Archive for the ‘John Heard’ Category

The Great Debaters

26 May

The Great Debaters – Directed by Denzel Washington. Winning-Through Docudrama. A small rural Negro college in Texas in 1935 gains national acknowledgement as an unbeaten debating team.  126 minutes Color 2007.

* * * *

The musical score of this film undermines by supplanting the drama and emotion of every scene it is heard in. And this is quite unnecessary, because Washington is a first class director of actors. They need no musical appurtenances. There are four debaters and their skin is beautiful, their faces are beautiful, their acting is beautiful. Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, a brilliant professor among brilliant professors at Wiley College in Marshall Texas, and he coaches them ruthlessly to win, and win they do. This is like a Rocky film or a horse film. Since it is about a feat, you understand at the outset that you are to be faced with a foregone conclusion, and so we are presented here with the customary tropes of such stories. For me, the problem with this show was that these tropes galloped away with the film, and with it went all living peculiarity. We are left with nothing but the contraption of the tropes. Washington begins it with a brilliant display of character acting as he recites poetry in his classroom and scares and excites everyone therein. But his entire character is lost as the film goes on, and lost too is his particular story of his writing all the debates for the students, and lost too are the character pieces, the genre scenes, those little anteroom scenes necessary to put the film on a siding so that we may enjoy and get to know the characters. Forest Whitaker plays the chaplain of the college, and he is getting to be a better actor with time; it’s nice to see. Neither he nor Washington, though, has any temperamental or ego conflict to be resolved with one another or with anyone else in the picture. We have four lovely actors playing the four debaters: the 14 year old Denzel Whitake playing son to his father; Nate Parker as the brilliant and defiant ne’er-do-well; Jumee Smollett as the first female debater, and Jermaine Williams who must bow out. They are dear, but I wish the choochoo train the script thrust them on had, from time to time, stopped at a station not called Debate. Although it’s played well, the whole romance business could have been scrapped; it goes nowhere, and it routinizes the film. However I am grateful for the small mercies of it, an accounting, especially at the beginning, of how it all started. I wish Washington had not been forced by the script to forsake his character for his usual star stuff. Given the script, there was nothing else for him to do. I love these black actors, though, and I am grateful to see them in films where violence is not the main source of interest. The Extra Features are lovely, and in so many ways, so is the film.






The Chumscrubber

21 Apr

The Chumscrubber — Directed by Arie Posin. Community Satire. Teenagers create their own adventures among oblivious parents. 108 minutes Color 2005.

* * * * *

It unreels like a perfect film and maybe it is. 19 year old Jamie Belle, who beguiled us dancing through Billy Elliot, is the driving force of this picture, no particular of whose story shall I reveal to you. The perfection of the film can be accounted for by excellent direction, a marvelous screenplay, and by the playing of its senior actors, each one of whom seizes on the tone of the screenplay and plays each part brilliantly. I’ll simply name them: the great-hearted Allison Janney, the virtuoso actress Glenn Close, William Fitcher, Ralph Fiennes, John Heard, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rita Wilson — all of them, some of them acting scenes with one another without even seeing one another, carry the satire all the way to the store and back — each one playing a present but distant parent, in this film in which everyone, parents and children alike, are all slightly mad. The director/writer Arie Posin and Zack Stanford had beginner‘s mind and luck. And with James Horner, they even had a great musical score On the small screen, the Chumscrubber leitmotif is lost, as are other details, but it does not matter because the script is so strong. Here the utopian suburbia becomes a dystopia in which justice cannot be done and whose poison pellet is a certain boy madder than the others, but the dystopia of the post apocalyptic world of The Chumscrubber TV cartoon, which everyone watches to the exclusion of everything else, actually presents a utopian dystopia, where justice is done instinctually. Never mind that. Just see it. You’ll rejoice.




15 Feb

Waterworld – directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal – Drama. A high school teacher regales his history class with his youthful sexual history. 94 minutes Color 1992

* * *

Some actors are hired for their ability to perform a character. Others for their ability to perform themselves. Jeremy Irons is of the latter category but this film requires someone of the first category. Irons can carry a film as himself very nicely, but this knack has disastrous consequences on what might have been an interesting and comprehensible picture. Irons’ character is supposed to be that of a grownup version of an English peasant boy from The Fens on the North Sea, but he proceeds in the part with his upper class airs and charms in full swing, a person who would no more end up teaching English in Pittsburgh PA high school than The Prince of Wales would. With Irons is Sinead Cusack as his wife, and she has clearly based her performance on the character of the teenage girl she was once supposed to be, even using prosthetic teeth to duplicate the young girl’s gat-teeth. She is a character; Irons is not a character. Her scenes with Irons are professional to the max, but it must have been like playing Ophelia opposite Donald Duck. And it discombobulates the film out of reason. The two teenagers, Lena Headey and Grant Warnock are just fine as the kids. And David Morrissey, who plays the retarded older teenager, is super, and is perhaps the only person one cares about in this misguided movie. His Insolence Ethan Hawke floats through the show to no purpose in a part that probably should have been cut. Whereas Pete Postlethwaite right-sizes his small role as the father and is particularly effective in the remarkable and moving denouement. We also have John Heard, wasted again, in a supporting role, in which, however, he is excellent. And the high-spirited, laughing face of Maggie Gyllenhall in her first screen appearance flashes by. Another difficulty, and again it is a big one, is that the set decorations are completely at odds with the setting. Houses in Pittsburg didn’t have that furniture and didn’t have wallpaper and if they did it wasn’t like that. The result is that we never believe where we are watching. And because of Irons we never believe whom we are watching. See it. It is interesting to watch all this collapse the film.


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