Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Nosh 134: 'Maria by Callas,' 'Green Book' & More

David Elliott
    
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, new each Friday.
             
APPETIZER: Reviews of Maria by Callas and Green Book


    
Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words
Or should that be “in her own notes”? Of course, her immortal composers were Verdi, Bellini, Puccini, Donizetti, Bizet etc. But the voice was Maria Callas, one of the great opera names in our increasingly crass world. Opera buff and French photographer Tom Volf’s tribute is a fan’s scrapbook, using clips, letters, home movies, diaries, interviews, memoirs and five complete arias.

The triumph here goes beyond musical passages caught on film (some are poignantly without direct sound, the recorded singing poured over flickering images). It is also in seeing La Callas the perfectionist remain Maria the woman. The New York-born teen was pressed into ruthless training by her Greek mother. At first pudgy, she became a willowy beauty (yet with a famously big nose). There is a tender tiny bit, post-performance, when Maria passes a flower girl and reaches out to fondly lift her chin – the kid has a long nose.

She was loved for truly acting her roles, with urgently expressive power (and, this being opera, some ham). Becoming a diva made her act offstage, too. Speaking French fluently (not much Italian beyond opera), she put a toity British glazing on her English in Europe. But listen to the New Yawk tones bursting out, when she confronts the swarming Chicago press: “I cannot do those lousy performances!” As her fat, avuncular husband became a grasping manager, Maria was shedding weight to look like Audrey Hepburn (an international female tendency of the era). She fell very hard for Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, writing of him like a Homeric god: “There was Aristo, contemplating the dark sea.” Ari, passionate but not very aristo, later turned his sun-baked charisma to newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy. Jackie flickers by, for in this movie Callas is the only star. Other celebs are mere sparklers.

She could be difficult and had famous, abrupt cancellations, the worst in Rome. Nerves and temper frayed long before the voice aged (she was savvy about her adoring, late-career fan base: “They were probably applauding what they hoped to hear”). Callas wrote plaintively to Onassis, “I am shy and rather strange,” yet we often observe a proud but  vulnerable character, never intellectual (few singers are) but rich in thoughtful feeling. And her soul sang. Never was she more beautiful than in a televised concert singing “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma. Her arms enfold her red-gowned torso as if to embrace and channel the gorgeous sound. One hand’s long, slender fingers spread over her heart. Even a deaf person, watching, must feel her art.   



Green Book
The lessons of the civil rights movement (epic phase: 1954 to ’68) remain very relevant. Few have arrived with the entertainment kick of Green Book. The reality-based movie depicts the working relation and then friendship of black pianist Don Shirley and white employee Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (not to be confused with Jose de Vilallonga, the Brazilian smoothie of Breakfast at Tiffany’s). It is Tiffany’s time, early 1960s, and suave conservatory grad “Doctor” Shirley hires Copacabana club bouncer Tony as chauffeur and bodyguard. Their tour from New York into the explicitly racist Deep South impresses rich whites with Don’s special style, a kind of virtuoso cocktail-classical. His command of jazzy standards, show tunes and Chopin riffs gains more power as Don finds his inner soul brother, with unexpected help from the also evolving goomba Tony.

At the core is a counterpoint. Don Shirley is played dapper and “dicty” (a black term of the era, for pretentiously fancy Negroes) by lean Mahershala Ali. As Ali slowly reveals the inner yearnings of the lonely elitist, Viggo Mortensen’s Tony has the best Yankee slob’s Old South time since Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny. The tour is a softer, but not toothless, variant on the risky Jim Crow-era travels of Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. Mortensen, here bulked into a meat slab both amiable and menacing, fortunately does not repeat his fabled nude scene in 2007’s Eastern Promises. Partly written by Tony’s now almost elderly son Nick, this film advances director Peter Farrelly past minor tankers like The Three Stooges and Dumber and Dumber To. There are crackling lines and mean crackers, and sharp work from Linda Cardellini as Lip’s back-home wife and Dmitri Marinov (a former concert violinist) as the cellist in Don’s trio.

Here is the time when blacks used the Negro Motorists Green Book to find cheap (but safely welcoming) motels, and the rich stream of period tunes is not just a Dick Clark platter party. Visit You Tube’s video “The Times and Trials of Donald Walbridge Shirley,” and you realize some of his lippy flamboyance has been ironed out (partly to cover a plot surprise). But he and Tony make a terrific, even poignant duo. And one must relish any movie that salutes both Little Richard and the original KFC.
  
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Racism in 1941 Hollywood was the key reason Orson Welles’s Latin American solidarity film It’s All True was derailed by RKO and chief instigator (and RKO investor) Nelson Rockefeller. They feared “that Welles had gotten dangerously off-track. His Rio movie was lionizing the working class jangadeiros (fishermen) and the Afro-Brazilians of the favelas (slums). The studio cut funds and stopped sending raw stock.” Welles, soon after returning, was fired. Evidently these mentors simply overlooked Orson’s famous “voodoo” Macbeth and Native Son (and 23 blacks appeared in Citizen Kane). Welles took small, impish revenge in The Lady from Shanghai, where the odious snoop Grisby (Glenn Anders) uses Rockefeller’s flippant trademark “fella.” (Quote from Mary Jo McConway’s new book The Tango War.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The heart, soul and finest New York skyscraper of Fur is Nicole Kidman, as Diane Arbus: “Genaro Molina’s 1997 Oscars photo captured Nicole, lofty above Tom Cruise, her snow-fleshed beauty in a Galliano absinthe-green gown. It’s hard to square that image with the woman who once told reporter Lee Grant, ‘I was an usherette in Sydney. I cleaned toilets. I never think of how I look.’ Director Baz Luhrmann (during Moulin Rouge) saw how ‘she loved to be photographed. She could inhabit the space by making a heightened image and fill the set with emotional energy.’ Still, Kidman battled inhibition, and director Jonathan Glazer (Birth) detected ‘a very powerful inner life going on.” (From the Nicole Kidman/Fur chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available through Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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



Diane (Nicole Kidman) removes her special blue dress in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (Picturehouse 2006; director Steven Shainberg; photography by Bill Pope).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Nosh 133: 'Wildlife,' 'Boy Erased' & More

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Wildlife and Boy Erased
This week, two American families in trouble, with a smart son at the emotional center:



Wildlife
The 1950s have been retro-packed as a conformity trunk, crammed with Ike Era “lives of quiet desperation” liberated by Brando, Dean, Elvis, then JFK. There is a more subtle approach, as in Carol. And now, even more subtle, Wildlife. We briefly hear Jack Kennedy’s voice, but the first Hit Parade croon-tune doesn’t sound until half an hour in. The struggling Brinson family’s TV is “on the fritz” in their humble new rental in Great Falls, Montana. Lovely mountains loom, but so do advancing forest fires, as the Brinsons crack into crisis.

Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an eager-beaver who loses his job as golf pro at the club (too chummy, not servile enough for the boss). Pro golf never welcomed Jerry, and now his hard-trying wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) turns bored and resentful as Jerry can’t find a job (evidently the streetcar named Desire has dropped this marriage from its route). Watching at the anxious hub is Joe, 14 (Ed Oxenbould), bright and mannerly, his calm, wise face anticipating  how he will look at 40. Jerry, feeling useless as Jeanette becomes a swim instructor and Joe takes an after-school job at a photo shop, goes away to toil on the fire line for a dollar an hour. Jeanette and Joe drive up to see the fire, a fiery foreshadowing of the film’s best sequence.

Jeanette meets Warren Miller, 50-ish, rich in a quiet way, separated and on the prowl. “He wants to learn about poetry,” she tells Joe, but Warren’s chosen poem is her pale, lovely body. Over dinner, the portly smoothie (Bill Camp is superb) launches what you might call elite-Rotarian seduction tactics as Joe observes, stunned. Warren lifts a toast to “your old man not burning up like a piece of bacon.” That brings a funny-queasy, David Lynch shiver, and if it doesn’t revive your old, adolescent thoughts about weird adults, you’re amnesiac. Actor Paul Dano, who directed (and with Zoe Kazan adapted a Richard Ford novel), builds surefire tones and moods along with Diego Garcia's softly colored, velvety, faintly nostalgic images (two shots of the bus station, at dusk and morning, typify his mastery). The story has one burst of fierce melodrama, entirely earned.

Of the leads Mulligan and Gyllenhaal are remarkable. Oxenbould is crucial, as the story breathes through Joe’s maturing mind. The young actor is never cute or off-center or obvious. His fretful, half-aroused, embarrassed voyeurism echoes Kyle McLachlan’s Jeffrey in Lynch’s Blue Velvet. More delicate and intimately spooky, Wildlife is not a dream world. It delves into one of the life-shaping crises that come to many young people, in countless variations of the real.

 

Boy Erased
As Marshall, a Bible-thumping minister in Boy Erased, Russell Crowe doesn’t mind splitting his life between his successful church and running a large car dealership. But he can’t stand the more testing split in his teen son Jared (Chris Hedges). Earnest, pensive Jared is gay but fighting it, after countless warnings of hellfire (the family acts if Satan is venting lava right into their home). Getting out of his closet is tough; even worse is his dad being so closed. Wife and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) is devoted to them both, and her sensitive Christian values makes her torn feelings very moving. Kidman, an Aussie playing an Arkansan, is once again among our most subtle stars. Crowe, now so chunky he’s darn-near cherubic, seems stuffed by pious bewilderment.

Jared’s shy but deep interest in boys is admitted, with guilt. Since candid, patient compassion is flagellated by fears of sin, the “solution” is to send Jared to a “conversion camp,”  Love in Action. The action is led by the Lord’s own drill sergeant, Vic Sykes, played by director and adapter (from Garrard Conley’s memoir) Joel Edgerton. Sykes, evidently a bit shaky in his own sexuality, pesters, pleads and bullies. A big, silent boy is driven into despair. The place is a prison of willfully ignorant therapy, where adolescence faces the extra torment of a crudely judgmental belief system.

Boy Erased is stretched and stylized for menace, at times  like a fright movie. Edgerton, like Dano a fine actor and now director, lifts it above some routine passages, due partly to Chris Hedges’s unusually micro-tuned intensity. I thought Hedges was better as the nephew in Manchester by the Sea than Oscar-winning Casey Affleck as his grief-glutted uncle. Not great drama, nor working at Wildlife level, this film has an intelligent moral compass, magnetized by excellent performers. 

SALAD (A List) 
17 Outstanding American Family Dramas
In my order of favor: Paris, Texas (director Wim Wenders, 1984), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962), The Godfather (Francis Coppola, 1972), East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955), Alice Adams (George Stevens, 1935), The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940), Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie, 1961), The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946), Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1956), Shoot the Moon (Alan Parker, 1982), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958), Giant (George Stevens, 1956), Avalon (Barry Levinson, 1990), Running on Empty (Sidney Lumet, 1988), The Yearling (Clarence Brown, 1946), To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962) and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (Roy Rowland, 1990).        

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Arnold Weissberger, Orson Welles’s lawyer in the Citizen Kane period, was essential to RKO’s embattled defense as publisher William Randolph Hearst threatened to quash 1941’s most brilliant movie. All was at stake: “Weissberger suspected that Hearst would not actually go through with a suit, for fear of having to testify in court about his extramarital relationship with Marion Davies. One of Weissberger’s colleagues suggested threatening Hearst with publicly disclosing that, in Mexico, Marion Davies had covertly given birth to twins. The birth certificate could be produced. Hearst’s greatest weapon was not a lawsuit, or even the threat of one, but the implicit, massive threat of using the power of the press to harass the entire film industry.” Without a Davies scandal, Kane was released but Hearst vindictiveness undermined income. (Quote from Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles: A Biography.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Jackie Brown was a lovingly uplifted tribute to blaxploitation, the ’60s into ’70s genre that made Pam Grier a star, though it often settled for pulp: “Most blaxplo was opportunistic and transgressive, causing white critics to shrink into their seats while black viewers had too much fun to care. There was biracial uneasiness with race-and-rape fantasies (Mandingo, Drum, Goodbye Uncle Tom), a sub-genre of provocation that Tarantino would later stylize terminally (Django Unchained). Blaxploitation’s nadir was the Italian parable Black Jesus, a crass conflation of African political martyr Patrice Lumumba with Christ, starring John Ford’s black mainstay Woody Strode. As a film historian put it: ‘Valerio Zurlini’s film was acquired by a small American distributor, Plaza Pictures, dubbed into English, shortened to play down the Lumumba aspects, and given the American title Black Jesus.” (From the Pam Grier/Jackie Brown chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)   

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



The Renoir-worthy Kansas picnic in Picnic (Columbia Pictures, 1956; director Joshua Logan, photography by James Wong Howe).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Nosh 132: 'Widows,' Bertolucci, 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Widows and Can You Ever Forgive Me?


Widows
In a brief prelude, director-writer Steve McQueen calls Widows his “passion project.” That reveals the movie’s double edge: a labor of love, long nurtured, but also a ramped-up commercial package. McQueen, whose grip on historical saga was acute (if drawn-out) in 12 Years a Slave, has made an absorbing thriller that uses an impressively tight cast in often superb locations. As a former Chicagoan (18 years), I think this may be the best Chicago display platform since The Untouchables (1987) and The Fugitive (1993).

Viola Davis, now 53, is a vulnerable, motivated action pivot as Veronica, suddenly cast into the deep. She lives in a lakefront Mies high-rise and adores husband Harry (Liam Neeson). He has the money, plus high connections on both sides of the law. Harry’s a thief. His crowning heist, of a rising South Side gangster, goes right but then fatally wrong. Widow Veronica is pushed hard for the stolen $2 million by the gangster’s sado-goon. Elevated from a 1983 TV series, the story is layered by writer Gillian Flynn as a deep-dish Chicago pizza of threat, fear and money-mad fatality.

The gang king Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) is running for alderman. This enrages the ward’s old, white-racist boss, Tom (Robert Duvall), who plans to bestow the seat on son Jack (Colin Farrell), a sleek opportunist but soon disgusted by dad’s fossilized corruption. Plot victuals include an on-the-make gospel preacher, an old bowling alley sharpie, the wanton police killing of a black youth, rude rap music (but also Nina Simone), Veronica’s endangered fluff-ball dog and a volcanic f-spew by Duvall.

Angry and desperate, Veronica takes charge. She recruits two other new widows and a zippy young street fox (Cythia Erivo), to stage a payback heist. Here, I think, McQueen slips a little. Powerhouse Viola Davis is left too often to simmer in mournful funk (fed by erotic flashbacks to Harry). Not enough textured fill is given to tall, Polish-American beauty Alice, a virtual high-rise unto herself, though Elizabeth Debicki is a wow widow (with aspects of Jennifer Lawrence, who passed on this film). Strong but under-used is action trouper Michelle Rodriguez as Linda, harried mom and widow. A surprise reveal comes around an hour in, not divulged here, but if you are hip to the ritual games of star-ego casting you might expect it.

Widows is a big, vivid tapestry with threaded debts to auteurs Tarantino, Scorsese, Mann, Russell, Coppola and Spike Lee. It isn’t a great heist movie, but McQueen crafts plenty of urban tension and crackle. His savvy is not too cynical, and his female empowerment zeal is (for a guy) nuanced. Softies won’t like the best sicko bowling alley scene since There Will Be Blood. But the fluffy pooch is a survivor.
   
  
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Lee Israel wrote popular biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen. By 1991 her failure with beauty stylist Estee Lauder led to Lee’s rejection by her editor. Lauder did zero for her. As played with acerbic pathos by Melissa McCarthy, in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, she often looks (floppy mop of brown hair, bulging coats over bulky bod) like a rusted tank from the Maginot Line. But despair, marinated in booze, brings inspiration. Lee begins faking typed, signed notes by the famous, like Tallulah, Kate (Hepburn), Louise (Brooks) and Dorothy (Parker). Most are juiced by Lee’s tangy verve (“Caustic wit is my religion”), though foolish candor in a Noël Coward scribble would bring the law to her door. By then she had sold over 400 notes to New York dealers eager to be impressed (for profit).

McCarthy, a comical ace (who can forget her SNL spiking of Sean Spicer?), introduces Lee as a frumpy, sour, alcoholic loner, her lesbian lover long gone. She becomes a  rather endearing desperado. Forgery is her forge of income, and her flag of effrontery. It also leads to snarky mischief with gay rascal and bar barnacle Jack Hock. That would be England’s Richard E. Grant, in an old-rake extension of his breakthrough role as a hell-raiser in Withnail and I (1987). Sponger, cokehead, boy-cruiser, Jack is often a cultural dunce. It’s 1991, he’s around 60, but gay Jack doesn’t know that “Marlene” is the divine Mahr-lay-na Dietrich, idol of sophisticated gays for his entire youth. The two scampy scroungers flash some sparkle, accentuated by a classic song-track (Billie Holiday, Blossom Dearie and Dinah Washington were Lee’s nostalgia sirens of “a better time and place”).

Director Marielle Heller firmly hits notes both glum and bright, tucking McCarthy and Grant into intimate rhythms, hip but not campy. Fine support comes from three women: Dolly Wells as Lee’s most sympathetic buyer, Jane Curtin as her hard-baked editor, and Anna Deavere Smith as her unsentimental past lover. The film is a crusty munchie with soft insides, based on Lee’s acclaimed memoir (she died in 2014). With its wry, melancholy charm it joins the eccentric family of movies about New York dreamers and scrape-alongs: The Cruise, The Producers, Mac, Broadway Danny Rose, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Norman, A Fine Madness, They All Laughed, Midnight Cowboy, Joe Gould’s Secret and Next Stop, Greenwich Village

SALAD (A Memorial List) 
Bernardo Bertolucci died in Rome on Monday at 77. Perhaps the most inspired visual sensualist since Joseph von Sternberg, the daring director gave Italian style a new international luster and scooped up Oscars for The Last Emperor. He also provided Marlon Brando his last great role (Paul in Last Tango in Paris). Here, by my order of preference, are Bertolucci’s best: The Conformist (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), The Last Emperor (1987), Before the Revolution (1964), Luna (1979), Besieged (1995), 1900 (1976), Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981), The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), The Dreamers (2003), The Sheltering Sky (1970).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Laurence Olivier sought to fire Orson Welles as director during their 1960 staging of Rhinoceros, quite some change after an earlier, fawning letter: “Darling boy (Welles was 44), I have wanted to pick you up and swing you round and dance you up and down on my knee and even go birds-nesting with you in some tiny measure, to show you how adorably sweet and generous was your dear thought.” The “dear thought” which sparked this effusion “was the loan of a refrigerator.” Olivier’s compliments often arrived like Shakespeare, drunk, falling into a fruit salad, although he (like Orson) offered many proofs of preferring women to darling boys. (Quotes from Philip Ziegler’s book Olivier.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Just before filming his splendid Philip Marlowe in his best film, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye in 1972, Elliott Gould’s star value “suddenly shrank. The breakup with Barbra Streisand and drug use (acid etc.) left him raw (‘I didn’t have a drug problem, I had a reality problem’). He absented himself from A Glimpse of Tiger, Warners shut it down, and Gould paid a big forfeit penalty. At least he had his name back: ‘What really got me down was the loss of my second name – I was either Mr. Streisand or Elliott Who?’ But Altman’s movie was a karmic rebound, and came on good wheels: Gould owned the 1948 Lincoln driven by Marlowe.” (Quote from the Elliott Gould/The Long Goodbye chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)   

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


Jean-Louis Trintignant is sexy fascist Marcello in the swooningly stylized The Conformist (Mars Film, 1970; director Bernardo Bertolucci, photography by Vittorio Storaro).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Nosh 131: 'Beautiful Boy,' 'Tea With the Dames' & More

David Elliott
    
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, new each Friday.
NOTE: Nosh 132 will appear on Friday, Nov. 30.

APPETIZER: Reviews of Beautiful Boy and Tea With the Dames



Beautiful Boy
Playing the drug-addicted drummer Frankie Machine in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Frank Sinatra looked tortured by his own gaunt, stringy physique. His writhing heroin hell shocked viewers but didn’t get the expected Oscar (losing to Ernest Borgnine’s lovelorn butcher Marty, as did James Dean in East of Eden). Director Otto Preminger ram-jammed the jazz (great score), a predatory creep (Darren McGavin), Frankie’s women (deceitful, cloying Eleanor Parker and naïve, moony Kim Novak) and his “cold turkey” agony. The spirit of harsh melodrama has haunted drug drama ever since, but Beautiful Boy does not succumb.

There is a supple spine of substance: exceptionally fine performances by Steve Carell as Bay Area writer David Sheff and Timothée Chalamet as his teen, then 20s son, the addict Nic. Derived from their separate memoirs, the movie has flashbacks to adorable kid Nic and his devoted father. Then Chalamet takes over with the seemingly infallible, not smug naturalness that made him so very special in Call Me By Your Name. He looks like a Vogue revival of Donatello’s David, and the contrast with Carell’s rather pinched, regular-guy visage is a bonus. It underscores and resonates the emotional bond, as talented Nic spins off on hooked highs and bottom-crawling lows (mostly from crystal meth, which can damage the brain disastrously).

There is not much psychologizing, more the anguish of unknowable motives (Amy Ryan as Nic’s mom and Maura Tierney as his stepmother are touching but fairly marginal). Timothy Hutton, beautiful boy of a past era, appears as a meth expert, like a shrunken echo of Judd Hirsch’s therapist role in Hutton’s 1980 breakthrough, Ordinary People. In and out of treatment (the phrase “relapse is part of recovery” is not consoling), running to and from the family, Nic drives David nearly mad with bewildered anxiety. Their mutual love and guilt form an almost toxic double-helix. The confrontation in a San Francisco coffeehouse is among the greatest father-and-son scenes on film.

Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen maintains the potent core, with softening touches like Marin County vistas and sun-dappled shots of the woody-modern home. Some music inserts feel generic, though several rock tunes and “St. James Infirmary” (not Satchmo’s classic version) and Perry Como’s “Sunrise, Sunset” are effective. Carell, subtle even when he did broad comedies, has become a remarkably genuine, focused actor, and Chalamet proves again that Adonis looks need not muzzle talent. This is a family film about drug addiction, but anyone who calls it a soaper is blowing bubbles.



Tea With the Dames
The old chums often leave sentences unfinished, fall into silences, lurch into private giggles. Eileen Atkins, 84, and Judi Dench, 83, and Maggie Smith, 83, gather again at the lovely country home of Joan Plowright, who is blind, near-deaf and 88. There she lived with husband Lord Laurence Olivier, and her look-back love has flecks of ambivalence (“Yes, he was tricky,” chimes in Maggie). These elevated but unpretentious Dames of British acting seem beyond any direction from Roger Michell, though he made the great Austen film Persuasion (1995) and Peter  O’Toole’s last fine one, Venus (never mind Hyde Park on Hudson, with Bill Murray’s inane FDR). This chatty occasion is Tea With the Dames – Dench, Smith and Plowright once starred in Tea With Mussolini.

Most senior and limited, Joan presides with dowager dignity. Judi is still spunky and flint-eyed. Eileen preens that while she was never thought very pretty, she was “sexy” (clips prove it). Maggie is reliably funniest, sprinkling the dry wit that has given her the best senior career. Blithely she recalls Olivier slapping her hard during Othello (“It was the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre”), and admits never watching Downton Abbey, although “they sent me the box set.” Actor gossip sometimes hangs moss, some anecdotage is in its dotage, but the foursome is more than old crumpets. Clips include marvels, like teen Judi in a medieval mystery play, seen silent (she recalls her lines from 1951). By day’s end the weary Dames seem lame, drooping over their flutes of champagne. Inevitably, the final words are Shakespeare’s: “Our revels now are ended …”

SALAD (A List)
Maggie Smith’s Ten Best Film Vehicles
As listed by my taste: Gosford Park, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Othello, Harry Potter series, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, A Room With a View, Hot Millions, The Pumpkin Eater, A Private Function, The Lady in the Van.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Though often disparaged as a remainder-shelf variant on Citizen Kane, Welles’s Mr. Arkadin has always had fans. Like me, and Cuba’s brilliant Guillermo Cabrera Infante. In 1956 he caught the virus of this breathless, tab-noir dream: “The film is like a gigantic cobweb in which Welles, a bearded spider, weaves his plot of intrigues, deceits and lies … a kaleidoscope of signs, like a brainteaser of clues. The truth rises up in fragments, is shattered, is recomposed, finally is discovered whole. And the labyrinth is the only guide to the mystery of art.” (From Cabrera Infante’s rich, strange book of critical pieces, A Twentieth Century Job. The movie is best seen in a splendid three-version set from Criterion.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Never at home in Hollywood, even during his smitten, mostly hidden romance with Tab Hunter, Anthony Perkins fled in 1957 to star in Broadway’s Look Homeward, Angel: “His dreamy Eugene Gant ‘shattered the audience,’ said co-star Arthur Hill. Loving his Tony-nominated role, Tony was aware of ‘a certain boyish charm I’m cashing in on.’ His perpetually virginal nerves hung like tassels. ‘You were always aware,’ said Buck Henry, of Perkins as ‘the watcher, almost the voyeur of his own experience.” (From the Tony Perkins/The Trial 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.



Flea-circus maestro Mischa Auer gives investigator Robert Arden the big eye in Mr. Arkadin (Mercury,1955; director Orson Welles, photography Jean Bourgoin).
 
For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Nosh 130: 'Hunter Killer,' 'The Sisters Brothers' & More

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Hunter Killer and The Sisters Brothers 
(NOTE: Nosh 131 will appear Friday, Nov. 16.) 



Hunter Killer
Tell me you are man enough for another submarine action movie. You’d better be woman enough, too, for what could rouse any gender better than an Arctic Ocean dive by a giant atomic sea-phallus? There is a male frisson to this occasion. Told that his assignment could trigger World War III, a burly commando thinks briefly of peace, then grunts “Fuck it. I’d rather go kick some ass.”

A coup-minded Russian general kidnaps his peacenik President at a big Commie (oops, Russian) naval base. Our own Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (Gary Oldman, seizing his check) is ready at once to go Def Con-die! But our President (Caroline Goodall), being female and reality-rooted, says let’s go on high alert while sending in the nuke sub Arkansas to rescue the Russian leader, aided by a team of the bravest, hunkiest, hairiest Seals. Arkansas Capt. Joe Glass, who “never went to Annapolis,” is fresh in command but hormonally ready for the big show. In the mall food court that is modern stardom, Gerard Butler is a solid slab of manloaf (weren’t fabled Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster doing similar jaw locks and steel stares in Run Silent Run Deep?). Butler has a command station so crammed with tech gizmos that even James Mason’s visionary Capt. Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) would grow gills of envy.

OK, it’s a waterlogged fleet of clichés, including a depth-charge attack, torpedo evasions, an ocean-bottom landing, combat midway between a video game and a recruiting poster. It is almost a cousin to Ice Station Zebra (absurd, but Howard Hughes’s favorite movie). I fell many fathoms into it. Sixty years ago this movie would have intoxicated me, and boyish brain vapors remain to rouse the inner aquatic beast. Down Periscope (see list below) parodied the submersible genre for all time. Hunter Killer blows a manly kiss at self-parody, then sails gung-ho into the dangerous deep.



The Sisters Brothers
There have been many oddball Westerns, the dusty genre that keeps dying but mutating. Such vivid curiosities as Three Godfathers, Lust for Gold, Track of the Cat, The Baron of Arizona, Heller in Pink Tights, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Barbarosa, Viva Maria!, Duck You Sucker, The Missouri Breaks, Dead Man and Meek’s Cutoff (the best and most beautiful is Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller). The quirky-branded herd is joined by The Sisters Brothers. Dreamy slob Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and his alcoholic brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are killers-for-hire, bonded by blood, body odor and saddle-sore humor.

During an Oregon gold rush they track the dreamy immigrant Herman K. Warm (Riz Ahmed) and well-spoken conniver John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). French director Jacques Audiard films as if the Western myth were a pile of  quaint bones he found in a cinematheque crypt. His eccentricities include a chemical potion for finding gold in streams, a massive bordello madam who doubles as mayor, a spider crawling into sleeping Eli’s mouth, a tender salute to ole Mama Sisters, a speechless coffin cameo by Rutger Hauer (from Blade Runner to this?), and Eli’s most poignant request to Charlie, “Don’t puke on me.”

The actors ride this round-up at a slightly oafish gallop, stuck with a tumbleweed plot and some garbled dialog. There is fine use of light and night, creek and canyon by cinematographer Benoit Debie. But this strange Euro-cruise into the Old West is a burro to park behind the barn, like a jokey gift for the rawhide ghosts of Strother Martin and Slim Pickens. They will both cackle, and spit some chaw.   

SALAD (A List)
15 remarkable (well, entertaining) submarine films
In a “dive, dive, dive!” order of interest:
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (director Richard Fleischer), The Spy in Black (Michael Powell), Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen), The Enemy Below (Dick Powell), The Russians Are Coming … (Norman Jewison), Hell and High Water (Sam Fuller), Above Us the Waves (Ralph Thomas), The Hunt for Red October (John McTiernan), Down Periscope (David S. Ward), Devil and the Deep (Marion Gering), The Bedford Incident (James B. Harris), Operation Petticoat (Blake Edwards), On the Beach (Stanley Kramer), We Dive at Dawn (Anthony Asquith) and Run Silent Run Deep (Robert Wise).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Getting his friend Marlene Dietrich to do a witty cameo in Touch of Evil (1958) was a plum coup for Orson Welles, who looked back fondly years later: “We were well along before I even thought it up … I think that Dietrich part is as good as anything I’ve ever done in movies. When I think of that opening in New York, without even a press showing! She really was the Super Marlene. Everything she has ever been was in that little house for about four minutes.” (From the Welles/Bogdanovich This is Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
If an actor delves deep into a part, it is often because the part delves deeply into the actor, as with Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas: “The movie streams, yet ‘seamless’ is too smooth a term for both the process and result. Truth rises as vents of inner pressure, in a tri-tonality of silence, speech, music. After the shoot, Stanton happily told reporter Patrick Goldstein of ‘finally playing the part I wanted to play.’ He had found ‘a tremendous amount of me in that character,’ indeed ‘all my feelings about innocence, children, Nastassja (Kinski), having a brother … it’s the story of my life here we’re talking about.” (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.



Paul Lukas, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and James Mason are all ship-shape for Jules Verne submarine adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Disney, 1954; director Richard Fleischer, photography Franz Planer).
 
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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Nosh 129: 'Free Solo,' 'The Old Man & the Gun'


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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Free Solo and The Old Man & the Gun



Free Solo
Some documentaries grab a piece of reality that makes most fictional films seem like spun taffy. Free Solo grabs a huge granite slab, El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. On June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold became at 32 the first solo climber to scale its 3,000 feet of sheer, vertical fear, without ropes or grips. His astonishing, almost four-hour ascent is compressed into the final 20-some minutes of Free Solo, among the most nerve-wracking experiences I’ve ever had with a movie. I guessed that Honnold would make it – few documentaries star athletic failure – but as I watched, spellbound, I really wasn’t sure.

Even some veteran camera crew, nerves taut, found it hard to keep watching as Alex, tiny in a red shirt on a vast gray wall, overcame many danger points. He had been a reclusive Sacramento kid, born to a non-hugging mom and a restless, Asperger’s father. Dropping out of Berkeley, Alex found the mountains. On solo climbs, including Yosemite’s Half Dome, “I walk through the fear until it’s just not there anymore.” This requires subtle muscle, steel nerve, cold reflex, eagle sight, perfect timing, laser thinking. One tiny error can bring death (this physically beautiful movie is not for anyone who fears altitude).

The National Geographic production is from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Vasarhelyi, who made the great Himalayan documentary Meru. Its best tactic is the overlap of two major life tests: the amazing climb, after injuries and delays, and shy-macho Alex finding a girlfriend. With radiant Sanni McCandless the soloist risks ascending that most humanly exposed peak, Mt. Romance. Both fear that their relationship could blunt his edge and alter his crucial focus (Sanni’s effort to mask her anxiety is endearing). Free Solo takes us high, in more than one direction. These heights have depth.     



The Old Man & the Gun
Robert Redford was a virtual anti-Brando. You didn’t go to Redford for raw fury or bared soul, but there was a quiet command in his golden looks, his sculpted assurance, his engaging guy-ness. Now 82, his face a crinkled weather map of sun exposure, he still has his bone structure, his great smile and his wry, infallible charm. Playing bank robber Forrest Tucker (no, not the big, hearty studio actor and totem of dinner theater), Redford is impeccably at home in David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun, based on a 2003 New Yorker piece by David Grann.

This is not an old star’s glory like The Straight Story (Richard Farnsworth), The Two of Us (Michel Simon), The Late Show (Art Carney) or Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton). Still, it’s an enjoyable Bob Redford movie, as Tucker robs banks with a light touch (just showing his smile and pistol) in the 1980s. He was a real guy (1920-2004), since his teen years a crook and escape artist (17 successful breakouts, including once from San Quentin via kayak). Tom Waits and Danny Glover are like two soft shoes as his backup buddies, and as the Texas cop tracking him down Casey Affleck uses his gentle, slow-drag voice as if anticipating old age.

The best (no surprise) is Sissy Spacek. As Jewel, an aging horse lover and smart but not pushy sweetheart, she gets dapper, gracious Forrest to consider retirement. She and Redford are paired aces, even in the creaky scene of them rocking on a porch, chewing some sunset wisdom. The heists are almost endearing, with frisky chases, and we snatch glimpses of young Bob in photos and The Chase (also Warren Oates in Two Lane Blacktop). This picture may have AARP bones, but it sure beats meditating on Golden Pond with Norman and Ethel, waiting for the loons.

SALAD (A List)
Robert Redford’s Ten Best Starring Movies
In my esteemed opinion (with director and year):
1. All the President’s Men (Alan J, Pakula, 1976), 2. The Candidate (Michael Ritchie, 1972), 3. Brubaker (Stuart Rosenberg, 1980), 4. Downhill Racer (Michael Ritchie, 1969), 5. The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973), 6. The Hot Rock (Peter Yates, 1972), 7. This Property is Condemned (Sydney J. Pollack, 1966), 8. The Old Man & the Gun (above), 9. The Horse Whisperer (Redford, 1998) and 10. Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney J. Pollack, 1972).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Rumors long circulated about whether publisher W.R. Hearst and famed paramour Marion Davies ever saw Citizen Kane, partly based on them. Respected Hollywood columnist Jim Bacon said Davies “once told me that she and W.R. saw the famous Orson Welles movie seven or eight times. She said ‘Once we even went into a theater in San Francisco, ate popcorn, and watched it with an audience. W.R. loved it, and we laughed at the reference to Rosebud.’ Then she told me that Rosebud was Hearst’s pet name for her genitalia.” Now that’s gossip! (Quote from Harlan Lebo’s Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
When the unreleased The Producers hit the screen at Paul Mazursky’s small, private “sneak” on Jan. 13, 1968, “Peter Sellers began convulsing with laughter. At the end he phoned Embassy Pictures head Joe Levine in New York, declaring Mel Brooks’s comedy (which Levine had pegged a dud) the funniest movie ever made. Soon Sellers placed trade ads to herald ‘the ultimate film, the essence of all great comedy combined in a single motion picture … a largesse of lunacy with sheer magic.” Sellers’s giddy gladness rescued the movie from the era’s discard pile.” (From the Zero Mostel/ The Producers 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.



Robert Redford as novice pol Bill McKay with wife Nancy (Karen Carlson) in The Candidate (Warner Bros., 1972; director Michael Ritchie; cinematographer Victor J. Kemper).

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Friday, October 19, 2018

Nosh 128: 'First Man.' 'Colette' & More

David Elliott
    
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
NOTE: I was a little glib in my treatment of Michael Moore's glib comparison of Hitler and Trump in my Sept. 28 review of Fahrenheit 11/9. For an in-depth comparison, read Christopher R. Browning's essay "The Suffocation of Democracy" in the Oct. 25 issue of the New York Review of Books.

APPETIZER: Reviews of First Man and Colette. 



First Man
The human factor barely factors in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its most famous voice is a computer. In First Man, which builds to the July 20, 1969 lunar landing (15 months after 2001’s premiere), much of the talk is techie but the movie is consistently human. The best element of this work from director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash), scripted by Josh Singer from James R. Hansen’s book, is its thoughtful balance. The space training and brave piloting of the first moon-walker,  Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), interlace with family scenes. Much of the emotive vitality comes from Neil’s wife Janet, played by the slight but substantial, and moving, Claire Foy.

A whole lotta shakin’ is goin’ on, in a lot of rough rides, starting with Armstrong steering the supersonic X-15 plane 120,000 feet (23 miles) down, from the rim of our atmosphere to the flat Mojave Desert. Mission accomplished, he returns to find that his little daughter will soon die of a brain tumor. A shadow of grieving memory follows the methodical, introspective, slightly boring Armstrong. The story is dense with slide-rule guys, men with white shirts, level hair, slim-Jim ties and cool control (the sparky contrast astronaut is Corey Stoll’s “Buzz” Aldrin). As Neil rises to become top space cadet for the Apollo 11 voyage, Janet inhabits the uniform-like demeanor of the good military wife, often kept in the dark yet holding the family (two surviving sons) together. Once June Allyson did this type well. Foy, going beyond type, is better.

Images often echo the Kodachrome snaps and home-movie shots of the time, with JFK grainy on TV and ‘60s racial anxiety venting in Gil Scott Heron’s funny, biting song “Whitey on the Moon” (NASA had a heavy lean to crew-cut Caucasians). Gosling welds his low-key charisma into Neil’s progress, all the way to the wild gray (lunar) yonder. It’s 239,000 miles of dangerous travel (and back) to grab what looks like a sampling of cement dust, yet this is no rocket-nerd manual. Kubrick’s 2001 remains a visionary poem (ambitious, pretentious, gorgeous), but it doesn’t have Janet quietly telling her younger son, “Your dad’s going to the moon.” Pause, then the boy answers, “OK. Can I go outside?”      



Colette
Might as well call it Keira! England’s fair Ms. Knightley is in almost every scene, in wow outfits, in bravura hair-dos. She smokes, drinks, mimes, trans-dresses, seduces women (and men), even flashes some breast. And if you imagine this is a deep portrait of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), still perhaps France’s most beloved woman novelist, then I’d love to show you a “razor-sharp documentary” on the guillotine as “pioneer of the close-cut shave.”

Abandon all hope that the movie will replicate Colette’s impeccable, nuance-scented prose, and you can relax into some fun. Director Wash Westmoreland did the gay-themed The Fluffer, Totally Gay! and the vanishing species film Gay Republicans. His Colette has the oo-la-la oomph of a gay carnival ripping off Victorian corsets, as “Gabri” advances from nature-loving, rustic girlhood to writing her first novels about the provincial and then Parisian lass Claudine. Her pen flows like wine, but her lordly sommelier is first husband Henry. Known high and low as Willy, he is publisher, wit, party dynamo. Alas, Willy never guzzles brandy with Toulouse-Lautrec, but he does pose as faux “author” of Gabri’s scandalously successful Claudine.

The risky arrangement educates Gabri, who will finally proclaim “I am Claudine!” without quite becoming Colette. She remains so very Keira, so English, so cute when scrunching her nose or flashing bold smiles. After she ditches Willy and his wild, wastrel ways, the story loses its stimulating polarity. It is admirable to film a feminist empowerment picture, less so when your male piggy (brash, funny, even poignant) is a more layered life package than your heroine. Dominic West’s supple, often dominant performance means that Colette basically swallows the champagne cork of its payoff: after Willy, Colette claimed immortality by writing her best works. Much later, as the old but still keen-eyed author of Gigi, she noticed and helped lift to fame Audrey Hepburn.  
   
SALAD (A List)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Creeps
Peter Lorre as Abbott (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934), Mary Clare as the Baroness (The Lady Vanishes, 1938), Judith Anderson as Mr. Danvers (Rebecca, 1940), Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie (Shadow of a Doubt, 1943), Walter Slezak as Willy (Lifeboat, 1944), Leopoldine Konstantin as Mme. Sebastian (Notorious, 1946), Robert Walker as Bruno Antony (Strangers on a Train, 1951), Raymond Burr as Lars Thorwald (Rear Window,1954), Anthony Dawson as Charles Swann (Dial M for Murder, 1954), Reggie Nalder as Rien (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956), Martin Landau as Leonard (North by Northwest, 1959), Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates (Psycho, 1960), Wolfgang Kieling as Gromek (Torn Curtain, 1966) and Barry Foster as Robert Rusk (Frenzy, 1972).  His suavest villains? Ray Milland as Tony Wendice (Dial M for Murder) and James Mason as Philip Van Damm (North by Northwest).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
The Latin American wartime solidarity project It’s All True, initially sparked by Nelson Rockefeller, was Orson Welles’s downfall in the studio system: “On Nov. 30, 1942, with several producers and potential backers in attendance, (new RKO  head Charles) Koerner held a screening of selections from 23 reels, supplemented with such Brazilian hit songs as ‘Amelia’ sung by Chucho Martinez. There were no takers. Welles sat uncomfortably tight.” Weeks later, fired by RKO, Orson told his Mercury colleagues “we’re just turning a Koerner.” But so ended his high time of upscale Hollywood filming, and so began the years of maverick wandering, with pinched budgets and zero help from Nelson Rockefeller. (Quote from Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Having once aspired to being an artist, my favorite film treatment of one is 1959’s The Horse’s Mouth, which is “never psycho-biographic and only flirts with the possibility of genius. The visual style has some over-lighting (was it felt that deeper chiaroscuro would dampen the comedy bits?). The shifts from comical to serious can seem at times metronomic, yet Alec Guinness pulls it all together. At first he seems dashed on screen like the opening brush strokes (with the titles). But then he presses through the surface impasto to find the rich, complicated interior. The result is much more than a jolly good time.” (From the Alec Guinness/The Horse’s Mouth 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.



Even a swank outfit can't keep Reggie Nalder from being a total creep in The Man Who Knew Too Much (Paramount Pictures, 1956; director Alfred Hitchcock, cinematographer Robert Burks).
 
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