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Archive for the ‘Low Tragedy’ Category

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.

 

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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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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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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