Friday, April 13, 2018

Nosh 105: 'Chappaquiddick' & More

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

APPETIZER: Review of Chappaquiddick
For those who imagine that Chappaquiddick is where Ethel and Norman Thayer’s Golden Pond flows into Hiawatha’s Gitche Gumee, a bit of modern history. On July 18, 1969, driving from a night party at a site on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha’s Vineyard, U.S. Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy (D-Mass.) made a wrong turn and went onto a rickety bridge without a railing. His car tipped over and fell into water. He escaped but Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, one of the “boiler room girls” at the party who had been idealistic workers for the 1968 campaign of Ted’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, died (she probably suffocated after exhausting an air  bubble). Ted, athletic but alcoholic, had been drinking.

Chappaquiddick, huffing along like a tabloid news bulletin arriving half a century late, crams proven, likely and suspect facts and factoids into a lurid cartoon of criminal negligence and character collapse. It indicts Ted Kennedy as a callow, shallow man-boy of 37, dazed more by his legacy and three dead brothers than by his shock from the tragic accident. That he suffered shock, panicked, failed to report the accident for hours, and fell into the rough arms of a Kennedy rescue team for protection and media massage, is certain. But the factuals get very spongey in this film, which has the aroma of a calculated smear. At the end, I almost expected this credit: historical research by Bill O’Reilly and Steve Bannon.

Ted (modest look-alike Jason Clarke, working hard) is shifty-eyed and unhappy even before the accident, disturbed by talk of his inevitable Presidency. The creeping implication is that, feeling inadequate, he had a death wish for his “destiny,” and poor Kopechne was collateral damage. Ted’s choices on the grim night remain sticky and murky. In this hard-breathing rumor rummage of speculation, he ignores advice, fumbles alibis, fondles a football, straps on a neck brace, even flies a kite. He almost seems like a Kennedy pretender, imitating Nixon’s flop-sweat disaster in the first 1960 debate against JFK.

The family’s elite rescue squad (Robert McNamara, Ted Sorensen, etc.)  swoops in as a cynical Irish Mafia, like a pirate crew recruited from every anti-Kennedy fantasy of the toxic right. The senator turns to his dad Joseph who, though half-dead from a stroke, slaps him and snarls. Mother Rose is never seen, and Ted’s wife Joan has one line, the eloquent “Go fuck yourself, Teddy.” Loyal cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) serves as the prod of Ted’s squishy conscience, and for his pains is humiliated: made to hold the cue cards for Kennedy’s TV speech.

The most memorable Kennedy is the patriarch, death gargoyle Joe. The eyes of veteran pro Bruce Dern, 81, haven’t blazed quite like this since he shot John Wayne in The Cowboys (Ted even gets snarked for attempting “John Wayne shit”). Director John Curran could handle a cholera epidemic in The Painted Veil, but this leering slum-along makes him look like a hack. Private, two-person conversations are re-imagined, and most of the suspense tactics are like vintage agit-prop, defamation drones launched by witers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan. Their film is a crude gift for all the never-forgivers who don’t care to know that Ted Kennedy, despite alcoholism, became a great senator, father of major legislation like the Children’s Health Insurance Program. He lived until 2009 under a triple shadow: JFK, RFK and MJK (Mary Jo Kopechne). Dubious and mean-spirited, Chappaquiddick is a sniper on a knoll made of old National Enquirers.    

SALAD (A List)
Twelve Strong Movies Set in New England:
Captains Courageous (director Victor Fleming, 1937),
The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, 1941), The Stranger (Orson Welles, 1946), All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955), The Trouble With Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955), The Last Hurrah (John Ford, 1958), The Devil’s Disciple (Guy Hamilton, 1959), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973), The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982), Ethan Frome (John Madden, 1993), The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006) and Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015). Photo above; Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman and deer in All That Heaven Allows.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Though a friend of sorts with Charlie Chaplin, in the great Chaplin vs. Keaton debate Orson Welles was in Buster’s camp: “You’ve got to separate jokes from beauty. Chaplin had too much beauty, drenched his pictures with it. That’s why Keaton is finally giving him the bath and will, historically, forever. Oh yes, he’s so much greater … more versatile, more finally original. Some of the things that Keaton thought up to do are incredible,” (The debate will never end. Quote from My Lunches With Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Playing the sybaritic seeker Marcello in La Dolce Vita changed Marcello Mastroianni’s image, career and even view of himself. He was grateful, except for the new Latin Lover image, upset that “producers wished him to play men who were ‘somehow always slithering across the rug toward some beautiful woman.’ Fighting back, he became impotent in Il Bel Antonio, a cuckold in Divorce Italian Style, a myopic radical in The Organizer, a comically deluded monarch in Henry IV.” 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.

Suave, Sicilian Cefalu (Marcello Mastroianni) is not thrilled by his slightly moustached wife Rosalia (Daniella Rocca) in Divorce Italian Style (Janus Films, 1962; director Pietro Germi, cinematographers Leonida Barboni, Carlo Di Palma).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Nosh 104: 'The Death of Stalin,' 'Unsane' & More

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of The Death of Stalin and Unsane
The Death of Stalin
In the mid-1950s an American TV program offered a grim, pseudo-documentary take on the 1953 death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. I was a kid, but mesmerized. The names of the old Communist Party Politburo still resonate for me, but now with a tinny effect, thanks to director Armando Iannucci. His The Death of Stalin, based upon a Titan Comics graphic, reaches for wild lampoon that turns into an embalmed cackle.

The comedy is curdled by the fact that Stalin, despite his Papa Bear moustache (now fronting the face of actor Adrian McLaughlin), remains scary. This is the happy guy who said that “to choose one’s victim, to prepare one’s plans minutely, to stake an implacable vengeance, and then go to bed … there is nothing sweeter in the world.” The power maniac slaughtered his own countrymen, converted Politburo service into Russian roulette, defeated Hitler (after first losing his nerve), and began a paranoid purge of a “Zionist doctors plot” before his stroke, in bed, on March 1, 1953. During his last four days medical care was minimal (including leeches), while his successors plotted. Some researchers now think Stalin was poisoned by KGB chief and sadist Lavrenti Beria.

The Kremlin-like settings are impressive, but the casting might better fit the Moscow, Idaho zoo. As fat Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s favorite butt of humor at vodka-soaked parties, lean Steve Buscemi hurls New York actor sarcasms. Britain’s rotund Simon Russell Beale plays Beria as if he were Uncle Fester becoming  Rasputin. As shifty heir-in-waiting Georgi Malenkov, Jeffrey Tambor seems to be an onion dome fond of weeping. Michael Palin somehow confused cold, phlegmatic Vyacheslav Molotov with another foreign secretary, Britain’s elegant Anthony Eden. As famously bald war hero Marshal Georgi Zhukov, built like a T-34 tank, the tall, handsome Jason Isaacs sports a fine head of hair and a vast crop of medals. Being Slavic is equated with fits of hysteria as the shenanigans fall somewhere between Marxism and the Marx Bros. The movie missed its musical cue: Sergei Prokofiev died the same day as Stalin, but the film’s main music is by Tchaikovsky.

Political satire is a hard game (rare successes: Ninotchka, The Great Dictator, Wag the Dog, Dr. Strangelove). Iannocci slathers on slapstick, dud gags, an autopsy, a zinger about Abbott and Costello (should be Martin and Lewis, as 1953 was a big year for them). I enjoyed the phrase “unauthorized narcissism,” and the way Buscemi barks about lusting for Grace Kelly. The Stalinist Stooges bumble around in a flop-sweat of defrosting terror until the transparently evil Beria is shot dead, then cremated in a courtyard (odd echo of Hitler’s end). The laughs are lost in the samovar, or maybe Stalin’s moustache.

Steven Soderbergh made three asinine Danny Ocean comedies, which took macho hipness down to ankle level. But in a checkered career, playing with a chessman’s verve, he’s also given us sex, lies and videotape, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, King of the Hill, the rustic fun of  Logan Lucky and TV’s grimly effective The Knick (beefcake fans enjoy Magic Mike). For Unsane, a cheap thriller shot very quickly, Soderbergh directed, edited and photographed using his three iPhone 7 Plus cameras fitted with different lenses. To say he “phoned the film in” would be a little glib.

Fresh from dewy Queen Liz II on The Crown, Claire Foy turns American, haggard and desperate as Sawyer, a sharp biz-wiz who fled an obsessed stalker in Boston. Now she gets trapped in a mental therapy “clinic” where (presto demento!) her lovesick chaser turns up on the staff. At first there are good jabs about shady medical practice and insurance scamming, but the bear-like stalker (Joshua Leonard) hauls the story into pulp, with creepy implausibility. Soderbergh’s images dangle the vague premise that maybe this is just Sawyer’s nightmare as shots turn fuzzy with shadows, faces loom in fish-eyed exaggeration. Unsane underwhelms, despite good work by Jay Pharaoh as a calmly decent patient, a spry cameo by Matt Damon, and murmuring hints of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor. I have read comment comparing this movie to Kafka, but Soderbergh probably got that out of his system with his vivid, faltering Kafka in 1991.  

SALAD (A List)
Bravura Film Portrayals of Real Political Leaders:
Charles Laughton as Henry in The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933; Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939; Charles Chaplin as Hinkle (Hitler) in The Great Dictator, 1940; Nikolai Cherkassov as Ivan in Ivan the Terrible, I and II, 1944-46; Orson Welles as Cesare Borgia in Prince of Foxes, 1949; Alec Guinness as Benjamin Disraeli in The Mudlark, 1950; Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata!, 1952; Herbert Lom as Napoleon in War and Peace, 1956; Bob Hope as Jimmy Walker in Beau James, 1957; Ben Kingsley as the Mahatma in Gandhi, 1982; Gerard Depardieu as Georges Danton in Danton, 1983; Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, 1984; Paul Newman as Earl Long in Blaze, 1989; Gary Sinise as Harry in Truman, 1995; Madonna as Evita Peron in Evita, 1996; Cate Blanchettt as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth, 1998; Eriq Ebouaney as Patrice Lumumba in Lumumba, 2000; Gael Garcia Bernal as Ernesto “Che” Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004; Bruno Ganz as Hitler in Downfall, 2004; Paul Giamatti as John Adams, 2008; Filippo Timi as Benito Mussolini in Vincere, 2010; Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, 2011; Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, 2012; Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson in All the Way, 2016; Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, 2017. 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
On June 29, 1940, Orson Welles shot his first scene for Citizen Kane: the newsreel staff crammed into a screening room, being told to track down Kane’s “Rosebud.” For ten hours the neophyte filmed, “rearranging his actors, asking for more overlapping of dialog, making sure there was enough cigarette smoke filtering through the light from the projection booth … He attempted shots never successfully used in a film before, (even) having the camera shoot directly into blazing arcs. A special lens coating had to be used on the camera to cut the glare of lights shining into it.” (Shot as a “test,” the debut footage was used after minor editing. From Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles.) 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
A unique entertainment, Funny Face (1957) “endures with few wrinkles. John Russell Taylor’s The Hollywood Musical calls it ‘about as near flawless as one can hope for in an imperfect world, (and) also virtually the death-knell of the intimate, integrated musical as we had come to know and love it.’ It lost in all four Oscars nominations. A year later Gigi, a candy-box musical rehab of Hepburn’s Broadway hit, starring Leslie Caron, won nine statues.” (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.

Newsreel editor Rawlston (Philip Van Zandt, right) orders reporter Thompson (William Alland) to find Rosebud “dead or alive,” in Citizen Kane (RKO, 1941; director Orson Welles, cinematographer Gregg Toland).

For previous Noshes, scroll below. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Nosh 103: 'Loveless' & 'Bombshell: Hedy Lamarr

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Loveless and Bombshell: Hedy Lamarr
If you are sick of Trump’s wallow in Putin's pig pit, Loveless will not make you feel much better. This very good Russian film, set in 2012, digs into a disintegrating family. At its bleeding heart is the boy Alexei, 11. Actor Matvey Novikov, despite modest screen time, registers totally. There’s a scene of Alexei convulsing with tears while trying to repress it (he’s had stern Russian lessons in “being a man”), as his parents rip each other like crazed animals. They are selling off the family apartment, and turning to sex (with others) for solace.

Mostly we follow mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and father Boris (Alexei Rozin). This is no long, Nordic meditation on the granular follies of marital decay, like Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage. It is a Slavic rite-of-rage and despair. Beautiful Zhenya is arrogant, spiteful and shallow, looking for salvation from a rich lover. Boris, a sullen bear, appears stupefied on some cheap soul vodka of fury and depression, though enjoying a young, pregnant lover. He is less comfortable than Zhenya with dumping Alexei into a state orphanage, “then the army.” Around them all weather swirls, and the beauty of winter woods taunts the high-rise slabs of dull housing. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev has a gem cutter’s eye, slow-pacing many shots for sustained mood. Of his fine actors, Natalya Potopova as the snarling, bitter grandmother is like a busted Stalin tank of dead Soviet hopes.

When Alexei vanishes, the parents show guilty concern.  Loveless, which has a scene almost lifted from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, becomes a rough parallel to Kurosawa’s kidnap-and-manhunt film High and Low. The Russian cops slog dutifully, but they never rival the Japanese brains (and suspense) of that 1963 masterwork. Pay attention to a brief, quiet scene as snow falls at a bus stop, and you may get a clue to Alexei’s fate. This somewhat Dostoevskian movie delivers human pain without softening the blows.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
In the zoo park of fauna, flora and fantasia that is Hollywood, Hedy Lamarr was her own species. As an Austrian teen from a Jewish banking family (Judaism had little grip on her), Hedy went from “starring” in the nudist film Ecstasy (simulated orgasm and wink shots became bootleg thrills for decades), to marrying a Jewish munitions maker in biz with Hitler and Mussolini. Bored with him, hating Nazis, she fled Vienna for London, then hopped on the liner Normandie where her mysterious allure wowed everyone in first-class, including MGM chief Louis B. Mayer. When they docked in New York, photographers pounced on Hedy’s sultry, soul-eyed, snow-skinned image.

Alexandra Dean’s documentary Bombshell zooms from baroque (esprit de Kenneth Anger) to rococo (esprit de John Waters). Mayer renamed her Lamarr and, being a crass moralist, considered her a whore for mass exploitation. No trained actor, Hedy dazzled when Charles Boyer got her into Algiers. Though few Lamarr movies were good, her poignantly seductive eyes couldn’t hide an innate, friendly playfulness. Her brains performed more privately. Hedy’s hobby was invention (as a kid she rebuilt a music box).  Howard Hughes, her inadequate lover but fellow techie, respected her ideas for airplane design. In 1942 she and composer George Antheil invented a “frequency-hopping” system to securely guide torpedoes without detection. In time their insights would spawn better rockets, then advance WiFi and much more, but the Navy buried Hedy’s patent while secretly exploiting her ideas. Her movie producing (three films) also brought no money or glory.

With its tasty scrap-stew of clips and interviews (friends, children, Robert Osborne, Mel Brooks, Diane Kruger and, with invaluable audiotapes, Lamarr devotee Fleming Meeks), Bombshell must detonate. We see the coming smash: decline after Samson and Delilah (of Cecil B. De Mille she said “he’s so bad he’s almost good”), dud marriages, fading looks, fortune blown, beloved children often bewildered, a debt-lost Aspen ski lodge she built out of Austrian nostalgia, tabloid headlines, plastic surgeries (her suggestions, says one doc, advanced the profession!). MGM’s use (call it the Garland Regimen) of speed pills for her 60-hour studio weeks led to addiction, mood swings and, finally, seclusion. Modest limelight came before death in 2000, for this smart, brave and creative woman.         

SALAD (A List)
The Best Performances of 27 Great Beauties:
Lillian Gish (The Wind), Greta Garbo (Camille), Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard), Louise Brooks (Pandora’s Box), Katharine Hepburn (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Joan Crawford (Grand Hotel), Marlene Dietrich (Destry Rides Again), Hedy Lamarr (Algiers),Vivien Leigh (A Streetcar Named Desire), Ingrid Bergman (Notorious), Rita Hayworth (Gilda), Ava Gardner (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not), Alida Valli (The Third Man), Elizabeth Taylor (Giant), Maureen O’Hara (The Quiet Man), Audrey Hepburn (The Nun’s Story), Grace Kelly (Rear Window), Sophia Loren (A Special Day), Marilyn Monroe (Bus Stop), Kim Novak (Vertigo), Sharmila Tagore (The World of Apu), Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita), Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour), Michelle Pfeiffer (The Russia House), Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential) and Penelope Cruz (Volver).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Grudgingly half-invited by Orson Welles, gossip bee Hedda Hopper buzzed into a 1941 rough-cut showing of Citizen Kane at RKO. Early-deadline writers were dazzled, “but not Hopper. To the columnist, always eager to rush to hasty judgment, there was no question that Kane was in reality William Randolph Hearst. ‘She was violently angry,’ reported publicist Herbert Drake. ‘What I saw appalled me,’ Hopper explained years later. ‘It was an impudent, murderous trick, even for the boy genius, to perpetrate on a newspaper giant.” (If only Welles had wooed her with a cameo, as Billy Wilder cagily did later, for his Hollywood vivisection Sunset Boulevard. Quotes from Harlan Lebo’s Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Humphrey Bogart never acted with more feral intensity than when his prospector Fred C. Dobbs turns viciously on partner Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: “Dobbs even spooks himself. No Dostoevskian pity here, just thorny brush and fire-scarred shadows in Fred’s Mexican hell. He rants and cackles, roping his own gallows of guilt: ‘Conscience! What a thing. If you believe you’ve got a conscience, it’ll pester you to death!’ Six years later, Brando agonized in On the Waterfront: ‘That conscience’ll drive you nuts.” (From the Bogart/Treasure 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.

Hubert de Givenchy, master of Parisian couture whose supreme swan was Audrey Hepburn, died at 91 on March 10. Here they are in 1950s prime.

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Nosh 102: 'A Fantastic Woman,' 'Death Wish' & More

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of A Fantastic Woman and Death Wish.
A Fantastic Woman
Opening with fantastic images of Iguazu Falls in Brazil, A Fantastic Woman takes us over emotional falls in Santiago, Chile, with the remarkably buoyant Marina Vidal. In transit to womanhood, Marina (once Daniel) has had hormonal treatment but not surgery. I have never seen an actor who uses, with such poised polarity, feminine and masculine qualities quite like trans artist Daniela Vega (born David). Three at least came close, yet more melodramatically: Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club and, way back, Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden.

Lovely in a box-faced way, with the gazing gravity of an Olmec statue, Marina is eagerly moving into a flat with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), 57. Deeply in love, the sensitive businessman has left his razor-edged wife and angry, grown kids (Marina also loves his dog, a key plot figure). I have to spill a spoiler, otherwise I’d be stuck on tiptoes of silence. As their new life begins, Orlando dies (aneurism), unleashing all the wasps of pent-up rage in his family. Grieving Marina must deal not only with the increasingly hostile widow (Aline Küppenheim) but Orlando’s rabidly homophobic son. Lonely in supporting her is Orlando’s brother (actor Luís Gnecco also played poet Pablo Neruda in Pablo Larrain’s Neruda).

Larrain was a producer here, and director Sebastián Lelio, co-scripting with Gonzalo Maza, is Larrain-like in his artful combinations. As with Larrain (Tony Manero, No, Jackie) there is a generous range of sympathy, surprise and invention, along with Benjamín Echazarreta’s sinuous, light-tranced photography. The use of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” seems a touch facile and dated. More revealing is Marina’s piping soprano voice. 

The motor for everything is, of course, Vega. At 28 the Chilean actor-singer uses face, body and voice brilliantly, without lathering soap or ducking into transvestite glam (just once, in a dream of emergence). Unforgettable are Marina’s encounter with a mirror in motion, her visit to a crematorium, her delight in the dog, her fierce escape into a dance club, her Hitchcock tensions at a Turkish bath, her striding almost horizontally against a hard wind, her proud passage past a copy of Rosa Bonheur’s painting “The Horse Fair” (a great female vision of male and equine power). Perhaps not since Barbet Schroeder’s Colombian gay drama Our Lady of the Assassins (2001) has a South American movie been so skillfully bold and creatively candid. At first an ode to love, it becomes a declaration of independence. 

Death Wish
Blood provides pump-action lubrication for the new version of  Death Wish. That’s “poetic” because revenge seeker Paul Kersey is no longer a New York architect (Charles Bronson) but a top Chicago surgeon (Bruce Willis). We see him practicing bloody surgery, which sets us up, in a not exactly Proustean way, for a later garage scene: Paul slicing open a screaming thug’s sciatic nerve and pouring in raw brake fluid. That really shoots a hypo into the old Hippocratic oath.

Kersey’s campaign is a more-sado echo of Harrison Ford’s justice-seeking Chicago doctor in The Fugitive. Mainly he must fill the stompin’ boots of Bronson, whose 1974 movie hit like a pulp asteroid (director: flashy hack Michael Winner). Director Eli Roth is another kind of winner, able to split-screen surgical wounds with porny shots of guns and ammo. But Roth is not, like Winner, stuck in the cement bunker of Bronson’s talent. Willis can do alpha-male nuances, registering some terse pathos even as he obtains weapons with stunning ease, masters their use, and unleashes his vigilante spree, egged on by radio talk shows. Now 62, Willis did no runs or stunts worthy of Burt Lancaster’s jolting vitality at 60 in Scorpio.

When his wife is killed by burglars (goodbye, lovely Elisabeth Shue), who put his teen daughter into a coma (complexion and hair remain marvelous), Paul smolders into payback. “Disguised” by a hoodie, he wipes out generic street trash as practice, then tracks down the vile creeps who savaged his family. Veteran homicide cops remain a puzzled step behind him. A bit of violence with a bowling ball belongs in a Roadrunner cartoon. After the slaughter catharsis, the toughest detective gives Paul an NRA-dude smile and commends him for “doing what any man would do.” While his hands perform more surgery, Dr. Kersey’s trigger finger will itch for sequels. Bronson scratched four bad ones.

SALAD (A List)
Fifteen Outstanding Revenge and Payback Movies:
Kind Hearts and Coronets with Dennis Price (1949), Seven Men From Now with Randolph Scott (1956), One-Eyed Jacks with Marlon Brando (1960), Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum (1962), Point Blank with Lee Marvin (1967), Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman (1971), Theater of Blood with Vincent Price (1973), Carrie with Sissy Spacek (1976), Deep in the Heart with Karen Young (1983), Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood (1992), The Fugitive with Harrison Ford (1993), The Shawshank Redemption with Tim Robbins (1994), On Guard with Daniel Auteuil (1997), The Limey with Terence Stamp (1999) and Kill Bill with Uma Thurman (2003).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Long before there was “American independent cinema” there was, in 1947, Orson Welles making Macbeth on virtual Scotch tape at mongrel Republic Pictures, after a try-out staging in Utah: “This was to be precisely the sort of experiment Orson had protested the money men were not willing to back. If they saw that an experiment like this could be profitable, they might change their minds … Within the strict limitations of time and budget he imposed on himself, he would make a Macbeth absolutely as expressive, and eccentric, as he wished.” Eccentricity proved fatal. OW ordained a Scottish brogue, later dubbed into standard English, and the film had a lousy release. (Quote from Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The Palmer dance party is one of the great set-pieces of Alice Adams: “Eager Alice keeps nervously smiling. As she arabesques among columns worthy of a state capitol, she is drubbingly snubbed. This is not winsome, like Natasha fretting her first Moscow ball in War and Peace. This is elite sadism. Maybe not since Jane Austen has the fate of a hopeful girl at a chancy dance felt so fraught with burrs and bristles. Hauteur swans glide by, smirking. Tuxed swells ignore her and, like a parody of agony, a sort of poached-egg-in-pants appears: Frank (Grady Sutton, a bulbous specialist in dim bulbs), soon yanked away by his mother.” (From the Katharine 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.

Vincent Price serves revenge with ham, in this promo painting of an image from Theater of Blood (United Artists, 1973; director Douglas Hickox).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Nosh 101: 'Red Sparrow' & More

By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
Note: Nosh 102 will appear on Friday, March 23. 

APPETIZER: Review of Red Sparrow
Whatever Soviet nostalgia Vladimir Putin has mixed into his bloody borscht of Russian nationalism (as in his almost Stalinist displays for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi), it finds a sinister resonance in Red Sparrow, which seems to immerse Cold War vibes in ironic arsenic and cold vodka. At the center they’ve put a fire that won’t douse, and that smart fire is Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova. She is even more a bubbling samovar of sexuality than Vivien Leigh in Anna Karenina or Michelle Pfeiffer in The Russia House (if not Tatiana Samoilova in The Cranes Are Flying).

The story is post-Soviet, and Lawrence brings modern edge to it. She has a dusting of Slavic accent, the buff build of an athlete (if not quite the silky grace for Moscow ballerina Dominika). Her peachy-pouty beauty and bold, dynamic rhythms are stellar but not show-offy, even in a nude scene (body double?). After a stage injury kills her dance career, Dominika still must support her sick, widowed mother (Joely Richardson). “The state” swoops in like an eagle, or vulture. We sense a ruthless, masculine power hierarchy that Stalin would have happily recognized. It is no coincidence that Dominika’s chief handler and cynical helper, Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), is a suave, official schemer who looks a lot like Putin (better hair).

Dominika becomes a “sparrow,” an agent honed to be sex bait, trained by the Matron (Charlotte Rampling), witch-like heir to  KGB assassin Rosa Klebb (Lotta Lenya) in From Russia With Love. Webbed above her like Kremlin spiders are the purring Vanya, spy master Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) and sinister boss Zakharov (Ciaran Hinds). By eroticizing but not cheapening Dominika’s motives, strategies and choices, Lawrence makes the woman’s “Russian soul” a stream of tense, shifting options. Although the key American agent (Joel Edgerton) is effective, the actor lacks the force to really challenge Lawrence. With both sex and danger jiving suspense, the track-switching plot requires close adult attention. Some nuances worthy of John Le Carré even inflect a scene of skin-peeling torture (the peeler is  a brute who would have delighted Rosa Klebb).

Francis Lawrence (no relation), who advanced the star with Hunger Games films, has a good sense of pace and place (Budapest, which also subs for Moscow). For all the sparrow’s feeling for poor, sick mom and Mother Russia, Jennifer Lawrence avoids sentimentality. The movie, while violent, avoids the usual bang-bang junk (for that, it’s paying a price at the box office). It  makes us care about tough, driven Dominika, yet without wrapping her in a big Oprah hug of go-girlness. This is not the fun of Lawrence in American Hustle, nor of Lawrence getting drunk (or pretending to) on Stephen Colbert’s show. But, for the most sensually exciting and smartly engaging female star to emerge since Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet, Red Sparrow is another brave move in an exciting career.

SALAD (A List)
Twelve Major Movie Spy Performances:
Conrad Veidt as Capt. Hardt (The Spy in Black, 1939), Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman (Notorious, 1946), James Mason as Ulysses Diello (Five Fingers, 1952), Alec Guinness as James Wormold (Our Man in Havana, 1959), James Mason as Phillip Vandamm (North by Northwest, 1959), Sean Connery as James Bond (From Russia With Love, 1963), Michael Caine as Harry Palmer (The Ipcress File, 1965), Richard Burton as Alec Leamas (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, 1965), Donald Sutherland as Faber (The Eye of the Needle, 1981), Geoffrey Rush as Harry Penhel (The Tailor of Panama, 2001), UIrich Mühe as Gerd Wiesler (The Lives of Others, 2006) and Gary Oldman as George Smiley (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 2011). And the greatest of all was on BBC-TV: Alec Guinness as Smiley in Tinker, Tailor … and Smiley’s People.  

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Beyond the biomorphic science dreams of Lamarck, Mendel, even Stalin’s fanatical Lysenko, Orson Welles morphed the genetics of imagination: “If, as Welles insinuates in F for Fake, ‘a magician is just an actor playing the part of a magician,’ then what is an actor? Through all the divergent film and audio manifestations of Mr. Arkadin, the actor is the kingfish, the pooh-bah, the high-muckety-muck. Since Welles portrayed Harry Lime on radio’s The Third Man: The Lives of Harry Lime, the mischievous, crepuscular Lime, and not the austere, calculating Arkadin emerged as the mainspring of the shows. But Welles, of course, played Arkadin in the film, and so Lime … receded to the margins.” (Quote from Robert Polito’s preface to the 2006 reprint of Welles’s novel Mr. Arkadin, issued with the Criterion revival of the 1955 film.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“My baptismal splash (of film fever) was in Africa’s Ulanga River, in John Huston’s The African Queen, which I saw in revival. I was thrilled as Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) and Rose (Katharine Hepburn) boat down the Ulanga. For me, their African voyage brought lessons. I learned about framing’s psychological effect – when the Ulanga widens, our expectations expand, and when it narrows into marshes we feel almost suffocated. I perceived how ‘minor’ acting can suddenly feel major – when Rose’s brother (Robert Morley) dies in fevered homesickness. I recognized the wit of an impeccable sight gag – when Rose flings Charlie’s gin overboard, the emptied bottles float away like tipsy giggles. I missed that clue to my future calling, for what is criticism but the tossing of distilled opinions into an endless river of responses?” (From the Introduction to my 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.

Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart take boating to another  level in The African Queen (United Artists, 1951; director John Huston, cinematographer Jack Cardiff).

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Friday, March 2, 2018

Nosh 100: 'Annihilation' and Oscars Predictions

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

APPETIZER: Review of Annihilation
Any movie called Annihilation is, in today’s market, baited for the boys (and man-boys) hooked on violent video games.A better title for this remarkable sci-horror vision would be Mutation. Or Metamorphosis, with ancestral credit to the great Ovid – there is something Ovidean in the fluency and frequent magic of Alex Garland’s film.

As Lena, a genetic biologist with military training, now widowed, Natalie Portman delivers a nerve-strung, subtle performance that rivals her great work as Mrs. Kennedy in Jackie and surpasses her Oscar’d work in Black Swan. The husband was actually on a secret military op to our Dixie coast, where among the pines and mangroves something alien is growing, not a UFO, more like a MST (Mama Space Tumor). It has already absorbed and mutated much of a county. At the edges it has the drippy, rainbow candle glow of a really rich Sixties head-trip. It gets called The Shimmer, and nobody can shimmy into its fecund interior like an all-female commando team. Gina Rodriguez flaunts fem-machisma power. Tessa Thompson is a softer, dreamy soul. Scientist Lena, already heartbroken, is along for the very dangerous mission.

The team leader is Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), now 56 but still venting that rebel-hippie vibe which often made her seem like a Sixties ambassador to movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Ventress packs some tough attitude, sadly little help against the grisly critters that Garland (Ex Machina) and adapter-novelist Jeff VandorMeer mete out at intervals. One seems to be a vile tapeworm, another a hellish sloth-bear, but Annihiliation is better than its shockers. It has mood, suspense, a foreboding that seems to arise from both inside and out. The best aspect, along with Portman, is that the manner and method exactly fit the themes. The film seems to be sprouting and morphing like a fertile dream of, yes, annihilation.

Any viable movie lover can spot the derivation sources, given a new shimmer of bravura gloss and grip, from Alien, The Matrix, Predator, Avatar, Solaris, the 1979 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, even arty spores wafting in from sensual obscurities like Dreamchild and Till Human Voices Wake Us. The film is a sexy fatalist, viscerally sensual and morbidly daring. Yes, the albino deer with flowering antlers are a bit Disney. There is not enough sustained violence for the burning-meat audience, and the studio seems to be wobbling the release. But Annihilation is a full-made thing, and it suffuses our troubled imagination.  

SALAD (A List)
My Choices For the Oscars (the show airs Sunday; please, no wagering):

    The Nominees: Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
    My Favorite: Lady Bird.
    Best Not Nominated: The Florida Project.
    Will Win: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

    The Nominees: Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread; Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water; Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird; Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk; Jordan Peele, Get Out.
    My Favorite: Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird.
    Best Not Nominated: Sean Baker, The Florida Project.
    Will Win: Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water.
    The Nominees: Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name; Daniel Day Lewis, Phantom Thread; Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out; Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour; Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.
    My Favorite: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour.
    Best Not Nominated: Richard Gere, Norman.
    Will Win: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour.

    The Nominees: Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water; Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside …; Margot Robbie, I, Tonya; Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird; Meryl Streep, The Post.
    My Favorite: Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird.
    Best Not Nominated: Annette Bening, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.
    Will Win: Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird.

    The Nominees: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project; Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside …; Richard Jennings, The Shape of Water; Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World; Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside
    My Favorite: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project, (though he was the lead actor).
    Best Not Nominated: Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name.
    Will Win: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside …

    The Nominees: Mary J. Bilge, Mudbound; Allison Janney, I, Tonya; Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread; Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird; Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water.
    My Favorite: Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird.
    Best Not Nominated: Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project.   
    Will Win: Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
One of the master builders of Citizen Kane was little-known Maurice Seiderman from New York theater, the make-up artist who aged Kane (Welles) from his 20s into a bloated fossil pushing 80, including the fabled time transitions in the breakfast montage.  “I never looked as young as that,’ said Welles of his make-up at age 25. ‘The idea was to look very young indeed, in fact younger than anyone could look.’ He was self-conscious about (as he said) ‘that terrible round moon face’ … ‘Notice how Orson either never smiles on camera,’ Joseph Cotten told writer Gore Vidal, ‘or if he has to, sucks in his cheeks so as not to look like a Halloween pumpkin.” (Quotes from Harlan Lebo’s Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
As radical contrast to The Cruise, “consider a counter-cruise: Martin Clary’s Mid-Manhattan, a big 1929 booster book for a property owners and merchants’s association. It smugly radiates what Salvador Dalí called the ‘pure, vertical, mystical, gothic love of cash.’ The lavish text, classy photos, ‘dignified’ ads and solemn faces of ‘men who have learned the true worth of cooperation’ honor that Mammon god who ‘welcomes the worthwhile’ and ‘exterminates the worthless.’ Weeks later, the Great Crash made their fraternal penthouse fall down the air shaft, with a great shattering of idolatry.” (From the Timothy Levitch/The Cruise chapter in 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.

Hugh Griffith and Charlton Heston each won Oscars for Ben-Hur (MGM, 1959; director William Wyler, cinematographer Robert L. Surtees).

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Nosh 99: 'Black Panther,' 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool'

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Black Panther and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.

Black Panther
Set largely in Wakanda, an African El Dorado, Black Panther tells of fierce rivalry between the new King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his baiting challenger (Michael B. Jordan). The hidden realm is both rich and ecological, tribal and high-tech, royal and democratic, leafy-green and cyber-metallic. Don’t turn to history or archeology or Alex Haley for roots. This extravaganza has an archive of back-story, including the original comic book, a 2010 animated series, updates by Te-Nehisi Coates and a 2016 Marvel movie (Captain America: Civil War) where Boseman had a romping audition for his Wakandan destiny.

A lot of press has greeted this show as if it were an overdue Oprah opera, as if black America (and Africa?) finally had a film equivalent of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Director Ryan Coogler employs the solid conviction he brought to Creed and Fruitvale Station. Boseman and Jordan are manfully robust leaders. Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Lupita Nyong’o have good strut time. Colorful effects are so dazzling that the movie is its own parade, and the New York Times even had a giddy feature on the lavish, stagey hairstyles (sort of the Vidal Sassoon approach to “black lives matter”). There is general rejoicing, though I add a tiny ribbon of pathos: Eartha Kitt died nine years before she could have purred and preened as Wakandan royalty.
No doubt this is a totem of racial pride, but the black story has a green virus: Marvel money fever. Now a movie empire, still using its comics-born brain, the Marvel machine nearly always falls back on over-used ideas, a lavish mash of hash. So we find a plot hectic with obvious motivations; a car chase we’ve seen in countless mutations; cross-pollination with past and coming movies; lifts from other franchises (a weapons scene is straight outta Bond, not Compton); superheroes with bionic muscles but cardboard dialog; wow women holding statuesque poses; the villain feasting on sadistic fun – here that’s Andy Serkis as the racist British psycho Klaue (claw), hailing his own mayhem as “awesome!”

A white critic should not be too skeptical about a production that may inspire many a black child. After all, at 8 I thrilled to a re-release of King Solomon’s Mines and found tall, majestic Siriaque (as Umpoba, returning king of the lofty Watusi) even more excitingly heroic than “great white hunter” Stewart Granger. That 1950 adventure movie has dated attitudes (notably re: Deborah Kerr). But its green horizons still beckon, and it never lays out a red carpet for gilded purple kitsch.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
In her prime time, few actresses had a better decade than Gloria Grahame: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Crossfire (’47), immortal with Bogart in In a Lonely Place (’50), The Bad and the Beautiful (her loveable ditz won a supporting Oscar, ’52), The Greatest Show on Earth (’52), Sudden Fear (’52), the Fritz Lang/Glenn Ford noirs The Big Heat (’53) and Human Desire (’54), and a funny flip of image: Ado Annie in Oklahoma! (’55). Consider also the imposing first decade of Annette Bening: superb as Myra in The Grifters (1990), then ace in Postcards From the Edge (’90), Bugsy (’91), Guilty by Suspicion (’91), Richard III (’95), The American President (’95), Mars Attacks! (’96) and American Beauty (’99).

I would give Grahame the edge, though Bening has had a saner life and a good marriage (she bagged The Beatty!), while Grahame had five flops. Now a karmic kiss has brought these singular beauties together. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based on a fond memoir by Pete Turner, an English actor selling furniture when he met Grahame, who was doing a play in Britain near her life’s end. Jamie Bell may never match the boyish sensation of his Billy Elliot, but this layered movie proves he was no fluke. He supports Bening’s Gloria scene by scene, with genuine feeling and tact.

For Bening, Grahame is a capstone role, ripe in physical and emotive courage. She brings out Gloria’s nerve-strung moods without making her a tabloid neurotic. She underplays Gloria’s obsession with her upper lip which led to bad plastic surgeries, but we get the insecurities of a woman both fragile and forceful. Gloria and young Pete had a love affair from 1979 to 1981, and their story is no quaint footnote to Sunset Boulevard or Sweet Bird of Youth. It has the sweat and heat of sexual romance. And there is pathos. Grahame was dying of cancer, wouldn’t admit it, invited Pete to America, and later fled back to Liverpool as a refuge.

Pete’s parents are wonderfully earthbound Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham (who looks back at movie Gloria and smiles with relish: “You knew you’d get sore lips walking her home”). Vanessa Redgrave has a plummy scene as Gloria’s actress mother, reciting from Shakespeare’s Richard II (Gloria’s funny compliment: “Yeah, the Bard’s the nuts, mom”). Director Paul McGuigan polishes grace notes, doesn’t oversell sentiment or suffering, and allows Bening, an innately witty talent, to find the spit and spark in Gloria. Urszula Pontikos’s superbly lighted imagery, using a tight budget, resonates Liverpool, Hollywood and New York without sudsy nostalgia. While there may be overall a slightly gauzy scrim of memory, every soul texture is truthful.

Long ago the brilliant essayist Robert Warshow wrote that no one should leave their self out of the movies that matter. Grahame’s father was an architect (so was mine), and Gloria’s life span (1923-81) ran parallel to my father’s. Gloria’s gutsy, stoical finish reminds me of my mother’s last phase, three years earlier. Bening, who in early scenes has flashes of Monroe’s breathy sexiness, by the end looks more like haggard Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden. It is a small crime that Bening and Bell are not up for Oscars, but never mind. It’s the movie that matters.

SALAD (A List)
Fifteen Terrific Female Noir Performances:
Mary Astor as Brigid in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis in Double Indemnity (1944), Ann Savage as Vera in Detour (1945), Jane Greer as Kathie in Out of the Past (1947), Agnes Moorehead as Madge in Dark Passage (1947), Gloria Grahame as Laurel in In a Lonely Place (1950), Ida Lupino as Mary in On Dangerous Ground (1951), Thelma Ritter as Moe in Pickup on South Street (1953), Marie Windsor as Sherry in The Killing (1956), Kim Novak as Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo (1958), Nina van Pallandt as Eileen in The Long Goodbye (1973), Faye Dunaway as Evelyn in Chinatown (1974), Lily Tomlin as Margo in The Late Show (1975), Annette Bening as Myra in The Grifters (1990), Kim Basinger as Lynn in L.A. Confidential (1997).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Though an outspoken racial progressive, Orson Welles creatively admired film’s founding pioneer D.W. Griffith, whose biggest hit was the epochal (and racist) Birth of a Nation. He met him once, while making Citizen Kane, offering admiration but “uncharacteristically hemming and hawing.” They “stared at each other across a hopeless abyss … ‘There was no place for Griffith in the film industry by 1940,’ Welles said years later. ‘He was an exile in his own town, a prophet without honor, an artist without work. No wonder he hated me.” (Quotes from Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Matthew McConaughey made a big jump forward with 2013’s Arkansas river story Mud, written for him by director Jeff Nichols. With teen Tye Sheridan he had “a virtual blood transfusion of feeling. One of the best boy performances, ever, matches up with film’s best man-in-nature performance since Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, (and) the river seems to rise with Mud’s emotions.” (From the Matthew McConaughey/Dallas Buyers Club 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.

Glenn Ford confronts the full-frontal Gloria Grahame in Human Desire (Columbia Pictures, 1954; director Fritz Lang, cinematographer Burnett Guffey).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.