Friday, November 17, 2017

Nosh 88: 'The Florida Project,' 'Murder on the Orient Express'

By David Elliott
                                                  
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
Note: the next Nosh, no. 89, will arrive Dec. 1.



APPETIZER: Reviews of The Florida Project and Murder on the Orient Express
The Florida Project
April 30, 1969: a Disney press conference at the Ramada Inn off Highway 50 in Ocoee, Fla. – and I was there. But even as a very green “cub” reporter (for the Chicago Daily News), I was not very impressed by the scale model for the coming Walt Disney World, nor the flat speech given by nice, dull Roy O. Disney, Walt’s elder brother and junior partner. Roy built Walt’s final dream, not achieving the total Vision Thing but making the company billions (and making sleepy Orlando boom, if not bloom).

I never went back, yet a fine sequel has come: The Florida Project. Sean Baker’s movie, bursting with enough Floridean light and color to make the sun wear shades, was filmed in (don’t snicker) Kissimmee, 26 miles from Ocoee and 12 miles from Orlando. The film’s big motel, the Magic Castle, is supposedly very close to Disney World, and near Seven Dwarfs Lane, the huge-domed Orange World, the Twistee Treat and rotting, abandoned motels and condos. The Castle’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), has painted it candy purple and slaves to keep it civilized, despite cheap fixtures, bedbugs and many “guests” who are welfare tenants and remnants like Gloria (Sandy Kane), an old showgirl who sunbaths topless at the pool.

Dafoe buzzes with alert, fretful attention and almost saintly forbearance (his Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ was an excellent rehearsal). The film’s dramatic tripod rests on Bobby’s anxious concern about single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her child Moonee. Halley, with a flashing smile and the vinegar sass of an amateurish whore, is both a playful chum-mom and a trash pile of immaturity. Her crude talk and breezy attitude are imitated by smart little Moonee. As Moonee, Brooklyn Prince is a funny, vulnerable, snarky but innocent update on Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon. When she zips a zing like (at a buffet) “This is the life, better than a cruise,” a Tinkerbell rings: a little star is born.

Director, editor, writer Baker (with co-writer Chris Bergoch) also made 2015’s comedy Tangerine, about transsexual hookers in West Hollywood. Using that tripod of characters, Baker achieves a triple vision: the gaudy Florida of kitsch vulgarity, as seen by motel children living half-wild; a convulsed world of fearful, hard-luck adults, where a simple man like Bobby towers morally; and nearby Disney World, a fantasy of safe (and expensive) family fun. He combines the loose-jointed ensemble fluency of Robert Altman and the pop-eyed visual flair of Wes Anderson. In the closing 20 minutes all the strings converge, bringing one of the great finish shots in modern film. Like every director of hardy appetite, Baker captures a world by creating it. The parts can seem ragged, yet the living whole feels fiercely true. 



Murder on the Orient Express
It has been promoted like a last call for old thrills, mostly for the over-50s who might remember past versions, but Murder on the Orient Express overcame my resistance. The latest is a plush, credible entertainment, or as credible as the old Agatha Christie plot will allow. Deluxe suspects twist and tremble in a vortex of clues, though the only corpse is a gangster sharpie. It’s unlikely that the 1974 version with Albert Finney will ever be matched for pure star power on a posh train. But this new one is on the top side of a tradition that was dying when that picture was made: the star-spangled contraptions, crammed with major faces doing minor acting (in the desperate studio era of The VIPs, The Yellow Rolls Royce, The Longest Day, How the West Was Won, etc.).

Kenneth Branagh directed, smoothly polishing suspense rails as the Orient Express (Istanbul to Calais) rolls only to rural, 1930s Yugoslavia. The swank train is stranded by a wintry avalanche, leaving Belgian ultra-sleuth Hercule Poirot (Branagh) with a surfeit of suspects. To follow every deductive tangent would be silly, but tension mounts to a striking crisis of judgment, guilt, revenge and melodrama. Along with all the luxe (glossy woodwork, Deco glass, couture, champagne, Cole Porter), we get a   tricky overhaul of the Lindbergh kidnap tragedy (1932-36). Performances are deft: Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr., though stylish Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer are a bit under-served (Pfeiffer, using her age well, has a good crescendo).

Swift, elegant, not too festooned with CGI display, this diversion  has the sophisticated flair of Branagh, surely the wittiest Poirot since Peter Ustinov in Death on the Nile (1978). The dapper affectations, the éclat of precise innuendo, the accent pitched well above Inspector Clouseau, make his commanding performance the binding element. If we must filch old gems from the past, Branagh is a fine jeweler. He doesn’t cut the stones as if they were only coals to feed the furnace of plot.

SALAD (A List)
Twelve Strong Movies Set in Florida:
The Yearling (Clarence Brown, 1946), Key Largo (John Huston, 1948), Distant Drums (Raoul Walsh, 1951), The Strange One (Jack Garfein, 1957), Wind Across the Everglades (Nicholas Ray, 1958), Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967), Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan,1981), Cross Creek (Martin Ritt, 1983), 92 in the Shade (Thomas McGuane, 1992), Ruby in Paradise (Victor Nuñez, 1993), Rosewood (John Singleton, 1997) and Ulee’s Gold (Victor Nuñez, 1997). 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson was not fond of the Method, or intellectual acting, or even some classical effects of his old friend and early stage mentor Micheál Mac Liammoír, playing Iago (very well) in the 1952 Othello: “There was a moment near the end of a scene that has remained a standing joke between Micheál and myself for years. He had to pick up Othello’s cloak and go. And he picked it up, and looked very meaningful and all that sort of stuff, and finally I said to him, ‘Micheál, pick up the cloak and go!’ And that’s become a sort of basic thing I use when an actor wants to enrich his performance, I say, ‘Pick up the cloak and go!” (Welles to Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles. The beautifully restored Othello recently came out as a Criterion double disc.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Katherine Hepburn’s subtle brilliance in the small restaurant scene in Alice Adams, with Fred MacMurray’s Arthur, “pressures Pauline Kael’s remark that Hepburn ‘has always been too individualistic, too singular for common emotions.’ Here she is giving fairly common emotions an uncommonly stylish clarity. Words arrive emotionally liquid, tempo ebbs and flows, candor teases open truth. It’s a lesson in ‘good breeding’ beyond the social game. She even chides Arthur’s dull, ‘laconic eloquence’ by warning about loose talk.” (From the Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter in my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available at Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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



Cigar aloft, Orson Welles armors up to be Othello, as his Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) watches (Mercury/United Artists, 1952; director Orson Welles).

For previous Noshes, scroll below. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Nosh 87: 'LBJ' (Lyndon Johnson), 'Take Every Wave' (Laird Hamilton)


By David Elliott
                                                  


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

APPETIZER: Reviews of LBJ and Take Every Wave
LBJ
“All the Way with LBJ.” Theaters that show double-bills – how many are left? – can now echo the 1964 campaign slogan with a fine pairing: All the Way (Bryan Cranston as Lyndon B. Johnson, 2016) with LBJ (Woody Harrelson, 2017). Granted, neither grapples with his big, ruinous mistake: Vietnam. But each is a powerful lesson in the charisma of political power incarnated. Of the two I’d vote, by a narrow margin, for Harrelson’s. Rob Reiner, surely no LBJ fan when he was the “meathead” son on All in the Family, directed this Johnson tribute to embrace him without fawning. The details, richly packed, provide a discerning view of the 36th president (1963-69) as, in high prime, a brave and very impressive figure.

Cranston’s excellent performance came from a stage play, Harrelson’s by way of Joey Hartstone’s script. Over half of the picture uses flashbacks from Nov. 22, 1963, when Vice President Johnson, believing his political future was over, was vaulted into power by the killing of President John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan, credible). That it happened in LBJ’s Texas tossed a deeper shadow on Johnson, furthering the bitterness of Robert Kennedy (febrile Michael Stahl-David). The venom of the relationship came mostly from Bobby. Johnson also had to deal with a nation in shock, and JFK’s legacy left unfinished. The movie focuses on how Johnson turned away from his Southern roots and the bond with his Dixie mentor, Sen. Richard Russell (excellent Richard Jenkins), by reviving the ideals of his New Deal youth and his heartfelt concern for American blacks (the neat peg to personalize that is his esteem for his cook, a black woman).



Johnson championed Kennedy’s civil rights bill with a canny, ruthless urgency that JFK never summoned, using the fallen leader as the key to force overdue change. LBJ climaxes with his first speech to Congress as president, one of the greatest in our history. By then we have gobbled the feast of his willful drive, foxy wiles, pushy charm and vulgar bravura (to hear him call Sen. Strom Thurmond “an asshole and a moron” is rude poetry).Woody Harrelson doesn’t have the full Johnson height, and is a little boxy in the jaw, but he has nailed the Johnsonian juggernaut humanly. Even John Wayne, who hated Lyndon, might have saluted.


LBJ is not a work of art like Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, about Mrs. Kennedy in trauma, and yet it gets nearly all the essentials right. Old footage and new join well, and expert acting includes Jennifer Jason Leigh’s nurturing, twang-true Lady Bird Johnson. Given the current manure pile in the White House, you can come away from this film believing that Johnson was heaven-sent (until Vietnam). For the total saga, the full Texan typhoon, go to Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography.




Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton
Many years in San Diego never led me to surfing. I’ve only seen Laird Hamilton in movies which have a Big Kahuna whiff of “Surf’s up!” But once you fathom the immense range and danger of his aquatic empire, you realize that Hamilton is one of the greatest modern athletes, repeatedly putting body, health and life on a liquid line. “Awesome” has become an exhausted word, but it fits him like a wet suit. At 53 he has conquered just about any wave he chose to ride (and even board-paddled across the English Channel with a pal).

Little Laird’s mom, soon single, moved the tot to Hawaii, where waves fill the horizon and where his blond bod became propulsively hydraulic. Rory Kennedy, director of Take Every Wave (and also the fine Last Days in Vietnam), is not an icon polisher. He reveals that Hamilton was a bratty white rebel fighting native Hawaiian boys, chose a surfing step-dad whose “tough love” bordered on abusive, hated school but found in the Pacific a turbulent university of risk and reward. Riding giants of crushing power, he became the loner-leader of other surf gods. Distaste for authority and judgment made him disdain contest surfing, and quickly ended his dude posing for photographer Bruce Weber, also starring in cornball beach movies.


This has not won universal affection from other wave masters, some resenting Hamilton’s willfulness and celebrity. There are acute testimonies, but inevitably the film is about Laird in action, including his breakthroughs in tow-surfing, sailboarding and foil boards, and his topping, gutsy gambles off Hawaii and Tahiti. On land he remains the brash jock, hard-muscling past age and injuries (down moods nearly lost his beautiful wife Gabby, who is like an Aphrodite clone of Laird). At sea he is the master, the kin and king of any wave that curls in his direction. 
   
SALAD (A List)
Worthy Movies About U.S. Presidents:
The Crossing, 2000 (Jeff Daniels as George Washington); The President’s Lady, 1953 (Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson); Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939 (Henry Fonda as Abe); Abe Lincoln in Illinois, 1940 (Raymond Massey as Abe); Lincoln, 2012 (Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe); Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!, 1975 (James Whitmore as Harry Truman); Truman, 1995 (Gary Sinise as Harry); 13 Days, 2001 (Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy); All the Way, 2016 (Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson); LBJ, 2017 (Woody Harrelson as Johnson); Secret Honor, 1984 (Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon); Frost/Nixon, 2008 (Frank Langella as Nixon) and Southside With You, 2016 (Parker Sawyers as young Barack Obama). .  


WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
One of the many superb shots in Citizen Kane is a deep-focal view past prone, suicidal Susan to Kane bursting into her room, yet Welles later found it hard to watch: “It was a very dark scene until the door opens and I come in – and then you see this bracelet I had on by accident, because I had a girlfriend who made me wear it. Every time I think of that scene, I think of my reaching down and you see this awful love charm – nothing at all to do with Kane.” (Welles to Peter Bogdanovich in the book This Is Orson Welles. It’s hard to imagine that anyone made him wear a charm bracelet, until you realize that the girlfriend was almost certainly his luscious Latina love, Dolores Del Rio.)


ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
My “declaration of principles” (and method): “My text wears no academic robes of canons, semiotics, formalist analysis, etc. Every writer has a temperament of taste, ‘each work entrusts the writer with the form it seeks’ (Borges), and newspaper ink lubricates my prose. Taste is important, but if you are constantly polishing marble in your personal Pantheon, you become a frieze. I agree with Ross Macdonald that ‘popular culture is not and need not be at odds with high culture, any more than the rhythms of walking are at odds with the dance.” (From the Introduction to my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available at Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)


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



Abe (Henry Fonda) take his leisure in Young Mr. Lincoln (20th Century Fox, 1939; director John Ford).


For previous Noshes, scroll below.


Thursday, November 2, 2017

Nosh 86: 'Lucky,' 'Mark Felt' & More

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



APPETIZER: Reviews of Lucky and Mark Felt 
Lucky
Harry Dean Stanton’s acting apex was Paris, Texas (1984), his lonesome Travis first seen solo, walking the baked Texas desert. As the title figure in Lucky, Stanton walks alone near a desert town in California, not far from an escaped pet tortoise. Lucky is 90. The shelled critter, though probably older, will never attain Harry Dean’s cultic aura.

Lucky is a farewell valentine that pivots on Stanton, his moves and moods, his scarecrow bod and haggard face. Bits of Stanton history crop up: never married, maybe had a child or two, Kentucky roots, Navy service WWII, love of singing (no mention of acting). Lucky awakens each morning, drinks milk, exercises a little, then opens his daily pack of smokes. His doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) marvels, given that Lucky lives mainly on cigarettes, coffee and Bloody Marys. He is a stone-cool totem of local color, his chief competition being Howard (David Lynch, often Stanton’s director), mournful owner of the departed tortoise called President Roosevelt.

Lucky is a cranky atheist, but Stanton’s own, existential Buddhism seeps in. There is sober nobility in his Zen yen to look death in the eye, with both fear and resolve, an echo of Yeats’s wish to exit “proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb.” Lucky’s main regret: shooting a mockingbird in boyhood (young Stanton could have been a wonderful Boo Radley). At a Latino birthday fiesta, Lucky croak-sings “Volver, Volver,” as piercingly genuine a moment as the old man’s final song on a swing in Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Another epiphany has Lucky meeting a fellow veteran (Tom Skerritt) at a coffeehouse, and hearing his war tale. This painful reverie of memory equals a similar scene with Richard Farnsworth and Wiley Harker in Lynch’s The Straight Story.

Actor John Carroll Lynch (Marge’s husband in Fargo, recently swell in The Founder) directed with acerbic love, not corn. Fine supports are sharp-eyed photographer Tim Suhrstedt and actors Jame Darren, Beth Grant, Ron Livingston and Barry Shabaka Henley. At its best the movie is like Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge with added mysterioso vibes from David Lynch or Werner Hezog. It is HDS’s memorial and a lovely exit: wistful, wise, funny, smart but heartfelt. To hear Lucky growl “there goes your fuckin’ Buick” is a deeply Stantonian reward. Harry Dean died at 91 of natural causes on Sept. 15, having been a natural actor for over 60 years. (My earlier tribute is in Nosh 80, below; a richer one is the Paris, Texas chapter in my book.)



Mark Felt
Mark Felt is like a Watergate buff’s picnic basket, full of snakes. Around it coils now, inevitably, Trump’s toxic python. Richard Nixon was a destructive neurotic, yet his “high crimes and misdemeanors” may be surpassed by the “clear and present danger” of our current presidential creep. In this context, Mark Felt is a pertinent reminder from the past.

Felt was the suave keeper of dark, dark secrets for J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI. He gained murky fame as Deep Throat, his hidden clues  prodding the Washington Post’s exposure of Nixon’s fiasco. Hoover died weeks before the Watergate burglary, and Felt was bitter about not getting his job (the Nixonites never trusted him to preserve their own jars of slime). Those of us who lived through the 1972-74 saga can now feel a weird rush of names and memories. For those who don’t: good luck.

Peter Landesman directed and wrote (from Felt’s books), using radiant D.C. structures, shadowy confrontations, and glimmers of All the President’s Men. The new star in the old cave of corruption is Liam Neeson as Felt. With elegant hair, eagle profile and the lofty posture of a statue, he might be Eliot Ness’s dream of Lincoln. Felt is also a control maniac and fierce smoker who feels crucified by betraying his Bureau norms (for a greater good). Long  Hoovering for J. Edgar has left his spirit clogged by too many shredded files.

Diane Lane struggles to portray Audrey Felt, depressed that Mark is really married to the Bureau. A side-story about their radical daughter leads to a “hippie love commune,” very odd in context. But the pacing is swift, the clips fine. Good actors include Ed Miller, Josh Lucas, Bruce Greenwood, Eddie Marsan, Tom Sizemore and (excellent as Nixon squirm tool L. Patrick Gray) Martin Csokas. Above all, Felt rescues Neeson from revenge movies that were making him a retro collage of Charles Bronson and Charlton Heston. If he had the voice of Hal Halbrook, the classic Deep Throat of All the President’s Men, he’d be the perfect Felt.                  

SALAD (A List)
Worthy Watergate/Nixon Movies, with star and date:
All the President’s Men (Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, 1976), Will: G. Gordon Liddy (Robert Conrad, 1982), Secret Honor (Philip Baker Hall, 1985), The Final Days (Lane Smith, 1989), Nixon (Anthony Hopkins, 1995), Dick (Dan Hedaya, 1999), Frost/Nixon (Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, 2008), Our Nixon (Richard Nixon, 2013), Mark Felt (Liam Neeson, 2017). There also potent Nixonian vibes in The Conversation (Gene Hackman, 1974).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
One of film’s great, important screenings occurred at RKO on Feb. 14, 1941. For the newly minted but controversial Citizen Kane, studio chief George Schaefer “wanted a tough audience, film artisans whose reputations were towering … Directors King Vidor, William Dieterle, Robert Stevenson and Garson Kanin came, along with Howard Hawks. Distinguished agent Leland Hayward sat in, Cedric Hardwicke was an honored guest … everyone there knew why he had been invited. In some ways, not only the fate of one picture was at stake that night, it was easy to believe that Hollywood’s future could have been hovering in a sort of existential balance.” It went very Welles. (Quote from Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles.) 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Bennett Miller, no pedant but alive to all nuances, shows Tim on top a Brooklyn roof. He gazes into milky Manhattan light, and suddenly my mind blushes pensively: Speed Levitch’s chiseled features, curly hair, acne scars and aura of expectancy bring back Jeffrey Jacobs, my Chicago pal, usher, waiter, wit, gone unacceptably soon when his cruise ended in 1990. Movies can be astonishingly personal.” (From the Timothy Levitch/The Cruise chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available at Amazon, Nook and Kindle).

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


Kanji (Takashi Shimura) faces a graceful end in Ikiru (Toho, 1952; director Akira Kurosawa, cinematographer Asakazu Nakai).



For previous Noshes, scroll below. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Nosh 85: 'Blade Runner 2049' & More

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


APPETIZER: Review of Blade Runner 2049 
Any tiny buds of hope that 2049 will be a good year are prematurely trampled by Blade Runner 2049. An avalanche of posturing visions, almost three hours long, this follow-up to the 1982 cult film (loved by me and many) is a severe case of sequelitis deformatus. Director Denis Villeneuve showed he could bulge budgets and taffy-twist ideas in Sicario and Arrival. Now he blows the roof off a factory of sci-fi concepts, lavishly mutated from Ridley Scott’s masterwork (which at age 35 – ancient in multiplex terms – still has more beauty, texture and emotion).

Scott went on to make the most humanly rooted and scientific of modern space hits, The Martian. He also pointed the way to this overload, with his 1992 “director’s cut” of Blade Runner and then a “final cut.” Villeneuve’s cram-o-rama deserves about 40 minutes of cutting. Instead of Harrison Ford as Deckard, the deadly “blade runner” cop who tracked down “replicants” (slave androids) in a rainy, trashy, retro-futurist Los Angeles, the star is Ryan Gosling. As young blade K (the nod to Kafka’s Joseph K is made explicit), Gosling’s face is often a mask of bland but manly puzzlement. Maybe he’s missing his L.A. jazz club in La La Land.

K’s L.A. in 2049 is a cold, brutalist hell, with most of the past city a radioactive death dump of ruins and refuse. K owns a pop-up holographic bimbo, played with love-sofa lips by Cuba’s Ana de Armas. Up in a high tower, grim and ruthless Robin Wright serves the big corporate devil (Jared Leto, his intensity black-holed by dead eyes). The pass key here is fixated nostalgia. The movie assumes that we not only revere and recall every wrinkle of the first film, but yearn to smooth them out with this injection of improved paranoia. The result has some remarkable sights but is finally sedating. BR 2049 is a dreamy lab mummy, like Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and the Spielberg/Kubrick A.I.

Old theme: Are the blade runners themselves androids? New twist: Can replicants reproduce sexually? Such fanboy vapors blow through a kind of theme park for the 2049 “Die Like a Droid” issue of Vanity Fair. The film’s ideal viewer is a smart kid who dreams of becoming the master nerd at Comic-Con. Hyper-designed settings blast our eyeballs, climaxes spawn offshoots, digital nudes offer kinky winks of sex. Instead of 1982 robo-hunk Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), dying in tropical rain (so movingly that the big brute won audience tears), a replicant expires in soft, gentle snow. Finally, at last: a Perry Como Christmas special for cyborgs.

But look who’s back! Harrison Ford! Age becomes him. No, age is him. The crags sag, the voice is blunter than ever, the nuances growl and explode. But his Deckard has a ravaged poignancy that upstages Gosling, who remains a sullen Hamlet looking for a script (or a styling comb). The central limitation of this almost interminable saga – spiced with hip plugs for Kafka, Nabokov, Tchaikovsky, Elvis and Sinatra – is that we welcome dear old Deckard while caring little for K. How do you hug a guy whose full name is KD6-3.7?                   

SALAD (A List)
Harrison Ford’s Ten Best Efforts, starting from the top:
1. Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive (1993), 2. Rick Deckard in Blade Runner (1982), 3. John Book in Witness (1985), 4. Jack Trainer in Working Girl (1988), 5. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981), 6. Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast (1986), 7. Han Solo in Star Wars (1977), 8. Deckard in Blade Runner 2049 (2017), 9. Jack Ryan in Clear and Present Danger (1994) and 10. Bob Falfa in American Graffiti (1973).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
A bias against Orson Welles, before the Hearst attacks on Citizen Kane, began showing itself with the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast and its “panic”: “For a decade, newspapers had gradually lost ground to radio in both ad revenue and timely reporting, owing precisely to the innovation of flash news bulletins of the type Welles dramatized in War of the Worlds. Among old-school newsmen there was a distinct ‘anti-radio’ sentiment (which) in turn lent an anti-Orson slant to the press coverage. Welles recalled: ‘Editorials ranted about how irresponsible CBS and Welles were, insisting that I would never be offered another job in show business, and how lucky I was not to be in jail … they assured their readers that newspapers would never sink to such reckless disregard for the public’s welfare.” (From Patrick McGilligan’s invaluable Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path of Citizen Kane.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“No young star entered the 21st century from a better starting block than Matthew McConaughey. He had the best male star-bod since Paul Newman; the structural definition of Gregory Peck; film’s finest flash-smile since Jack Nicholson; the most confident entry role since Cagney and Gable, and a voice with the rooted American appeal of John Wayne. Add the virtues of absence: not agingly boyish like Tom Cruise; not a middleweight McQueen like Brad Pitt; not macho-stolid like Matt Damon; not fetchingly fey like Johnny Depp; not a goofball like Nicholas Cage; not a beef buffet like Channing Tatum, and not a red-carpet totem like George Clooney. Here was the best Texan for movies since Tommy Lee Jones, and far more likeable.” (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.


Rutger Hauer’s deathless (though dying) role, as replicant Roy Batty in the original Blade Runner (Warner Bros. 1982; director Ridley Scott, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth).

For previous Noshes, scroll below. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Nosh 84: 'The Foreigner,' 'Faces Places' & More

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of Faces Places and The Foreigner
Faces Places
Though film-struck, I was too youthfully ignorant of French cinema in 1955 to know about Agnès Varda making her first movie. Her latest, Faces Places, was filmed at age 88. Varda has probably toppled eternally controversial Leni Riefenstahl (Hitler’s choice!) as the greatest female director. Nominate Jane Campion, Agnieszka Holland or Chantal Akerman, and you’d better make a fantastic case.

Faces Places is a road-tripper like Varda’s The Gleaners and I, another loosely built documentary essay. Her compelling partner is the roving photo-site artist called JR, then aged 33. The tall hipster, a former tagger, wears dark glasses (Agnès keeps urging him to remove them) and has a terrific eye. They first met on Paris’s Rue Daguerre (long ago the locale of Varda’s Daguerrotypes). Delighted by the tiny, round auteur, JR invites her to hit the roads in his van, which is made to look like a camera. With it he creates, often first using a 28mm. wide-angle lens, black-and-white portraits of people he finds. Like Varda he is a humorous gleaner of life and humanity.

JR “blows up” many pictures, expanded for sectional pasting onto buildings, trains, ruins. These visions confer a local fame closer to Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland than Orwell’s Big Brother. A shy villager feels conflicted about her wall-sized celebrity, while a wry down-and-outer is bemused and thrilled by his elevation from obscurity. The stimulating talk of Agnès and JR adds Gallic sauce to their trip, as they ponder art, age and film. Two splendid creations rise near waves. In one, a snap that Agnès took in youth, of her late friend the photographer Guy Bourdin, is JR’d onto a fallen German bunker on a Norman beach. The other lofts epic snaps of three women onto stacked cargo containers in Le Havre (they’re among the port’s few female harbor workers). One episode spills open love, time, loss, transience, while the other is a towering feminist statement.

Like other New Wave talents, even Truffaut, Resnais and Varda’s beloved husband Jacques Demy, Varda was always crowded by the cerebral éclat of Jean-Luc Godard. There is a clip of young Godard with her, and a fond, merry salute to his Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964). Agnès chose to end with a Godardian topper, which proved to be less than the celebration she wanted. But the finish is still a touché. Varda remains triumphant, the great surviving surfer of the New Wave.


The Foreigner
One asset of The Foreigner, a strong action movie, is that Jackie Chan at 63 uses his age well. At least his face does, as Chan sustains the battered, angry grief of a man who has lost his daughter in a London terrorist bombing. This being a Chan film, we know that the body will out-perform the face. The moves are less flamboyant now, and may have stunt support, but Chan is in charge. He plays a London restauranteur with a covert military past (Vietnam and beyond), and he goes on the revenge path against a viciously rogue I.R.A. unit that detonated the bomb (as for more current evil, there is one mention of Isis and Al-Qaeda).

Despite his Vietnamese name our hero is Chinese, even gets called “the Chinaman” (I thought the term faded with Charlie Chan and chop suey). The source is Stephen Leather’s novel The Chinaman, a title that must still be PC in Britain. Giving old, Bronson-trashed action clichés some fresh zest is director Martin Campbell, a proven wiz with mayhem, suspense, torture, the whole kit. The action in Belfast and London is grimly exciting, though it does seem that both cities are mainly platforms for surveillance cameras. Jackie’s fists and tricks, leaps and traps will, of course, lay high-tech low.

In essence The Foreigner is a duel of two aging men. The acting edge belongs not to Chan, for all his grizzled-cherubic intensity, but to nemesis Pierce Brosnan. As a former I.R.A. war chief turned into a peace-pious politician, while playing his own dirty game, Brosnan (Irish-born, now 64) swings a St. Pat’s Irish accent like an emerald flame thrower. He schemes, simmers and unleashes profane, Piercing rages. It’s a show in itself, and more than makes up for Brosnan’s singing in Mamma Mia! 

SALAD (A List)
Twelve Other Important Agnès Varda Movies:
La Pointe Corte (1956), Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962), Salut les Cubains (1963), Le Bonheur (1965), Lions Love (and Lies) 1969, Daguerrotypes (1976), One Sings the Other Doesn’t (1977), Murs Murs (1981), Vagabond (1985), Jacquot de Nantes (1991), 101 Nights (1995), The World of Jacques Demy (1995), The Gleaners and I (2000).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles: “The camera is much more than a recording apparatus. It is a medium via which messages reach us from another world, a world that is not ours, that brings us to the heart of the great secret. Here magic begins. A film is a ribbon of dreams.” (From Peter Cowie’s The Cinema of Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“And then – shazaam! – a shining key plops into the dirty water. Diane places it in the trash, but later finds her nerve and presses the buzzer of her new neighbor: ‘Are you washing a dog?’ (Lionel: ‘Excuse me?’) ‘Your dog’s hair is in my pipe.’ (Lionel: ‘Perhaps you should check out the basement’). In 2015 some of us chuckled when Kidman, in Paddington, spoke of ‘drains clogged with hair.” (From the Nicole Kidman/Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, obtainable from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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


Lily Tomlin, Art Carney and Bill Macy wash a lot of noir laundry in The Late Show (Warner Bros. 1977; director Robert Benton, cinematographer Charles Rosher Jr.)

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Nosh 83: ''Battle of the Sexes,' 'Rebel in the Rye' & More

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



APPETIZER: Reviews of Battle of the Sexes and Rebel in the Rye
Battle of the Sexes
A time capsule for those who don’t recall the challenge tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome (Sept. 20, 1973), Battle of the Sexes lumbers along dutifully for its first hour. In 2001 an ABC-TV movie, When Billie Beat Bobby, had Helen Hunt as King and Ron Silver as Riggs. Now we’ve got Emma Stone as King, then 29, rising fast in a career that pushed female pro tennis into feminism. Steve Carell plays Riggs, at 55 way past his early prime (at 21, male singles winner at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open). Stone and Carell provide good facial matches, though she seems slight, almost girlish. In long shot, gifted players reproduce the action which led to King’s triumph (6-4, 6-3, 6-3). She got the $100,000 purse. Riggs, notoriously a gambler, likely profited from side-bets.

Director Valerie Feris and Jonathan Dayton stage obligatory wind-ups about the families, Billie Jean’s anchoring the new Virginia Slims tournaments, and male piggery from the old tennis elite and press (BJK is called “this little lady” and Howard Cosell praises her for playing like a man). No fella wore his hog bristles more keenly than Riggs, though that was often just porky bunting for his   hustle. Carell revels in every stunt, goad and gambit, and Elisabeth Shue not only looks terrific but is subtle as his wife, alternately patient and fed-up. There are plot conveniences. Did Bobby really show up at Billie Jean’s hotel to pitch the big “battle” on the very morning after the married King embraced her first lesbian love, a dewy hairdresser? She later came out as a gay icon, but Stone often seems trapped in the script’s netting of sexual and political points. As for tennis, well, Stone’s court action is on a par with her dippy-trippy dancing in La La Land.

Battle earns points for bringing back a remarkable sliver of the ’70s, when tennis had cultural edge. The match ended rather predictably: a superb young athlete had everything to prove, and she did, by exhausting and out-smarting a brash has-been who confused chutzpah with training. For the history lessons, this is Billie Jean’s movie. As entertainment it belongs, as in 1973, to Bobby. His new rival is the tennis outfit stylist for the Virginia Slims players, played by Alan Cumming as a queenly composite of Noel Coward and Project Runway’s Tim Gunn. He intones the final lesson, royally. 



Rebel in the Rye
J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye never had much of a chance with me, given that the young sourball hero, Holden Caulfield, says this on page two: “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.” O.K., kid, but in my book you’ll never be William Holden. Now that the novel has sold over 60 million copies, and Salinger has been dead since 2010, we get the movie Rebel in the Rye (its literary wit is more like Dabble in the Wry).

Salinger biographer Kenneth Slawenski contributed to the script, a studious rummage through “Jerry” Salinger’s early writing ordeals and then the cultic fame that turned him into a fabled recluse. The details, 1939 to early ’50s, are credible, and Kevin Spacey is skillfully engaged as an early writing mentor, Whit Burnett. There’s something O’Neill about this scrappy idealist, as if extracted from Spacey’s work in The Iceman Cometh (Salinger’s first big love was Oona O’Neill, the playwright’s daughter, who married Chaplin).

As Salinger, British actor Nick Hoult has a small touch of Jack Nicholson, but perhaps maintaining a flat American accent limited him to about three facial expressions. None of the more adult figures add much drama, though Spacey is touching and Bernard White is appealing as Jerry’s Vedantic guru (still, “overcoming distractions” hardly sums up this great religious philosophy). It’s a movie in which the hero’s rich dad (Victor Garber) stiffly insults his son’s artistic dreams, but later, near the finish, confides that he had yearned to become a musician. Director Danny Strong is strong with the WWII scenes, yet Jerry’s combat trauma just sort of dribbles into his Vedantic meditations and his phobia about fame. Salinger now seems buried inside Caulfield. Holden may still live, yet not much in this movie. 
      
SALAD (A List)
Twelve Good Movies About Real Sports Figures (with lead subject, director, date): Olympia (Jesse Owens, Leni Riefenstahl, 1937), The Pride of the Yankees (Lou Gehrig, Sam Wood, 1942), Pumping Iron (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Butler/Fiore, 1977), Raging Bull (Jake LaMotta, Martin Scorsese, 1980), Cobb (Ty Cobb, Ron Shelton, 1994), When We Were Kings (Muhammad Ali, Leon Gast, 1996), The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (Greenberg, Aviva Kempner, 1998), Ali (Muhammad Ali, Michael Mann, 2001), Riding Giants (Laird Hamilton, Stacy Peralta, 2004), Unforgiveable Blackness (Jack Johnson, Ken Burns, 2004), Senna (Ayrton Senna, Asif Kapedia, 2010) and Moneyball (Billy Beane, Bennett Miller, 2011). 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Standard popcorn chompers decided the Hollywood fate of Orson Welles at a March 17, 1942, Pomona preview of The Magnificent Ambersons. Most hated the dark, demanding film. RKO chief and Welles advocate George Schaefer was aghast, and a committee effort hacked the melancholy beauty, adding some weak inserts. Welles, on location in far-off Brazil, “simply assumed – as he had every right to – that he would have an opportunity to rework the film himself (and) cabled 37 pages of revisions …’I had no idea that (my enemies) would prevail.” The bad fix was in. (Quote from Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Pam Grier’s apex role as Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) had been a long time coming: “In Roger Corman’s Filipino quickies, with sweaty, under-clad women staging cat fights, Grier was the only one reading Stanislavsky on the set. Pam shaped her image, enjoyed doing stunts, asserted some independence. Violence was obligatory, but ‘my movies featured women claiming the right to fight back.’ Her innate dignity and force gave her leverage, despite promo like ‘A chick with drive who’ll take no jive!” (From the Pam Grier/Jackie Brown 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.


Villain Raymond Burr (top) watches his goons subdue Robert Mitchum (bottom) in His Kind of Woman (RKO, 1951; director John Farrow, cinematographer Harry J. Wild).

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Nosh 82: 'Brad's Status,' 'Polina' & More

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



APPETIZER: Reviews of Brad’s Status and Polina
Brad’s Status
Ben Stiller’s got the whole world of Brad in his hands, as well as Brad’s Status. His Sacramento life is quite nice: good job serving not-for-profit enterprises; a lovingly supportive wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer); a late-teen son, Troy (Austin Abrams), flying  with dad to apply at Harvard and other posh Eastern schools. This lad is so cool and thoughtful, such a budding mensch, I’d say he should drop his musical dream and become a diplomat.

The movie, largely narrated and thought-spoken by Stiller, is mainly about the algae bloom of neurotic anxiety in Brad’s head. The trip reminds him of his college days, when his future beckoned like God’s red carpet. Now Brad not only envies his blithe, sturdy son, he suffers midlife jealousy of old buddies, alpha-males in the fast lane. The movie, written and directed by Mike White (script shaper of Chuck & Buck and School of Rock), has cartoonish fun with these over-attainers. One (White) is in Hollywood gay, party bliss mode. Another (Luke Wilson) is piling loot as a shady investor. Another (Jemaine Clement) lives a Hawaiian beach dream with micro-bikini sexpots. The chief piece of work is Craig (Michael Sheen), a celebrated White House intimate who preens in a restaurant like Achilles admiring himself in a battle shield.

Most of the best humor, and seriousness, comes from Stiller. He again puts the accent in “comic actor” on “actor.” He’s as nakedly exposed as a Woody Allen noodle, yet with real insides. Even his near choke-up, listening to Dvorak’s Humoresque, has validity. True, the movie’s “issues” are a little la-di-da in this stormy, Harvey-Irma-Maria time. And at moments the film seems like a weird double promo for Harvard and Pringles. It’s a small work, rather glib, but the father-son combination unpacks some credible ideas and feelings, all finely performed. 



Polina
Polina in Polina is not Polish but Russian. Part of the film’s lure is the musical flow of Russian speech, sprinkled with French. The effect is fairly Tolstoyan, and there is a touch of Tolstoy’s Natasha in Polina at 8, played by delicate Veronika Zhovnytska. Her doting dad takes her to the snowy woods to hunt rabbits, and the fawn-like girl sees a proud elk, rivaling the majestic Scottish stag in The Queen. Alas, dad could be hunted himself, since he’s a minor figure in one of the criminal operations of the post-Soviet era.

Polina’s passion is ballet (hence the French). Her dance teacher into adolescence (Alexei Guskov) sternly shapes her to become a ballerina at the great Bolshoi in Moscow. We expect the film to exalt the continuance of that old, imperial heritage. But not long after pencil-thin Polina is taken over by teen sylph Anastasia Shevtsova, she pirouettes towards the West. Lured to lusty Provence by a lofty dance hunk (Niels Schneider), Polina faces the challenge not only of debut sex (softly gauzed by hanging tutus) but a different dance culture. For a while, having left the Bolshoi academy’s barre, she is doing bar work (yep, serving beer) in Brussels. Soon, a new partner stirs new moves. 

Lovingly detailed, dance-driven and mood-spun (by director Valerie Müller and choreo-director Angelin Preljocaj), the film charms. Despite one clear handicap. Although she’s a camera vision worthy of Degas, Shevtsova and her male partners dance better than they act. When Juliette Binoche turns up as a modern dance mentor, passionately engaged, the film matures. Like most dance movies, Polina is exciting in motion but otherwise a touch static. Some clichés land en pointe, but Franco-Russian graces still cast a Tolstoyan spell.
 
SALAD (A List)
Twelve Strong Movies About Dance and Dancers:
Shall We Dance (Sandrich-Astaire, 1937), The Red Shoes (Powell, 1948), Invitation to the Dance (Kelly, 1956), Black Orpheus (Camus, 1959), Saturday Night Fever (Badham, 1977), Dirty Dancing (Ardolino, 1987), Shall We Dance (Suo, 1997), Billy Elliot (Daldry, 2000), Mad Hot Ballroom (Agrelo, 2005), La Danse (Wiseman, 2009), Pina (Wenders-Baush, 2011) and The Fits (Holmer, 2015).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles, an inspiration even for Ed Wood Jr. (see Tim Burton’s Ed Wood), made art even at humble Republic Pictures, with Macbeth (1947). Having prepped with a stage production in Salt Lake City, Utah, he filmed at the studio, sometimes using horse-opera sets dressed up as dark, dank, medieval Scotland. They included “the salt mine that the cowboys always used to get lost in. That became the great hall of the castle. Our costumes, lamentably, were rented from Western Costume, except for Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth … mine looked like the Statue of Liberty, but there was no dough for another, so I was stuck with it.” (Welles, a bit  painfully amused, to Peter Bogdanovich in This Is Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Robert Altman filmed The Long Goodbye precisely because he wished to update Raymond Chandler’s tired, baggy novel to 1972, and use Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe: “Source piety never had a chance, and those who feel that Altman sabotaged Chandler should ponder the novelist’s statement to his agent: ‘I didn’t care whether the mystery was fairly obvious, but I cared about the people, about the strange corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tried to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish.’ Gould, working with Altman, gave that a spin and a bounce like no other actor.” (From the Elliott Gould/The Long Goodbye chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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



Angora-sweatered Ed (Johnny Depp) strikes a rather Wellesian note in Ed Wood (Touchstone 1994; director Tim Burton).

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