The Novitiate

05 Dec

The Novitiate – Directed by Margaret Betts. Drama. 123 minutes Color 2017
The Story: With no outside pressure, in fact directly in the face of her mother’s disapproval, an eighteen-year-old girl enters training to be a nun.
Divided of purpose, unlike its heroine, the film loses its attack on the subject through its casting. The great Melissa Leo? Miscast? Let’s see.

Fortified with an enormous technique, distinctive looks, and a particular and well-placed voice, Leo always offers someone definite. Good. She plays the Mother Superior as unnecessarily strict. The Mother has taken her very identity from the generations-old and rigorous disciplines of her order, and now Vatican II, with its slackening of ritual and custom, threatens that identity.

But the split in the story lies just here. For the Mother Superior’s obsession with her order precedes the introduction of Vatican II into the story and one might say has nothing to do with it.

“Are there any questions?” she asks the fresh novitiates. A hand is raised. “Go home,” she coldly says. “You must not question.” But the point is or ought to be that the obedience Mother Superior offers might be a value worth our attention, yet Leo’s cold playing throws our chance for that out the window along with the novitiate she has just discharged. Because Leo is draconian, we align ourselves against her and whatever she may stand for. The performance leaves no room for doubt in the novitiates or in us the audience, for, just as they do, we need the suspense of doubt to engage with their plight.

If the words had been said kindly, we would have had a chance to wonder about the values Reverend Mother offers. And to remember that, at times, unquestioning obedience is good for our souls. If the Mother Superior is played as a martinet, we are robbed of the drama of our own decision in the matter.

Perhaps the part appears to be written that way. Perhaps Leo was told to play it that way. But playing it that way dismisses the disciplines of nuns as the malpractices of sadists. Wasn’t there more and other to their practices than that?

We hear Leo lament that Vatican II declares nuns will no longer wear medieval wimples and indeed are now ordinary people. And when the film proper is over, we read that 90,000 nuns left the church. (I go on a yearly silent retreat at Santa Sabina, one such former priory.) Well, if the neighbors don’t look up to nuns as special, what is the use of remaining or becoming one. And if your spirituality in its delicacy cannot be part of and protected by walls and encouraged by the modest idolization of an order, how is a young woman to make a life’s work of devotion to God at all?

The story splits. If it were not already split by a lesbian explosion in the novitiate, Sister Cathleen, whose bone fides in a genuine spiritual calling prepare us in no way for this disruption. Margaret Qualley in the part holds our attention by remaining a complete mystery.

Leo is marvelous in all she does, but I wish the director had asked her to do something else. She holds us in our seats – but for the wrong reason.

The supporting people also hold us in our seats, particularly Julianne Nicholson as Sister Cathleen’s earthy mother, and Dennis O’Hare’s masterful fun delivering his ultimatums as an experienced and lets-get-down-to-business Archbishop.

The life of the celibate eremite is almost lost to Christian religion. The choice to withdraw forever into the gated cloister merits and requires protection, support, understanding and – why not? – respect. So where are these young people to go for the quiet, lifetime contemplation of God? Where? Many recent films have blared out the scandal of sexuality in The Church. Good. But will that stop it? Were those films meant to stop it?

Yes, they were. And in the process they seem to have damaged the structure for holy calling itself, as here, in The Novitiate. It’s a topic still worthy of a film worthy of it.


Song To Song

27 Mar

Song To Song – directed by Terrence Malick. Romance. 129 minutes Color 2017.
The Story: Boy meets boy, boy meets boy’s girl, boy steals boy’s girl, girl leaves boy for girl, girl goes back to boy and boy, and then just boy.
Roony Mara is the Cleopatra of this fable, which feels like a personal story from the director’s life. Roony Mara? Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite monotony. She is the least mysterious, alluring, fatale of female creatures. Why any director casts this sphinx without a secret in major roles of sexual attention by everyone in the cast is not visible to the practiced eye. Or does lackluster have a luster all its own? She orphans everything she plays. A want of fire illuminates her.

She drifts as drift others through multiple and shifting plate-glass palaces and lowly cottages. Their interior furnishings are as empty as their interior lives. These settings wander as characters wander, with no fixed motive, no fixed affiliation, and no fixed income. How the hell are these people earning a living?

At the top of the heap stands a creepy billionaire record producer played by Michael Fassbender. He promises people careers in show-bizness, but he gives them the bizness. And he never unzips his fly for sex, so you know how dissolute he is.

A song-writer of ordinary talent is played by Ryan Gosling, Fassbender’s new best friend and first betrayed (The music business may be a stand-in for Hollywood.) Natalie Portman turns up as a gorgeous waitress also promised a rock-star role. And, in fact, there is Val Kilmer who once played a rock star again playing a rock star, this one in his stout fifties. Cate Blanchette plays Gosling’s rebound. Bérénice Marlohe plays the juicy lesbian. And somewhere lost in all of this is the great Holly Hunter.

Two things might be noticed about Malick’s method.

The first is that his is essentially a silent film method. You have to use an ear phone to hear what little dialogue there is, whereas, in silent film, lots of title cards tell you what it’s about. Here title cards take the form of voice-over.

Malick fell into the voice-over habit with his first film Days Of Heaven, when the little Bronx girl was coaxed into making the story clear by voice-overing it. Voice-over derives from the false notion that film is predominately not a spoken medium. With Song To Song, what you see is not a talkie.

Here we have “The Meaning Of It All” voiced-over, and it’s flaccid and tepid and vapid and vacant. However, unlike silent film, Malick’s words are devoid of humor. And in Song To Song there are no songs.

The second thing is that the acting is improvised. And this is always a mistake. When you make actors improvise a play, you make the actors write a play. Therefore, in an attempt to make things look natural, they look unnatural. In fact, they look hammy.

It’s a hamminess that is the reverse of over-acting. It is the hamminess of under-acting. Desultoriness and inertia emerge on the one hand, and on the other the actors’ choices look actorish. The actors’ choices look not what humans would do or what characters would do, but what actors would do.

Better leave them to act. Particularly with a director at once so icily controlling and lackadaisical as Malick. Indeed, at one dull spot, I noticed an actor listening intently while another actor spoke, and I realized it was Holly Hunter just doing her job.

Despite Malick’s elaborate narrative, Song To Song is rudely simple. He does get her in the end.



29 Mar

Safe [1995] – directed by Todd Haynes. Drama. 119 minutes Color. 1995.


The Story: A young woman falls under attack of environmental pollutants.


What I saw was a film most beautifully made. It is realized with dirty Marin pastels, which perfectly suit the personnel of the affluent Southern California world in which it begins and which its people inhabit.

It is also a film constructed with a series of calm and beautiful master-shots, which show broad interiors and broad exteriors, characters moving in them, characters placed in them, just so, and just right.

As the piece progresses one sees the characters to be perfectly cast – in this case with excellent actors whom I have never heard of or seen before, so their presence gladdens me as I go.

The film is made with a certain stillness, which, along with the big master-shots, presents a distance for observation of what is going on, a distance almost documentary, but a distance also as refined as the subject environmental allergy requires.

These pleasures give me confidence. As does the fact that I had no idea what this film was about before I saw it. So I had no expectations to defy or meet.

And so I was betrayed. On a fundamental level. The primitive level of: do you believe?

I was betrayed by that intelligent, accomplished, and sometimes daring actress, Julianne Moore who plays the woman.

Her first and perhaps her last error is to place her voice just inside her jaw, dismissing all chord vibration from it. This is an attempt to show the woman has no voice of her own. The result is she emerges as a stupid child.

She retains this method throughout, so the result is monotony of execution.

I expect Moore sees the woman as vacuous. And that is what she manages to give us. It holds our attention only to extent that we watch the film to the end to see if she will ever come alive. But, since she is in no conflict about coming alive or staying a zombie, drama is drained from the character thus from the film.

For she does something which Bette Davis in her days after Eve did which was to mum or play-act the part. Moore does not act it. If she had we would not wonder how her husband could ever in a million years have married such a vacancy. An actress needs always to determine not what is missing in a character but what the character wants. Moore in playing her as having no voice and no want emasculates her.

Those I have known who suffer from environmental abuse have a need for isolation and servants. Their disease must be served. For they cannot shop, clean house, walk abroad, hold a job. You must do for them. The reward is nil. The promise of recovery nil.

The affect they give off is one of collapsed water. They seem to have no affect at all. But inside them is an emotional violence that rules everyone around them in their search for survival, a violence so potent no one can gainsay it, help it, or stay in its presence with sustained affection. This gives one the suspicion that everything they have made themselves into is phony, a trick, a manipulation.

Julianne Moore fasted to emaciate the character she plays. She is blotched with rashes and a boil. Her strong hair is caged. All this works, and all this is an earmark of the dedication to acting of this actor.

But nothing she does survives what she misconceived the role to be. The result on the screen is not mystery but bafflement. We have nothing to identify with because she has, in choosing no-voice, chosen nothing.





Still Alice

28 Jan

Still Alice – directed by Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland. MediDrama. 101 minutes Color 2014.


The Story: A successful and happy career woman and mother of 50 falls pretty to early onset Alzheimer’s.


As I watch I think I shall go to the movies no more. They hold nothing for me but the spectacle of incompetence relieved occasionally by interludes of striking proficiency.

For this movie is so badly written the mind staggers from its dullness. No one talks like that. No one responds that way. The supporting actors are shocking in their misapplication of tears. You want to slap them sensible. Moreover, they have learned their craft by imitating the emotions of soap opera acting, instead of from themselves. Indeed the world in general seems to express itself nowadays in the style of TV emotionalism. Everyone weeps and grows angry in the jalopy of bad acting. The actors here – I shall not disgrace this page by naming them – have not the slightest idea of how to go about these parts. They slot-in their emotions as called for. They order-in their acting from Domino’s Pizza. For here we have another example of a writer directing actors in his own material. It is a disservice to humanity for directors to do this or for writers to insist upon it.

Perhaps they think they have as much to say as storytellers as Woody Allen, not realizing they are devoid of both his sense of humor and sense of humanity. Every actor in this piece, with one exception, is incompetent.

No, that’s not true. The tertiary character acting is excellent. Stephen Kinker, the neurologist, is excellent. And so is … oh, why bother! If Alec Baldwin is not miscast, then he is entirely to blame for his absence of depth and coherence. He is renowned for comic narcissism, so he has the selfish side of the character … but why go on? The husband is not selfish. The husband is connected to his wife and his career with the same sinew. Baldwin is so creaky in his craft, or lacking in actual compassion, that he produces unintended disgust and a nagging, baffled dissatisfaction.

The reason you go to this film is to see Julianne Moore. She is up for an Oscar, and she deserves one, even here, where the order of her big scenes is shot-gunned by the director/writer. She has beautiful legs, a beautiful smile, a sound and appealing femininity. And what we see here is a great actress making-do. I hope she wins for it. Because her not to have won it by now is just rude.

The film is beautifully produced. The New York street scenes convince. So do the Long Island beach scenes. So do the cottage scenes. The piece is perfectly costumed. Lit. Filmed. So you may think you’re not being cheated. Check it out. Forearmed.



29 Nov


Foxcatcher – directed by Bennett Miller. Biodrama. 134 minutes Color 2014.


The Story: Two international wrestling champion brothers become enmeshed with a wealthy aficionado.


One wonders what scene it might be, but there is a sense of one missing. Between Vanessa Redgrave who plays his mother and Steve Carell, who plays the billionaire John Du Pont.

For Mrs Du Pont is an enormously accomplished equestrienne. Now being an equestrienne, with an entire room of her mansion given over to her many trophies, requires an early start, among riders who are seasoned and talented and unbribable. To win those prizes you have to be the same. You have to know your onions from way back.

Her son, however, takes on the hobby of international competitive wrestling in his fifties. He had the interest and even the temperament to be a patron. But he sets himself up, instead, as a “mentor, leader, and coach” – none of which he was, as though to compete with the his mother in her own sport.

As this fraud takes place before our eyes, we see his protégé, played by Channing Tatum, lose vim. Having already won two world championships, he is to compete in the Seoul Olympics. But the more Du Pont engages with him the less true air remains for Tatum to inhale as his own. Presently, Du Pont alienates him from his own brother, David, played by Mark Ruffalo. And then bribes Ruffalo to live at his vast estate where he has built a training facility for the Olympic wrestlers.

But somewhere we need one more scene with the mother. We see her voice her opinion that wrestling is lowbrow, and in another scene we see her turn away from the training of the wrestlers as her son attempts to show off his “leadership” in front of her. It might be a scene in which he says to her, “What if I won an Olympic Gold Medal, mother?’

The piece could not be better cast or played. Ruffalo, who is the real coach, completely convinces that he is a coach, and the care and savvy he imbrues the character with are just enough to delude him about the possible nature of Du Pont.

Channing Tatum plays Mark Shultz, the younger wrestler brother as a young man focused on his sport to the exclusion of everything else. He has no girlfriend, no children, no outside interests. This means he has the blinders on, but Tatum plays the wrestler as aware of himself and his own nature upon which he depends for security in his sport.

Steve Carell plays Du Pont. He carries himself chin-in-air like William Buckley, and like Buckley he is clammy as an adder – but with this difference, Buckley was a person of great accomplishment, Du Pont is a person of none that have not been purchased. His is a cogent portrayal of an idiot dauphin. He’s quite fascinating.

I’m not sure, however, that films are solely about portraiture. Or that to achieve a fine representation of a character is sufficient to a drama. The drama here does not play out; one figures it out. Carell is especially worth dwelling on amid an unexceptionable cast. And such a story is come by rarely. So it’s good to be given it by all of them. And you will not waste your time spending a couple of hours with it.


The Railway Man

30 Apr

The Railway Man – directed by Jonathan Teplisky. BioPic. 116 minutes Color 2013.


The Story: A middle-aged couple’s new marriage is about to be sabotaged by the history of the husband’s prisoner-of-war experience under the Japanese.~

It is excruciating.

In two senses. One is that the film shows the screaming brutality of the Japanese, their demented rage, their maniacal beatings, their sadistic torture. I lived through that era and remember well “those dirty Japs,” and I wonder now how it was possible for a whole people to behave this way. Now that I say this, I must also say that I got this information from what I have seen in war movies at the time – and this one. But still, inside the Japanese then was the capacity of wolverines. A viciousness so extreme it may be, as suggested by one of its perpetrators here, that it came from their being told that the Japanese could not lose – a lie that triggered the chaos that comes from a sense of unbridled power.

It is excruciating also in that all this is prolonged by a narrative style that asks us to fill in blanks, which we do not have sufficient identification with the characters as given to do. But the real excruciation is the way it is filmed, which is in a sort of perfumed haze, so that nothing is quite immediate. It is as though the whole thing had been slipcovered in makeup like Joan Crawford. It is very pretty and you can never quite get to it.

The story tells of Eric Lomax, a young British radio operator taken when the English army surrendered Singapore. He becomes a car mechanic but conspires with his fellow prisoners to assemble a radio to listen to broadcasts. When the Japanese discover it, he takes responsibility. They torture him to tell what he was broadcasting. He is caged, water boarded, beaten. Over and over. That he survives is astonishing.

A back and forth narrative works well. The corny staging of the resolution does not work well, but is still affecting, and a great moral lesson inheres in it. But it does not inhere in the movie, because the movie lacks internal life. The structure does not correspond to the outer story. The marriage is set aside as a narrative force, for one thing, and for another Nicole Kidman as the wife is miscast. The wife needs to be more ordinary. Kidman, of course, is good, but the part needs to be played by an actress with a broader foundation.

The young Eric Lomax is well cast and played by Jeremy Irvine; he has something of the mouth and the speech pattern of the older Lomax. But, as the older Lomax, Colin Firth is a dead hand. I do not see anything in Colin Firth. He is an actor who just stands there and expects you to do something about it. I do not find him permeable. I do not find his face interesting or sensitive. I do not understand what others see in him or why he should be up there before me. I cannot be for him; I cannot be against him; I find him inert.

And I do not gladly fill in his blanks, nor the enormous spaces between speeches, nor the narrative lacunae in this remarkable story of a moral, brave, and resilient human being.



29 Jan

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Two-Lane Blacktop

25 Apr

Two-Lane Blacktop — directed by Monte Hellman. Road Picture. Two cars race across the U.S. to Washington D.C. 102 minutes. Color 1971.


The resuscitation of this film appears like King Tut’s tomb, for it is presented with all its golden burial items: two discs, with extras, and the full screenplay, and a booklet of reviews and notices and appreciations of yore. I did not see it when it came out. The first time I saw Rudy Wurlitzer who wrote it we were both stark naked in the locker room when we were undergraduates at Columbia together and the last time I saw him was in his place on East 14 Street (am I right?) where a very pregnant Viva was banging at his door unceasingly. This piece and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid had received all sorts of interesting attention, (“Rolling Stone” articles hardly qualifies Two-Lane Blacktop for underground classichood: After all, the screenplay was publish in its entirely in Esquire), and envy won the day, and I declined to attend. This was foolish, for the film is simple and good. I am not quite sure it should have been made in color, but it is. But I also stayed away because James Taylor was in it, and I objected to singing stars in high drama, although I saw Pat Garrett which had two of them, and Rudy and I talked about that too, but more of that elsewhere. The James Taylor music was of a younger generation, and my romantic days were over, and I was bitter, although there was a song, “Fire and Rain,” sung in a big plain style that moved me wholly then, although I didn’t know who was singing it or who had written it. I figured James Taylor was a mellow fellow, and also Jello. I figured he was too accessible. And I didn’t like his nasty face. You see, I was wrong all along. With his young man’s voice, James Taylor (an enneagram 6, I do believe) is still doing what he did then; he has not evolved – but that’s because he was born evolved. He was born as what he was meant to be – a voice — although he certainly has husbanded his gifts – and here he is only 22, and he doesn’t sing at all. What is there to object to? I’ll tell you what. He is not an actor, and there are two other principles in the piece who are not actors either. They can’t speak lines. Regarding cars, you never believe a word that mechanic says about engines. What you do believe is his and Taylor’s taciturnity. But it is a silly bias to imagine that people who are quiet are more profound than those with a lot to say. The trouble is that there is one real actor in the piece, and it is so noticeable such that when Warren Oates appears everyone else disappears, because he really belongs up there and the others don’t. Wurlitzer has written a marvelous part for him, the part of a know-it all fabulist whose dreams of grandeur and great accomplishment actually formulate the story and underpin the truth of the piece. I was held by it. The director is extremely shrewd in his disposition of his “performers”, and it is his pleasure to wring many variations on his theme, turning it inside out and upside down without ever betraying its integrity. Everything in Two-Lane Blacktop seems just and fair – and also eccentric since it is a picaresque adventure in which Dulcinea goes along for the ride. The picture is better now than it ever could have been before because it is free of the trappings of its fad — the hollow halo of its alternate lifestyle. All my annoyance is gone. If yours is too or was never there to begin with, take a ride with these four. There’s something here to learn, and, like me, you could do a lot worse. By the way, the extra disc and bonus materials are fabulous — the best I have ever seen offered for a film.


The Deep Blue Sea – 2012

04 Apr

The Deep Blue Sea — directed by Terence Davies. Romantic Drama. A woman gives her life for a man who loves her but not exactly as she wishes. 98 minutes Color 2012.


Its leads are three very good actors, of whom two are miscast. I saw this play with Peggy Ashcroft in London in 1953. Then I saw it in New Haven with Margaret Sullavan. Then in the first movie with Vivien Leigh. Now here with Rachel Weisz. Of the first three actresses playing Hester (shades of The Scarlet Letter?) only Ashcroft had the chops for the part. And all three actresses were over 40. A Phaedra story, the boy friend, associated with the husband and betraying him, must be much younger in years and energy. It’s important that all this be so, for it represents the last chance the woman has for great love. Their age difference makes her situation teeter on the brink, for if she loses that love, she will be a middle aged woman with no skills and no access to polite society, on her own in the world and no chance for love again. So to cast Rachel Weisz in this part is to lose all of that, for she is a 30 year old beauty with many years of beauty before her and she is smart and interesting. She is much too young for the part, and the boyfriend is the same age as she is. So it is with astonishment that I discover that Rachel Weisz is actually over 40. But, boy, oh boy, she does not appear to be. So what we have here instead with this actress is a woman who probably has never known sexual desperation, for she is an actress so beautiful she can pick and choose, and one who cannot or does not choose to carry the physical requirement for the part which demands exhaustion, shoulders and spirit too bent with the wisdom of the facts to be able to go on living. Also miscast is Simon Russell Beale, another good actor, but one who possess no competition for the Weisz character; he is too old looking; he is too white bearded; he is too out of shape. And he is also presented as a disloyal mama’s boy in scenes very well played by Ann Mitchel as dame bitch – scenes not in the play and accorded to the film only to demonstrate his unattractiveness to Weisz, his wife – the result being that his character is a foregone conclusion as soon as he appears, and presents no force in the play. This is one of several miscalculations on the part of the director/rewriter, errors which make his part incoherent, since he is presently presented as a kindly person indeed. The entire drama then must fall on the boyfriend and on Weisz. The boyfriend is played by Tom Hiddleston who is 30, and he is well cast, but we are not given anything in the script now to suggest what the Weisz character would see in him, save that he is young, good looking, and a great lay, none of which add up to a grand passion on their own. Kenneth More, who played it with Ashcroft and Leigh, brought to the character a lot of fun, a naughty energy, the lawlessness of a gambling rake and libertine, a big difference from the stuffy world of Judge Sir William and Lady Collyer from which Hester has come. But the real difficulty with the story would seem to lie in the material itself: a Grand Passion ending. In a Grand Passion one is in love not with the other, but with the feeling of passion inside oneself. A Grand Passion is the desire to possess the life of another, to devour that life, to have that life become one’s own. It is very convincing. And means you cannot call your soul your own – which is why you wish to die from it. But none of the characters have any inkling of this. Each in his own way wants it to be over, that is all. So one looks upon this passion here, which is photographed as through a veil or film, with a certain impatience and remove. We experience enormous empty spaces between these characters, unexplored by the script and director, but symptomized by the pauses between the lines. He has taken depth for granted. But we cannot. And he ends the story incorrectly with Weisz standing at the window of a bright new day, when the original play closes as it began with her stuffing the door with rags so that the suicidal gas she is about to turn on again will finally kill her.


In Old Arizona

16 Mar

In Old Arizona — directed by Raoul Walsh and Irving Cummings. Western. 97 minutes Black and White 1929.


Walsh loved the new sound technology. And so he decided to direct the first outdoor talkie. Off to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks he went with a crew. He was to direct and star as the Cisco Kid. He shot a lot of film, and driving back from Bryce, his car hit a hare, which flew up into the windshield and struck him, shattering the glass and blinding him in one eye. He was no longer a movie star. He lost his left eye. Irving Cummings finished the film. But the departure of the stage and big spectacle of the West with which the film began and which became the earmark of his subsequent Westerns were in place. He himself is in all the distance shots, but Buddy Roosevelt was cast as the Cisco Kid, though Buddy broke a leg, and was replaced by Warner Baxter who won the Oscar for the best actor of the year for this performance. Baxter actually looks ridiculous in Cisco’s hat and rig; but he has a lot of fun with the character. The cues are not Hollywood Crisp yet, but the actors are physically sound in their movement. But that’s not why one watches this milestone film. People were amazed at the picture; it caused a sensation: sound actually faded as people walked away, just like in real life! Walsh recovered, wore an eye patch for the rest of his life, and went right back to work, no trouble. “I would direct Victor McLaglen as Litle Red Riding Hood!”  He went on to become one of film’s greatest directors, though not of this one, and in two years was to direct the greatest Western I have ever seen, The Big Trail. The public was fascinated with Baxter’s voice and with that of Edmund Lowe who plays the jackass soldier from Brooklyn full of himself set to track Cisco down. Lowe is good at it, but amusement with him flags as the dialogue scenes go on interminably, camera in one place, terrified to move because of the static sound equipment. Musical interludes pad the lack of action. All these scenes were directed by Cummings. In fact the film is largely given over to this actor and his lengthy wooing of Cisco’s girl, a mercurial and mercenary conchita played with much posturing by Dorothy Burgess. On the xylophone of human emotions she is able to strike a note. Lowe strikes another. Of course, it is being filmed by one of the great cameramen, Arthur Edeson, later to film Casablanca. But the film feels like one long screeching halt. All that happens is a huge hesitation of sandwich-filling between the crust of the stage hold-up at the start and the stale bread of the finale. One wishes Walsh had directed it all. Or is it too late for wishes? I think so.




We Need To Talk About Kevin

04 Mar

We Need To Talk About Kevin — directed by Lynne Ramsay. Drama. A mother rears a bad seed child. 112 minutes Color 2012.

Portentously simple, this film purports to have us believe that the mother does not learn that her child needs a good spanking. What we get instead is floating curtains, and opaque cuts, and dialogue overlaps, and tell-tale country songs. The story is told as though the director had not heard that motion pictures had even been invented, for the entire piece is told in terms of almost immobile stills. So the film is pictorial but lacks motion. It moves from one stalled stall to the next. The three actors who play the youth are good, but their scenes never convince because the main actor Tilda Swinton is miscast as a pliant, supine, co-dependent, doormat before this child’s depredations. Swinton is an actor of genius but only in the right role, and walking around with a blank stare and her mouth hanging open does not work, or rather the distance it takes us is not very far. Swinton is a being of more mettle than this, which means by definition she cannot play this drab. The question is then both that we lose patience with the fact that she does not lose patience, and we lose patience with the story itself. One cannot get either to the bottom of her character or to that of her son. One cannot even try. John C. Reilly is grand as the jolly husband, a part whose jingle bell shakes one note, though Reilly, as usual, makes it seem if not more at least other. The director appears to have come down with a terrible case of Ingmar Bergman. And there is nothing to do for the entire project but recommend a long bed rest and full quarantine.



The Greatest Story Ever Told

13 Feb

The Greatest Story Ever Told — directed by George Stevens. A prophet appears in the ancient Middle East and is believed and followed and then beset by political superstition.

3 hours and 19 minutes, Color, 1965.


It is not fair of me to review this film, for I have not seen it in a movie theatre, but only on my TV, which, while it is fairly large, cannot do justice to the size of the screen for which it was made. When Stevens was asked to choose between Panasonic and super-Panasonic, he chose the latter, although only two such cameras were available. Others were soon found. And the film was made as a story dependent upon its narration for a huge broad screen. Stevens had been a cameraman for years before he became a director, and he could combine the integrity of his material with the size of the canvas upon which he painted. The sort of the story and its telling were intrinsic to the size of the screen. The one had to do with the other, and to see this film on a TV screen is simply for most of it to fail to register as story. Or so I imagine. It may not be the Greatest Film ever made but it must be the most gorgeous. After research in the Holy Land, Stevens made it in remote Arizona settings which resembled that land of long ago. The flooding of Lake Powell was halted so it could be filmed as the Sea of Galilee. The settings are vast and panoramic and are meant, I believe to buoy up the power of the actions on the screen into a spiritual or at least other world dimension, and this I think they may succeed in doing. The individual scenes are made with Stevens’ unerring sense of beauty; he was inspired by famous paintings and their lighting; many interiors are dark and mysterious, lit for chiaroscuro and for effects which his simple camera setups were primed. Max Von Sydow is fine as Jesus as an actor, but no one else comes up to be as good as to be even bad. Great actors like Van Heflin look as uncomfortable in their sandals as everyone else; God, their feet must have hurt. The crowd scenes are just like all Hollywood crowd scenes, a lot of people shaking their fists in the air at the same time unconvincingly. No one is at home their costumes. The actors pause portentous eons between syllables, except for Jose Ferrer who mercifully picks up all his cues and for Claude Rains who gets on with it also. Charlton Heston is well cast as the humorless John The Baptist and delvers his lines through his stentorian teeth like a baleen whale in a vomitorium. Sal Mineo is marvelous as a cripple who is able to walk; his is the best performance in the film and probably of his career. Sometimes the old sermons are moving, but the picture does not seem to be, except once, when Sydney Poitier picks up the cross from Jesus’ stumbled back and helps him along with it. Much of the heart of the film seems to be kept at a distance, a beautiful distance, true. The miracles are all off to one side, never shown; only their effect is shown. The effect of Jesus on his apostles is never shown, always granted. Eventually, the film got out of control, and Jean Negulesco shot the Jerusalem street scenes and David Lean cast and shot the Claude Rains sequence. Alfred Newman scored it with ancient instruments, his own score, and Handel’s Messiah which is quite grating. Some day if I have the chance I will see this film in a movie house. William Mellor, Stevens’ favorite photographer shot it, and there isn’t a scene in it that isn’t rapturously beautiful. From a camera point of view. Whether from a human point of view and a narrative point of view, I wonder.


The Omen 666

24 Jan

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


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

Michael Gambon, Mia Farrow


Life In The Time Of War

19 Sep

Life During War – directed by Todd Solondz. Satirical Drama. The effect of child molesters on their families. 97 minutes Color 2009.

* * * *

The title is not only counter-invitational but inaccurate, and if it is not inaccurate it is pretentious, and if it is not pretentious it is SYMBOLIC, like someone’s dirty underwear turned inside out and hung up on the clothesline as though it were washed. The picture is also oddly photographed with color filters which make it all seem to be taking place inside a jukebox. This distances it from us. This is odd because the content of the scenes would be intimate if the written responses were plausible which they often aren’t: A mother telling her ten-year-old boy about her love life, a couple being spit at in a restaurant, a ten-year-old boy taking on because he believes he is being molested. To make any of this work, requires acting skill of a genius which some of the actors do not possess. The final scene of the picture is so badly written it is unactable, and is acted badly, and the scene leading up to it likewise. This leaves us with Allison Janney, the great, playing an inane housewife whose husband is jailed for molestation, and everything she does is on the money, both in terms of physical movement and in terms of tone. Shirley Henderson, the English Jennifer Jason Leigh, plays a forty year old woman dressed like a child, except without a child’s gumption. The character is hard to take but not impossible to take, because her lines ring true. And then there is Charlotte Rampling terrifying as a monster picked up in a bar by Ciarán Hinds and perfectly illustrative of the toilsome nature of sex. Renée Taylor is a welcome sight as the Jewish mother of three daughters, the last of whon is played by Ally Sheedy in a brilliantly set and played scene of consummate Hollywood self-involvement. Ciarán Hinds looms gravely, tragically, throughout the film, finally turning up in the background of the last scene as though he could actually resume relations with the Janney wife whose banality would have helped drive him off to start with. She’s not a woman with ideals but only idealizations. There is no conversation possible with her. She can only lie and not know it. The picture is a sequel, with different actors, to the director’s Happiness. It is well worth watching, but not because of its theme of forgiveness, for people never seem to say, “I’m sorry,” but only “Forgive me,” which is not the same thing at all. But still the hand of the director is unusual in its lifelines and worth regarding in its truths and untruths.





The New World

06 Jul

The New World. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Historical drama.  A native Indian princess is wooed by two suitors in 1607. Pocahontas. 135 minutes Color 2005.

* * * * *

Colin Farrell and Christian Bale are the suitors for the hand of Pocahontas, but neither of the men is the focal character of the story. That falls to Q’Orianka Kilcher who plays the Indian maiden and plays her with great delicacy and meaning. It is probably not possible to imagine another actor to do it so well. There is that in her which carries the film’s 2 1/2 hours, and everything human in the film depends upon her performance, which grows and grows on one, just as it should do. The film recounts the miserable beginnings of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, its various early difficulties and resolutions. But the story itself is a grand romance, simple, and extended, for it unfolds, dignified and stately, as it probably did from the time Pocahontas threw herself across the body of John Smith to save him from death, to her subsequent history with John Rolfe. The story is very old- fashioned, for both men keep their hands off the maiden, whom both of them love, to be sure. Farrell woes her with his big brown eyes full of pain and fear; Bale woes her with his little brown eyes full of patience and doubt. But then Romance, by definition, depends upon separation. Lovers must be kept apart for Romance to work. Smith, it would seem, is her true mate, but is marriage-shy. But I say no more about the story, for there is so little to tell, that I would give away the entire plot in a sentence if I spoke more. The colony built on site at Jamestown certainly rings true, and so do the Indian villages. Unfortunately the crowd scenes are very badly directed and quite silly and unconvincing. No one is bloodthirsty; everyone is out to perform an honest tourist demonstration; it just won’t do. But the picture itself is beautifully filmed, of course, as are all Malick’s pictures, and abetted by music written one and two and three hundred years later, which Malick knows perfectly well, and which I found charming and right. A fine family film and most satisfying.







Winter Solstice

18 Apr

Winter Solstice — Directed and Written by Josh Sternfeld. Domestic Drama. A father and his two teenage sons struggle to hold things together. 89 minutes Color 2004


Why do screenwriters steal from screenwriters? The tradition goes so far back it should by now agree to fall into the dark of prehistory. For the result is that screen scripts play like screen scripts and not like any recognizable form of real speech and action, and worse: play without any responsibility to entertain. In real life, humans have more zest, more character, more wit, than what is borrowed from screen scripts. No one in this movie talks like any human really talks, or responds as people really respond. In fact, they don’t even breathe like anyone really breathes. If the pauses had been deleted the picture would have been quicker than a cartoon. Films, drama depend upon having interesting people in them to say interesting things; it’s a must, and no actor in this picture, in and of himself (unless you’re someone on the order of Spenser Tracy, Edward G. Robinson) has sufficient natural interest with which to fill those Mojave pauses. Competent acting is not enough. Allison Janney alone brings her richness of humor before us for our blessed relief. If you watch her negotiate this paltry script, you can see how her natural gift supplants every platitude  and every longueur with life. As to the rest, it is tv acting at its most deplorable. The screenwriter’s choices are viciously dull. When the boys are not insolent they are sappy. When the father is not dreary, he is weak. If people were really like this, one would certainly not want to make a film about them, would one; indeed, were life like this, one would not even wish to be alive.



Mad Love

28 Mar

Mad Love –– directed by Antonia Bird –– a young man falls for a nutcase –– 96 minutes 1995.


You cannot pick the lice of this picture fast enough to outrace their replacements. The script is the first louse in that it depicts what no human would do or get away with doing under the circumstances. The second louse is that the script gives us no characters, only premises conterfeiting characters: the girl is mad and the boy falls madly in love with her: this does not constitute character. For the third louse, we have lines no human would say. For the fourth, we have direction aimed to slant us to forgiving what is unforgivable and to find dear what is reprhensible. We also have a director who allows the principal actors to fake it. Which brings us to the fifth and sixth louse, neither of whom have enough substance as humans to hold our interest. Chris O’Donnell is not a bad actor at all, but he stands with Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey as unwatchable because the corners of his mouth naturally turn up in a constant smug self-satisfied smile. It’s not his fault, but I can’t bear to look at him. Finally, we come to the sixth louse, Drew Barrymore who gives a performance which she will live to be ashamed of if she lives to be as old as her grand-aunt, whose jaw line and chin she inherited, along with the high bridge of the Barrymore nose, and the family toleration for hackwork. Her performance here is infested with cheap choices, for she loads every scene she plays with a pitch for our sympathy. She was 20 when this was done, and her behavior is cute beyond recognition. Her miscalculation is to play innocence and pain, which, of course, must come across as self-pity, whereas she would have been smarter to play out-and-out fury, which would have produced sympathy. This brings us to the un-lice, Joan Allen as the mother. She has but one tiny acting scene, in a school psychologist’s office, with her husband, well-played by Robert Nadir. Allen gives him a look in which an entire family history is lodged. But this is but a great actress, calm and untouched amid a plague of lice.



Between Strangers

18 Mar

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


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

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