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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

10 Feb

Metamorphosis Zero
by
Bruce Moody
~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

One difficulty with the film is the presentation of it.

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

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

The play is about expression.

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

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

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

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

Does he have a chance for success?

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

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

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

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

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

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

Then how do you make a film of this material?

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

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

You don’t.

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

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

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

What does that mean?

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

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

What does the term Melodrama mean?

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

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

An inch forward into what?

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

Does melodrama do this?

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

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

What has the Blues to do with this fib?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it impossible for Black folks to be straightforward?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the winning of dignity enough for Levee?

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

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

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

Do closeups make the actor appear to overplay that hope?

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

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

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

What is the metamorphosis?

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

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

Why did August Wilson write a play for every decade?

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

 

Journey’s End

25 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend Sam Claflin’s performances above all others.

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

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

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

I like ruthless truth.

It is a necessary film.

 

Harriet

02 Feb

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

Why is that?

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

Impossible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

1917

20 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Irishman

01 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a scene missing.

The crisis is simple:

Can you murder your best friend?

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

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

Can you murder your best friend?

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

Hoffa/Pacino is in the way.

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

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

Can you murder your best friend?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Laundromat

27 Nov

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

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

And why is that?

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

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

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

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

Meryl Streep?

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

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

This is on Netflix and was produced for Netflix.

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

 

Pain And Glory

08 Nov

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

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

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

And so it goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which does not mean they are not real.

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

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

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

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

 

The Pacific

16 May

The Pacific – various directors – produced by Tom Hanks & Steven Spielberg. 10 episode mini-TV series – drama 8 hours 15 minutes 2010.

★★★★★

The Story: Three marines and their comrades fight disease, filthy weather, bullets, burial, and the fanatic Japanese in the Pacific theater of combat of WWII.

~

I was 12 years old when The War ended, and I remember it well. But I remember mostly the European theater, because my parents were from England, and because Hitler, as an Aryan, was, to me, a more defined monster than the Japanese Hirohito, and because I lived on the East Coast nearer Europe.

But we certainly heard about the Pacific War, both on land and sea, as the troops stepping-stoned from atoll to atoll until they finally hit Japan on Okinawa.

I cannot recommend this series more highly than to say it is so convincing a picture of the guts and gore of war you may find it difficult.

I served in the Army during the Korean War, shipped there during the armistice. So I knew one ghastly feature of it – its tedium. The close quarters with other males for long periods of time has its merit and its murder. It brings out the worst and the best. And none of it is really anyone’s fault. It’s the situation that makes men nasty, hard, cruel, and violent as well as, in those same men, loyal, gentle, humorous, and true.

I knew none of the cast, but I was glad to see, once again, how wonderful our American actors are. I believed every one of them. I believe all I saw and could not imagine how the film-makers managed to recreate the massive landings and battles on those islands. But it sure gave me a picture of what those battles were like and what those men had to do to survive and prevail.

I take the series as a part of my education. And it is also a documentary drama of real soldiers, whose actual names are used, whose reflections we hear from them, and whose stories gripped me from beginning to end. I recommend it without reservation.

 

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

05 Feb

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – directed by Mike Nichols. Drama. 132 minutes Black And White 1966.
★★★★★
The Story: A college history professor and his wife host two newcomers to the faculty and engage everyone in a battle royal for marital survival.
~
Elizabeth Taylor was untrained as an actress but as a child took to it like a duck to water. By the time of this film she was the most experienced film actress of her generation but had long moved out of that rare category and her true forte of a romantic actress into the dramatic category. It is a great loss to movies, for Taylor from a fifteen-year-old up through Giant had a capacity for film acting never seen again on screen – sad, fun, loving, kind, tender – as perfectly strong as perfectly beautiful and at home in being such.

I had lunch with her during Butterfield 8. By that time, she had three children, was in her fourth marriage, and she and I were both still only in our mid 20s. She was a young woman with a big nut and had to work responsibly to meet it. The film roles available were not up to her; they were simply what was available. Over our tuna salad I suggested Nicole Diver in Tender Is The Night as one more Fitzgerald heroine perfect for her. “Eddie and I want it,” she said, “but David owns it and he wants Jennifer to do it, and she’s too old.” Getting good parts was not simple.

As an instinctual actress her very instinctual not-so-private life may have dictated the sort of films she wanted to do or would be believable in or be offered. Perhaps marriage to Mike Todd had coarsened her. She was no longer the romantic girl of The Last Time I Saw Paris. So, while she could write her own ticket, what actual destinations were available?

People came to Elizabeth Taylor’s films to mark the progress of her beauty, inner and outer. No one ever, off screen or on, got more attention. On screen she was gorgeous. Off screen, so beautiful, I could see she was actually un-photogenic. But by Butterfield 8, everyone knew everything that could be known about her. The inner beauty had largely disappeared. So, and with all of that, plum roles did not come along every year. But one did in 1966 when she played Martha. If she had to campaign to get Giant, and she did, she certainly had to campaign to get Martha, and to get Burton hired. It was the perfect film for Bette Davis who was the right age. Taylor twenty years too young, 31, but, stronger than dirt, got it.

I saw the original Broadway production of Virginia Woolf. Uta Hagen, also highly experienced, had a raw coarse texture as an actress. She was very good and right for the role. Arthur Hill was completely believable as her scholarly, refined, and more powerless husband. I recall George Grizzard’s Nick as a tennis coach, but he actually teaches biology, and I don’t recall Melinda Dillon at all, which is probably right, since the character tends to paste herself against the wall to get out of the way of the melee.

Taylor is miscast. She doesn’t look 50, but, more importantly, she does not have the instrument, the technique, the training to play it. Instead she plays Martha as though she had an “idea” of what Martha’s character was. But Martha is not a character; she is a figure in an allegory. Besides, since she is not within Taylor’s aesthetic realm, Taylor can’t really play her instinctually. Instead, she flings herself about in the role at fishwife pitch and gets all the swearwords wrong. Elizabeth Taylor was built for survival; it is her virtue and her vice; the same is true of Martha. Taylor drew on her own strength for survival, but Martha drew only on her own weakness. Martha is weakness miming strength. Either here or elsewhere, Elizabeth Taylor was never that.

But in certain ways Taylor is well cast. Martha is fundamentally Taylor’s specialty, a trophy-wife role. Also, Elizabeth Taylor had a rowdy, cackling sense of humor that worked well for the part. And her performance certainly has its moments. What I remember when I first saw it was a crying scene at the end in which she wept for her soul. Seeing it on VHS now, there is no such scene. Instead, Taylor has a finale on the window seat, and in her eyes is nothing left, which, considering Taylor’s eyes, is even more astonishing.

Still, she is fundamentally miscast. “Elizabeth Taylor is too beautiful a woman for any of that to have ever happened to her,” my wife said to me. “A woman that beautiful has other strategies at her disposal.”

But ya gotta hand it to Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, she does not play the beauty queen; she flings herself into the role like a bucket of slops tossed out a window. And she won an Oscar for it. And I have no criticism of the fact of that.

George Segal is best in the stupidity and naiveté of the guest. George Grizzard, of course, exuded intelligence and class – which gave the play, in the reduction of his character to a klutz, a secondary strong dramatic undercurrent. You don’t get any of that with Segal, but it doesn’t matter. Segal is a klutz to start with. What you get is Segal’s big heart in conflict with the unethical seduction of his ambition, both playing against the want of seduction in his wife.

Sandy Dennis, in her looney, abstracted, tricksey way, works perfectly for the mentally and intestinally fragile wife, Honey, and deserved the Oscar she got.

Richard Burton, it is said, was miscast. I’m not so sure. Yes, he is miscast in the sense that, unlike Arthur Hill, obviously Burton always has power to spare, and you don’t need that to play George, but it doesn’t stand in Burton’s way. It sometimes comes out when Burton employs orotundity to carry passages – always a mistake. But we must remember, at the end of the play George always has one power left, to demolish the frayed bridge of the marriage. He will declare the inviolable secret of a certain love between them to be
false and he will kill it. Burton with his hold on his power or Hill with his want of power – no matter – George will smash the delusion. Hill quietly pulls the switch. Burton quietly pulls the switch.

With it gone, what do each of them have to live for with one another? What do husbands and wives have to live for? Without their old fabrications?

We do not know.

They do not know. That’s the risk George takes, and in that lies the greatness of the play.

In the Burton version, we see him place his hand on Taylor’s shoulder to reassure her of the future. But there is no known future and maybe no future and who knows whether reassurance is a requirement to endure it?

The difference between the play and the film versions is that on Broadway the play is thrust forward and takes precedence over the performances. In the movie, the stars take over. To such a degree that Mike Nichols seems not to have coached Taylor away from her gaucheries and not to have forbidden that godawful wig. But no matter. Either way, the play prevails by swallowing its own imperfections as it goes.

The material itself would seem to be about alcoholic excess. But it isn’t. For in this case, there is no truth in wine. The play has the power not of alcohol but of vitriol whose extremes push the four to the bourne of their self-delusion and over its cliff.

The thing that keeps you going is the thing that is killing you? Yes? You agree? But still, are you really willing to sever and surrender the most cherished and most ingrained operational prevarications of your relationships with yourself and others?

52 years since I first saw Whose Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and didn’t understand it either time. Was it too startling to understand or I too young? But now that I understand the the poison it prescribes for a cure and the ritual of decapitation it demands for survival, would I actually risk outliving my own suicide? Would I surrender even one of the superannuated life-strategies I once found vital?

 

Paddington 2

03 Feb

Paddington 2 – directed by Paul King. Children’s/Grownups/live/animation. 103 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: A young bear, adopted by a London family, has adventures and misadventures as he seeks to stop a wicked theft.
~
Paddington, came after my time and came after my daughter’s time, so I missed Paddington 1, and if you count the book, I also missed Paddington 0.

What sin of omission I have committed to be omitted from the treat of this personable orso I cannot imagine, but I must be a good boy now, because now I am given him, and I take him to me and everything that brings him to me.

These include the greats Joanna Lumley, Julie Walters, Sally Hawkins, Brian Geeson, Imelda Staunton, Eileen Atkins, Tom Conti, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Bonneville – and, as the villain of the piece as a divo actor, that scalawag Hugh Grant.

They delight me, and they all know how to act with a little bear who, of course, is added after or before or at some other time – a little bear who looks not like a bearbear and not like a teddybear but a movie bear – and in so looking looks like all those actors aforementioned look. What a charming miracle!

What delighted me was the wit of the problems set and the wit of the solutions offered for Paddington’s predicaments. The wicked actor Grant plays is broke and looking to replenish his purse with swag whose whereabouts were coded in an old popup book. He fails, naturally, but the contortions offered in his wickedness and Paddington’s escape from them are fun and more fun.

If this all seems dated and preposterous, well, just watch the jests as they unravel — and how they all knit together as things move on. The message of the picture is that there is no plight that people, if they have big hearts, cannot get one another out of, provided they pull together and have a seaplane.

What a delight are the sets and places and the power of animation to outrival Special Effects or spectacle in engaging me, and out of the preposterous create in me the believable! I smile as I write this. It’s a film to love watching. Watch it.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: ENGLISH COMEDIC, COMEDY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Imelda Staunton

 

Phantom Thread

22 Jan

Phantom Thread – written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Drama. 130 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: An artist suffering from mater-philia becomes inspired by a young woman who, to cure him, must practically kill him.
~
What are the force-fields inside an individual which draw a human to force-fields inside another – and how can they be made to fadge, converge, and agree?

The execution is suave. The picture luxuriously filmed, perfectly cast, marvelously directed, impeccably scored, ideally set, fabulously costumed, vividly acted. The setting is some fifty years ago when London was a fashion center and its focal character, Reynolds Woodcock, was the most renown women’s designer of the time.

All that is window-dressing, albeit superb, but the picture must have it in order to explore the sub-surfaces which are its true subject.

Woodcock in a once-in-a-lifetime-draw to a young waitress with a figure perfect for his clothes, spirits her away to his home. She falls for him. But when she does, he finds her annoying, and we soon see his interest in her is neither romantic nor personal. He has made her his muse. But she has no other interest for him.

He lives in a household and work-world entirely female. And he admits that his first and main muse was his own mother. Indeed, she is the phantom thread with which he has woven his life into what he is: a gourmet monastic, and that mother will reappear as that phantom.

His sister runs his business, has his number, and knows that his strength comes from women – from their mother, from herself, from various women he lives with, from his battalion of seamstresses, and from his clientele. Such strength as he possesses lies in the brilliant, shocking, chilly genius of his dresses.

But the young woman he has carried off comes from an even colder clime. She sees that, in order for him to love her, she must mother him, and in order for that to happen she has to rescue him from peril. And to do that, she must create the peril.

Have I already said too much? No. Find out for yourself. Go see it.

As it starts, the film is slightly overwritten, as characters explain themselves in ways they wouldn’t and we don’t need them to. One day someone must do a study of the accents used. And the film will only half-satisfy because the default position of the woman’s psyche is left unattended to. So the plot remains a mythic scheme stumbling towards a finale that does not exist, a stream with no pond to feed. But never mind that. The satisfactions available in it outstrip its wants.

And it is played by a group of sterling, deeply experienced actors, who are a pleasure to behold. Vicky Krieps plays the young woman who sees through Woodcock; her performance is a treasure. Lesley Manville plays his sister; her performance is a treasure. Harriet Sansome plays a Barbara Hutton type about to marry a Porfirio Rubirosa type; her performance is a treasure. Every performance is a treasure.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays the designer – at first with the too-knowing smile of a man no woman he has set his sights on can resist – and then he just plays him. His is the story of a cool man whom to wed a good woman must first cremate. Day-Lewis, a great cold actor, is well cast as this gelid gent.

Day-Lewis is not a romantic leading man. He is a character-lead, but the part is close to a leading man role, yet here, by his mastery of the technical acts of fashion design, the actor skirts the category: how pins are applied, how cloth is moved and discussed, how scissors close on a fabric, how a sketch-book is held, the way he wears the clothes he wears and that he chooses to choose them (I want those magenta socks), and the infantilism of the Divo – all that which, through deeds, decodes the obsession in him that blinds him to what he cannot more greatly adore. It is a performance consummated sheerly on the level of behavior.

But Krieps is an actor and a character who takes him on, and, boy – even cooler than he – does she ever! She realizes the foundation in the maternal in him is too strong to collapse but to crack its depths she must bring out another and different female side lying beneath the maternal, to dare to release an even greater muse, the normal. With the gentlest of drills, she embarks on a mining operation seldom seen in film.

For the story of Phantom Thread – the overthrow of the default position of an individual or a relationship – the reference is Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Have I said too much? Yes, I have.

Find out for yourself. Go see it.

 
 

Call Me By Your Name

19 Jan

Call Me By Your Name – directed by Luca Guadagnino. Homoerotic-drama 132 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: A doctoral candidate comes to assist a professor for six weeks, and the professor’s teen-age son falls in love with him and he falls in love with the teen-age son.
~
He who has loved and not lost has not loved at all.

First love never ends.

These are the regulations our bodies have set down for us, and wonderful and terrible are their truths.

The American Ph.D. candidate, played by Armie Hammer, is all virility and dispatch. The teen-ager, played by Timothée Chalamet, lingers in that truce of time called adolescence. Hammer is fully confident and at home in his body. Chalamet’s body is scarcely formed. We know that he is drawn towards the hunky candidate because he gazes wonderingly at him, as does everyone. We have no idea if the interest is returned by the hunk, for the two of them bicker and grouse.

But the young man opens half his shell to reveal the pearl. And the hunk responds as though nothing could be easier or more normal, and he goes for it, albeit gingerly, with the respect due to his boss’s son.

We are flooded from the start with full frontal photographs of Greek statuary. At one point such a statue is raised from the Mediterranean grave of an ancient trireme, and we see its beauty and its powerful genitalia.

But we never see the genitalia of the two lovers – male genitalia, that focus of curiosity, activity, and power. Or the object of ridicule, revulsion, and shrugs?

Why don’t we see these two males make love to one another’s’ privates? Because they’re movie stars? Or out of a sense of prudery? Or because the theme wishes to attend to “other” erotic values? Or we would be “descending” into pornography?

We have seen Mark Rylance in full erection and penetration in the 2001 film Intimacy, so we know what a movie star’s member looks like in full erection and action. Here, we can only suppose that the genitalia on hand would be shameful, meager, or flaccid, and so they remain unrevealed for reasons too many and too silly to contemplate. So, the sexual act is turned from to gaze at trees outside the window.

But those two actors, Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet sure do enjoy kissing one another; they sure do have a grand old time making out. And because they had a good time, I sure did have a good time to watch them have a good time. And because they had had a good time I believed them and took the significance of their affair under advisement because the story told me to. I believed that the love of their lives was taking place.

I wanted to believe it in order to offer it the tribute of my envy. As does the father of the Chalamet character, well played by Michael Stulhbarg, who, at the end of the movie, sits his young son down and spreads out the table cloth of his son’s life in its good fortune and riches.

After such love, there is nothing but a fire in a fireplace to look into. The fire is not the fire we have been asked to witness. A fireplace is outside of one.

The inside fire does not leave. But the warmth of the mating does not last, although its power to burn does. Mundane geographical distance removes that warmth.

Scorched recollection is the price we never stop paying for great love.

A lifetime of tears, would we say, is its inevitable and fair exchange? The fireplace of a fire that will not quite go out.

 
 

The Shape Of Water

14 Jan

The Shape Of Water – written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. Thriller Fairy Tale. 123 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: An Amazon river god is imprisoned in a U.S. research installation, where he is tortured and threatened with dismemberment until a cleaning woman nurses and rescues him.
~
Of course, fairy stories are true. Myths are true. Allegory is true. That’s how come they last and carry weight in the spirits of children and indigenes. What “true” means is that fairy tales and myths and allegory mimic the inner procedures of the human psyche. The reason fairy tale and myth and allegory endure is that their method of communicating the most important human truths has never been supplanted.

So we see the kindness of the cleaning woman to be the real food she offers the creature, along with hard-boiled eggs.

But what use has this scary creature? The use is, as with all gods, that they never die. What goes with that territory is that they can heal death in others. Mercury, the god of thieves, medicine, tricks, and messages, is the winged avatar of this still, but Hindu religion is crammed with others. In all cases, they heal.

Not always in the way you might want, and in this case the healing teeters perilously before it is revealed. For the god has taken the shape of a merman, and his aspect is daunting. He is played by 57-year-old Doug Jones, lithe, sensual, sudden.

I can’t think of an actor who might have better played the cleaning woman who becomes his mate. Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito (which in English means “exposed” or “transparent”) opens her character up not just to him but to her colleague played by Octavia Spencer whose every word one always believes and so it is here. Over a movie house which seems to be playing forever the same B-Toga epic, Hawkins lives in generous neighborly conjunction with with a commercial illustrator whose style has dated him.

Richard Jenkins does him perfectly. He is the artist who cannot make a difference, the old fool, The Failed Father Figure Of Fairy Tale. Rather like the sad king with the unmarriageable daughter whom you find all the time in those stories. Either she herself or someone beyond unusual must rescue her from the doldrums of the kingdom. And in this case, the doldrums are enforced by a vicious tyrant played with his usual perfection by the handsome, hard Michael Shannon.

Mortal stupidity swirls them around – by the American military bureaucracy typified by Nick Searcy as the general in charge of everything – and by the Russians who want to steal the merman, and whose plans are foxed by Michael Stuhlbarg, who who plays a scientist/spy bent on saving the merman.

So you see, you have a full complement of forces, modern and fantastical, to urge our attention and our loyalties on.

The film is beautifully filmed and imagined. Just what you want for such a tale.

And what is it that you want?

What you don’t want is to be told. So both the merman and the cleaning woman are mute and must, nonetheless, make themselves perfectly understandable to themselves and to us. We see that it is not hard to do.

What you really want is resurrection.

And that’s what the picture provides.

Enjoy yourself. See it.

 

Picture Snatcher

10 Aug

Picture Snatcher – directed by Lloyd Bacon. Newsroom Comedy. 87 minutes Black And White 1933.
★★★★★
The Story: A crime lord goes straight to a newspaper to go straight, leading to his becoming an ambulance chaser-photographer which is almost as bad as being a crime lord.
~
Picture Snatcher is the key to Cagney. If it is not the best performance he ever gave in movies, I haven’t seen a better.

It’s perfectly directed by Bacon and shot by Sol Polito and edited by Bill Holmes. top craftsmen at Warners. Warners made pictures about low-life, and this is one, but that didn’t mean those films didn’t get Waldorf-Astoria treatment.

You’ve got to see the film, because Cagney is just so good. I didn’t like him as a kid. It felt like I was growing up with a bully. And there is that element in him. But essentially, Cagney’s technique is grounded in fear, by which I mean the automatic defensiveness of the little man with a Thompson Machine Gun personality. You can see it melt from time to time as he meets up with this or that honey or hitch.

Cagney’s fear gave him technical confidence, and from that springs his awareness to improvise physically – so you never know what he is going to do next! This makes him interestingly dangerous. It also makes his technique reliable and at the same time fresh. For instance, watch for the moment when he dashes into a telephone booth to call his girl. The instant before he dials, he scoops the coin return to scarf a forgotten dime. Only Geraldine Page had this capacity for detail in running performance.

Cagney’s musical theater technique, which was the ground for what he did in films, may have originally been learned on the streets of New York. It was so installed in him that it prevented him from playing his parts in any other way. He had only this explosive technique to stand on. Playing a priest, you could always sense the Tommy Gun under the aub. I feel it’s rather tragic, because he wanted to play different roles. He could not do it. He couldn’t play them differently.

Certain artists can do practically anything: Schubert and Mozart. Other artists find their niche and mine it. Chopin, for instance or Piazzolla. Nothing wrong with it. Wonderful, in fact. Cagney: in his vein. See him here at his best in it.

 

Dunkirk

06 Aug

Dunkirk – written and directed by Christopher Nolan. WWII Docudrama. 106 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: The Germans surround Allied armies of 400,000 on a beach in Belgium with no escape, while a flotilla of smacks, little yachts, and pleasure boats strike out on the high seas to rescue them.
~
I lived through The Depression, Hitler’s rise, World War II, Hiroshima. When the war ended, I tied tin cans on the back of my bike and raced up and down the boulevard hollering with joy like everyone else. I was twelve. I lived in an English household. I remember The Blitz; we had a handsome British soldier lodged my bedroom, Captain Byatt. And I remember Dunkirk.

Oh, the surge of heart we all felt for fellow Britains for courage and nautical skill and resolve! Wow! It was hard to believe they’d brought it off, but they had! It seemed each boat had taken upon itself to sail over. As though those Sunday fishermen all had a mind of their own and it was the same mind. It was the largest armada of small boats ever to set sail on the sea.

The film showing this crazy escapade is wonderful in that before special effects production, the film we see could never have been made. I am thankful for seeing scenes otherwise too complicated to stage and too expensive and too dangerous.

The film is told in three narratives.

The first is the spectacle of the army trapped and holding off the enemy, and lined up on the beach, waiting for rescue ships which do not come, and when they come make big fat targets for submarines and Luftwaffe.

The second story is that of Royal Airforce pilots in three Spitfires who fly over to supply air cover.

The third is the story of a father and son and local boy who set out on their pleasure craft and head for Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers.

All of this is wonderful and beautifully done.

Kenneth Branagh plays the naval Commander leading embarkation from an exposed wharf and Mark Rylance plays the father at the wheel of his boat. These two anchor the film with known faces and known energies. All the rest of the large cast is played by actors one does not know, and they therefore become the anonymous soldiers and citizens who actually lived it all out.

What I miss is the sense of a communal effort. For the first of these stories tells the through-story of a single young soldier and his adventures harrowing and heroic to get on a boat to England. So much time and attention is given to these complex miracles that the greater miracle, that a hundred little vessels set out to save him is lost. Did save him. Brought him and 400,000 others by the skin of their teeth and the seat of their pants back to the sceptered isle, in a hundred bobbing boats.

This error is so elaborate and interesting and spectacular in its chapters that we do not tear our eyes from it, but the fact is that it eats up film time from the real story which is that the English people gathered their resolve under the national resolve of Churchill to collectively save this soldier, and we only see one strand of it, Mark Rylance’s in his old pleasure cruiser.

Rylance is wonderful, so is everything seen, taught, told. I hope never to forget the sight of the Spitfire seen from above as it wings its way silently over the beaches across which the Armies queue on their way to the water.

I saw it at an Imax on recommendation, and, while I don’t know therefore what Dunkirk would feel like in a lesser projection, I enjoyed it. I had never seen Imax before. The world had never seen a Dunkirk before and might never see such a thing again. If I were you, I would not miss the chance.

 

Padre Padrone

02 Aug

Padre Padrone – directed by Paolo & Vittorio Taviani. Drama. 114 minutes Color 1977.
★★★★★
The battle of a father to overlord his son to lifelong enslavement and ignorance against that son who hears a song from afar he recognizes as his own.
~
Ruthless.

I like films ruthless about what they show. As a corrective to the flaccid films that ruled the ‘50s of my youth, I required transgressors like Brando first was.

Now, late in life, I come upon one of the great films of that era, by brother-directors whose work I have never before seen.

How does an individual survive the abuse of a life? No. Not survive. But emerge, not with a white flag, but with a rag of his own devising, coloring, conception, and will? Waving on a crooked stick, he holds it aloft as he clambers out of the ditch.

This story takes place in the upper hills of Sardinia. Shepherd people live nearto rude survival. Their temperaments male and female are violent, cruel, unforgiving, unchanging. The mother tortures the boy, the father beats him almost to death. No escape across those stony hills is in view nor in view of anyone else around. No examples of dropping out, hitting road, or carving a future of one’s own.

This is Italian neo-realism at its most forceful and grainy. It, like the films of Robert Rossellini, is executed with care, predication, rigor. Nothing careless here. Nothing cheap or underdone. It is as consumate as a Freed Unit musical at MGM – but in style and treatment, of course, it is without gloss or relief. I feel I am there. I feel I am actually seeing it. I am walking through it, and it is walking through me. I cannot stop it or bring aid to it.

It won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. It won world-wide praise and attention. It is a relevant and immediate and gripping today as when it was made. Beautifully restored by the Coen Brothers.

Acted by masters. Costumed, set, lit, filmed, directed by masters. Entertain yourself with their power and their truth.

 

The Immortal Story

25 Apr

The Immortal Story – written and directed by Orson Welles. TV Drama. 58 minutes Color 1968
★★★★★
The Story A multimillionaire pays for a man and a woman to enact a sailors’ age-old sexual fantasy.
~
This is said to be Welles’ last completed film, and a very good one it is. Of course, it contains Welles’ usual tropes, which reflect his hobby as a magician, in that his films are defter than the eye that watches them, and thus, always sinister – in that they are all left-handed, and contain a touch of evil – at least what he enjoyed to be evil.

So many books about Orson Welles. To plumb his mystery and to represent some or other aspect of his character or genius elsewhere dismissed or unobserved. Yet he was probably simpler than supposed. And probably thought of himself so too.

The thing about Welles is that he is essentially a virtuoso radio actor. By which I mean, he reigns by means of his voice. Virtuoso radio acting and with that voice supported his stage ambitions as a young man of an energy so superabundant and inventive that everyone stood aside for it and served it – there being nothing else to do with it except resent it. He retains that voice in film, life, and Lear which I once saw him perform in a whale chair.

The thing about Welles in all his doings and roles and life is that that he must be The Main Event or he is nothing. He will withhold his toys; he will not play.

From the time he was a child he had been treated as The Main Event. By his father, foster father, teachers, and because he had a retarded brother. His voice and remarkable appearance confirmed it. Adoration, adulation was his from the start and forever. So that his survival depended on everyone treating him as The Main Event, and he rewarded their expectations or prolonged their expectations to the point of death and after. Indeed, if he is not The Main Event, he is impotent. With his great height, weight, voice, reputation, and bearing, as soon as frustrated he becomes a huge baby – effrontuous, verbally violent, refractory. The problem of, with, and for Orson Welles is that he had to be The Main Event, and in movies he was not. In movies, the one who makes the movies is The Main Event. In movies, The Producer is the Main Event. Neither writer, director nor star, not, never Welles but The Producer.

His rudeness to producers is legendary. His inability to get good money from them is epic. His career cascaded from the moment he left the cutting of The Magnificent Ambersons to save South America from the Axis in WWII – an even bigger main event than Ambersons. He never recovered from that folly.

His life in film and his entire life depended upon producers and the money to be extracted from them – humiliation enough – and in his neurosis in realizing his dependency on them and in realizing their realizing that they, not he, were The Main Event, we see him squalling and peevish and recalcitrant toward them to a mortal degree.

He made his films under budget, but seldom in time for the producers who owned them to release them to theaters in time. He cut and he recut his films – for months, for years. He delayed to give them to the producers who owned them and whose money had enabled him to make them.

He is the most suicidal of all screen persons.

Caught in the machine of himself, he goes on and for years dies, at work on the next project and the one after that.

His life is a wonderful spectacle. As endearing and innovative as a child, each in turn, the brat and the baby emerge from within him, never at war with one another, but always at war with his life itself.

The Immortal Story is a beautiful film of a beautiful story beautifully told. Isaac Dinesen wrote it, and Welles was in and perhaps never out of his Dinesen adoration period.

In it, Welles, in full stage make-up, plays a cold, old millionaire living in 19th Century Macao. His secretary, cast and played perfectly by Roger Coggio, elicits the help of a local woman, Jeanne Moreau, to play the part of the wife. Welles himself hires the beautiful young sailor, Norman Eshley, who will sleep with her.

That is enough for you. For you must see it. See it for the object of beauty it is, with its incisive score by Eric Satie, its brilliant set decoration by André Piltant, and the miraculous camera work and lighting by Willy Kurant. Of course, since Welles is The Main Event always, much of this comes from his fecund imagination and restless hands. There he is stationing his massive edifice in vast chairs. Pontificating, prodding, prominent. A Main Event.

Welles is in all things The Manipulator. All his roles are like this– on camera, off camera, in reality, and in his dreams. He does not know how to be anything else but the manipulator. Magician and puppeteer of himself, he offers to the world his rich love of its riches one of which was, most certainly and to our undying gratitude, himself.

 

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp

14 Dec

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp – written, directed, produced by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Comedy. 2 hours 43 minutes. Color 1943.

★★★★

The Story: Sixty Years of advancing pig-headedness in the life of a British military professional and his loyalty to love of every kind.

~

How privileged I am to watch another super-duper movie in a row. This Pressburg/Powell offering was controversial in its day because it envisioned a friendship with a German military officer while WW II was being waged at the same time as it showed an old-fashioned British military professional who had a hard time adapting to modern warfare who was friends with him.

The Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger Siamese Twins wrote, produced and directed collectively The Red Shoes, The 49th Parallel, Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus, I Know Where I’m Going, and a number of other remarkably watchable pictures. This was Emeric Pressburger’s favorite and is among their best. It has on some lists been called the best English film ever made.

Martin Scorsese, whose style was influenced and informed by Michael Powell’s style, introduces the film and appears in the documentary on Powell. Powell’s wife became and remains his editor. Every director in the world has learned from P/P.

Scorsese says Roger Livesey is his favorite actor and Anton Walbrook is his next favorite. My favorite is Anton Walbrook and my next favorite is Roger Livesey. And every actor in the world has learned from these two.

Livesey plays a young, virile, rash officer whose adventurous spirit takes him to Germany, where he meets the love of his life, played by Deborah Kerr, aged 22.

He also meets his future best friend, a German Officer played by Anton Walbrook.

If you want to know anything at all about acting and how it is done, watch Walbrook here deliver a long monologue in one shot, no interruptions, no outside dialogue. Simple, internal, and both slow and quick simultaneously. He does not milk it. He exists inside the shell of a hopeless situation, which nothing he can do or say can change. Pressburger wrote it just like that. And just like that Walbrook delivers it. I watch it nearly falling off my chair for fear Walbrook will not be able to negotiate it. And in that complete him and become him.

Roger Livesey is lovely as the Colonel Blimp character, an old duffer in his nonage, a romantic husband in his middle age, and a bashful fool in his youth.

The cameraman on the picture was the great Jack Cardiff, the Michelangelo of Technicolor, so you are ravished by eye. The script remains consistently witty and endearing. And, despite the title, Colonel Blimp never dies. Thank goodness!

I don’t tell plots or stories of film because it spoils the surprise. Be prepared for this one to go on a bit after you thought it would end, and then go on some more. But its length turns out always to be agreeable, sufficient, and necessary. Don’t miss it, my dears.

The extras that go with it are tops.

 

The Man Who Understood Infinity

18 Nov

The Man Who Understood Infinity – directed by Matthew Brown. BioPic. 1 hour 48 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: A mathematical genius from India is almost beaten to death by the math department of Cambridge University.

~

In the old MGM days biopics spelled out their story with great big letters, A B C. Their plots required neither understanding, thought, or interpretation. Only acceptance. We were supposed to swallow them whole. We were supposed to digest them by rote, since that was they way they were written and since no other option was available, save, in the end, skepticism that whoever made this film maybe didn’t get their facts straight.

The writing of such biopics prohibits those scenes of conflict known as drama. What they offer instead is tableaux. That is their narrative method. In these tableaux actors must paralyze their power to act in order to mime as best they can what is constant brass. For the emotion of these stories does not depend upon actions, actors, or even characters. In tableaux there is no emotion. Or whatever emotion the music can eke out of us. There is only the rigid formality of responsible biographical information. They are about big names and require great stars to stand there and just do them.

Such biopics constitute an actual form. Many biopics follow it. The pauper-genius makes his way into the chambers of power and is met with scorn, ridicule, banishment, deadening doubt, and so forth. But someone allies himself with him, and, against all obstacles, he wins out in the end. It is a victory scathed by bitterness because of the price required to achieve it, which sometimes almost includes his mate.

This form is called the story of the underdog. And two actors of great grace and fluidity, Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, constrain their imaginations to fit into the corset of the form in this one.

Deadening doubt is what Irons is allowed to play against Patel’s Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young impoverished nonentity who arrives from Madras at Cambridge where Irons’ Harold Hardy is a don in higher mathematics. Hardy has invited him there from India. Ramanujan is a completely untrained, unschooled conceptual genius. His mathematical formulas envision the answers to problems no one has ever solved.

Hardy demands proofs of Ramanujan’s routes to the formulas. Ramanujan resists. Toby Jones stands by. Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell gives droll advice. And Ramanujan’s luscious wife has to stay in India thinking herself forgotten because her mother-in-law never delivers Ramanujan’s letters to her.

Audiences are biddable. They paid their ticket; they don’t stalk out.

Because there are other benefits here besides dramatic or narrative ones.

One of these is the setting of Cambridge in the midlands and the quad and rooms of Trinity College.

Another is the presence of these two actors who are vivid by nature.

Irons is not here in his virtuoso mode. He is a character hoping to save himself from the peril of disgrace by forcing his doubt on a perfect flower. That, to Hardy, mathematics itself is a poppy makes doubt grate on his wonder.

Dev Patel – he of the Slumdog Millionaire, he of the Marigold Hotels – grips one, as he always does, by the honest vitality of his being. Nothing about this actor is forced, which is a wonderful thing to see in a human. So we sit in our seats and allow the ceremony of the plot to take place before us as it has so often done before.

Dev Patel’s existence as an international star makes this story possible. Ramanujan was a great man. But who would have heard of him had not Patel been alive just now?

It’s wonderful to hear about Ramanujan. To see his name for the first time.

To see Patel fortuitously frame and make this name a name again. To type it out here, over and over, as someone who is now never lost.

 

 

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, BIOPIC, Dev Patel, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Jeremy Irons: acting god

 

Éxtasis

24 Jun

Éxtasis – directed by Mariano Barroso. Comedy. 93 minutes Color 1996.

★★★★★

Four seedy small time crooks topple into the big time when a famous director adopts one of them as his son.

~

He is full of the juice of life, good to look at, and talented as all get out. Javier Barden at 26.

It’s remarkable to see him as an actor even early on his career making up a character taken right off the streets of Madrid. Take a look at the walk he has given this bloke. Take a look at the quirky personality he has ascribed to him. He seems to have started out as one of the most serious yet entertaining actors on the screen and twenty years later still is.

Playing the leader of the gang at full throttle, the story takes him into the lair of a multimillionaire director where he presents himself as his son. The real son is one of Barden’s gang, but the father has never seen that son. Complications arise when the director decides to make the Barden a stage super-star . Complications exponential themselves when Barden decides to really be that son and also to be that star.

Moreover, the play he is to appear in is the famous Calderon masterwork, Life Is A Dream, which deals — in a Pirandellian dance — with such switches.

It’s a delightful comedy, whose twists I decline to discomplicate for you here, for they are all up to you to enjoy when you see it.

And Barden, if you like him, and which of us does not, is a treat to behold in his early manhood. Gifted beyond measure, handsome beyond measure, big-hearted beyond measure.

Go look.

 

True Detective

12 Apr

True Detective [Season 1] – directed by Cary Joji Fukunga. Police Procedural 8 Part HBO Series. Color 2014.

The Story: Two incompatible cops are assigned to solve a strange crime.

~

The film is a remarkable collation of production, writing, design, filming, direction, editing, and acting. With one exception.

Matthew McConaughey is not that exception. For if you ever wanted to know what power in acting looks like, here it is! Power does not require scenes of vocal range, emotion, or physical display. It may include them, but the sense always is that the artist is nowhere near the limits of his technique, but that the range accessible to that technique is without limit, given the material at hand, the canvas at hand, the occasion at hand.

Seeing him one would never make the mistake of supposing that McConaughey could sing opera or play King Lear. He is an actor who never tries to dupe us into believing that he is greater or other than he is. There are more kinds of great actor than Daniel Day-Lewis.

For, watching him, nothing comes to mind but the desire to continue to do so. We are not distracted. Instead, we sense we are in the presence of a rare opportunity an actor of rare and minute focus, of tiny gesture, each one emerging from his guts in a part perfectly suited to him.

Inside the actor one senses latitude without boundary, which means: the ability to release the material as he wishes, a fastidious rendering of the role’s structure, a sense of the proper size of the role, a sense of a cunning relationship to the architecture of the story as a whole. He understands the period. He understands the rubric of film. He understands the decorum of the character. He can create the titanic with perfect silence. Large or small in his effects he is relaxed. As an actor he is operating out of freedom and in freedom. So all this appears easy.

It is not the same for Woody Harrelson. Harrelson is in a less gutsy role but a more emotional one. But Harrelson is given to a grotesque grimacing with his lower jaw. It is hard to watch and impoverishing to the performance. What is odd is that concurrent with this facial gesticulation is a good actor at work. He is not mugging, but it looks like mugging. Harrison is full of emotion, but releases it through a tic, which someone should be kind enough to ask him to stop. One turns one’s eyes from him, until McConaughey has occasion to call his character a moron, which, unfortunately is what the actor looks like!

It’s too bad, but it does not ruin a story that proves what others have said that the best film drama these days is on cable series TV.

If True Detective is typical, mini-series TV has also changed acting style. No longer speeded up by commercials or by a two-hour time limit set by cinema owners, actors now have space to slow down and open up their work. Golden Age Hollywood Crisp acting is nowhere on view in these mini-series. Nor is modern TV acting or movie acting what we see. No, rather it’s a style of acting with latitude of range, time, and silence. In its spaces we sit and contemplate the vast paradoxes that the art of acting has to reveal about human nature. No one on earth has a greater sense of this than actors.

I understand Season 2 has a different story and performers and that Season 1 is complete in itself. By all means, see True Detective Season 1.

 

The Devil And Miss Jones

15 Feb

The Devil And Miss Jones – directed by Sam Wood. Proletarian Comedy. 92 minutes Black And White 1941.

★★★★★

The Story: A group of department store employees, protesting for a union, unwittingly take into their fold the owner of the store.

~

Gee whiz, what are you waiting for! Get on your pony and order up this proletarian comedy with Charles Coburn as the millionaire who spies on his employees, and Jean Arthur, the store clerk who unwittingly befriends him.

This kind of story was a staple of the age of The Golden Age: My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, most Frank Capra Comedies of the era, and any story where some penniless person gets to be the spouse of the boss’s favorite child: You Can’t Take It With You, The Bride Came C.O.D., It Happened One Night, Vivacious Lady, and a spate of screwball comedies from the era.

It was a great age for comedy, and, boy, do they still satisfy. They hold true now more than comedies made now, because the difference between the rich and the poor, the plutocrat and the working stiff are, once again, as marked now as then.

Charles Coburn can really play anything. He never shortchanges a role. He is never without resources. His person exudes a comic potential with every breath. He doesn’t need a situation; he is a situation. Watch him, as the children’s shoe clerk, fumble right and left, the look on him of dignity lost in the face of the preposterous. He is one of the great film character stars of the era; he can carry a film, as he does here; he can steal a film, as he does here.

But check Jean Arthur out as she creates three different ways, to clobber him over the head with the heel of a work boot. Everything she does is open, intentional, and sparse. She is incapable of a false move. Or an unappealing one.

Robert Cummings’s forte was light comedy, and he is at his best moment in his acting life as the rabble-rousing love interest of Jean Arthur. Watch his scenes on the beach and in the courtroom. Everything he says uses the forward energy which was his milk.

All these actors are at the top of their game. They don’t mug; they don’t gesticulate or exaggerate; they don’t reach for laughs or wring them to death. This kind of acting is called comedy of character and is played with the bodies of the performers as personalities, not clown bodies or situation comedy bodies. It’s not entertainment of gag or guffaw. It requires the great fluidity of perfect willingness. Master acting is required. Coburn was nominated for an Oscar and was to win one not long after for The More The Merrier.

The picture moves forward on roller skates. The camera is held by the great Harry Stradling Sr. And the writing is brilliant, surprising, and real: Norman Krasna. Treat yourself. Indulge yourself. Let yourself go. Place The Devil And Miss Jones before you.

 

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

14 Dec

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – directed by Alison Klayman. Biodoc. 91 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

The Story: A world famous artist also works on human rights in his native China, much to the chagrin of the government and for the love of the Chinese people.

~

I have recently and for the first time seen Gandhi, and in doings so was reminded of Ai Weiwei whose calm and whose shrewdness match Gandhi’s in so many ways.

Weiwei’s artwork is striking and different and rich. Much of it, because of its vast size, is executed by assistants. Gandhi sat and spun cloth.

These men’s utterance is simple, authentic, and direct. Their moves are crafty and bold. For instance, after being released from arrest Weiwei is not allowed to speak to the press or give interviews. What does he do? On the way into his home, he speaks to the reporters. All he says is, “The terms of my parole forbid me from giving interviews,” but look how many times he says it. Of course, he says it to every reporter who says anything to him. But what a proclamation against gagging, what a fire alarm against loss of free speech! And consider how thoroughly it was televised when it happened. Of course, within a few weeks he is talking out again.

I can’t recommend this documentary more firmly, not just because of his art and his work, but because we experience him as a personality, persistent, simple, true. How rare! What a privilege to visit with him here.

 

 

 

 
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Posted in Biodoc, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

Room

07 Nov

Room directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Drama. 117 minutes. Color. 2015

★★★★

The Story: A mother and her young son live in a room; the world is also a room.

~

If you don’t know what this movie is about before you go, well then, neither did I, so I am not going to tell you now. I am going to say: see it.

The first half of the film is an extraordinary piece of movie writing and making and acting, almost entirely confined to scenes between Brie Larson the young mother of a boy Jack just turned 5.

Larson plays her part as a woman with a high morale, which is to say she does two things: she plays against her character’s circumstances, which is essential considering the circumstances, and she plays it dry-eyed. Modern actresses have the tendency to turn themselves into aquariums. This is both unprofessional, inartistic, and counter productive in high dramatic roles — indeed, in any roles.

She is met gesture for gesture by the performance of one Jacob Tremblay as the 5 year-old son. His is one of the most remarkable child performances I have ever seen in my life. The script gives him a big range and he seizes it without compunction. You must see him.

The second half of the film is less well written. It concerns the response of people, even family, who must engage with those who have come from a set of circumstances so odd that no conversational routine will breach them. People don’t know how to behave at these times. It’s understandable. There’s no language for it. But it also presents a problem for the writer, which here has not been met, and certainly not on the level of the first half.

So in part two we get B-Grade TV-writing – a digressive scene, for instance, with the press, and a finale with big fat music tying up the package with a big fat ribbon, and, of course, a dog.

This second half introduces a very interesting character played by William H. Macy, the grandfather of the boy. His prejudice against the boy should be the subject of the second half, instead of which Macy is banished, and we get a cheap and easy recovery, which, considering where we have been, is insulting.

However, the boy’s grandmother is played by Joan Allen, an actress of impeccable discretion and power. Her presence in a picture makes it always worth seeing. Watch her in her early scenes – how dumb the situation would make any human being. Not noble: dumb. A wise choice for an actress, because true.

Taking into account what I have said, consider it recommended highly. Go.

 

For Colored Girls

05 Nov

For Colored Girls – directed by Tyler Perry. Drama. 133 minutes Color 2010.

★★★★★

The Story: Seven negro women discharge their perils and experiences of their lives as mates.

~

The focus of the material confines it to the influence of males upon these women. In each case the woman is at the mercy of her beliefs as to what the penis will provide – VD, AIDS, rape, infanticide, addiction, abortion. It pronounces without questioning the reality of her beliefs as to what the word “love” means, at least insofar as she sees it embodied in the male.

What confines the material concentrates it, however, and focuses the point of view. For the writing of these women’s responses to what has happened to them in the matter is brilliant, daring, and deep.

I have not seen or read the stage play by Nkozake Shange, but I want to. I want to see this film again with the acting score in front of me. My old tv has poor sound, so a quarter of what these ladies were saying was lost, and another quarter was lost because they proceeded to weep while saying it.

This is a technical and professional mistake. You do not recite Hamlet’s soliloquy while bawling. Why? Because no voice as the brass to project verse through the gargle of a crying jag. And Hamlet is not supposed to weep. We the audience are.

So this is a miscalculation on the part of these actresses and the director who evidently has a taste for such stuff. Emotionalization is the defilement of feeling to the level of ocular perspiration. What really lies beneath it is too deep for tears. What lies beneath it is the pain of a terrible knowledge. We don’t need to see these women weep over their suffering if we are to suffer with them. In fact we need to see them bare of tears, living in the residue of terrible knowledge.

They are wonderful actresses, and it’s a really well directed film in many ways. It is perfectly cast and produced. It is Gogol’s The Lower Depths for black women. It is important and beautiful and ours.

 
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Posted in ENSEMBLE DRAMA, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, PERSONAL DRAMA, Whoopi Goldberg

 

Bridge Of Spies

27 Oct

Bridge Of Spies – Directed by Steven Spielberg. DocuDrama. 141 Minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A Russian spy during the Cold war is caught, tried, found guilty, which he was, and imprisoned against the day when he might be traded for an American spy caught by the Russians, a day that soon befalls.

~

Steven Spielberg serves us up another of his Civics Lessons, which he has treated us to for the past twenty years: Schindler’s List, Amistad, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, Flags Of Our Fathers, Letter From Iwo Jima, Empire Of The Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, and now Bridge Of Spies. In each of these he gives us our money‘s worth, and if you don’t think so, you don’t know what your money is worth.

They are richly produced, earnest, valorous, and thorough. There is entertainment value in all these qualities, but the entertainment value of these pieces is not limited to these values. And Spielberg may be getting better as a filmmaker for making them. There is usually something wrong with Spielberg’s endings. But Bridge of Spies escapes this failing, barely.

If you are interested in such things, Bridge Of Spies also presents us with a lesson in variation of acting styles. Tom Hanks plays the lawyer sent to defend the spy in court and eventually to barter his exchange. It a perfect example of one actor, Hanks, playing a role, and another actor, Mark Rylance playing a character.

Hanks is a skilled and judicious actor, likeable and devotedly bourgeois. He brings to the role a notable probity, vital for the role, and rare in actors nowadays, although once evident in Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Joel Macrea, Spencer Tracy. He, like them, is droll in humor. As an actor he gives us every reassurance.

Mark Rylance, raised in America who has made his career on the British stage, is different artist entirely. His job is more acute than Hanks’. Hanks can ride the attention as the principal player, the hero. Rylance has to forge a way of making our attention to Hanks worthwhile. He does this by a series of alienation effects – dull dress, a sniffle, a tick – so that you are turned off by the character at first – in order that you may generate a change of view about him as the movie goes by. Otherwise he would be an object of merchandise, and of less value and interest to us as the exchange piece for Francis Gary Powers, our spy pilot whose plane the Russians shot down.

These two opposing styles do not conflict with or grate upon one another. Nor do they dovetail. What they do is suit the character situation which the story presents, which is that of an ordinary American working to defend the life of an odd duck. A duck so odd, indeed, that it is impossible to read him at all. Which is to the story’s advantage. For, since we know nothing of Rylance’s character, his character begs nothing either from us or from Hanks, except what is common to Hanks and us, mystification. We have zero back story for him. But, boy, does that pay off, since it declines to engage a false sentiment to root for him. Hanks allows Rylance’s character to be as he is. The probity Hanks works from is that of John Adams defending the Boston Massacre British soldiers. Every person deserves a fair trial. The entire ethical level is allowed to play out on the acting level. They are masterful actors who can play their opposing techniques together seamlessly. Every actor deserves a fair performance.

Another thing, if you are interested in acting: ask yourself the question: in the scenes with Hanks and Rylance, which one always has the upper hand? And how does that come about?

Think about it when you’ve seen Bridge of Spies, which I know you shall do. And let me know what you think.

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted in Directed by Steven Spielberg, DOCUDRAMA, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Mark Rylance, Tom Hanks

 

Everest

14 Oct

Everest ­– directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Docupic. 121 Minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: Four commercial climbing expeditions join forces for the sake of safety as they take their clients up to the highest elevation in the world.

~

Well they certainly found the perfect actor to play the lead. Jason Clarke, an Australian actor, brings to his role the requirements needed to hold the entire story together. Because there is that within him that allows you to believe that he holds the entire expedition together. It is he who has the foresight to see that five expeditions cannot embark on the same day, and gets three of them to join with his group. This actor exudes the compassion, expertise, and common sense which makes us go along with him on what is, after all, a $65,000 ticket to a thrill for the climbers.

The film takes us into the depths of the mountains, and I wonder how they ever managed to film it. I was astonished. I was held. I kept learning. I felt present on the spot.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays an expedition leaders, a rapscallion. And John Hawkes plays a climber on his last chance to make it. Josh Brolin plays a climber addicted to mountaineering. The great Icelandic actor, Ingvar Eggert Sugurösson plays a leader who never uses oxygen and who does jim-dandy without it. He alone is clean-shaven, which helps his performance, for it is often hard to tell one character from another, since all the men wear beards which cooperate with the snow and the oxygen-masks to disguise them. But you can identify the characters by their parkas. And the director makes the back-and-forth of the perils they meet as clear as can be in all that white.

The female actors are particularly strong. Keira Knightley as Clarke’s pregnant wife, Robin Wright as Brolin’s. Elizabeth Debicki as the base camp doctor holds the fort with the wonderful Emily Watson who plays the base camp manager. What a treasure she is!

I won’t tell you the story, because I did not know it myself when I saw it. But I surmised that things did not turn out well for all these people, or the film would not have been made. It’s beautifully done. The mountain itself looms above it all, deciding who will live and how and who will die and how.

The peril is threefold. Steepness. Oxygen deprivation. Cold. I am a cold person, so the last of these interested me most, in that some of the characters are clearly more comfortable with cold than others.

Of course, by cold, I do not mean nasty, narrow, cruel, prudish, or mean. Cold is a temperature of love of life and a latitude for moving through it. Hot blooded people are colorful, bold, and tempting. But the cool ones love the reserves in themselves, and the path therein to their souls and their callings. So I like snow. I like ice. I like to witness the perils inherent in them. The perseverance. The melt.

Also, I saw it in 3-D, which helps, I think. Anyhow, I recommend it, as, of course, I do the film itself.

 

Vigil In The Night

23 Jul

Vigil In The Night – produced and directed by George Stevens. Medical Drama. 96 minutes Black And White, 1940.

★★★★★

The Story: Two nurses try to escape their pasts in a cruel and dangerous profession.

~

The five important pre-War directors in American film – George Stevens, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and John Ford – all were permanently affected by it, as were the actors who went.

Robert Montgomery, Tyrone Power, James Stewart, Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, Clark Gable engaged in dangerous action in The War. Sweet Kid Galahad, Wayne Morris, flying a Hellcat off the aircraft carrier Essex, shot down 7 Japanese planes and contributed to the sinking of five Japanese ships. As did the whole nation, all came back solemnized by The War.

Before The War, George Stevens made comedies such as Swing Time, the best of the Rogers/Astaire musicals, Vivacious Lady with Jimmy Stewart, The More The Merrier with Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, Gunga Din with Cary Grant, and Woman Of The Year, the first and best of the Tracy/Hepburn comedies. During The War, George Stevens filmed Dachau. After The War he never made another comedy.

So the pre-War Vigil In The Night comes as a surprise in Stevens work. It is serious. It is an ER melodrama such as we have seen many a one on TV, set in the nursing profession, with Carole Lombard in a role of the sort she was never known for.

The highest paid actress in Hollywood at the time, she ordinarily played lamé women of a highly volatile disposition in slapstick comedy. Here she is burkad in nurses’ caps and scarves and aprons. She appears to wear no noticeable lipstick or eye makeup. Because she had a scar on her left cheek, her face has a heavy, but matte, foundation. Her blond hair is seldom visible.

The story is from a novel by A.J. Cronin, who, like Keats, Stein, Maugham, W.C. Williams, was a medical doctor, so, written from the inside, the movement of the material rings true as narrative.

If Vigil In The Night had been a masterpiece, the film would have been a masterpiece. But unlike Stevens’ A Place In the Sun and Shane, no visual or narrative power on the part of the director can budge it beyond its convention of well-ordered melodrama. Its convention is honorable and solid, of course. It is narrative-driven. But it cannot escape the many corners of its own story. This story holds the film firmly in hand, and the only escape from it is the question that arises in the viewer as to whether the leading nurse will renounce her profession of nursing for marriage to the doctor who is in love with her.

This is the sole drama for the audience. All the rest of the drama is elected to the screen, moved forward there, resolved there. In Vigil In The Night, there is nothing for us to do. In Shane and A Place In The Sun there is everything for us to do. In A Place In The Sun, the power of the film lies in the director’s ability to leave an immense part of the story literally in the dark, at a distance, over there, for our delectation and voyeurism. To Watch it, a huge amount of imagination is called for, as to watch Shane. To watch Vigil In The Night no imagination is called for. The plot suborns it all.

The astounding thing about it, this being so, is the director’s handling of the material: the almost silent-film opening with its Bela Lugosi music, the angles of the camera, the overhead shots of the operating room, the director’s movement of the cast through wards, his placement of personnel, his characteristic use of windows through which to shoot, the taciturn handling of a bus accident so that, in not quite knowing what is going on, we experience the confusion of the episode, the management of every scene to make it unobtrusively interesting and right for us, shooting the child’s rescue through the slats of the crib, his arrangement of bodies in light, his ability to tell the emotional story through stark movement. From the point of view of treatment, Vigil In The Night is a masterpiece. Otherwise, not.

He produced the film, under the fine, overall production of Pandro S. Berman at RKO with whom he had worked successfully before. And as usual, he edited the picture himself. The only blight on the film is Alfred Newman’s music, which sentimentalizes emotion by supplying sentiment already there. Stevens’ soft spot for polemic also peeks out here – a trait that was to sink him years later.

What you have at the center of all this are four main characters: Carole Lombard as the career nurse, Brian Aherne as the honest hospital physician who must fight the head of the hospital board for healthier conditions, Anne Shirley as Lombard’s sister who doesn’t belong in nursing at all, and Ethel Griffies as the hospital head matron of nursing.

In scene after scene, through imaginative shifting of points of view and position Griffies holds the story in suspense as to the question of whether Lombard and her sister Anne Shirley can escape or redeem their pasts.

Brian Aherne, the archetypical leading man, is an actor of lyrical rather than dramatic strain, which perfectly suits the sexuality of the character he plays, since he needs to not claim Lombard without her express permission. Stevens films him with his eyes lowered in one scene; unusual for a camera to dwell on an actor like that; it suits the character perfectly.

As it should and must, the film retains our engagement because of Carole Lombard.

What is it about her? There was always the sense she was a madcap amateur, with the voice pitched too high.

Not so here. Here she is entirely under wraps, and one is given latitude to respect what she does and is. Quite simply, quite obviously, she was that rare combination of an actor who was both truly beauteous and, behind that, truly appealing.

With her hair concealed, the planes of her face emerge, and they are something to behold. Large, wide-spaced eyes. Mobile mouth. High cheek bones. A long, delicate jaw-line. Slender figure. And the voice, for once, placed low. Regard the slight movement of her exquisite brow. The features are severe; what lies behind them is not.

Technically it is a part hard to do without pushing and thus betraying the virtue we are expected to credit this character to possess, which is that of self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, a capacity for grueling, dangerous work, command in emergency, nobility. None of these does Lombard “play.” We are left to supply them, and we do, willingly. Thus we root for her. She herself makes nothing of them – and makes nothing of making nothing of them, as is right, for they would be already part of her character’s nature, and she and the director knew that the muscle of the story and her movement in a scene did the job. Lombard keeps it simple.

She had chosen the part because the wanted an Oscar. She had been nominated for My Man Godfrey, but she was not nominated for Vigil In The Night at all, and you can see why: the part goes nowhere. No alteration is available to her from beginning to end; no arc. She is superb in it, but superb is all she can be. Still, she is a perfect vessel for Stevens’ direction. Had she lived, one wonders if he would have used her again, as he tended to do with actors.

Stevens tells and lets the actor tell the emotion of the story with movement alone. By this I don’t mean grimace, expression, gesticulation. What I mean is that he makes the dynamic of the scene itself move the actors, not emotionally, but physically, to tell their story. You know what they feel by where and when they walk, how closely they stand to one another. For Stevens, emotion is narration, narration is actor placement, placement dictates scenic content. Stevens was the cameraman of Laurel and Hardy, and knew that their power lay not in jokes or in what they said or in slapstick, but in the collection of drama available inside the wider context of each scene they played. It had to do with the quite careful but unforced allowing of comedy to emerge – you find this over and over in Stevens’ comedies.

You find it here. Finding it here might not be enough to lure you to see this film, but Vigil In The Night is more than a text for screen scholars or students. It is master work by a great film artist. It is a masterpiece of directorial and acting entertainment in which every resource available to render the material for us has been engaged, invented, imagined.

 

Off The Map

05 Jul

Off The Map – directed by Campbell Scott. Family Drama. 108 minutes Color 2003.

★★★★★

The Story: The difficulties of a family living on the edge at the edge are exacerbated by the arrival of a tax man from the IRS.

~

One of the great actors of my heart is here, and what puts her there and here?

Unforced excellence.

Vladimir Horowitz: forced excellence. Artur Rubenstein: unforced excellence.

Glenn Close: forced excellence. Joan Allen: unforced excellence.

Here she allies with a good script, an unusual story, fine direction, art direction, cast, costuming, filming, and the landscape of northern New Mexico, all of which she fits into with an ease that seems long-standing.

New Mexico is not part of the United States, of course, so who should enter into the world Joan Allen’s character inhabits but the IRS. That world is one she and her husband have forged in a high desert wilderness to live self-sufficiently: no phone, plumbing, electricity, money. They live from barter, cunning, and what they find at the town dump.

They live in a house of their own construction. They live clean and they do just fine.

Outwardly. But inwardly tensions hum – not because of lack of love or the want of an indoor toilet. Their 12 year daughter is itching to split. Their best friend is going to buzz off and get hitched. The father and husband languishes in a six month’s catatonic depression.

Have I told you enough to lure you? A little more may help: the best friend is played by the redoubtable J.K. Simmons, the husband by Sam Elliott, the annoying and resourceful daughter by Valentina de Angelis , and the IRS man by Jim True-Frost, to see whom is to love whom.

True-Frost plays the teacher/cop in The Wire, and it was great to see him play this major and pivotal character who treks in on foot to this remote holding. Of course, the focal character is the mother played by an actress of such genius you don’t even realize she is one.

Her simplicity of detail. Her ability to pay attention without drawing attention to the fact she is doing so. Her bearing inside her personal space, which lends conviction to operating in a way of life her character would be long accustomed to. I list no more. You can find her virtues for yourself as you watch what is, in fact, an ensemble piece.

In aid of which I have to stop here, lest I go on to praise and thus give away the unfolding and nature of this generous and unpredictable story, the aptness of the writing, the understanding of the direction by Campbell Scott, and the enchantment of New Mexico.

Find it. See it. Enjoy the dickens out of it. Let me know how you liked it.

 

Results

12 Jun

Results – directed by Andrew Bujalski. Oddball Comedy. 105 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A colliding romantic trio circles around a physical fitness gym, until two of them bump the other one off and realize the inevitable.

~

Four great actors working today give me the cue for adoration. They are Allison Janney, Lee Pace, Joan Allen, and Guy Pearce. I eagerly trace them to their latest. I am predisposed to rave them. I am prepared to sit back and allow them to prove me happy.

Guy Pearce is the most essential of these, in the sense that his presence in supporting roles always turns the key to the dynamic of the story. What he brings that no one else can bring is a conservation of energy through which the role as written can make its mark on the story for the audience. But sometimes he is give a great big dolloping leading role, and such a role we have here, and I pray you do not miss it.

He plays the completely brain-empty proprietor of a physical fitness gym. He spouts nothing but the most steadfast clichés. It is quite wonderful to hear him vocalize the human potential babble which is the vision of his firm. As an actor he never relents. He never falls back on a roll of the eyes or a pitch for empathy. He is ruthlessly the character itself.

Backed by three wonderful actors I have never heard of, we get Pearce in full force of his gift for give and take. It is an actors’ jubilee.

Cobie Smulders plays his star trainer and sometime squeeze. She is absolutely marvelous. And so is Kevin Corrigan as an orphaned nouveau riche, and Giovanni Ribisi as the slime bag lawyer. They are all backed by a fully written script with characters so fleshed out you simply never know what they are going to do or say next.

The writer staged and directed them, and while it is my usual caveat to speak against the possible success of such a pairing, here it works like gangbusters. The direction and filming and color and cutting look patchwork – but that is the basic ground of alliance for these characters. None of them fit together. As romantic couples you could not possibly suppose any of them would get along for two minutes.

But the richness is: what the hell are most married couples doing together anyhow? Can you really understand why two people are so joined? What do they possibly have in common? What keeps them together all these years?

You’ll sort it out for yourself in the coffee shop afterwards. I so enjoyed it. I wish I could be there to hear you did too.

 

The Salt Of The Earth

10 May

Salt Of The Earth – directed by Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Documentary. 110 minutes Black and White and Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: Sabastiäo Salgado, young Brazilian economist in London picks up a camera and becomes the world’s greatest photographer of indigenous peoples.

~

What an eye!.

And what an eye he gives us to see what he means us to see!

Black and white photography differs from color photography in that color photography tends to reach out to the viewer, while black and white photography asks the viewer to enter in.

So we find the world’s depths reflected over and over again in this display of the renowned photographer’s black and white work. We see him from the time he starts out through his many long travels until the present time when he is 71, man of great feeling, a big masculine presence, and an undeviating talent.

We see him and his pictures from various trips to Africa, the drought regions, the refugee cities, the genocide roads. We see his photographs of the spectacular African gold mines with their ant-like workers scrambling by the thousands up and down quarry walls. We see New Guinea males with their penis cones dancing in the sunny heights, and we see the Amazonian tribe of naked Indians with their lip spikes hunting sloths high in the jungle trees.

The work of this this man is clearly inspired by the muse of his smart and able wife, and certain expeditions, to film Siberian walruses, for instance, are shot by his grown son. But the main presence for him is the German film-maker Wim Wenders.

Wenders talks to him, and Salgado talks to us back, in full close-up. Wenders himself creates with those close-ups a black and white depth of investigation rarely to be found in film, or in any human being, for that matter.

The film’s final sequence offers a complete surprise, which I shall no further hint at. But even without it, one has the feeling of being in the company of a human who has spent a worthwhile and loving life.

 
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Posted in DIRECTED BY Wim Wenders, DOCUMENTARY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

An Honest Liar

03 Apr

An Honest Liar – directed by Justin Weinstein & Tyler Measom. Documentary. 93 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A magician and escape artist campaigns against phony spiritualists and gives us his long life, 86 years, with many surprises, twists, tricks, and teases.

~

A second documentary about a vibrant man in his 9th decade graces our current attention.

See them both. See Seymour An Introduction, the story of the great piano teacher Seymour Bernstein, and catch this one too.

James Randi is a dynamite man, full of virility and wit and drive. He runs away from his Canadian home as a kid and joins the circus. And before long he starts to master Houdini’s escape feats, surpassing them in many instances. Over the years it gets filmed. But at 50 he decides to retire, for he nearly drowns – not dangling over Niagara Falls in a straightjacket, which we also see him do – but in another straightjacket in a tank which failed. He is similar to Seymour Bernstein in this who also retired from the performing stage at age 50, from wounds to his soul and his body.

At which time he sets to expose charlatan faith healers and spiritualists. And we see all this on camera recorded over the years. Many times a guest on Johnny Carson where he entertained mightily, and a frequent foe of Uri Geller, whose methods he exposed, Randi develops a salty, savvy style which he retains to our delight right now.

Two big surprises await you as the documentary closes, and you will be moved and gratified as they emerge.

I felt enlivened by this remarkable man, so volatile, so pungent, so entertaining. So honest.

 

 
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Posted in DOCUMENTARY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

Seymour: An Introduction

02 Apr

Seymour: An Introduction – directed by Ethan Hawke. Documentary. 84 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: Hawke memoirs the life and work of the great classical piano teacher Seymour Bernstein, 87.

~

What do we have here but a visit with a fountain!

He sits and talks with his friends, his students, his director. He plays – and plays divinely – in the great romantic repertoire – in which he concertized successfully until he was 54. Giving up the concert stage once he had passed beyond his fear of it and his dislike of its commercial restrictions, he turned to a long life of teaching. So what?

So his students love him, and we love him too, as he takes the details of half-keying the the approach to a Beethoven sonata or the minutiae of the first chords of the Rachmaninoff 2nd and opens them up to the young ones about to play them in public.

His approach to music is as his approach to life, generous, telling, devoted. He envies no one. He honors the honorable. If music is a divinity, we must hear it from someone like him. What is in his eyes is so simple, so loving. As we see him in master classes elucidating the mantra beat of a Mozart piece and suggesting when to let go the emphasis on a repeat.

When to let go of the emphasis.

So life goes too. What applies to the left hand resounds in the right. And we have a sense of a life unified, no longer compartmentalized, but rich, talented. and fun.

He is happy to think he helped get Clifford Curzon knighted, and we are treated to a delicious recital of Curzon, who was his teacher. And we are also treated to a run-down of the playing of that nut-case Glenn Gould whose eccentricities were more interesting than his Bach.

What we get here is a kindliness crowning a great art. What we get is an earned wisdom, which it is our privilege to sit at the feet of. To hear him go through the pianos in Steinway Hall to find the right one – well, did you ever think you would find yourself this close to a master? And just hear what he says about it. Just hear what he says about pianos.

And, finally, just hear him play the final movement of the Schumann Op 17. Playing it, and explaining it, and playing it.

So, my dears, don’t hold back. Betake yourself to Seymour. He’ll be glad you introduced yourself to him. And so will you.

 
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Posted in DOCUMENTARY, Ethan Hawke, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

Nightcrawler

23 Mar

Nightcrawler – written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Crime Satire. 117 minutes Color 2014

★★★★★

The Story: A petty thief steals his way into The Profession Of Paparazzi Of Gore.

~

The two best male performances I saw for 2014, and in perhaps the two best films, were Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler and Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler.

For once the writer of the screenplay has not botched the direction of the picture by forgetting to leave all that stuff out or by not having listened to someone who cast a cold eye beforehand, as Zanuck used to do. For the screenplay is masterful. And the direction is masterful. And the music is particularly masterful. And the casting is masterful. And the filming is masterful. And the playing is masterful.

Why would you possibly deprive yourself of this? Is it because it deals with ambulance-chasing video-vampires who sell their spectacular footage to the TV stations every night? Is it because it is a satire with no laughs? An exposé of how we drool over roadside kill and the crimson-dripping misfortunes of others? How the front pages fix their starshine on murder, misery, rape, crime, and sexual exploitation? If it bleeds it leads.

This is the motto of the studio head played by Rene Russo, so well cast by the director, who happens to be her husband. It is good to see Miss Russo back in business on the blockbuster screen. She plays this well-written part with all the humor, reserve, and savvy in the world. Boy, is she good!

The movie is, however, entirely the province of Jake Gyllenhaal who plays the smarmy but effective video-cameraman. He has lost 20 pounds to play the part of a sort of Zen master juggernaut of the night. Lithe, quick, unreadable, he has made of this character a stern robot, mouthing maxims from career manuals and community college TV management courses. He never speaks ordinary English. He is always a quote. It is an astonishing tour de force for an actor, for even when he breaks out of this humorless, manipulative mummery, he is, behind it, nothing less than insane. This we know.

So the suspense is: what will become of this nut? Will his sidekick, well played by Riz Ahmed, get shafted? Yes, but how? Will Russo outlast our Jake?

Gyllenhaal’s face is sculpted to a skin and a bone. With a little queue on his head, he is an ascetic of slime. If he is not human, it is not because he is insane, not because he is relentless, but because he is without fear. It is an emotion unknown to him, and his being without it gives us ourselves in our ghoulish eye which would gaze on death without horror. As though we were training ourselves for a genocide. A sweet immolation of everything and everyone. An eager 42-caliber finale served up as a free sample at any supermarket you go to at all.

Worth seeing, my dears.

 
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Posted in CRIME DRAMA, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Jake Gyllenhaal, René Russo, SATIRE

 

The Wire

19 Mar

The Wire – various directors. TV Series. Color.

★★★★★

The Story: A Baltimore cop moves through the worlds of the waterfront, public schools, newspaper publishing, and politics to bring a drug cartel to justice

~

Well, now I’ve seen it all.

And so I must bid a fond farewell to certain characters. I say “to certain characters,” rather than to the story itself, for I found the characters more taking than the stories abounding.

The seasons are five. One story deals with the lives of stevedores on the waterfront. A second with the public schools. A third with the world of politicians. A fourth with that of newspapers. Laced through these are stories of the drug business on one hand and on the other stories of the police who seeks to dismember them.

All of this set in the city of Baltimore and shot there.

The star of the series Dominic West, an English actor in perfect voice for an Irish- American cop, I liked very much. He’s good looking, sexy, interesting, and a darn good actor. His Jimmy McNulty has a rapscallion-eye, and the daring to inaugurate rash plans, but we learn he does not really possess the imagination to execute them. A flaw.

For this he needs the doll-house-furniture-maker cop Lester Freamon, played by the inestimable Clarke Peters, also English, whom we shall see again in the producers’ Treme, as chief of the New Orleans Indians. He’s an actor who has to function around machines yielding delicate information – he it is who runs the wire taps – and it is a credit to his skill that you believe everything he does in relations to them. He brings the undramatic alive.

Deidre Lovejoy is the great looking DA who outsmarts the politicians, the judges, the police, and she is always a welcome sight in the doings. Frankie Faison also reappears in Treme in a similar role of a corrupt functionary, and he is just wonderful in this sort of part. Also in Treme, Wendell Pearce, with his easy searching eye, is a comfort to civilization as Bunk Moreland, McNulty’s chum.

As drug lords we have the perilously handsome Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, the brains fronting The Barksdale drug consortium. He is sorely missed when he leaves the story, as are J.D. Williams as Bodie, who leads the street hawkers. I began by disliking him and ended by rooting for him. As, at the last moment, I rooted for the incomprehensible Felicia Pearson playing the gender-unidentifiable Felicia “Snoop” Pearson. Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, the ex-policeman now high school teacher played by Jim True-Frost, grows on one too. Proposition Joe, the local drug connection with the waterfront smuggler, The Greek, I also much miss. How could one forget him. He is played brilliantly by Robert F. Chew. Michael Kostroff is super as the drug lord’s lawyer, Levy. And we have Aiden Gillen as the newly elected mayor of Baltimore an actor perfectly suited one day to play that other unworthy worthy, George W. Bush.

One hopes to see these actors again and often.

But the three characters I’ll miss most are Bubbles, the shopping cart salesman hop-head, played with wide-eyed wonder by Andre Royo. What a wonderful actor. How fascinating he becomes! How real!

It is he I will miss most, along with Michael K. Williams as Omar Little, the efficient, highly ethical sawed-off-shotgun-toting robber of the druggers.

And the boy who protects his three brothers as best he can from the fates awaiting them.

For the most part the main story lodges in front of the background of a U.S. Senator’s overthrow and the entrapment of the drug kingpins. This main story is the feud between Omar and a newcomer to the Boston Drug field, one Marlo Stanfield whose icy eyes execute everyone around him who blinks the wrong way. His presence directs the style of seasons four and five. To watch Jaimie Hector act him is fascinating because of his perpetual petrifaction. He shall not be moved. His two eyes are beautiful and not quite even, which gives him a gaze of incalculable power.

These actors, in parts a little more well-written than the stories which house them, hold my attention, curiosity, and care. This is why I watch their stories to their outcomes so loyally. A series like this affords us full immersion. And here, as later in New Orleans’ Treme, the city of Baltimore allow us to visit and explore streets and scenes and persons we would know nothing of, perhaps even if we lived there.

Many interesting conclusions are to be drawn, many significant inferences. For all these worlds are worlds of double-conscience. And none of these worlds are familiar to me in any way whatsoever. If they are veracious, and I sense they are, it is a view of America harsh, but worth all the entertainment the series affords.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

15 Mar

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — directed by John Madden. Screwball Comedy. 82 minutes Color 2015

★★★★★

The Story: The lively young owner of a hotel in India wants to expand his operation and get married at the same time and also continue to adore and serve and praise his elderly clientele and also….

~

What are doing sitting here reading this! You should jump up at once and grab your family and friends or just yourself and go see this inspiriting comedy of mismanagement.

It is fueled by the effervescent and insatiably charming Dev Patel, who performed the same services for us at the First Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a season or so back. He gambols through the piece like a gazelle. What an actor! What a silver-footed turn-on-a-dime comedian! What a sunburst of delight! I’m going to see it again.

So to save myself time in order to rush to do that, and to save you time too, I shall shorten this review by saying only that, like the first, the second film is a tonic!

Patel operates in the foreground of the fidelities, infidelities, careers, and Brittle British exchanges of a witty script fortified by the playing of Maggie Smith as a lower caste Scottish accountant, Bill Nighy as a duffer of frail memory who must fill his purse with lectures of tourist sites whose details escape him, Judi Dench who adores him from afar and then nearer and nearer, Diana Hardcastle as the bewitching straying wife of Ronald Pickup.

Celia Imre is the lascivious lady wooed by two maharajas, David Strathairn is the deciding executive of the deal, Tina Desai is the delicious almost forgotten bride-to-be, Shazad Larif is the stiff competition. Richard Gere, with his low class accent and high class wardrobe, is the dupe who dupes the dopes.

It all ends as comedy always should with a wedding and a dance.

All this in the flaming color of India!

Hasten my dears. You can’t do better for a comedy just now.

And when you come back, tell me you adore me!

 

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!

 

 

Cake

09 Feb

 

Cake – directed by Daniel Barnz. Drama. 102 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: A woman, badly traumatized and scarred, sets everyone’s teeth on edge, as she resists all conventional California remedies.

~

Does this sound promising? I hope not. Drama is not frozen custard. Nor should it have to end in warm and fuzzy, Steiff, panda-bear hugs.

Instead we have a brilliant performance by Jennifer Aniston of a brilliant script by Pat Tobin, and what more do you want? Do you want a gum-drop heart?

Well, this is not a candy store movie. This is the sort of movie Bette Davis pioneered for us, so let’s honor our heritage and place Aniston in our trove of cultural treasures where she belongs. We have a great female American actress here; let’s pay attention!

Long the most skilled of light comediennes – so skilled, indeed, that it is obvious she could play anything – now takes on this mordant drama of a woman who chooses to be coldly sardonic rather than take cheap cures.

There are no cheap cures for what has happened to her. I won’t go into it, because I don’t want to spoil the unfolding of the tale which develops with a narrative expertise teased to ripen before our inexperienced eyes. You have never seen anything like this before. Don’t worry. In this movie, for you too, there is no cheap cure. You will hoe the row.

There is no actress alive who can calibrate a performance with the mastery of Jennifer Aniston. You must behold it to behold it. Her timing, her inflection, her command of the interior valor, her willingness to be mean – all pay off in telling a story whose sole instrument is the character itself.

Adriana Barraza plays her housekeeper, chauffeur, and bodyguard. Brilliant casting. Brilliant performance.

Wonderfully directed.

I wish I could tell you more. But I don’t wish to. I wish you to go yourself and see what Cake tells you all by itself.

 

Mortdecai

04 Feb

Mortdecai – directed by David Keopp. Action/Farce. 107 minutes Color 2015

★★★★★

The Story: A highborn British scoundrel and his delicious wife deploy their expertise in pirating a stolen Goya.

~

Oh, oh, oh. Go, go, go!

For I shall go three times myself. For – oh, my dears – it is the funniest film you have ever seen or listened to. At least this year. At least don’t bother hoping for anything better. At least this year. Unless they make a sequel. At least this year.

The screenplay is witty beyond measure. The language positively rejoices one! If you want dandy lines, don’t despair, come here! If you want your attention alerted, don’t weep for sorrow, let your brains be restored! Here lies succor. If you want to experience the full range of comedy, high, medium, and low in one costly banquet, pray step this way.

If you enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, and thought you would never meet its match again, well you were wrong! For this director knows, as Anderson knows, and I have no telling how they both doth know, how to fashion fine film farce. The speed of it! The connivance with the audience of it! The exploding of disbelief of it! The snippety snap of the editing of it! Where are you going to go for such fine fare save to this Dorchester of comedies, Mortdecai!

Now you may have lost faith in Johnny Depp by now. I know I had. I had never thought to see him do a piece of good work again. But – a-ha! – not so. For here he is in full actor fig! From the moment he wiggles that calamitous moustache I am rising from the floor from laughter to witness the next twitch.

This nasal vestment is the principal plot factor between himself and his much smarter wife, played by – oh, pray before you say those words – that church of charm, Gwyneth Paltrow. She is gorgeous, self-possessed, full of heart, and she loves our Johnny madly but not too well – for she cannot endure or overlook the moustache.

Which sits on his chops like a venomous beast from the bottom of the sea. Their escapades together and separate have to do with some masterpiece or other, for they are in the stolen-art-game. Gwyneth is there to outflank him and save the whole day, while Johnny is there to get into trouble with Those Of Overweening Greed, such as Jeff Goldblum and his nymphomaniacal daughter who want the Goya for themselves and who are willing to do mortal harm to our Johnny.

Fortunately our Johnny is a pusillanimous ninny (pusillanimous is a word which is applied never to low-born, only to high-born cowards), soooo, he is likely to oft come near mortal harm, but bound to be saved from it by his body-guard played by Paul Bettany. They are the Jeeves and Bertie of action/adventure comedy. Paul has so many notches on his belt, women tear off his britches on sight.

We have before us Depp’s best work since Jack Sparrow, and just as funny, original, and rash. Depp dares the camera to miss a single detail. The lowering of an eyelid. The raising of an eyelid. The lowering of an eyelid.

He has made a rare caricature of this plummy Englishman, a first drawing of a type now given the breath of its first public spanking, yet recognizable to us from all we dared not say or think.

The trick in it is to arrange a parity between this cartoon and Paltrow, who is not a cartoon. How do Depp and Paltrow go about – from such disparate technical poles – making the love story hold? It’s mainly Paltrow’s job, and while I don’t know how she does it, the movie does depend on her in the matter.

Oh, my dears, my darlings, my beloveds, do go and delight yourselves. What more can I tell you? What more pipe you to it? Don’t wait for Johnny and Gwyneth. Lace up your boots! Be quick! Be nimble! Be beguiled!

 

The Normal Heart

24 Jan

The Normal Heart – directed by Ryan Murphy. Docudrama. 133 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: AIDS comes to the notice of a group of young men and a female physician, who gather together to do something about it.

~

The Normal Heart and Selma resemble one another in showing us the backstage drama of two adamant men who fought for equality in America. Larry Kramer fought for public recognition of the AIDS plague, which was sidelined by indifferent politicians as trivial. Martin Luther King Junior fought for voting rights for those whose right to it had been sidelined by indifferent politicians as trivial. See them both, why don’t you? You’ll get a bracing dose of contemporary history.

To cast the disagreeable, in-your-face screamer Larry Kramer one would have thought of a young George C. Scott or Al Pacino. One would not have thought of the panda Mark Ruffalo. He is so agreeable. So malleable. So soft. But there he is firing with all canons.

And Kramer’s methods alienate those near to him in the cause, both because he is obnoxious and because they believe his methodical throwing of vitriol in his adversaries’ faces will dampen the cause of recognition and action on the part of the government and the press. He is perhaps more incensed by the dismissal of homosexual humans than of sick humans, I’m not sure.

It’s a story whose tension hangs between, on the one hand, the character of his brother, who acknowledges the Kramer character as almost, but not quite human for his homosexuality and on the other hand the human loves dragged to an early and ignominious grave by a disease which was deemed unimportant because it was seen as exclusively and merely gay. The crossing over of this brother, beautifully and memorably played by Alfred Molina, to the love common to all is the resolution of all the barriers, public and private, which we see marked out before us, as AIDS is demonized, misunderstood, and dismissed, as it crawls to a place at the table.

Julia Roberts is excellent as the first clinician to take note of and treat the disease and to report its symptoms and recurrence. I particularly liked Jim Parsons as the office manager who makes the revolution practical. The nervous breakdown risked by all who did the work is beautifully performed by Stephen Spinella.

Larry Kramer’s was a voice crying in the wilderness of his own side. Martin Luther King Junior was the same. Proactive both, their methods were different, and neither cause would have prevailed using the other’s means. Their greatest enemies lay within their own camps. King orated, Kramer ranted. Kramer made a huge unpleasantness. He is one of the vile heroes, like Oedipus – people of extremely unpleasant character who nonetheless lay down their lives to move the human race forward one step, and do so. We – and by “we” I mean the world – are all in his debt.

 
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Posted in Alfred Molina, Gay, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo

 

Selma

09 Jan

Selma directed by Ava DuVernay. Biopic. 128 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: Martin Luther King Junior and his colleagues invent the negro voting rights movement in Alabama.

~

We all have to see it, because it comes as close to the story as a still picture. No flickering television newscast of those days captured the immediacy of what my fellow Americans inflicted on one another and endured in the battle over the constitutional right to vote. But this picture is allowed to show and to linger on these matters. Down the cheeks of the black protesters now we see blood flow. They nearly died of what was done to them. And some of them did die. “They”? They are us. We did it to ourselves. How could we have!

The film also takes us inside the backrooms and kitchens of the movement as great ideals are strategized with ordinary decisions. The empty egg cartons are on the shelf. Someone has to make the marchers sandwiches. These folks lived in plain houses, Martin Luther King Junior among them. The inside story is not grandiose, but real and strained and ambiguous. The film makes us privy to it.

For there are marital difficulties. And there are rival civil rights groups. And there are incendiary personalities, Governor Wallace and President Johnson, for two. These require big scenes in small confines. The parish houses of churches. The interior of a Chevy. The double decker bunks of a children’s room. And they also require the expanses of the White House offices, the spectacle of capital buildings, and the steel structure of a big bridge. The vision and the get-down detailed enactment of the vision.

David Oyelowo plays King, and I believed him every inch of the way. King in real life and at the time was not someone I was drawn to, but up close, as in this film Oyelowo brings him to me, I honor King now. And I honor the actor who plays him, as I do all the others, and the treatment of the material by the writer and director.

For this is one of the great American stories told greatly. It is story that still goes on, and it is well that we face its contents still. The campaign for American human rights for all is far from done. This film is a serious and useful piece of it. Bring yourself to it.

 

 
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Posted in HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

The Gambler

03 Jan

The Gambler – directed by Rupert Wyatt. Suspense Drama. 111 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: A man gets in over his head and owes a fortune to three men who mean mortal business.

~

Mark Wahlberg is a wonderful actor.

What does that mean? It means that I look upon him and wonder. I contemplate his visage, his emotion or his emotion held in check or his delivery or what his mouth is or what his eyes are, and I wonder.

What does this mean to me? It means that both of us are in exactly the right places, I in the audience doing what I am supposed to be doing and he is up on the screen doing likewise.

Various things fall in his favor as an actor. First, he seems to have learned on the job, a good way to come into the craft. Second, his essence is working-class, which in this role would seem out of place, for he plays a college English professor and the son of a millionairess bank owner – yet his presence as such is without contradiction because he has conceived the role as beyond circumstance. Irony is the razor edge of death. Third, his male energy does not prevaricate. It stands there giving him, along with his medium-height and tone, the common touch. And finally he knows how to be before a camera such that both the camera and the audience can participate being there with him.

I felt he should have had the Oscar for The Departed. I felt he should have had the Oscar for The Fighter, but the withdrawn character he played was neoned-out by the electricity of Leo and Bale. He’s a first class screen actor. Will someone please hand one to him?

The picture is beautifully directed in terms of narrative intrigue. The director allows every actor forward into their talent. Jessica Lange, always a touchy actor, holds herself in strict check to play Wahlberg’s mother. John Goodman is filmed half naked, which grants us the power of his mass and the mass of his intelligence. Brie Larson holds us as the student taken with Wahlberg. Michael Kenneth Williams makes great book as the black money-lender. Alvin Ing is the still point of a knife in the role of a Korean gambling king. Richard Schiff plays a tip-top scene as a porn broker.

Every scene counts. Every scene is delicious to look at and never distracts with that fact. The music is mad and neat. It is perfectly cast. It is elegantly written. Grieg Fraser has filmed every scene color-right, and the unusual frequent use of closeups brings us into the situation every time. Production design, art direction, costumes, editing – all are unexceptionable.

The Gambler is the best movie I have seen all year.

Oh, this is the second of January, isn’t it! Well, you know what I mean. Take a gamble. See it.

 

Synechdoche, New York

21 Nov

Synecdoche, New York — directed by Charlie Kaufman. Drama. 3 hours and 23 minutes Color 2008.

★★★★★

The Story: A theatre director’s wife leaves him, and the rest of his life is lived out unmoored.

~

The director has begun his career by presenting to the world his King Lear, And why not? The boulders of that play are about us and upon us since the day Shakespeare wrote it, and any playwright must operate with it in the shadows like a gift one day to be honored. Kaufman has honored it early with a masterwork. It has been taken to be such by others, and you might number yourself among them if you take the journey into Synecdoche.

The work “New York” localizes it in a way I do not understand, except as a synonym for a terminus or graveyard. But I don’t dally with such terms, so forget I ever said it.

Other minor matters bothered me, but not at the time. I learn that the main character has married again, but I had no sense of that from the film, and when I learned it from the extra features, I thought it must be with the Samantha Morton character. I was wrong.

The other thing I did not grasp was that there was an Armory within an Armory, and that some scenes were played in the one and some in the other.

But none of this mattered to me at the time. None of it impeded my pleasure and interest.

The word “dream” is used, incorrectly it seems to me, in relation to this piece, for what I see is always grounded in realistic psychological everyday experience. The film’s story is the working out of the life of an individual who comes undone when his wife leaves him inexplicably. From then on everything you see is everything he does internally until the day he dies, which he also does, many years later. It is just like you and me.

Not to speak anything more about this momentous story, lest I defuse its excitements and turns, the wife is played beautifully by Catharine Keener who is always riveting, always fun, and we wait for her return all the way through the film.

I cannot stifle my cries of appreciation for the work of Emily Watson, who is just marvelous as an imported actress, as are Michelle Williams as a greedy, starstruck actor, Hope Davis as a bigtime human-potentialist, and Tommy Noonan as the director’s double. Samantha Morton plays her early scenes externally, but once she ages, she is great.

The leading role, and he is on camera always, is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He plays the role scene-to-scene. For there is no other way to play it. It is a story in which the arc of the character cannot be given by the actor, but only by the treatment of the material by the director — and Kaufman does not supply an arc. Unlike in King Lear, madness does not wake the Hoffman character up.  So, no arc; unless you can say Hoffman goes deeper to sleep.

Instead, the arc lies with the audience’s eventual acceptance that the external emotion and the internal emotion are all on the same visual level. Which is right: we experience, or at least I experience that they are all one thing, one collection, one synecdoche, life as a defeated bouquet.

The moral of the story? The human spirit is insufficient air for an artist’s ambition that work can be his salvation and reality.

Do see it. Hoffman is just gorgeous in it. It is his most personal performance of all.

 

Nobody Lives Forever

31 Oct

Nobody Lives Forever – directed by Jean Negulesco. Grifter Drama. 100 minutes Black And White 1946.

★★★★★

The Story: A G.I. comes home to his former crimes scene and heads for a multi-million dollar scam.

~

John Garfield, perfectly cast as both a G.I. and a criminal. It’s his way, which is always the same way: the sensitive tough-guy, Bronx marshmallow. Very lovable. Very understandable. These are qualities which come with some actors and don’t come with others, and they determine work. Work in two ways: casting, and the way he executes scenes. For out of these qualities spring choices in handling scenes. The acting craft holds outlets for these people. They are not ordinary, these people. They have vitality, presence, and looks. They have in them that which wants to be seen. So in discussing acting in relation to them, it is almost impossible to view them dispassionately. It is almost impossible to define the skill with which the tiger dismembers the faun. What is first, mainly, only possible, is to experience being impressed. That much is sure.

Like them or not, there they are up on the silver screen where they belong. With him and always opposite him are all the other members of the cast, all as vital. George Coulouris as the sleazy crumb horning in on Garfield’s grift. George Tobias, as always comical as the almost useless sidekick. Two comical thug fools, in James Flavin and Ralph Peters. His two-timing, slapable canary played by Faye Emerson at the peak of her beauteousness. And the astonishing Walter Brennan as the pickpocket guru. All these are contrasted in their comical or threatening positions to him and to the only one who is not threatening, but is lovely, Geraldine Fitzgerald playing the widow they mean to cheat. Fitzgerald’s performance makes the film work. She is smart but justifiably ignorant; she falls in love with Garfield and you believe it; she registers everything quietly and truly. Don’t miss her. She lets you perform the part with her. Garbo did the same.

The film’s finale is handled somewhat clumsily. But otherwise the film is beautifully directed, which is a question of values attended to in a way noir does not often offer. W.R. Burnett (author of Little Caesar, High Sierra, This Gun For Hire, The Whole Town’s Talking, Scarface, The Asphalt Jungle) wrote it.

Give it a viewing. Let me know how you liked it.

 

The Oyster Princess

21 Oct

The Oyster Princess and I Don’t Want To Be A Man — written and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Comedy. Silent Black And White 1919/1920.

★★★★★

The Stories: A petulant rich girl defies custom and finds a mate.

~

The Lubitsch Touch is the external expression of the sense internal in what he does that sex and marriage and love are random, arbitrary, and capricious. That they are not so much a form of love as a form of greed, and as such somewhat ludicrous. Indeed, they are not even sexually oriented, for here we have the short film I Don’t Want To Be A Man in which the heroine, to have a good time, dresses up as a male and goes out on the town, where she meets her guardian, who kisses her rapturously and repeatedly as a male. Of course, he is tipsy, but that only means that liquor is a permissive for what is more easily inherent. When the truth is out, they kiss again as girl and boy, and she marries him without a qualm. “Without a qualm” is the secret. The fixed masculinity of certain males is the determined safeguard against what inwardly all males know: that the sexual machinery has no particular gender necessarily in mind. It just wants sex. It just wants an outlet.

All of this is a great tonic. It helps. The Lubitsch touch is a touch on the body that, as we watch, the body recognizes without being actually touched at all. The touch is freeing. And sex is light, fun, and forgivable. Indeed it is never to be blamed to begin with.

The Oyster Princess was one of Lubitsch’s big hits, and rightly so. It involves a spoiled brat rich girl who smashes everything in the house because she is not married. This is played by the same actress of I Don’t Want To Be A Man, a role which would be brought to perfection in time by Carole Lombard, indeed finally in Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be. To say the present actress is a little crude would be an exaggeration, for she is very crude, so she’s a bit hard to take. Things don’t really smile up until the impoverished prince and his adjutant appear in the picture. Then we see Lubitsch seize the screen. He enjoys the two-dimensional symmetry of silents, and the joy of preposterous excess, which sex promises and sometimes delivers. I keep wanting him to make comic use of all those spectacular stairs, but he goes from crazy balls to insane banquets to ridiculous drunk scenes, instead. How does he do it? Easily.

How does he let off all those drunks with a light sentence? Watch him park them.

How does he let off this idiot adjutant? Watch him let him slip the knot.

How does he deal with that massive father? You’ll be impressed.

Anyhow, the comedy of silent films is the most fundamental human comedy, because it is based on the music of the human body admitting everything, including the mute effect of speech on our depth of grasp. And we do have the inter-titles, for sometimes the human body needs to be spoken to to know the truth. And accompanying us in this romp, a jolly musical score on the piano right in our livingroom.

 

 

Marketa Lazarova

18 Oct

Marketa Lazarova – directed by Frantisek Vlácil. Historical Drama. 162 minutes Black And White 1967.

★★★★★

The Story: Clans feud in the dark ages in Czechoslovakia.

~

What does the word “great” mean?

What does it mean when it means nothing less than the most it can mean?

Let’s put it this way: this film is on the order of Beethoven’s 9th.  King Lear.

It is on the level of the best films of Tarkovsky, Rossellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Mizogichi, Satyajit Ray.

I don’t think I need to go on any further about it.

Great is the comprehending of that which is beyond comprehension.

I like that kind of thing.

The sublime. The profound.

The Grand Canyon.

Marketa Lazarova.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seven Chances, The Balloonatic, Neighbors

12 Oct

Seven Chances, The Balloonatic, Neighbors – directed by Buster Keaton. Color and Black And White, 1920 and before.

★★★★★

The Story: A young man will inherit seven million dollars if he gets married by 7 that day.

~

Do you want to owe a debt of gratitude? Do you want to thank God on your deathbed that you used your time well, in one respect at least? Do you want to be the happiest you’ve ever been at a movie?

Buster Keaton is Circle du Soleil all rolled up into one. He was, he remains, the greatest humorist ever to appear in motion pictures. He is the paramount physical comedian to have appeared before the public. He is the muscularly strongest person ever to have acted before cameras.

You will see feats that will astonish you. You will not be able to believe your eyes. You will certainly not believe that one person could do all this without stand-ins, stunt men, or special effects. You will laugh yourself sane.

Keaton understood the wit inherent in the two-dimensionality of film, how what comes on from the left goes off from the right, and in between these two events takes place farce. The going, the action, the leaving constitute farce. The thousand deaths of farce are hilarious. For the flatness is death. And it deserves and wins our triumphant laughter at his triumphs.

We face the flat surface of the screen. This is a comedy which is funny because it reflects that part of life which is without dimension. This is comedy without depth. That is its depth. You do not reach into it. It reaches out at you at all times. If you want depth, wait, at some point or other you will see into Buster Keaton’s eyes.

Here he must run around and find a bride before dark. He asks seven. Then seven hundred ask him. What more does one need to tell of such a merriment?

Attached to this full length film are two two-reelers, The Balloonatic in which he goes up on the top of one. And Neighbors all shot on two sides of a tenement backyard fence that splits the screen.

And who will benefit from your watching these gems? Your entire family will. You will. You will be happy and you will die happy for having been so. And I?

It is to me you will owe the debt of gratitude, along with Buster Keaton, for having participated in your dying of laughter.

 

Osaka Elegy

06 Oct

Osaka Elegy – directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Drama. 71 minutes Black And White 1936.

The Story: A young working woman tries to raise money to pay off her father’s debt and becomes the object of abuse and scorn.

~

Two things.

Mizoguchi demonstrates:

First: women exist in a culture which abuses them. No further point need be made about it by Mizoguchi, since what he shows makes it self-evident. It isn’t that his leading actress is particularly sympathetic as a performer that makes this telling. It is rather that she is a bit silly, a bit foolish, a bit selfish, a bit vain. But she is a human being, and she does not deserve to be treated like something else.

It is also true that the female is also capable of delivering abuse, even our heroine, and surely the battleax wife of her boss. Gender is not the weapon. Money is.

Second: This complicated story is delivered to us in style so revolutionary it is difficult to imagine that it was filmed in 1936. It is a style which seizes one narratively in long continuous shots, and set-ups which rivet and enliven the drama and the characters. The placement of figures in a scene, one near with his back to one, another in a distant room.  One muttering about morality, while stealing money from his children, and over there, the prig of a son he’s stealing from, devouring his greedy dinner.

Mizoguchi serves his actors well. And they are wonderful. But the remarkable force of Mizoguchi’s story-telling camera is the real source of revelation. We do not have master shots, followed by two-shots, followed by closeups, in the prescribed Hollywood style. But something different and distinct. It does not call attention to itself, because the truth it reveals is greater than its technique in doing so.

Here’s a master new to me. I wish I were able to speak less clumsily of him. But here’s a director I intend to study, enjoy, immerse myself in, and learn all I can from.

Although he had made many others before this, this is said, by him, to be his first accomplished film.

 

 

 

Sweet Charity

15 Sep

Sweet Charity — choreographed and directed by Bob Fosse. Musical. 147 minutes Color 1969.

★★★★★

The Story: A good-time but naïve dime-a-dance girl hopes for a better life and falls into many comic and confusing situations.

~

Shirley MacLaine is not an actor I much like, and so I keep waiting for her make a misstep here, and then I stop waiting, because she is really remarkable as this cockeyed optimist girl who continually finds herself outclassed by the men she stumbles onto.

To perform it the actress might play off of her own innocence as Giulietta Masina did in the part which was written for her, in her husband Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and play it as a charming, ingrown, shy, child, which worked real well for Masina.

Or what Gwen Verdon did which was to play it with Broadway-patented false naiveté, which would have been workman-like and freed her for the dance marathon her husband Bob Fosse created for her in the part.

Or the actor would play her as a raving extrovert, dancing down the street with glee, and speaking her mind as she sees it wherever she lands. This it seems to me is by far the more dangerous of the two possible approaches. And MacLaine negotiates its perils easily.

She was at that stage in her work that she understood something about screen acting which she has since forgotten or dismissed, which is the virtue of being unforced. So everything that comes out of her mouth, onto her face, and off of her body registers as honest, sudden, unpredicted. Whatever she does is right, and often unexpectedly funny.

MacLaine was never a musical vocalist; one doesn’t go to her for that. But she more than sells the songs on the surfboard of her enthusiasm, projection, and physical investment. As a dancer, she is right up there with the phenomenal Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly.

The result of all of this is that she is highly entertaining throughout. And since the work is focused on her solely, since she is in every scene, both our eye and the camera are justified by being on her every minute.

Except for “Big Spender” Cy Coleman’s score lacks lyrical interest, but Dorothy Field’s lyrics supply the deficiency. Neil Simon’s book is drawn out unduly, and the choreographic showcase, which it is, extends the film even into the realm of a parody of New Age spirituality, with Sammy Davis Junior miscast as a guru and inadequately used even then. It’s cluttered and advances the story not an inch.

Nonetheless, Fosse is a master of sleazy choreography. And his directorial manner is striking. The film sustains itself with MacLaine, Fosse, and most important with Robert Surtees who filmed it so magnificently he proved that nothing can date a masterpiece.

 

I Know Where I’m Going

12 Sep

I Know Where I’m Going – written and directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Romantic Drama. 91 minutes Black And White 1945.

★★★★

The Story: A young British lady sets off to a Scottish island to marry a millionaire.~

It’s a very famous movie, highly popular world-wide, and one of a series these partners would bring out over the years, among which are Stairway To Heaven and The Red Shoes.

Wendy Hiller in her early glory plays the young lady, and she is an actress always easy to root for, because she’s so open-book and easy to read.

She is supported by a cast of interesting English and Scottish actors – for much of it was shot around the islands which it is about, and with a number of down-to-earth locals, plus a strong dash of English stage talent, among which is the startling young Pamela Brown.

I won’t tell you the story, because it is a fairy story dealing with a young lady who fancies herself to be a princess, and you know you have to experience such tales yourself and in person, or they don’t count.

But as you watch, you might take note of Roger Livsey who plays a Scottish laird. He is what in casting terms is called a leading man. And what a leading man does is support the star. The story is not about the leading man; it is about the star, in this case Wendy Hiller.

But just watch what Livsey does and does not do. From the moment he appears he presents himself in those aspects of the male which are perfect, which have no flaw, and which the star must awaken to. That is to say, he presents himself as loving her. And he does that by emanating the male courting energy – lyrical, attentive, caring, protective, devoted. He does not say anything, he does not do anything. He does not roll his eyes or gesticulate. He does not grab the dame unfeelingly like John Wayne, and he does not ogle her meaningfully like Clark Gable. They are stars; they can what they like. But Livsey is a leading man. He is masculine, is decent looking and has an interesting brown voice. His is a demonstration of male love evinced without a word. It is how men love women. It is a way that women seldom notice.

Because women are always looking for something else, something they have read about, or something their father didn’t give them, or something they have seen in the movies. But what a male really has to offer a female is just this, just what Livsey brings to the role, and all subsequent male love offerings partake of and come from this.

In doing this Livsey does only this. So that, as an actor, he is without eccentricity, defect, quirk. And that is what he is supposed to be, because those would interfere with the focus on the female star and her transition and her story. She has them, not he. He has character, wit, humor, grace, and the calm to act in a crisis. But all of that is only to support the story of the star. It is a true leading man performance, and a model of the type.

 
 
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