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Archive for the ‘TRAGEDY’ Category

Nightingale

11 Jan

Nightingale – directed by Elliott Lester. Tragedy [HBO]. 83 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A young man videotapes his life because he has no one else to speak to.

~

When you saw the movie Moonlight you were struck by the fact that the story could have been about any race, religion, nationality. It was African-American, yes, but simply a human problem. This led to a close intimacy between audience and movie. The same holds true of Nightingale.

The film and the actor David Oyelowo, were nominated for many awards. Oyelowo won The Black Reel Award For the Best Actor in a TV series and The Critics’ Choice Television Award for The Best Actor in A Movie.

It is no wonder.

For Oyelowo as an actor can present a character of such self-awareness, passion, and intelligence that he becomes quite mysterious to one. This person is disturbed. But just how deep is this disturbance, and what is its etiology? And, well, maybe he isn’t disturbed at all. Maybe he’s right in the head. Maybe the things he seems to have done he didn’t really do. Or maybe he was right to do them.

Oyelowo is the sole actor in the piece. And I watch him as I must watch any actor perfectly suited to his craft. We have before us, that is to say, a body which tells us a lot; it can itself be watched for story. We have a face which is so flexible in its registration that I understand not only what is relevant to the moment, but to the thousand years of human life his ancestors brought into being in this one actor, simultaneously what is relevant and not, vital to and incidental to, God and decoration. And I hear a voice, varied, full, placed – just what an actor needs to get the job done. All this in place, an actor is free to make something with his imagination and his instinct that is worth our attending to. I am in the right place seeing someone in the right place.

Like Room and Sartre’s No Exit and Hitchcock’s Rope, Nightingale takes place in a single interior, here a suburban ranch-house. We never leave the inside of that and we never leave the inside of his mind. No media, not even the stage, lends itself to motion pictures so well as cloistered space, as inner sanctum. For sometimes what we want and what film alone can give is a closing-up, bestowed by unrelieved close-up. Sometimes, the single soul.

See Nightingale.  

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, David Oyelowo, TRAGEDY

 

Nightingale

09 Jan

Nightingale – directed by Elliott Lester. Tragedy [HBO]. 83 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A young man videotapes his life because he has no one else to speak to.

~

When you saw the movie Moonlight you were struck by the fact that the story could have been about any race, religion, nationality. That it was black and in American English did not mean it had to do with the Negro Problem In America. It was simply a human problem. This led to a close intimacy between audience and movie. The same holds true of Nightingale.

The film and the actor David Oyelowo, were nominated for many awards. Oyelowo won The Black Reel Award For the Best Actor in a TV series and The Critics’ Choice Television Award for The Best Actor in A Movie.

It is no wonder.

For Oyelowo as an actor can present a character of such self-awareness, passion, and intelligence that he becomes quite mysterious to one. This person is disturbed. But just how deep is this disturbance, and what is its etiology? And, well, maybe he isn’t disturbed at all. Maybe he’s right in the head. Maybe the things he seems to have done he didn’t really do. Or maybe he was right to do them.

Oyelowo is the sole actor in the piece. And I watch him as I must watch any actor perfectly suited to his craft. We have before us, that is to say, a body which tells us a lot. It can itself be watched for story. We have a face which is so flexible in its registration that I understand not only what is relevant to the moment, but to the thousand years of human life his ancestors brought into being in this one actor, simultaneously what is relevant and irrelevant, vital to and incidental to, God and decoration. And I hear a voice, varied, full, placed – just what an actor needs to get the job done. All this in place, an actor is free to make something with his imagination and his instinct that is worth our watching and attending to. I am in the right place seeing someone in the right place.

Like Room and Sartre’s No Exit and Hitchcock’s Rope it takes place in a single interior, here a suburban ranch-house. We never leave the inside of the house and we never leave the inside of his mind. No media, not even the stage, lends itself to cinema movement so well as cloistered space, as inner sanctum. For sometimes what we want and what film alone can give is a closing-up, bestowed by unrelieved close-up. Sometimes, the single soul.

See Nightingale.  

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, David Oyelowo, TRAGEDY

 

Fences

27 Dec

Fences – directed by Denzel Washington. Drama. 2 hours 18 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story:  The lives of a family swirl around the big personality of the pater familias who rules the roost with his ebullience and pigheadedness.

~

The movie is written by the now deceased playwright August Wilson. He is one of the great American playwrights, and I contrive to see any professional production of his plays that I can. His scheme was to write one play involving black lives for each decade of the 20th Century. Fences is set in the ‘50s.

August Wilson never went to plays or read them. So you can see, what he could not, the big flaw in this one, which is its failure, early enough, to dramatize the life-long frustration of the wife, which Viola Davis plays. It could have been remedied by the offstage children. And the frustration of the father needed to be established sooner also. He never seems frustrated. Instead what we get from him is a round and stunning display of vim and vitality.

But you take these in stride, and your stride must be long. For Wilson is the opposite of Harold Pinter. When you sit down to a play by August Wilson you sit down from soup to nuts. You get up from the feast stuffed. The danger with such a method for a playwright is that he may fall into the banal. He must always surprise you, and this the playwright does speech by speech and scene by scene.

James Earl Jones played it originally on Broadway, and he, of course, is, an actor of greater amplitude than Denzel Washington, but Washington gives the performance of his lifetime. He holds us still in his character’s terrible self-regarding silences and certainly holds us in the great arias Wilson has required of him. You watch him and you listen to him as mesmerized as his family is surrounding him.

His character, like at least one character in each of Wilson’s plays, has a big rhetoric. He talks a lot but he’s fun, he’s entertaining, he’s outrageous. He’s also full of himself.

This means his inability to see someone else’s point of view is his tragic flaw. His action in the play creates a fissure in him, and you can see it form. It creates a fissure in all the characters around him. Washington does that rare thing in movie actor performance: he lets you into his eyes. He  gives a performance which is sterling in its formation, for he performed it on Broadway, and has brought members of the Broadway cast into the picture Viola Davis plays the wife. The impeccable Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the chum Bono: every time he’s on the set you want the camera to be on him.

The play won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards for best play, Best Actor and Best Actress Tony Awards for Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Also a Tony for Best revival.

This sort of acting is very seldom to be seen in movies, where character-story ends to reside in subtext and the oblique. Here the performance is a full-blown stage performance. And, in fact, nothing less will do.

I love movies with a lot of speeches. Where characters say it. As Coco Pekelis once said, Taciturnity is not more profound than self-expression. I like the glory and daring of our language. And when you see Fences, you will face it at once. It will take a moment to accustom yourself. After that you will lean forward in your seat, not wanting to miss a word.

 

 

 

 

 

Marketa Lazarova

18 Oct

Marketa Lazarova – directed by Frantisek Vlácil. Historical Drama. 162 minutes Black And White 1967.

★★★★★

The Story: Clans feud in the dark ages in Czechoslovakia.

~

What does the word “great” mean?

What does it mean when it means nothing less than the most it can mean?

Let’s put it this way: this film is on the order of Beethoven’s 9th.  King Lear.

It is on the level of the best films of Tarkovsky, Rossellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Mizogichi, Satyajit Ray.

I don’t think I need to go on any further about it.

Great is the comprehending of that which is beyond comprehension.

I like that kind of thing.

The sublime. The profound.

The Grand Canyon.

Marketa Lazarova.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Immigrant

02 Jun

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

★★★★

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

~

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

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

Yes, the casting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Her

29 Jan

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen

15 Jan

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen – directed by Frank Capra. Drama. 88 minutes Black and White 1933.

★★★★★

The Story: A girl from a nice New England family is kidnapped by a Chinese warlord.

Nils Asther is certainly one of the more fascinating actors of motion pictures. The actor he puts one in mind of is Garbo. Like Garbo he was Scandinavian, and like Garbo he was very beautiful, and unlike Garbo he was called The Male Garbo – although in a way she was also the male Garbo. In any case, he is a power of subtlety as General Yen (oh, rightly named!) hankering after Barbara Stanwyck. He wears a brilliant make-up, achieved by shaving his eyelashes (which caused his eyes to bleed) and a viperish mustache. He smokes a cigarette so you know exactly what six things he is feeling at the moment, and you presently come to care about his soul, which is his main resemblance to Garbo after all. His eye make-up is so severe he never blinks.

For we are in the arena of miscegenation, and there is no doubt about the story playing upon our inner horror of mating outside our race. We wait out the story to see if it will take place. Oh, horrors! Can a white girl from a proper old New England family actually give herself to An Oriental? We are not dealing with preaching what is Politically Correct here. The film starts with the fine actress Clara Blandick laying it out flat: “They are all tricky, treacherous, immoral. I can’t tell one from the other. They are all Chinamen to me.” So we are immediately thrust into in the underground of our own natural prejudice.

The great character actor, Walter Connolly makes his film debut here in a ripping role, that of a scallywag financial wizard finagling the General’s power. His acting, his presence, and the writing of his part keep tipping the scales not just backward and forward but everywhichway, so our expectations are all a-tumble.

The great cameraman Joe Walker, who filmed many of Capra pieces, brings glory to the screen. His camera placements and lighting are a university education in camera craft.

The only difficulty is that Stanwyck is miscast as a girl from an upper crust New England family, for she is nothing of the kind and does nothing even to suggest that she is. She is common. Stanwyck brings her fabled honesty to the part, which she did all her long life, but that is not enough. But sometimes it was just enough, as here, but she never played deeply with accents, never learned character work. She brings herself at the moment. She started as a dancer so she brings physical certainty to her roles. There are never two things going on. If she says yes and really wants to say no, the “Yes,” will sound like “No.” She is without ambiguity, uncertainty, or subtext. But she is steady on. She has a fine voice for film and a face camera ready in any light and under any conditions. And, a rarer thing than you might think, she is an actor with the common touch. She never blinks either.

The film is magnificently produced. It cost over a million to make. It was the first movie ever to play at Radio City Music Hall (where it failed), and Frank Capra said it was his favorite film. The material is surprising and real, and the treatment unforced and free. It certainly is one of the most interesting films of the ‘30s.

 

King Lear [Orson Welles, 1953 Omnibus TV Version]

11 Aug

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fruitvale Station

27 Jul

Fruitvale Station ­ directed by Ryan Coogler. Drama. The final 24 hours in the life of a man senselessly slain after a dust-up in San Francisco Bay Area BART train. 90 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

Michael B. Jordan carries the film, which is equally carried by everyone involved with it.

It is not just that Jordan is an excellent actor, one who can do all the turns required from the character in these circumstances, but he also has the talent, natural to be sure, thank goodness, to hold the screen with his life-mystery, which we shall have to call the mystery lying behind the character, which happens to be his own.

I had never seen him before, so this was a great treat.

The piece elegantly written by the director, and seen at The Grand Lake picture palace in Oakland, not far from the Fruitvale BART stop where the finale occurs, gave point and pertinence to the movie-going experience, for in the huge attentive audience were those who may have known Oscar Grant and ridden on that train that night. And it meant that I was not far from the permission for such violence, which the improper upbringing of American males of his generation and locale prompts. There are no male-mentor figures in the movie – just some few left-over uncles at a birthday party that night.

The problem is diction. The problem is that black folks in this country rightly retain and rejuvenate Ebonics as a code and safeguard and barrier and entertainment for themselves. It has had enormous influence on American speech. All black culture has had an enormous influence on America, none larger from any other ethnic group. The language of Ebonics is marvelous, especially when one cannot understand what is being said because some of it is dis-annunciated and some of it is in grunts and some of it is a highly decorumed code of respect.

But in the case of unmentored males, the diction often becomes suddenly over-the-top violent and insultingly, venomously, dangerously crude. The chip worn on the shoulders of black males is almost professionally sensitive. The language becomes more than justifiable pride. It becomes an ego-trip. It is the language of a deliberate bravado. The women who mother and grandmother these males have no way of stopping it, because the language itself, picked up from other males, is taken to be a mentorship in manhood.

It is a false version. And the entire catastrophe of this young man’s life and death is a demonstration of nothing more than the falseness of that version of Ebonics diction. Every male around him picks up on the diction and uses it in insult-matches. The prison bully himself taunts Oscar Grant in a white-supremacist adaptation of a Ebonics fliting, whose next step is physical violence from all parties. And the police themselves, called to keep the peace at the dust-up site, employ the same Ebonics diction of the unripened black male, and it leads to a gun being drawn and shot.

It is fabulous to see the tragedy of words unfold in all its variety and inevitable horror. And desperate to know that nothing, nothing will be done.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Michael B. Jordan, TRAGEDY

 

Two Lovers

18 Jan

Happy Christmas Day In The Morning, all you readers of movie moody.com! And a splendid New Year!

Read, enjoy, love, and adore Christmas Day In The Morning, a jolly holiday tale for the whole family. On Amazon, visit: http://amzn.com/B00AA59P5G.

Also, go to the menus on the right, go down to the third, and get your FREE Kindle app. There are many books on Kindle you may want one day to read, consider, research, and add to Christmas Day In The Morning.

Heigh Ho!
~ ~ ~
Two Lovers – directed by James Gray. Drama. A bourgeois man is drawn between two women, one of whom everyone wants him to marry and the other of whom no one wants him to marry. He wants to marry both. 110 minutes Color 2008.
★★★★★
The emergence of a true ingénue is rare in film.

What is the quality that defines an ingénue?

In a young woman, it is the quality of innocence which is a two-edged sword whose gleam charms the right people and protects her against the wrong ones. The protection side is never visible, but its existence dictates the story of any drama a true ingénue appears in. But few of them ever do appear. In film, in my lifetime, only two true ingénues: Audrey Hepburn and Gwyneth Paltrow.

But what happens to an ingénue when she is thirty or forty? With Audrey Hepburn nothing happens, for she continues, even in dramatic parts, to play the ingénue until she retires. But the ingénue is well beloved from the first, and the affection she inspires influences the box office to repeat her in the same role over and over again, such that she can hardly learn to play anything new or other. Audrey Hepburn was smart; she knew the limits of her talent, and she knew her fate, and she left off.

Ingénues are not physically small: Hepburn and Paltrow are rather tall: both of them are also fashion plates. While I don’t know that that defines the type, their slenderness gives them apparent vulnerability, so it must be seductive for them to adhere to their type. However, with Gwyneth Paltrow, this is not the case, for we do not live in an age of sophisticated comedy, and she is inherently far more talented than Audrey Hepburn never mistook herself to be. To work, Paltrow has played mothers. Paltrow has played a drug-addicted country singer. Leading lady to Iron Man. And you believe each one of them. I may have missed some of her films, but I didn’t mean to. She is unique in films for the same rare reason Audrey Hepburn was: she authentically sympathizes.

And so surely one must watch her play this part of what would in anyone else’s hands play out merely as a spoiled meth-head rich girl strung out on a married older man. Joaquin Phoenix tumbles for her big time. And who would not? Watch how she cares for him as she says no.

Phoenix is an actor mysteriously underrated by critics, who do not see his ruthless art for what it is, an almost pathological refusal to entertain. It’s perverse and noble. In this case, he is fat. His face is swollen with early middle age. He plays an overgrown failure, established as a loser from the start, due to inherit the dull fate of a dry-cleaning business, a man whose physical beauty, which in Joaquin’s Phoenix’s case is considerable, is as completely gone as though it never existed. He has nothing to fall back on but love, and he is not loved, at least not by men. His mother, played with exquisite proportion by Isabella Rossellini, loves him, and his fiancé, well played by Vinessa Shaw, loves him as a rescue project. And Paltrow loves him, but not that way.

His story, the picture’s story, is a fascinating account of a man incapable of a move which is not suicidal.

 

The Diary Of Anne Frank

28 Nov

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

★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Place In The Sun

13 Sep

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

★★★★★

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

 

Coriolanus

15 Aug

Coriolanus – directed by Ralph Fiennes. High Tragedy. A great warrior refuses to be polite for political position in. 123 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

Changing People’s Minds is the subject of many of Shakespeare’s plays. What is the outcome of asking people to go against their grain? Hamlet tortures himself with it. Macbeth tries it although he knows it won’t work. Lear’s daughter refuses to do it. Coriolanus is the great examination of this subject. Changing people. And of all his great tragedies it is the one that contains scenes of the most excruciating brilliance. How does someone who is set in his ways, see himself other than what he takes himself to be? How can he see himself at all. “That’s just the way I am,” he will say, not realizing that the real truth is, “That’s just what I do.” Identification with one’s own behavior as The Truth, identification with one’s own emotional habits, identification with the righteousness of one’s conduct and story, obscured by the triumph of its success in certain circumstances, enriches our spectacle of this extraordinary person, Coriolanus, a man made darker of mind by the fabulous rhetoric he can speak to support himself on his path. The text is simple and thorny, the diction plain and incomprehensible because the utterance of internal musings. This is how the mind actually works, the words not so much a way of thinking as an interiority. And it is very difficult for the ear to reach into. I performed Cominius in this play once in my acting life, and it is remarkable how, once reading the script which seems to be written in another language, one gets under it to find how physical it is, and therefore how renderable. Brian Cox, who plays the campaign manager Menenius, is a case in point of an actor who has discovered this, the secret of making all the points so small they reverberate with reality. When he leaves we should miss him more. The ubiquitous Jessica Chastain plays the worried wife, a thankless role we thank no lesser actress is performing. Vanessa Redgrave, an actress who I monstrously dislike, is Volumnia, the mother, the holder of moral suasion for the hero, but her performance is too exquisite for us to see Volumnia’s neurosis as being more hypnotic to Coriolanus and herself than either her maternal care, her passion, or her reason. After all, there really is something wrong with Volumnia. But the performance is simple, direct, and clear. Although there is nothing Mediterranean about her, the same is true of  Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, a part one would suppose him too slight of vitality and physique to play (Richard Burton was notable in the role), but not so. He is marvelous. With his lowering brow, his intention is so resolute, it has no place to go but collapse. His belligerence is massive. He fights with Gerard Butler as Aufidius as though every knife blow were a deep passionate kiss. They both do. Aufidius can kill Coriolanus, but cannot conquer him. He cannot out-best him. The best he can do is hate and adore him. Fiennes brings to the role an unexpected physical solidity, a snobbishness so symphonic you dare not admire it, the assurance of a hero who has his own back. He tends to play many of his big scenes small, and so he should, for the camera, after all, is right at his nostrils. He has a trick of raising his upper left lip in contempt and disgust, which is essentially mugging, and like many English actors he tends to generalize and bray when loud, so the words are lost. And the principal responsibility with filming Shakespeare is that it be detailed, not a word lost – not to whispers and not to shouts. But, for the most part, one leans forward in the wonder of what resides behind Shakespeare’s incredible diction. The power of it to release the human truth of the actor is without competition. It is a very great play, Shakespeare’s only tragedy in the Greek mode, Coriolanus, the drama of  a man of the highest accomplishments and whose valor preserves civilization, being brought down by the rigidity of his own ideals. His is the human tragedy of holding onto the part of you that you take to be yourself, yet your relinquishing of that part to your peril. Not easy watching. But great watching.

 

 

The Descendants

03 Dec

The Descendants – Directed and written by Alexander Payne. Mid-Tragedy. A well-to-do landholder in Hawaii faces three directions at once: his wife’s mortal coma, his two daughters, and selling the land. 115 Minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

George Clooney is not an actor of high temperament or big effects. Perhaps that is because he is the man who has everything or perhaps it is because he is naturally reserved or phlegmatic. In any case, this quality serves his character’s frugal lifestyle, “Give your kids just enough so they do something with their lives, and not so much that they do nothing with their lives,” is his motto, but he is a busy soul, and he has given his kids no attention at all. When their mother lies on her deathbed he has to herd these two kittens – but they soon herd themselves as they track down the man who was having an affair with their mother just before she died. The girls are well played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller. And everyone else is good too: Nick Krause as the tag-along teenager, Beau Bridges as one of the relatives bidding fair to rake in a bundle from the sale of land to developers, Patricia Haste as the moribund wife, Matthew Lillard as the adulterous husband, Judy Greer as his wife. It was especially gratifying to see Robert Forster as the grandfather, a long way from Reflections In A Golden Eye and still an actor doing Oscar worthy work. The piece is structured as high tragedy, with the three children as the chorus and all the obligatory scenes, but it is not written that way. The style is mid-mimetic, and that is quite right, for a movie is what it is. It did not draw a tear. It was not aiming to. And while we all adore George Clooney that does not mean that we sympathize with him, for why should one sympathize with the man who has everything. This providence makes it difficult for him as an actor. What is difficult? It’s difficult for him as an actor to have a difficulty. We adore him because he carries his many benefactions with ease, grace, and humility. But as a character undergoing the horrors of this story, he does not seem to have the daring or technique to invest himself in responding deeply to them. We, of course, can empathize from time to time with his situation here. But his shoes are far too comfortable for any audience member to put themselves in, for since he fits into them all too well, there is room for none of us whatsoever. All this being said, he is no detriment to this material. He carries the picture, just as he always does, but this time playing a character who at the start at least is hapless, at odds with his situation, flummoxed by the behavior and diction of his daughters, and lost, all of which he does very well – and he has the tact to never make any of this comedic. It is later on when his character becomes crazier, or ought to become crazier, that the story loses in urgency. I felt neither fear nor pity. The picture is beautifully made, grown-up and well worth seeing.

 

 

Precious

30 Nov

Precious — Directed by Lee Daniels. Tragedy. A bullied and beset teenager lives through it. 109 minutes Color 2009.

* * * * *

A beatuiful film — beautiful in all respects, particularly as regards the resplendent beauty of its leading player Gabourey Sidibe. Andrew Dunn’s filming of it is stunning from the first shot to the last, and always surprising, and always right. The editing of Joe Klotz is tells the story with a ferocious economy, letting us fill in the blanks, and thus participate to the fullest. It does not make any sense to say that the film is performed by great actors, but only to say that everyone is great in acting their roles, particularly when you consider that many actors come from the realm of entertainment rather than theatre. Paula Patton is a raving beauty, and its effect is felt as a mesmerizing force in the classroom where she teaches. Mariah Carey, whom I had never heard or even heard of, possesses plainness and homeliness and a tired Long Island City directness that is riveting as the social worker whose job it is to get to the truth. Mo’Nique plays the mother of Precious in a performance that won her an Oscar for supporting player. It is a performance that never takes-it-back. Seeing her go beyond these extremes, one wonders how the director ever decided to use her, or any of them, but use them he did, and he elicits from them great performances in a great story. His sense of detail is infallible – a pen being shared across an aisle as a camera retreats – and his devotion to and mining of the strength and character of Precious as he got it out of Gabourey Sidibe as the put-upon girl whose story this is. Her face is set in introversion and withdrawal as she moves through her life to survive its conditions. Her eyes seem closed half the time, so dreadful is her situation. But her stillness is a sonnet. There is nothing I or anyone can say to lure anyone to see this film. Except for one thing which supervenes all else: you will be enriched immeasurably as you watch it.

 

Cry, The Beloved Country – Sidney Poitier version

27 Oct

Cry, The Beloved Country – Sidney Poitier version – Directed by Zoltan Korda. Tragedy. An old reverend from the South Africa back country journeys to Johannesburg for the first time to find his son and sister and there he meets his destiny. 107 minutes Black and White 1951.

* * * * *

Sydney Poitier got this part quite by accident through the casual recommendation of Joe Mankiewicz and, without a reading, was whisked off to Africa with Canada Lee to make a movie of the great and world famous novel by Alan Paton. The only way they could be admitted to South Africa was not as actors, which was unthinkable then, but as indentured servants. When he was done he went to The Bahamas where he was from, saw his parents whom he had not written to in eight years, gave them the $3,000 he had earned, and went back to Harlem washing dishes, which is what he had been doing before he was cast. He was 23. He soon had a child and then another. But he turned down acting jobs. He turned them down if they did not fadge with the standards of dignity his parents had raised him with. And this accounts for Sidney Poitier’s career and art. For here he stands before us in a major role, exactly as he would for the rest of his life. His back his straight. His voice always has that slight strain of a diction not native to him. And his eye is always at once angry and searching. It’s a very limited technique, and it is one devoid of any sense of humor. But he has a good carriage, he is handsome, he is reserved. He is not as good in the role as the actor, Vusi Kunene, who played it years later in the 1995 Color version with Richard Harris and James Earle Jones, for there is a righteous confinement in Poitier that wants breadth. What he unwittingly did was make of himself a public statue, but one that moved, and one that showed, unmistakably, the life-honor of a man to his countrymen and to his race. He happened to be Black. You Must Not Mistreat This Person was the consequent message. It was not what he set out to do, but rather it was the result of a distant ethical decision of being about his life. Playing characters that were mistreated, therefore, became Poitier’s dramatic specialty. Here he is outspoken and wrong-headed as the psychopomp guiding through the hell of Johannesburg Canada Lee as the Umfundisi, the reverend, who comes there to find his family and finds disaster. The story is the most moving I have ever read.  And for me, it is less the priest that is moving than the white planter, here very well played by Charles Carson, for this is the pivotal role, the role whose turning turns the entire story and turns us as it does so. It is Jarvis’s ignorance that is dispelled by the murder. His is the education, and the actions arising from his education educate us all. Cry, The Beloved Country is the great story of the recognition of our common humanity. This version is certainly not as fine as the 1995 version. Its story is more ritualized than realized. The acting is fine. Canada Lee died shortly after making it, and he does not have the breadth of James Earle Jones, to be sure; his brow is furrowed in a constriction of formal fear; but he is excellent in bringing us the old man’s ignorance and its comeuppance.  If you want to see an impeccable performance by a character lead, Joyce Carey as Jarvis’ wife gives one. The film is beyond recommendation because the material is. It is not simply a story; it is a scripture. Which means that contact with it affords one an experience of the divine.

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Cry, The Beloved Country, James Earle Jones version

02 Oct

Cry, The Beloved Country – Directed by Darrell Roodt. High Tragedy. A country priest travels to Johannesburg to find his lost son. 106 minutes Color 1995.

* * * * *

On a list of the most influential books of the 20th Century, Cry, The Beloved Country might come first. Because, for non-South Africans, it spread out, over the landscape of a prose that in its power and beauty stood in for the land itself, a threefold world pain. And that pain is, one, the pain of a father whose son has been shot to death in a robbery, two, the pain of the father whose son has shot him, and three, our pain which we recognize is the same pain as theirs just as they come to recognize it. The fortunate importance of this concurrence made the book a worldwide best seller, and brought into operation the necessity of amnesty in South Africa when apartheid eventually ended many years later. For, of course, apartheid is the desolating cause. As he makes his way through the slums of Johannesburg, the poor Black minister, whose son has shot the son of the White landholder, becomes educated about the latitude of the harm of apartheid when he sees the poverty and degradation that the suppression of the Black population has brought about. And the father of the murdered boy learns the same. Here, in Johannesburg, there is no beautiful country. For one of the great values of this movie is our vision of the ravishing landscape of South Africa filmed by Paul Gilpin. It is like a prayer. A 1951 Black and White version of this story had Sidney Poitier as the priest-guide, Charles Carson as the White man, and Canada Lee as the Black minister. At that time apartheid was in force, and in order for Poitier and Lee to be allowed to enter South Africa and to be permitted to associate with the White film director, the authorities had to be told that Lee and Poitier were his indentured servants. The present film has Vusi Kunene, wonderful as the priest psychopomp, James Earle Jones as the poor country priest, and Richard Harris as the landowner. Charles S. Dutton plays the political radical brother of Jones. James Earle Jones plays the priest as a good man wounded by greater and greater difficulty as he stumbles into each of them. Richard Harris, as the White landowner father of the murdered boy, is shot through and shot through again, and then again. After the murder, his life changes when he sees the noble work his dead son did for the Blacks, and he wakes up. “What if when the White man turns to love, the Black man turns to hate?” his son has written. But it is not the Black’s forgiveness of the wrong done to him, but the White man’s forgiveness that speeds the truth home that, just as pain is, forgiveness is panhuman and is the beloved ground on which everything may be rebuilt. In that fact lies the power and influence of this book, from which both our awareness of apartheid everywhere and the amnesty at the end of apartheid came to be. Apartheid has not ended in America. This film may still help end it. See it. You may think this film will make you sad. I know it will. But see it. It will also make you alive.

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Duel In The Sun

17 Sep

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

* * * *

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

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Rififi

03 Aug

Rififi – Written and Directed by Jules Dassin. Heist Thriller. A quartet of experts sets to lift 250 million dollars of gems from a jewelry store. 122 minutes Black and White 1955.

*****

A full half hour at the dead center of this masterpiece is given over to the silent execution of the caper, a passage that has never been preceded, equaled, or surpassed in film.  It was made for $200,000, a penny. Expense forbad the use of Jean Gabin, say, in the lead, and so they hired actors virtually unknown to the public, which suits the material right down to the ground. For we have Jean Servais, with his huge, sad, John McIntyre eyes, in the part, and he is riveting. They all are. What the actors lacked in experience, the crew made up for in brilliance, An A- class cinema-photographer, Phillip Agostini, filmed it, an A-class editor, Robert Dwyer, cut it, and the music is by Georges Auric. What luck! Dassin, a lovable man if there ever was one, had been exiled as one of the Hollywood 10. And in an interview in the Bonus Material he talks about those times and the making of this film. It’s all fascinating. And it is the greatest film of its kind ever made.

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Two Women

01 Aug

Two Women – Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Low Tragedy. As World War II ends, a mother and her daughter seek shelter from destruction. 100 minutes Black and White 1960.

* * * * *

One of the great humorists of film and a master of many styles, De Sica was the most gifted, varied, and accessible of all the neo-realist film-makers of the New Wave. He made more films than any of the others, many of them before the War, and they ranged from White Telephone movies through neo-realistic movies like Bicycle Thief, to The Garden of The Finzi-Continis. Why the neo in neo-realism? I dunno. It was the first and only realism since silent pictures. Anyhow, this is a remarkable picture. Sophia Loren was slated to play the daughter, but when Anna Magnani was asked to play the mother she said, “Let Loren play her own mother!” and slammed the door on the role that won Loren The Cannes, The BAFTA, The Donatello, The Italian National, The San Jordi, The New York Film Critics, and The Oscar for the Best Performance By An Actress for 1960. She well deserved it. She plays a cunning, susceptible shopkeeper intent on preserving her 12 year old daughter from destruction from the bombing of Rome. They strike out for her native village in the mountains. There they live and survive. There she meets a student revolutionist, an intellectual wearing glasses, cast, in a stroke of genius, with the most sensual actor in films, Jean-Paul Belmondo. Loren is 25 when she does this, and is completely convincing as the widowed mother protecting her daughter like a tigress. Both Neapolitan, she and De Sica make wonderful film together. She has the energy and internal power of the lower classes from which she came, their knowledge, passion, strength, humor, and forgiveness. Moravia wrote the novel, Zavattini the screenplay. In all of this De Sica is never without humor, most of which is gestural and therefore all the more telling. See it.

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Boesman And Lena

13 Jun

Boesman and Lena – Directed by John Berry. High Tragedy. A South African couple, dispossessed and refugee, work out their destiny in a wasteland. 84 minutes Color 2000.

* * * * *

I did not know it had been made; I knew I would be a fool not to see this. Atol Fugard is one of the greatest of modern playwrights, and this play is his King Lear. It takes place in a wasteland and a storm. It is a two character piece in which both characters play the fool, play the monarch, play the bastard-son Edmund. It offers up to us a married couple at rock bottom in their marital and material lives, bulldozed out of their township and now forced to scrounge in desolate mudflats by the sea. The man, Boesman, played by Danny Glover has become stone-hearted by cynicism and reduction, as he knows, to the non-human status of white-man’s-rubbish. Lena Played by Angela Bassett is his alcoholic wife, whose brain has become damage by drink, by circumstance, and by the violent abuse of her husband. I would never have believed Angela Bassett had in her the intelligence, the technique, or the temperament to play as I see her play here, with uncanny daring and immediacy in a range that goes beyond even this great script — which is what you want from the play King Lear, and what you want from the play Boesman and Lena. It is what  such plays exist for. The extraordinary depths to which the script takes us, and the heights to which this actress takes us you will seldom see combined. These two people have become junkyard junk in their marriage and in society. Yet they live. And they fight tenaciously, ignorantly, deeply, not knowing if their fight even leads back. Would you be a fool to miss it? I am happy to say I was not.

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Stella Maris

22 May

 

 

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

* * * * *

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

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Street Of Shame

23 Apr

Street Of Shame – Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Tragic Satire. The women of a bordello meet their fates and fortunes, one by one. 85 minutes Black and White 1956

* * * * *

Machiko Kyo, star of Teahouse Of The August Moon, Ugetsu, Roshamon, brings her young sensual power to the part of the volatile tart who enters the Tokyo bordello where this multi-character tale takes place. She is not alone in the attention she receives from the director. Each strand of each story weaves through the next, and Kenji Mizoguchi, whose last film this is, spares his camera now for this one now for the next, but always in community with all the other characters around, all women. The effect is Tolstoian, and has the power of Tolstoi — on two grounds — Mizoguchi’s sensibility in defining characters is ruthlessly economic and his sense of inherent, not imposed, moral inevitability is paramount. These characters are so unconscious they are funny, which is also Tolstoian, and, in their folly lovable, Tolstoian again. So the halo and aura of the picture exists as a greatness, brought on by the director’s handling of the individuals in collective scenes. Martin Scorsese must have studied this director for his strength in the handling of groups before a camera, and for free movement in cramped spaces. As in Tolstoi, in his The Forged Coupon, say, what is born is that rarest of forms, Tragic Satire. Does what I say make this film sound too serious to see? Not so. You may shake your head at what you behold here, but that is because it is so real that it is funny. Treat yourself. Watch it.

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The Rules Of The Game: Pirandello

13 Apr

The Rules Of The Game : Pirandello– Directed by Stephen Porter – Tragedy. A married woman prefers to live like a kept woman, and the consequences are dire. 87 minutes Color 1975.

* * * * *

The Nobel Prize winning Luigi Pirandello is my favorite playwright. And the reason for that is that his dramas hinge on the machinery of the human psyche and how its truth forces inner roles into becoming outer roles. Here we have a frivolous and capricious woman, a love-tease and a sex-tease, who can’t abide her husband and so lives away from him. She has a courter, well played by David Dukes, who may or may not be her lover, but who is devoted to his fascination with her, as is her husband, the lover’s close friend. One evening a trio of drunk playboys barges into her apartment thinking it is a bordello and molests her until her maid rouses the neighbors (among whom you will find Glenn Close). She then decides, as a dirty trick to play on him, that her husband must avenge her. What are the forces afield inside these individuals? What is really there? What makes all these plot developments inevitable? Why is the servant sure that his master will have breakfast at 7:30; is he a fool? Joan Van Ark misplays the wife as actressy, which throws the menge-a-trois-blanc into the realm of a shrug: how could anyone be attracted to this phony? But John McMartin plays the husband superbly. Mildred Dunnock once said to me that McMartin was an actor who played everything the same way. Which meant that he had a trick vocal lever he always pulled. Certain actors have such a lever: Sandy Dennis, for instance, Gloria Graham: they are always the same because they mechanize their voices. McMartin does not pull his usual lever here, and his remarkable voice and technique hold him in good stead. So as not to be confused with Jean Renoir’s film masterwork The Rules Of The Game, this translation might better have been titled The Rules Of Play. Still, beautifully directed by Stephen Porter and costumed by Nancy Potts, it’s a blessing to have rare, star, stage productions, such as this, preserved.

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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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The Entertainer

08 Apr

The Entertainer — Directed by Tony Richardson. A third-rate vaudevillian schemes to stay working. 96 minutes Black and White 1960.

* * * * *

Why is Tony Richardson one of the greatest of all film directors? I can’t answer the question, but maybe you can. If you want to start, see The Entertainer. I saw it when it was first done on the stage. It was Olivier’s attempt to catch up with the kitchen sink drama that had taken over serious theatre in England, and John Osborne, who wrote Look Back In Anger, was the first of these rotters. So Olivier jumped off Richard III and into Osborne’s Archie Rice. He is much better on the screen in the part than he was on the stage; in the film you can see what a creation Archie is; you can actually get behind the character and begin to understand him. Archie’s a sleaze-bag, and he seems to have so little talent, you wonder that he lasted as long as he did. Son of a famous and gifted vaudevillian, Billie Rice, Archie tries one scam after another to keep at work. But the audience isn’t there, and the material isn’t there, and his son is a war prisoner, and his wife is a blabbering nag. Olivier was the most quick-witted actor, a quality that didn’t always serve him well, but certainly serves him here. You can see his Archie slippery slop, as he segues into one escape from the truth after another; you can see him thrust his dagger of defense this way and that, now using his musical hall patter to fend off attack, now using his own brand of cruelty, now using his patience, now using his charm. Everyone around him is excellent; virtually the entire cast from the stage version performs it, and they are deep and ripe in their roles. Joan Plowright is tops as the stand-by daughter; Brenda De Banzie is moving as Phoebie, the mother’ Roger Livesey is delightful as old Billie Rice, the vaudevillian. The screenplay is superb; it opens up the story into settings around the seaside resort where the old theatre is. This grounds the picture, and it also makes evident how brilliant Osborne’s writing is. The writing alone is worth the price of admission. But it is the imagination of the director, Tony Richardson, which holds it and offers it out to us, that makes it a love object. What was it that he had? What was his gift? Take a look at The Entertainer. See for yourself.

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Summer and Smoke

04 Apr

Summer and Smoke — Directed by Peter Glenville. Love story. A spinster letches for the ne’er do well boy next door. 93 minutes Color 1961

* * * * *

As a critic, I wonder what good it does to bring to the front things that cannot be remedied. Here, the lighting often fails its needs, and the director should never have been hired, or shot soon after. The leading man is out of place and league. But this movie contains one of the greatest love scenes ever filmed, ever written, ever acted. It also records the performance of it that brought the play out of the obscurity of its original failure on Broadway, and thrust into prominence both the play, the theatre, The Circle In The Square, and the actress who played Alma and plays it here, Geraldine Page. The play lends itself to one’s imagination as one sees it in a theatre, but the scriptwriters have coarsened these references by literalizing them. The director, who is English, has no sense of the atmosphere required for this material or how to diminish the staginess of his performers. Laurence Harvey is right only in his opening scene, for he has none of the juice and charm that would make this character bearable and understandable. And he should be understandable, for Tennessee Williams has done again what he did in Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; he has created a female protagonist whose tragedy is that she puts on airs. Why does she do this? Because, like all of us, at one time or another, she so wants to be someone else, someone whose heart is a little taller than the arrows shot at her. She wants to escape the stern facts of her circumstances. This makes her an isolate and a tolerated mockery. It makes her the sort of phony no man wants to be around. Geraldine Page is able to work this character just short of putting our teeth on edge. With desperate hands she clasps her body as though it would fly apart if she did not. She seethes with the sexuality she has to gainsay in order to sustain her act, but she longs for its release if only the young man would stop carousing. You can see the character in Page’s eyes, which are wide open and which are so true to the feeling, to the longing, to the passion in Alma’s being. It’s astounding that she can do all this opposite Laurence Harvey, with his tight, narrow temperament, and his bad Southern accent, a role made thankless by the actor’s lack of blood, a role perfectly suited to Jack Nicholson back in the day. Yet the great scenes unfold between them, carried by Williams’ superb writing and Page’s profound grasp of this woman’s needs. I never saw Page do it on the stage, but when I asked Mildred Dunnock what she thought of Page in the picture, she said she felt Gerry had lost her lyricism in the role. I should have asked her what she meant, and I repeat it here as a lighthouse for actresses to come. But I cannot do anything now except to say you must see this remarkable performance of this remarkable character in this remarkable play.

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Destiny

12 Mar

Destiny –– directed by Fritz Lang –– a drama of redemption –– 99 minutes Black and White 1921

* * * * *

A lavish silent picture. The story of a young woman given three chances to redeem her lover from death. She deals with Death himself –– that Mephistophelean figure which the Germans seem to love –– and the three trials send her to foreign lands with the most elaborate sets and costumes imaginable. A beautifully made picture. It’s acted in the style of the silents with broad narrative histrionical gestures, but they work, because they are designed to, and they are needed to tell such a story. Don’t be put off by the style. It’s not old fashioned; it’s just a style –– mimetic, gestural, broad. Enjoy it for what it is and for what it does. Respect it. Lang is working on a mythic level here, and no medium in the world does this better than film –– for film more than any other art medium resembles dream.

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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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Biutiful

14 Feb

Biutiful – directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Drama. A dying blackmarketeer must provide for his children. 148 minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

To honor his ancestors before he becomes one, is the basis and main inner action of this man’s story. It is framed by a passing on of ancestral respect, and its main central action is the deed of fatherhood. That deed, or deeds, have family and social repercussions, as he tries to do right by those he has adopted. These include the Chinese laborers smuggled into Spain, as he finds work for them, and the wife of a deported co-worker. In many ways he is a middleman in a variety of areas of life, taking care of his drug-trafficker cohorts and their families, as well as his own wife from whom he has left to protect his children. She is a bipolar prostitute, beautifully played by Maricel Álvarez. The entire film is well cast and beautifully acted. And the director has a passport to levels of society and places of Barcelona which make the film ring true at every point. The world the main character, Uxbal, moves through is lively, debauched and horrifyingly poor and perilous, but the director has written a story on the screen that demonstrates a mentoring instrument in Uxbal, and by token, in us all, that transcends and survives the worst that society can impose, the grimmest flatness, the cheapest thrill, the intrusive world of the vile cell-phone. There are some bafflements present. For instance, there might be asked the question: does the director equate homosexuality with the lowest corruption? Does the decay on the ceiling mean heaven is lost to us all? Does the appearance of someone on that ceiling mean something? Does the caretaker of the children abandon them? These things are unclear, but what is clear is the fathering instinct in Javier Barden, who is very beautiful, of course, and beautiful to watch play this saint in the gutter strive to save his two children after he is gone. Visually the story is alert to the camera, and the camera does its narrative job masterfully. All one needs to see to know that the mother of those two children will never be able to take care of them is a single short profile shot of Maricel Álvarex exhaling a cigarette. It is one of the great moments in all film.

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Anna Karenina

05 Feb

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

* * * * *

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

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Blue Valentine

16 Jan

Blue Valentine – directed by Derek Cianfrance – low tragedy: the courtship and collapse of a marriage – 2 hours color 2010,

* * * * *

Is this The Picture Of The Year for me? Probably. The characters created by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams emerge from a matrix in each of them which leads to their mutual defeat. She plays a girl hiding out in full view at the dinner table from the irrational rage of her father. And she marries a man very much like that father, and to protect herself from him she hides in full view. Gosling plays a one-woman man who is unaware that his quick wit hides his pain so successfully that he turns every fault he is accused of against his accuser, and in this no one can outdraw him. Certainly not someone whose default defense is concealment in place. The picture begins with the charming sense of fun he brings to his courtship of her. Their marriage takes place because she is pregnant, but not by him. Yet he goes for it fully. Five or so years later we see he is loving but undisciplined as a father, and as such is unworkable as one. And she is at the end of her tether. Drinking and screwing are his strategies to feed the romantic view he has of his life, his wife, and their child. And she can’t join the game any more but can’t muster the valor to say she won’t. The two characters these two actors unleash on the screen merit the highest praise and attention. For me, this was The Hurt Locker film of the year, not a pretty picture but a great one.

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Day Of Wrath

13 Nov

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

* * * * *

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

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Batman Forever

07 Nov

Batman Forever –– directed by Joel Schumacher –– the caped superhero is beset on all sides, of course. ––122 minutes color 1995.

* * * * *

“Was that over-the-top? I can’t tell,” utters Jim Carrey, and one wonders at the question. Has Jim Carrey ever been under over-the-top? Certainly not in this film. He is clearly a great film creature, and give him a gilded cane and stand back. The picture itself is overloaded with focal possibilities. First we have Tommy Lee Jones miscast as someone who is not a genius and therefore cannot be played by him. All Jones can do is howl with gruesome laughter. He plays a petty thief running a covey of red capped robbers, but he is at once supplanted by Nicole Kidman, whose blond hair brings the only daylight into the night-owl doings of the Batman milieu. God helps anyone who commits a 9-5 crime in Gotham; Batman only saves the night, never the day. Kidman, no matter how ever-glorious, is soon supplanted by Jim Carrey as a sedulous inventor employee of Bruce Wayne. Carrey consumes every scene he is in, with his brilliant physical comedy and hyperbolic acting style and range of invention. He’s wonderful of course. But his Niagara turns everyone around him into a trickle. He is followed but not supplanted by Chris O’Donnell who enters as a fledging Robin. The whole film is all quite lovely, and gives full satisfaction to one’s longing for midnight draughts. Val Kilmer is Bruce Wayne, and why not? The part is cast for the mouth showing under the mask. He is a very good actor and perfectly at ease in the role of the adult orphan. Complaints are irrelevant. So is praise. Who could critique a mud bath at a spa or champagne fountain at a wedding? Not I. Over-indulgence is at times the only proper rule of law. All I can say is that Jim Carrey fifteen years ago was at the perfect age to have played Hamlet, and should have done so. He had the antic temperament, the innocence of eye, and the pain.

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The Loves Of Carmen

17 Oct

The Loves Of Carmen –– directed by Charles Vidor –– tragedy when a naïve soldier falls in lust with a slatternly factory girl. 1948 color.

* * * * *

Spanish to her beautiful long and graceful fingertips, Rita Hayworth is the greatest Carmen ever to be filmed, in opera or out, the Carmen of Carmens. She could kill you with a click-clock of a castanet. Her opening appearance, teasing with an orange, is bravura acting at its best, easiest, and most fluid. This was the last picture she made before marrying Ali Kahn, her last picture as a young woman. The production is, of course, a Hollywood pastiche; the setting has nothing to do with Spain, or even with Mexico, where it is supposed to be placed. But so what –– with this provocative, saucy, witty, unpredictable, fiery, and bold woman brought to life with force, subtlety, and brazen confidence. There was nobody like Rita Hayworth. You couldn’t take your eyes off of her, and it’s still true. She made five films with Glen Ford, but he said he felt out of place in this one, and he does look foolish in his regimentals, but as soon as he gets out of the soldier suit he’s fine. Don Jose is gauche, awkward, inexperienced –– and Ford conveys all that and brings to his scenes a bandanna of terrifying violence and cruelty once that uniform is exchanged for a highwayman’s rig. Victor Jory is a drooling monster, and Luther Adler sound as the wise thief. But it’s Hayworth in full force whose radiant and astonishing femininity make this picture a treat. Look at her bearing as she moves. Absorb her intensity when she is still. Surrender to her when the music starts. For it is quite apparent that no one in films ever enjoyed herself so much as Rita Hayworth when she danced.

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