Thursday, July 20, 2017

Nosh 72: 'The Big Sick,' The Exception' & More

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of The Big Sick and The Exception

The Big Sick
As the lead in The Big Sick, comedian Kumail Nanjiani tries to impress a date with his movie taste: The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Night of the Living Dead … But I’d bet that star and co-writer Nanjiani has a deeper source in his head: Buster Keaton, the funniest stone-face, the silent king of deadpan. As a modern comic and actor, Nanjiani relies on words as Buster didn’t, but he also has a watchful stillness, a shy gravity, a gift for pauses and gulpy silences. They resonate his gags, and let us peer into the thinker (and feeler) behind them.

Kumail, as everyone calls him, is an aspiring Chicago stand-up, and Michael Showalter’s movie heads back often to the club, the funny buddies, the sitcom rhythms. My response: move on (even Robert De Niro did it, recently, in The Comedian). But as the title implies, The Big Sick is not all laffs. The club stuff is periodic stress relief. So is Kumail’s émigré family, trying to marry him to a nice, Muslim, Pakistani woman (that’s funny, much like My Big Fat Greek Wedding). More stressed, yet also funny, are the parents of his new, very American girl: experts Ray Romano, as the big, good shlub of a dad, and Holly Hunter as her mom (decades after Raising Arizona, Hunter still has the best fem-twang in the biz, and the timing of her scenes with Kumail is perfection).

I offer the “c” word: coma. Pale, bird-cute Emily (Zoe Kazan), Kumail’s new squeeze, is dear, funny and charming.As Kumail is good at guilty confessions, I confide one myself. When an infection puts Emily into the hospital, then a coma, I felt: good, a break from the rock-drill undertone of her voice. Emily rebounds after much suspense, heartache and medical consultation. You might see the finish coming (no, not death or paralysis), yet it is timed so that it almost sneaks up on us.

The movie has filler, like the riff between Emily’s parents. But Nanjiani hubs the fine cast, and there are very funny lines, from “He’s like Daniel Day-Lewis, except he sucks,” to the way Hunter, sauced, dribbles “I like wine because of the buzz.” Co-written by Nanjiani’s wife Emily Gordon, this is not a mere comic’s film, or a rom-com, or a TV pilot looking for a slot. The Big Sick is enough of a big deal, modestly, to be a winner.

The Exception
Half a century after his Anglo-Austrian accent as Capt. Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, here is Christopher Plummer at 82, rumbling an Anglo-Prussian accent in The Exception. Alas, no singing kids, no Alps, no edelweiss. Plummer is Kaiser Wilhelm II, living in dull Dutch exile. France has just fallen to Hitler (1940), and Wilhelm’s snobbish disdain for Adolf marches in goosestep with his dream that maybe, with luck, he will again rule Deutschland! Leaving Hitler as what? Court painter? Keeper of the beer steins? The fantasy of return fixates Wilhelm’s wife, played by Janet McTeer as a wax echo of old Helen Hayes in Anastasia.

A bull-built German soldier, Capt. Brandt (Jai Courtney), is installed by the Nazis to “protect” Wilhelm, by spying on him. He develops a Blitzkrieg lust for a Dutch Jewish maid, Mieke (Lily James). His inner doubts about the Fuhrer delight the sexy British spy in her, and they rut with fierce solidarity. Cooler episodes feature the imperial feeding of ducks, and old memories served like rare wine (“remember, at four he bit the Prince of Wales in the leg!”). As usual the Nazi uniforms are superb, but the Kaiser’s wardrobe is a Reich unto himself.  

Evil enters the royal chateau as S.S. devil Heinrich Himmler, acted by Eddie Marsan as a small, frigid, poisonous turd. Marsan is terrific, and Plummer remains fairly plummy. Aussie-born Courtney’s machismo is often subtle. But then the plot fabric unravels into a flying hairball of gee-wiz, what-the-hell und Mein Gott! At some point between the schnitzel and the schnapps, the script fell dead from indigestion.

SALAD (A List)

Christopher Plummer’s Best Ten Filmed Roles (my choice): Walt Murdoch in Wind Across the Everglades, 1958; Commodus in Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964; Atahualpa in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, 1969; Herod Antipas in Jesus of Nazareth, 1977; Harry Reikle in The Silent Partner, 1979; Vladimir Nabokov in Nabokov on Kafka, 1989; Abakumov in The First Circle, 1992; Mike Wallace in The Insider, 1999; Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, 2009, and John Barrymore in Barrymore, 2011. 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson’s postwar production of Macbeth, first on stage (in Utah!) then filmed low-budget, had a religious subtext: “The main point is the struggle between the old and new religions. I saw the witches as representing Druidical pagan religion, repressed by Christianity … that’s why the screen is choked with Celtic crosses. The witches are the priestesses. I only wish I hadn’t failed so badly with the witches themselves. They were lousy.” (Welles to Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Speed Levitch, circa 1996, fills the frame: his arrest mug, wide-eyed, cornered, Raskolnikovian. ‘I was runnin’ hard at that time,’ he recalls, ‘the anti-cruise was breathing down my neck … It never occurred to them that I am running from the anti-cruise every day! And I’m gonna keep running!” (From the Timothy Levitch/The Cruise chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, obtainable via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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

 

Atahualpa (Christopher Plummer) stands in buff majesty before Pizarro (Robert Shaw) in The Royal Hunt of the Sun (National General, 1969; director Irving Lerner, cinematographer Roger Barlow).


For previous Noshes, scroll below. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Nosh 71: 'The Beguiled,' 'The Hero' & More

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of The Beguiled and The Hero

The Beguiled
What do I recall of Don Siegel’s The Beguiled in 1971, my first full year as a film critic? I remember Clint Eastwood in one of his early efforts to actually act, as the wounded Union soldier at a Dixie women’s school run by Geraldine Page, who lady-lords over him and the smoldering (for Clint) girls. I remember some Southern flavoring of erotic tension, ripening into sadism. But mostly it’s vague – more misty than Play Misty For Me (same year, Eastwood directing) with Clint as the cool DJ fending off a crazy lover (Jessica Walter) straight from bachelor hell.

Now Sofia Coppola re-makes The Beguiled, her script modestly rehabbing the original by Albert Maltz (fabled blacklist victim) and novelist Thomas Cullinan. Colin Farrell is the leg-wounded Yank, McBurney, found bleeding by an academy girl. There are five students, plus headmistress Nicole Kidman and teacher Kirsten Dunst (the men are off serving Gen. Lee, the slaves have fled). The soldier’s wound is seen more viscerally than in 1971, if not 1864.

Mainly Coppola lays on her proven skill with female options and detailed atmosphere. Some images recall old photos by Julia Cameron and Clarence J. Laughlin. The school’s white Corinthian columns seem the last, imperiled totems of a racist nation, dying like the slave empires of Greece and Rome. The females wear lovely white, and their maidenly Christian piety (prayers, candles) is foreplay for lust.

As long as it is subtle and suspenseful, the new Beguiled is good work. Farrell radiates sly Irish charm as each fem (even the girls) schemes for his attentions. But then – the signal is Kidman barking “Bring me the anatomy book!” – it jolts into Dixie gothic gumbo: mutilation, rape, and Farrell in a manly storm of bad acting. We’re back on the plantation veranda with James Mason in Mandingo as he sips a mint julep, fondles a whip, and awaits his dear friend Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.   

The Hero
With his flowing silver hair, droop moustache and voice of a Marlboro cave man, Sam Elliott is less icon than logo. He’s an Old West brand, as potent as bull semen (and played a fine, hateful villain on TV’s Justified). In The Hero he is Lee Hayden, 71, a fading Western star. There are no movies to ride, and the golden voice is bored, recording a radio pitch for Lone Star BBQ sauce. Lee’s cancer (revealed early) promises no remission. No John Wayne “big C” bravado from Lee. But two good things happen: He gets a career award from a nostalgia group, and he meets a woman.

Savvy Charlotte (Laura Prepon) seems to be the sex sunset he needs, a hip-as-now wow, Bacall to his Bogart. Buzzed on desire, drink and her gift of “fairy powder,” Lee gives a unique acceptance speech, which goes viral. But then Charlotte (really director Brett Haley’s script) sinks it all with a crass, public faux-pas. Neither the movie nor the romance recover. You can’t heal a humiliation so wounding with Hallmark chatter about death, lovely shots of waves bubbling at the beach, or even Charlotte’s tender verse from Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Solid footnotes are Katharine Ross as Lee’s ex-wife, Krysten Ritter as his angry daughter, and Nick Offerman as a ganja-sharing, Buster Keaton-loving pal. Elliott does heartfelt underplaying as the old saddle champ haunted by his one mythic movie. In flashback it looks generic, like a TV dream of a weed trip fantasy. Any bid for Elliott’s late-career Oscar had better come with terrific BBQ sauce and a fat Jamaican spliff.

SALAD (A List)
Major Dixie Females of Film: Baby Doll (Carroll Baker, Baby Doll), Blanche (Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire), Carrie (Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful), Clara (Joanne Woodward, The Long Hot Summer), Clio (Ingrid Bergman, Saratoga Trunk), Daisy (Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy), Ella (Jo Van Fleet, Wild River), Frankie (Julie Harris, The Member of the Wedding), Julie (Bette Davis, Jezebel), Lady (Anna Magnani, The Fugitive Kind), Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Marjorie (Mary Steenbergen, Cross Creek), Minny (Olivia  Spencer, The Help), Pursy (Scarlett Johansson, A Love Song For Bobby Long), Rebecca (Cicely Tyson, Sounder), Regina (Bette Davis, The Little Foxes) and Scarlett (Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind). 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
As Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles, English actor Christian McKay was “a gift of the gods to the movie. Not quite as tall, nor as vocally supple, he is still the Big O in many ways: moon-faced Svengali charm, sardonic lift of the eyebrow, tantrums and endearments, blazing ego, the Borgian greed for food and work and women. Above all, McKay generates the almost un-matchable excitement that made many proud, gifted people ready, even eager, to eat some dirt for Wellesian creative gold.” (From my 2009 review.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
To young Matthew McConaughey’s clear strengths add “the virtues of absence: not agingly boyish like Tom Cruise, not middle-weight McQueen like Brad Pitt, not preppy-cute like Ben Affleck, not macho-stolid like Matt Damon, not fetchingly fey like Johnny Depp, not a goofball like Nicolas Cage, not a beef buffet like Channing Tatum, not a red-carpet media totem like George Clooney. Here was the best Texan for movies since Tommy Lee Jones, and far more likeable.” (From the 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

 
Christian McKay as Welles as Brutus, in Me and Orson Welles (Isle of Man Films, 2009; director Richard Linklater, cinematographer Dick Pope).

For previous Noshes, scroll below. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Nosh 70: 'I, Daniel Blake,' 'Paris Can Wait' & More

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of I, Daniel Blake and Paris Can Wait
Note: The next tasty Nosh will appear on July 14.

I, Daniel Blake
“Old age,” said Charles de Gaulle, “is a shipwreck.” Of course, he ran a ship of state, France’s Fifth Republic. The more humble shipwreck of Daniel Blake, 59, is that his hard, proud life as a carpenter has been suspended by a heart attack. He’s caught between a medical system that doesn’t want him to work, and a welfare regime that stops providing survival checks, for opaque reasons. Britain has a famous social net, but nets have holes, and it appears that one may swallow Daniel.

Ken Loach, 81, has been directing movies about the British working class, poverty, protest, endurance and families since the 1960s. I, Daniel Blake, set in rough Newcastle, stars Dave Johns as widower Daniel (a few sly timings indicate that Johns made his mark as a comedian). The film’s big prize at Cannes last year was probably a career honor for Loach, the good ol’ lefty of British cinema. He scrapes away style. His rooted actors make us forget acting. Here we have the gentle but not meek excellence of Johns. And fine Hayley Squire as Katie, a woman fled from over-priced London and failed romances. She raises two kids alone, virtually starving herself while lonely Daniel helps her. The film pulses a Dickens heart in an Orwell body.

The key “story” is how Daniel deals with the maddening system’s arcane rules and plodding officials, who are not quite demonized (one even tries to smuggle him some sympathy). The movie is made moving by the pain and grit of its humanity, above all Daniel’s innate, resilient kindness. His one cathartic protest is forlorn. Loach’s enemy is the faceless machine of control that serves itself, its powers swollen by computers. Daniel, an old-tools guy, finds the Web a torment. Watch the film and you get a gut sense of why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party did better than expected in the recent election.       

Paris Can Wait
Eleanor Coppola’s Paris Can Wait is like something served with dinner (five courses, three wines) on a Viking Cruises boat trip. You can watch entirely without thinking, simply savoring the tourist vistas of France, between Cannes and Paris. On a road trip the lovely, married Anne (Diane Lane), an American “of a certain age,” receives the very French attentions of her driver, Jacques (Arnaud Viard). He knows every luscious site and gourmet restaurant along the way. A retro word for Jacques is “gigolo.”

Anne’s busy-biz husband (Alec Baldwin) has been called away to Budapest. She keeps her honor (in the old sense), while savoring Jacques’s blandishments (in the old sense). Their trip includes brioches, strawberries, roses, elite wines, Cezanne’s famous mountain, a picnic (homage to Manet), ice cream, a huge basket of cheeses, Mozart, “Venus nipples” (chocolates), a cathedral, Roman monuments and lots of meat (Jacques, smiling: “This is the best time of year to eat young animals”). Paris keeps waiting. Jacques keeps smoking. Anne seems to be powdering her ego.

The core weakness of this pretty trifle (about a thousand miles from I, Daniel Blake) is that Viard’s relentless charm wears thin. No Yves Montand or Michel Piccoli, he’s more like Danny Aiello hoping to be Maurice Chevalier. And couldn’t Lane help to spark the conversation? She floats, in a nicely lighted daze of demure ambivalence. Coppola is now 81, her movie most likely tapped personal memories. Like the late works of her husband Francis (Youth Without Youth and Tetro), there is the aura of a pet project near parade’s end.
 
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Herman Mankiewicz, once a New York journalist, later the key writer of the first draft of Citizen Kane, usually gets credit for giving Welles the idea of W.R. Hearst as Kane’s template. But maybe Orson grabbed the seed from another source, Aldous Huxley, whose 1939 novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan was a witty roman a clef about Hearst, his castle and mistress, and whose Hollywood party Orson attended that year: “In town only nine days, still settling in at RKO, Welles was a very busy man … but he couldn’t pass up Huxley’s invitation, bringing the first real gesture of friendship (in L.A.). Huxley was as intrigued by Welles as Welles was impressed to meet the famous novelist. The two celebrated artists went off by themselves (and) the new novel of course came in for a good share of comment, with Welles showing considerable interest in its link to Hearst.” (From Walking Shadows by John Evangelist Walsh). 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“The famous often felt invaded by Diane Arbus’s camera. Mae West vehemently protested her Arbus images. Feminist firebrand Germaine Greer had a close encounter of the Diane kind at the Chelsea Hotel: ‘It was tyranny, really tyranny. Diane Arbus ended up straddling me, this frail little person kneeling, keening over my face. I felt completely terrorized. I decided, damn it, you’re not going to do this to me, lady! I’m not going to be photographed like one of your grotesque freaks.” (From the Nicole Kidman/Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, to be found at Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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


As Brady, Robert Mitchum travels the Tex-Mex border in The Wonderful Country (United Artists, 1959; director Robert Parrish, cinematographers Alex Phillips, Floyd Crosby).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.



Thursday, June 22, 2017

Nosh 69: 'Wonder Woman,' 'Churchill' & Moree

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of Wonder Woman and Churchill      

Wonder Woman
The ancient Greeks converted their early history into myths and legends. Cashing in on the riches, our culture converted them into literature (Shakespeare, Joyce, Kazantzakis) and into comic books. Guess which source the movies prefer? The $150 million Wonder Woman is a multiplex myth about female empowerment, using the old Amazons legend about an island race of warrior women. Essentially, with its epic vistas of a lost paradise, this is DC Comics trying to be Classics Illustrated, with lots of CGI (Classical Greek Improvisation).

Israel’s Gal Gadot (actor, model, singer, martial artist, super-woman!) is the gal and Gadot that the DC film empire has waited for. Curves rounding to match her glowing war shield, hair blowing superbly, she’s like a buff echo of young Ashley Judd, balancing martial arts and humane pity. Diana is a heroine with goddess powers (as for her biological start, was there a sperm donation from Sparta?). One can see why girls would “relate” to Diana’s beauty, zest, courage and ability to bounce hot bullets off her hands. Yes, bullets. The ring of sea fog protecting the Amazonian isle is pierced by a WWI German gunship. Diana saves Steve, an American spy for Britain who hopes to stop the last desperate scheme of Field Marshal Ludendorff, as Germany loses the war.

Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is ludicrous, like a rotting slab of Bavarian cheese (his lethal-gas chemist is a disfigured neurotic who seems to be the Spirit of All Embittered Women). As Steve, Chris Pine fulfills his last name, as his wooden hero spouts mediocre dialog. But the hunk excites Diana, and in late 1918 they go to the trenches. Near a Belgian village they find a Wild West Indian (Eugene Brave Rock) who is called, of course, Chief. They liberate the town by destroying its old, cherished church (c’est la guerre). And who should show up nearby, for a deluxe ball, but the Kaiser, despite losing the war and his throne.

The climax is the usual DC carnival of kitsch mayhem, heavy on effects. Surging into villain service is David Thewlis, who looks like a pasty London librarian on his way to becoming a mythic god of war. Why quibble? World boxoffice could hit a billion, and Gadot is set for sequels. Maybe one will return to the ancient world, and she can join forces with Kirk Douglas from Ulysses. His sequel is overdue.
     
Churchill
Brian Cox is a brave actor, and to perform both Big John, the sensitive pedophile in L.I.E. (2001) and Sir Winston Churchill is quite an arc. In Churchill, he’s got the bulk and build, the bulldog growl and the props (cigar, brandy, bow tie), though he often looks more like Winston’s difficult son, Randolph. The film cuts against the grand Churchill image. It’s about his crisis of nerve in June 1944, worried sick that the all-important invasion of France (Operation Overlord) will be a bloody fiasco like the World War I disaster at Gallipoli. The old lion senses that his Blitz glory is past, that power has passed to the Americans and Russians, and that decisive control belongs to Gen. Eisenhower (a bland John Slattery).

Cox has moments, notably when, in a spasm of fierce prayer, he switches attention from God to whiskey. He struggles to find the winsomely cherubic charm of the great man in his positive moods. The movie’s problem is that Jonathan Teblitzky directed a chamber gallery of talk scenes. These talkers are on close terms: Eisenhower is Ike, Winston is Win, wife Clementine is Clemmie, Field Marshal Montgomery is Monty, Field Marshal Brook is Brooky. Thankfully George VI is not Kingy, and is touchingly acted by James Purefoy. Is the not very gripping dramatic crisis being, perhaps, inflated? William Manchester’s big biography of Churchill says the PM assured Ike, a month before D-day, “I am in this thing with you to the end.” 

SALAD (A List)
Good Movie Depictions of Winston Churchill: Simon Ward in Young Winston, 1972; Robert Hardy in Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, 1981; Bob Hoskins in World War II: When Lions Roared, 1994; Albert Finney in The Gathering Storm, 2002; Brendan Gleeson in Into the Storm, 2009; Timothy Spall in The King’s Speech, 2010, and Michael Gambon in Churchill’s Secret, 2016. Coming: Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, this year.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
His script Oscar (Citizen Kane) didn’t mean much to Welles, nor did any official honors: “I got a letter from Arthur Schlesinger, who (once) wrote an article in which he talked about me as a person who inexplicably had a certain cult following. Now he’s forgotten about that, and wants me to be a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters. They can’t do better than make me an honorary one, because there is no category for films. And I am rather tempted to say, ‘Create one or do without me.’ They’re all feebly trying to imitate the Académie Francaise, which is a useless institution anyway.” (Orson Welles to Henry Jaglom, in My Lunches With Orson.)   

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“The lethal dispatch of Beaumont (Chris Tucker) in Jackie Brown goes far beyond blaxploitation. In a 2003 interview, Tarantino told me that ‘there is nothing I love more than when comedy stops in its tracks to show you a real, serious moment … stops the laughter, makes you hurt. I can do that.” Such wit helped him forge a vast, viral, fan-boy cult of the obsessive and committed.” (From the Pam Grier/Jackie Brown chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, to be found at Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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


Muley (John Qualen, left) tries to keep his Dust Bowl farm in The Grapes of Wrath (Warner Bros., 1940; director John Ford, cinematographer Gregg Toland).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.



Thursday, June 15, 2017

Nosh 68: 'Chasing Trane,' 'Obit' & More

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of Chasing Trane and Obit      
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
The horn seems to be listening to an inner monolog unlimited by time, location or audience. And the player is bound to his horn in soulful embrace. It is John Coltrane, on the alto or tenor sax, climbing the peaks of “A Love Supreme,” or cool-crooning “It Never Entered My Mind,” or stream-riffing his joyful, unexpected hit, “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.

John Scheinfeld’s Chasing Trane starts off with cosmic graphics of stellar nebulae. And a giddy voice compares Coltrane to Beethoven and Shakespeare. Not even in the field of jazz enthusiasm, where hyperbole wails, should a great artist be lauded with that jive. But the documentary backs up most of its rhetoric. We see a tongue-tied kid up from Southern poverty and a broken home, learning his “chops” from Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, getting fired from Davis’s great ’50s quartet for heroin-addicted fizzles, climbing back with help from Thelonious Monk, killing his habit “cold turkey,” finding a new parity (and purity) with Miles, then starting his own group that pushed the edge beyond bop into the realm of Trane (some of the later experiments sound oral-compulsive, and reminded me of Aldous Huxley’s remark that Jackon Pollock’s drip paintings were like carpeting that “could go on forever”).

I don’t think Scheinfeld quite finds the secretive depths of Charlotte Zwerin’s great documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser. But, with a lot of good clips and graphics, and testimonies of love from Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, McCoy Tyner and other veterans (and family members, ever-giddy Cornel West, ex-Prez Bill Clinton and a delightful Japanese fanatic), we hear some of the loveliest, most urgently sincere music ever put on film. The muse here is growth. Coltrane went from zealot to mess-up, then from pioneer to prophet, finding grace notes of a lyrical faith in his message of sound. He became a superb musician and a deeply admirable man. The combination is rare in jazz, or any art.

Obit
Only in Obit can you find a posthumous nod to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev right near a savvy tribute to Robert T. James, inventor of the Slinky. This is the second fine documentary spawned in recent years by the New York Times. In 2010 came Bill Cunningham New York, a delightful tribute to the paper’s beloved, bicycling photographer of street fashion and couture shows (Bill’s obit ran last year, on June 25). Vanessa Gould’s film about the writers and editors of the obituary section is more house-bound, much less street. But it expands beyond insider talk in Times offices by using the paper’s astonishing photo library, and life-reviving films of the famous or now largely forgotten dead.

In olden times up to 30 people worked in the paper’s “morgue.” The vast data collection (much of it envelopes for paper clippings) is now served only by Jeff Roth, keeper of the pre-digital memory of the “paper of record.”  Sardonically perusing his  crammed empire of filing cabinets, Roth is upset on finding that the clips packet on Gertrude Berg, the early TV and radio actress, was mis-filed (Gertrude would have chuckled). We hear from writers talking about deadlines (one had four hours to sum up Michael Jackson), or fretting about finding sources, or missing the clatter and zing of typewriters (an editor keeps her old Royal on hand). Some muse, with a mix of pride and pathos, that they are small cogs of closure for larger lives. No longer must their writings be starchy or pious, but decorum still applies and PC is a tireless buzz-fly.

I wish the film followed from start to finish the full obit path of a modern, highly resonant person (George Carlin? Bill Buckley? Chuck Berry?). An entirely worthy revival is Elinor Smith, a once-famous teen “aviatrix.” The Times prepared an obituary “advance” on the girlish sky-climber in 1931. It came into good use when Smith died at 98 in 2010. Her obit took flight.     

SALAD (A List)
Twelve Ace Jazz Movies, in order of arrival: Satchmo the Great (Murrow/Friendly, 1956), Jazz on a Summer’s Day (Bert Stern, 1959), All Night Long (Basil Dearden, 1962), Round Midnight (Bertrand Tavernier, 1986), Kansas City (Robert Altman, 1986), Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (Charlotte Zwerin, 1988), Let’s Get Lost (Bruce Weber, 1989), Mo’ Better Blues (Spike Lee, 1990), A Great Day in Harlem (Jean Bach, 1994), Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders, 1999), Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen, 1999) and Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015).          

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
No one else topped off a fading marriage like Orson Welles, directing his almost-ex Rita Hayworth in 1946 for The Lady From Shanghai: “Some scenes (outside Acapulco) were filmed near a crocodile-infested river; in a scene where Rita dives into the ocean from Morro Rock, the rock had to be scraped of poisonous barnacles, and a Mexican swimming champ armed with a spear had to continually swim near Rita to warn off deadly barracudas in the water. Rita could not take the heat (and) at least once actually collapsed.” Despite the ordeal, she and Orson remained on remarkably cordial terms after divorcing. (Quote from Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Robert Altman’s free-flying methods sometimes threw players off stride, even comedy wizard Lily Tomlin in Nashville. She recalled the “scene in the café when Keith (Carradine) is singing, you did not know where the camera was.” Later she “saw how they shot it and they were moving past the other women and pushing it on me, and my eyes were in shadow and I thought, I’ve failed this. I’ve failed this really great moment.” She went home in tears, but her Linnea was superb work. (From the Elliott Gould/The Long Goodbye 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.



Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) mulls his creative dilemma in (Embassy Pictures, 1963; director Federico Fellini, cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo.)

For previous Noshes, scroll below.



Sunday, June 11, 2017

Nosh 67: 'A Quiet Passion' & More

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


APPETIZER: Review of A Quiet Passion
Uneasy lies the crown of thorns on a lonesome spinster’s head, and seeing the crown of Emily Dickinson’s strange, reclusive life pass from Julie Harris (The Belle of Amherst) to Cynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion is a moving transfer. Harris remains great, but there is a chance – as delicate as the almost molecular tension of one thought glancing off another in a Dickinson poem – that Nixon’s Emily is a tad touch greater.

Praise also for director and writer Terence Davies, and photographer Florian Hoffmeister. Perhaps it required the very British Davies (The Long Day Closes) to so totally inhabit the Dickinson home in Amherst, Mass. (exteriors are the real home, interiors were shot in Flanders). Davies is best known for nostalgic but not sappy explorations of his mid-20th century youth in Liverpool, stylized as urgent reveries of memory, of old songs and movies.

His feeling for 19th century New England feels native, rooted in the slowness of clock-tick time, the cherished intimacy of live music, the engulfing, neck-tight clothing, the gentle elisions from window sunlight to flickering candles to glowing lamps. All beautifully filmed. Late at night Emily finds her glory time, writing verse by lamplight while others sleep.

Those others are crucial. Maybe not since Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) have we had a film family this nuclear, concentrated and self-defined. The Dickinsons speak with militant elocution and witty asperity, like Jane Austen dipped in Yankee molasses and vinegar. Their gossiping, pre-media world treats smart opinion as entertainment, but when the scarcely published Emily scorns the popular Longfellow, she is not “funning.”

Sex is so corseted that we can hear its secret buttons popping, in talks that crackle with innuendo. Church religion hovers over people like a cosmic raven – one hazy wing is salvation, the darker, pressing one is death. Intimate with God in her cheeky way, plain Emily (she calls herself “a kangaroo”) enjoys affronting her strict, pious father (Keith Carradine’s eyes, framed by muttonchops, burn). And yet their love is real, at heart profound.

Mostly this is a film of women, almost amber-sealed in a patriarchal world. Vividly present are Emily’s sweetly melancholy mother (Joanna Bacon) and her loyal, sensible sister, Vinnie (superb Jennifer Ehle). Nixon loses some scenes to Catherine Bailey as a visiting, impudent charmer (“I’m irresistible, everyone says so”), a ball of sass like Anne Baxter’s Lucy in The Magnificent Ambersons. Emily’s feminist barbs, wry but bare-knuckled, thrill the more prudent Vinnie. The era’s epic crisis, the Civil War, briefly breaks the family spell. Davies folds it into battle flags and poignant, tinted photos of the dead. This is the second great movie about a poet within months, following Jim Jarmusch's Paterson.

That the film is never museum-bound by daguerreotype decorum and hushed candlelight is largely due to Nixon (Emma Bell is quite fine as young Emily). Wit and wonder, curiosity and longing are in Nixon’s face, aging as family losses multiply and her worsening isolation reveals neurotic envy. Illness (Bright’s disease) is depicted with stunning immediacy. Surely flights of feminine angels sang her to her rest. And her poems still spark, like fireflies, in countless minds.        

SALAD (A List)
Twelve Excellent Performances as Famous Writers:
Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo, Michael Gambon as Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Gambler, Ben Gazzara as Serking (Charles Bukowski) in Tales of Ordinary Madness, Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, John Hurt as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in Genius, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Helen Mirren as Rand in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Robert Morley as Wilde in Oscar Wilde, Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, Mary Steenburgen as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in Cross Creek, and Ben Whishaw as John Keats in Bright Star.                            

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Talent-blazing Orson Welles almost caused an RKO soundstage conflagration, while filming the furnace burn of the Rosebud sled for Citizen Kane: “When Orson had nearly exhausted his supply of sleds, the doors swung open and in flew the fire fighters, summoned because an inadequate flue had caused a fire on the roof. When one of the men asked (actor) Paul Stewart who Orson was, and Stewart told him, the fireman replied, ‘It figures!’ – a sarcastic reference to the (1938) Martian radio hoax.” (From Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles). 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“The New (Kafka) Normality of Orson Welles’s The Trial echoes Piranesi’s famous prison etchings, with their ‘staircases that lead nowhere, vaults that support nothing but their own weight and enclose vast spaces that are never truly rooms, but only anterooms, lumber rooms, vestibules, outhouses’ (Aldous Huxley). In a ruined chamber, two mute thugs evoke countless Mafia, KGB and Gestapo brutes.” (From the Anthony Perkins/The Trial chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle).

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



Charles Serking (Ben Gazzara) spots his sexy siren (Ornella Muti) in Tales of Ordinary Madness (Italy-U.S., 1981; director Marco Ferreri, cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli).

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Friday, June 2, 2017

Nosh 66: 'Norman,' 'Chuck' & More

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



APPETIZER: Reviews of Norman and Chuck

Norman
The young Richard Gere often seemed smug in his chiseled beauty, as if admiring a gilded poster of himself. But the dream hunk had a slightly comical, humanizing “flaw”: his rabbit-tooth smile. He has grown into that smile, into its dental hints of playful character. The beauty has rusted, the talent has ripened, the bunny smile endures. In maturity Gere has done excellent work in Dr. T and the Women, Chicago, The Hoax, Arbitrage and Time Out of Mind

Now Norman – his best? Norman Oppenheimer lives to schmooze and wheedle and juice deals. “You’re like a drowning man waving at an ocean liner,” says a top-connection New Yorker, whom Norman uses to worm into the high ranks of hustle. “But I’m a good swimmer,” answers Norman in his nice, nudging way. He is always walking, talking, cell-phoning, offering his card (“Oppenheimer Strategies”). He’s no crook, but big-deal people sense something dubious and are puzzled by his glom-on presence. With small elements of Richard Dreyfuss’s Duddy Kravitz, Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin and Woody Allen’s Zelig, Gere geared up for this most with his gabby con artist Clifford Irving in The Hoax.

Norman’s core family is gone. Surviving relatives avoid him as a dud, a wannabe macher. He seems to live in his big camel-hair coat – we never see his dwelling space. Not to spill the beans here, but the plot spring is Norman’s twisty effort to “play” a visiting Israeli politician (appealing, entirely credible Lior Ashkenazi). This involves a pair of shoes – $1,200 shoes! They must have Astaire taps, because soon, against all odds, Norm is in the big game.

Writer-director Joseph Cedar (a New York-born Israeli) reveals a hip, insider angle of Jewish Manhattan, Israeli-American relations, money in politics, the power hooks of religion and family. Norman’s good but needy rabbi is amusingly played by Steve Buscemi, and as a bigshot Harris Yulin gets off a great line: “Rabbi Blumenthal is not my fucking problem!” Also swell are Michael Sheen and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Jun Miyako wrote a blithe score (jazz, klezmer). Cinematographer Yaron Scharf pulls off visual marvels, pairing some scenes wittily. Fun but serious, the story has a hungry, often pensive urgency. Gere is subtle, not a Woody Allen knockoff. For all his guff and bluff, Norman is a mensch. The aging hustler (his hair tries for boyish bangs) wants to join the action, maybe even pull off a mitzvah (good deed), and he doesn’t nag our empathy. Go ahead, love the guy. Give the rabbit a carrot.    

Chuck
Definitely not a film about Charles de Gaulle, Chuck concerns boxer turned “entertainer” Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber). The “Bleeder from Bayonne” (N.J.) had two big moments in the ’70s. He went almost a full 15 rounds against Muhammad Ali, and when the bloodied Wepner floored him, the champ came back like a furious cyclone. Then Wepner saw himself as the inspiration for Rocky Balboa, Sly Stallone’s iconic movie Palooka. He milked that, charming and then irritating the actor (eventually there was a money settlement). Philippe Falardeau’s movie is a vintage treasury of Jersey slob times: the old tunes, the awful outfits, goombahs, bimbos, disco, coke addiction, broken family life, even a bear Chuck faces in the ring. The KO punch that really hits, harder than Ali, comes from his fed-up wife Phyliss: “You stink, Chuck.”  

Chuck doesn’t stink. Enjoyably unpretentious, it avoids the glazed candy corn of Rocky and the solemn, operatic heft of Raging Bull. Schreiber, beefed-up, plays Wepner as no brain, yet also no dummy. He’s a decently fallible guy making a strange living. Not squeezing pathos, Schreiber is more credible as this hard-hauler than he was as Orson Welles in RKO 481. The cast is a pack of sharp razors: Elisabeth Moss (Phyliss), Naomi Watts (really razored as girlfriend Linda), Ron Perlman (Chuck’s manager), Pooch Hall (Ali) and Michael Rapaport (Chuck’s brother – I’d guess that Rapaport will, within ten years, be playing Donald Trump). There is an overstated scene at a school, and one (not four) bows to Requiem for a Heavyweight would have been enough. The fights (real and faked) are absorbing, and if you don’t root for Chuck you’d better exit early. Go ahead, love the guy. Give the gorilla a banana.

SALAD (A List)
In my opinion, Richard Gere’s Ten Finest Roles so far:
Norman Oppenheimer (Norman, 2017), Dr. T (Dr. T and the Women, 2000), Clifford Irving (The Hoax, 2006), Billy Flynn (Chicago, 2002), Jack Moore (Red Corner, 1997), Robert Miller (Arbitrage, 2012), Edward Lewis (Pretty Woman, 1990), Paul Shepherdson (The Double, 2011), Zack Mayo (An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982), Dixie Dwyer (The Cotton Club, 1984).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Like Marlon Brando, 21, dazzling Tennessee Williams with his solo read-through of A Streetcar Named Desire (after fixing Williams’s beach cottage toilet!), Orson Welles at 19 stunned author Archibald MacLeish with an un-prepped reading of the blank-verse play Panic: “MacLeish was skeptical about the young actor (and then) Orson started with (the most) difficult scene: his breakdown, the climax of the play … MacLeish stared in disbelief as Orson read the lines, the actor’s voice revealed in all its ‘infinite delicacy and brutally devastating power.’ (Next) Orson started over on page one, reading in his mellifluous tones for the next hour and a half, speaking not only (his) dialog but the lines of all the other two dozen roles and even the Greek chorus. His few privileged listeners were spellbound.” Alas, Panic had topical appeal and a short run. (Quote from Patrick McGilligan’s great Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
No movie haunts Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) more deeply than one of my childhood favorites, John Ford’s The Searchers: “In 1956 The Searchers claimed me with Winton Hoch’s first shot: a door opening on Monument Valley, the moment that ‘permeates all of Wenders’s films’ (Alexander Graf). Ethan (John Wayne) is, like Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), a terse loner embedded in rage. Travis’s bid for redemption is his son. Ethan must save himself by not killing his niece (Natalie Wood), abducted by Indians. Lean, brooding Stanton was no Wayne, and that icon could never have inhabited Travis, but as searchers they are spiritual siblings.” (From the Harry Dean Stanton/ Paris, Texas 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.



Richard Gere and Renee Zellweger flash some vintage moxie in Chicago (Miramax, 2002; director Rob Marshall, cinematographer Dion Beebe).

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