Sunday, December 31, 2006

Film Review: "The Good German"

This is another of those films that try to substitute the obtuseness of plot for the complexity of human experience.

I am not going to describe the manifold twists and turns of the story...I don't really remember/understand all of them...and I'm not going to see the film again just to figure them all out. Suffice it to say: George Clooney, as a reporter for New Republic magazine, returns to Berlin soon after the German surrender in 1944, gets involved with an old German/Jewish love (Cate Blanchett doing her Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich turn...and pretty well, as she does almost anything she attempts in acting). Upon arrival, Clooney is soon beset with attackers. Why? Because everybody wants to find Blanchett's disappeared husband...who is occupationally tied to a great German rocket scientist cum Nazi cum war criminal whom the US wants to get on their post-war side (to develop new and better bombs, of course).

What follows is mystery, intrigue, and the expected political statements (stated, unfortunately, as 'preaching' and not dramatized as part of strong and subtle character agruments...Rule #1 for good political films: always give the other guy his fair and serious say!!) It seems baby boomers like Clooney and Steven Soderbergh--the director--don't need to give the other side their due...they are so SURE they are right).

Soderbergh pays homage to (steals from?) other films, in particular two great war (one a post-war film, one set during the war) films, "The Third Man", and "Casablanca". Ripping off from the former in "The Good German" he creates a pale comparison of 'The Third Man"'s scene, mood and relevance; whereas in his 'homage' to the latter film, he thematically debunks "Casablanca"s' great end-of-his-movie lovers-separating scene. In "The Good German" the ending becomes a cynical act of selfish survival, rather than, as in Casablanca, a brilliant scene of lovers-sacrificing-their-togetherness-for-the-greater-good. Oh well, I suppose that's the price of social evolution of the last 50 years; the disappearance of concepts of human nobility, idealism, and self-sacrifice, not to mention perhaps civilization itself.

Tobey Maguire is in the film; unfortunately. He is particularly bad in a very short role (why did he take it?). I'm not a big fan anyway, but this help me keep my prejudice intact. I am generally prejudiced towards George Clooney's acting however; it again holds; he is fine here, maybe a bit soft. (Maybe it's from being puched around so much in the first half hour of the film!)

I did not get involved in the film for the first 53 minutes, however (Yes, I timed it!). True, it held my interest increasingly after that. However, by 53 minutes into a film I'm not a happy viewer; I begrudge any film that keeps me hanging around for a great length of time just because I have no idea what is going on. It's like some conversations; conversing with someone when you understand each word they say, but their sentences, much less their paragraphs, don't make any sense. What I look for in a film is simply: let me know what going on on some level...on some story level have it make sense; it is clear...then, properly set up, I am more than willing--nay, eager--to be surprised with deeper, fuller and more unexpected twists and turns as the film progresses. But don't ever keep me totally confused from word one.

See "The Third Man". See the subject of the Allies occupation of Europe treated with greatness;
with subtlety, seriousness, true complexity, without the need to resort to cheap cynicism and easy over-judgment. You want cynicism that attains atrt, see and hear Orson Welle's great speech in that film about peace and Switzerland. I paraphrase: Switzerland may have had peace for five hundred years but accept that Switzerland's only contribution to civilization during that time: chocolate and the cuckoo clock.

See "Casablanca"...the greatest film ever made.

See, in fact, this year's German language film: "Lives of Others". It achieves what "The Good German" only attempts.


A society is only as high as its treatment of its lowesr member.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Sweet Christmas Present To Me

After a recent weekend seminar I conducted, an e-note was sent me via this blog:

"Cliff! Thanks again for a great session! You make everything so clear and easy to understand. Not only in our art form but in everyday life. I thought I lived alot and experienced everything, then I met Cliff Osmond. Take care and see you soon."

I say:

"Thanks. Merry Christmas back."

Friday, December 29, 2006

Film Review: "Bobby"

Emilio Estevez, who wrote, directed and acted in "Bobby", has a caring heart. His film is a loving tribute to Robert "Bobby" Kennedy, assassinated brother of both assassinated President JFK and present-day Senator Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts. Robert Kennedy (RFK) was also a former Attorney General of the US, a US Senator from New York, and himself a candidate for the democratic party's nominee for President in 1968.

I lived in LA at the time of his assassination; I voted for Robert Kennedy in the California primary; he was probably my favorite candidate for President in the last 30 years. (A sudden insight: that's probably why I voted for John Edwards in the last California primary; he reminds me of RFK!!) RFK was a tough liberal; a soft reactionary. I remember the June night he was killed by Sirhan Sirhan (let's not argue assassination theories at this point!) at the Ambassador Hotel. He had just won the California primary. (Soon thereafter, as life would have it, RFK campaign manager, Dick Klein, moved across the street from us and became a family friend. He assured me that Kennedy was everything I thought he was.)

My wife and I had had dinner that evening with two other neighbors, close friends and also Kennedy supporters, to watch the TV results. Dinner was over: Robert Kennedy had just won by something like 52% to 38% (there were three candidates in the race). We lifted a glass in celebration. The guests went home. The TV went off.

The guests came running back five minutes later; with the news: "Bobby" Kennedy had been shot in the kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel just after he has made a victory speech to his campaign workers. (I still get goose bumps when I write this!)

The last ten minutes of Estevez's "Bobby" gave me a deep wave of nostalgia. And I remembered why many of us were so enamored of RFK: more than his 'caring', more his toughness (he was a hard-nose prosecuting attorney for many years)...and beyond the politics, the competitive drive and self-deprecating humor, he spoke beautifully. His speech was the Eastern seaboard Brahmin language of education, of humor and precision; it soared with an elegant simplicity and truth. I had forgotten that both Kennedy boys had great speechwriters...especially Richard Goodwin and Theodore Sorensen. It was the era of Martin Luther King, when speech-making held center stage as a potent instrument of social change...before the time of 'sound-bites' and 'spin' and the ascendence of only political 'advertizing slogans'.

During the last ten minutes of the film, RFK's speeches resonated with topicality beyond even contemporary politicalk resonance--which is alot what Estevez was looking for (he is not a George Bush fan!); it was language for all time. Language--especially great language like that--strives to bind the universal human heart into conscious cohesion. Beyond politics, elegant language searches for common truth. Syntax is a quest for consensus of logic.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is a soap-opera pastiche, weaving many trite (I know, my rebutters would say 'common humanity') stories--all they have in common is that they all worked at the Ambassador Hotel the night Kennedy was killed (mere co-incidence is not dramatic relevance, Mr. Estevez) and lacing them with so many actor-stars (too long a list to note) that the casting soon becomes more a stunt than a contribution to the film's overall effectiveness. I'm sure that's one of the ways Estevez got funding: name recognition! But his stories don't live up to the talent of his actors...and, to be true, some of their performances are a little embarrassing. (I'll bet 90% of them accepted the assignment because they also lean left in politics.) They are---whether they recognized it or not--simply too good for the material--especially some of the dialogue!!

But...oh well...Estevez' heart was aimed in a noble direction...and I got to see and hear Robert Kennedy, and relive some old, painful, but inspiring moments. I felt young again. Hope is possible...if we still will care. Thank you Mr. Estevez...and Bobby.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Film Review: "The Good Shepherd"

Written by Eric Roth, directed by Robert De Niro--who also produced it--along with Universal Studios and Morgan Creek, the film stars Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Bill Hurt, Robert Di Nero, and many, many others. It fails.

It tries to do too much (its 2-hour, 37 minute length underscores that fact) and fails to do the whole thing well. The acting suffers: it is too portentous and unrelentingly over-'meaningful'. The cast contains some usually wonderful actors; in fact, it includes one of the great actors of our time, De Niro, directing them, yet the actors' work seems over-restrained; wooden and self-conscious. Poor Jolie is simply miscast; so is Matt Damon, especially age-wise in the later scenes. Perhaps the production creators interpreted the subject matter (the CIA) in such a dark, enclosed manner that it doesn't allow the actors room to breathe.

The film is caringly and beautifully made; but the plot--the thread on which the rest of the film ultimately rests--is very confusing. Ostensibly it is the story about a young boy destined by class and heritage to attend Yale, whose father died when he was six, who hides and refuses to look at his father's suicide, including and especially his father's last letter to the family, and converts that developed talent of self-containment and secrecy into a life-long career at the CIA (beginning with its organizational fore-runner, the OSS) during WWII.

Counterintelligence becomes the young man's expertise, and paranoia becomes his point of view. Post-war US-versus-Russia is the film's major battlefield, including WWII, JFKennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. Ex-Russian spies and English intelligence and American spy-'spooks' act and counteract toward and against one with cleverly and deadly aplomb, and the intricate intelligence communities' policies of disinformation, distrust, torture and betrayal blend clumbsily and cynically into the film's perverse senses of respective national loyalties. Before the film is over, the young man's wife and son get involved, marital and family loyalty gets tested, and it all ends unhappily ever after.

What the details of the plot actually are, as they unfold--what is actually going on?--is confusing to me in any larger sense. It is difficult for me to summarize the story simply. Perhaps because the film creators were trying to do too much: tell a complicated espionage Cold War plot, follow a dysfunctional family story, document the historical/political highlights of 1930', 40' 50' and 60's, get in a little anti-Iraq analogies along the way, cast an unflttering light on the CIA, include some sex scenes, add a late interracial relationship, shine an unflattering light on WASP-America, including its secret college societies ("Skull and Bones") add a hint of possible homosexuality, etc. Too much.

The psychological/moral/human complexities of espionage operating the the same Cold War period is much better--and cleaner, more simply, and therefore more tellingly--achieved in "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold", a great, truly great film, starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom and Oscar Werner, directed by Martin Ritt, from a novel by John Le Carre. Take the money you would have spent on "The Good Shepherd" and rent that DVD.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Film Reviews: "Litle Children", "Last King of Scotland" and "A Prairie Home Companion"

All three films were previously reviewed (SEE earlier blogs):

"Little Children" (10/17/06)
"Last King of Scotland" (10/10/06)
"A Prairie Home Companion" (10/27/06)

Brief Film Reviews: "Volver", "Babel", "The Devil Wears Prada", "Akeelah and the Bee", and "The Departed"

VOLVER:...(A-)...You can't go wrong see a Pedro Almodovar film. Probably the best director in the world now. 'Volver' is not up to his earlier 'Talk to Her' standard, which was a brilliant film, but 'Volver' is a very fine film. Penelope Cruz is very, very good...truly fine...both as an actress in this film, and, always, as eye-candy. Hard to believe that that with her beauty her character would have to put up with the men in the film she puts up with, but I guess that's what the 'suspension of belief' is all about...but this bit of casting suspension shows some stretch marks. Who cares? It's worth it to see her and her performance.

BABEL:...(C+)...Properly named. The director and the writer tell multiple stories that finally come together (sort of), but in such a depressing way that makes me think they need to go back on Prozac before their next film.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA:...(B-)... This is a stylish, if only OK, 'chick flick' answers the question: what is a like to be an innocent, young (female) employee/assistant thrown to a female shark-boss (notably, if single noted-ly, played by the always good but generally better Meryl Streep)? Answer: one doesn't need a male boss to suffer extreme harassment. A look at the high-powered fashion world; in a film in which Stanley Tucci gives a fine performance.

THE DEPARTED:...(B)... Martin Scorcese leaves history ("The Gangs of New York"; "The Aviator") and goes back to the streets which he knows better and to the male violence he loves so well. He is an extremely fine and experienced director. He knows the camera and the editing room. He proves it once again. But the story is a bit contrived and dramatically convenient ('moles' within the police department AND the mob)...and the film's tension hangs on who will find out who's secret first? Jack Nicholson, seemingly always over-the-top now-a-days yet perversely fascinating to watch, is in this film over-the-top and perversely fascinating to watch, while the rest of the cast is solid. See it if only to see a group of masterful craftsmen at work.

AKEELAH AND THE BEE:...(B-)...unless you really are addicted to sugar; then (A+++++)...A little girl (Keke Palmer stars, in a wonderful, endearing performance) from South Central LA (Crenshaw Middle School) wins the National Spelling Bee. On the way, she gives the audience an interesting intellectual tour of how to learn to spell, and helps her mother (a very good acting performance by Angela Bassett) and her spelling teacher (Lawrence Fishburne; always solid) find a way to overcome personal tragedy and discover a renewed worth of everyday living. By the end of the film, everyone and everything comes out smelling like roses and wonderful people, including one autocratic, demanding Asian father (a new racial stereotype...just as the film is trying to get rid of another??!!!) Not a speck of dirt on the sidewalks, or in the classroom, or in people's hearts. What not?

Thought: see it on a twin-bill with "Babel". An extreme upper and an extreme downer...a film exec's idea of achieving balanced slate of films, no?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Film Review: "Borat"

I laughed.

I hid my head in shame.

The film is unabashed.

The premise is simple. Sacha Baron Cohen, famous for his very funny "Ali G" telvision series, plays "Borat", a Kazakstani TV reporter who comes to New York to do a documentary about America. He falls in love with a picture of Pam Anderson, star of Bay Watch, and sets off on a quixotic trip to Malibu to express his love on her. That's it. Premise is over.

Sexual, scatalogical, animalistic; we watch him cross the country as make foils/fools of everyone...including, and most especially, himself--which is why we grant him the permission to skewer everyone else. He (the character) is willing to expose himself, and his own body, in several scenes, most impactively in a gross-out scene of him rolling around in bed nude wrestling with a grotesquely obese Sancha Panza side kick. (Cohen does censor/blacken out his own private parts on screen, however.) He out animal-houses Animal House. As I watched, I kept saying to my wife RE Cohen: "He's got balls (no pun intended)." "He's unconscionable." "He has no reins."

He's also brilliant; perversely so. He is twisted, the son of deSade. He is cruel. He is incisive. His sharp comedic knife operates indesciminately on an any subject. He is the worst and best kind of satirical democrat; making fun of everyone, without pity or distinction.

Am I glad I saw the film? Yes.
Did I laugh? Yes.
Will I see Borat II? No.
There are things--certain secret stolen dirty pleasures--you only want to experience once in a lifetime.

Will I see him any other kind of film? Yes. He is that talented.

Think Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, and--before them all--Jonathan Winters; Cohen is their legatee; in the right vehicle he could join their list as another great physical actor/comedian.

He's got the bucks now. He's got the fame. Now let's see if he's got the 'balls' move up in class.

Film Review: "the Holiday"

Many years ago, I was working on as an actor on a film with the great writer-director Billy Wilder ("Some Like it Hot", "The Apartment", "Sunset Boulevard", etc). As we were walking from the set of the filming of "The Fortune Cookie" to lunch at the cafeteria at Goldwyn studios, Billy was shaking his head. Someone has just disparaged the biblical work of Cecil B. DeMille ("Ben Hur", in particular); saying that his films were thematically simple, almost to the point of simplistic: "Anyone could do those films." Billy had let the critic's remark pass (a rare occurance with his rapier wit); but on the way to the cafeteria, he said to me emphatically: "No. Only DeMille could do those films brilliantly. Because he believed in those stories. If someone like me did them, I'd screw them up. I'd inject, cynicism, reality, comedy. You can only do your best work about what you believe in."

"the Holiday", a tale of two love stories, seems to be made by experienced filmmakers (writer/director Nancy Myers, and stars Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Jack Black) who, try as they might, don't believe in the theme of the story: they can't just easily relax into the simple concept of true romance, in the deepest boy-meet-girl sweetness, in the overwhelming innocence of love. Instead they are trying like hell to achieve a Capra-esque love story for the Christmas (sorry, Happy) holidays, and work too hard to manifest the simple love theme. And it shows.

The story: two women, one a fast paced LA film-trailer company owner (Diaz), the other, a book-publishing employee (Winslet), have both been pained/betrayed by rotten men in their lives. (This is not a unique theme in modern 'chick-flicks' seems to strike a chord in contemporary, middle class, successful, unban women!!) They seek an escape from these men; in fact, both want to be careful with all men for a while; and, via the Internet, they house-trade for 'the Holidays': Diaz goes to Winslet's snowy isolated house in Surrey; Winslet to Diaz's upscale Brentwood/Pacific Palisades/Malibu house in LA. (where 'mystical'--I kid you not!--Santa-Ana winds are raging! Winslet, beware!) They meet the new men in their lives: Diaz meets Jude Law, the bother of Winslet, a book editor widower raising two girls, and Winslet in LA meets Jack Black who is a musical writer-scorer for films, a colleague of Diaz. Cute-meets abound (cutest of all is Winslet's meeting with Eli Wallach as a nearby neighbor, an very old but Jewish witty/wise screenwriter who finds new/old glory through accepting an invitation to a Writer's Guild gala in his honor; due to Winslett's encouragement, of course...high caloric stuff).

The resultant film pushes all the buttons...but the buzzers don't work. The electricity is off. No one is at home.

Certainly not the actors. Diaz, Law, Black, Winslet are fine the right material/roles they are sometimes stellar (all right, to be honest: I really don't understand the seemingly overwhelming appeal of Winslet in anything! But that is another story.) Law tries his Cary Grant imitaion (and he makes me pine for Tony Curtis's Grant-immitation in "Some Like it Hot"). Moreover, his attempted sweet sex-appeal doesn't work either--Tom Hanks he is not. Diaz is hysterical or over-reactive as an actress throughout, 'playing-the-problem-and-not-the -solution' in her performance (actors will particularly understand that condemnation) and her annoying sqeaky voice is just one sign of her failure. Black (a sometimes brilliant comedian) looks like he wishes that he were in another film (I do, too! In fact, his eyes are always somewhere else; probably at his agent's office strangling the man or woman agent for trying to turn him into a high priced leading man!), and Winslet...she continues to ge a 'forehead' actress. (The constant furrowing of her brow indicates how difficult her character's life is...get it?)

Needless to say (and I'll say it anyway): I didn't like the film. At 2 hours and 10 minutes it is endless...and endlessly silly. I have a question however, and if anyone who reads this review and sees the film in spite of it: I wish they would e-mail me an answer: why in the great coming together love/sex scene (later than their initial 'hook-up' scene) between Law and Diaz, as they lie in the bed, in a medium shot, side by side, he and she seemingly otherwise naked, sheet modestly covering their mid-sections, spent with pleasurable exhaustion, on their back, Diaz is still wearing her bra? Isn't that generally the first piece of clothing to go?! Or am I hopelessly old-fashioned!

Film Review: "Rocky Balboa"

All right, condemn me. Call me an aging pushover for nice; a baby-boomer-chauvinist. Addicted to 'uplift'; a sucker for (stories about) losers, characters who pay the price, turn it around and finally win.

I admit it; willingly.

I smile at babies.
I watch sunsets.
I sing the 'Star Spangled Banner' loudly and proudly at ballgames.
I believe in Apple pie, Motherhood and the USA.
I liked "Rocky Balboa".

Sylvester Stallone (writer, director, star) pushed all the right buttons.

Father and Son estranged, but coming back together again.
A faithful employee dumped by an uncaring boss; but finding redemption in an old relationship.
A widower who can't get over the loss of a wife--and fights (literally) to free himself of the rage engendered by (her) death's injustice.
New love.

Not since the original "Rocky" has Rocky been so victorious (forget the other sequels)...

"Rocky Balboa" uses its old formulas...including the time proven one of self-disparagement and laughing at oneself--nobody onscreen does that better than Rocky (he knows he's a little foolish; and laughs with you at himself)...but this one works wonderfully well.

Story of film: an aged (60+) ex-champion, who has recently lost his wife; contacted by the present champion who needs a "popular" fight to garner respect; the fighters prepare, character stories intertwine; the old and new champions fight; the blood flows; the ex-champion proves that 'old' ain't 'dead', the ghost of the wife is silenced or at least quieted from rage to acceptance; the champ earns popularity, and all live happily (or at least, 'feel-good' for a while) ever after.

If you're a committed cynic, too worldly for hope--who refuses to put sweetener in their coffee because they like it bitter--who refuse to expose their depression to 'nice' and uplift--who refuse to replace their delusions of negativity with delusions of possibility--forget "Rocky Balboa".

But if you'd like a little common-person-overcomes-adversity in your life, see Stallone's film.

Stallone has not survived all these years as a pop-cultural icon (Rocky and Rambo) for no reason. He's created two of the film culture's (like it or not) most memorable (READ: $$$-making) characters; yet, in spite of that, yet has been the target for cynics and cine-aesthetes for thirty years. He's had his work humiliated, criticised, laughed at, disparaged (...and some of the time justifiably)--but with this film he has done it (succeeded admirably) again, climbed to the top of the pop icon mountain. In "Rocky Balboa" he's touched the simple but true heart of America...or, at least, my American heart. I smiled and was happy all the way through watching it. Since when is 'warm feelings' a bad reason for moviegoing.

Friday, December 22, 2006


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Film(s) Review: "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima"

War is hell.
Death is sad.
Pain is horrific.
People are terrible.
Life is short.
I need more.

"Flags of our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" are two war movies, two complementary looks at a battle seen respectively from US and Japanese points of view, focusing on one of the great island-hopping-warfare battles of WWII, Iwo Jima. One ("Flags") is told in English; the other in Japanese (with English sub-titles).

The landing and the attack on the Japanese held and cave-fortified black sands of Iwo Jima was, as the film presents, a tale of wartime carnage on both sides (I saw the original Marine footage of the landing and battle at Quantico Marine film library many year ago, and the death and destruction of the battle I saw in official Marine footage was as horrific in the staged scenes of the Spielberg/Eastwood movie. I say Spielberg/Eastwood movie because while the former produced it and the second directed it, both films bear more Spielbergian than Eastwoodian sensibilities, if I can coin the phrases.

The films (or rather, the one LONG two-part film) are well mounted, beautifully filmed, but they are poor in narrative and concepual effort.

The whole filmic venture is under dramatized (explosions and deaths do not necessarily equal drama). While the film's expository conceits are interesting and imaginative (the one follows the story of the men who raised the victory flag on Iwo and their subsequent soldier-lives as hero-pitchmen back in the States selling war bonds), and the other story arcs from the letters from the prinipal Japanese general in charge of the defense of Iwo to his loved ones back home, the film(s) offers too many simplistic opinions about soldiering, fighting and commanding troops in WWII and, by extension, all wars. There are not enough dramatically developed moral dilemmas confronted in the battle/war by the characters (an Native American private who was one of the flag-raisers constantly called 'Chief' by his military and civilian bosses and yet has to raise money for the war effort IS a sort of moral dilemma for that character, true; and the dilemma about who was really in the iconic photo of the flag being raised over the island--there were two flag-raising, one actual, and one follow-up--is also a quandary leading to moral concerns), but the complexion of these moral questions are sophomorically developed and predictably portrayed as 'good-guys-are-us-and-bad-guys-are-them' dilemma, not in a manner equal to the demands of memorable drama.

Moreover, I found it hard to connect emotionally and deeply with any of the characters. It should have been easy; young innocent men in battle is rich with emotionally connective possibilities--SEE almost any other war film--but this film failed to move me. In fact I was moved most by the scene of a death of a horse--a bad sign. This lack of emotional character identification signified for me that the characters that were not fully fleshed out, but symbols, attitudes/cardboard cutouts of the author's, director's and producer's anti-war message.

The film reminded me of "The Passion of Christ" and its incessant flagellation scenes--but without Christ--and most imporantly, without Christ's resurrection (to be honest, Mel barely got the mythically uplifting resurrection scene, the scene underscoring Christ's pain's purpose, into his film.) To be further honest: Mel seemed to have tacked-on resurrection scene; it looked like it was shot after the movie was finished, and failed thereby as anything other than a narrative anti-climax! Did the distributor's want a happy ending, Mel?

Spielberg's/Eastwood's downbeat nature in this film is very au current...which is also always a problem for me. May I ask: What is it nowadays: with everybody (at least in films) believing that life is pain, and most relationships and events are ultimately unrewarding? Is life nothing less than a series of unrelenting tragedies without meaning, pathetic at best, bathetic at worst? Film characters these days seem so depressed, so filled with the pain and despair, caught up deterministically in their inevitable victimization, that I get bored. Is Ralph Finnes destined to play all the roles? Have we in 2006 never gotten out of the children stage: "Mommy and Daddy don't love me! Life is meaningless!"

If, as they say, art is 'a mirror to nature', are we as a society, an epoch, so starkly in the suicide-stage of adolescence (read Goethe's "Sorrows of Werther"), that uplifting, heroic adult-visioned drama is left forfeited ironically to Disney and its clones?...Perhaps that is that the poetic justice of Hollywood playing to a teen-age market? Life is nothing more than a series of tragic 'zits' on poor society's face? Are we as a nation so run out of hope, not to mention complexity, responsibility, love, purpose and passion, that we are left with nothing but despair? Have we finally developed a tolerance to Prozac?

Film--as an art--as opposed to its reportage and informational tasks--is not merely to report the truth even when it it depressing. It's purpose as art is to give that even depressing life meaning (by meaning I mean a sense of life's purpose. And even if in the end result there is no purpose, LIE TO ME! Find me a meaning when there is none. That's why they tell funny, uplifting stories about the deceased at funerals and laugh at Irish wakes! Even in the face of inevitable death, life--for those of us remaining--must go on!)

I don't want to see the pain of childbirth without the celebration of new life. I don't want to be made to pay for the coat of life without ever being allowed the chance to wear it. Purpose--in this film's analogy--achieved without pain may be Pollyana-ish; but pain without purpose is sadistic/masochistic and/or even worse, a waste of an audience's good time. I want Good Friday with Easter. (Let's be honest: If Christ's passion had been only pain and persecution, death without resurrection, that story would have died at history's box office long ago. Millions of adherents would have scurried after some other personage--and story--to give personal uplift to their all-too-personal-and-real tales of human sacrifice.) the makers of "Flag of Our Fathers' and "Letters from Iwo Jima": Don't show me the carnage of Iwo Jima without telling me, at least a little, bit about the horrors of the earlier Pearl Harbor attack. and (implicitly if not explicitly) conjecture about or hint at the potential fate of the rest of the Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals still left in the world at the time of Iwo--humans whose brethren had already gone up in smoke (Auschwitz, et. Al.)--if Iwo Jima and the island-hopping march to Tokyo (and Berlin) had failed?

'War is only pain without positive payoff'? Nonsense. Come on...didn't anyone ever hear of "a just and necessary war". And there is necessary and sometimes unavoidable carnage in human life. All wars are not Viet Nam and Iraq. (Spielberg seems to wants to use WWII to soap-box on Viet Nam. SEE "Saving Private Ryan")You think today we'd still be talking about the Holocaust, defending Israel (Israel? You mean German-held Palestine?), debating gay marriage and celebrating gypsy weddings if there was no purposeful glory in the spilled guts of WWII?

The purpose of any war film (unless it is merely exploitative--READ $$$--and/or propagandistic...or fulfilling the fantasy of a depressed studio exec) is to find and reveal the sometime human dignity amidst the war's costs. Show me the perveived or real value contained in death and pain as well as the costs attendant by that painful engagment. Be a true artist--and be personally honest: A true accounting of war demands a fair showing of both sides--positive and negative--valuable and futile--of war's--and in life's--equation.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Film Review: "For Your Consideration"

It opened--and rightfully closed-a while ago. The film is a spoof of actors and their Academy Award hysteria. That is promising premise; and the film assembles an accomplished cast of talented farceur actors; but...the film is ultimately an in-joke'--so 'in', it implodes. All is leaves is a black hole in comedy. Sad...Christopher Guest, the director and co-writer, is generally a funny man. It is probably the shortest film of the year. I counted an hour, twenty minutes. It felt a lot longer.

"And the envelope, please..." Empty.

Film Review: "Notes on a Scandal"

Judy Dench AND Cate Blanchett...what an irresitable combination...merely two of the finest actresses working in the English language today, teamed in a smart, well made uptown ultimate 'chick flick'! (Don't believe the tripe about Cate Blanchett being a 'Supporting Actor'. She stars with the magnitude of Dench.) Go see it.

Why is it an 'ultimate' chick-flick? It's about two old(er) women moving down (way down) in age as they reach for love affairs: Cate Blanchett, as a young-to-middle-aged teacher having a torrid sex-affair with her 15 year old student, and Judy Dench as a fellow teacher, a yearning, psychologically obsessed older woman using the guise of friendship to fulfill her lesbian desires for Ms. Blanchett...or on any younger woman, as we find out at the end!

The stuff of soaps? Here, no. The film and its premise are in the hands of tasteful filmmakers (director Richard Eyre and adapting-screenwriter Patricia Marber). It is tasteful, erotic without being cheap; and ,while a bit melodramatic in the second half--that excess is only marginally disappointing in contrast with itself, because the first half is so fine, so exquisitely easy, wise and understated.

Ah, the English. If any of you readers haven't guessed it by now, I am an Anglophobe--England, to me, is the greatest civilizing nation of the past 500 years. And in shows in their treatment of film themes today that might be melodramatic is lesser (the rest of the world's) hands.

See the film. Stiff-upper-lips-facing-passion turns me on, what can I say.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Film Review: "The Pursuit of Happyness"

All pursuit, no 'happy'.

The performances of Will Smith and the boy are great; the writer of the musical score should be killed with darts of saccharine; the writer of the script choked on sugar cane.

Sorry. The film's heart was in the right place. But...

Movie Review: "The Lives of Others"

This German film is likely to be one of the finalists for "Best Foreign Language Film". It deserves to be. Is it a great film? No. Does it aspire for greatness? Yes. And because of that it is a great viewing experience...and makes it worth sitting through its two hours of sub-titles.

It poses a moral dilemma --something any film, as a work of art, should do--something humanly complex; a question that is enduring, profoundly true. Greatness does not not pander to your convictions, but makes your examine them. And in so doing, enables you to strengthen them.

"The Lives of Others" is the story of an idealist enmeshed in a corrupt system; the dilemma of an individual maintaining ideals, core beliefs, and loyalty to a cause when that cause is corrupt, and worse, is being corrupted by compatriots and even worse, by leaders. How does one remain loyal to one's family when the heads of one's family are perverting the very moral basis of family life? (The echoes of Iraq, Vietnam--as well as the dilemma of the 'good German soldier' fighting for Nazi Germany in WWII-- resound in this film. It asks the question--and poses possible answers: how does a person hold onto his convictions and beliefs when those convictions and beliefs are being used for limited and personal gain by their leaders? How long and how far can a man look the other way without twisting and breaking his own moral neck?)

The central figure in the film is a member of the East German secret police, the STASI, before the fall of the 'Wall', a State interrogator who believes so valiantly in the rightness of his side, that he is willing to push the limits of physical surveillance and psychological interrogation to destroy those fighting against his and his political family's 'noble' cause; in this case, East Germany and Communism.

Enter the moral dilemma. He is asked by a party boss to use his surveillance and interrogation expertise to further the boss's sexual desires: to indict an innocent, State-obedient 'good man' not because the man is a danger to the State, but solely because he is the boyfriend of some sexually desirable woman: and the boss feels the banishment and imprisonment of the man-as-rival would enhance the boss's sexual life.

Thus, the film's moral dilemma: Can--and should--the central chararacter, as an idealist, use his knowledge and pervert his convictions for cynical ends...and even and especially when his political/career/future is at stake? And if he takes the high road, how does he escape discovery, condemnation and personal destruction.

The film is plotted well; it has wonderful twists and turns. Sometimes it bends a little too 'conveniently', true--there are more than a few obvious plot contrivances--but the characters and the theme (and the acting) are so engrossing that I forgave these shortfalls. The film reaches for a deeper, fuller and more complex understanding of human nature: and, after all...what is a person's--not to mention a whole film's reach for--but to exceed its grasp.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

An acting thought: On "Small talk"

Small talk often hides big talk.

Writer's (and character's) often use minimum text (abjuring complex dialogue) as a way for the character to avoid (hide, deny) deep feelings. The paradigm is mid-westerners, Texans and Scandinavians. The use of straightforward declarative sentences (even more minimally: "Yup", "Nope", "Maybe", "Uh-huh") hides deep currents under their 'still waters'.

In acting terms, their text is dramatic opposition to sub-text.

Film Review: "Venus"

My neighbor George Bane said he had seen "Venus" the night before and said: "Peter O'Toole gave a very brave performance."

I didn't know what he meant until I saw it.

Peter O'Toole was/is one the greatest film actors of the latter half of the 20th Century: "Lawrence of Arabia", "Lion in Winter", "Becket"--these are only a very few of his brilliant performances. But once I saw "Venus" I knew exactly what my neighbor meant. In "Venus" O'Toole (now in his 70s, 80's?) plays an aging (but still active ) working actor who falls in lust/love with a very, very young woman/girl...very, very young woman/girl...and is willing to reveal in his performance that he is old, and that his aged body is desperately and often sadly in need of the regenerative juice that contact with a young woman provides. This revelation of deep human truth (age and need) is brave for O'Toole--anyone for that matter-- to admit; and to reveal it as fully as O'Toole reveals it in his performance is a towering and memorable act of self-discovery, confession and bravery. ("Dirty old man" is a cliche because it is so true. After all, what is a cliche but a truth that is so well known that we get bored by it. But Peter O'Toole takes the 'dirty old man' cliche, and expands upon it, deepens it, lives it at such a vibrant and intense and subtle level that he lifts this worn cliche to a work of art. He is diabolical, candid, poignant, sad, tragic, original, comic, masterful, all at the same time...and thereby becomes an old man for all time.)

The film is filled with other wonderful performances including Jodie Whittaker as 'the young girl', (attractive without being glamorous, sexy without being 'in your face' about it, carrying a young body thankfully not too sculpted by too many gym visits), Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths as two old men-friends of O'Toole's, and finally, especially and forever, Vanessa Redgrave, who plays O'Toole's formerly abandoned ex-wife-but-now-aging-friend-and-eventual-lover, a reminder that great performances is always a matter of talent and not role-size. She and O'Toole together remind me of Olivier and Hepburn in "Love Among the Ruins", beautiful and elegant; lovers for the ages.

The film itself is not great; the story is often predictable, slow and sometimes plodding. But don't miss it: Truth, like museums, needs never be rushed. Greatness lives in its own time dimension, and the span of events and information between youth and age is arbitrary and fleeting, relative and absolute at the same time...and ultimately outside the purview of linear judgment. To watch O'Toole is proof that great acting is never locked into it's own time period, in fact, that is the very core of immortality, like truth, it is beyond while simultaneously embracing, all time.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

'Tis the Season to be Bleary-Eyed...Watching Films!'

Beware the flood. They arrive daily at our houses by Fed-X and UPS! The Academy (Awards) screener of most of the 2006 films. The Academy knows the truth: the holidays provide free-time for us Academy members--at least freer time than the rest of the year--to watch the literally hundreds of eligible films hoping to be nominated by 5000 or so members...and, if we like them, and vote for them, the producers can increase their 2007 coffers ($$$$) by being able to announce in the ads: "...Nominated for an Academy Award"...or even better..."Academy Award Winner!" So I and the other 5000 members will be watching 2006 films in the theaters and in our studies for the next few weeks...and my blog will reflect that fact: I will have little time to write cogent comments on acting...unless the acting is in one of these films. I be primarily writings comments and reviews of the films I will see (full disclosure: I will not--nor can I assume most others will not--see ALL the films. We do--and must--have a life apart from seeing films! Partners, children, work, sleep demand it. However, be assured: statistical truth will out: enough of us will see enough films, so that, spread out over 5000 responsible members/voters...Justice will be done. The good films will rise to the surface; the bad ones will suffer their deserved fate. As the saying goes..."You can fool some of the people all the time; all of the people some of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all the time."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Character Arc

(Personal Note: Sorry for my 'blog'-absence...been on the road!)

While on the road, a student in a seminar asked me concerning a scene I had handed out to her "...what was her 'character arc'?" I asked her what her understanding of that term was. She responded: "...the through-line of the character". When I asked her what that meant, she said she really didn't know.

[NOTE: Acting jargon, while sometimes true and logical, is often a dangerous thing. It is often like quoting 'sound-bites' in a political discussion: the facile/cuteness of the expression often hides or obfuscates meaning more than it reveals it.]

A character's arc is the inner emotional trajectory a character follows as they move through the vicissitudes of the plot toward goal. It is the path of inner revealed character truth. It is the increasing revelation of a character's personality as they deal with the events of the story; it is sometimes referred to as character development, or the character's developmental journey toward self-illumination and self-discovery--actualized as the character partakes in and reacts to the actions of the piece.

Note that by the use of the term 'character arc' and not 'character through-line': the path to inner discovery to is not a straight affair. It is a curved trajectory. It moves to its final point of self-discovery indirectly; in a bend-able-fashion, if you will.

Therefore, character's arc bends in the inner progress of a character's revealed emotional life--and assumes that the character will almost exclusively wind up at an unexpected emotional place from where the character first aimed, assumed and anticipated.

The audience becomes privy to that ever progressing developmental 'arc'--what one actress calls the "peeling of the character's 'onion' layer by layer"--by observing the way the actor-as-character lives/feels moment-to-moment, event-by-event as the character progresses from point 'a' of plot-and-personality to point 'b' of plot-and-personality, to point 'c', etc; and the character arrives at the revealed end of the journey. The 'onion' heart is layed bare, and the
final moment of inner emotional self-discovery and self-recognition occurs.