Archive for the ‘Light Comedy’ Category

The Hundred Foot Journey

18 Nov

The Hundred-Foot Journey – directed by Lasse Halleström. Gastronomical Romance. 122 minutes Color 2014.


The Story: The melding of classic French and classic East Indian cultures and cuisines unites four lovers of food and one another.


Do not waste the 35 seconds it takes to read the following.

The personalities of a French country restaurant serving classic cuisine do battle with the spices and innovation that waft over from across the street.

Helen Mirren has created one of her not infrequent masterpieces of human character in Madam Mallory, the restauranteuse. She can’t stand that her Michelin star is 100 feet across the road where an Indian family has moved to a village in France to open their Indian restaurant there. The young master-chef is played by handsome dish Manish Dayal. The luminous light of India shines from beneath his rich, honest brows. Om Puri is the paterfamilias of the six young Indians who build the restaurant from scratch. He is an actor of triple subtexts, delicious to watch and enjoy. And the sou-chef from Mirren’s kitchen who helps and falls in love with Manish Dayal is played by the angel-food actress Charlotte Le Bon.

Do not read farther. You have been forbidden. Your job is mouth watering. Your job is appreciation of your own good taste. Your job is to draw up your chair and feast on this movie.

If Helen Mirren at her best were not enough, the heart-warming story would be. And if that were not enough, the Steven Spielberg production would be.

And if you know how it will end from the very beginning, so what? The virtue of a ritual lies not in the novelty of its form but in the freshness of the truth it contains.

What are you sitting there for? Get to your Netflix, nip down to your library and take out the DVD. It’s less than a 100-foot journey to your own delight.






02 Nov

Departures – directed by Tojiro Takita. Dramedy. 130 minutes Color 2006.


The Story: A young married man answers an employment ad and finds himself involved in a career of which no one in his family or nation approves.


I start this review by telling you that this film won the 2006 Oscar for The Best Foreign Film to captivate you into leaping into ordering it from your library or Netflix or Amazon or Santa Claus.

I have this terrible habit of criticizing films. Of course, one does this because one is addicted to the word “Halleluiah!” One wants to tell the glad tidings and bear the good news. It’s a foolish habit. But such a film as this makes it imperative to my soul, and I forgive myself for it – and for everything else besides.

This film was originally designed by the actor who plays the leading role, and he certainly is a great star. He has all the eccentricity and immediacy of a great star. And the looks. No film company wanted to make it. He held out. When it was made, everyone on Earth went to it.

Masahiro Matoki plays opposite the most charming actress in the world, Ryoko Hirosue, she who adores him, fosters him, and puts her foot down hard on his when she finds out what he does for a living.

Kimiko Yo plays the Gal Friday of the firm, and she has been around several blocks, you can tell. The formidable Tsutomu Yamazaki is the boss of both of them, never predicable, always rigorous. A great actor at work.

The film is shot in a plain manner that makes things surprising when they appear before one.

The direction devotes itself to a simplicity which encourages the comedy into our eyes without blistering them.

I don’t want to talk much about this film, except to say it is engrossing, expressive, different, and dear. I don’t describe it because to do so would be to betray its surprises and preempt its beauty and its fun. Let’s just say it’s just what film is for! I know you will enjoy it as much as I did. That’s my rash hope. But then hope is always rash, is it not?

I say no more. Except watch it. Watch it. Watch it.



The Duff

13 Mar

The Duff – directed by Ari Sandel. Comedy. 101 minutes Color 2015.


The Story: The cutest boy in high school tutors the most unlikely girl to stop being a Designated Ugly Fat Friend.


Wow! It’s good to see people new to me up there, so skilled and entertaining and likable.

Mae Whiteman is the Designated Ugly Fat Friend of two dream-chicks in high school. Robbie Amell plays her dream-boat boy-next-door pal who tutors her to be a glamorpuss, Ken Jeong is uproarious as the faculty adviser on the school paper. And we have the incomparable Allison Janney as the jilted mother who finds Her True Calling.

I sat back and loved this comedy. Yes, it has to do with teenagers. But, oh yes, it is brilliantly played by these actors. So funny. So quick. So smart in their craft. So willing to entertain.

You know by now that I love the comedies of The Golden Age. They still entertain 60 years later – some of them – and, while it is as true that The Duff is played with the humor of the age we live in just as the comedies of The Golden Age Of Film were played in the humor of that time and world-set, so The Duff too will amuse our human understanding and settle our desire for entertainment 60 years hence too, I do suspect.

I went to see it for Allison Janney, of course. I cannot do without her. She is necessary to me as fresh water. And no more than fresh water does she disappoint.

For Allison Janney is the champagne of fresh water!



Song Of The Thin Man

15 Jun

Song Of The Thin Man – directed by Edward Buzzell. Comedy WhoDunIt. A nightclub owner elopes with an heiress, and someone is killed on a gambling boat who shouldn’t be, and a clarinetist goes nuts, and the Charles’ little boy is kidnaped, and …oh, to heck with it. Asta solves the crime as usual. 86 minutes Black and White 1947.
A jolly picture, indeed.

There’s a lot of forced jive talk, much of it executed by Keenan Wynn. And Gloria Graham sings a number in a gold gown that you must not deny yourself a gander at. Patricia Morrison is the lady of Leon Ames (never without a smoke in his chops), Don Taylor as the demented dypso, Ralph Morgan as a tycoon, Jayne Meadows as the society bitch, Marie Windsor as a gangster’s tomato. Connie Gilchrist is the maid once more. Esther Howard has a neat moment as a counter woman. That best of all child actors, Dean Stockwell is Nick Junior, and Asta Junior plays Asta, since this of 1947 was the last of the Thin Man Movies and the first was in 1934.

Myrna Loy said she felt the movie did not work, because their favorite director had died, but in fact it works as well as any of them, and in exactly the same way as they all do. For as Loy also said, what she felt the public liked was that they seem to be included in an amusing conversation between two smart and affectionate married people.

William Powell is all that deftness might define. And Loy assumes her position of proud and knowing spouse, never to appear in less than radiant costume, by Irene, her gorgeous hair-dos by Sydney Guilaroff. We just want to love her.

The badinage and banter is from a previous era, true but we do not mind now, and they did not mind then, because nobody ever really talked like that, but everybody wished they did.  The picture was a big hit.

And the plot when it unravels is completely incomprehensible, as usual. This was the era of Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep where no one ever could figure out what had really happened, and, it all went by so fast, no one had the chance to. Same thing here with Dashiell Hammett. But that it is a price we rejoice to pay since that is not why we watched the movie to begin with. We watched it to partake of the highball of all highballs, as though we were sophisticates too.

We’re still that way.



18 May

Emma – written and directed by Douglas McGrath. High Comedy. A young woman tries her pretty hand at match-making, with unexpected comical results. 121 minutes Color 1996.


Yes, a timeless comedy. And in a rare version of it, the director/writer of Emma has reduced a novel of over 600 pages in which nothing happens at all, which has no plot, no story, and which all we are concerned with is who is visiting whom next – and which, once taken up, it is impossible to put down.

For here we have, in Jane Austin’s hand, the creation of a character in Emma of Shakespearean veracity.

You read along, and you cannot help but love her, because she always means well and she is always absolutely wrong. From the point of view of character creation, Emma is a masterpiece of human life, someone who simply stands apart from the novel and walks around through its pages as though she wrote them herself, foibles and all. Like Falstaff, Emma has a life of her own.

Two exceptions worth making to this highly entertaining film.

Ewan McGregor is not only badly miscast; he also, one after another, looks terrible in his costumes And he also cannot play the part. The part of Frank Churchill is the best looking male in the story: he is devastating to women; he is high-spirited, he is dark, he is slender; he is beautifully turned out, he cuts a wonderful figure; he is lots of fun. But McGregor is accoutered in a hideous blond wig, his clothes are dowdy and don’t fit through the shoulders, he is frumpy of temperament, wants joi de vivre, wants mystery, and, in short, is so clunky no woman would look twice at him nor any man envy him.

The second exception is that the story does depend upon Emma’s falling for Churchill, sign of which gives her true love long pause. This movement is omitted, and so when Jeremy Northam must question it we have no idea what he could mean.

Otherwise the film is a gem. Otherwise if there is anything to forgive it is not worth noticing. We have Phyllida Law, a study as old Mrs Bates, Polly Walker perfect as the reserved and beauteous Jane Fairfax, Juliet Stephenson hilarious as the society-bitch Mrs Elton, Sophie Thompson as the impossibly voluble Miss Bates, Greta Sacchi kindness itself as Mrs Weston (née Taylor), Alan Cumming as the worry-wart health-nut Mr, Woodhouse, Emma’s father, whom she so much resembles. And Toni Colette, an actress who probably can do no wrong, as the gullible teenager Harriet Smith.

But the jewel in this jewel, the heart of its heart, is the big-hearted Gwyneth Paltrow, perfect.

Until Gwyneth Paltrow, no true ingénue has appeared in film since Audrey Hepburn.  Until she retired, Hepburn played with the energy of it , even in dramatic roles, such as The Nun’s Story, for she was never a dramatic actress. But Gwyneth Paltrow finally, also, had the perfect collection of ingénue attributes, yet, after her two wonderful comedies – and ingénues must be introduced in comedy – Paltrow embarked on serious dramatic roles much more demanding that those which Audrey Hepburn took on after Sabrina and Roman Holiday. Paltrow’s two comedies were this and Shakespeare In Love, both high style costume pieces, and both requiring an upper class English accent.

But what are the qualities of the ingénue?

Many actresses have played ingénue roles without being true ingénues: Helena Bonham-Carter, Susannah York come to mind.  For someone has to play them. The ingénue is most often the second female lead, playing opposite the juvenile or jeune premier, both just under the leading lady and leading man. Thus: Hero in Much Ado About Nothing and Bianca in The Taming Of The Shrew.

But what does the true ingénue, Audrey Hepburn and Gwyneth Paltrow, have in common that  the others do not have?  What makes them true ingénues?

Well, both are tall, slender, and have long necks, and are elegant of mein. Both in private are clothes horses and on screen wear clothes well. That’s  nice, but they alone do not do it.

Both have charming, well-placed, cultivated speaking voices. Both are bright. Both are sexually innocent. Both are pretty in a way no one else is.

In both instances, they have radiant smiles.

And both are under or appear to be always 21.

But, most important, both are fresh.

And both have real big hearts.

They do not play second leads. They play leading roles because they are rare.

They are absolutely for some reason adorable, for, as soon as you see them, you fall in love with them as you would with an enchanting child.

This is the reason to see Emma. To see a magical young girl whom you have no will to resist being charmed by.

What a treat for you.

Gwyneth Paltrow this year was voted the most beautiful woman in the world. She is now 41. That freshness still remains. And – the most beautiful woman in the world because so endearing for having – its so obvious – the biggest heart you ever saw.


Together Again

11 Feb

Together Again – directed by Charles Vidor. Romantic Comedy. The square mayor of a small town falls apart over the sculptor she hires to make a statue of her former husband. 93 minutes. Black and White. 1944.

Irene Dunne is 46 when she makes this, and Charles Boyer is 45. Those were the days! They had grown-ups in movies.

The title is a publicity scheme to announce the re-mating of the stars of the big women’s weeper Love Story. However, there is a curious lack of oomph between them here. Boyer looks middle-aged, but he is an actor who can rise to any occasion, and he is more acceptable than Dunne, who looks great but lacks the inner-madcap for the role. Charles Coburn is far sexier as the stout cupid leading them on. But then Coburn was one of the great film actors, a performer of admirable technical certainty, natural appeal, and lots of juice.

To play comedy you don’t have to do funny things – Betty Hutton had this. You don’t have to be inherently funny either – Rosalind Russell had this. Although both things are nice, what you have got to have is the inner permission for things to be funny around you – Claudette Colbert had this; so does Clint Eastwood. And Irene Dunne does not. Cary Grant said she was delightfully funny on the set, but on film she seems to be a prig who would really rather be a lady than a woman, a feature we see in Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr.

Irene Dunne (who added an “e” to her last name, perhaps as touch of antique Royalty) was a performer whom the studios thought added “tone” to a picture. But “tone” is at variance with Dunne’s role, which is that of a high profile politician longing to cut up. What you get instead is Helen Hokenson, so there is no possible way an actor opposite her could play sexual attraction in her direction.

She does sing a bit, and Dunne was a true singer and is best when singing, because most honest and simple, for she does care about music, and music is never respectable. Her “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in Roberta is just lovely. See her in Anna And The King Of Siam. Or see her in George Stevens’ I Remember Mama or his Penny Serenade. In a certain kind of role, she is a seriously dedicated actress and very worthwhile.

The film is beautifully mounted and well constructed, and simply and clearly directed. If you like the old studio, A-movie production values, there is much to enjoy here, for they, more in black and white movies than in color movies, tell the story as much as the script tells it.

Why is that?

Because black and white engages one’s narrative imagination and color supplants it.


Desk Set

28 Aug

Desk Set – directed by Walter Lang. Romantic Comedy. The research department of a broadcasting company feels threatened by the introduction of a computer and its inventor. 103 minutes. Color 1957.


Katharine Hepburn was not a great actress, but she was such a great high-comedy actress you might think she was. She is usually better in the first half of a film than in the last, and she is usually better with Spencer Tracy in comedy than in drama. They made nine films together, and if you omit the dramas you will find the cream on the top to be whipped. So, see Woman Of The Year, Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, and Desk Set. Hepburn is 50 when she does this, so there are no close-ups, and there do not have to be. Her fearless full-body physical confidence in movement has tremendous carrying power, and few actors could handle props with her ease and dispatch. Chewing on a paper cup while asking a leading question, watch her. Watch her open that financial report and start to work; you absolutely believe she understands its contents and knows what to look for. Hepburn was an actress who chose only noble roles, roles which called upon her strengths: fairness, poise, and willingness to level with you. With Tracy, her certainty in all matters is balanced out at the end to make a compatibility. This is not true with Cary Grant; with Grant you are left with the dizzy challenge of their incompatibility. In some things Hepburn is no good. In love she plays the giddy schoolgirl or the lorn one, which is undignified and false (in real life, Hepburn was never alone and not interested in romance). In serious scenes she tends to emotionalize and tear-up, which is cheap and easy. But catch her in the free-wheeling exposition of the opening scenes of a comedy, and there is no one better in the world for beguiling you – with her accuracy of attack, democracy of eye, physical fluidity, and absolute generosity before the camera. We love Hepburn for her spirit, yes, and for her nobleness, for that is what she intended to leave us as a vision, and it’s not a bad one. Her wonderful smile and vulnerability to what is happening in a given scene make us take her at her word. She wanted to be fascinating, and she did it by being fascinating to herself – by enjoying herself in a part, by surprising herself in a part. Desk Set was done on Broadway with Shirley Booth, and the Mexington Avenue scene was the most delicious comedy scene I have ever seen on the stage. The two women find it irresistibly funny and cannot stop laughing and the audience cannot stop laughing with them. Hepburn does not play it this way and is not quite convincing as inebriated. Instead, she snorts and throws her head back; Hepburn was not a laugher; she was a smiler. Never mind: Desk Set is particularly fortunate for her because you see her in her preferred milieu which is among women, so her ease of command and kind smartness and high morale are never shown better. And her early scenes with Tracy are light comedy at its best, particularly the tip-top trio scene with Gig Young as the smarmy exec BF on his way up. Three masters. Watch how Hepburn eats a sandwich and freezes from the winter cold on a roof patio while answering hard questions from Tracy. She’s brilliant at it and she keeps the character modest. Perfectly cast as a know-it-all, as she was in Woman Of The Year, we love her for it. The camera is on her and she rejoices you with her mastery before it. What is special in the spirit in each human individual? With her peculiar vocal timbre, particular pronunciation, automatic-rifle attack, slim, athletic figure, unusual and beautiful mouth and always engaged eyes she is a reminder of what the unique spirit in each of us actually looks like in free play. Being like no one else, she is emblem of all. Yes, she is not a great actress, but she is a Great Actress.



The Ladykillers

26 Aug

The Ladykillers – directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Gangster Comedy. 91 minutes Color 1955.


You gather your friends about you, and you set them up with some shortbread and whisky or a spot of brandy or something convivial, and you watch this gooseberry pie of a comedy together, for you don’t want your neighbors to hear you guffaw alone. It stars Katie Johnson, a tiny little actress who steals every scene she appears in with Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Jack Warner, Peter Sellers, and Alex Guinness. They don’t have a chance, because she keeps everything she does as small as toast and jam. If you watch her analytically, you see a performance of such subtlety, experience, and skill that it forces you to eat out its hand handily. She’d been acting since 1894. She is 77 years old and pretty and her cheeks are pink as a rose teacup. She is well spoken and has beautiful manners. She presents her character as perfectly intelligent and considerate to a fault. But she is more than beautifully cast. She plays the part as a miniature Napoleon hiding in a rose. Not one of these gangsters dare disobey her. The story is beautifully set up by the writer and director with scenes in her local police station, whose chief pacifies her reports of a friend’s sightings of alien invaders, and she goes back to her lopsided house and rents out one of its rooms to a weird lodger played by Alec Guinness, who is clearly doing an imitation of Alastair Sim. This is disconcertingly funny at first because of the match of Sim’s buck teeth, watery eyes, sleazy hair, and drooling, delirious starvation, but Guinness’s performance fades somewhat as the film progresses because it is an imposture facing off against the real thing, Katie Johnson’s Mrs Wilberforce. The same is true of the others, who tend toward the cartoon. They are all entertaining, of course, except perhaps for Peter Sellers, an actor who was not inherently funny, whose comedy depended upon prop gags. You’d rather watch Katie Johnson sleep than watch him fumble with a gun. The only one who matches Johnson shot for shot is Danny Green as One-Round, the ignorant palooka strongman, because what he is doing as an actor is real. The look on Katie Johnson’s face as it dawns with the truth of what these bums are up to in her house is a sight to rejoice in. So gather your friends around like a tea cozy. You will all be pleased to be pleased. This film is vacation from the crude, a recess from the explicit. And when it is over you will have a discussion on what the word “entertainment” actually means. Although, of course, you don’t have to, because as with this film, entertainment frees us for a time into Liberty Hall, where, as Sean Kelly once told me, nothing is forbidden and nothing is required.




Pat and Mike

26 Jul

Pat and Mike – directed by George Cukor. Comedy. A third rate sports promoter takes on a multitalented female athlete, who has a jinx. 95 minutes Black and White 1952.


Two things must be remembered about Katharine Hepburn. The first is that she is the type for the personality actress. The second is that, as Mildred Dunnock said of her, her talent grew with time. Indeed, she is the only film actress of her era of whom this can be said. It is not just that she was a careerist par excellence, or that she became an American institution and went on acting into her eighties; it was also that she became interested in developing her gift; so that she took on the great classical roles, Hecuba in Euripides’ The Trojan Women, Desdemona in Othello, Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Mad Woman of Chaillot, Shaw’s The Millionairess, and Albee’s A Delicate Balance. No other film actress of her era entered or even touched upon the classical drama. Bette Davis performed The Night Of The Iguana badly, but that was it. Hepburn performed The Glass Menagerie badly but she also performed Suddenly Last Summer superbly. She made relatively few movies considering her longevity, for, unlike all the other female film stars, she never left the live theatre. Just before making this picture, she launched into her series of Shakespeare comedies with the longest female role in the cannon, Rosalind in As You Like It. In it she showed off her terrific legs and they are well on view here as she plays a twin-threat athlete. Hepburn had been a champion golfer as a teenager and took up tennis when she came to Hollywood. She was a natural athlete and physically fearless. She breezes across the campus with a change of clothes in her hands and leaps across the back of her boyfriend’s convertible and ducks down to change her duds — remarkable! But she is deeply co-dependent to this boyfriend, who jinxes her whenever he appears at her competitions, although one senses it was part of her nature, a substitute for sex, in which she was not interested. So she weeps and it plays as self-pity, and is an error she makes throughout her career. When she is supposed to fall in love with a man, a very entertaining Spencer Tracy in this case, she gets gooey, another error. Or she gets dreamy, as Alice Adams. She is not only repellent, but worse, she is unconvincing. Their screen duets were, except for the first, Woman Of The Year, not based on sex. In fact sex was probably not an important ingredient in their relations off-screen either. Their chemistry is the chemistry of perfect human dove-tailing. And you find it, not in their romantic scenes but in their playing. In actual life they spent relatively little time together. She was off on her career, coming back to him for occasional rescue operations, but spending most of her time on the East coast. (She never had a Hollywood home.) But she is a great personality actress. She had a peculiar voice and accent and a face like none other. She had a strong sense of delivery and physical ease and authority. She had too many identifiable traits for her ever to be called a character actress, but there is nothing wrong with that. She had an honesty and forthrightness that was admirable and appealing. She could level with you like no one else. She was the top flight high comedienne of film of her era. She was too particular and too peculiar to be able to submerge herself into parts that required strong disguise, accents, or traits not her own, as evidenced in Dragon Seed. But she was a great and unique energy, with a talent that she sought to develop all her life. She never sought to play heavies or villainesses. She chose roles with noble outcomes. She was aware of her public in terms of what she was willing to bring to them, and not bring to them, and the public respected her for it. It is idle to complain that she is only playing herself. It would be more correct to say that she is playing herselves. She was not a great actress at all, but in acting she was great many times and many times over. She was always what she set out to become, fascinating. She was a great Thing. She was the only one who lasted.



The Talk Of The Town

10 Jul


The Talk Of The Town – directed by George Stevens. Comedy Of Justice. An escaped prisoner hides out in the summer home of a famous law professor, and both fall for their landlady. 118 minutes Black and White 1942.


I laughed a lot and I loved it. Grant is really good as a lower class type  (which is what he was), a rabble-rouser, a trouble-maker, and general bad boy from the other side of the tracks. He is sly and outspoken and not a gent – but bright and seeking justice. The great matinee idol Ronald Coleman plays the academic legal wizard in whose house he takes secret refuge. And Jean Arthur is the befuddled landlady. She’s just wonderful – exasperation was her comic specialty. As a comedy, like all comedies, the script has a serious center (for a dramatic version of the story see Lang’s Fury), and the legal eagle and the con become friends and expatiate on the law. The film is beautifully shot and the supporting people are first class: the great Glenda Farrell once again as the town floozy, Edgar Buchanan as the foghorn voiced lawyer pal of Grant, Charles Dingle as the contriving factory owner. The themes continue on into A Place In The Sun and Shane. It is, as are most of Stevens’ films, a story of values – not American values, but values in a broader sense, such as, in this case, fairness in love and law. But all this Stevens is able to weave back and capture us by a small town American flavor, the familiar collisions of Main Street, the flimsy bias of free people, the barking of dogs on a hot summer night under the elms. He had a genius for it. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards.


Marley And Me

20 Jun

Marley And Me – directed by David Frankel. Low Comedy. A journalist finds his true calling when he starts writing about his rambunctious dog. 114 minutes Color 2008. ★★★★

I don’t know why light comedians are not regarded as serious practitioners of their craft, but it is so. They give pleasure and entertainment for years and to multitudes, but Cary Grant is nominated only twice for an Oscar and never won. Solemnity magnetizes Oscars. Here we have before us two treasures of comic skill: Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. I look at them and am filled with wonder and admiration for their craft, which in Aniston’s case is practiced with delicacy and truth. There is no one now acting who can do light drama and light comedy with the finesse of this actor. To me the skill of such an actor is unfathomable, almost unreadable. Owen Wilson is a different sort of actor, but one who operates perfectly on the same plane as Aniston and makes a good partner with her. He is much more preset in his choices and possibilities. He pitches his voice in a juvenile whine and plays a strong suit in innocence, which may annoy, but what cannot annoy is the bigness of heart that is evident in everything he does. There’s a sort of idiotic juiciness to him, too, which amounts to the sex appeal of a male whose sexuality is still to be awoken. Of course, what you can say against them both is what you can say against almost all young actors of their time, which is that they are not grown-up. He is not a man and she is not a woman. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne were always grownup, and so were the rest of the actors of their time, from 1930 to 1950. Even when young, the actress was a woman and the actor was a man. Here, Aniston is what she has always been, a gal, a million dollar baby in a five and ten cent store. And Wilson is not a man but a boy, Peck’s bad boy. They have formulated themselves this way. They have lived out their youths doing this. It’s a killer course for them when they get to be over forty. And a terrible one, for actors love to act – and so they should – it’s a wonderful calling – but how will they ever play anyone who is mature? The actors of the ‘30s and ‘40s didn’t retire when they hit age 40 or 50; they didn’t have to, because they were already adults. But Aniston and Wilson, so gifted and so formulaic in their decision as to how to use their gifts and in what – they are doomed to their job. Families and marriages would be in defiance of the immaturity upon which their income depends. I wonder about them. I worry about them. And what I have to say about this picture, finally, is that Alan Arkin is very funny in it and the dog isn’t funny at all.


The Men Who Stare At Goats

09 Apr

Men Who Stare At Goats — directed by Grant Heslov. Comedy. Mind control, the paranormal and such rise up in the military and take over. 96 minutes Color 2009.


The Men Who Stare At Goats is a drollery. For me, what’s funny in it is how seriously every actor plays his part in a piece that demonstrates that the Sixties never went away. Clooney gives a creamy performance as a talented psychic in training, and the more earnest he is, the funnier he is. I did not laugh out loud. But I was amused out loud. I smiled in the dark, and that was enough. Yes, the Sixties, which were trashed by lentils and dope and a lack of a sense of humor – a condition for which George Carlin was the antidote that never took. I like this movie. Get high on acid and set everyone free is its prescription. It would work, if what life needed was a prescription. Ewan McGregor plays the credulous reporter tagging along and overtly cowardly and incorrect at every point, and therefore believable. It’s wise casting, since everyone else in the cast is around 50. You don’t want a boy in that role; what you want is a failed writer in his middle thirties. We also have big-hearted Jeff Bridges as the teacher of the psychics, and he is no end of entertainment. Kevin Spacey plays the Basil Rathbone part of the venomous villain, with his usual peculiar comic quirk. I had no expectations of this piece when I entered the theatre: I found it to be a delicious slice of tart pie.


Amazing Adventure

01 Mar

Amazing adventure (AKA the Amazing Quest of Earnest Bliss AKA Romance and Riches — directed and produced by Alfred Zeisler. Romantic Drama. A bored playboy takes the challenge of living for a year without his money and solely on his wits. 80 minutes Black and White 1937.


This is a gender/switch version of George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess, and it is one of the last of Cary Grant’s tuxedo roles, in which for many years he had played playboys with patent leather shoes and patent leather hair, an expensive cigarette, a hand in a pocket, and a waiting air. He is thirty two and that year, 1937, among the five films he would make came The Awful Truth, by which he became the superstar we are incapable of not seeing him as, as now, even here, in this rather footling English comedy. He is quite wonderful, and you marvel that he did not make it double-big sooner. As the bored man about London, caged in a nightclub and surrounded by classy dames, he is perfect. Indeed he is perfect all the way through, so perfect and the movie so imperfect, that you take pause and just look at him, to see what he is doing, what he is as an actor, what his talent consists of. Setting aside his looks as appealing to you or not (he is almost always more beautiful than his leading ladies), his sensual level mouth, his resplendently shaped head and matchless hair, his strong nose – and taking note of his figure, which is high wasted, which therefore makes his pants ride high and lengthens his leg, making him look super in suits – and his height, around 6 feet – as I say, putting all these meritorious distractions to the side – which of course you cannot do since they are major deposits in the big holdings of his stardom – and letting that imitable voice, with its from-nowhere accent, stand over – let’s just turn to what is going on inside all that that would really make him a star. Well, the first thing is that by this time he is a grown man and before that maybe he isn’t, and that’ll do it. But that’s not it. What do women see in him? What have men to learn from him? As an actor, I think it is just one thing: no actor in screen history paid better attention to the person he was acting with. It’s not a question of “listening;” it’s not a question of looking at them; it’s something more. Without actually ever doing it, his entire body leans, leans without leaning into what is going on and you can sense his mind process it and accept the words he utters as a natural consequence of all that. He’s interested. He doesn’t play I Am Interested. He simply is interested. It is the greatest of all romantic feats. Without appearing to, his slightly hunched shoulders bend him in, and he absorbs everything that Mary Brian, the lovely leading lady opposite him, has to offer. He is an actor who is absolutely there for you. And he never shows it. His entire body is engaged – as well he might be, sold as a child into a vaudeville circus act by his father, walking stilts ads on the boardwalk at Coney Island, and tumbling along as an acrobat, he might very well have learned the importance of physical attention. We love him and we make him a star because we give attention to the person who gives attention. Also to be noted, although at one time he is said to have hated it, Cary Grant was a master at improvisation. To see it writ large, take a look at the screen test he did with Suzy Parker, the world’s top fashion model and non-actor, to see how he makes the screen test work, his generosity, his adaptability. Grant was not a great actor – he monotonizes his lines, for instance – and his sexuality is never ever anywhere but on reserve – but he is capable of great film acting. With him the actor’s motion is inward and outward at exactly the same time. Thus – breathing interest– he became visible to us as an inward ideal.


Wife vs. Secretary

08 Feb

Wife vs. Secretary — directed by Clarence Brown. Comedy. Malicious friends raise their eyebrows at a pretty secretary and nearly ruin a marriage. 88 minutes Black and White 1936.


To me, Clarence Brown has always seemed a clunky director. Through silents and sound, he was Garbo’s principal director and gave her the closed sets she desired but not her best films. So it is mystifying to me how beautifully made this comedy is, for he seldom directed comedies. But this film is lively and bright. This is partly due to a terrific script. (“’Have you been faithful while I was away?’ he asks. ‘Yes. Twice,’ she responds.”)”The title is crude and off-putting, but Alice Duer Miller who wrote it with John Lee Mahin and Norman Krasna has made a snappy and unusual entertainment. Brown gives Jimmy Stewart, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable room to shine in finely detailed and energetic performances in every scene. And both the choices of what to shoot and where and the film’s editing grant it narrative success. Myrna Loy plays the wife, as she always did, as a good sport at home and a glamor girl on the town. And Gable is a model of comedic actor enterprise, playing his scenes with high-hearted zest, moving across streets and sets with a will and a way. Gable was one of the most remarkable actors ever to appear in films, for the reason that, even though his natural energy was heavy, he was great in playing comedy. He really could do it. He could be very funny. That is to say, dignified though he was and mountainously masculine, he could make a jackass of himself at will. He could stumble, fall, be outwitted, look foolish, sing and dance badly, and be the dupe of the female of the species without permanent loss of dignity. He won his Oscar for a comedy. Like all the great male stars of 1930s who went to War he made few comedies after it, but here he is the snuggling lover of Loy, all over her, kissing her whenever he can and being sweet and funny for her when he can’t, and who wouldn’t want to?. His energy for comedy playing is the driving force behind this very smart and highly watchable work. But the part of the secretary is the one that surprises, for it is played by Jean Harlow, who could be covered in an ankle length mink and yet appear to be wearing nothing but a negligee. Here the platinum hair is gone and the sexpot is also gone. What we have instead is the embodied role of a high-end executive secretary and Gal Friday. One completely believes in her competence, her efficiency, her mastery of files and steno pads and contracts and big business. One believes that if her boss died she could run the firm. I never thought she could act, until now. Her take on this character is subtle and kind, and her confrontation with Loy at the end quietly and fully renders the material with the surprise the scene naturally contains. By never attempting either to emotionalize or to steal a scene she achieves presence and a character. This was her last completed film. She and Gable and Stewart and Loy, with a marvelous script, with magnificent white telephone art deco décor, with perfect suits for Gable and dresses for the dames, and sure-handed direction make a delightful entertainment – perfect for TV screens and for family viewing, then as now.




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.




Larry Crowne

09 Jul

Larry Crowne – Directed and written (also written by Nia Vardalos) by Tom Hanks. Romantic Comedy. A middle-aged man has to go to college and meets a beautiful mean teacher. 98 minutes Color 2011

* * * * *

Julie Roberts is married to a half-baked couch potato. Tom Hanks is married to his job, but looses it because he does not have a college degree. So he signs up for junior college and, taking a class in private speaking, meets Julia Roberts. Now Miss Roberts seems to have grown into a woman in the past few years, which now puts her in mind of the great stars of the 30s and 40s, all of whom were women. The female stars of Miss Roberts’ era were never women; they were gals, every one of them. And some of the best light comediennes among them have disappeared, Meg Ryan and that national treasure Goldie Hawn. But Julia Roberts has soldiered on, and with this part she occupies a new field of artistic enterprise. She reminds one of Joan Crawford in that her face is incapable of a subtlety, due to her broad features, but unlike Joan Crawford she can play comedy. She, like Crawford, can also play grim, and that is what we get a thought too much of in her performance in the beginning of this entertainment. But when things loosen up between Mr. Hanks and her, we are in the realm of master comedy actors at play at the top of their present game. Until that time the comedy is handled by Bryan Cranston in an Oscar-due performance as the potato and Gugu mBatha-Raw, playing a classmate of great talent, charm, and sex appeal who plays Hanks flirtatious make-over Svengali, and Rita Wilson who is excruciatingly on the money as a bank mortgage manager. Tom Hanks back on his funny bone again, has grown, as he should, into an actor who can absorb the comic possibilities of a situation without demonstrating about it all over the place. Watch his bemusement and reserve as he plays the gentleman on Julia Robert doorstep, when she is looped. He was always good, now he’s better. Larry Crowne is a good grown-up comedy for grown-ups, and it pleases, beguiles, and satisfies just that old natural appetite.







Holiday Inn

26 Mar

Holiday Inn — directed by Mark Sandrich — a songwriter starts up a country inn open only on holidays. To it comes a lovely young lady and his old vaudeville dancing chum and competitor for females. 1942 black and white 101 minutes.

* * * * *

With one exception, there is not a single dance in this piece which Astaire performs up to his standard, partly because his female partners are not on his level and partly because the dances are ill conceived. The firecracker dance is raggedly choreographed, and the dance in 18th Century wigs would have been better performed by Bob Hope. The one outstanding dance is the drunk dance, in which he is not so much partnered as accompanied by the lovely Marjorie Reynolds. This is to be watched, studied, and prayed before. The cast is top-heavy because the Paramount superstar Bing Crosby is in it. (They wanted Rita Hayworth to play the girl, but, with Astaire, that would have cost too much.) Crosby is a remarkable actor: everything he does and says looks improvised: nothing is: he is following the script to the letter. He had a droll insouciance and the amiability of the perpetual fraternity boy. He was a truly humorous person. And very cool. However when he sings, all this is cunningly wrenched into a song-style, and all the songs become subordinated to that style. So he never really sings to the actor or actress opposite him. Instead he produces this style and sings to that — out to the camera — out to his popular front. This means he is never really singing the words to the song: he is only singing to his way of singing a song; he sings renditions. Still, he is truly pleasing company, and the renditions are indeed winning and meritoriously skillful. The film is very well directed by Mark Sandrich, a really fine director of musicals, who had directed five of Astaire’s best RKO films with Rogers. Irving Berlin wrote or revived all the many songs — all barely serviceable — with three exceptions: Easter Parade, Careful, It’s My Heart, White Christmas. This where they come from and first appeared.



Swing Time

22 Mar

Swing Time — Directed by George Stevens. Musical Comedy. A runaway-groom meets up with a dance instructor who wont give him a tumble. 104 minutes 1936.

* * * * *

Swing Time is accompanied by a terrific commentary by John Mueller, who takes us through a good deal of what went on to make this piece the greatest of all Rogers/Astaire musicals — which has to do with Astaire’s grueling rehearsal work, freedom from chance in the dances, his staff, and the nature of the picture itself. It is directed by George Stevens who was one day to direct Shane and A Place In The Sun and The More The Merrier and who brings to the picture an angle of vision and an allowance for acting excellence in the principals which unify it. Of course, it is a white telephone musical, which means that it is essentially a film in which only the dances are serious art: the rest is flip. This is as it should be, because Astaire is interested in discovering and firming up the musts of movie dance. His discoveries rule to this day. The film contains wonderful numbers of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, including a most endearing version of “The Way You Look Tonight” which you will never forget. And at one point Astaire applies blackface and does a black and white shadow dance with 24 chorus girls 12 in black 12 in white, and then dances to a black and white rear shadow projection of himself 3 times. Minstrel shows project and celebrate an exuberance which our negro entertainers alone possess: blackface gives performers unheard of freedom: that is what is being celebrated here, and, because it is respectful at heart, it would be offensive to be offended by it.  Rogers, beautifully dressed for all her numbers is liquid itself in Astaire’s arms. She had a wonderful figure, graceful arms, strong square shoulders, a flexible back. And of course she could actually act, so she moves the spoken drama along while Astaire moves the dance drama along. Dancing he led her; not-dancing, she led him. — so to say. The most valuable suggestion Mueller gives is to watch the dances in slow motion.  What a treat! To actually see for oneself what actually went into these intricate, witty dances!  Astaire’s body was a genius. That body made American movie musicals!



Three Little Words

22 Mar

Three Little Words – directed by Richard Thorpe — a musical in which two songwriters meet and part and meet and part. 102 minutes technicolor 1950.

* * * * *

Vera Ellen maintains her nine-inch waist for us, which distracts from the fact she is taller than one would have thought, for she wears no heels with Astaire. She was not a graceful dancer, as were Rogers, Charisse, and Hayworth, but she was insanely accomplished. Her grace is always force-manufactured by her training, never inherent, for her dance category was the most vulgar of all dance modes, Acrobatic. She shines only in the comic dances, and fortunately there are three of them, and she does them beautifully. In her her romantic dances with Astaire, she is cold, even gelid. Of course, Astaire himself was cold, but he was also cool, so he carries himself enjoyably to himself and to us always, and his clothes, except for a certain hat, are a triumph of sartorial imagination. This is a bio-pic about Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, songwriters of “Nevertheless,” “Thinking of You,” and “Boop-boop-be-do,” all of which became re-hits when this film was released. This is Fred Astaire’s best acting job in a musical; he actually gets angry! Red Skelton plays Ruby as though he were a gem-stone, and the beauteous Arlene Dahl plays The Beauteous Arlene Dahl, and it is enough. Gale Robbins in Rita Hayworth figure and dresses has a number and so do Gloria DeHaven and Debbie Reynolds. The film never stalls with production numbers or plot because, mercifully, there are none. It’s a popcorn movie suitable for any occasion.



The Man Who Sued God

01 Mar

The Man Who Sued God — Directed by Mark Joffe — Comedy. A fed up lawyer quits and buys a boat which is demolished by lightning. Because the insurance company won’t pay for an Act Of God, he sues God.  97 minutes Color 2001

* * *

I rented this to see the inestimable Judy Davis. For she’s a always tonic. Billy Connolly is not a tonic. I have seen him elsewhere only in Mrs Brown. I do not find him inviting. I liked the theological arguments of this piece and I wish they had been set forth with the space of greater confidence and less speed to get them over with. The piece is a mildly amusing Thirties type comedy set in a fishing village near Perth Australia, which is pleasant to eye-visit. I always have low expectations so I am seldom disappointed. Judy Davis has comic gifts which here go unexploited, however. I guess she is going to stay in Australia now, playing sexy mothers with the wrong lipstick and a poor dye job. Pay no attention to me. I do not recommend or dis-commend pictures. I simply rattle on  a bit about what I see. Or do not see. As in this case.



Idiot’s Delight

18 Jan

Idiot’s Delight — directed by   Clarence Brown — a comedy about a pack of vaudeville players and assorted types trapped in a European mountain resort as WWII breaks out around them.  107 minutes  black and white 1939.

* * * *

Clark Gable. He had a foundation of great masculinity, great presence, and great authority. So we who grew up with him in his heyday overlooked what a superb and various actor in the technical sense he always was. He loved being an actor. He trained hard for it. He made sacrifices to learn it. He took it seriously. We who saw him in his film heyday did not know that. What we knew was his extraordinary natural foundation of masculinity, presence, and authority. But here one would have to say that Gable really carries the picture on his acting alone, because, while Norma Shearer is rather good in the Garbo take-off, which dominates the central portion of the story, the scenes which frame her impersonation are not properly prepared and played. Nor do the supporting parts, as cut from Robert E. Sherwood’s play, work well, although they are played by masters of their craft, the great Charles Coburn and the ingenious Burgess Meredith, both in thankless roles. Edward Arnold’s part is as baffling in its story line as is Joseph Shildkraut’s. Their roles lack narrative completion; that is to say, they have not been properly honored by the writers, editors or producers. Lynn Fontanne played it originally with Alfred Lunt in the Gable role, but Gable is much better cast, for he makes a marvelous rogue. And no one could brush off a needy female like Gable. But what is really present — and watch for it — are the moments when the camera is on him alone. Behind that handsome mug and that masculinity and presence and authority is an actor in full operation on all burners, responding with exactly the right feeling for the situation at hand. Watch the variety of incredulities with which he receives Shearer’s tall tales. Watch his eyes. And sit for a moment and consider how convincing a motive is his scepticism as a driving force to uncover her ruse; it fuels his sexuality and it fuels his love for her. And yet he holds it very lightly, as lightly as the straw hat and cane with which he performs a creditable song-and-dance vaudeville routine, backed by six blonds, one of them the lovely Virginia Grey. Gable carries the film, and it’s worth watching to see how he does it.



Cowboy Del Amor

01 Jan

Cowboy Del Amor – directed by Michele Ohayon – a humorous documentary about a matchmaking business, for single gents interested in securing a Mexican bride, run by a cowboy – 86 minutes color 2005.

* * * * *

Ivan Thompson, who plays Dolly in Demming, New Mexico, takes us south of the border with various hopeful hombres. The whole situation would be grim were it not legitimate and were it not leavened by the charm and savvy of this natural humorist, the sole proprietor and bride prospector of the business. He is really to be met and savored. Because of him, this is one of the most entertaining pictures I saw all year, and certainly the best recent comedy – although it is, of course, a documentary. The technical talent who made it are storeys above the usual documentarians. It is superbly directed and shot and recorded and scored, and it is edited by none other than the great documentary editor Kate Amend. The situation of American men declining to marry American women and so turning to Latin American women is a product of American men finding American women “too hard to please,” perhaps, but it also has to do with the desire in certain American men for women to consider marriage a willing peonage. In two instances we see great physical attraction in play – but with Ivan Thompson, at any rate, it leads to bafflement in his own marriage, as though women, who he says are as beautiful as horses, were meant to be roped and corralled, and that’s the story. The documentary takes us into the homes and hearts of our friends in Mexico, and into the sweet odd moment of meeting one’s maybe-destined mate. A lovely film, respectful, perspicacious, and, because of Mr. Thompson, consistently funny.



That Uncertain Feeling

31 Dec

That Uncertain Feeling — directed by Ernst Lubitsch — an idle society bitch is bored by her husband and falls in love with a temperamental pianist. black and white – 1941.

* * *

This is a remake of a movie by Lubitsch himself, The Marriage Circle, and it failed at the time and fails still. Of course there is Melvyn Douglas who was a master at high comedy. An actor of great charm and zest and authority, three times Garbo’s leading man, Douglas brings his timing and easy masculinity into play and every scene he appears in comes alive around him. And Burgess Meredith, in the David Wayne role, as the spoiled other man, brings his quirky energy into the mix. But there is a rancid olive at the bottom of the cocktail, and that is Merle Oberon. The role requires the open and loving heart of a Claudette Colbert, and we get instead the gelid soul of Oberon. Her face is paralyzed as ‘twas by Novocain, a condition that happens to actresses who somehow fall into films but are not actors by calling or temperament. Kim Novak was another. There have been many. Oberon has a cold voice. She has none of the inner fluidity of deep humor that is a necessary ingredient in comedy. Nor does Lubitsch’s particular ruthless take on marriage work here. One cannot buy the glibness of the divorce. You’d need the hurt heart of Rosalind Russell for that. One cannot even buy the original marriage. And one cannot buy into Oberon as a beauty over whom men would go bonkers: there is no inner beauty in her, poor thing. Maybe in real life, but not on the screen. At least not here. But the fault is Lubitsch’s really, not just in casting her, but in making this leaden story enlivened, it is true, by occasional masterful moves of his comic genius, but not enough to carry the day. And after he made it, he said so himself.



BlueBeard’s Eight Wife — I Met Him In Paris

31 Dec

Bluebeard’s Seventh Wife — directed by Ernst Lubitsch —  I Met Him In Paris — directed by Charlie Ruggles — black and white — 1937

* * * * *

Charlie Ruggles directs Paris and Ernst Lubitsch directs Bluebeard, and the difference is startling. Both directors have amusingly improbable scripts, both have big stars talents, but Ruggle’s film isn’t funny where it ought to be, and Lubitsch’s film is funny even where it ought not to be. Lubitsch is a realm unto itself. Somehow he could create a context where comedy — or rather humor — could flourish. The long astonishing opening sequence of Bluebeard is a case in point. You must remember that Gary Cooper was one of the world’s best-dressed men, tutored in it by the much older woman who kept him, the Countess De Frassio. So Gary Cooper enters a posh Riviera haberdashery and is accosted by a silly salesman to whom he pays no attention. What we notice is that Cooper, the least responsive of actors, is on the uptake right from the start and through the whole long sequence, which includes more parts that I have space to tell you of here, and ends with Cooper meeting Claudette Colbert and both of them throwing one another away. But my question is: how can Lubitsch get this usually unfocussed and self-indulgent actor Gary Cooper to bowl in the money alley? (He even used Cooper in, of all things, Design For Living!) Lubitsch was a kind of soufflé in which comedy could take place, and anyone who appeared in a film of his found comic grace awaiting them. Colbert is an expert high comedienne but even she, in the second feature, I Met Him In Paris, even Melvyn Douglas who is a deft comedian, and even Robert Young who has his own neat gifts in the craft, cannot make anything but a dull dish out of Paris. In it, though, we have a charming scene of Douglas and Colbert ice-skating, and I want your opinion: does Douglas look ridiculous in knickers, or am I mistaken and does he really bring it off? Lubitsch on the other hand somehow makes one complicit in the fun. He credits your intelligence and willingness to participate in the story as he tells it, so you become part of the telling. He lets you do your job as an audience. How satisfying! How rewarding! How hand-rubbingly droll!




07 Dec

Semi-Tough – directed by Michael Ritchie – comedy/satire of two pro-football players in romantic convolutions with the owner’s daughter — 107 minutes color 1977.

* * * * *

A perfect comedy, better than it was when it was released. Focussed on the off-center, scenes do not start where you would expect, nor end where you would suppose. Actors do not play in accord with commonly held strictures of how a Hollywood comedy should be performed. The story revolves around the friendship of three best-friend housemates, two of whom are pro football players and the third the daughter of the owner of the team. All goes well until one of them, Kris Kristofferson, takes up with the human-potential movement and becomes so dull you could strangle yourself. At which point the female of the trio falls in love with him. To side-swipe him, Burt Reynolds, a master-hand at this, subjects himself to the merciless Lotte Lenya as Ida Rolfe and to The Training. The young woman’s father is played by the mighty Robert Preston. who is the cheapskate owner of the team and who is the reluctant bankroll for this the third wedding of his daughter. Is she worth this trouble? You bet she is. For she is played by the entrancing and richly accomplished Jill Clayburgh, who gives us a performance of perfect comic spontaneity and ease — and she is pretty as all get out. Credit goes to everyone involved, particularly to Walter Scott Herndon for Production Design, Charles Rosher Jr. for filming it, Walter Bernstein and Michael Ritchie for writing it, Ritchie for masterfully directing it, and for background music, to that master of the banal, Gene Autry. It has not aged, it’s improved with time. Don’t miss it.



Story Theater

04 Dec

Story Theatre – directed by Paul Sills – a theater documentary of comedies of folk and fairy tales played out by grown-up actors.

90 minutes color 1969

* * * * *

This piece was a fill-in during a union strike at Yale. Paul Sills was then developing a form of theatre in which folk tales and short stories would be partly enacted and partly told. It was worked up quickly and it is presented with high professional finesse. I actually saw it in New Haven at the Yale Theatre, and it was a lot of fun. Mildred Dunnock is a master of her craft. It was once said of her that she knew so much about acting that it had become innocent again. She plays a wiley teenager, Clever Gretchen, and of course she is in her 70s when she does this. In any case her physical touch on the part is entrancing – light, deft, completely malicious, crafty, real. Interviews with the cast interlace the stories, and what Mildred Dunnock has to say about how to play a witch is worth millions to any actor called upon to play anything. A fascinating creature, who got sexier as she got older – as both Warren Beatty and Marlon Brando said of her. This is a  good clean light film suitable for the whole family.



Town And Country

02 Dec

Town And Country — directed by Peter Chelsom — upper class comedy in which two couples couple with others and with one another — 104 minutes color 2001.

* * * *

Warren Beatty is superb at playing men who are so dumb they can’t help but get seduced. From McCabe And Mrs Miller and the desert-duo-with-Dustin he has created this marvelous dolt — feckless, almost virginal, and rather endearing. Here he has hardly anywhere to go with it, except back into the sack with any lady bold enough to jump his bones. Andie MacDowell plays a mad girl, no matter, suddenly he is in bed playing dolls with her; the local hardware store clerk immediately rolls in the snow with him; his best friend’s wife rolls on the couch with him; Nastassja Kinsky replaces her cello with him — and all as though he had no say in the matter whatsoever. The movie is supplemented with two genius comediennes, Goldie Hawn of National Treasure Status, and Diane Keaton, perfectly cast here as Warren Beatty’s ritzy wife. Both she and Hawn are wonderful in scenes telling off their husbands. Hawn’s is played by the dubious Gary Shandling, who discovers he is gay. Well, well, but the film loses its comic force when the director thinks that embarrassing a banquet with a brannagan is in any way in and of itself funny. The running joke of dusty furniture in a high-end antique store is not funny either, and for the same reason, that it beggars credulity. People aren’t like that. High-end antique stores are not like that. However, the suavity of the film lies, of course, not in its comedy, but in its humor, and when this is achieved, we are amused — which is all we ever asked to be.



Hanging Up

05 Nov

Hanging Up –– directed by Diane Keaton –– light comedy in which three sisters swirl around the decline of their unpredictable father –– 95 minutes color 2000

* * * * *

Diane Keaton is 54 when she acts in and directs this piece. By this time she is certainly the world’s greatest master of comic finesse. The peril for her is that this can decline into the candy of mere charm. For she has a smile the devil himself could not resist. Here, however she plays in support of Meg Ryan, whose movie this is, and which Ryan carries with a stride of certainty. A comic master herself, Ryan is 39 when she does this, and while she has mistakenly had something done to her lips that disconcerts somewhat, she still is an extraordinary artist: the most naturally appealing actress of her era. Lisa Kudrow rounds out the trio, and three more expert artists of light comedy can scarcely be imagined. The Ephron sisters wrote it, evidently on some autobiographical inspiration generated by their father, an Uproar Man, here played with daring and startling twists by Walter Matthau, probably at the very end of his career but not of his experience. Wow! The story wanders and wobbles indecisively at the end searching for a wrap-up, so don’t plan for it not to. The direction is sound, if the writing always isn’t. Asking Ryan to fall off the bed answering the phone is not what any human being would do, and therefore past the point of funny, and there are other excesses pressing for a laugh which fail, but never mind: be grateful for these three ladies, a quite interesting and eccentric comedy, and another useful challenge to our expectation of perfection.



Wilby Wonderful

29 Oct

Wilby Wonderful –– directed by Daniel McIvor –– a pickup sticks comedy of interlaced passions in a sweet Canadian town. 99 minutes color 2004

* * * * *

A wonderful picture. It’s set in a small island community and offers grand-hotel narratives of interlocking stories all resolved in one day. There is the handsome cop whose wife is the local barracuda real estate lady. There is the devious mayor who wants to develop the local lovers lane. There is the handsome housepainter in love with the recently divorced husband. There is the salty local beauty breathing hot and heavy with the cop. And there is her teenage daughter sneaking out for a canoodle with the local boy. Does all this sound sordid? It isn’t. It’s a film of true humor and rich human relations. All the acting is top-notch. The only actor I was familiar with is Sandra Oh who appeared as the two-timed girlfriend in Sideways. She is flabbergastering throughout. And everyone else is a good as she is. For me, a truly gratifying film.



Last Chance Harvey

27 Oct

Last Chance Harvey –– directed by Joel Hopkins –– comedy: two losers win. 93 minutes color 2008

* * * * *

This film has a certain winsomeness in its removal from passion, as love finds its way into the affections of its two characters. Both these folks are over 50, so you are in for a very pleasant journey indeed, one more comical and charming than the Deborah Kerr/Cary Grant An Affair To Remember, which it in some ways resembles, this time with the man as the invalid. Kathy Bates has a grand small scene as the former wife of Hoffman, and Richard Schiff and Eileen Atkins carry their parts as far their parts allow them. What we are faced with is the two leads, and no two individuals could be more disparate. Dustin Hoffman is a squirt, and this is “used” consciously by the actor, who is shorter than Thompson. It is at one with the highly controlled sort of acting he always done; his “method”. There is much talk about his “detail” and his “preparation,” but I never see the results on the screen. What I see is banal, shallow, and routine. Besides which, I suppose he is one of the most unpleasant movie stars I have ever seen. His face is uninteresting, but setting that aside, he is an actor who often smiles, but perfunctorily always; he smiles but he never smiles. His voice has an excellent timbre, but it monotonizes everything he says. But what is worst, it and his entire physical manifestation exude self-pity. The note of its pitch is in every noise he makes. It is a bid for a sympathy he does not have the gift or the grace to naturally inspire. And one does feel sorry for him for that. Only once does he appear real: towards the end of the film there is a shot of him in which he looks very very old, and it occurred to me that he has always been old and that that was his forte. Opposite him is the infallible Emma Thompson, and how it comes about that these two play together so well, or are able at least to perform their own roles with separate excellence is a mystery to me. She has true wit, openness, smarts, readiness, openness, grace, womanliness, openness. Anyhow, I recommend the piece. It is a film for grown-ups, the story of older people who, not supposing they ever could, do begin to love someone again.



A Yank In The RAF

24 Oct

A Yank In The RAF – directed by Henry King – a WW II romantic adventure story in which an American joins up in England, competes for a pretty dame, and saves the day on a bombing mission in Europe. 98 minutes black and white 1941.

* * * *

The power of the personalities of Betty Grable and Tyrone Power makes for romantic suspense and super entertainment. He plays a rogue with a roving eye, and she plays, as she often did in films, the lady of talent who is a sucker for a cad. They’re both up against Bruce Cabot the actor whose eyes are as evil as his moustaches. Because it was made during the war and is a bit of a hodgepodge, the picture is endearing and fun. Betty Grable was the star I most identified with at the time. Like me, she was open, blond, big hearted, hard working, and not loved as much as she deserved. Power is especially fine as the gum-chewing flirt, a different take for the actor who in that era was the most beautiful male in films. Here he’s a rascal who never takes it back. Usually cast in romance, action-adventure, or drama, he’s up for the necessary finesses and impenitence of light comedy. I wish he had done more of them.




23 Oct

RED –– directed by Robert Schwentke–– an action spy comedy adventure in which a bouquet of experienced old-time CIA assassins come out of retirement when a past score starts to be settled against them. Color 2010

* * * * *

Ernest Borgnine at 94 is in fine form here as the keeper of the very most secret of all the files in the world. And our acting staff is all over 50, or is it 60? ––  and, like him, at the top of their game. Bruce Willis, always an excellent actor in the right roll, is particularly droll in registering the humor of the situation. Morgan Freeman plays the old reliable, and Helen Mirren and Brian Cox play former lovers rekindling their oomph amid the flames and firestorms of the genre. What makes the piece worth seeing is its unfolding until those firestorms start, at which time the wit stops, for it is impossible to be quite jolly and lighthearted while the Uzis fire. Or whatever that weaponry is. And besides the story then departs the arena of the possible and dashes into the arena of the improbable, and from that quickly seethes into the arena of the impossible, when Richard Dryfuss enters the picture and introduces the Vice-President of the United States as the man behind the man behind the man behind the woman, whom Rebecca Pidgeon plays with her usually chilling affect. It’s more than the comedy will bear. For the film is one step away in its fine early stages from an Abbott and Costello film, with Freeman, Willis, and Mirren all playing Costello and John Malkovich playing Abbott, the only serious lunatic in the bunch. Mary-Louse Parker is particular responsive and funny in the Dorothy Lamour role –– or is that from another series entirely? Oh, yes. But what then? She could have been in an Abbott and Costello film, couldn’t she? The piece is well written in its early stages of the preposterous, by which I mean in terms of narrative and dialogue and editing, and very well told by the director. It is when it devolves into the preposterously preposterous that expectations drop. But, never mind. Just expect them to.



You’ll Never Get Rich

19 Oct

You’ll Never Get Rich –– directed by Sidney Lanfield –– a musical in which a song and dance man escapes his boss’s wrongdoings by joining the Army and tangling with a lovely lady. 88 minutes black and white 1942

* * * * *

Rita Hayworth was Fred Astaire’s favorite dance partner and you can easily see why. She was a professional dancer since she was eight and had the true dancer’s carriage. Her elegant long arms and hands, held perfectly, moved like fronds. The torso, still or in motion, is proud and graceful. Technically there is nothing she cannot do within her range –– which is the same range as his. In addition, she brings to this a perfect and well earned confidence, great speed, ease of attack, humor, and, best of all, joy in the dance. Astaire is at his very best here –– imaginative, lithe, funny, and ready for anything. His dance in the Army jailhouse is a masterpiece. (There is a funny sequence of double-talk; if you’ve never seen one, this one is good.) The story is no more memorable than an ice cream cone, but it is just as diverting as one, and sometimes an ice cream cone is required. Astaire was brought in to Columbia to make this picture with Hayworth. It made Hayworth, aged 23, a star, and it was a huge hit, so they made another one –– You Were Never Lovelier –– equally as good. These two pictures contain the finest dancing of its kind ever put down on film. Watch her move –– you cannot take your eyes off her. Astaire was a very great dancer and never luckier than with Rita Hayworth as his partner.



You Were Never Lovelier

19 Oct

You Were Never Lovlier –– directed by William A Seiter –– musical comedy of a Taming Of The Shrew father who will not allow his younger daughters to marry until the eldest does. 97 minutes black and white 1942.

* * * * *

Rita Hayworth was Fred and Astaire’s favorite dance partner. From the time she was thirteen as Margarita Cansino she was working in nightclubs with her father as her partner. Dance was in her body and her being and was her joy. Astaire has at times a bit of a push to keep up with her here, so easy is she, so happy, and with such breadth of technique. She had a perfect bust and torso, straight back, beautifully shaped and held head, thick mobile hair which she used as a female force, and, for dancing, long lovely arms and the most elegant hands in the world. There was something just innately decent and even noble about Hayworth, at once prim and enticing. And of course she was a raving beauty. She came to life dancing! It’s just amazing to see her vim and wit, and how happy she is to be dancing with Astaire –– perfectly matched in abilities. For the title dance, by Jerome Kern/Johnny Mercer, she wears a gown which is clothed moonlight. You wonder how on earth… You would drool were you not so agog. The story is a dubious piece of fluff, and we could do with less of the Adolph Menjou plot, but never mind. She does a number with Astaire in a tennis outfit that’s super duper. And Astaire has a dance in a fancy art deco office in front of Menjou that may be the most brilliant sequence he ever performed. Replay it if you cannot believe your eyes. Yes, he actually does those things! Replay it if you cannot believe your eyes. Yes, he actually does those things!


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