At the Movies

At the Movies: Fences

February 8th, 2017 6 Comments

Fences

A better title might have been “Barriers.” The fences referred to in the play/movie are, on the surface, those we put up intentionally to (as one of the characters says) keep some things in and other things out. But it also refers to the fences we put up unintentionally, unconsciously, the self-limiting fences that keep us from doing and being what we wish to do and be. And perhaps most importantly, it refers to the fences society puts up, all those barriers of the Jim Crow era that were meant to keep black folks in certain jobs and certain neighborhoods and within the confines of certain limited dreams and ambitions. Fences is the sixth play in the ten-play cycle written by August Wilson as a portrait of black America from 1900 to 1990. If Wilson had not died much too young (at only sixty) he might have continued the cycle, and it would have been fascinating to see how he perceived the repetition of unfulfilled promises and squandered opportunities (primarily by politicians) that have circumscribed the lives of black Americans over the past quarter century. In any event, the movie stays remarkably true to the play, which is hardly surprising, since August Wilson wrote both scripts.

I saw the play back in the late 1980’s, starring James Earl Jones. Jones created the lead role on Broadway and won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award as best actor, and the play itself also won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award, but it was Jones’ towering performance that overshadows any other memory I have of the play itself.

In the interim, in fact just a year or so ago, I wrote a short story about Sonny Liston (Teaching the Bear to Read, on my website under “Other Writings”) for which I had to do a lot of research into Sonny Liston’s life, and what struck me about watching the movie Fences was that Sonny Liston’s appalling childhood, his brushes with the law, his eventual success, and his final fall from grace, seem to have been a relatively common experience for a specific kind of black man in America at a specific time in which a few specific doors had been opened and a few others were just beginning to open (small, suspicious cracks, a white foot cautiously braced at the bottom) even as the bulk of the doors remained shut, doors that were and are ultimately much more important and more universal than the few that were opened. It is this kind of black man who must have been so prevalent in the 1950’s era playwright August Wilson wrote about, the kind of black man who represented the failure (a more cynical person might say the sick joke) of emancipation and the gap between the promise and the reality.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson (if that name resonates with memories of high school American history classes about the Mason-Dixon Line, it is not an accident), a sharecropper’s son who had the skills to be a Major-League baseball player, but who missed the chance due to timing, due to the fact of being black in white America, due to the realities of the black experience of that particular time. Yes, I know those realities still exist, but the causes have changed.

If all you want is to know what it was to be a black man in America in the 1950’s, you will learn that from Fences. But you will also learn something about the human condition—forget black or white—and what it means to be a man fighting and raging against the fate of one’s time and place in history, and—in a conscious or unconscious tip of the hat to King Lear—the futility of that fight. You will learn all that and more, and those are good reasons to go see Fences. But if nothing else, you should go see it because it is acting at its best.

It’s hard for me not to compare Denzel Washington with James Earl Jones, and because I am such an ardent admirer Jones’ work, no one could possibly live up to my memory of his performance. And yet, and yet… Washington has taken a very different approach to the character, one which makes him both less likeable and more understandable and—it is this that convinces me of Mr. Washington’s brilliance—equally unforgettable. Washington is always memorable even in his most mediocre movies. Training Day leaps to mind (yes, yes, I know it was ballyhooed and that it earned—quite rightly—Washington an Academy Award, but go back and pay attention to the script), a film I actively disliked and that had holes you could drive an eighteen-wheeler through, but Denzel Washington’s performance lingers. In Fences, his performance lingers in ways that make me keep going back to it in my memory, just as I do with James Earl Jones. I can give no higher praise than that.

Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, none of whom I had never heard of, even the little girl at the end, Saniyya Sidney, all of them turn in the kinds of performances that make me wonder why I ever thought I could act. They’re that good.

And then there’s Viola Davis. Lord have mercy! A diamond will always shine to best advantage in a turnip patch, but this ain’t no turnip patch; these are some of the finest, most memorable performances I’ve seen, and even surrounded by all this coruscating talent Viola Davis walks away with the movie. She is, without exaggeration, one of the finest actresses of our time, and she deserves all the accolades, all the roles, all the rewards and awards. She alone would make this a movie eminently worth seeing.

I have one minor quibble with some of August Wilson’s psychology at the end, when the family tries to apotheosize the deceased Troy, and I have a minor quibble with Denzel Washington’s direction at the same point, making too much of the sun bursting through the clouds, a clichéd device, but these are picayune in the final sum of a brilliant movie.

At the Movies: La La Land

February 1st, 2017 12 Comments

An_American_in_Paris_poster

 

When I first started this blog, I made a conscious decision not to write negative reviews of books or movies. It’s far too difficult to create any kind of work of art, and far too easy for any fool to criticize and belittle what he can’t do himself.

But last night I saw something that angered me.

La La Land has been nominated for fourteen Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, best original screenplay, best original score, best original song, and more. It received seven Golden Globe Award nominations, and Emma Stone won best the actress award from the Screen Actor’s Guild.

I was suspicious about all those nominations when I saw the trailers on television, but, hey, a lapse in someone’s judgement can result in a dreadful trailer for a great film or a great trailer for a dreadful film, so I went to see La La Land, not with high expectations so much as with an open mind. If I had gone with high expectations, I would have really become enraged.

La La Land is the kind of inoffensive movie to which you can safely take your grandmother and your movie-infatuated ten-year-old daughter, and after I’ve said that, I have exhausted my repertoire of a compliments.

Embarrassingly mediocre, one incoherent cliché after another, it’s “best original screenplay” consists of an impoverished storyline watered down and rebottled from half a dozen real musicals written by real writers and real composers. Has no one ever seen, or does no one remember such trifles as An American in Paris or Singin’ in the Rain, to name the two that La La Land steals from most egregiously? Can anyone with a room temperature IQ and over the age of ten honestly pretend to compare the musical genius of the Gershwin brothers to the mild and modest work of Justin Hurwitz? I won’t insult Alan Jay Lerner’s memory by even bothering to compare his script to Damian Chazelle’s lame, incoherent, and uninspired platitudes.

Unfortunately, this pedestrian version is performed by actors who can’t sing and can’t dance, neither of whom had enough charm or charisma to keep me from wandering out of the theater to get a drink of water I didn’t desperately need. Both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are good young actors, but neither one of them has singing chops that should ever be heard outside of the privacy of their respective showers, and neither one of them would ever make it through the audition phase of Dancing with the Stars or the first round of So You Think You Can Dance?  Contrast that to Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Hell, contrast it to Fred and Ginger in any one of their magical confections.

Darleen tells me Emma Stone won her SAG Award for best actress over Meryl Streep’s bravura portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins. SAG must have awarded it for best monotonous walking sequence, because I’ve never seen so much unnecessary walking from nowhere to nowhere for no purpose. This in a film set in a city where Steve Martin famously drove next door to talk to his neighbor in LA Story. (I think that was the movie.) Motion pictures are called that because they use visual images to tell a story. That, by definition, means the images you see on the screen must cause the storyline to advance. Random wandering from one spot to another does not advance the story. If Emma Stone had taken her award and walked over to Meryl Streep and presented it to her, it would have left me with a more charitable opinion of Ms. Stone. Her performance in La La Land no more deserves an award than it deserves to be remembered.

It’s not that La La Land is so unspeakably bad that angers me, because it isn’t unspeakably bad. It’s that the Academy and the Screen Actors’ Guild and the Golden Globes committee are so unaware of their own history and the history of magic real Hollywood musicals once offered that they would have the temerity to praise such mediocrity. It’s either ignorance, or they allowed themselves to be bought or bullied.

John Legend was the best thing in it (Legend and a quick glimpse of a beautifully restored blue and white ’66 Corvette in the background of one sequence) and there wasn’t enough of him or his music to keep me or Legend-groupie Darleen in our seats. I’m angry at myself for having wasted two hours desperately clinging to the hope that the damned film might improve and that something, ANYTHING, noteworthy would happen. Where the hell is Kim Jong-Un when you need a little diversion?!

At the Movies: Hidden Figures

January 25th, 2017 10 Comments

Hidden Figures

 

In 1959 (I think) my father took me out into a field near the Rhine, away from the lights of our little town, to watch a sputnik pass overhead. Ten years later, I stood on beach in Bermuda watching a full moon as Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. Quite a lot happened in the wide world between those two events, and Hidden Figures touches on two of the most salient and absorbing issues in America during those years. It was a time when we hovered on the verge of transcending our earth-bound limitations, and hovered too on the verge of transcending some of our moral limitations. We’ve come further faster in one of those areas and still have a way to go in the other.

Very briefly, the plot of Hidden Figures tells the story of (some of) the black women who worked with NASA and helped make John Glenn the first man to orbit the earth. What is not told (and it couldn’t be told within the context of the story the movie needed to tell) is that black men and women had been working in various ways for various branches of the defense industry ever since the outbreak of World War Two. Many of them had stayed on after the war as one (or possibly several) of these defense and intelligence agencies morphed into what is now known as NASA. In theory, they were supposed to work on an equal basis with their white co-workers, and apparently that was accomplished to a certain extent, but… There is always a but. That’s basically the plot.

What is more important, however, is the view the movie provides of Jim Crow racism in pre-civil rights America. I was aware of this theme and it almost made me avoid the movie; I saw enough of that as a child and in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act to last me a lifetime. I am very glad I went to see Hidden Figures because I learned much about the extraordinary achievements of the so-called “colored computers” (which was how the black “girls” were referred to) and because the handling and portrayal of racism are spot on. This was not the crude, overt racism of mental midgets such as yesterday’s KKK or today’s so-called white nationalists, those loathsome offshoots of Hitler’s National Socialism with its hateful and dishonest ideology. (That kind of hateful and stupid evil will never be completely eradicated from the world. If you believe in God, you know the devil must exist too.) Instead the movie shows the unthinking, unconscious racism of people who grew up in a certain time and with certain norms and who never stopped to think about them. There is a scene where one of the ladies (Taraji P. Henson) explains to her supervisor (Kevin Costner) why she disappears for forty-five minutes at a time, and as she explains—standing by her desk, rain-soaked, embarrassed, in front of all her watching white co-workers—her anger rises, a long-festering boil finally bursting, and she talks about having to drink her coffee from a separate pot, not the one the white folks she works with drink from. When she finally stops, no one speaks, and Kevin Costner turns to look at the table where the coffee pots and cups are assembled, one pot carefully labelled “colored.” It is clear that if he has ever even laid eyes on that little symbol of segregation, he hasn’t seen it, in the sense of taking in the reality of what he sees. That was racism in those days, an unthinking acceptance of what had always been, without ever understanding the pain and humiliation it might cause, without even considering there might be another way to do things.

The three ladies who play the main characters (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe) should all have gotten Academy Award nominations. They were that good. But the performances that absolutely blew me away were Kevin Costner’s quiet, understated, multi-layered portrayal of the busy, preoccupied head of the team Taraji P. Henson works on, a man neither less nor more than any other man of his time and place, but who transforms into something else following that moment when he first really sees the coffee pots. I’ve always admired Costner’s work, but this took him to an all new level.

And then… And then there is Mahershala Ali as Taraji Henson’s suitor. Lord have mercy! Mr. Ali became a specific person so completely and subtly that it will now be hard for me to ever shake the memory of that gentle, strong, dignified persona to see him as anything else. He inhabits the role in the way all actors always strive to do, but I can vouch for the fact that it’s hard enough to strive for, harder still to achieve, and impossible for all but the most gifted few to achieve as perfectly as Mr. Ali did.

And so many others in smaller roles that resonate still: Jim Parsons as a rigid, tight-assed, unthinking racist so typical of that day and that place; Glen Powell as John Glenn, capturing the niceness and decency of that man in just a few, brief scenes…

I could go on, but I would have to list the entire cast.

Two things shocked me about this movie. First, while I can understand—not approve of, but comprehend—the reason why these ladies were never given their due back in that era, why the hell has it taken fifty years for them to be given their rightful place in history?

Second, doing some research about the book I came across the following sentence on Margaret Lee Shetterly’s website (she is the author of the book Hidden Figures, upon which the movie is based):

“A ‘girl’ could be paid significantly less than a man for doing the same job.”

The Equal Pay Act was written into law in 1963, a year before the Civil Rights Act, and women are still marching in the streets for equal pay? It would seem we’ve come further overcoming racism (think of Barack Obama in the White House, voted in by a large majority both times) than we have with pay equality for women, and as far as I know, equal pay has no negative equivalent to the moronic white nationalists. Not America’s finest hour.

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge

November 14th, 2016 16 Comments

hacksaw-ridge

 

On Veteran’s Day I went to see Mel Gibson’s World War Two movie, Hacksaw Ridge. I almost didn’t go because the title made me think it was going to be just another manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie filled with stirring heroics and a few heartwarming moments. One of the few reviews I read (in a national newspaper I deign to identify) primly shook a reproving finger at director Mel Gibson’s “appetite for gore,” and for making “a rousing celebration of the thrills of battle,” which didn’t do anything to inspire me, even as it praised the movie generally. (Keep those two phrases, “appetite for gore” and “the thrills of battle” in mind.) I decided to go when it finally dawned on me that this was a true story.

On one level Hacksaw Ridge is in fact a manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie, because those physical virtues—and in war, those are virtues—are contrasted against the very different virtues of deep religious conviction and adhering to one’s beliefs even under unimaginable duress.

Very briefly, in both real life and the movie, Desmond Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who not only refused to kill or fight, but even to touch or carry a weapon. With those slight impediments to the soldier’s life, but with a strong sense of patriotism and duty, he enlisted in the Army with the objective of becoming a medic and serving his country and his fellow man by saving lives. He ended up as the only conscientious objector in World War Two, and the first ever, to earn a Congressional Medal of Honor for, in President Truman’s official words, “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty.” In battle, mind you, without ever touching a weapon. He also won three Bronze Stars with two Oak Leaf Clusters and “V” Device, three Purple Hearts with two Oak Leaf Clusters, and a slew of other medals.

And it is the contrast between the quiet, humble, and absolutely unshakeable courage of Mr. Doss’ convictions and the physical courage of his fellow soldiers—the rare and shining courage so many young men show in war—that makes up the heart of this extraordinary movie. Mr. Gibson makes Doss into a Christ figure, not in any superficial, symbolic sense, but rather in the very real sense of the Christ within us all. The difference between Mr. Doss and the rest of us was his own vastly increased awareness of and sensitivity to the Christ within, and the duty that demands. Mr. Doss also clearly had the kind of courage—both moral and physical—very, very few people possess.

Reducing the plot and message to a handful of words makes the movie sound like a boring sermon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mel Gibson and the screenwriters (Pulitzer-Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight) clearly understand that the single most important function of any work of art is to evoke an emotional response, and Lord have mercy, do they ever! Every single character in this movie is fleshed out and made real, made sympathetic in their reality, proving that all people are far more interesting and have far more depth and humanity than we can ever completely know. More conventionally, they create a love story (again, based on real life) between Mr. Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) and his fiancée (played by the exquisite Teresa Palmer) that makes you ache for a happy ending.

I want to go back to Mr. Gibson’s “appetite for gore” and “the thrills of battle.” Perhaps I am reading more into this than I should, but there is a minginess and smug self-righteousness in those pejorative phrases that diminishes Gibson’s brilliance as a director, and diminishes too the sheer horror of war that Mr. Gibson was clearly trying to emphasize because, after all, it was that terrifying horror that Desmond Doss’ faith enabled him to overcome. (The greater the obstacle, the greater the victory; it’s a well accepted tenet of storytelling.) I know a little bit about what a bullet can do, and I have twice had to clean up the bloody consequences of violent death, but even with that knowledge, it is hard to imagine what the Greatest Generation saw and endured during that unspeakable war. Go back and read For Esmé, with Love and Squalor¸ and remember that J. D. Salinger’s oblique and sanitized reference came from his experiences on Utah Beach on D-Day, in the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, and liberating various concentration camps, yet that short story created a furor when it was published just for alluding to the reality of what was. And the truth is, what was, what those men lived through, did, had done to them, saw, heard, felt, smelled, was incomprehensibly, unimaginably appalling. Part of the genius of Mr. Gibson’s direction is that he makes it as unrelentingly and horrifyingly real as he can, not because he has an appetite for gore, or because he is trying to create cheap secondhand thrills of battle (there is no thrill, except in bad John Wayne movies, only terror), but because he wants to create what even that same critic described as “a taste of hell.” It is so real, so terrifying, so nightmarish, that the only things lacking—that I know of personally—are the pain and the smell.

One last comment about any reviews you might have read: I read a few reviews after seeing the movie and they all seemed to dwell at length on Mel Gibson and his moral shortcomings. Why, I wonder? When did we start equating the art and the artist? Mr. Gibson had, apparently, a long struggle with alcoholism and offensive behavior when he was drunk. So did the late Senator Ted Kennedy, but it was usually glossed over by the press, including the famous incident that resulted in the death of a young lady. If I didn’t go see movies made by people who hold radically different political views than I, I’d probably never see anything.

This a brilliant, devastating, triumphant movie. It got a ten-minute standing ovation at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It got a prolonged round of applause from an audience of veterans and others at a small theater in the mountains of California. It, the director, the writers, and the magnificent cast, deserve all the applause in the world.

At the Movies: Florence Foster Jenkins

September 10th, 2016 15 Comments

florence-foster-jenkins

 

Normally I see movies years after they’ve been released, but a concatenation of disasters and stresses in both households caused Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) and his wife to suggest we all go out to dinner together and take in Meryl Streep’s latest movie. I am so glad we did. Run, do not walk, to see Florence Foster Jenkins. You’ll almost certainly have to run to catch it before it gets yanked out of theaters because it’s the kind of film that will be largely ignored by the movie-going public today, revered and acclaimed at the Academy Awards tomorrow, and appreciated by viewers for decades to come. It’s absolutely brilliant.

I had never heard of her, but Florence Foster Jenkins was apparently a well-known tragi-comic figure in Manhattan during the first half of the twentieth century. She was what is described as a socialite, which basically means she was smart enough to have been born to the right family with plenty of the right stuff. She was also apparently born with a certain degree of skill as a concert pianist, being good enough to have performed as a child at the White House for President Rutherford B. Hayes. After that, the details of her life quickly descend down the scales from comedy to tragedy.

This is not the place to write a complete biography, but putting it in a nutshell, a combination of syphilis contracted on her wedding night from her first husband and/or an injury to her arm put an end to her career as a pianist, but not an end to her love of music or her desire to perform. She had the money to be able to afford the very best vocal instruction, but sadly, whatever skills had emerged from her fingertips did not emerge from her mouth. Instead, what did limp out was a sequence of unholy sounds that made her an object of ridicule among virtually everybody unfortunate enough to hear her sing, which included—because of her wealth and social position—some very famous people, some of whom stifled their laughter publicly because they wanted to get their hands in her purse, some of whom stifled their laughter publicly for social reasons, and a few of whom stifled their laughter, publicly and privately, because of such quaint, old-fashioned virtues as loyalty, love, and a genuine appreciation of her great generosity.

Not much comedy there, I hear you cry. Enter writer Nicholas Martin, director Stephen Frears, Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, and a cast of literally hundreds of pitch-perfect performances.

In real life it is unclear to what extent Florence Foster Jenkins realized she was a comic figure or to what extent her brain had been addled by the syphilis, making her oblivious. In the movie, while Nicholas Martin and Stephen Frears tip their artistic hats to that ambiguity, they wisely move their plot forward through the device of Hugh Grant’s increasingly frantic efforts to protect this unfortunate but well-intentioned woman, so that the movie becomes a magical and delicate balance between tragedy and comedy. And that is, obviously, the very best of all possible balancing acts.

Hugh Grant’s layered performance as Florence Foster Jenkins’ second husband is hands down the finest work he’s ever done (and he has done a lot of excellent work), playing a man who almost certainly started many years earlier as just another garden-variety leech, but who now has to balance his natural inclinations against his very real love of this pathetic, ridiculous, vulnerable woman. The dance he does with a pretty young thing at a wild party at his apartment is, by itself, worth the price of admission.

Simon Helberg, as the concert pianist struggling to balance his musical sensibility and artistic ambition against his sense of loyalty and his soft heart, practically steals the movie. The scene where he first hears Florence Foster Jenkins sing—if you can call it that—and the sequence of emotions that cross his face, from stunned disbelief to incredulity to rising hysteria, as his hands continue to mechanically play the accompaniment, is, by itself, worth the price of admission.

And Meryl Streep. I’m sure there must be some things Ms. Streep does not do better than anyone else (possibly her income taxes, diesel engine maintenance, mounted cowboy shooting, cryptanalysis) but none of them have anything to do with acting. She is, simply, the best there ever was. The scene when she sings (again, I use that word loosely) for the first time, Dan and I both became completely hysterical and I thought Darleen might have to leave the theater, and yet those scenes are balanced against moments so poignant you ache for her. It is no secret that many an actress’s singing has been “sweetened,” some by my gifted bride, many by the great, recently deceased Marni Nixon and other talented anonymous singers, but according to Darleen, the most difficult thing for a good singer to do is sing badly. I have no idea if Ms. Streep did her own atrocious singing or if she was ____________ (fill in the opposite of “to sweeten”), but the scenes of her in full costume, butchering opera, are, by themselves, worth the price of admission.

Unlike its eponymous title character Florence Foster Jenkins never strikes a false note.

At the Movies: Carol, Bridge of Spies

January 20th, 2016 20 Comments

Cate Blanchett

Tom Hanks

 

In a spirit of wild self-indulgence, Darleen and I watched two movies recently, two movies that both take place in the 1950s, both featuring some of the greatest talent alive today, both with breathtakingly beautiful and moody photography, and both ballyhooed as potential Oscar material. There the resemblance ends.

I normally make it a rule not to review any book or movie I don’t like. Why bother? It’s so very difficult to create anything, and after you’re done, it’s so very easy for any mean spirited fool with a wicked wit to tear down what you’ve created, and I don’t wish to be lumped into that smug, acid-tongued category. To quote the great Elizabeth Ashley (defending Tennessee Williams): “Sir, is it not the way of curs and mongrels always to chew on the tails of champions?” There are never enough champions, and always far too many curs and mongrels and I have no desire to swell their ranks.

But there are parallels here that bear scrutiny and the very thing that makes one of these movies so forgettable is the thing that makes the other so very unforgettable.

Carol is a lesbian love story starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. I was aware of who Miss Mara is, but I had never seen any of her work. As for Cate Blanchett, I have only seen a little of her work (Elizabeth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Bandits, Blue Jasmine) but enough to think Australia ought to declare her a national treasure, or that the American government should kidnap her and claim her as our national treasure. It doesn’t hurt that she has one of the most extraordinary faces ever to grace the screen, with eyes that hint at secrets you’ll never know, and that wonderful, mobile, tragic mouth.

So all in all, I was looking forward to Carol.

I was also looking forward very much to Bridge of Spies. It too stars national treasures: ours (Tom Hanks) and England’s (Mark Rylance) along with Amy Ryan and Alan Alda, neither of whom are exactly slouches in the talent department, and it was directed by Steven Spielberg who, it is generally conceded, has some talent himself in the directing department, to the tune of three Academy Awards. But primarily, I was looking forward to it because it deals with the famous Cold War incident where Francis Gary Powers and his U2 were shot down by the Soviets, and how Powers was eventually released in exchange for three Russian spies.

At least, that’s the story I grew up with, because my father helped catch one of those spies in a convoluted Cold War caper that penetrated even some of my five- or six-year old consciousness. (Men—FBI agents—sitting in front of old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorders set up in our basement; occasional odd incidents involving a Russian gentleman who came to our house, usually late at night, but who once made the mistake of letting himself in somehow during the day while we were out and who got pinned against the wall by our one-eyed Boxer for his pains, the Boxer who is in the photograph with me on my bio page; my father leaving alone at odd hours when normally he would play with us.) Alas, none of that is in the movie, and who knows now what the truth was then? Certainly not I.

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, as Kipling reminds us, and even more ways of telling stories on page or on screen, but the one inviolable rule is that while you may tease and tantalize your audience with mysteries of many kinds at the outset, you must, must, ultimately provide resolution. It’s Chekhov’s gun: if you mention (or show) a gun, you must then use it at some point, otherwise, why bother showing the damn thing in the first place?

Carol violates this rule, both figuratively and literally.

Figuratively, we are presented with two women, each in her different way trapped within a life she longs to escape, whose paths cross. And after that everything begins to fall apart. Why are these women trapped? Each of them is a stereotype of stifled, mid-fifties discontent; each longs for more than what life in that era is willing to allow them, but we are never given any backstory for their respective discontent. Rooney Mara longs to be a photographer, but what’s stopping her? Is it her own lack of any kind of color, any spark of divine fire? Is it her lesbian tendencies? Is it some other quantity or quality lacking within her? It sure as hell can’t be the American fifties themselves, as the film implies, because the arts were one of the few paths open to women back then. And while we are shown the problem, we are never shown the reason why she feels so trapped by her job and her boisterous boyfriend, or even given a clue why she can’t satisfy her artistic longings. Are they meant to be a symbol of her sexual longings?

Cate Blanchett is even more of a stereotype, albeit a colorful one: the woman trapped in a loveless marriage of wealthy convenience, who is torn between her love for her daughter and her longing for some kind of real love, which in this case means lesbian love. But what is behind that stereotype? What are the causes? What, other than lesbianism, sets her aside from ten thousand other women in that day and age? We are never given a clue or even anything specific enough about her to make her a unique individual.

Unfortunately, everything else in the movie contributes to the same sense of being shown stereotypes instead of real people. Cate Blanchett’s husband has appeared (more interestingly) in every John O’Hara, John Cheever, or John Updike short story. The daughter she adores is a generic child with no more individuality than a wooden clothing mannequin in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue. New York City, specifically Manhattan, the most majestic, most iconic, most metropolitan place on earth, is reduced to Anytown, USA. The wealthy suburb where Cate Blanchett and Kyle Chandler uneasily and alcoholically share a mansion becomes Anysuburb, USA. Even the beautiful, rich, productive land that lies between the Atlantic and central Iowa is wasted; we see little unsatisfying glimpses of it during long, silent driving sequences which could be filled with the beauty of the land outside and with information about the protagonists inside, information that would make both of these women come to life with individuality.

It’s not the performances; it’s Phyllis Nagy’s writing that is lacking in this film. She shows us two women who are intriguing and then fails to deliver on her promises, reducing them to stock symbols of societal repression devoid of individuality. Even when a chrome-plated Smith & Wesson with mother-of-pearl grips is carefully shown in Cate Blanchett’s suitcase, implying that at least now we will see something out of the ordinary, if not unique, there is no satisfying conclusive use of that revolver. It proves, like the film itself, to be empty, empty and lugubrious.

And the opposite is precisely what makes Bridge of Spies not merely a brilliant portrait of the exact same era, but one of those films where you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left. The Cohen brothers, Ethan and Joel, together with a young man (his photograph makes him look all of fourteen) named Matt Charman don’t waste an instant or a word: everything either drives the plot forward or establishes character.

A perfect example is a little scene where Tom Hanks is lost in the still war-torn streets of East Berlin and is suddenly surrounded by five or six young thugs who steal his overcoat. Hanks plays the real-life lawyer, James Donovan, who was recruited (bullied into?) defending a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) and then recruited (bullied into?) negotiating the trade of that spy for Francis Gary Powers. Hanks plays the scene as impeccably as he plays everything he has ever done, a courageous man in a bad situation, trying to stay alive, but instead of just handing them the overcoat, he negotiates, finally trading the coat for directions to the office building he has been looking for. That little scene, all by itself tells you all you need to know about James Donovan. Let’s put it this way: because of that scene, when I looked up James Donovan and found he had been later recruited (bullied into?) into negotiating the release of 1,113 prisoners of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn he came back with 9,703 men and women. I have a mental image of Fidel Castro throwing his hands in the air and saying, “Oh, for God’s sake! Give this guy whatever the hell he wants and get him out of here before he talks me into making Cuba another American state!”

It’s that kind of glimpse into a man’s personality that I would have loved to have seen in Carol. Even the photography, rich and moody in both films, becomes specific in Bridge of Spies. I was in Berlin back in those days. I’ve seen Checkpoint Charlie and I’ve seen if not those specific streets, certainly others just like them, and that’s what it was like back in the late fifties. The opening scenes in Brooklyn are precisely that: Brooklyn, and nowhere else on earth. Tom Hank’s James Donovan is unique and singular in all the world. Mark Rylance’s spy is so uniquely drab and colorless he becomes colorfully fascinating. James Donovan’s three children are specific and singular. And Amy Ryan has a moment at the end where she has just heard the news about what her husband has done, what he has accomplished for his country, and she stands in their bedroom looking at his exhausted sleeping figure on the bed, looking at the man who holds no more mystery for her than any man has ever held for his wife, and you can see the wonder, the pride, the love. That’s specificity. That’s what Carol lacks.

At the Movies: Going in Style

June 11th, 2015 7 Comments

Art Carney

 

Certain actors were—and a few still are, thank God—so gifted that just their names on the marquee is enough to make you park your car and pull out your wallet. Or, in the case of old movies on TCM, turn off the phones, lock the doors, and curl up on the sofa with your wife and dogs and something wet in your hand.

Art Carney was one of those.

In the highly likely event that you are too young to know who Art Carney was, I will remind you that he was probably best known, and will almost certainly be best remembered for his role as Ed Norton (“Norton! You are a mental case!”) on the Jackie Gleason television comedy, The Honeymooners. And that’s not a bad thing: The Honeymooners was one of those sitcoms from the golden age of television, with scripts so charmingly zany, characters so real, and performances so brilliant, that they are as much fun to watch now, sixty years later, as they were back then. And they will still be delicious sixty years from now, which is proof of the timelessness of the best theatrical art, from Aeschylus to Downton Abbey, no matter whether it’s comedy or drama: if the playwright has caught something real, the work will endure.

Art Carney Honeymooners

But Art Carney was one of those geniuses capable of anything. Contrast his wacky, over-the-top, plastic, slapstick work as Ed Norton with his performance as the aging detective in The Late Show, or his Academy Award-winning performance in Harry and Tonto (a performance that won him the award over such minor talents as Albert Finney, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and Jack Nicholson). Very, very few actors are capable of that kind of range. (Jack Lemmon leaps to mind.)

So when Darleen told me Going in Style, (1979) was going to be on TCM, we got serious about comedy.

The plot, such as it is, is about three very elderly retired men, living off their meager social security checks and sharing a modest apartment, fighting off terminal boredom as they wait for God. In an effort to keep from dying of boredom, and to help out the sole relative any of them has (Art Carney’s nephew, played by the late, great Charles Hallahan), they decide to rob a bank. And we’re off to the races.

The other two retirees are George Burns and Lee Strasberg, and when the three of them are together, you are watching almost two hundred years of theatrical experience and genius honed to dry, deadpan perfection.

I don’t want to give anything away, because you really should watch this gem, but like all the best comedy, it has a bittersweet quality that takes you from laughter to tears and happily back again.

There is one scene, in Central Park, when the three old friends walk past a vaguely Jamaican street band, all bongos and congas and steel drums, and Art Carney starts to dance, to the delight of the band, the delight of his friends, the delight of casual onlookers, and to the infinite delight of the movie-goer. That one scene, by itself, is reason enough to watch Going in Style. As Darleen put it, while watching that dance, “With those three guys you don’t need a script. Just turn the camera on and let them go to town.”

At the Movies, On a Desert Island

April 27th, 2015 43 Comments

Old TV set

 

Darleen and I stumbled backward, who knows how or why, into one of those “what-if?” games. If memory serves, we were talking about how certain movies bear up under repeated viewing, just as there are certain books one thinks of as old friends, that one can go back to again and again, always certain of the same good company, the same warm welcome, the same comfortable patterns of emotion and delight: The Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Irish RM, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, all of W.W. Jacobs, much of P.G. Wodehouse, most of Dylan Thomas and much of Tennyson, practically anything by Dickens, everything by Shakespeare, all those books and poems and plays that act as comfort food for us when all other diversions pale and fail.

So one of us posited the question: if you were stranded on a desert island conveniently provided with a television and a DVD player and the electricity to run them, which ten movies would you take with you to help you through your isolation?

After radical culling, the kind of culling that shows off my iron will power, my cold and ruthless capacity for abnegation, my towering strength of character, my ability to endure any kind of hardship, I have compiled my short list. It is, in no particular order:

Dr. Zhivago

The English Patient

Bridge on the River Kwai

The Third Man

A Christmas Story

It’s a Wonderful Life

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The More the Merrier

Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Unforgiven

To Kill a Mockingbird

Singing in the Rain

The Godfather, Parts I & II

Tom Jones

The Lion in Winter

Lawrence of Arabia

The Lady Eve

The Lavender Hill Mob

Mr. Roberts

Libeled Lady

I’m sorry. What did you say? That’s more than ten? Oh, for God’s sake. This isn’t a damned math class. People put far too much store in numbers and precision and all that nonsense. Life should be much more flexible than that.

At the Movies: High Society

February 23rd, 2015 15 Comments

Grace Kelly closeup

 

It’s never a good idea to stick your foot through a Rembrandt.

Each age, each generation, tries to reinterpret certain classic plays. Part of the joy of living in a metropolitan area is going to see how different actors and directors approach certain plays, using them to reflect their individual times and circumstances. Take Hamlet. Between stage and film I’ve seen at least half a dozen different productions of Hamlet, probably more, some of the filmed versions multiple times, and I regret that I never had an opportunity to view others that have been done over the years, notably David Warner’s, which got sensational reviews half a century ago. Even lesser, more contemporary plays by lesser, more contemporary playwrights are fun to go see for the second or third or fourth time, if the original script was good enough to merit reinterpretation and the director and actors are good enough to handle the material. Noel Coward would be a good example: Between Broadway, repertory, and summer stock, I’ve probably seen half a dozen productions of Private Lives, for example, and with a competent company, I’d happily go see another half dozen. Laughter is good for one’s health and for one’s immortal soul.

So why is the same not true of movies? When a movie is a classic, the worst thing anyone can do is try to top it. Who would be fool enough to imagine he could do a remake of Gone with the Wind?

(I probably shouldn’t have dared to ask that question; some arrogant jackass in a multi-million-dollar studio office might pick up on my cosmic consciousness and try to make a cable television version, or adapt it somehow to a reality show. “Ah, don’t worry about the Civil War. Nobody remembers that stuff. We’ll set it in Syria, make it the Kurds against ISIS. It’ll be great. Of course, we’ll have to show a little more flesh with the girls, but we’ll make it work. We’ll give it a lot of special effects and more heart. We’ll film it IMAX 3D.”)

There are some exceptions. Occasionally, not often, the remake is better than the original. I happen to think the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr version of An Affair to Remember is better than the original version, Love Affair, with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, even though both had the exact same script and both were written and directed by Leo McCarey. The 2000 TV version of The Man Who Came to Dinner, with Nathan Lane, Jean Smart, and Harriet Sansom Harris is, believe it or not, even better than the 1942 film with Monty Woolley, Ann Sheridan, and Bette Davis. To be fair, that’s not a completely fair comparison: the 1942 version of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s brilliant and wacky masterpiece was a real, filmed work, while the TV version was a film of a live performance, but—and here I’m teetering on the brink of apostasy—the performances in 2000 were better, and I’m including, even specifying, Harris over Davis.

But for the most part, it is not a good idea to stick your foot through a Rembrandt.

High Society is a musical version of The Philadelphia Story, which was a film adaptation of the Philip Barry play of the same name. On the face of it, this was probably a hell of an idea at the time. Think about it. You take a great original script and have it gracefully adapted by Pulitzer and Tony Award winner John Patrick; you get Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Louie Armstrong and his band; you have music and lyrics by Cole Porter; you have it directed by the great director and choreographer Charles Walters… Good Lord! It’s a no-brainer, an instant hit before you even start filming. How could it not be?

Well, maybe not.

It’s not bad; it really isn’t. It just can’t compare with the original, and that’s the primary problem with it: even at its best moments, it is overshadowed by the original.

Grace Kelly was the most exquisite thing ever to grace the screen, but as an actress, she can’t compare to Katherine Hepburn.

Frank Sinatra was a hell of a good actor, and had one of the greatest voices of all time, but he’s no Jimmy Stewart.

Bing Crosby was a great, suave, all-round entertainer, with a voice second only to Sinatra’s, and with charm and grace galore, but who in his right mind could ever hope to top Cary Grant when it comes to suavity and charm and grace?

Louis Armstrong. The best there ever was, the man about whose music Wynton Marsalis once said, “When life gets you down, Louie is always there to tell you everything is going to be okay,” about whom Bing Crosby said, “American music begins and ends with Louie Armstrong.” Louie Armstrong. When I die, I want his Strutting with Some Barbeque played at my funeral. But he’s wasted in this movie. He only appears three times, only one of those is less than superficial, even—by today’s standards, if not those of the pre-civil rights 1956 era—demeaning, and even that once he plays second fiddle to Bing Crosby.

(To give credit where credit is due, his presence in the movie, and his prominent billing were the result of Crosby’s insistence, just as a few years later Frank Sinatra would refuse to honor his contract with a Las Vegas hotel until Sammy Davis, Jr. was allowed to stay in the same hotel; a typical attitude of the time, when blacks were good enough to entertain, but not to share space with whites.)

By making it a musical, and allowing time for the songs, the original script had to be cut, and certain sequences were consequently lost. Remember Virginia Weidler as Dinah Lord singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady?”

“She has eyes that folks adore so

And a torso even more so.”

That’s cut down to nothing to allow for songs that are, with the memorable exception of True Love and to a lesser extent, You’re Sensational, not at all memorable. Yes, the performances of those songs are spectacular, but other than True Love¸ can you whistle any other tune from that movie?

My bride, the never shy or diffident Darleen, called the first half flat, and I agree. It picks up in the second half, when Grace Kelly as a very drunk and subsequently very hung-over Tracy Lord seems less artificial than she does sober, and everyone seems to pick up the pace generally, but it never takes off as a vibrant and coherent whole in the way that The Philadelphia Story does from the get-go.

Is it bad? Is it a waste of time? No, but you’re far more likely to enjoy it if you’ve never seen the original.

At the Movies: The More the Merrier

February 2nd, 2015 7 Comments

jean arthur and little dog

 

The More the Merrier was on television the other night and my friend Tom Davis (Why Dogs Do That: A Collection of Curious Canine Behaviors, as well as many other excellent books about dogs) reminded me that I had written a blog about Jean Arthur. I had forgotten. In fact, I had forgotten so completely that it took me a while to find what he was referring to, which was actually a review of another Jean Arthur movie, If Only You Could Cook.

If Only You Could Cook is fun, but it simply isn’t even in the same league with The More the Merrier. Just at the basic level of performance you can’t compare the two films: Jean Arthur earned her only Academy Award Nomination for The More the Merrier, and it did earn Charles Coburn his sole Oscar for his role as rascally, charming cupid bringing Jean Arthur and Joel McCrae together in spite of World War Two, in spite of an inconvenient fiancé, in spite of the FBI, in spite of themselves. (Coburn does a magnificent, solitary tour-de-farce, looking for the trousers he was trying to put on that have mysteriously gone missing, that is worth the price of admission by itself.)

That’s pretty much the plot. What makes it work so well as a movie is an incomparable script attributed to Robert Russell, Richard Flournoy, Lewis Foster, and Jean Arthur’s husband, Frank Ross. It is attributed to them, though an uncredited contributor who may or may not have been the real influence responsible for the script was none other than Garson Kanin. (Garson Kanin was the man—along with his wife, Ruth Gordon—who was responsible for some of the classic comedies of all time, including Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, and Born Yesterday which was originally written for Jean Arthur, but which made Judy Holliday a star after Arthur pulled out due to stage fright. Kanin is also responsible for one of the greatest and truest quotes ever spoken about Hollywood: “The Hollywood laborers, the carpenters and painters, were always perfect. Then came the technicians, the electricians and special effects men. They were marvelous. However, the higher you climbed in the system, the lower the level of competence, until you reached the head of the studio, who turned out to be an idiot.”)

In my review of If Only You Could Cook I wrote about Jean Arthur’s vulnerability:

Jean Arthur was beautiful, but not a great beauty. She was talented, but so were many others. She was sexy, but not nearly as obviously or as much so as many others. She was charming, but so were all of the ladies of the screwball comedy genre. But what made her so singular was the combination of beauty, talent, sex appeal, charm, the voice, all of it masking a tremendous vulnerability and fragility. She obviously knew enough about herself to understand her strengths and weaknesses (she preferred to be photographed from the left only), and she said herself she loved acting, but she also was apparently so stricken with stage fright that she used to frequently throw up before filming a take. Many actresses and even some actors throw up from fear before a stage performance, but I have never heard of any other actor who threw up from fear before filming on a sound stage. It evidently became worse as she got older; she was the original choice to play the lead in Garsin Kanin’s Born Yesterday, but got so terrified she quit, making Judy Holiday a star. She had a nervous breakdown trying to do Shaw’s Saint Joan for director Harold Clurman. She walked out on two more Broadway plays, unable to stand the extreme stage fright, and finally walked out on her career. She became an acting teacher, first at Vassar (where one of her students was, supposedly, Meryl Streep), and later at the University of North Carolina, and finally retired to a reclusive life in Carmel, California where she steadfastly refused to do any kind of publicity or interview. Even at the height of her success she was as reclusive as Garbo.

These actions have, to me, all the earmarks of a very vulnerable person, and I believe it was that quality underlying the raspy wisecracks and the niceness that made her so…well, okay, charismatic.

It’s hard to reconcile that extreme vulnerability and reclusiveness with charisma, and of course I have no idea if she was charismatic in person, but there is that star quality to her when she is on screen that does not allow you to take your eyes off her.

But more than that is her talent. Director George Stevens, who knew a little about the business and talent, and who directed her in The More the Merrier, once said she, “…[was] one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen.” And no less a director than Frank Capra, who directed her in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, called her, “…[his] favorite actress.”

When you watch The More the Merrier, pay special attention to the scene where Jean Arthur and Joel McCrae sit on the stoop of their apartment building and say a bunch of meaningless words that have absolutely nothing to do with anything. What they’re saying in the scene is said with their bodies: he can’t keep his hands off her, and she desperately wants his hands all over her, but she keeps dutifully and reluctantly removing them and trying to talk. Then there is a close-up of her talking as Joel McCrae kisses her neck and she forgets not only what she was saying, but even the very word she was in the middle of pronouncing. It is an absolute tour-de-force of romantic/comedic timing, and there isn’t a man who can watch that scene without wanting to dive through the screen and back to 1943 to take Joel McCrae’s place.

That’s Jean Arthur.

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