Archive for the ‘Cloris Leachman: acting goddess’ Category

High Anxiety

25 Oct

High Anxiety – written and directed by Mel Brooks. Parody. A psychotherapist finds himself at the head of a clinic whose staff wants to murder him. 94 minutes Color 1977.
Some people are inherently funny. Some people can do funny things. Some people can conceive of funny things to do. Cloris Leachman and Madeline Kahn fall into the first and greatest of these categories. There is something in them which, called upon, embodies, with all due and necessary exaggeration, human nature at its most deeply cartoonish. Harvey Korman falls into the second category: he can do funny things, so he can support those who are inherently funny. While Mel Brooks is neither inherently funny nor can he do funny things, what he can do is conceive funny things to do – which makes him a writer and a director. But, while his conceptions may look funny on paper, when performed, they are often not funny at all, because either they or his capacity to act them and to direct them are inadequate. Here, for instance, in a series of parodies of Hitchcock, he finds himself in a park being shit on by a thousand birds. What would Charlie Chaplin have done? I don’t know, but the situation requires great delicacy of response from the actor, and Chaplin (who falls into all three categories) would have found great and hilarious daintiness in being shit on by a thousand birds. All Brooks can do is run away. It is not a comic solution, is it? It is crude. Think what a vaudevillian, who cannot run away because he is on the stage, would have done with this. What saves Brooks is that he has an abundance of ideas and he has talented people executing them. And that he is having a good time and he has a big heart. The film as whole works well as a collection of skits on Hitchcock. We have The Birds; we have The Wrong Man with two men wrongfully accused; we have Foreign Agent and the windmill; we have Vertigo, San Francisco, and fear of heights; we have Mel Brooks being stabbed to death in the shower by a psycho bellboy; we have Brooks meeting Kahn at the northwest corner of Golden Gate Park; we have the Hitchcock blond in the form of Kahn’s Niagara wig; we even have Michael Chekov from Spellbound as Brooks’ old professor. Low comedy should make us guffaw and fall off our chairs laughing. Brooks may not be to my taste, but I love to guffaw and fall off my chair laughing. Still, this is an amiable nonsense, and one could do worse than watch it – which is to paint with damn phrase.



13 Dec

Spanglish — Directed and written by James L. Brooks. Family Comedy/Drama. The chaos of an L.A. well-to-do family realigns itself into a brand new chaos. 131 minutes Color 2004.

* * * * *

Téa Leoni! I had never seen her before, but what an actress! (She reminds me of that daring beauty Jill Clayburgh.) Willing to go to any lengths to reveal the truth of the character, she inspires my deep bow of appreciation. She plays a woman so self-indulgent and voluble you could smack her, were she not at the same time, for very innocence and complete ignorance of herself, completely lovable. Spouting a torrent of California human-potential flapdoodle, she is up against a husband who understands her perfectly and who also understand himself and who also understands everyone else, including the new maid, a young mother who speaks no English whatsoever, for she has been barriod since she fled across the Mexican border with her young daughter now thirteen. Adam Sandler plays the hubby and, while his playing often resorts to the strategy of looking away, around, and back at those who confront him, he is a model of kindly and good humored equanimity in the turmoil of the house, or houses, since they move to Malibu for the summer, with the maid, the maid’s daughter, their two children, and his wife’s drunk mother, played by the incomparable Cloris Leachman. Everyone in this film has a big heart. And that’s the ground of its success as a story. On that necessary foundation is laid a marvelous piece of dialogue-writing, and you can just see every actor rejoice to be able to finally say decent, nay, wonderful lines. Motion pictures are about the actions speech leads to. So one leans forward with delight as these relationships unfold in what is said, in repartee – particularly since the maid, played by Paz Vega, speaks no English at all. Leoni speaks too much English; Vega none. The story probably started out as an examination of the Leoni/Sandler marriage, judging by the deleted scenes, but it also started out as an exposition of the conflict between love for one’s mate and love for one’s children. And this last is the direction the story ends up going, the marriage, quite rightly, left hanging at the curtain. This bifurcation of intention throws a veil over the piece, so you don’t really know where it is going, which is to the good. And it provides a ground for surprise as well. Every actor is excellent. The film has a big glow of real warmth, a glow which is never stoked by sentimentality. I would not suppose I could identify with people in this particular Southern California world, but I do, and I recommend that you do too. A warning, though: Skip the Director’s Commentary. He cheapens the film by being unprepared, facetious, and offering crude praise. Commentators: never wing it! Otherwise, don’t miss it.




Kiss Me Deadly

14 Nov

Kiss Me Deadly — Directed by Richard Aldrich. Private Eye Flick. An L.A. detective tracks down the killer of a hitchhiker he picked up. 106 minutes Black and White 1955

* *

Howard Hawks should sue for criminal impersonation. Instead of The Big Sleep, Aldrich has made The Big Sleaze.  It is peopled by women who ravage the person of Mike Hammer on sight. They simply will not stop kissing him, and he will not stop discarding them like lint as soon as they do. Hawks’ famous females of sexual insolence are thus degraded to nymphomania, and Mike Hammer would have had to have had the sexual solidity of a pepper mill to respond, but he brooks no distraction, for he is not hot on the tail but hot on the trail. Aldrich seems to be a very bad director, and now that he is dead we can malign him as such with impunity if not with glee. For he makes the mistake which Hawks never made, of very fancy camera angles at every turn. Ernest Laszlo shot every scene from some crazy place, every scene with something jutting in the foreground, every scene as though Max Ophuls were the director. I would like to bet that the result is that it took so long to set up these scenes that the actors had no time to rehearse. The result is that every actor in the cast is absolutely lousy, even the great Cloris Leachman who is out of this farrago early, since she plays the hitchhiker. The one actor who does not suffer is Ralph Meeker who is just dandy as Hammer. Skip it.



A Brand New Life

04 Dec

A Brand New Life – directed by Sam O’Steen – drama of a middle-aged couple and a baby – 74 minutes, color, 1973

* * * *

This picture brings together the great Mildred Dunnock, the wonderful Wilfred Hyde-White, and Cloris Leachman and Martin Balsam who are perfectly beautiful as the principal players of two middle aged careerists who find themselves surprisingly pregnant. This film is modest and economic in its telling. Mildred Dunnock’s big scene is done as a master shot without a single close-up. She doesn’t need one. You cannot take your eyes off her. Cloris Leachman and Martin Balsam are master actors at the peak of their powers in roles you wouldn’t associate them with. Both are absolutely ingratiating in everything they do. It’s a pleasure to behold them. The picture is simple and affecting. It accomplishes what it sets out to do. What more can you ask?


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