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Archive for the ‘Pete Postlethwaite: ACTING GOD’ Category

A Private Function

19 Dec

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22 December 2012, Friday.

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A Private Function – Malcolm Mobray. Comedy Of Character. England on very short rations after The War and everyone wants a pig to call their own. 94 minutes Color 1984.
★★★★★
Not farce, not situation comedy, not joke comedy – but that rare thing: comedy of character. That is to say that comedy which produces in one the barely noticeable glow.

Alan Bennett, a master of this sort of thing (The History Boys, et al.), gathers his cohorts, such as Michael Palin and Richard Griffiths, and the incomparable comedienne Maggie Smith, along with Denholm Elliott as the selfish officious mayor, and Pete Postlethwaite as the cold-eyed butcher, to chase around a small English village the person of a pignapped porker everyone wants for their very own oven.

I lived in England near to the period of 1947, and I ate my ration of one egg a week, too, so I understand what Bennett is after in creating the socially pretentious wife of the new chiropodist in town that Maggie Smith plays. We are like her or we are nothing. We deserve the flourishes of life. We deserve the dainty extras. We deserve excess in excess. Not just beans on toast, but life glazed to a turn with an apple in its mouth, and this is what Maggie Smith is given to give us. We feed on finery or we starve.

Bennett has written a Chekhovian comedy, not one of those wonderful long tragedies he called comedies, but one of his short wonderful plays, such as The Proposal. All we have is human response to the universal need for a pig. What could be funnier!

Oh, yes, funnier in a different way. But not funnier in this particularly human way. Comedy Of Character. Don’t starve yourself. Rationing is over. See it.

 

The Omen 666

24 Jan

The Omen 666  -– Directed by John Moore. Creepy Thriller. The Devil Wears Buster Browns when a bad seed starts growing and growing and coming toward you. 110 minutes Color 2006.

*

There is a difference between a role and a character. A role is The Mother, The Husband, The Child. But the writer must also make characters of them or all we have is cutouts. The character allows the actor to create humans out of and inside those roles. It’s done with words said by a character that make him alive, human, and particular. Dickens was a master at this. A character should be like no one else on earth. A character is also created by actions which also define him, by the term Part we mean the action the actor who plays the role takes. “I play the role of the boyfriend. It’s the part of the boyfriend who kills the ogre.”  In Omen 666 there there are roles but no characters, save two. They are not, however, created by the writers, but by the sheer eccentricity of the actors who play them, David Thewlis and Pete Postlethwaite, actors also of a rare  power — by which I mean freedom in their craft. Each brings such particularity to his work because of his voice and appearance, that they come alive, immediately. Julia Stiles as The Mother, however, has no such personality. She is a good actor, of course, but that’s all you’re left with. Not a human being but an actor. Liev Schreiber is another good actor, but the same is true of him. He has a fine figure, a beautiful and well-placed voice, and an interesting face which has no bad camera angles. But he has no lines. Nothing that he says rings true, not because he is unconvincing but because the lines are empty. He has no character to bring to life; he has nothing to work with, but himself, and he himself is not A Role, not An Ambassador, not The Father Of That Boy, not Someone in that situation, because the writers have not made that Someone into an individual. Give an actor as good as Liev Schreiber the merest clue, and he will make of it a memorable creation. Not here. It’s not his fault. The script is clueless. Millions have been spent on this production. You notice it because that’s all there is to notice. When Postlethwaite died, I turned it off.

Michael Gambon, Mia Farrow

 

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

21 May

The Lost World: Jurassic Park – Directed by Steven Spielberg. Sci-Fi Action. Dinosaurs, still hanging around on a tropical island, draw competing scientists and developers. 2 hours 7 minutes Color 1997.

* * * * *

Pete Postlethwaite devours the screen like a brontosaurus rex whenever he is on it. This is wonderful to behold, because his ruthlessness outstrips the passion of any other character in the movie, and so one loves him for it. The others fare not so well. For the “action sequences” devour character as well as characters. This is true of all such films. David Koepp has written a brilliant script, which means that its wit compliments the wit of the director, and he has made for us characters who have a living eccentricity, in scenes that are beguiling and actable. But all of that is in the beginning of the film. As soon as the dinosaurs start competing with the humans all character is lost as the film bogs down in spectacle, escape, acts of derring-do, mayhem, terror, clumping and munching – in fact, in story- behavior in which, because it is minimally verbal, character, charm, eccentricity, and even motive are devoured. It’s no one’s fault. It’s simply a characteristic of the genre. They all end up this way. The chief consequence of this is that one ceases to love the characters – because they are characters no longer. And too bad too. Because we have the glorious Jeff Goldblum as one of a group of four heros (really five until our beloved Richard Schiff becomes an ors d’oeuvre for a rex). With his bright and wonderful face, and endearing tallness, and supple intelligence, he plays a character who disapproves of everything, in a role which almost becomes thankless because of that. Julianna Moore is delightful in a love scene walking away from him in the middle of a river; she plays a character who approves of everything. And the dewy Vince Vaughan plays a kind of side-car part which is actually underwritten and functions really only to make a certain defunct radio work to save the day (it’s actually night). Never mind. It’s a director’s film, and Spielberg has a witty mind. Never is he unprepared to entertain us. The action sequences unravel with imagination and care and stunning execution. And in this is he ably abetted by the camera of Janusz Kaminsky and the surprising editing of Michael Kahn, who will supply us with a sterling close-up of Moore’s face, for instance, just when you would never expect you would need the relief of it from the action in play. Spielberg always gets his endings wrong, and he does not fail us in this one. It’s a failure of value in him, as, for the wrong reason, he brings the tale around to a city he has not previously established, and so the big bus-wrecking sequences, and so forth, have no connection to us. The ending comes out of nowhere into nowhere. His wit does not fail him, as the rex clomps by an Animal Control vehicle, but his thinking does. This means that the value of actions floats free of the value of settings, streets, a harbor, a ship, and, most important, human inhabitants. However, the film has delivered so much “entertainment” one has to forgive him once again, simply on the grounds that our exhaustion forbids us from sustaining anything more than a sigh of relief that the entertainment is finally over.

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The Age Of Stupid

12 Apr

The Age Of Stupid — Directed by Franny Armstrong. Docomentary. Pete Postlethwaite hands us a record of modern madness leading to Global Boiling Over. 89 minutes Color 2008.

* * * * *

Do something: Watch it. Do something!

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The Valley Of The Hearts Delight

12 Apr

The Valley Of The Hearts Delight — Directed by Tim Boxell. Historical Drama. A reporter becomes imperiled when he tries to solve the kidnapping of his lover’s brother. 97 minutes Color 2006.

* * *

Fury was the title of it when it was made by Fritz Lang with Sylvia Sidney and Spencer Tracy back closer to the day when its actual events changed the name of The Valley of The Hearts Delight in California to Silicon Valley. To avenge a kidnapping, a mob seeks to string up two innocent men. But also the Valley newspaper owner played by Pete Postlethwaite and certain local politicians want this also, in order to whitewash the Valley’s glorious name as quickly as can be. Bruce McGill plays the father of the young man — about whom the writers have cast an unnecessary shroud, since it is clear that he is gay, and that he picked up the kidnapper thinking it was a chance for sex. It all happened at the time, as the saying goes, and I will not confuse you further by telling you what actually did happen. A feeling of amateurishness pervades the direction of the piece. To recommend it, let us point to the presence in it of a beautiful 1933 Studebaker convertible. Gabriel Mann is a lovely actor, although a little too razor pressed for a small town reporter on the make. Still, the costumes are period and smile all the way through. I smiled too, but not always with unveering delight in its valley.

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Ghost Boy

12 Apr

Ghost Boy – Directed by Lamberto Bava. Thriller. Two lovers work out their eternal love after death. 97 minutes Color 2006

* * *

Gosh. Laura Harring is awfully good as the beset mother. And Pete Postlethwaite, of course, lends his natural ambiguity to the kindly but incredulous doctor. I loved roaming around inside that huge thatched African mansion among all those artworks, and I liked seeing those African folks, villages, landscapes. I found the movie held me, and the actress certainly was convincing as the woman who was haunted by lust for her husband and whose child becomes possessed by that husband. The African lore and ju ju certainly carry weight here and so does the soundtrack. Melodrama must have melody.

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Inception

10 Apr

Inception – Directed by Christopher Nolan. Techno-thriller. To change a man’s mind, a trained crew enters his dream-world to try to hypnotize him. 148 minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

Pete Postlethwaite plays the pivotal role here, which can mean and does mean that his part may be minute but still crucial. All he needs to make is one small turn. Everything depends on that. Hubbing out from him are his son and heir whose mind is to be invaded, and on the outer rim the tycoon who is financing the invasion. The focal role is that of the son, very well acted by Cillian Murphy. Tai-Li Lee does the tycoon beautifully. Which leaves the spokes, the crew of invaders, all beautifully cast and perfectly played: Tom Berenger, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ellen Page, the last two of which are given and reward a good deal of our attention. The one item of miscasting is Marion Cotillard as the wife of Leonardo Di Caprio. She’s a great actress, but lacks mystery, at least in this part she does. The result is that we do not really care about the fate of their marriage. I’m not sure that any actress could play the part, for the hero/husband is played by Di Caprio, who is not a leading man but a leading boy. The vexed lines between his brows, the passion and conviction and honesty and skill with which he animates and invests every single thing he does here cannot countermand the fact that he is not a grown-up. Fortunately it is not a grown-up movie, so it doesn’t matter that much. It is a wonderful piece of child’s play, superb in all particulars, and we sit on the edge of our seats to follow it. It is executed to perfection by the director and the camera people, by everyone involved, in fact. It is cinematic to the max: our suspense is sustained for the last 20 minutes by the mere drift of a van off a city bridge into the water of a river. What could be better? In this genre, nothing. Di Caprio is one of our great actors, but he is not a leading man: he is a character lead, which is a quite different category and requires exactly the rare instrument which De Caprio in fact possesses: a talent for imposture. See him in Blood Diamond, Celebrity, Total Eclipse, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to really get a sense of his gifts. But see this too. He can carry a load. But because he carries them, all the loads he carries become  — and it’s still delightful to us all when the load is, as here it is supposed to be — hollow.

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Closing The Ring

31 Mar

Closing The Ring — Directed by Richard Attenborough — Romantic Drama A 70 year old widow comes to terms with her past love. 117 minutes Color 2007.

* * *

Shirley MacClaine sabotages this film by employing the same unnecessarily nasty and bitter energy she has employed for the past thirty years in playing characters, and by asking us to believe this rudeness constitutes a human. The problem is not so much that she has used this energy before; the problem is that, as with all neuroses, nothing lies behind it, for it has forsaken the real. Neuroses is often interesting, because it sometimes displays flashes of truth, and MacClaine certainly began her career this way. But terminal cuteness, a family trait, may have ended her. For now, one observes there is nothing behind the nastiness for one to hope for, to latch onto, to root for. The nastiness is not only unforgivable and out of character, it is uninteresting. It is certainly not entertaining, for where a character should be, there is simply a blank paten, a flat metallic stencil, and the notion that anyone could find this person overwhelmingly lovable must be to also question the sanity of the lover. So the actress wrecks the story by a wide miscalculation or, more likely, by an inveterate laziness. One must believe that the character loved and loves, but one never does. All one gets is that she despises the man she married instead of the one she loved, for that is all the actress gives and perhaps all she has to give. Christopher Plummer, for all his experience, probably doesn’t know how to act. His daughter knows. He should watch her carefully. Pete Postlethwaite has a large role as the go-between of the 50 years span. Now there is an actor who gives one pause. What is the cause for his harshness and bluntness to his young assistant? Postlethwaite always has this reserve of possibility in his character work. He is never hammy, he is always clear, definite, and a cause of wonder. But the real reason to see the film is to see Martin McCann, the young man who finds the ring of the title and who is the innocent and eager catalyst of all trouble that follows and all that follows that trouble. Brenda Fricker is, of course, wonderful as the blowsy old tart, his grandmother. The problem arising from the promise to love after death is an interesting premise. But the task of putting a grand passion on screen is probably the hardest thing to do for a writer, actor, or director — and, indeed, it may be impossible.

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Shattered City:The Halifax Explosion

31 Mar

Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion — Directed by Bruce Pittman — TV Docudrama Miniseries. A shipment of high explosives converges with an out-of-line Belgian vessel in Halifax Harbor during World War I, and creates the greatest man-made explosion in the history of the world, and blows apart many local individuals’ lives. 3 hours Color 2003.

* * * *

This is a solid historical reconstruction of the events leading up to and trailing in the wake of the Halifax disaster. It’s a good piece of historical dramaturgy, based as it is on actual lives and deeds and on the memory of them by those who lived long after, such as the young Connie Collins, who lived until 2003. Arrogance at the helm brought ruin to the lives of 11,000 people that day. Many of the parts are beautifully played, particularly Ted Dykstra, the jolly pilot whose orders were remanded by the dazed captain, and by Lynn Griffin who is one bitching actress as Millicent Collins, the loving mother of all the children, who was permanently blinded, as were hundreds of others by the flash. Shauna Macdonald, a lovely actress, is perfectly cast for the intelligence and reserve which makes her successful as a visiting doctor, and the very handsome Vincent Walsh provides the necessary earnestness as the focal figure of the Royal Canadian Army Captain who takes charge.  Clara Stone plays Connie just fine. And the great Pete Postlethwaite turns up in the last part of this two part series to cause serious doubt as to whether the Captain will win his case. For, as the ship captain, the harbor master, and the pilot are all put on trial, it is worth waiting for the outcome. I found it interesting and informative and easy to take. The whole family could watch it together.

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Dark Water

31 Mar

Dark Water — Directed by Walter Salles — Psychological Horror. A young mother moves into a new apartment whose ceiling has a sinister leak. 105 minutes Color 2005

* * * *

After the revelation and reconciliation scene, the film falls apart. This is because of a failure in the main actor and a failure in the script. The failure in the script derives from the fact that dirty water cascading from above is not an apt metaphor for a woman going insane. Nor is insanity something you die of. The script suffers from multiple personality disorder, so we have Childhood Abandonment, Ghosts, Filthy Water Cascading Down Walls, A Mean To-Be-Ex Husband Trying To Gain Control Of A Child, and Is This Woman Going Under, and our loyalties and attention are betrayed and disappointed by the failure of these to align at the end or all along. Also Jennifer Connolly is miscast. She is miscast because she is so ordinary and not strong in it. You need an actress who is both strong in her nature and unusual in her affect, vocally and physically, to play a woman who is going to become vulnerable before our eyes, a young Bette Davis. Connolly is a good workman-like actor, but nothing more. She does not have in her nature or her technical capacity the talent and the range to play a woman going insane. Being able to play migraine-headache doesn’t make it. Her big scenes with the water are simply an ordinary woman’s response to a pipe that won’t stop leaking, and the actress falls into the habit of having the character feel sorry for herself. Granted the script fails to supply her with anything but a mere external, kinematical spectacle: a flood. There is no drama in a flood. There is excitement, but there is no drama. The flood does not bring us inside the character at all, even were the actress capable of realizing the transformation and the salvation of insanity. The rest of the film is superb. The brown non-special effects drowning of the walls, the apartment house set, and all the set decoration, are superb. The music and sound are superb. The direction is excellent. The editing is particularly fine. And the acting of the supporting players could not be bettered. John C. Reilly is brilliantly detailed and funny as the rental agent. Pete Postlethwaite is brilliant in ambiguity as the concierge. Ariel Gade could not be bettered as the young daughter. Tim Roth is tops as the busy lonely attorney. And the great Camryn Manheim steals every scene she is in. It’s worth seeing for all of this and not worth for all the rest of this.

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Red Mercury

25 Mar

Red Mercury — Directed by Roy Battersby — Terrorist Drama. All London hangs by a thread as a group of terrorists ambushed in a Greek restaurant bargain for world domination. 113 minutes Color 2005.

* * * *

Perfectly cast and performed, the story is lead by Juliet Stevenson, lead detective but with a troubled daughter, who plays a careful tracking game to gain leverage on the terrorists within. Immediately behind her, playing the head of police is Pete Postlethwaite, whose interests lie alongside hers but slightly to the right. Inside are the captors and captives. Ron Silver is lovely as a ritzy American lawyer with helpful ideas for the terrorists. And you will relish to your bones Stockard Channing as the owner and chief cook of the Greek restaurant. It’s a lushly written part, for she is outspoken, corrective, funny, and insinuating in achieving her goals. Watch how, as an actress, she is so firmly planted on her beautiful strong legs and feet. Whatever you may think of her as an actress, she is always there, always present. As to the film, not a bad way at all to spend a good movie hour or so.

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BRUTE

18 Mar

Brute — Directed by Meceij Dejczer. — Drama. A British prisoner is sent to a Rumanian orphanage to work out his time. 90 minutes Color 1999.

* * * * *

A very interesting movie on all levels. Pete Postlethwaite, than whom no one can play anyone more cold, plays the head of the orphanage, and his rashness in cruelty takes that darling human attribute to a level of truly celestial excellence. John Hurt plays the defrocked doctor who executes mercy upon the children, and when he can’t do that, drinks, and when he can’t do that, plays the violin. He is wonderful. The children are hollow-eyed little devils, and the British prisoner, who comes to custodian the place, is forced to romance them into submission. He is played by Til Schweiger, who is handsome, sexy, and dangerous, and a wonderful actor of this part. He is the both the title and the focal figure here; his name is Brute and brute he is. A lovely orphanage worker works her way into his affections, in a part also well acted: by Ida Jablonska. The film is perfectly performed, written, directed, edited, and the story told is out of the ordinary. I was put off by the persistent red lens, which was intended to set the whole orphanage in Hades, but tended to put the film, there instead. Once I had found patience with that error, I tended to my business of following the Dickensian tale of this very solid picture and was content to wait my turn to find out how it in turn would all turn out. Check it out.

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Between Strangers

18 Mar

Between Strangers — Directed by Eduordo Ponti — Melodrama. Three female artists cold-cocked by three hateful men. 95 minutes Color 2002

**

Pete Postlethwaite in a perverse but effective choice plays Sophia Loren’s mean husband in a wheelchair, not as a weak character but as a strong one. This does not help the drama, however, for nothing can help the drama. There is Loren in a grey wig and a housedress and no makeup, a turn she has done as a young woman and certainly does well by now. But the script is flaccid.  Sunk under oceanic pauses, it crawls on. The camera stares dully at everyone and the actors valiantly attempt to supply the deficiency which means all they can think of to do is to hold back manufactured tears. What could be worse? The Loren Postlethwaite marriage is inexplicable, and its eventual explanation does not explain it. All the men are swine and all the women long-suffering weaklings, and there is no hope in them, miserable offenders. Mira Sorvino, another Oscar winner, is drained of interest by the one-and-the-same-person-director-and-writer, a master of inert direction, and also by the want of a tempered script and also, presumably, by Klaus Maria Brandauer, who is her father and who bullies her. All the fathers here bully the daughters, either into artist- careers or out of them. Brandauer is a wonderful actor and makes no bones about it. But Malcolm MacDowell, who looks the wreck he is playing, has nothing to work with except a series of wordless meanderings through the back alleys of Toronto. The actress opposite him, though she wears a witchy coat and hair-do, never convinces you that she hates him, though she certainly convinces you that she plays the cello, but that may involved a head substitution, as it did with Natalie Portman’s head on the body of Sara Lane, the ballerina who actually performed the dances in Black Swan. If you thought Black Swan was bad, see this, and if you thought Black Swan was good, also see this. It’s the same story of bullying male mentors and their wishy-washy daughters. While, as actors, the male mentors as actors come off far better than the women as actors, I personally would like to pull the trigger on every single one of them. John Neville and Gerard Depardieu also find themselves in this monotonous gallimaufry. The terrible mistake actors and writers and directors make is to believe that actors are actually something. They are usually not. They are usually not Edward G. Robinson. So you mustn’t ask them to appear and just be themselves. Either they can produce a star energy (such as Loren can generate, although, of course, not here because it would be out of place here), or they need a strongly written character to play — but to play themselves? — no. In acting the truth is never enough. If it were, we would not need to go to the drama for what only the art of the actor can provide.[ad#300×250]

 

Alice In Wonderland

16 Mar

Alice In Wonderland – Directed by Nick Willing – Fantasy Live Action TV production. A Victorian 10 year old girl doesn’t want to sing at a party and runs off into the garden and down a rabbit hole and so forth. 133 minutes Color 1999.

* * *

A labored telling of a dream, oh dear, and we all know what that means. Lewis Carroll’s original, of course, is the most revolutionary work of English literature since Shakespeare. But here everything is literal and old mad hat. Here is a work that should work with the speed of film and works with the speed of high Victorian taffy. Film would be ideal for the material. But the sequences go on at great length and to no good. A director’s collision. Poor Martin Short who must endure himself straining through the same grimace reel after reel. Pete Postlethwaite in a sub-supporting role as The  Carpenter who duets with Peter Ustinov’s The Walrus, but, boy, is it clunkilly staged. Whoopie Goldberg alone survives because she really does have the smile of a Cheshire Cat, and because she is so knowing. And the great Elizabeth Spriggs triumphs as the Duchess. Otherwise the whole farrago is a Caucus Race. Gene Wilder as The Mock Turtle and Donald Sinden as The Gryphon were missing from the version I saw, so perhaps they, with a sigh of relief, are well out of it. Alice In Wonderland could satire anything around that is there to be satirized and allegory anything around to be allegorized. This version has wonderful costumes, true, but consists of  encounters with a series of very rude bad tempered personages indeed, and, alas, that is all it is. It just won’t join the dance.

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Cowboy Up

16 Mar

Cowboy Up – Directed by Xavier Koller. Modern Western. Two bronco brothers bond and break up over romance and career conflicts. 105 minutes Color 2001

* * *

Acted and filmed so beautifully, it becomes obvious how badly written it is. The worst sort of conventional TV bunk, solid only in its colloquialisms. Everyone else deserves a hand. Melinda Dillon is just marvelous in keeping that mother from turning this into a weeper. She has one good line: when she is mad with her son and he comes down for breakfast and is off camera, she says, “Use a glass.” He was pouring milk into his mouth from the container. You watch Kiefer Sutherland say those lines and you have to admire his great craft in turning them into something possible, and not just the lines but the scenes themselves. Molly Ringwald is a strong actor in any part, and admiration follows her in any part because of her solidity of character and willingness to give it her all. Daryl Hannah is a little shaky as the travelling lady, true, but Pete Postlethwaite comes through in a brilliant single scene at the end as the long-lost father-from hell, in which his famous son tracks him down and the father does not know either that the son is famous or that he is his son. What you have here really is an inside story of bullriding, and it is inside because the camera rides right in there with it. From the opening sequences which are fascinating, to all the work at the arenas, it is marvelously filmed by Andrew Dintenfass. It takes you into a world. The bulls are monsters. Innocent monsters, but monsters. The boys that ride them are just innocent, if innocence can include a monstrous desire to make a name for oneself.

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Butterfly Collectors

05 Mar

Butterfly Collectors — directed by Jean Stewart — 2 Part TV Police Procedural. A detective becomes partisan to a crime suspect. 150 minutes Color 1999

* * * *

What gifts bring an actor to the fore? Here we have Pete Postlethwaite playing opposite a very beautiful young man, who is also a good actor, Jamie Draven. And yet if the director were tempted to put them both in the same frame at the same time, one would not watch the beautiful young man. Put Edward G. Robinson on the stage with the most beautiful actor in the world, as Richard Burton said, and you would not be able to take your eyes off Edward G. Robinson. Postlethwaite’s face. Wide-spaced large blue eyes filled with uncertainty and searching. A ruddy complexion. A wide expressive mouth. A hatchet face marred or made by time. An incipient bald spot. A sense coming off of him that you do not know what he is going to do next, and whatever it is, you might not like it. A lower class affect. It would be hard to imagine him in a leading tuxedo part. He has, however, toured in King Lear playing all the parts, which means he played the dukes and the king and evidently all the princesses too. Emotionally he seems to have that rather rare quality in an actor –—Toshiro Mifune had it — of being able to turn on an emotional dime, a faculty which saves directors and screenwriters an enormous amount of time. He’s of middle height. Slender. Moves well. Can smoke innumerable cigarettes. Can give over to being entirely, deeply internal. Does not seem to act for the camera or for the second balcony, as Ingrid Bergman did. And a curious, distinctive, and well-placed voice. Does this help? In any case, here he is in a big long principal role in this two-part detective film. One of the great actors of modern times. I owe to myself to see him wherever I can, and to bring him to you, so that you may wonder and delight.

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Animal Farm

04 Mar

Animal Farm — directed by John Stephenson — Allegory. The animals on an English farm revolt against their revolting owners.  91 minutes Color 1999

* * * *

Expecting nothing, I was more bemused by the curious real-life animation of the animals than by the story told or the characters shown. I learned from the Extra Features that it was all done with animals made from robots, who moved, who spoke, and who even drooled. They looked so like real animals to me that I did not believe them for a minute. However, we have Pete Postlethwaite playing the main character, the drunken farmer (Nicholas II), an actor who always presents an ambiguity by his very presence and nature. He also plays one of the animals, and his fellow beasts are played by Peter Ustinov as Old Major, the mentor pig, Patrick Stewart as the loathed Napoleon, Ian Holm as Squealer, Julia Ormond as the little Collie Jesse, Paul Scofield as the dumb but noble Clydesdale, and Kelsey Grammer as the hero pig, Snowball. We are watching the Russian Revolution played out on a lower-mammalian level, just to illustrate to us that the actual personages, Trotsky (Snowball) Stalin (Napoleon) and Squealer (Beria, the head of the NKVD) are as we always knew them to be: dangerous weaklings. As an allegory we are also faced with the main allegorical pattern: revolutionaries become debauched, and the early ideals float away down the gutter. And there is something to be said for that view, as we watch, wonderfully, events in Egypt and Libya, Of course, the demagogues overthrown in those countries also were revolutionaries in their day. In this version, we have hope at the end, but the material is really probably better handled, although handled no differently by Marlon Brando, Mildred Dunnock, Jean Peters, Anthony Quinn, and Joseph Wiseman in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata.

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Amistad

27 Feb

Amistad — Directed by Steven Spielberg — High Tragedy. Men on a slave ship revolt, are captured, and brought to trial in 1838. 2 hours 15 minutes Color 1997.

* * * * *

High tragedy, yes, that rare thing in movies, as a great and noble king in exile is brought to the point of death by his captors and rescued by a deus ex macchina in the form of another great and noble king. I have not seen all of Spielberg’s films, but this is the finest I have seen. It is perfectly cast, produced, written, and performed. It is narrated by the director unexceptionably save for the coda of the destruction of the slave fortress in Sierra Leone, which should interlace the main tale itself as a counter-chorus, and not come wagging its tail at us in the end, but then, all Spielberg’s finales are false. The music by John Williams is not as vulgar as that which wrecks The Color Purple, but its Orff-like choruses and excessive swells almost overset the craft a number of times. The great Pete Postlethwaite as the opposing lawyer is concise, real, and fair. As the President, Nigel Hawthorne gives us a man helpless before his own real ignorance. Morgan Freeman stands in reserve as a force of Negro abolition almost out of touch with his original slave past. Matthew McConaughey brings a, perhaps, natural crassness to the part of the young lawyer who takes on the case and he is very convincing as a man whose limited vision and slightly cockeyed rashness moves the case forward. Anthony Hopkins, in his best screen performance, dodders and pots as John Quincy Adams, the old former President, who finally raises the Supreme Court to liberate the Negros and return them to Africa. But the film depends entirely for its power, its movement, and its authenticity on Djimon Hounsou, the leader of the Negros, their particular king. A man of great stature and bearing, he performs with an emotional immediacy and truth and rashness of being that causes him to stand for everything — and not just to stand for  — but to be it in our hearts and souls as we watch — everything that the film means to say. Which is to present under attack the essence of freedom itself in a human being, as though that freedom had never been born or seen before. Anyone who has ever been oppressed, has ever oppressed, or wishes to oppress, wants to see this film, because this actor reveals to us that freedom is inherent in us, not bestowed, not legalized, not purchased, and that its abrogation and annulment by anyone or any agency or any thing is an agony titanic. If this makes the film a civics lesson, so be it, for it is a record of the Exemplary in our American ancestry and in the ancestry of the world, and we benefit and are enlarged by such examples. I am moved by Djimon Hounsou’s soul, and I recommend that you place yourself before it. This is a film which proves what film at its best can do. Give it to yourself somehow.

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Crimetime

15 Feb

Crimetime – directed by George Sluizer – Thriller. An Actor playing a serial killer is stalked by the serial killer wanting to be the actor. 118 minutes Color  1996.

* * *

Hitchcock often made thrillers about men wrongly accused, but occasionally he made a picture about a homicidal maniac: Strangers On A Train is one, Psycho another. This picture would be perfectly suited to Hitchcock’s second category, but it lacks Hitchcock’s prime ingredient, the ability to create and sustain an ominous mood. Here, what you see is what you get; in Hitchcock what you see is what you don’t get. The result is a B picture, but one with A level performances — on the one side, Geraldine Chaplin as the blind mad wife, and on the other our own wonderful Karen Black as the dread head of production. Between them are the two major talents of Pete Postlethwaite and Stephen Baldwin. Baldwin, whom I have never seen before, possesses the fantastic Baldwin rump which on occasion we are allowed to dwell upon stark naked, and the film plays off on the obvious general sexual energy of a sexy actor never trying to be sexy. He plays an actor, Bobby– an actor of the sort one occasionally meets in the profession, devoted to his craft so radically that he becomes cruel and obnoxious — as humorless, inconsiderate,  and spiritually intrusive as the dark fundamentalist he truly is. Baldwin is perfectly cast for  these qualities. And he is a bold actor. The story is about a TV show which takes the crime of the hour and reenacts it. Today’s crime is that of a serial killer, and so devoted to playing the part does the actor, Bobby, become that he becomes hypnotized by the killer, who talks to him over the phone. The killer, watching Bobby be him on the TV, recognizes that they have become one another. It is the story of a beautiful and famous actor’s desire for excellence acheiving its desire and the desire of an ugly nonentity to achieve beauty and fame, meeting. Pete Postlethwaite as the killer is remarkable. Every actor in England went to see him perform. (He once toured in King Lear playing every part.) And in this leading role, he has a full canvas to paint upon. His face is a treat to behold, with its big eyes and spike of jaw. His death scene is astonishing. Baldwin in recognition of his own lost life has a crying scene that is beautiful, and other fine scenes as well. The two of them are worth the time it takes to watch this really first class story — true, a story made banal by its director’s treatment of it — but still somehow a vehicle for great acting.

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Waterworld

15 Feb

Waterworld – directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal – Drama. A high school teacher regales his history class with his youthful sexual history. 94 minutes Color 1992

* * *

Some actors are hired for their ability to perform a character. Others for their ability to perform themselves. Jeremy Irons is of the latter category but this film requires someone of the first category. Irons can carry a film as himself very nicely, but this knack has disastrous consequences on what might have been an interesting and comprehensible picture. Irons’ character is supposed to be that of a grownup version of an English peasant boy from The Fens on the North Sea, but he proceeds in the part with his upper class airs and charms in full swing, a person who would no more end up teaching English in Pittsburgh PA high school than The Prince of Wales would. With Irons is Sinead Cusack as his wife, and she has clearly based her performance on the character of the teenage girl she was once supposed to be, even using prosthetic teeth to duplicate the young girl’s gat-teeth. She is a character; Irons is not a character. Her scenes with Irons are professional to the max, but it must have been like playing Ophelia opposite Donald Duck. And it discombobulates the film out of reason. The two teenagers, Lena Headey and Grant Warnock are just fine as the kids. And David Morrissey, who plays the retarded older teenager, is super, and is perhaps the only person one cares about in this misguided movie. His Insolence Ethan Hawke floats through the show to no purpose in a part that probably should have been cut. Whereas Pete Postlethwaite right-sizes his small role as the father and is particularly effective in the remarkable and moving denouement. We also have John Heard, wasted again, in a supporting role, in which, however, he is excellent. And the high-spirited, laughing face of Maggie Gyllenhall in her first screen appearance flashes by. Another difficulty, and again it is a big one, is that the set decorations are completely at odds with the setting. Houses in Pittsburg didn’t have that furniture and didn’t have wallpaper and if they did it wasn’t like that. The result is that we never believe where we are watching. And because of Irons we never believe whom we are watching. See it. It is interesting to watch all this collapse the film.

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James And The GIant Peach

15 Feb

James And The Giant Peach – directed by Henry Selick – Fantasy Fairy Tale. A ten-year-old boy desires to escape from his ghastly aunts. 79 minutes Color 1996.

* * * * *

Miriam Margolyes and the great Joanna Lumley play the venomous aunts in the live-action portion of the picture, the usual Disney horrible relatives which we all have. This story is a male version of Cinderella. In this case the little boy is worked like a slave by the wicked women, but salvation comes in the person a fairy godfather, played in the tattered uniform of a Napoleonic soldier by Pete Postlethwaite, a wonderful choice for the role, because you don’t know whether this is a poison pirate or a putative parent. For the pumpkin, which is the vehicle of salvation, we have a fruit of similar hue, a giant peach. Within this vessel and in animation now, our hero, well played by Paul Terry, is transported to The Ball, which in this male version is, of course, The Big Apple, a different sort of ball than a ball. He is accompanied by a gaggle of bugs: a centipede from The Bronx voiced by Richard Dreyfus, a seductive spider played by Susan Sarandon, Jane Leeves as Mrs Ladybug, Simon Callow magisterial as Sir Grasshopper, and David Thewlis voicing the Earthworm. They provide us with some merry songs and witty entertainment.  Whereas Cinderella is an important tale of sexual selection by a female assisted by no one, James And The Giant Peach, its male version, is the story of a resourceful boy headed for the commercial headquarters of the modern world and assisted by many. Make of that what you will, the piece is fine for anyone of any age, provided you are not a ten year-old boy who might take it to represent something true.

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