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The Normal Heart

26 Sep

The Normal Heart — directed by Ryan Murphy. Biopic. 2 hours 20 minutes Color 2014

The Story: A writer with a big mouth screams and yells about a strange new plague: AIDS.
~
The normal heart is the heart in any human who is susceptible to Corona, AIDS, Polio, or plague.

Everyone.

This fact is the foundation on which Larry Kramer stood to become one of the most obnoxious human beings alive.

Why did he do this? Such screams, imprecations, threats, insults, denunciations. Such crudeness, such rudeness. What language, what violence of tone, what combativeness! Why did he adopt such measures?

And what did such measure accomplish?

Yelling at people to wake up and do something to recognize and fight AIDS? Would not everyone turn away? Wouldn’t everyone close their ears to such shrieks? Wouldn’t everyone declare his method counterproductive? And shrink?

Mr. Kramer may have had a natural talent for obnoxiousness, true, but what it created was a huge aegis under which everyone else’s fear of being obnoxious could gather, as Kramer’s obnoxiousness magnetized all revulsion of obnoxiousness to himself and thus freed the partial favoring and the partially opposing — much the same thing. Kramer became the target of everything his partisans feared would happen to themselves. They feared calumny. Kramer drew its fire upon himself. And this allowed partisans to wake the world to AIDS. Under the aegis of his deafening outrage every other voice, therefore, could do their thing. That portion of each opponent, having resisted him to his face and in every other way, could then offer the voice of their own campaign against AIDS, with its own style, commitment, rationale, and esteem, to be expressed, heard, and collect bit by bit in small portions to form a majority to eventually awake to, to learn, educate, face, and help cure AIDS. Kramer spoke the unspeakable about the unspeakable, and his noise allowed others to speak. Until between Larry Kramer, the ugliest man in the world, to Elizabeth Taylor, the most beautiful woman the world, there was exposed the linkage which always existed, of the normal heart of us all, Those who created the gleam of that chain forged it beneath the blitz of Larry Kramer’s loud mouth.

So the material of the screenplay, which is based on Kramer’s own history of protest and insistence, collects under Kramer’s beating wing all the opposition he met in everyone he knew, loved, worked with, and was related to. For everyone was opposed to him in some form or other, and the film shows them all. From the start, he faced universal denunciation for his methods and personality. But the opponents most shown in the film are those in his own camp. The female doctor who first treated AIDS patients had trouble with Kramer, as did his own brother, his own staff, the government worthies whom he met with, and his own mate whose own AIDS Kramer had to contend with. Everyone in one way or another was his opponent.

But his real enemy was not them. His real enemy was worse. His enemy was not his own loudness. His enemy was a loudness louder than loudness. His enemy was Silence.

Which took the form of denial, resistance, obfuscation, cowardice, indifference, avoidance, prejudice.

But Kramer was loud and never stopped being loud. He was our loud angel — and the film is wonderful in its huge jeremiads not just by Mark Ruffalo who plays Kramer, but by Julia Roberts, Joe Mantell, Jim Parsons, Alex Molina.

The film is well directed and perfectly cast: and everyone is at their best.

Still.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Alfred Molina, Julia Roberts

 

Blood And Sand 1922

21 Jun

Blood and Sand 1922 – directed by Fred Niblo. Romantic Sports Melodrama. 80 minutes Black and White 1922.

The Story: A cobbler’s son becomes a Spanish matador, marries his true love, and then is made the plaything of a masochistic rich widow.
~
Well, there he is, Rudolph Valentino, looking pretty good in a suit of lights. Women went mad for him. It’s a bit hard to see why. Not because he isn’t good-looking or a good actor, for he is both, but because you have to grow up with someone to become that sort of mad. Your sexual maturity has to correspond with his. You have to see something in him when your body’s lust is concurrent and sufficient as well to be entranced from film to film. Of course, your love is always one-sided. And too fat to enter one door. And stars never do return love. Gratitude, yes, love never. For the star’s need is even bigger. A star’s love-need is fat for the love of multitudes.

Valentino has a somewhat fleshy face, a beautiful mouth when in repose, a long jaw line with flat cheeks, the right one adorned by a little scar, a thick nose, a brow high and broad. His eyebrows bracket his eyes like eaves. The eyes are large, long, wide-set, and the left eye is slightly larger than the right. He has a great ass. He uses his figure for effect, but he never uses his looks for effect.

As an actor he has the problem all actors of that era had, which was to hold emotion in place so as to make the sure the story is being told. This makes their emotion spelled-out. It creates the false tension of a facial tableau.

But otherwise Valentino is easy in his work, natural, interesting in his choices and details, and you remain attentive to him because the camera dotes on him, since he plays, after all, the focal character.

Blood And Sand is a story which never works because no actor can actually play the bumpkin naiveté required as the basis for the character as he gains in worldliness, wealth, and sexual access. Even Tyrone Power years later is flaccid in the role — Anthony Quinn should have had the part, instead of what he does have, the gigolo to Donna Sol, played by the incontestable Rita Hayworth.

Nita Naldi as Donna Sol in the present film doesn’t quite stack up as a femme fatale. She is matronly of figure and so the relationship between her and Valentino doesn’t wash, although Valentino is excellent in the emotional outskirts of the part. It’s one of those tempestuous relationships you have to take at face value and suppose it is true because the story depends upon it and says it is true.

Otherwise, as parable, the story plays beautifully and always will. Valentino is 27. His technique is modern, so you actually want to engage with him. This is the sine qua non of big movie star acting and is the only reason to watch him now. Rare in his time, he was also rare then, for he died at 31.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: SILENT GESTURAL, Nita Naldi, Rudolph Valentino

 

I Am Michael

17 Jun

I Am Michael — directed by Justin Kelly. LGBTQ-drama. 98 minutes Color 2015.

no stars

The Story: From being mated in a homosexual relationship, a gay man enters a sexual conversion institution and emerges as a heterosexual married pastor.
~
In his late 30s James Franco is too old to play the lead and too fat.

20 pounds have sabotaged his appearance, and the rest of the picture is undermined by its preaching tone, homosexuality as normal or homosexuality as aberrant. In either reach, the script is flaccid, and the acting wrecked by amateur actors, and damaged by Franco’s failure to create a human being resolved enough to be damaged by his resolution to be sexually reformed.

One of the requirements of certain, but not all, movie stars is to maintain movie-weight. Marlon Brando sacrificed his career for an ice cream cone: Elia Kazan turned him down as the star of The Arrangement because Brando had lost his figure. From her twenties, the focus of Elizabeth Taylor’s celebrity was her double-chins. Why? Because it is not talent but beauty that is such stars’ chief reward to the movie-goer. A picture palace is the nearest we get to the royalty of those whom God has elected to be that lovely.

Beauty is something movie stars were born with: it came over the transom: it came in the mail. Elizabeth Taylor in one of her last roles said of her character: “I look like a bungalow,” but, unlike James Franco, she had been famous all her life and we grew up with her, she was ours. James Franco is not ours. He was already 31 when, in 127 Hours, he suddenly came before us allied with all the charm of his grown-up beauty.

This allowed his talent to be shown.

His hard work released that talent. Three years after I Am Michael, he begins The Deuce, and is brilliant as identical twins in the seamy world of ‘70s 42nd Street, N.Y.C. There he is down to move-acting-weight. Yes, he is back in shape. Those two brothers must be beautiful for us to vouchsafe our allegiance to them. The beauty of youth is where hope begins. There, James Franco, in his 40s, looks to be in his twenties.

It is insulting to us, irrespective of the duel of straight and gay, that Franco is too fat. As though shape when nude did not matter for a gay man. It does matter. Sex is ambitious. Fat people when naked are attractive to those attracted to fat people, if fat people are their required type. But Franco was never one of those, any more than was Elizabeth Taylor.

So, it was more than a rude and traitorous cowardliness that undermines this boring, foolish, and ill-begotten film, as it was a deed of misguided charity for it to be made at all. A successful movie cannot, by definition, be made with such a failure of vision.

The problem is not that Jams Franco, or any one else, is fat, but that James Franco belongs to a tradition of movie beauty, just as picture palaces used to be. You go to such movies, to such places, to such stars for something special. To betray it is to betray the deepest, most ingrained, and most justified of expectations. It’s what we paid our money for. For it, even fine acting is no solace. Daniel Day Lewis who belonged to both the tradition of beautiful actor and the tradition of fine character actor, sometimes failed as as a character actor, but be never failed to maintain his figure.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Method, James Franco

 

Jungle Book

06 Jun

Jungle Book — directed by Zoltan Korda. Adventure. 106 minutes Color 1942

5-Star Movie

The Story: A wild child raised in the jungle by wolves is captured by townsfolk and inspires the enmity of villains and a mean tiger
~
Sabu is one of the great film stars — determined as an eagle, agile, beautiful, and free. Film fans would not see his ebullience again until the arrival of Dev Patel.

Sabu’s father was an elephant wrangler or mahout in India when Robert Flaherty came to film his documentary in Mysore. There Sabu was discovered and became the star of Elephant Boy. He was soon brought to England, and then to America. There he is Mowgli. See him. He is one of a kind — beautiful to behold— vivacious, delightful to watch — never off key.

Of course, Jungle Book is Kipling’s story, and the Korda brothers did not spare the horses. Or any of the other animals, some of which are not to be found in India at all.

But never mind that. The great Lee Garmes who filmed Gone With the Wind shot it, and it is a glory to behold. He filmed the many animals Sabu has to talk to and ride in shots I have never seen equaled for their beauty, intimacy, and daring. The black leopards, tigers, buffalos, elephants, reptiles, and monkeys, carry the film, as does Sabu himself, who flies through the trees, swims through the crocodiles, and talks to the cobra with spotless ease.

If you have never seen Sabu, don’t hold back. He’s way up there in the great of the Hollywood heyday, unselfconsciously charming, special, and infectious.

As to the movie, it was up for 4 Academy Awards: Set decoration (No one could generate a Buddhist temple treasure trove better than Hollywood. For what other place possessed the confidence that excess requires?) Visual Effects, Cinemaphotography, and Miklos Rosza’s score.

It’s a technicolor treasure. One is just dazzled by its brilliance. It’s good film to see with the whole family. Or with anyone at all. Or by yourself, as I did yesterday. Or at the Bayside Movie Theatre, Long Island, Queens, when I was nine.

 

The Deuce

28 May

The Deuce — various directors. TV series. Episodes Color. 2017 – 2019.

FIVE STARS

The Story: 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues is called The Deuce but is the center of a larger, general area of New York City’s Times Square. In the 1970s 42nd Street was given over to huge, third-run, all-night, movie theaters in superannuated vaudeville houses, street prostitution, honkytonks, saloons, nooks of ill repute, and early pornography manufactories. Amid these callings, a young lady and identical twin brothers forge their livelihoods.
~
The carrying power of this series has strong strains. The change from a sleazy street, through its porn days, to become an eventual Walt Disney garden of delights is one strain. Another strain is the proficiency of the episodes, for the writing rings true. Another strain is the verisimilitude of the setting, for I lived in New York City at the time and knew the area — it was my theatre district — it was my subway hub — and it was the place where, at the old Henry Miller Theater, I first saw pornography and quickly grew to like it and hate that I did like it but went anyhow.

My business was furtive and passing. I am not one for bars, but there are great bar scenes, and fleshpot scenes, and street-walking scenes. And it all rings true in good narrative and in perspicacious production.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a single-mother sex-worker who makes her way to become a porn director of considerable success.

Praise cannot do Maggie Gyllenhaal justice.

Maggie Gyllenhaal has the face of a valentine. You care about her from the start and never stop.

Some actors have this careability inherent. Ingrid Bergman had it and so did Maria Schell and so did James Stewart and so did Buster Keaton and Mary Pickford, Shirley Temple, and Chaplin. Wherever they stumble to, we will go. We think of Sarah Bernhardt as not having it, but to have arranged to have it by promoting the eccentricities of her private life. But Duse had it, as did Laurette Taylor. Ellen Terry had it, Henry Irving, did not. All great actors do not have it. Geniuses may not have it — Daniel Day Lewis — other geniuses — Wilfred Lawson, yes. The having or not having does not amount to a plus or minus, an A or an A+. It is simply a gift of God, natural as cheese.

In her world, but neither opposite nor opposed to her, we find twins played by James Franco. The younger brother is a happy-go-lucky ne’er do well, a gambler and brash darling. His older twin, also played by James Franco, is a business-like bar-keep, honest as long as his twin brother’s dimples are charlatan.

James Franco’s performance of the barkeep is rich with male sorrow and a sterling heart. James Franco’s performance of the wilder brother, makes him sick with flippant airs, and each time we see him makes us die a little as we wonder what he will die of. You dare not dwell upon the veracity of the smiles of either of them. That way lies madness. But Franco has added two stirring masterpieces to his body of work in making them, never mistaking one for the other. He seems to have taken care to distinguish his make-up and hair but minimally. The distinction is in the art.

So leave it at that. Beautifully, nay perfectly cast and acted in all its roles, well-written, well-directed, set, and filmed, I watched The Deuce with the fascination of one who for years once skirted its shameful worlds, glad not to have been intrigued to enter them — hardly, barely, lyingly, to be sure.

 

In Dubious Battle

11 May

In Dubious Battle — directed by James Franco. 1930s Docudrama. 1 hour 50 minutes Color 2016.
★★★★★
The Story: Two fair-wage operatives infiltrate orchard-pickers to strike for fair-wages and stick around to wage a war.
~
John Steinbeck’s novel upon which this film is based is a polemic, with the forced idealism of the period making it difficult to stomach.

The film, however, registers not as a polemic but as spectacle in the sense that the old sand-and-sandals Roman epics used to be. And this is all to the good.

The period is interesting because it revels in the very reverse of the ‘30s glamor for which the Hollywood films of the period were also famous. (Of course, the period also gave us The Warner Bros. side of things, with the dead-end Depression.) Better than the films of that era, this film shows the fix the itinerant pickers are in — and it does it also better than the book. It is there right before us in dramas of shotgun, starvation, and strike.

The present film also crams with the rich character actors such as the ‘30s films used to boast — now in the modern talents of Bryan Cranston, Robert Duval, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ed Harris, and Sam Shepard — and each of them is in top form, perfectly cast, and necessary — and each a senior actor. To see them in action is to feel proud of each and every one.

The two infiltrators are played by James Franco, the mentor of the younger, played by Natt Wolff. The forces they set in motion eddy back and forth and roundabout and are not all black and white. So the story, which is told from the point of view of the workers, is not so simple or so sweet.

A huge cast embellishes the film and is never wrong — a hard thing for a director to achieve. No hollow hurrahs echo. Each big turn of events feels grim and authentic. The direction, by which I mean the story-telling, seems rich, simple, and true.

Thousands of strikes took place in those years before the Wagner act that legitimized Unions and ended wage cheating. Millions were out of work before WWII put everyone to work together.

We in the audience are a cast of hundreds, as are those on the screen. We are all in this story. We are all included. So every American child would benefit to see the film. It shows how we once all almost drowned in a lake of imbalance: The Great Depression. A new one is rising: climate-change. Will we rise to the occasion again? Will we fight?

 

The Dead

21 Feb

The Dead — directed by John Huston. Period Drama. 83 minutes Color 1987.
FIVE STARS
The story: A family and friends gather for an annual feast at the Dublin home of two aunts.
~
Who are the dead? Are they those who attend the party? For this is one of the great films set at a party, films all essential to see and dwell upon — Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles Of A Summer’s Night. What else? You can think of your own. But here the dead are before us at every moment, alive, yet dead — slain by the elaborate and solemn maelstrom of exaggeration of Irish cliché. Yet one watches them and their doings with sympathy and an interest that does not swerve.

Is this John Huston’s final film? Is it not also his best? It is certainly set in 1909 an hour when he was young and alive. And it brings forth as one of its chief players a piece of his immortality, his daughter Anjelica Huston, and never has a director been better served by an actress. She is an actor, then and now, of rare and perfect phrasing. Watch for it.

The delicate and fatal tensions that ripple through the party seem to be all the drama there is. So much the better. She herself is involved in an inconsolable marriage. You never hear it spoken of, but nothing else seems to be present besides this subject which cowers through the party all night long and displays itself as pure only in the supernal declaration of Irish song.

It is taken from story in The Dubliners of James Joyce. Catch it. Catch its meaning. Catch it.

 

Blood and Sand 1941

15 Jan

Blood And Sand 1941 — directed by Reuben Mamoulian. Sports-drama. 125 minutes Color 1941.
★★★★★
The Story: The son of a renowned matador becomes a renowned matador, marries his childhood sweetheart, and throws it all away.
~

Blood And Sand, for its cinemaphotography, won Academy Awards for Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan. The film became famous for its beautiful appearance, so general curiosity arose as to how it was done. In a bonus, Richard Crudo, a president of the American Society of Cinemaphotographers teaches us how. Fascinating. Make sure you watch.

This famous film earns five stars because of the bonus accompanying it.

What I learned was how the cinemaphotographers ran the shooting and direction of such films and a lot of what we eventually see. I was ignorant of these matters. I had seen Blood And Sand when it came out in 1941 and years later, and again now, and still I did not notice, and I was not meant to.

I was not meant to notice the color scheme which confines itself to blue and yellow and red, and when the big arena in Mexico City was rented and filled with extras, and whenever these extras are seen in groups, still there are the grades of yellow in what they wear, the blues of suits and mantillas, the stab of red. Green lashes out to startle as does a pair of purple gloves on the female star’s hands. We are led to pay attention to the blue backgrounds of scenes, the yellow walls of others. The Production Designer and Cinemaphotographer put their heads together and created sets and backdrops for love scenes that do not disappoint, although the film as a whole may disappoint.

For it is less about blood and sand, than the lust and luxury they lead to. One would not go to this film for the perilous gore of bullfighting spectacle, as I did when I saw it for the second time in my 30s. But the film does not stint the sumptuousness which underlies and defines its narrative which is erotic.

At its center three of the great beauties of the screen move around one another, embrace, and enflame. These three are young. It is not hard to watch them. Everything in the film encourages us. Linda Darnell is eighteen when she plays the young wife. She is untouched, touching, and open. The ravishing Rita Hayworth is twenty-two. She plays sin with an open smile. Tyrone Power is twenty-six. No more sumptuous male beauty ever graced the screen.

For those were the days of matinée idols. Save perhaps for George Clooney and Robert Redford, we don’t have them anymore. But in the ‘30s we had Ronald Coleman, Erroll Flynn, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Joel McCrea, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, John Payne, John Wayne, and Tyrone Power, men whose beauty permitted them everything. Even being miscast.

Is Tyrone Power miscast as a ragged, illiterate Spanish peon? You bet he is. Tyrone Power was a gent — but who cares? He had played Zorro and would do other Latin action heroes and be a big star South Of The Border. You buy Power in Blood And Sand simply because he’s there doing it. In those days Black Irish was as good as Hispanic.

If his acting here is inconsistent, so is the acting as a whole. The child actors are dreadful. Other actors, such as Laird Cregar, either digest the scenery whole or on their own manage to make dialogue which is poor sound real. This means that, although the story has carrying power, Mamoulian creates no sense of performance style, nor could he. This is not Garbo in his Queen Christina, but Fox in a limousine left behind under Valentino’s porte-cochere.

John Carradine, an actor of old-time vocal stage technique, gets by as he always does with direct subtextless presentation that one accepts because of silent respect for its outdated fashion. Who would so mean as to scold him? He is that rare thing, the completely unembarrassed actor.

Watch J. Carroll Naish pay attention as Power’s hairdresser. Watch the details. He is one of many characters who flare through and do good work: Lynn Bari as the termagant sister-in-law, George Reeves as one of Rita Hayworth’s discards, Russell Hicks as the grandee who houses her.

Anthony Quinn steals all his scenes starting with his first in which he blows tiny smoke rings as we accompany the now young men to their fates in the bull ring. You feel he knows he would be better than Power in the leading role, and he would be — but, so what, his envy feeds his role. And, boy, is he sexy. He can’t help it. At the end of their film lives, he and Rita Hayworth would act again in The Rover and as an old man his sexiness still vibrates. Quinn, like Warren Beatty, seems to have possessed sexual confidence from birth. He oozed it. His assurance gave him the ability to appear stupid, always an advantage for an actor, since stupidity does not mean want of cunning.

And, of course, Blood And Sand provides us with the rare opportunity to experience the art of the incontestable Nazimova. Watch her as she plays the old mother on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor. Mamoulian had directed her on the stage before, and Pauline Kael said that Nazimova’s Hedda Gabler was the greatest performance she had ever seen. And here she is, so watch and learn.

Everything she is does is exactly the right size. No bum line louses her up. She came from Stanislavski’s Moscow Arts theatre and she knew how to embody a part, even an ill-written one, such that everything becomes natural. She never emotes. She never lies or steals a scene. She is content to represent the moral and narrative center of the story, no fuss. Watch the moment when she discards what Power hands her.

Rita Hayworth is different, because her training was dance. She is a fine actress because of it. Dance gives Rita Hayworth her marvelous carriage and the necessity for physical responsiveness — plus the nobility of her walk and the inherent sense of rhythm in everything she says and does. When she seduces, she seduces not with her guitar or her song — she seduces with the bare movement of her shoulders which house the most exquisite porte de bras in the world. Hermes Pan, who later taught her the dances he choreographed for her and Fred Astaire, said she had the most beautiful hands he had ever seen.

These are wonderful attributes for a star — which this film made her — including her inherent propriety which becomes a platform of response. In her, the flame and stillness of flamenco is alert at every moment. Did any movie actor love life so freely and fiercely and openly as Rita Hayworth when she danced?

Here she dances cruelly with Anthony Quinn. It is the first time we see her like this, full of self-esteem, fun, and arranque. Rita Hayworth on screen writes her own rules — and you’ve got to agree with her. Rita Hayworth had spent her youth Spanish dancing in night clubs’ floorshows with Eduardo Cansino, her father. She knew exactly how to do all this from the time she was twelve. It was her doom and delight.

Here the cherry on the Sundae lies in the bonus of Ricard Crudo’s teaching on what made so much of this film so beautiful. What the technique was. How it was prepared in advance by the directors of photography in cahoots with the art direction by Richard Day and Joseph C. Wright, with the set decoration by Thomas Little, and the blend of costumes by Travis Banton.

Why should we care?

All I know is they were beautiful and young, and this was their moment 80 years ago.

Many talented young actresses appear in films nowadays. Many are beautiful. Rita Hayworth is gone — vanished into the archives or emergent in the immortal immoral momentary masochism of Gilda. Many young actresses star in films nowadays, and many are worth seeing and more than once. Their material is more contemporary. Their attack on their roles more schooled. Some have a rare authority. Some surprise us. Many give delight and deserve the admiration they inspire. But what can this celestial banquet be compared to her? Where will you find her? Where is the feast and the fete? Useless to look. You won’t find what is not there. Next to Rita Hayworth, the movie actresses of today are potato chips. Next to Rita Hayworth they are snacks.

 

Corpus Christi

15 Jan

Corpus Christi — directed by Jan Komasa. Drama. 1 hour 55 minutes Color 2019.
*****
The Story: A 20 year old parolee is mistakenly taken to be the local priest and assumes the role as to the manner born.
~
Bartosz Bielenia plays the phony priest and his performance is well worth the awards he has been up for as was the film for an Oscar as best foreign film.

The reward here also lies in the many supporting players who make up the communities of the prison and village. They all come alive with the sexy issues of faith and belief, played off against human nature at is most various.

I highly recommend it as a must-see film. I am not going to say any more about because it will be your job to entertain its importance to you as you watch these wonderful actors tell the great tale.

Christ himself once put on priest’s garments and so became one. Not word in the Bible recounts his ordination as a rabi. No. He just took it upon himself. Sic est demonstatur the value of impersonation, copying, pocketing, purloining, counterfeiting, and rooking.

One wonders.

 

The Tragedy Of Macbeth

06 Jan

The Tragedy of Macbeth — directed by Joel Coen. Costume Drama. 1 hour 45 minutes Black And White 2022
★★★★★
The Story: A victorious general hears a prediction that he will be king and his wife convinces him to take the necessary steps — which produce dire consequences.
~
“The Tragedy Of” — what a title! Do the words mean we are meant to care about Macbeth from the start? You bet your life it does.

And you’d better bet your life or you won’t recognize what this movie of The Tragedy of Macbeth is about. It’s about someone who bets his life.

When Mike Todd died in an air crash, he was on his way to sign Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh to make a movie of Macbeth. It was said to be Olivier’s greatest role. You will no longer wonder why theater folk never quote it or mention the play by name but refer to it only as The Scottish Play. Worse than bad luck — to theater folk sheer misfortune is always attached to the title and its contents.

Well, the Oliviers never made it, but Olivier did say this. He said that Mrs Macbeth was stupid. He meant that she was a Park Avenue bitch who got above herself by wanting her husband to become CEO Of The Corporation he was a mere field manager for. Olivier said that the tragedy of Macbeth was he fell victim to that inclination in humans of: “I know this won’t work, but I’m going to try it anyhow.”

The thing about Macbeth is that he is not by nature or inclination an executive. He is a soldier. His wife wants him to have a title that will give her a title, but she has no sense of whether he is right for the job. He isn’t and won’t be. Like Jackson, Eisenhower, Grant or Washington or, in another way, Donald Trump, he is out of place as an administrator. And we never see him as a competent king. Only as someone who wants to hold onto the title once it is his.

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. One thing this means that its story is brisk enough to play itself. Unlike Hamlet and King Lear it never threatens to be diffuse. But the role of Macbeth is nonetheless hard to play. And the reason for this is that once the cho-choo train of the play gets going with the assassination accomplished, the play tends to just carry the actor along — but after that it’s very hard for the actor to stay upright in the role and in the present. The conflict for him, once his wife is satisfied, is all offstage in England or Ireland. This means that the actor playing Macbeth can just ride it out. Or indulge the talent in his guts with those fabulous speeches.

Yes, Hamlet’s conflict is also internal. But, unlike Macbeth’s, Hamlet’s conflicts are always also on stage and right on front of his nose: with his father, his uncle, his mother, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and finally Laertes. All Macbeth’s enemies are fantasies. The only conflict King Macbeth is actually faced with is the Laertes figure of MacDuff at the end.

Some Macbeth actors fall asleep. They nap under the counterpane of their technique. Or their performing personality. This means they, when they sometimes wake up, must catch up, like Jason Robarts Jr. whom I saw do it with Siobhán Mackenna. John Colicos overplayed it, which meant he is always way down the track chewing ham to drag the engine forward, even with Carrie Nye, a little blonde flower, touching as Lady Macbeth perhaps because less shattered by the play than by Colicos’s explosion of scenery chewing. Geraldine Page got herself up like Ellen Terry in a wig with a huge red braid down the back but underplayed the role because she was playing it with a husband, an actor, Rip Torn, far less talented than herself and who hadn’t a clue. Orson Welles got in the engine and drove the train. Paul Rogers and Coral Browne were overblown provincials one discovered interloping the stage of the Wintergarden.

After Duncan’s death, the Macbeth train drives itself. And Denzel Washington tends to lag. When he catches up and jumps on board, he plays it as it lays, at least when he wakes to the fact that he has fallen asleep in the role, which is to say that Macbeth has fallen asleep — which, in Washington’s case, is not a conscious decision to be unconscious, but an unconscious one. Is Macbeth’s besetting sin that, outside the battlefield, he is terribly lazy? Or is it because he has nothing kingly really to do?

Perhaps the problem is that Denzel Washington does not have the vocal foundation for Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote plays to be seen by thousands at a time in an outdoor theatre without microphones. The voice production they were written for, in, as, and require, has two effects. The actors who have it may become audible even of a whisper and they may become present in the parts, because the role may arise from deep in their being.

But maybe the problem is that after the assassination, the role of Macbeth seems to be something that is merely happening to the actor. Why? Maybe because once Macbeth is out of his depth as murderer, the role loses its dramatic force because missing on-stage conflict. Once he gets on the slide and must go down — doesn’t only great Gravity run the show?

How, without dramatic opposition is one to act, then, the major part of the play? Does the play then not become a case study of human dissolution? Or a program of gorgeous monologues? Or a series of set pieces? Or a catalogue of predictable lost causes?

Denzel Washington’s Macbeth is not deeply lodged in his body. He is vocally ordinary. His is filmspeak technique. The actors rehearsed the play a good while before they performed it for camera, but never before a large audience. It needs from him depth of attack. He needs to dive into it and rise from it.

The role of Macbeth is that of a person who thinks he must fight, kill, and cheat fate to hold his job. The trouble is he is not fit for the king position to begin with. For, while as a general Macbeth has legitimately killed many people and knows how to do it, he is not an assassin. He is a soldier. He would never consider killing the president — but his social-climbing wife convinces that his role as a male means he must become one. Besides the witches have foreseen him as king. But Washington’s vocal level is a choice inapt to such a massive situation. Denzel Washington is not hammy, but the role of Macbeth is not a slice of Nebraska bacon either.

Denzel Washington brings other forces to Macbeth. His male presence, his bowed legs, his height, his looks, his heft, his vast martial arts training, his ability to wear period costume, his searching eyes, and our expectations for what a superstar such as him might offer — for whether he produces its effect or not, we assume he has done so. And this is understandable with this play in which for most of the play the part of Macbeth plays itself.

It may be the director’s choice, but Denzel Washington is allowed to play it more contemplatively, meaning that some of its big scenes are played with him sitting down — which they were not written to be. Washington is very good at contemplation, no one better, but contemplation is not the same as being to this degree upset. Indeed, Macbeth is a role in which the actor must never stop pacing the floor.

One person who is right for the job is Lady Macbeth as Queen. She is a quick, slick operator and a canny administrator. She is right about being Queen, wrong about her husband’s being King.

Arthur Miller said of Macbeth that there is a scene missing — a final scene between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. It is an interesting observation because Lady Macbeth does tend to disappear from the action that she has been instrumental in bringing into being. The play as written confirms the Macbeths’ marital separation by her absence from the stage. Before and after the assassination of King Duncan, in addition to being his wife, she is also Macbeth’s head nurse. After the assassination, she is not his wife, but only his nurse. But then the nurse herself goes crazy. Once she becomes Queen her roles run down, and she disappears from him even as spouse, he who is espoused only to remain supreme.

What first can be noticed about Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is her skirting of the monster-wife Judith Anderson brought to Maurice Evans’ Macbeth. Instead she dives under the role and brings us a woman whose own strength is disabused by its outcome in a series of the gruesome effects of it on her husband. She takes him to be as strong in the same way as she herself is. Her wishes in the matter are her undoing, and McDormand brings us a character so firmly rooted in the inevitability of her own strength that the derangement of her husband’s mind that her own strength causes deranges her own mind. As to madness, the Macbeths are simply contagious of one another. They are both incarnadined by their murder of the king, but, when she goes off the deep end, it is from a very high platform — which is to say that the actress does not begin the role, as many actresses do, playing Lady Macbeth already as a cold neurotic vicious bitch but as sexually warm and sane.

On the other hand, McDormand is never ordinary in the sense of every-day. It’s not McDormand’s nature as a human. Frances McDormand is always special. She knows how to bring queenly confidence from before even her first scene. Her confidence will result in a ghastly success. Frances McDormand — who would ever imagine her to be a movie star! Yet, who could ever doubt it. Our incredulity rivets us to her. For another contribution of Frances McDormand to the tragedy is that, unlike every other actress I have seen in the role, and I have seen a great many good ones, one believes from the start that Frances McDormand loves her husband.

Vocally, she is more at home with the text than Denzel Washington. On a deeper level, she is comprehensible always. Arthur Miller is wrong in thinking a scene is missing between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Her death-scene exists in a single line, the sentence, “She should have died hereafter.” That’s all he has to say. So we never learn how she died, because Macbeth does the unthinkable — he never asks. Divorce knows no greater spectacle to demonstrate itself than the absence of this natural husbandly and human question.

My first reservation about this production came before I saw it, and that was the actors were too old. These parts are usually played by actors twenty years younger, but ripe enough so that the ambition for a life-long royal status would be understandable in them. But I was mistaken. These two are both in their 60s and both are grounded in the material, nonetheless. I witness that ambition is not age-specific.

Nor is the film race-specific. This results from the film being in black and white which has the effect of washing out race difference. That Denzel Washington’s face is masked in a grey beard washes it out also. And costuming remains uniform between the races, which tends to blend them. So my experience of this Macbeth did not bring any sense of race to mind as I watched, but only now as I summon the matter.

The film is enhanced by the physical production of it, which includes the music by Carter Burwell which never attempts music of the Middle Ages or the country of Scotland, but rather halos the action in the realm of its zeitgeist, which is its true locale, a possibility floating like a dissonant tune in our human potential, the music of this sin in the atmosphere of life itself.

The German Expressionist style of sets by Stefan Dechant does the same thing. We are never in some dank castle in Scotland and do not need to be and do not want to be. We are in the straightened corridors of truth itself or the vast chambers of state of a story, such that nothing distracts from us from the tragedy once the startling effect of each the set dissolves into what it more importantly contains.

Bruno Delbonnel’s photography works to the same end. We are never in the Highlands. We are always in The Mind Of Us All.

The costumes by Mary Zophres accomplish the same narrative clarity — they never existed in the Middle Ages. They exist only as a meeting ground for the veracity of this catastrophe.

All this enables us to fall into The Tragedy Of Macbeth without obstacles. Down we go, right into it. Pointless to hold on for safety. Clarity and Simplicity clear the space for us. Everyone knows about this story because everyone has its temptation in them.

Kill them. Kill them all. Until there’s no one but Me left standing.

 
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Posted in Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand: acting goddess, WRITTEN BY: William Shakespeare

 

Clockers

13 Aug

Clockers — directed by Spike Lee. Crime Drama. 128 minutes Color 1995.
★★★★★
The Story: A teenage boy, striving to enter drug traffic, is hounded by a policeman to confess to a murder.
~
Mekhi Phifer was chosen out of a hundred applicants to play the lead, and you believe him every minute of the way.

The great Delroy Lindo plays the kingpin who induces him to commit the murder. The great Harvey Keitel plays the cop who badgers him to confess it.

The term “Clockers” stands for low-level drug dealers who work the streets around the clock. They are played by wonderful actors who speak the lingo. Those who oppose them tend to speak plain English, and they are played beautifully by John Turturro, Isaiah Washington, Keith David, Lisa Arrindell Anderson, Hassan Johnson, Thomas Byrd, Regina Taylor, and Michael Imperioli.

Lee’s cinemaphotographer Mike Sayeed sliced off the glamorous exaggerations of technicolor by filming through lenses that slightly tinge the screen with orange for a milieu that cries out for the realism of just such treatment. The story is delivered with brilliant passages of collage with big open scenes for the actors to make clear their fates and ambitions. Some of it is hard to follow, explain, and need. But its pleasures are signal.

For Spike Lee’s films have a high place in the pantheon of American auteurs and artists. Most people did not cross the street to see Christ. Would you not to cross the street to watch this striking contribution by Mike Lee of a picture of the American young? I don’t like to watch movies about drugs. Except for this one.

Except for this one.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC

 

Command Decision

12 Aug

Command Decision — directed by Sam Wood. WWII Drama. 1hr 52 minutes Black and White 1948.
★★★★★
1948. The Story: Top brass in in WWII England fight over bombing strategy of German targets.
~
In 1946 my father drove me and my brother to Roosevelt field on Long Island to witness the first jet planes. Amazing. They seemed to go straight up in the air, faster than flight. Earlier in the ‘40s my dad also drove us to La Guardia Airport where on its observation deck we were able to watch propellor planes take off and land. Air shows were a sight-seeing excursion common in those days, a treat which went out of fashion when jet planes proved too fast for the naked eye to linger on. The slower prop planes take-off gave you something to follow.

The speed and talent of jets is highlighted here in the need to destroy the German factories that had first begun to make them. Jet fighters might have won The War for the Germans, so the strategy is urgent.

So, is the cost of airmen’s lives to destroy German jet production too high? This is the battle fought by the bomber command headquarters stationed in England.

The problem was gnarled just as it is today by politics, publicity, personalities and promotion in rank. And by the fact that in those days the Air Force was not a separate arm but was part of the Army. In grade school we all sang “Off We Go, Into The Wild Blue Yonder” that ends in: “Nothing can stop the Army Air Corps.” I can sing it to this day.

These matters are brought to a collective head by the General of Walter Pidgeon’ after 48 bombers are lost on the first of three attacks on the German jet fighter factories far out from the range of fighters accompanying those bombers. Walter Pidgeon at one point has the longest monologue I remember ever having witnessed in a movie. He is wonderful in it, and the writing of it itself is wonderful.

This is partly because the material comes from a novel turned into a successful stage play, and that the movie wisely makes little attempt to take its setting out of the small pocket of AAF HQ. The material requires dire sequestration, not expansion. It already has expansion — which is the big issues in what’s written. Watch the other actors stand stock still while Pidgeon performs, quite simply and quite fully, cigar in hand, in one take, this enormous speech.

Sam Wood was noted for his dislike of over-acting, and, while some of the actors have huge scenes, it is a treat to see each actor, with ripe scene-stealing techniques at his beck, hold his place and listen.

The point is that the material itself is important. And is still important. Because the battle is between public opinion of military action and the dire action itself, ruled by something maybe as frisky as good weather.

Van Johnson lodges comic relief as the adjutant who knows how to work the system. Brian Donlevy plays the old chum general. Charles Bickford plays the press secretary. John Hodiak plays the mission lead pilot. Edward Arnold plays the visiting Congressman. Cameron Mitchell, John McIntire, Clinton Sunberg, and Ray Collins all support the main battle, which is between two generals, old friends, one of which is played by Walter Pidgeon. The other by Clark Gable.

Gable was stationed at the Army Air Force in WWII in Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, the town next to Oundle where I went to school not long after the release of this film. He was gunner on B-17 missions, like the ones we see here.

It is fascinating to watch him, and to see how good an actor Clark Gable is.

What prevents us seeing his talent are the elements that made him a great star and which mask that talent at the same time as they reveal it: His masculinity. The shape of his head. His handsomeness. His marvelous head of hair. His gnarly voice. The flexibility of his features and their interest. He can lead men. All of that allures. Because it is all natural. And he is sexy as all get out. But can you see the forest for these trees? Hard to do.

Just watch him play this huge role. Watch what he does as an actor. So simple. See if you can see what he’s up to. He has a gruff shtick perhaps, but don’t set him aside and think you know him. Yes, you know him. But do you? Watch how fresh he is. Watch how, in the instant, he gears the character to the surprises and disappointments due him. See how committed.

Acting also gives one the illusion of being in the company, the room with, in the presence of remarkable people whom we would otherwise never get close to. The close-ups of Clark Gable put us close enough to him to kiss him.

But this willing illusion of intimacy of ours is also a mask against observing the art of acting. For this illusion is a diversion we deliberately come here to make and enjoy. We lose ourselves in it, don’t we? We put the stars in us. For the price of a mere ticket.

As though their craft existed for no other reason than to fertilize us . Or, so spellbound by what they do with it, their craft did not exist at all.

But what truth their craft conveys!

For instance, I watch Edward Arnold. He is an actor with a big bully voice, authority of manner, and a stout presence to back them. I witness the decomposition of his character as it is humiliated by his betters — he who admits no betters. Edward Arnold is completely real in playing a character, who has no dignity, lose his dignity.

How does Edward Arnold, a human being do it? How does the actor do this?

This actor wins my heart, by playing a character to whom I must close my heart.

Yet, to do that, he has to endure the squalor of mortification, enact and give to us a terrible truth and know it.

I love actors and the art of the actor. Command Decision tells me this is true of me.

 

Wonder Wheel

10 Aug

Wonder Wheel — directed by Woody Allen. Drama. 100 minutes Color 2017,
★★★★★
The Story: Coney Island, just before the fall, houses the manager of the carousel, his wife, his vagrant daughter, and a lifeguard from the beach, who collide in a turbulent thrill-ride.
~
Woody Allen gives scenes full measure to his actors. Every scene rises to its occasion. If this world is tawdry, that truth is enlivened by the filming by Vittorio Storao, who covers the film with the gleam of spilled sticky sweet juice, which is exactly what Coney Island looked like in those days, and I was there then so I know.

Woody Allen has the guru’s gift of kindness to show all humans as fools. Whether in comedy or drama this is so, but the film less resembles Eugene O’Neill, which its characters refer to, than to Tennessee Williams whose wand has passed over this material replacing every Southern accent with Brooklynese, and planting in it the relative as an unwanted visitor in a hot, crowded apartment, the brutal host, the donning of the finery of a better past, hot sex under the boardwalk of Moon Lake Casino, and the threat of fire.

You must always go to a Woody Allen movie for the performances. His touch on actors is freeing. They are bound to be at their best under his rigorously liberating baton.

So you have to hand Jim Belushi all praise in going for broke with a character you are born not to like, but somehow end up joining up with. Justin Timberlake is the lifeguard who takes full sexual advantage of his summer’s lease but will disappear upstate for his BA by Labor Day, by jingo. Juno Temple plays the orphan waif Allen has used as muse all his life, and Jack Gore is the pyromaniacal, and, of course red-headed, child.

But it is Kate Winslet’s film. She plays the sweaty waitress in a boardwalk clam joint and second wife of the carousel man. This is Winslet’s finest hour and forty minutes. Something tenacious in the actor drives her to her joy and doom. Allen’s films, one-a-year since he was three years old, have opened the gate to the greatness of actresses. Mira Sorvino, Judy Davis, Diane Keaton, Diane Wiest, Kate Blanchette. Honest Kate Winslet joins them. Or joins you, if you listen to this word of wisdom and take Wonder Wheel — the whole thing — in.

 

The Thin Red Line

09 Aug

The Thin Red Line — written and directed by Terrence Malick. WWII Movie. 2 hours 50 minutes Color 1998.
★★★★★
The Story: A company of Infantrymen battle the Japanese for a South Pacific Island.

You know him at once to be unique among actors of world cinema, for one look upon Jim Caviezel and you are struck by his nobility. A rare quality in anyone. It seems to be lodged in his upper eyelids. The eyes are blue. The face handsome. But his beauty is this unforced quality. As soon as you see it, you know he is to be the focal character of this film and that, as such, his fate is sealed

The pivotal character of the story is the rest of Company C, and you will find, for instance, that the craven coward turns out to be the rashly bravest and that the insane warlord is right.

This company consists of folks from Far East Asian Islands, an enormous cast of actors and famous male actors at the peak of their talent. Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Travolta, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto, John C. Reilley, John Savage, and, with his ever-seeking/all-knowing eye, Sean Penn.

The Thin Red Line is a masterpiece.

Avail yourself of it.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC

 

How To Get Away With Murder

06 Aug

How To Get Away With Murder — Courtroom serial. 6 seasons Color 2014-2020
★★★★★
The Story: A defense attorney also teaches a class in a Philadelphia law school and nominates her five best students to apprentice her, and all of them and so many more, find their lives imperiled.
~
Why can’t I stop eating salted peanuts? It’s not because of the peanuts. It’s the salt. So it is that, for 60 episodes, I invite you to indulge in How To Get Away With Murder. I devoured it on Netflix.

You will find yourself in Raymond Chandler Land — which means that you’re teased forward by turns of plot and motivation and character that are impossible to follow — also by legalese. The salt is my not being able to understand a thing, and by it was held as by Gorilla Glue. This, therefore, is film noir at its best.

For motivations are so gnarled we are drawn down into the black depths as by a psychopomp. Each episode also shifts us forward as we notice that many of the characters are costumed slightly out of the frame of their characters — but only enough to achieve pleasure, not denunciation. I was lost.

Of course, I could say that two of the main male actors should stop doing all that stuff with their mouths — but it’s too late for that, not only because they played their parts for six years, but because they have come to take up rooms in my psyche.

The female actors do better, as do the Oscar winners Marcia Gay Harden, Timothy Hutton, and Cicely Tyson, the last of whom in her 90s is a pleasure to behold. Cicely Tyson is an actor of impeccable technique. Everything the right size, attentive, and there is nothing you can learn by watching her. She got it on her birthday and went into the right line of work — beauty at every stroke.

Completely different to her is Viola Davis as the main and focal character the attorney Annalise Keating.
What do we notice first about an actor — pay attention students — it’s how they walk — and Viola Davis takes over the movie with a formidable stride.

Viola Davis, well into her 50s, plays a woman well into her 50s. She is an actor right for the role, which means, she is well cast, which means that you do not sit back. You may lean forward to peer into the depths, but you’d better know your place. Viola Davis is a national treasure, a national wonder, a national park. Stand back in awe. It’s the proper response to such majesty of gifts.

How To Get Away With Murder is not a comedy — indeed I wonder if Viola Davis can play comedy at all — although that thought won’t trouble you one bit as she gives you your money’s worth with every breath she draws.

 

Tom Horn

14 Jul

Tom Horn — directed by William Wiard and five others. 98 minutes Western. Color 1980.
★★★★★
The Story: Hired to scrape a rash of rustlers from the Wyoming territory, a famed human tracker is framed by the worthies that hired him.
~
You won’t want to see this picture when I tell you what I like about it.

From first to last, I was impressed by the sets, costumes, and locations. On the streets of the 1903 western town lies horse manure. Structures look lived in and added onto. The characters have worn the the costumes for years, their colors are drab, they fit the shoulders, and are not recently pressed arrivals from the costume shop sewing machines. The interiors smell right. The landscape is widespread, spectacular, and convincing. I’ve never seen it in a Western before, or a Western like this.

The film is well directed, written, and shot by John A. Alonzo — unique in story and treatment — in line after Shane.

The actors are male — with the exception of Linda Evans, who is misdirected or chooses to play on first sight of the hero her strong suite of blue-eyed devotion. Otherwise she is fine, as are all the other actors and they are many, and include Elisha Cook Jr., Slim Pickins, and Richard Farnsworth, the blue of whose eyes convince you of his own and everyone else’s innocence at all times.

Steve McQueen plays Tom Horn. His head is maned in platinum curls. He always played characters a lot younger than what he actually was. But here he is fifty years old and looks every day of it. This is one of McQueen’s final films. He is like to die.

As a super-star McQueen had a few peers, but he was one. He operated with a self-possession unrivaled — except once, by that of Edward G. Robinson’s opposite him in The Cincinnati Kid.

He housed a quality of irresistibility present in every cell of his rather slight blond figure. He was irresistibly sexual and knew it. His irresistibility was also born to prevail in such mortal combat as his films frequently threw him against.

He was also irresistible to himself. One senses in him the vanity of an actor who knew what suited him on camera, what he could do best, and what the camera best liked about him.

For he was also irresistible to the camera.

He had a face potential with events. The mobility of it, the wrenched muscles, wrinkles, dimples, lines, crevices, crannies, and corners of it gave his face a mobility entrancing to behold, watch, wait for, catch up with, and envy — as did James Dean and Clark Gable and Sean Xavier. Watch it scrinch up to fire a rifle. He had an up-to-his-ears smile to win any bet. His eyes searched or threatened with the intensity of a blue spear. He had the impishness of a boy and the bashfulness of a delinquent girl. He is never likable, but he is always desirable. His technique is believable, imaginative, and limited to his guts, for everything is played from below the navel. Thus he never plays a “character”. He can’t. Only roles. For he is always a powerhouse of dangerous charm. He is always untamed.

This last makes Tom Horn a perfect part for Steve McQueen, a misfit born. The writing is so well gauged that you never know what will happen next. McQueen produced the film himself, and it is one of his best efforts. If you have never seen it, gather round. It was not a success at the time of its first release in 1980 the year he died. It is a success now.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Elisha Cook, Steve McQueen

 

30 Beats

19 Jun

30 Beats — written and directed by Alexis Lloyd. La Ronde Dramedy. 122 minutes Color 2009 .
★★★★★
The Story: Each of ten characters links to the next in a daisy chain of sex which arrives at a welcome, odd, sexual education.
~
Perfectly cast with some well-known actors, and some not known, at least by me, but all easy on my attention, pleasure, and appreciation.

Beautifully written and explored by the production staff, camera, writer, and director, 30 Beats treated me well, as I entered into its sexual areas about which I thought I knew all I would ever need to know. Sexual love at the risk of one’s life, sex with one’s best friend, sex in the extremes of bondage, sex by phone, sex by jealousy, sex by hex.

Jennifer Tilly is perfectly cast as the Tarot lady who may liberate or snare. Her voice, high, hypnotic, uninflected, raids her every scene for hostages of attention. She’s marvelous and strange.

The incomparable Lee Pace turns down the overtures of his omnivorous osteopath patient. And is immediately turned down by his evasive lady friend, in a scene worth watching by any actor and all. Interest in acting technique finds proof that all acting requires all of the body in all circumstances. And no less. Less is always play of the mouth — as in TV acting. Watch Lee Pace’s upper eyelids. It’s so simple, it’s impossible, except by someone endowed with his high instrument, his physical beauty, and his willingness to risk surrender.

The other eight actors I will not describe, because to do so would be to spoil your surprise with them. It grew in me as the first of their two scenes moved into the second. I want to see each actor again. And again.

The La Ronde type tale is ideally suited for cinema — tragedy, as in Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths — and sex comedy as in Ophuls’ La Ronde, that merry-go-round master-of-ceremonied by that actor of consummate finesse Anton Walbrook.

I was held by respect and enjoyment by 30 Beats. Perfect summer watching. Engrossing and smart. Netflix sent me it in the mail.

 

The Lady In Question

29 May

The Lady In Question — directed by Charles Vidor. Melodrama. 80 minutes 1940.
★★★★★
The Story: Declared innocent when on trial for murder, a young woman is taken in by a kindly juror’s shopkeeper family.
~
The certainty that this young woman was the murder victim’s sidewalk pick-up, the certainty that she subsequently was his mistress, and the certainty that she murdered him are wholly exculpated by the overwhelmingly obvious alibi that she has the most beautiful posture you have ever seen.

No one who stands like that needs to murder anybody. Shoulders square and thrown back, superb porte de bras, head held high, chin tucked in, eyes wide, in a carriage both modest and assured — a carriage that creates a suspense sufficient to carry the entire picture. She didn’t do it, did she? She couldn’t have. Or could she? She is too astounding for one to know or to care. Her beauty outweighs justice.

I once saw a group standing outside The Winter Garden Theatre during matinée intermission and was stopped in my tracks by a woman’s back. She wore open-backed high heels and a white shirtdress. She chatted with a group that included Gregory Peck and others. I was dumbstruck. Her infallible carriage disqualified my need to know her name. She didn’t have to turn. From the way she stood, I could already tell from the back. It was, of course, Margot Fonteyne.

At lunch with my Agent John Dodds in Lutece, I looked up electrified to see walk across the carpet to her table a woman whom I knew from the resplendent disposition of her gait and bearing could be no other than Cyd Charisse.

Like these, the young woman in question is a dancer. Soon she would become the one whom Fred Astaire called his favorite partner. As you watch her here, she captures one’s attention to such a degree that it is almost as impossible to imagine such a creature, born to be alive to one’s eyes, as to suppose she could be guilty of a crime, to say nothing of ever being caught at one. She is so beautifully arranged there is no crime which she could not commit or that one would not commit for her, no crime for which one would ever wish to convict her or even so much as blame her. Her mien — a touch of primness in it — carries such impact, one becomes lost — in what? In her? In it? In the aura of her entrancing something-or-other?

In Rita Hayworth.

Age 21.

Before her cavorts the puppy Glenn Ford. He is so endearing that only an inbred naiveté could destine him to make five films with our Rita. This is the first. Only ingenuousness could stumble into close proximity to such an abundant lure. His bashfulness is the perfect foil to Rita in The Loves Of Carmen. He like her is too old for the part, and his costumes harm him, but he is just the gull the part demands. “Armies have marched over me,” says Rita in Fire Down Below and here, even at 21, we hope it is so. It forgives so much.

Brian Ahern is the pater famillias. He is tall, elegant, with perfect English enunciation and quaintly miscast in a part perfect for Wallace Beery. Evelyn Keyes plays his giddy daughter, Irene Rich, of silent screen fame, his wife.

Never mind anything else. Come to Rita Hayworth for all she is worth — and — trophy of trophies — she is worth so much — and to Glenn Ford salivating as every sane mortal, male and female, must insanely also do.

The Lady In Question is free to you on YouTube

 

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

10 Feb

Metamorphosis Zero
by
Bruce Moody
~ ~ ~

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Movie. Tragedy. Color 94 minutes. 2020.

The place is a beat-up recording studio in the South Side Of Chicago. The time is 1927. Four musicians gather to record a song by Blues Diva, Ma Rainey — who is met by a hothead young trumpet player with his own dreams of song.

By now, all of us, I hope, have heard of August Wilson’s plays of Black life, one for each decade of the last century, plays that enter into ordinary Black folks at their work, their homes, their everyday truck. But a play a decade is not the feat. The feat is the excellence of the plays, their latitude, their depth. Their rash stories. Their beautiful language. Their funny language, also beautiful. What bounty!

It’s hard to see that Viola Davis is miscast, for she plays Ma Rainey with all she’s got. If the part requires an actress of temperament, and if all she’s got is not quite sufficient to garner the electrical meanness and sexual sovereignty of Ma Rainey, still Viola Davis’s investment in the role has lots of carrying power.

For the writing has even more carrying power. The writing carries the actor. And all the actors. And they know it.

For August Wilson wrote beautifully and greatly. And the film honors that truth.

One difficulty with the film is the presentation of it.

It is presented as though the power of the material lies in individual performances of it rather than in the story of its ensemble. The tension that rays between characters is left out — and also the lack of tension between characters, particularly that minus-tension within the band members, whose game is to quietly wait out workplace conflicts in aid of the work itself, in the playing and completion of which their satisfaction and livelihoods reside.

Instead the material is delivered as a series of close-ups of such importance that narrative attention is leached from the group leading their lives in disrespectful rooms together, although together there is where they are most of the time. The spectacle of whole bodies in response to other whole bodies is lost. It is the loss of the true subject of Wilson’s work — the impotence of human beings to live their souls out loud, free and before us, rather than squeezed out as performers of sport or song or crime. The story is not about an individual. The story is about humans, Black and White, banded together to record a song — “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. That is to say, the play is about the group gathered in expression of its title.

The play is about expression.

The movie — as the play does not — begins with exposition scenes to establish Ma Rainey’s position before the recording session’s date. These scenes are fun and well done. But, as in the play, it is best that we have never heard of Ma Rainey — the real point being that Ma Rainey’s life and song fell into obscurity after her death.

The reason for this obscurity may have been that Ma Rainey was a singer of dirty blues — broader in their vulgarity than Mae West, but in a congruent vein — maybe hard to find sponsors willing to immortalize such raw stuff? In death Ma Rainey was less than marginal. In life, she certainly was marginal — singer of risqué ditties, musician, Black, fat, middle-aged, lesbian, and female. In life, her fight was to establish her own margins and to steamroller all who objected to them. It took everything she had.

A performing singer already somewhat popular in person and on records, she nonetheless has to battle every inch of the way for the money, setting, and Coca-Cola necessary for the ambience in which to perform. She must pave by hand and lip and hip every inch of her way every time she draws breath to sing. Nevertheless, she holds the gold in the everyone’s purse by her voice. Without her, zero. So, just to make sure they know it, she’ll make everyone bow before her, even those already ready to.

Into her commercial enterprise interlopes a newcomer with ambitions of his own.

Does he have a chance for success?

If he does have a chance for success, is all that awaits him the hard-nosed fame of Ma Rainey?
Looks like it.

Or, if he doesn’t have a chance for success, is it only because he doesn’t dare take a stab at it?

Or is there another element in play to steer his chance?

Justice carries a big knife. That much we know beforehand. Justice is also blind, so we do not know the outcome, we do not know what will be tossed into Justice’s scales. This suspense carries us through the unfolding of the story.

This story is not something presented as taking place long ago in a dim, drab room. Instead, such a lost time, as the ‘20s, allows the projection of a 2021 state of mind onto it. For while the tension is the question: what will The Gods make of this? — the conflict is not between this singer and this trumpeter. Because the conflict is not a conflict. It is a battle. The battle is over The Field Of Possibility itself. The situation is huge.

Good.

For Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was meant for big theaters, made big by and for theaters. Not by close-ups can it be made into a chamber piece — even though it is entirely confined to the chamber of our parlor in this Netflix TV expression of it. But it is the actors themselves who redeem its size. They cannot help but rise to the occasion. And the occasion is the words.

The tough thing for an adapter of Wilson’s work to film is: what is the point if you water down the words?

This is true of adapting any fine playwright. You want to hold onto the way the playwright said a thing and what they said. It’s different with novels. Cry The Belovèd Country you can adapt to a film for Canada Lee as you may because it is not originally a play written for a crowd of eyes raised together in many chairs, but a novel for two eyes lowered alone in one chair.

For, technically, Wilson’s work is like Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare wrote in a style to be heard without microphones under the open sky at The Globe, a thousand at a performance. He used the manner of certain words for that. And Wilson’s words arise from the same rubric that necessitates words for vocal bigness — and in the need for characters from time to time to take the stage. The film honors this.

Yet one reads that the actors’ performances are over-played. They are not, really. They are simply stage performances, and they are so because the material was written for the stage where a declarative acting style inheres and is necessary for realization there.

Then how do you make a film of this material?

How do you write it to the scale of cinema acting? If there is such a thing.

How do you make it “intimate”? If such a thing is desirable.

You don’t.

One way is to think you can make plays intimate with close-ups. But with this material, closeups don’t bring the audience closer. They swamp intimacy. Closeups here make faces appear intruded upon and flattened. For, indeed, the idiosyncrasy, the clarity, the valor of what Black folk say takes the form of a diction and delivery already big — and certainly big in the gathering of a professional setting, which this setting is. And you don‘t need closeups if largeness of utterance is a necessary habit of Black folks to begin with — if Black words are already bound to be Theatrical. Final. Emphatic.

If, to get their point across, no Black person is mealy-mouthed anyhow. If each one knows how to claim his joke. How to snap to. How to grumble plainly. It’s The Offense Of The Defense. Keeps your body integrated with your soul. Even that taciturn character, the bassist, keeps his counsel in a plain way. For eloquence size is older than old. It is a tribal virtue — without its strength one’s survival becomes flimsy there and one’s humanity imperiled. These two styles, the theatrical and the natural, already big, do not need the emphasis of closeups to vividly live.

One critique says Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a Melodrama.

What does that mean?

Does it mean that Ma Rainey is not a satire — which is the other side of the coin of melodrama, as in Dickens?

Or does calling it Melodrama mean that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not a Tragedy?

What does the term Melodrama mean?

It means that the audience is elbowed, by bodyguards of musical accompaniment or raked diction or both, towards a certain emotional ride. This technique seals the audience against change, or, at least all change is dictated. Melodrama tells us where to go and to go nowhere else. In Melodrama, things either end badly or end well. But they do not go on beyond the ending. In tragedy they do. And why is that?

Because Tragedy opens up its audience to an heretofore unexpected metamorphosis.Tragedy shoves those who watch an inch forward — not just on subway home but always.

An inch forward into what?

And beyond what? What has been outdistanced, left behind? What has died out that this metamorphosis may live?

Does melodrama do this?

Not for a minute. For, if this is melodrama, one asks, what music enamels its scenes? If Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is melodrama, why is melody here either central or mute — always the solo insider or always an absent outsider? The words of this play do not Circe us into an emotional corridor. We hear the title song. It is good, comic, low-down stuff. It’s not an accompaniment. It’s not a score. It is an annunciation! And it is an annunciation about the truth of the fib that lies behind the blues. But the movie’s means to its truth is not choral. Its means is drama.

And its drama is about the fib of the way Black folks talk to white folks. Every black person in America knows how to translate this fib and to switch into it. The skillful fib protects. It hides an exquisite resentment. Its argot becomes everyday Ebonics, a word-mask, a neon code.

What has the Blues to do with this fib?

For the Blues comes to life from the need to at once declare and rebel against the need for the fib — to disqualify the fib by the flat-out recalcitrance of Black bands, songs, and singers. (A lie upon a lie. The need for the fib remains undeniable.)

The Blues rebuffs the deviousness needed for expression in the White world. (A lie upon a lie. A lie is required. The truth will not set you free.)

The Blues in its iterant and insistent form releases one from the need to lie at the same time as it cannot but include the humor and agony of that need. (A lie upon a lie. What a charming habit! One can hardly let it go.)

The blues releases the elan conserved behind that lie. The Blues is always private. (Always a lie about a lie.) And black folks know it’s a lie, know the necessity that that lie’s truth must take the form of the Black humor of a song. Black folks are not fooled by themselves in this. They know all about it. If August Wilson knows it, everybody does. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom dramatizes what everybody else already knows. It is therefore extremely painful.

One also reads of the wish to exclude Levee’s big aria on the grounds that the monologue sounds made-up.

If it does sound made-up, who is making it up? Levee who enunciates it? Or Wilson who wrote it?

If Wilson, then “made-up” means that Wilson is preaching out of church. He’s dragging something in. Something that doesn’t belong. Something garish. Phony. “Made-up.”

If Levee has made-up the speech, then “made-up” means that the speech is phony in a different way.

If that’s the case, Levee’s speech is how Levee made-up his boast that he knows how to talk to White folks.

But Levee’s mind works on lies. Levee expresses himself in lies. Fibs are his style — like his fancy shoes. The monologue shows that Levee “makes up” things because it’s all there is left for him to do.

His fib is the limitation leveed by Blacks on themselves to safeguard their essence. How Levee makes up justifications for it is how we all make up justifications. We all do the same. But it’s different for white people.

The Levee monologue diagrams how Black folk concoct prevarications for the survival of their very flesh — with tongue-in-cheek pride and a smiling chaser for the shame for having to. Their lives are at stake. How is such dissimulation given birth? The monologue details the obstetrics. The monologue reveals Levee’s relations to his own survival. It digs out the heart of him, just as “To be or not to be” does in another play. Save that Levee lies about it, because the truth is that, while he boasts he has a black belt in survival, he has nothing.

In ‘To be or not to be” a man refuses to lie to himself, then lies to himself, then realizes that he has lied to himself. In his monologue, Levee tells the truth, but lies to himself about it, and doesn’t realize that he lies to himself.

The true example his father set in dealing with Whites’ insults was to hide the slow fuse of the patience he took to mete out revenge for it. Patience is a quality of which Levee possess not an ounce. His father smiled at the White men, but behind that smile hid cunning and perseverance, which Levee possesses nothing of also. Levee boasts he got from his father a way to trick White folks, but all he has is words. And words which he plays as his strong suit are actually his only suit and are therefore his weak suit. His words are boasts, fibs, alibis, lies, and lies about talk. He learned nothing from his father. To Whites his father said nothing.

Is it impossible for Black folks to be straightforward?

Is that the subject of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? Is its tragedy the impossibility of straightforward expression?

And expression of what? There’s lots of “expression” going on in Ma Rainey— so what sort of expression?

Levee’s agony to get his song recorded and paid for is not about the song, but that his dignity is attached to the song. Levee has all sorts of expression, all sorts of song. He plays his trumpet like gee whiz and — like all Levee’s expression — always out of place. For Levee has no idea his problem is expression. He thinks his expression is perfect, for, while his expression is all lies, he believes every one of them.

Levee’s character, for him, is about dignity — inside a play about expression.

Truth of expression being dark to him, all he has to shoot for is dignity — dignity, a level lower than truth but with a seductive value to the ego.

Plus the value of the need to feed and clothe oneself paid properly for work done. Ma Rainey has become a monster to secure this, her trade. She fights every fight for it as a fight to the death. The same fight awaits Levee. Can he mount it? For, since, like Ma Rainey, the struggle is for money for value delivered, Levee again is like Ma Rainey.

And Levee is also like Ma Rainey in that he is volatile. He is not one of the quiet ones who can wait things out. To be wallflower dynamite like his father is not in the cards for him.

But all Ma Rainey has to do is out-strategize a dumb male record producer. She can beat him because a male is not in competition with Ma Rainey. Besides, White supremacists are not opposed to Black females — only Black males. So Levee is up against a bigger opponent than Ma Rainey.

Is the winning of dignity enough for Levee?

If it is, then loss of it will be disastrous.

Levee is already 32 and hasn’t gone far. So, if Levee is a man who blows his own trumpet at the wrong time, when is the right time for him? When is his chance? He wants an opening as a composer and for the use of his music to be paid for fairly — right now. And why not?

But how does that fit with the law of Jim Crow? And what is that law? You never quite know, do you? Crow is capricious. For this law’s seizing constant is that it is administered at the whim of Mr. J. Crow, Esquire. Which is to say that Levee’s appeal to the record producer to get his song recorded and paid for may forbid or may allow justice to be met — if the record producer, just then, sees fit to forbid it or allow it. So, be erratic in the matter, Jimmy Crow, if you feel like it. There is Levee with hope on his face.

Do closeups make the actor appear to overplay that hope?

It’s not Chadwick Boseman who overplays the role. It’s the direction that overplays Chadwick Boseman.

To play Levee, Boseman simply tunes his performance to the max — which is what Wilson’s words require. Boseman is right. He doesn’t lose an inch. But the closeups on that broad just measure leave the audience with nothing to do — except to watch Boseman make no mistakes — leave the audience with nothing but to watch Boseman’s face made huge, with such closeups as blind us to Boseman’s whole body. When in Tragedy to see the whole body is everything!

Chadwick Boseman’s performance would be flabbergastering to see on the stage. Here, Boseman’s performance, great as it is, can ask nothing for us. It is unflinching, but we can barely absorb its truth because the direction forces it down our throats. So what we have, through no fault of the actor, is not a character we can enter, but a story the actor leaves behind almost as a relic — A Story In Which Levee Plays A Certain Role.

What is the metamorphosis?

A metamorphosis changes one, but it does so permanently. Unlike change, metamorphosis never changes back. One is always a nightingale. One is eternally laurel. For to metamorphosize is to change into one’s true being. Or into one’s true gift. Or into one’s true reward. Zero, forever.

Is what awaits us beyond the end of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that one lives, then and forever, one step closer to justice for all creatures?

Why did August Wilson write a play for every decade?

He wrote for all of us to see all of this together, to see it all, so we would know.

Denzel Washington has contracted to bring all August Wilson’s plays to the screen — he brought us Fences and this — an endeavor worth the attention of all — an audience of all.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is stunning to see on the stage, stunning to witness laid out before us, as we the living watch the living enact it.

And it’s stunning to see it here in this film.

So see this movie on Netflix or anywhere you can. Don’t miss out on yourself.

~ ~ ~

 

Shitt’s Creek

19 Oct

Shitt’s Creek — TV Situation Comedy 2014-2020, On Netflix and elsewhere.
★★★★★
The Story: A wealthy family loses every penny, save a hick town, which when rich they bought as a lark and in whose seedy motel they must now reside.
~
Shitt’s Creek offers us a situation we humans have loved from Twelfth Night through the comedies of the ‘30s to Gilligan’s Island to this. The rich brought low.

Nothing needs to be said about it except that I watched — at least I think I watched — all 60 episodes with delight and surprise. I deem it to be deservedly popular and its handsome awards just. Beautifully directed and produced, perfectly written — by many — and performed with extravagant imagination by all.

Moira Rose, the mother, in the Natalie Schafer role, is played not as a mother but, as a soap opera actress between engagements. Catharine O’Hara, dolled up in The Wardrobe Without End, manages to be overdressed in every outfit, although each be but black and white. Her performance gains in magnificence as her diction gains in elaboration. One’s tongue hangs out eager to translate her next utterance into the vernacular of common sense. I think O’Hara wrote her own lines. They’re very funny. She’s very funny. Her Moira Rose is as selfish as cats, and we root for her every bugle-bead of the way.

The two children are carousels of gargoyle gesticulation. The son constantly shakes his head No as though it held dice it prayed would, when shot, produce a Yes. The daughter‘s body thrashes about like a Mixmaster itching to whip itself into a meringue of charm. The kids never stop twitching. They seem to have no center, for they cannot stand still to experience one. Cartoons but valiant ones, if they once spoiled themselves to experience the all-and-nothing of The Great World, they now bring the daring of those spoiled spoils into their futures where they transsex them into large social benefit. They contributed nothing but cuff-lace until they ended in this rube burg.

Eugene Levy, as the paterfamilias, never loses the vocalization of the born entrepreneur. He is the anchor of the wrecked vessel. He is down-to-earth — always hopeful, always creating hope in others. His Johnny Rose is to me a mystery performance. He plays the character not as a fool or dullard. All his family bring the folly of their grandeur to the small-town. What he brings is a bent to live out his talent for business and thus realize his own life and by contagion the life of everyone in contact with him. He is the occasion for comedy rather than the enactor of it. A wonder of a performance.

Each actor who plays townsfolk is tip-top, perfectly cast, endearing as all get out. Their characters live out a story whose foundation is that acceptance is natural as breathing.

Indeed, the Rose family presents acceptance as prenatal.

For Shitt’s Creek is a story which The Politically Correct never sullies but from which it is never missing. Before, after, and instead of, we are presented with a world made real and funny by the absence of what never should have existed to begin with. How true. If untried. No finger wags here. For what is advice but the starvation of a salesman’s sample? And why a sample? — when the example of a whole body, a whole town may live it out for us — as here?

Instead, the foundation of its comedy lies, as comedy must, in that everyone accepts everyone and is irritated by everyone.

I recommend the series with no reservation save to start at the start, go to the end, then, as Moira Rose would put it, desist.

 

The Merchant Of Venice

13 Sep

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Winter of Our Dreams

08 Sep

Winter Of Our Dreams — directed by John Dulgan. Drama. 78 minutes. Color 1981.
★★★★
The Story: A suicide brings together a prostitute and a reporter, separated and gripped by what they have in common.
~
This is Judy Davis young.

She is one of the great actresses of motion pictures, isn’t she? Woody Allen said she was the greatest actor he had ever worked with. She won the AFI Award as Best Actress for this film. She won the 13th International Moscow Film Festival Best Actress for it also. As for me, I stand by my loud first sentence.
Setting accolades aside, I also love something else about her.

And that is her mouth.

Great film stars have in common that their audiences are enthralled by what their mouths express. Not the words said. Not the way those words are said. But their mouths. The mouth muscles natural to them express the actor’s nature to us and, by those muscles, the truth.

These mouths help make them great stars. For their mouths give us a locality of a bullseye to mesmerize our eyes — which is what we come to do when we go to a movie. We come to be lost. And entrancement works — for enthrallment is medicinal to certainty. You know this when you buy your ticket, and it’s what you buy your ticket for. You want it. Mouths give it. To know what’s going on on the screen, you — willingly captivated by them anyhow — watch mouths.

Not eyes.

An actor’s eyes are to listen with — for an actor’s task is not emotion but attention.

So you don’t watch their eyes for the truth any more than you watch their ears. Again, it does not matter so much what words they say — or do not say — or how they say them, but how their mouths move, especially when still.

Indeed, the truth from their mouths comes often when they’re not talking — how golden an actor’s silence is! — that’s when their allure is most encouraged. In their silence you watch. That’s when you see it.
The fascinating mouth is not learned. Not taught in acting class. Not found in practice nor in rehearsal. Nor in performance. No. Intriguing mouths are inherent to such actors. You don’t give such actors credit for them. These are the mouths actors were born with.

Natural to them — just as natural to them as it is natural for all of us to watch these mouths. Indeed to watch mouths is part of movie audience rubric. For just as the craft of acting has its rubric, its inherent laws, so does the craft of being an audience have its laws, the rules it must follow and does.

Katharine Hepburn — don’t you first watch her mouth? This is not to say she has nothing besides it to gear up your attention. But her mouth is the first to command it, isn’t it?

You may demean Joan Crawford as an actor if you like— and she certainly could not play comedy — but her mouth will tell you what is going down with no two ways about it — and what is more winning than her grin?

A gift of a screen actor’s mouth makes the actor’s face eventful — the event being truth. And provides a place to lodge our fascination and with this fascination- know-how we unwittingly but naturally and collectively create the following that makes a star.

For an audience, the truth gets known by something around an actor’s mouth.

Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, James Dean, Jennifer Aniston, Cary Grant, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lee Pace, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Louise Brooks, Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Mahershala Ali, Garbo.

Their truth arrives to us through a certain idiosyncrasy of their mouths.

his truth turns to fallacy with “television-acting” — where the actor makes quivering play with his lips to “convey” — what? — an emergency emotion to wallpaper the vacancies of the writing? Such actors think their mouths are an acting instrument. They’re not. For your mouth has rules of its own, which cannot be faked, and which you were born with whether you have a naturally interesting mouth or not. The good actor imposes nothing and, when tempted to, lets the audience do the job. (Which is not to say the character you play is not imposing.)

Bryan Brown is in the movie with her — this film dates from their early years as Australian film actors — and you can immediately see the difference in their talents. Brown plays everything in C sharp major. He plays very well in that key, but he has no modulation. Judy Davis has modulation galore.

Watch her mouth. Its truth is so subtle it’s impossible to miss it.

The camera watches.

We watch the camera watch We the voyeur watch the voyeur voyeur the actor.

Unable to distinguish the camera eye from our own eye.

Made one lens.

Hypnotized.

As by a cobra.

At the spectacle of human truth— by being made fluid made manifest.

By a mouth.

Watch it.

Watch acting. Watch it acutely.

It is so human, it is divine.

Both acting itself.

And the watching.

 

Journey’s End

25 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend Sam Claflin’s performances above all others.

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

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

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

I like ruthless truth.

It is a necessary film.

 

The Children Act

26 Jul

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

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

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

Come see for yourself.

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

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

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

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

But the story has a wider spread.

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Untouchables & The Upside

06 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both films are worth watching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which film to choose?

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

 

Gone With The wind

24 Jun

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

I have seen it maybe four times since.

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

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

The rest of it bored me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why, of course she does.

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

 

Nicholas Nickelby

03 Jun

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

This means that the meanies and clowns dominate our interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or so foolish. Or so funny.

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

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

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

 

Brooklyns’ Finest

03 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Passing Strange

15 Mar

Passing Strange — directed by Spike Lee. Rock Musical. 135 minutes Color 2009.
★★★★★
The Story: A young black man seeks true life, and the tour takes him through lovers and nations, songs and dances and wild surprises.
~
There is nothing passing or strange about it. Instead?

Performance Paradise.

Spike Lee’s greatest film.

And the best record of an actual stage production I have ever seen.

It is a movie made with 14 cameras during three performances (including the last) of the Broadway stage production.

I have seen filmed stage productions, but will not claim to have seen all, and I have seen Spike Lee pictures, but will not claim to have seen all.

But what distinguishes this from all other filmed stage productions is that here the cameras are never content to see what the audience sees. Instead we and the cameras are on stage with the performers amidst the rollicking and indefatigable energy of the music, the dance, the play and the players.

And talented they are. But the cameras are just as talented. They throw us as film viewers into a wild beauty. It is vulgar and meritorious since, once again, Spike Lee has surrounded his talent around the zest, imagination, and particularities of black aliveness. What an honor, what a treat to see it heritaged here!

This is what Spike Lee has brought to us year after year, and here it is in quintessential form. I bow down before the brilliant eccentricity of the book, the acting, the dances, and the lyrics. The original stage direction of Annie Dorson has not been fooled with, nor has any of the original sets, costumes, and choreography. Lee disports his invisible cameras in what was already a masterpiece.

The writer of the book and lyrics and some of the music is Stew, who plays the ringmaster of the story. He and every player and musician in it are in the moment. They are vigorous, inventive, and fun — black vim at its most tireless and true!

There is much more to say about this, but I am speechless with praise. If my enthusiasm is the least catching, catch Passing Strange and praise me for a month once you have enjoyed yourself silly watching it.

 
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Posted in Directed By: Spike Lee

 

True Detective Season 3

10 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So see it.

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

It is 8 episodes, beautifully mounted, in country.

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

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

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

 

Harriet

02 Feb

Harriet – directed by Kassi Lemmons. Biopic. 125 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: When her sisters are sold south, a young slave woman strikes out North for freedom, achieves it, and then returns and guides many others to freedom too.
~
The most interesting films for me these past few years deal with black subjects.

Why is that?

I am a bigot. I am partial to them. I have been fascinated about black folks since I was little. I wanted to get inside their lives, their affection, their sexual power, their brown skins, and their ways.

Impossible.

But It’s not just because they are a group living in America without speaking the English I was reared with, or that I am beguiled by the colors of their skins, or by their unusual and thorough laughter, and by their skills as dancers, but I am also beguiled by their barriers all this is to an entry into their world. Don’t they know that everything they do shuts me out? I am biased. I adore them. Without black folks this country is unthinkable. A hope indefatigable by frustration still keeps me looking in their direction.

But their foreignness certainly must have had something to do with their lack of normal representation even in the not-so-long-ago frayed suburbs of film history. Oh, they were always there, but as showpieces. Now, in recent films, I see they are looking back at me. They are seeing me! I am sitting in the audience and they are allowing me in.

New black folks’ films are rich in the way white people’s films are poor. They are rich because so much is at stake. So with Just Mercy. So with Harriet. How come all this is happening now?

Tyler Perry is the probably the richest and most successful movie person alive. And it is his work I credit with opening the door to other black story-tellers, because he has filmed the numerous stage plays he authored and produced and he has directed many dramas and melodramas, and these allow us to see black actors in roles besides slum dwellers, prisoners, or crack sniffers. They show middle class black folks in full dress soap opera. Tyler Perry has had phenomenal commercial success.

But more potent in the liberation of black film has been Perry’s lowbrow farces, which has allowed black folks and white folks and yellow folks and all kinds of folks to laugh not with but at blacks. His brazen cartoons of racial stereotypes have scoured the screen of political correctness as regards blacks. Medea and her family have opened the black door. They did it by causing us to fall off our highchairs with such laughter as to open audiences to a world that can then bring to us such confident films as Harriet.

Ta-Nehisi Coates novel The Water Dancer includes Harriet Tubman as the Conductress of The Underground Railroad who as a young woman parted the waters and miraculously drew her family to freedom. In Coates’ story Tubman is accorded supernatural powers that could transport slaves through thin air from plantation to safety. It is completely convincing. So is her story here.

Because her family disappeared into a river, Tubman was called “Moses,” but her original name was not Harriet Tubman, but Araminta Ross, or “Minty” as she was called and as we first meet her.

This part of the film interested me most. It established her as an adolescent slave in a large slave family working a medium sized Maryland farm. I see her with her husband, who was a freed slave. And I also see her crack into proleptic seizures, in which she received instructions and warnings from Higher Power — and who for a minute can doubt her?

She runs 100 miles to Philadelphia in a first escape that is a wonder of endurance, resourcefulness, and faith. Having reached safe port, she returns to the dread plantation and brings her whole family back to freedom. We know a good deal of how The Underground Railroad stretched to Ontario once white folks pitched in in New England, but it is a necessary education to endure the peril, stress, and difficulty of this young woman’s ordeal of flight as it began through the woods, over the open fields, and across the rivers, with blood hounds hot on her heels and overseers determined to retrieve their valuable property.

In her ordeal, we see her character firm up before our eyes.

I recognize only one of the many actors around her, which is good. Nor do I recognize the actor who plays Harriet Tubman herself. Also good. For I want no star to outshine my ignorance of Harriet and her story as it essentially must have been. Stars always gleam with a prior glow. But the young woman who plays her I have never seen before. She is as unknown to me as Harriet is, which is perfect for my pleasure and my belief in her, which is profound.

Cynthia Erivo is nominated for an Oscar this year, which encourages me to invite you to see her Harriet before Sunday.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DOCUDRAMA, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

Brian Banks

21 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

1917

20 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Just Mercy

19 Jan

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

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

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

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

Just Mercy fully lives up the potential of the form.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Right Of Way

16 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bombshell

04 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is a battle not socially dramatic but internally dramatic.

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

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

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

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

 

Marriage Story

10 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nakom

08 Dec

Nakom—directed by Kelley Daniela Morris and TW Pitman. Drama. 90 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★
The Story: A medical student must leave the city to tend to his father’s estate and finds in that hometown the great seduction of success.
~ ~ ~

My justification for buffing films is to reach to the public library shelf and pluck off such a gem of fairest ray as this.

I had never head of Nakom. Had you?

It threw me into a world I never knew of nor would expect to see—the long drawn out farm country of Africa. Village life there. Country folk there. This is the farm land, not of the big ranches of the Boers and English, nor of the coffee plantations of Out Of Africa, nor of Tarzan’s jungle, but the hard red soil of the onion fields and the giant stalks of the millet plant.

Beautiful. Bare. Green.

Into it the man comes to bury his father who had died out of season. There he finds the family farm run by the skeptical, lazy, and incestuous. He must martial them into action and strategize a drought to plant the seeds, but not before their time.

We see such interesting humans, cranky and bossy and frightened and warm. But to me the whole world of it is what is strange and new. What is ordinary to them is to me exotic and strong. The glaring women’s clothes, the rudimentary shorts and t-shirts worn by the men. The dance celebration at the huge public funeral.

He takes charge but will he stay? Will be he lured, as I am lured?

But his drama appeals to me less than the beauty of his family, his people, the way they weed their wide bare fields, water those fields with punctured gas tanks, eat their dinners on dishes on the floor. The peaked houses, the world of that world.

It is the first film set in Africa that was not pestered by foreign actors. Canada Lee and Sidney Poitier are wonderful actors, but why drag them in from Manhattan to do Cry, The Beloved Country? Here I see an Africa which now for the first time I can believe in.

But here it is for you, and once again I am so enthusiastic I cannot sit still to tell you what you might very much want to know about this film. I can say that it is a film that will hold and delight anyone over eight years old. Or over eighty, which is what I happen to be.

Nakom is penetrating, helpful, engaging, tough, real, imaginative. It is wonderful to look at. And follow. It is that rare entertainment: it is simple at the same time as it is intelligent.

Do let me know I have convinced you.

Do let me know I am right.

Be like me. Be ravished.

 
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Mary Of Scotland

01 Dec

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

What’s the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Irishman

01 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a scene missing.

The crisis is simple:

Can you murder your best friend?

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

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

Can you murder your best friend?

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

Hoffa/Pacino is in the way.

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

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

Can you murder your best friend?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Laundromat

27 Nov

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

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

And why is that?

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

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

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

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

Meryl Streep?

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

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

This is on Netflix and was produced for Netflix.

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

 

Il Postino: The Postman

10 Nov

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

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

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

What’s the wonder here?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pain And Glory

08 Nov

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

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

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

And so it goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which does not mean they are not real.

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

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

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

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

 

Downton Abbey, the movie

30 Sep

Downton Abbey, the film—directed by Michael Engler. Drama. 122 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: Upstairs and downstairs is challenged by a royal visit.
~
The mixture as before.

And why not? Into the cut-glass punchbowl are poured:

The pleasure of seeing how the very rich live.

English beautifully spoken.

Fabulous period costumes.

The interior, exterior, and grounds of a stunning palace.

A million dollar cast.

The power of the servants.

The big-hearted devotion of everyone to everyone.

In a story devoted to service and the industry it requires

The devotion in the audience to a saga it has followed for years.

Told as before,

In short, a legal addiction.

The grandees face survival. And so do the servants. A few of them face it prominently. But they all vortex around the overnight visit to Downton of King George V and Queen Mary. The entire machinery of the great house is both engaged and overset by the protocols of this visit.

I never tell movie plots to you that previews of their coming attractions have not already spelled out. So consider yourself satisfied with an appetizer intended to draw you to a feast and a dance that both surprise and delight and at the same time meet all expectations. Princesses and witches, wily servants and loyal retainers. And the blessèd absence of Shirley Maclaine.

Downton is a house none of us would now either work in or own. Such mansions were designed for royal processions upon which monarchs and their retinues once travelled Great Britain to dispense the king’s justice. They were stupendous motels. Our vainglorious and nosy pleasure in being allowed inside one for a weekend is the same pleasure we took in Tara, a worthwhile, fleeting indulgence as interlopers into a world of splendor and privilege that is gone with the wind.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Masterpiece Theatre Miniseries, Uncategorized

 

The Farewell

08 Sep

The Farewell— written and directed by LuLu Wang. Dramedy. 1 hour 40 minute Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: a clan gather to see the family matriarch who, unknown to her, has but three months to live—but decorum forbids them to tell her this.
~
If you find merit in The Joy Luck Club (and I do), you will find the same merit in The Farewell. For me that merit is to be carried inside of a large Chinese family into whose midst I would not ordinarily be invited and even if I were could not experience it up and down, inside out, like this.

Its drama lies with the American tendency to tell the truth no-matter-what in emergency-conflict with Chinese reticence. People from all over come to the matriarch’s home on the pretense of attending a family wedding, but actually to see the mother, grandmother and great grandmother of them all for a last farewell which they shall never allow themselves to utter.

The American point of view is embodied by a Chinese/American woman in her 20s, at loose ends, unsuccessful in her career, without a beau, with a poor figure, with a face distended with ire, and a resolve to blurt out the worst.

The actress who plays her makes her such a disagreeable person to be with, one wonders what on earth keeps one watching her, until one figures out, quite late in the film, it is the task of wondering why one watches her that keeps one doing so.

This is a tribute to the actress Awkafina’s sticking to her guns and sending out no appeals of charm nor bids for pity. Her resoluteness of performance makes the story happen not only on the screen but in the bodies of the audience.

Still, why doesn’t someone in that family tell the old lady the truth?

The conflict is made complex not just by the generation gap and nationality gap of family members, but by the seductions of common language, tradition, superstition, parental authority, family gatherings, and by the lure of all that incomparable food.

I watch this film made happily at ease by the perfection of the casting and the simple truth of the acting of everyone. The film is essentially comic, with death waiting at its core, that is to say the stakes are high.

I had a great time watching the opening marriage scene of The Godfather Part I, and I love a movie with lots of types bouncing off one another, such as the Rules Of The Game and You Can’t Take It With You. These sorts of films require a director to invigorate the crowds. It has one in LuLu Wang. Her film direction is rich, varied, impeccable.

She takes me into a world I wouldn’t belong and makes me feel comfortable there, by the simple strategy of showing me everything that is uncomfortable in it, and therefore humorous about it.

I bow.

 
 

Moonrise Kingdom

27 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

18 Aug

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

The world!

Yes!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what will save her?

To me the answer is imaginative and visibly wonderful.

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

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

 
 

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

29 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, it isn’t.

Movies this good aren’t just a movie.

Are they?

 

BlackKlansman

25 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
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