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Archive for the ‘Hal Holbrook’ Category

Promised Land

14 Jan

Promised Land – directed by Gus Van Sant. Drama. Two oil salespeople interlope a Pennsylvania farm town to sign it up for oil fracking, and come up against an informed populace and a charming environmentalist. 106 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★
Everything else is decor. There are three elements in a movie. The acting, the story, the narration. And here’s a film you really want to root for.

The acting is impeccable. Matt Damon is one of the few actors who can actually mull on camera. He can transfer from a likeable hero to a likeable wretch in the same role and you go with for the ride. He is the most useful actor in films today. Frances McDormand, belovèd of all, has an inner humor and heart that is staunch in all dire straights. John Krasinsky is masterfully fluid and appealing here, and if I have never seen him before, I would be interested to see him again. We have Hal Holbrook – when has he ever wronged us? – while Rosemarie DeWitt upgrades every scene she is in.

Gus Van Sant’s direction of all this is balanced, easy on the eyes, sure. His sense of place gives us town and farm scenes that make us confident that we are there.

And the story? Ah, the story. It is like Frank Capra’s State Of The Union with Matt Damon playing Spencer Tracy. It’s the story of a man setting out on a worthy course, only to be seduced by his own rhetoric. And it would work – but it has a trick ending, and trick endings o’erset everything as a rule, including the audience’s faith in what they have just committed their trust to.

The issue of every story is: How do you get out of this predicament? But the problem here is divided predicament. Is the predicament how inconscionable large corporations are? That is to say, will Matt Damon realize he mustn’t continue in his career because corporations are wicked and manipulative?

Or is the predicament, how can he be gotten to see that fracking is poisonous and that he should not embrace a career that promotes it?

The answer to the second is that the Matt Damon character should already know that fracking kills water tables, long before he gets to Pennsylvania; he is 38, after all. Or is he a dope? – which is not the way he is presented. As to the corporations, the trick ending leaves us in no uncertainty about that. But that is a trick to cover a defect of focus. The trick ending shatters our credulity, and in our betrayal such questions snap to the surface, where they should never arise at all.

Damon and Kasinsky produced the picture as well as wrote it and stared in it, so there was no way such questions could snap to the surface of them. They lost us because they were lost. The film would have been far more successful had it been much less pat, more at loose ends. Does Matt really regain his manhood just so that he can walk into the arms of Rosemarie DeWitt at the end? Is that all there is: a hardon? What does he do then? Raise chickens? Children? Cain? Well, that too is unanswerable. As to the film? Well, I liked it, but, obviously, oh, I wish I had liked it better.

 

Lincoln

16 Nov

Lincoln – directed by Steven Spielberg. Docudrama. President Abraham Lincoln is surrounded on all sides as he presses to get Congress to pass the 13th Amendment forbidding slavery. 149 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

I was thrilled, stirred, gripped.

I thought beforehand I would not be, for the coming attractions are ill advised.

But, once there, everything about this film surprised, entertained, informed, and moved me.

My first fear was that Daniel Day-Lewis would simply dress himself up in a top hat and shawl and, in the voice of Henry Fonda, perform The Lincoln Memorial.

But what Daniel Day-Lewis has done with Lincoln, is to give him a posture which is stooped, which we know he had, and a short gait, which we couldn’t know he had, but which keeps him in the contemplative present when he moves.

Day-Lewis’s figure is tall and thin, as was Lincoln’s, and his face is long, as was Lincoln’s. He has, as Lincoln had, cold eyes. Lincoln had a high-pitched voice, and that is what the actor contrives for us. The impersonation is beyond exception.

The actor also has the ability to negotiate Lincoln’s remarkable diction, so he is able to manage Lincoln’s speeches and his raconteurism –– everyone said Lincoln was a most entertaining individual, and folks gathered around him to hear him tell jokes and stories –– and this is given full play as is his play with his little son. But the weight of the matters that concern and confront him and how he faces them are the story.

The political shenanigans environing the passage of the 13th Amendment are the setting here, and in this he is beset by his foes and friends alike. Among the foes is Lee Pace, an actor of signal clarity of attack, who leads the Democrats of the day who, like the Republicans of our own, have no agenda but to oppose, in all matters, the person who holds The Presidency.

The complex backstairs bargaining and bribery and bullying to get the amendment through is exciting and involves a lot of first class actors to bring off. Kevin Kline as a wounded soldier, Jared Harris as U.S. Grant, Bruce McGill as Secretary Stanton. We have James Spader as the foul-mouthed operative sent to influence the undecided with sinecures and cash. Hal Holbrook as the peacenik operative whose truce-making might arrest the entire effort. John Hawkes as Robert Latham.

But the big difficulties at the time were two people who were in favor of the amendment. The first was Mary Lincoln, unbalanced by the loss of a previous child and exhausting and distracting Lincoln by indulging herself in grief because of it. This is an astonishing piece of work by an actress who has grown over the years: daring when young, even more daring now: Sally Field.

The second problematic character was Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist so radical his extreme fundamentalism bid fair to upset the applecart. A formidable politico and vituperator, it required an actor no one could out-wily, out-cunning, out-sly. And such an one we have to hand in the person of Tommy Lee Jones. He’s killingly funny and powerful in the role. It’s one of his great film turns.

The filming of story and the direction of it are exactly right, established at once by Janusz Kaminski with a Brahmsian color palette and a scenic arrangement that gives us a view from under the table of the White House goings-on and political dealings that never fall into the staid tableaux of Historical Documentary or the expected or the pat.

But the great credit of all the great credit due is to Tony Kushner who wrote it. He alone of modern playwrights could negotiate the elaborate rhetoric of 19th Century invective, without which the telling of this material would be incomprehensible. Instead of taking out your gun and firing at an insult, you had to stand still to hear it long enough to mount a more suitable riposte than a bullet. Congress in those days was messy, rude, and volatile. We see it all.

Kushner frames the picture with two speeches, and each one is given to us in a surprising way. Historical events with which we are familiar are gestured when they are not integral to the strife within. He knows how to write a scene with lots of words, and the material needs them and welcomes them. You have to lean forward and keep your ears alert, just as these men and women did in their day. You want to. It’s part of your engagement, your learning, your joy, and your satisfaction.

Up close and personal with Lincoln, if you ever imagine yourself so lucky as to be, you sure are here. You give full credence to this actor’s Lincoln. You watch Lincoln, yes, he is available. You still admire him, you are touched by him, you know him as well as you ever will, save you read his letters. A man of great depth of reserve and great humor. Torn, pure in two, but one. Because fair and honest and kind. Smart because he understands human language from aint to art. When has his party put forth for president a person of one tenth his character? Will they ever do so again?

 
 
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