Saturday, October 13, 2018

Nosh 127: 'A Star is Born' and 'Pick of the Litter'

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.


APPETIZER: Reviews of A Star is Born and Pick of the Litter. 



A Star is Born
As vapors of serialized show-biz nostalgia rise like incense from the new A Star is Born, here are impious reminders from the queen of take-no-crap criticism, Pauline Kael. On the first Star birth (1937, William Wellman directing Janet Gaynor and Fredric March): “peculiarly masochistic and self-congratulatory.” On the second (1954, George Cukor directing Judy Garland and James Mason): “a terrible, fascinating orgy of self-pity and cynicism and mythmaking.” On the third (1976, Frank Pierson directing Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson): “sentimental without being convincing for an instant (but you can) swoon and weep, and giggle, too.”

All true, yet we rush into the palpitating arms of No. 4, directed by Bradley Cooper to showcase Lady Gaga and himself. La Gaga is not another Esther Blodgett or Vicki Lester or Esther Hoffman, but a pure concentration of workin’ gal named Ally (the crown of her stardom is a Sunset Blvd. billboard, with only her face and “Ally”). She is weirdly naïve about her talent, despite many drag queens gawking blissfully as she slams across her jolting version of Edith Piaf’s “La vie en rose” in a drag club. Country-rock stud Jackson Maine (Cooper) is also awed, and soon charms her into singing at one of his massive concerts. Their love blazes, her shyness shrinks, and Cooper’s ruggedly pleasant singing is swamped by the rising tsunami of Ally’s mega-Gaga voice.

Mostly indebted to Streisand’s version, also to Bette Midler’s The Rose, the movie is formula kitsch but a great podium for Lady Gaga. Nurtured along by Cooper in her dramatic breakout, she is small, girlish but tough, an instinctive feminist. Ally’s street-cred passion is affirmed by Andrew Dice Clay playing her dad (oddly, one of his chums looks like Steve Bannon). Gaga uses her dialog as if shaping lyrics, sifting moods, letting emotions percolate before breaking forth in song. She radiates a beguiling directness, her big eyes taking in the carnival of her rise. The romance is fairly hot but stuck in cliché, in the familiar corn patch of an “ugly duckling” who swans to glory, like Streisand (Funny Girl ) and, briefly, Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing).

Meanwhile Cooper (acting, directing, producing, co-writing, but no Orson Welles) sinks in the sudsy quicksand of Jackson’s decline (booze, pills, coke, steroid injections, loss of hearing, broken family). He is no rival to James Mason’s superb Norman Maine in 1954. Mason remains the main Maine man, blessedly without the urination scene that humiliates Jackson on stage. The best male acting this time is by Sam Elliott, who may get a supporting Oscar bid for fiercely playing Jackson’s manager/older brother. The junkiest touch is a viperish British handler, Rez (Rafi Gavron), who takes control of Ally’s image and recordings. The story suffers once she turns to orange hair and Vegasoidal, pop-video crooning.

More than veteran dazzlers Garland and Streisand, Lady Gaga seems ready for this, still hungry, as if she doesn’t guess the predictable ending (Jackson won’t go into the sea at sunset like James Mason, but gets a garage sendoff that features maudlin shots of his dog). This movie is a rebuilt show-biz limo with some busted springs, but the Gaga octane is fired-up to deliver. She does.



Pick of the Litter
Stars are born in Pick of the Litter. In fact, five. They start as puppies at the California kennel of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Soon the three males are named Patriot, Potomac and Phil, the two females Primrose and Poppet, each one a Labrador darling (those names reveal not what William F. Buckley once called “a suicidal urge to alliteration,” but that they all came from the P litter). From total puppiness they move through a multi-stage program, beginning with early socialization at the facility. For about 18 months each lives with a family that provides basic training. Return to the center brings advanced lessons until the best in sure guidance and life-saving protection are chosen (every critter will find a home, with a few females kept for breeding at the center).

From every 800 candidates about 300 become “seeing eye” dogs. This frisky but methodical documentary, directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy Jr., has movingly intimate observations of dogs and people, all admirable. When one pooch flunks his last test (the approved jargon is “career-changed”), the downer leads to one of the most joyous encounters since Lassie came home. It’s a bit jarring when a blind woman, nervous about meeting her new companion, talks of their “blind date.” If you tend to tear-up by gazing into dark doggie eyes, this picture can really lube your ducts. The magical touch is that everyone seems just about equally canine and human. Pick is a warm and informative valentine to the beauty of inter-species bonding, a sustained lesson in love.     

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Always deeply experimental, Welles let the bones of audacity show nakedly in his small-budget, Scottish-brogued 1948 movie of Macbeth: “It was not supposed to look like Olivier’s Hamlet (same year). Orson eschewed the polished, classical approach to Shakespeare epitomized by Olivier in favor of the strangeness (of) his Lady from Shanghai. The controversial barbarism of this Macbeth reflected both the severely limited means at his disposal and the determination to view the classic play from a new angle. Orson had never intended it for a mass audience anyway.” (From Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles. The moody film has since found a fan base.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Time’s hinge-swing into the 1960s was thrilling and unrepeatable, yet La Dolce Vita has become no relic, no crater of dusty clippings. It has, wrote Robert Hughes, ‘a special place in film history which no Italian painting of the period can conceivably rival, and no Italian movie made in the foreseeable future is likely to equal.” (Hughes, the great art critic who died in 2012, never got to see the film’s worthy heir, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty in 2013. Quote from the Marcello Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.



Orson Welles displays his Big Mac glower in Macbeth (Mercury/Republic Pictures, 1948; director Orson Welles, cinematographer John L. Russell).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Nosh 126: 'Fahrenheit 11/9', 'The Wife' & More

By David Elliott
    
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
Note: Nosh 127 will post on Friday, October 12.

APPETIZER: Reviews of Fahrenheit 11/9 and The Wife



Fahrenheit 11/9
In his latest political documentary, Michael Moore ramps his often impish ire into a new fury of indignation and prophetic alarm (he was one of the few savants to predict Trump’s election). In 11/9 – the date in 2016 when, at 2:29 a.m., TV declared Donald Trump our  next president – Moore piles on many urgent themes. Always a wizard at putting film clips together, he opens with Hillary Democrats deflating like popped balloons, then all the Trumps emerging dazed, like deer from planet Plutocrat. “Never did a group of people,” Moore observes, “look so sad to win the presidency.”

George W. Bush made Moore angry and depressed. Trump makes him furious and heartsick. Film’s maverick muckraker has, at 64, been carrying large weight a long time, and has endured too many lost causes. His skin now sags, he walks more slowly, but he is still a fearless bloodhound of the populist Left. Depend on him to note that Trump, sleazy real estate hustler and host of The Celebrity Apprentice, only moved into politics when NBC offered Gwen (The Voice) Stefani more money than himself. So Don descended the faux-gold escalator at Trump Tower, smashed the midget mob of “real” Republican candidates, enjoyed surreal boosts from James Comey and Vladimir Putin, and won an upset that dwarfs even Truman in 1948. Moore tries to be amused, and can be amusing (like showing us the “official” wax figure of President Trump being made). He also relies on weary schtick, like trying to ambush Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. But the laughs drown in a tide of nausea.

Born in Flint, Michigan, Moore returns to his broken town and is understandably merciless to Snyder, who shifted the town’s water source to a virtual sewer in a privatized profit grab (thousands of kids suffer lead poisoning). It’s fair game to show the off-his-game President Obama coming to Flint and staging a photo-op stunt that upset his citizen fans. But proportion is not Moore’s métier. He blames Obama for a loud Army exercise in a run-down part of Flint, as if the president keeps tab on every military drill (meanwhile, no mention of Trump wagging the nuclear finger at North Korea). Still carrying a Bernie torch, despite later backing Clinton, Moore is angry that Sanders carried the West Virginia primary (no mention of the many Republican cross-overs to hurt Clinton), then narrowly lost the state’s convention vote months later. His denunciation of “super-delegates” as an elitist sham ignores the facts that Clinton had a large. solid plurality of elected delegates from the primaries and won 34 states on the first ballot to Sanders's 15 (one tie).

To go from such granular griping to breathless comparisons of Trump’s rise to Adolf Hitler’s is a jarring leap, glibly ignoring that Germany (1931 to 1933) was massively different from the U.S. (2016 to 2018). Hitler was an evil demagogue with mad-genius instincts. Trump is a klepto-crook and gas balloon, going down like a slow-motion Hindenburg. Moore is right that we face a true crisis of democracy. I just wish this deeply caring, gutsy man had a focal lens with more depth-of-field.



The Wife
Her clipped hair tight above a face like weathered granite, her pale eyes absorbing everything, Glenn Close in The Wife looks like a less bulky update on Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. Whatever you think of Stein’s writing, she made a great name. The trouble for Joan (Close) is that she is a good writer without her own name. She’s The Wife of Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), whose novels, given nuance and power by Joan’s covert skills, bring him the 1992 Nobel for Literature. The film is like Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s quirky treatment of kitsch “artist” Walter Keane and his long-ignored, secretly painting wife Eleanor, hoping to morph into Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing Scenes From a Marriage.

Jane Anderson’s adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel is a  pressure kettle made solemn by Swedish director Björn Runge’s staging of Nobel ceremonies in cold, beautiful Stockholm. As Joe creaks and grumps, Joan (even their names merge) simmers in his wake. Flashbacks show us 1950s Joan (appealing Annie Starke), a shy lass falling for Joe, a sexy, married lit-prof who pontificates about writers (always “he”) to his students (all female) at Smith College. After an angry, jaded graduate (Elizabeth McGovern) tells Joan not to bother seriously writing in a world run by piggy-men publishers, she ducks into being the second Mrs. Castleman. An idea man, yet lacking literary subtleties, Joe lets her secretly enrich his sketchy outlines. His guilt is swallowed by rising fame. Her bitterness is baked into faithful service, neglecting their kids and grimly accepting Joe’s affairs.

All through ‘60s feminism and long beyond, Joan suffers. Right up to the Nobel honors where, prompted by Joe’s latest, limpest infidelity, and by the snake-tongued insinuations of a conniving biographer (Christian Slater), she erupts. But not with the thrilling ballistics of Close’s vengeful Alex in Fatal Attraction. The story drags out drama while itemizing damage. Most victimized is the grown son (Max Irons), whom Joe offers “the ‘cheap shit’ wine.” We sense that Joan, nailed into comforts and prestige, won’t go public with their devil’s deal  (exposure might bury them both). Once so promising, yet terribly uncertain, she betrayed her talent by sub-letting it. The movie has credible acting and some Swedish swank, but the often predictable set-ups never risk a liberating combustion. Like Joe The Wife has ideas, and too much of Joan’s watchful, meditative submergence.      

SALAD (List)
12 Important Political Documentaries
In their order of arrival:
1. Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl 1936)*, 2. The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophuls 1969), 3. Harlan County USA (Barbara Kopple 1976), 4. The Memory of Justice (Marcel (Ophuls 1976), 5. The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein 1984), 6. The War Room (Hagedus/Pennebaker 1993), 7. The Agronomist (Jonathan Demme 2003), 8. Shake Hands With the Devil (Peter Raymont 2004), 9. Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore 2004), 10. The Corporation (Achbar/Simpson 2004), 11. A Film Unfinished (Yael Hersonski 2010) and 12. Best of Enemies (Gordon/Neville, 2015). (*Although Triumph is more propaganda than documentary, it captures the mad Hitler hypnosis like nothing else.)

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
The dynamism of the Welles vision is caught in the words of Gary Graver, his late-era chum and collaborator: “While in high school, Graver saw his first Welles film, Touch of Evil, and was ‘blown away by the moving camera, the weird angles, the shadows, the choreography, everything. I love how there’s an empty picture and the camera is still and a guy rushes in and says ‘Look over here, fellas,’ then as the actor moves the camera moves with him. Welles would have people walk in from behind the camera – I’d never seen that before.” The “look over here” moment echoes one in the newsroom in Citizen Kane. (Quote from Joseph McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
La Dolce Vita hurled Rome’s pesty paparazzi into view. The chief inspiration was Tazio Secchiaroli, “who used intrusive new lenses, tricked rivals, baited celebrities, even hid in a box to snap Ava Gardner bathing. He caught the impromptu striptease ‘scandal’ on Nov. 5. 1958, of aspiring actress Aiché Nana at a Trastevere restaurant, the upscale witnesses including Anita Ekberg and Ingrid Bergman, with male oglers putting jackets on the ground for her to writhe on. Tazio called it ‘the most sinful transgression I have ever photographed.” (From the Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.



Paparazzi swarm Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita (Cineriz, 1960; director Federico Fellini, cinematographer Otello Martelli).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Nosh 125: 'White Boy Rick,' 'Active Measures' & More

By David Elliott
    
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews of White Boy Rick and Active Measures



White Boy Rick
Like Anthony Drazan’s wonderful Zebrahead (1992), White Boy Rick is set in a rotting Detroit and also centers on a white teen, his father, and the black urban life that the boy envies, fears and mimics. But Zebrahead has a poetry that elevates some generic clichés. Rick is a rough scramble of visceral scenes rather loosely based on real people, heavily salted with derivations (Scorsese, Spike Lee, etc.) and fewer Tarantino pops than the trailer may have led you to expect.

French director Yann Demange repeats some of the raw dynamism of his British debut film, ’71, while attempting a caring family story inside a caustic crime story. He shows how in the early ’80s Richard Wershe Jr. (first-time film actor Richie Merritt) buys into the gun-selling racket of his frantic father Richard (Matthew McConaughey), a grifter whose  absurd excuse for not moving the family out of war-zoned Detroit is “a lion don’t leave the Serengeti.” That leaves Rick, when the “dream” backfires, among the prey. Hating his white-trashy prospects, he joins the black gang of a rising thug, Johnny, becoming White Boy Rick as a gofer and mascot. He makes a “wow” trip to Vegas, and survives near-death in an ambush to become a drug-dealing, covert tool of the FBI (represented as totally ruthless – quite an image gift today, with the Bureau under fierce attack).

The three scripters evidently cleaned up Richard Sr. somewhat, without doing McConaughey any major favors (among the least: goo-goo baby scenes). Richard remains a hapless dad and sleazeball, often sidelined as newcomer Merritt carries most of the story (compellingly, if not very charismatic). McConaughey is a generous star, as in his superb work with teen Tye Sheridan in Mud, but daddy Wershe is just a cheesy scrounger, surrounded by actors playing smarter characters, incisively: menacing Jonathan Majors as Johnny, Taylor Paige as Johnny’s sex-trap wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as FBI hard cases, veterans Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as Ricky’s grandparents. As Rick’s sister Dawn, the big-eyed, scene-stealing Bel Powley goes through hell, like Little Miss Detroit on heroin.

The plot is a zoo of zig-zags, many familiar from past movies and TV series. The scene in a Vegas ballroom isn’t bad, but no match for Casino or American Hustle. When Rick-boy gets his big-bling chain necklace, like the top hoods, we get no sense of growth, graduation or anything positive. Basically a pawn, Ricky received a life-long prison term for dope dealing and served 30 years, but in the fade-out scroll he sounds almost as stupid as dear old dad.     




Active Measures
Jack Bryan’s documentary Active Measures nails Donald Trump as a flop casino owner who became a jackpot for Russia, a deep-intel asset cultivated for years and then cashed big-time by the true gambler, Vladimir Putin. A kind of dossier thriller, dense with interviews and clips, it could maybe use fewer prompter bells and graphic whistles. But in its cram-class way, this is a rich rehearsal for the coming report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller (and a rich validation of British intel wizard Christopher Steele).

Round up the usual creeps: Manafort, Flynn, Cohen, the fantasists of Fox News and Russia Today, Moscow oligarchs, many Ukrainians, larval ghost Julian Assange, a swamp of Mafiosi and Deutsche Bank laundro-gnomes. In essence, two monstrous destinies converged. Obama-hater Donald, his neurotic ego marinated by Russian/German “loans,” his high-rises stuffed with crooks and shell companies, decided that vulgar success on Celebrity Apprentice justified his ascent to the White House. In parallel, eventual Hillary-hater Vladimir, a conniver with a KGB epaulet chip of fierce resentment and Soviet nostalgia (“the tragic collapse of our state”), persuaded Russia’s presidential drunk (Boris Yeltsin) to give him power. As the film analyzes chillingly, the wormy master of menace created his new, very own USSR (Union of Servile Slug  Rogues). Is this history, or a sequel to Dr. Strangelove?

The kleptocratic melding of criminal enterprises is fascinating. The most valuable testimony comes from Trump’s and Putin’s opponents, smart insiders not shocked out of their wits (or morals). Viewers who insist on denying the lucid testimonials of John Dean, Michael Isikoff, Jeremy Dash, Hillary Clinton, Toomas Ilves (of Estonia), Michael McFaul, Clint Watts, Eric Swalwell, the late John McCain and many others may be more than lazy students. They may be what Lenin called poleznyye idioti – useful idiots.     .    

SALAD (List)
Twelve Strong Movies Involving Drug Crimes
In order of arrival: Easy Rider (director Dennis Hopper, 1969), The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971),  Panic in Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995), Boogie Nights (P.T. Anderson, 1997), Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000), Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, 2001), Blow (Ted Demme, 2001), City of God (Mereilles/Lund, 2002), No Country for Old Men (Coen Bros., 2007), Inherent Vice (P.T. Anderson, 2014).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Aug. 25 was maestro Leonard Bernstein’s birth centennial. We call upon Orson and his chum Henry Jaglom for a few memories:
OW: “Lenny’s developed this flourish with the baton that he started a couple years ago.”
HJ: “His pinkie is up?”
OW: “Way up all the time. He can’t jump as high anymore. It’s as if he’s announcing to the world that he can still jump, but he doesn’t leave the floor. He used to leave the floor!”
HJ: “I went to a Carnegie Hall concert and it started with Bernstein playing some Chopin. And he started crying in the middle ... He just wept.”
OW: “Yes, he’s very emotional, genuinely.”
HJ: “It made the music stronger, in some way. He’s so theatrical. Does he know?”
OW: “Of course he knew he was going to choke back the tears. He’s a ham.” (From Jaglom’s book My Lunches With Orson.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The fourth star of Funny Face (after Paris, Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire) is Kay Thompson as Maggie, a fashion magazine editor: “Her chief fame pre-FF was in creating Eloise, chubby mischief mascot of the Plaza Hotel, her book antics largely inspired by young Liza Minnelli (Thompson would veto Ivana Trump’s offer to build an Eloise Room at the hotel). Arriving like Mama Eloise on the set, veteran trouper Thompson was not awed by Audrey, Fred or Paramount wardrobe queen Edith Head. She disliked Head and her designs, and loved Givenchy’s raincoat that covered Head’s couture. Maggie is a demento-delight, over the top but a thrilling advance beyond Ginger Rogers as an editor in 1944’s Lady in the Dark.” (From the Audrey Hepburn/Funny Face chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.) 

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.



Editor Maggie (Kay Thompson) flashes fabric in the “Think Pink!” number of Funny Face (Paramount, 1957; director Stanley Donen; cinematographer Ray June).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Nosh 124: 'Woman Walks Ahead,' 'The Bookshop' & More

By David Elliott
    
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews of Woman Walks Ahead and The Bookshop



Woman Walks Ahead
The tote board of American white guilt (mostly male) is lengthening, though it seems likely that All the Trump’s Men and the “white nationalist” rabble will only add some ragged stupidities. The issue of black justice, dragging chains of slavery and Jim Crow, is our supreme haunting. But with Marlon Brando gone only 14 years, and Russell Means just six, let’s not forget the national birth mark of shame: our wretched record for killing, infecting, starving, addicting and corralling on sad reservations the American Indian (or Native American). Numerous movies have dealt with it, to minor effect. The latest decent, earnest one is Susanna White’s history-derived Woman Walks Ahead.
 
Jessica Chastain, maybe the whitest woman to star in movies until Amanda Seyfried arrived, plays Catherine Weldon, a painter recently and happily widowed. In the late 1880s she comes from New York to the Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota to paint a portrait of the retired chief of Little Big Horn fame, Sitting Bull (big, imposing Michael Greyeyes). She is crudely abused by whites, eager for a new “treaty” that will steal over half the natives’s surviving homeland. Sam Rockwell plays a tracker and killer, toxic with racism. Weldon springs back, even learning to ride a white horse given Sitting Bull by Buffalo Bill. The horse’s “dance” is the most elegant, resonating moment in this saga of pathos. As in other Indian Westerns, the beautiful landscapes serve as a rebuke to white conquest, beyond the opaque presentation of Indian lore and rituals.  
  
Chastain and Greyeyes are touchingly credible, although his simple paintings (on hide) are more revealing than her stiff tribute on canvas. There is a nuanced performance by Bill Camp as Gen. George Crook, a fabled “Indian fighter” who admires Sitting Bull and misses the buffalo days. Crook knows the fix is in and more night is coming. The story takes liberties. There was no U.S. Vice President named Buckley, Catherine’s name was really Caroline, and she had a break with Sitting Bull before she left (the movie suggests a wistful Platonic love). Not shown is the awful  Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. Shown, with full implication, is that whites can take the blame for the gret majority of criminal tragedies. Casino gambling is not, of course, adequate compensation.



The Bookshop
Some films are so very British that self-parody looms, subversively. Movies like The Remains of the Day, Tom and Viv, Separate Tables and The Go-Between (Robert Altman had stylish fun with the type in Gosford Park). Add to that clump of crumpets The Bookshop, director Isabel Coixet’s devout adaptation of Penelope Fitgerald’s novel. Emily Mortimer plays Florence, book-loving widow who opens a humble bookstore in an English coastal town in 1959, twilight of the Terence Rattigan stage era and the fubsy but often fab Ealing comedies. The “drama” here is opposition from a devious, soul-frosted moneybags (Patricia Clarkson), who carries on as if gentle Flo had launched a beer hall celebrating Germany’s contribution to the Blitz. The story pitter-pats some literary narration, wistful trees in the breeze, darling kids, sneaky gossips, and a lazy playboy (James Lance) who preens his dry wit like a show dog on a short leash.

Bill Nighy is Brundish, a reclusive squire whom Flo nudges from his shell for parched conversations, delighting him with Ray Bradbury books and Nabokov’s scandalous Lolita. Their friendship attains the demure heat of a lace doily nuzzling a tea cozy. Nighy, perhaps the best aging man in British movies since the senior sprints of Alastair Sim and Ernest Thesiger, infallibly delivers lines like “She (Clarkson) wants a damned art center! As if art could have a center.” Still, even Nighy’s slow-drip suavity can only help The Bookshop turn its pages, while stifling a yawn. Consider a Brexit to the exit.

SALAD (List)
Twelve Ace Female Roles in Westerns
In order of release: Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy, Destry Rides Again (1939); Linda Darnell as Chihuahua, My Darling Clementine (1946); Anne Baxter as ‘Mike,’ Yellow Sky (1949); Geraldine Page as Angie, Hondo (1953); Joan Crawford as Vienna, Johnny Guitar (1954); Gail Russell as Annie, Seven Men From Now (1956); Barbara Stanwyck as Jessica, Forty Guns (1957); Angie Dickinson as Feathers, Rio Bravo (1959); Julie Christie as Constance in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971); Katy Jurado as Mrs. Baker in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973); Amanda Plummer as Annie, Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981); Suzy Amis as Jo, The Ballad of Little Jo (1993), and Annette Bening as Sue, Open Range (2005).  

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
The genius of Orson Welles was never more maverick than in filming his last true Hollywood movie, Touch of Evil in 1957: “His major strategy for maintaining control of the picture was to move out of the studio to quaint Venice, outside Hollywood. Secretly, he intended from the first to remain there until finishing most of the shooting (and often) shot at night. ‘They really didn’t know what was happening,’ Janet Leigh said of the studio … (and he was always) rewriting the script. When everyone else was asleep, Orson seemed always to be working on it. Assistant director Terry Nelson: ‘He assumed absolute creative control by rewriting constantly so that nobody really had a firm fix on all the requirements except Welles.” (From Barbara Leaming’s fascinating Orson Welles: A Biography.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The frequent scene-topper in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is Walter Huston’s veteran prospector, Howard. Unforgettably “the old boy breaks into a guffawing dance. Huston had learned it from Eugene O’Neill, and Tommy Lee Jones does a fair approximation of it in 2014’s The Homesman. Viewing the film on TV years later, John Huston again savored his dad’s dance: ‘The goose flesh comes out and my hair stands up.” (From the Bogart/Treasure of the Sierra Madre chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.) 

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.



Burt Reynolds, who died on Sept. 6, had a late career peak as porn auteur Jack Horner, seen here directing phallic star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) in Boogie Nights (New Line, 1997; director Paul Thomas Anderson, cinematographer Robert Elswit).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Nosh 123: 'Operation Finale' & More

By David Elliott
    
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Review of Operation Finale



There have been at least ten movies about Adolf Eichmann. His filmography should also include The Man in the Glass Booth, the 1975 movie from Robert Shaw’s play, with its Eichmann figure played with histrionic fervor by Maximilian Schell and given (ironic “inspiration”) Jewish roots as Arthur Goldman. No Nazi was more evil than Eichmann, whose trademark smirk had all the spider charm of a smiling swastika. He looked like a smug file clerk, yet was present (and wrote the official report) on the infamous Wannsee Conference (Jan. 20, 1942), where Germany’s genocidal elite made their plans to carry out Hitler’s wartime dream of the Final Solution.
  
Eichmann, Austrian-born like Hitler, was at 35 the man for the job. He processed death orders and made sure the trains ran with Teutonic precision to the death camps. Today he is a famous villain, but under the Reich was seen as a dull, loyal cog, not a figure for those gala nights at Bayreuth. In Chris Weitz’s Operation Finale, Sir Ben Kingsley plays Eichmann with pasty anonymity, hiding out as Ricardo Klement (with Greta Scacchi barely used as his wife) in a crude house near Buenos Aires. He is also a “good family man” who dotes on his children including an adopted (and fascist) boy, Klaus (Joe Alwyn is maybe the finest Aryan poster boy since Rolfe in The Sound of Music). Klaus and his new, naïve girlfriend trigger events that will bring a secret Israeli kidnap team to Argentina in 1960, abducting Eichmann for trial and execution (Hannah Arendt’s essay report on the trial made her famously controversial).

As docu-drama Finale is a crisp, suspenseful treatment of the mission. Like any Holocaust-related film shot with picturesque color, it risks diluting the tragedy (that’s why Spielberg added just a few spots of red to the acidic black, white and pewter hell of Schindler’s List). The Argentine vistas and a dicey airport climax with glints of Casablanca (I almost expected the Third Reich’s Maj. Strasser to drive up, demanding letters of transit) suggest a rather exotic adventure. As always, factual liberties are taken: the time frame of events is compressed; fretful stuff about a key signature remains opaque; the moral speech given by the team leader in Buenos Aires instead comes in Israel, from Prime Minister Ben-Gurion (a very Exodus touch, for extra gravity); much emotive sketching is given to the troubled history of the team’s tough guy, Peter Malkin, allowing many shots of Oscar Isaac’s good looks (also quite  Exodus, as in: Paul Newman).

But there are strong figures, solid performances, potent if not quite thrilling action. And thankfully Kingsley did not opt to play Eichmann as a drab cipher. After all, Sir Ben acted Gandhi (and won an Oscar) by revealing both a lofty saint and a canny lawyer. Isaac struggles to match Kingsley in their important dialog duels. Kingsley’s Eichmann is a sly, creepy opportunist and a man of simple, fanatical ideas (“We are all animals, fighting for survival”). Damn if he doesn’t dominate a scene while sitting on a toilet and recalling early potty lessons.

There are oddities, including a clip of Troy Donahue racially taunting Susan Kohner in Imitation of Life (this delights Klaus), and Adolf admiring a tightly synchronous swarming of birds (warm memories of Nuremberg rallies?). There is also a clip from the death-camp footage shown at the later Nuremberg trials of Nazis. As drama if not as history, this movie is a little pedestrian, but it is moving. If  it helps brings young viewers a sense not just of Eichmann but the Holocaust – a subject that seems to be receding in schools – than it will have done its best work.

SALAD
(List)
My 12 Favorite Movie Nazis
Nazi Fuhrer Adolf Hitler, as himself in Triumph of the Will, and Charles Chaplin as the fabled comical Hinkle (Hitler) of The Great Dictator, are the twin summits. My choices goose-step behind them, in order:

1. Conrad Veidt as Maj. Heinrich Strasser (Casablanca, 1942), 2. Maximilian Schell as Capt. Hardenberg (The Young Lions, 1958), 3. Leopoldine Konstantin as Madame “Mother” Sebastian (Notorious, 1946), 4. Noah Taylor as young Adolf Hitler (Max, 2002), 5. Erich von Stroheim as Field Marshal Rommel (Five Graves to Cairo, 1943), 6. Otto Preminger as Oberst Von Scherbach (Stalag 17, 1953), 7. Kenneth Mars as crazy Franz Liebkind (The Producers, 1968), 8. Kurt Kreuger as Luftwaffe pilot Schletow (Sahara, 1943), 9. Ralph Fiennes as S.S. man Amon Goeth (Schindler’s List, 1993), 10. Paul Scofield as Col. Franz Von Waldheim (The Train, 1964), 11. Donald Sutherland as the spy Faber (Eye of the Needle, 1981) and 12. Orson Welles as fugitive Franz Kindler (The Stranger, 1946).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles felt that Kindler, his escaped Nazi in The Stranger, was barely more than a stage-goblin character, but offered a sobering afterthought when Peter Bogdanovich mentioned that it was the first (1946) American feature film to visually note the Holocaust: “Was it? I’m against that sort of thing in principle – exploiting real misery, agony or death for purposes of entertainment. But in that case, I do think that every time you can get the public to look at footage of a concentration camp, under any excuse at all, it’s a step forward. People just don’t want to know that these things ever happened.” (From the Welles-Bogdanovich book This Is Orson Welles.)    

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Ending the disastrous family supper in Alice Adams, Alice (Katharine Hepburn) “quells panic. Her smile is taut but game as her dream dies. She does not flee or weep. With regal courtesy, she even sprinkles some high school French (Hepburn would make starched decorum comical with Bogart in The African Queen). Every word, gesture and smile is a badge of artistic arrival, aligned with the insight of philosopher J. Glenn Gray: ‘Simplicity manifests itself in directness of approach to other human beings (without) dissembling and guile.’ Alice makes the most of less-is-more.” (From the Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.) 

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.



Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt, between lamp and Claude Rains) brings suave Nazi menace to Casablanca (Warner Bros. 1942; director Michael Curtiz, photography by Arthur Edeson).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Nosh 122: 'Puzzle,' 'Skate Kitchen' & More

By David Elliott
    
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews of Puzzle and Skate Kitchen



Puzzle
I’ve always liked Scottish actor Kelly Macdonald
(Gosford Park, No Country for Old Men, Nanny McPhee, a Harry Potter). She is lovely without pushing it, and her docile, pensive sweetness has an aura of secrets that could become interesting. But those qualities never spark much life in what should be a showcase for her, Puzzle, which is fairly closely based on the 2009 Argentine film Rompecabezas. Macdonald plays a devoutly Catholic American housewife who is drudge, cook, cleaner and all-purpose nanny for her two near-grown, restlessly rooted sons and husband Louie, a financially insecure garage mechanic.

Bright but soul-dampened, gently generous and often exhausted, Agnes is pushing 40 when she discovers her gift for the rapid assembly of jigsaw puzzles. In a braver era, this might have led her to join the secret brains at Bletchley Park and undermine Hitler. Instead she sneaks off like a daring church mouse to a puzzle shop in New York. Soon she’s the puzzle competition partner of a semi-retired, rich inventor from abroad, Robert (Irrfan Khan), who is vaguely sexy and solemnly wry. Their board results are very attractive, but there is no dramatic tension sizzling in watching Robert (and the faster, intuitive Agnes) tightly join 500 or more pieces of cut cardboard.

As directed by Marc Turtletaub (Little Miss Sunshine), too many elements remain rather murky. Family drama simmers, like a sitcom teapot. Louie loves Agnes in his complacent Daddy Bear way. She mostly loves him, but a puzzled piece of her is tempted by Robert, who seems to love … love? Oddly, the most detailed piece is Louie, who looks and talks like a less neurotic Vincent D’Onofrio. He also: a. snores a lot (Agnes listens), b. loves cheese, c. expects his meals on time pronto, d. finds little quality time for the boys, and e. despite all that, is not so much a loser as a cheeseball with a beer gut. Quietly ticking way, dear Agnes edges towards assertive choices, although the final resolution is feminist in a very 1958 way.
  
Sorry, Agnes, but the great puzzle lady in movies remains Susan (Dorothy Comingore), bored wife in Citizen Kane. When old Mr. Kane (Orson Welles) finds her scanning yet another puzzle in the lonely expanse of Xanadu, he quips “How do you know you haven’t done it before?” She pings him right back: “Makes a whole lot more sense than collecting statues.” Of course, that movie is itself a vivid jigsaw puzzle. Puzzle, by contrast, has missing pieces.



Skate Kitchen
Last week The Cakemaker! This week Skate Kitchen! But Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen is not a culinary occasion. Moselle previously made documentaries, including one about six New York City brothers, The Wolfpack. Her first dramatic feature fuses acted storylines and digitally vivid  reality sequences of young women in a street-skating group, Skate Kitchen. Their swerves, glides, jumps and speed-zips capture, with documentary verve, the passion of adolescence. Like any true teen scene, it’s a way of life.

The movie’s heart, along with ground-level Manhattan, is Rachelle Vinberg as Camille. A shy proto-woman from a Long Island suburb and a busted family, Camille meets the fierce, yappy Kitchen rollers at a skate park in Chinatown. After a dangerous accident she becomes a force in motion, despite her glasses and a pensive, observing reticence that the others find mysterious. Moselle mostly keeps the camera on Vinberg, whose instinctual acting (and improvising) anchors and resonates what could have been just another video blast of adrenaline. Camille, skittish about her options (including sexual), never entirely integrates into what a boy calls the “rowdy-ass girl crew.”

Vinberg gets wonderful support from Ardelia Lovelace as a slender black girl who generously welcomes Camille, Nina Moran as a funny lesbian tomboy whose skater name is Kurt, and Jaden Smith (Will Smith’s son) as a wary, sensitive guy who (like boyish Rocket in City of God) sees street photography as his ticket upward. Moselle includes some filler dialog and a few odd notes (like Camille’s rather late lessons in feminine hygiene). Still, the movie is alive, reviving some of the old urban voltage of Mean Streets and The Warriors. Rolling wild, the skaters relish the freedom of the city.

SALAD (List)
Memorable Fempowerment Movies
In order of arrival, plus directors: The Women (George Cukor 1939), Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz 1945), The Beguiled (Don Siegel 1971), Foxy Brown (Jack Hill 1974), Norma Rae (Martin Ritt 1979), 9 to 5 (Colin Higgins 1980), Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (Lou Adler 1982), Deep in the Heart (Tony Garnett 1983), Mystic Pizza (Donald Petrie 1988), Gorillas in the Mist (Michael Apted 1988), Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott 1991), A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall 1992), The Ballad of Little Jo (Maggie Mansfield 1992), Ruby in Paradise (Victor Nunez 1993), Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino 1997), Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh 2000), Whale Rider (Niki Caro 2002), Bring It On (Peyton Reed 2002), Frida (Julie Taymor 2004), Offside (Jafar Panahi 2006), Dreamgirls (Bill Condon 2006), Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt 2008), Queen to Play (Caroline Bottaro 2009), In a World … (Lake Bell 2013), Ocean’s 8 (Gary Ross 2018) and Red Sparrow (Francis Lawrence, 2018).  

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson is off this week, preparing his narration of Marcel Ophuls’s definitive six-hour documentary Orange Armageddon: The Rise and Fall of Donald Trump.

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Every writer has a temperament of taste, and ‘each work entrusts the writer with the film it seeks’ (Borges). Taste is important, but if you are constantly polishing marble in your personal Parthenon, you become a frieze. I agree with novelist Ross Macdonald that ‘popular culture is not and need not be at odds with high culture, any more than the rhythms of walking ae at odds with the dance.’ So I walk along, and tap a little.” (From the Introduction of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.) 

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.



Charlie Kane’s taste runs more to statuary than the puzzles assembled by wife Susan at Xanadu in Citizen Kane (RKO Pictures, 1941; director Orson Welles, cinematographer Gregg Toland).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Nosh 121: 'The Cakemaker,' 'Alpha' & More

By David Elliott
    
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews of The Cakemaker and Alpha



The Cakemaker
That Colorado baker who got lucky with the U.S. Supreme Court, after refusing to bake a gay wedding’s cake, should maybe avoid The Cakemaker. In possibly the best Israeli-German movie ever, debut feature director and writer Ophir Raul Graizer has baked in flavors of subtlety, grace and humanity – remarkable in a picture about German-Jewish tensions, covert gay love, and sexual pressures in a religiously contentious society.

The flour-white face of big German actor Tim Kahlkof resembles the dough he so masterfully shapes as Thomas the Berlin baker. Thomas has the wary self-sufficiency of a loner (parents long-gone, raised solo by a grandmother). Though eloquent with his cakes and breads, he rarely speaks. Solitude crumbles when he meets an assured, married, German-fluent Israeli businessman, Oren (Roy Miller). The secretive, erotic joys of Oren’s visits end when he is killed by a car in Jerusalem (no big spoiler: it happens early). Thomas (“I have my work, and my apartment, and I have you”) might fold in a sag of sorrow, back into bearish hibernation.

Instead, seeking the truth, Thomas leaves his cozy café behind. In Jerusalem he meets Oren’s widow Anat, struggling with her own little café. Not very religious, kosher but rather resentfully, Anat finds that her new helper is a splendid baker. Communicating in English, they are both needy kneaders. Attraction rises like a great loaf, despite her fretful suspicions of his past (and the unspoken intuitions of her sage mother). Anat’s son, initially loyal to the kosher strictures of his intrusive uncle, soon adores Thomas’s Black Forest cake. Tenderness advances, bit always sweetly. Omri Aloni’s photography, avoiding mere tourism, impeccably supports Graizer’s intimate script and excellent cast.

The Cakemaker doesn’t knead bread ($) in the sense noted by the great émigré Berliner Marlene Dietrich, who snapped that “in Hollywood every church should be shaped as a box office.” Nothing is rushed, pounded, prodded, overbaked. Revelation must come, with some shock, but the story never loses it attentive poise. It balances on the joining rails of Kalkhof and Adler (with her slightly plain beauty, a Jewish-mama Charlotte Gainsbourg).The movie might abrade some gay PC piety, as it suggests that gayness is not always life-determining. Graizer’s layer cake uses few standard ingedients. For all the scenes of happy cooking, tasting, eating – surely the most subtle culinary emotions since the delightful, Italo-American Big Night – the movie is about affection overcoming fear. Love is, when you bite deep, the most complicated and surprising dish at the human banquet.



Alpha
Essentially a dog movie, mostly for boys aged to 16 – do kids still read the old Jack London dog stories? – Alpha is also a cross-species Quest for Fire set around 20,000 years ago. Keda (finely named Kodi Smit-McPhee) is facing his Cro-Magnon coming-of-age. His dad, the tribal leader and master hunter, fears that the beardless teen might be on the soft side. Mom reckons that the lad “leads from his heart, not his spear.” In fact, he does both. Having survived a cliff fall that has killed a herd of bison, Keda (left for dead) overcomes wounds, makes fires, eat worms, faces hyenas and blizzards. And (merit badge!) tames the first wolf pet of our acquisitive species. The animal is curious, too – wolf star Alpha is actually Chuck, a Czech wolf-dog from France.

Pumping primeval adrenaline and defying implausibility, Alpha has more digital skies and effects than I like in a tough survival story. But once Keda meets and befriends the big canine for a bonding adventure, the film finds its furry niche. The raw survivalist lineage of The Naked Prey, A Boy and His Dog and The Revenant has found a remarkably warm-spirited ancestor, with McPhee an engaging young lead, and director Albert Hughes making a wondrous show of locations in Canada, Iceland and California. There’s something here for the owner of every Fifi and Fido, Butch and Pepper, Spot and Rover.    

SALAD (List)
Ten Good Movies That Vividly Feature Cooks
Tampopo (director Juzo Itami, 1985), Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987), Big Night (Campbell Scott, Stanley Tucci, 1996), Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006), Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007), Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009), Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb, 2011), Chef (Jon Favreau, 2014), City of Gold (Laura Gabbert, 2915) and The Cakemaker (Ophir Raul Graizer, 2018).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles said he included one of the surreal moments in Citizen Kane “just to wake the audience up” – was that ever a problem for the film? A scholar elaborated: “When Raymond the butler describes Kane destroying Susan’s bedroom, the scene opens with a startling shot of a screeching cockatoo. The bird – which appears for less than two seconds – has no eye. The background of the Florida coastline shows through where the eye should have been. The missing eye, long a subject of speculation among film writers, was, Welles admitted, only the result of a mistake in the special effects lab.” But Kane has very few glitches. (See photograph below. Quote from Harlan Lebo’s Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey.) 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The rising Nicole Kidman had a key breakthrough in 1995: “Not since Jean Harlow’s Bombshell and Bette Davis’s Dangerous had a title fit so snugly as To Die For. Kidman’s vampy Suzanne hustles TV fame in a small town, affirming the insight of Marshall McLuhan: ‘What’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching?’ Blind ambition leads to a dumb crime, and teen Joaquin Phoenix is a snack for Suzanne’s eroticized ego. Her dress clinging at night in the rain, haloed by car beams, she shim-boogies to ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in a splurge of soft-porn wit. Kidman became an American star.” (From the Kidman/Fur chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.) 

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.



The eyeless cockatoo makes its loud, eye-catching appearance in Citizen Kane (RKO Pictures, 1941; director Orson Welles; chief optical printer Linwood G. Dunn).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.