plays the producer’s conniving secretary in 1936, while 1938 displays a fourteen-year-old Judy Garland full of hope and good will, and in great voice to woe Clark Gable.

In ’38, George Murphy dances with Powell in a spectacularly good singing-in-the rain dance that is not danced to “Singing In The Rain” – and what all this means is simply that one good thing follows another.

For the dance numbers and specialty numbers in both films are imaginatively introduced and wittily executed. An extended Murphy, Powell, Ebsen dance sequence in a boxcar with a horse, surprises with an imaginative use of camera in a small space. The premise of every number seems right and fresh and vivid, and we are spared the staginess of Warner musicals of this era.

The stardom of Eleanor Powell was different from that of Robert Taylor in that it never took place.

Two reasons for that. Maybe more. But one was that her dancing, while effective, was not graceful. She employs the high kicks and top-spins and cartwheels of the acrobatic dancer, which is to say, it is closer to a circus performance. When you see her en pointe, the elbows and knees are over-extended. The ballet dancers chorus behind her makes her look like a horse.

She had phenomenal speed as a dancer and an eagerness to please. Unlike Ruby Keeler, he didn’t have to look at her feet. There is a witty glee in her eyes while tapping that has miles to spare. She is above technique. It’s fun to see.

But none of this ever changed. She always does the same thing, the same kicks, the same spins, the same tommy-gun taps. Astaire and Kelly took great care, in each film, to present something new in dance. Eleanor Powell has a good figure, the right height, 5’5”, and she’s pretty. She is a passable actress, too. She’s not unlikable. But she’s not very open. She’d like to be, but she’s not. And you’ve seen it all before.

This may have come about because she was a female, and, in those years, males controlled movie choreography in a way that females would never be allowed to do. She may have been told, “Do what you did before, Eleanor!” Or, maybe that’s all she could do. Anyhow that’s what happened.

Monotony, and not being open, the audience could not dive into her, nor really could a leading man. You are absolutely convinced that Robert Taylor loves her – simply, directly, happily – but there is no chemistry between them, because, in her, love is not a cartwheel. In her, a cartwheel is a cartwheel.

Judy Garland in ’38, as a frumpy, unformed teen-ager, starts singing, and no matter what the song, you root for her. In you go! You take the risk. Wow! What is going to happen here?

I feel for Eleanor Powell. I admire her. But she does not become a movie star – not because she isn’t placed as one, for she is – but because she is supremely good at one thing and is less good at all the rest. Momentarily arrested, audiences turned away.

Here she is at her best, and so is everybody else. Foolish entertainment was a staple of Depression breadlines. This one is glitzy, light, and slightly fattening – although the costumes by Adrian will mask it and so will the lighting by William Daniels. He began filming Garbo and ended filming Elizabeth Taylor. All this brings you something beautiful, a diversion both working-class and classy.

I recommend it, not for a history lesson but for an evening’s innocent pleasant diversion. You won’t feel cheated by any of it but feel surprised by most of it!

Check it out.

 

First Reformed

18 Jun

First Reformed –– written and directed by Paul Schrader. Drama. 114 minutes. Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: The pastor of a famed New England Church struggles with crises of faith, ethics, mission, courage, and his own past.
~
How does an actor convey all these at once?

He never conveys them. He holds still, opens his pores, and lets the audience convey them for him.

Of course, that’s the way it’s written and directed and filmed, but Ethan Hawke is an actor in the past covered with a sheen and endowed with an unfortunate smirk at the corners of his mouth, so he has never been an actor of much penetration, but rather an actor of unearned smugness.

But, recognizing himself to be not an A-list actor, the movies he has chosen to be in have been more interesting than his work in them. This has served him well and kept him before us. This has been true of him since he was young, which he no longer is. Here he plays a pastor of 47 which is also the age he is. He looks every day of it.

And he has largely mislaid his basket of acting tricks, we get only one empty side-long glance. His pushy charm and the coin of youth are gone.

He is not an actor who inhabits a character or whom a character inhabits. In his watchfulness as an actor there is the sense that he is not an actor at all, but a writer. So his instrument is limited and squeezed.

But what has always been so is that he is an actor who is present for the character to be present. And, oftentimes in screen acting, more than this is unwanted.

We are told about his minister; he tells us things; others tell us things; things are shown about him; the camera watches what he does, and all these things inform us with what we must learn in order for us to participate in creating this character.

So Ethan Hawke has begun to grow up in his craft. Hawke does not distract us or force a point of view of the character on us, so he is never remote. If, for narrative purposes, the character feels despair, we see despair in Hawke’s eyes and face. Otherwise not. If the character drinks, and it is narratively unnecessary for us not to know why, Hawke never betrays the story by detouring it into making whisky understandable. If the character is meant to internalize the ravage of the environment, the domination of the plutocracy, the fatness of the megachurch, his thoughtless fatherhood, he holds true to an ancient family and social code of consideration for others which would compress these influences and never show them. And we believe it. He does not indicate they are in him, and because he does not, we intuit that they must be in him.

Hawke keeps the physical circumstances of his body small. It’s a part which the slightest gesture would betray the role into overacting.

So we are not interested in Ethan Hawke here because he is, like Bette Davis, an actor of passionate histrionic drive whose physical show stuns us. No. Hawke simply leaves that out and lets the audience do the job of bringing the character alive in Hawke’s flesh. Hawke’s presence and the character become concurrent.

This is important because of the style of the film which is ruled by the decorum of church settings, music, and deportment. The film does not rush. It is as ritualized as a processional. Words are allowed to be heard. Scenes are allowed to develop. Arguments are allowed to ripen. We are in a film of grown up matters. There are social and spiritual and religious dialogues. We have to hear them out, for we too, as audience, have our pastoral duty. We see that characters do not realize that some of this formality is so beside the point that it is dangerous.

The film lets music play its role but never to enforce mood, but to counterpoint it. The camera is as steady as the style of the tale it tells. The acting of the others confirms the director’s style, which is to reveal the story straightforwardly and no more fully than our digestion permits.

With First Reformed we are constantly in the experience of story. Paul Schrader is like Satyajit Ray and Ingmar Bergman in this.

Hawke’s character has lost his ability to pray. Every human on earth loses their ability to pray every day. Each of us struggles towards an ethos vivid to us. Hawke’s character has lost this struggle. What is he to do?

I honor this film, everything about it, and everything in it.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Method, Ethan Hawke, PERSONAL DRAMA

 

Nevada Smith

26 Apr

Nevada Smith – directed by Henry Hathaway. Western. 128 minutes Color 1966.
★★★
The Story: A young man lives his life to revenge the murder of his parents.
~
Steve McQueen aged 31 is asked to play a boy of 16. He is too beat up to do it, and it was not within his range as an actor anyhow. Otherwise the hole in his dirty shirt is the only actually authentic object in the picture and, you might say, his authenticity is a function of that. Indeed, McQueen plays here what he always played, a man without a code.

Does authenticity hold true for anyone else? The Indians are pristine in their feathers. So are the sluts. So is the excellent Brian Keith who plays McQueen’s mentor after two rough weeks on the trail with a shirt straight from the dry cleaners. Keith, Arthur Kennedy and Pat Hingle, Martin Landau, fine actors all, are Jim-dandy as McQueen’s challenges. But the costuming demotes everyone who appears, and the believability of the film suffers from it.

Of course, this is the way things were done in Westerns of this era. Perhaps McQueen started to question the sort of material he was appearing in. His interests were car collecting, motor cycles, and gang-bangs, McQueen always the first off with his britches. The film as a whole doesn’t ring true. Partly because McQueen is asked to play a man with a code, and his code does not extend beyond what promotes his already seductive masculinity.

This is too bad, because the material has merit. McQueen’s search takes him to various parts of the country, among which is a state prison in a swamp, a setting striking in its perils. Also too bad because Karl Malden plays the main object of his revenge, and Malden is wonderful, all the way through to the insane, surprising finale.

Henry Hathaway, a hardline, highly experienced director of male-oriented pictures, directed. Hathaway directed so many Westerns he may have become petrified in the production values that prevailed then. He was associated with huge male stars –Tyrone Power, John Wayne, Gary Cooper – and his stories display a high degree of testosterone, culminating in Richard Widmark’s Johnny Udo in Kiss Of Death shoving Mildred Dunnock in her wheelchair down a flight of stairs, and in the various rotters, here played by Hingle, Landau, Malden, and Kennedy. It’s a world blinded by its formulas to even the possibility of other stories, other resolutions, other energies.

One of the difficulties of Westerns in the 50s being filmed in color is in real life, they were lived out in sepia. Color in Westerns is good for the outdoors, not for close-ups, not interiors, to which it adds distracting interest, and certainly not to costumes which, particularly in females, delivers a gaudiness that adds nothing verifiable to their characters use in stories.

McQueen has an eventful face. With its folds, creases, muscles. Gable did too; so did James Dean. A lot could happen in such a face, and Gable had the ability to play comedy with it, which is to say, he was willing to look like a sap. McQueen is never willing to do that, is never funny, but, while serious to the point of solemnity, instead always seethes with sex. One always wants to take him under one’s wing and reform him, forgetting that his allure lies in his impenitent self-absorption.

The picture takes McQueen to various ages and various locales over 15 years – all the while holding revenge in mind. Malden would play the same target for it in One Eyed Jacks. But the most unusual locale involves Cajun girls who harvest the rice crop while the prisoners break rocks, and then come to the prisoners at night and everyone gets laid. Suzanne Pleshette plays the principal slut well, leading McQueen out of the swamp in a dugout, until she cops that he’s more interested in the dugout than in her.

McQueen was a crafty actor who stole scenes by underselling them. Watch him closely as he does this. He is able to draw all the energy in the room to himself, as James Dean did, by exuding and at the same time withholding a sensuality all the more tantalizing because it promised something that he would snicker you away from if you got serious. A number of actors of that era – Brad Davis, Alain Delon, Christopher Jones, Dean Stockwell – had this. It was very sellable.

Who has it now? Brad Pitt, who is a better actor than McQueen, with a wider range, and Pitt can be very very funny, a thing which McQueen was too full of himself to attempt.

Steven McQueen was a poor man’s poor man. He may get into a vest, tie, and Rolls for The Thomas Crown Affair, but he’s trailer-trash – which is his value to the silver screen – the underlying drama always being can his beauty surmount his origins?

Still I seek out McQueen’s movies. I have to admit it’s fun to see that rare someone for whom animal magnetism is so easy. A cute guy who could write his own ticket to Timbuktu and back. I watch out of envy and delight – and interest in his exercise of his small, fascinating, and undeniable talent.

 

Blackboard Jungle

21 Apr

Blackboard Jungle directed by Richard Brooks. Drama. 101 minutes Black and White. 1955.
★★★
The Story: A teacher just starting out in his profession faces a rude and dangerous classroom of delinquents and eventually wins their favor.
~
The idea is ridiculous. Students are not in class to bestow favor, as noblesse oblige. And teachers are not there to win favor. Swimming pools are for swimming and schools are for schooling, and everyone who goes to either place knows that. You don’t hold beer parties in church.

This is to say that the film is forced. And the part that’s forced is the cast playing the delinquents. Most of them are a bit old for the parts. But that doesn’t matter so much as that none of the actors see their characters from the characters point of view. This allows them to drift into caricature, and what we see is a bouquet of gutter roses, ala West Side Story.

Exception must be made for Vic Morrow who Methods his character into a maniac. He is never a gutter rose. He is always a stinker. This doesn’t mean one buys his interpretation as real.

Sidney Poitier aged 28 plays the one borderline kid who is 17. This one believes, partly because decency is inherent in Poitier, and partly because, unlike any of the others, he had already played leading roles in several films and knew certain pitfalls, and partly because of his confidence, and partly because his shoulder bones show under his t-shirts because he is so skinny.

He is the only kid whose performance one buys. Oh, it’s nice to see Rafael Campos, still a teenager; he’s lovely in his big scene. But the film belongs to Glenn Ford who apparently can act anything thrown at him. His commitment, balance, focus, and drive in each of the varied scenes casts aside the inauthenticity he is surrounded with. Fortunately he is virtually in every scene. The great Louis Calhern plays the most tired and cynical of these vocational high school teachers; one always sits back in one’s chair in confidence Calhern will give satisfaction, and he does.

Richard Brooks was not a director/writer of finesse, and this is as good an example of his work as any. When the picture came out it caused riots and a scandal, but that was because of the first rock-and-roll sound track in a film, and “Rock Around The Clock” became a million seller in its day. The film made a fortune.

The work of Poitier, Ford, and Calhern is not dated, but the film is long past its shelf-life. I wonder if a film has ever been made about difficult teenagers, as themselves, not as caused by environment or prejudice, but as themselves, as individuals. I have not heard of it. Such kids are called juvenile delinquents, but neither part of that term is helpful; it finishes them off. I’d like to see a film about their seed and core. Their action in their age.

 

Smart Money

20 Apr

Smart Money – directed by Alfred E. Green. Crime Comedy. 81 minutes Black And White 1931.
★★★★★
The Story: A small-town barber with a lucky streak heads for the big-time and succeeds in all his dreams but that of a lady to kiss.
~
He is my favorite actor. Edward G. Robinson. I love to watch him. I never tire – even though his effects linger from film to film. Richard Burton said of him that if he were on the screen with the most beautiful man alive, you would not watch that man, you would watch Robinson.

More alive as an actor than any other!

James Cagney made seven films in 1931, and The Public Enemy hadn’t come out yet, and Robinson, after Little Caesar, has the lead. They both started in New York Yiddish theater, and were friends, but this was their only film together.

It’s fun to see that Cagney could just as easily have played the part, or at least part of the part. The difference between them is this.

Robinson’s acts a character who is full of himself. But Cagney never played a character who was not full of himself. Robinson had to act it. But for Cagney being full of himself was the basis of his craft. It made him the schoolyard bully his entire career. It was not the basis of Robinson’s craft. Robinson has to summon hubris into the role. So Robinson is more appealing in the part than Cagney would have been. And the role has another part to it: Robinson is big-time, he is generous, kind, gallant, but no woman loves him. What would Cagney have done with that!

Perfect part for Robinson, and he played it more than once. Rather than romantic leads, who got the girl, Robinson often played professionals – such as the detectives he played in Orson Welles’ The Stranger or Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Absolute authority of attack is his genius. And, boy oh boy, does he know his lines!

The film was directed by a studio work-horse, Alfred E. Green. Green, an admirable director, knows exactly how to tell a story with a camera, exactly where to put the camera to do it, exactly what value to give a scene. He directed more Bette Davis films than another director. She learned her craft under him. I always welcome his name on the credits and know I am in good hands..

I have never before seen Evalyn Knapp, marvelous as the most important of the many blondes Robinson is drawn to. She is touching and real from the time she first appears till the time she withdraws. Not much of a career; one wonders why. Still, she is lovely. And all the blondes are lovely and good in their parts. Robinsons’ tremendous ebullience and bonhomie carry the film, which dates no more than anything well-made dates, which is to say no further than our affection for a bygone era.

 

Lilies Of The Field

25 Mar

Lilies Of The Field – directed by Ralph Nelson. Spiritual Comedy. 94 minutes Black And White 1963.
★★★
The Story: A coven of refugee nuns sequestered in the desert hoodwink a young man to build them a chapel.
~
Sydney Poitier gives an inexplicable performance.

To explain it requires a confession as to the director’s frivolity in his treatment of this material. Ralph Nelson handles it like an Andy Hardy/Judy Garland MGM let’s-find-a-barn-and-put-on-a-show musical.

So Poitier, rather than give a serious comic performance of someone helplessly frustrated, may have played into this mode, which here is mechanical – but with Garland’s and Rooney’s talents never was. So Poitier points all his effects. He gilds the tip of each wave of his performance with the froth of being “entertaining”. He’s fearfully “cute”.

This does release his Bahaman roots to dance and prance and shake it. (Poitier was not American.) But his performance does not fit in with that of the actual Austrian refugee, Lilia Skala, who plays it for real. Too bad. Here her performance was, right in front of Poitier, available to him, and he muffed it; he opted for “charm.” Lilia Skala is clearly a top-notch actor in full possession of her craft and she was nominated for an Oscar for this performance. Wonderful to behold her work.

Poitier won an Oscar for this performance as credit for an accumulation of parts, noble all.

But was it for their nobility Sidney Poitier found a public?

I think it was because Sidney Poitier was the first Negro actor to be likable.

Lena Horne was dynamic but not likeable. Ethel Waters was loveable but not likeable. Sammy Davis was impressive but not likeable. Canada Lee was likeable but sidelined. Paul Robeson was admirable but discredited. None of them got to be movie stars. And, of course, there was the times.

But Americans primarily want to like people, an instinct that can’t help but cut though race to the other side. Subconsciously they longed for a black actor to like. Sidney Poitier had talent, looks, luck, intelligence, a good figure, the right voice – and likeability was inherent in him. So, unwittingly, Poitier became a star. But, although he gave many better performances than this, this one might have been better had he not striven to be so “likeable”.

James Poe, a good screenwriter, wrote Lilies Of The Field; the great Ernest Haller filmed it simply. But, other than them, Lilia Skala’s work, and the desert, the lilies of its field have withered quite away.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, Sidney Poitier

 

The Death Of Stalin

25 Mar

The Death Of Stalin – directed by Armando Ianuucci. Political Comedy. 107 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: The Russian head of state dies and everyone squabbles as to who shall inherit the state?
~
The Death Of Stalin is directed with the lightning speed of farce – but it is not farce. It is gallows humor and so to be funny must be delivered gravely. It is not.

I fell asleep. Or you might say I passed out from the metronomic monotony of things dashing by in front of my eyes, the dulling hypnosis of looking into a kaleidoscope, ever turning, ever brilliant, and therefore indecipherable, and therefore tedious. We see everything in a whisking mosaic of scenes and are permitted to dwell on nothing. No scene is allowed to develop, and the visual jokes are taken for granted as funny, although, even so, some of them really are funny.

I went to the picture wanting to like it, and wanting to like helps one to, but it wasn’t kind to me. It is not measured to the level of the audience of those over 50 who know its Russian nabobs, who convene and plot, then plot on their plots – a shell game, in which the eye is not faster than the play, and you soon walk away out of patience with the trick that over and over again fools with you.

Also true is that the English actors speak too fast to be heard, and they are doubly incomprehensible because they speak English while they are doing it. American actors such as Steve Buscemi, who as Nikita Khrushchev shoves Stalin’s heirs around, is perfectly audible doing so speaking precision Brooklynese, while American actor Jeffrey Tambor ornates the film with his depiction of the mealy-mouthed Malenkov, a sort of zombie in a girdle, perfectly cast like everyone else.

The picture takes the form of a mordant wake in which everyone behaves badly because the corpse has trained them to. But the story arose not from an original screen play, but from a French comic book.

Now, most films these days, it would seem, do arise from comic books, and this has been going on at least since the Tarzan movies. The one great difference between such a movie as The Death Of Stalin and a comic book is this: a comic book is not whisked out from under your eyes as you look at it. You can linger long enough upon a comic book for it to register.

The remedy: First Kill The Editor! Oh, but before that kill The Director! Or maybe, as Beria would have it: Kill Everybody!

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, Steve Buscemi

 
 
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