Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Nosh 119: 'Eighth Grade,' 'The King' & More


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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Eighth Grade and The King



Eighth Grade
Jean-Pierre Léaud was 14 when he entered film history as Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in 1959. He has been in over 70 features, going from lean poster boy of the French New Wave to a crusty old chub. Hardly anyone gets that kind of career now, even with a vivid teen start. But I think Elsie Fisher, 14 when filming Eighth Grade last year, has entered teen-movie history as Kayla Day. It’s a great performance in a “small” film made full and true by Fisher. And by Bo Burnham’s script, and his feature-debut direction at 27 (Truffaut’s age when Blows appeared). Burnham’s accuracy, subtlety and humane sense of adolescence would have made Truffaut say, smiling, “Marveilleux, mon frère.”

Concerning Kayla’s last phase of eighth grade, it pivots on the lonely girl reaching out with her new podcast (her verbal tic, “you know,” is like a flare for “please know me”). Middle school, “junior high” in my shy, distant youth, is generally seen as a kind of hormonal whirlpool of pain between childhood and full-steam adolescence. Kayla, very bright and a little pudgy, has image-subversive pimples and an aura of hopeful innocence that invites snarking. With her mother long gone, her dad (fine Josh Hamilton) is loving but struggles to find the lines of connection, and Kayla’s insecurities are like a Maginot Line. She has fairly hip interests, and some gumption, but her identity anxiety almost invites rejection (that she has no pals from earlier years is rather hard to fathom).

Burnham found the right, videographic approach. So much of Kayla is internal but brimming close to the surface, and Fisher’s acting is all intuitive nuances. The fake-jaunty podcasts, mirror glances, willful silences, gutsy but masochistic attempts at winning over some “cool” girls (snobs, perky in their cruelties) require the granular use of close-ups to capture all the mood weather. This is not the sleek, joke-driven suburban world of John Hughes’s teen movies. Hughes’s modular clichés have been overdone. So Burnham, on a tight budget, provides a more subtle interplay between Kayla, her fretful dad, an older high school girl (Emily Robinson) who boosts Kayla because she can recall her own mid-school agonies, and a brainy nerd (funny Jake Ryan) who has a Woody Allen sense of small talk: “Do you believe in God?” Kayla is trying to believe in herself (in a nifty irony, the quiet girl plays the school band’s loudest instrument: the cymbals).

All the parts converge and click without turning into plastic flash cards of familiarity.There are real danger tensions, as when Kayla desperately surveys a soft-porn site, and later must deal with a boy whose brain has gone to his crotch. After far too many generic teen movies, Eighth Grade graduates with honors. Elsie Fisher may not be an expressionist wow like Brooklynn Prince, the fierce moppet of The Florida Project, but the actor makes her first major part a starring triumph. May her zits vanish, and more good roles appear.



The King
We first hear Elvis in weary, wistful voice-over: “You can have everything and if you’re not happy, what have you got?” That sad strum is the heartbeat of The King, a tabloid docu-dossier on Elvis Presley’s impact, aura, myth and bankability (dead 41 years, he still sustains a Southern tourist industry). File-footage glutton Eugene Jarecki (Reagan, Why We Fight) had the small-bulb idea of getting hold of Elvis’s old Rolls Royce. He brought on board, for short drives and reflections, celebrities like Ethan Hawke, Emmylou Harris and Alec Baldwin. One good ol’ musician cries, imagining the car as Elvis’s jail or coffin. Some of the movie’s cruising wisdom is road kill, some is juicy chaw, with welcome intervals from little twang-canary Emi Sunshine and her roots band.

As aging fans liposuction dead Elvis for blobs of the American Dream, Jarecki lingers on young Elvis dazed by fame, mourning his mom, manning up for the U.S. Army. After soft service he was unmanned by celebrity, wealth, drugs, movies, fried food and the money vampire “Colonel” Tom Parker. Set among clips of Ali, Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton, Elvis is the Ghost of Paleness Past. Jarecki taps enduring black resentment of Presley as a gifted cribber. “Muthafu’ Elvis!” explodes rapper Chuck D, before admitting the value of musical crossover. At times a great singer, Elvis also became a fat, gilded tenement of Vegasoid indulgence.

He was non-political, but Jarecki suggests that the Trump  movement, full of racial resentment, draws upon  the Elvis cult. When the Rolls breaks down, it clearly represents the dying dream of white hegemony. The dream included a Klan kracker who denounced Elvis’s “vulgar animalistic nigger rock ’n roll bop” (the “bop” is priceless). Such stuff doesn’t lead to very deep reflections. Among the testifiers, Mike Meyers is sharp, funny and Canadian. Old Dan Rather goes up the Empire State Building to gain some perspective. The enduring value, the legacy, is in Elvis’s early songs.  

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Most of Orson Welles’s films can be seen as poetic, kaleidoscopic fusions of powerful, beautiful fragments. He attempted many unfinished projects, as he reflected with melancholy late in life: “I’ve wasted an awful lot of my life trying to finish them, rather than letting them go as I should have done … I deeply regret this steadfast and stubborn loyalty, now that I look back on it. If people see it the other way, I can understand. But God, what I’ve been through trying to get ‘em done! What I’ve never done was to leave a film because I was tired of it, or angry at somebody or fed up. I’ve only left a film when there wasn’t any way to shoot it, no money.” (Quote from Joseph McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
While never a major actor, Anita Ekberg was immortally right to play the visiting star Sylvia in La Dolce Vita: “At Rome’s Baths of Caracalla, shadow-carved by torches for Sylvia’s party, Rubini (Mastroianni) dances with her, gushing an awe to which she, lacking Italian, is indifferent: ‘You’re everything, Sylvia. You’re the first woman of creation, the mother, sister, lover, friend, angel, devil, the earth, the home.” No female was more flattered by ruins, or so unlike Ingrid Bergman sickened by Pompeii in Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia.”(From the Marcello Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.) 

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



Anita Ekberg leads one of film’s great dances in La Dolce Vita (Cineriz/Astor Pictures, 1960; director Federico Fellini, cinematographer Otello Martelli.) 

For previous Noshes, scroll below.




Friday, July 27, 2018

Nosh 118: 'The Equalizer 2,' 'Leave No Trace' & More

By David Elliott
    
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
Note: Nosh 119 will appear on Friday, Aug. 10.

APPETIZER: Reviews of The Equalizer 2 and Leave No Trace

The Equalizer 2
So you are Denzel Washington, now 63, the most successful black star since Sidney Poitier. You have two Oscars (Glory, Training Day). After recent top-deck acting (in Fences and Roman J. Israel Esq.), you decide to serve your bank account and the male side of your fan base by heading back to the gristle griddle for The Equalizer 2. After all, The Equalizer (2014) pulled in $200 million. It, too, was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who led you to that top actor Oscar for your rogue cop in 2001’s Training Day.

As deadly agent Robert McCall, widely believed to be dead, you now have a fine new apartment in Boston (not fancy but manly; great safe room behind the book wall). Your reading program has advanced from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (in one volume, but not a graphic novel). Going beyond Eq I’s Russian thugs, you have a wider buffet of kill-or-maim meat: Turkish devils, a past colleague gone rotten, preppy sex creeps, and a trashy gang in your new nabe. You miss your late wife, and endure bad news about your best female friend (Melissa Leo). True, your senior bod, now jowly beyond the facial level, must demolish buff, brutal nasties half your age, and somehow your lethal slashings with a small blade make you Satan’s sushi chef. But here is the bulwark of truth: you are Denzel Washington.

His solemn gravity, his laser gaze, his sunrise smile, his drill-gun voice, his wise eyes that support every emotion, his looming, big-guy sensitivity – what does age matter? Stalking and killing with supreme confidence, Denzel cat-pounces beyond Liam Neeson’s pulpy revenge thrillers. Old Charlie Bronson is now a cement sack in the storage shed.  McCall does have a slightly uneasy Robin Hood aspect. He helps nice neighbors, high-fives white kids, befriends a Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean, who turned 90 last Sunday) and mentors a boyish tagger who wants to be an artist. Fuqua milks every tension, gives every cruncher a sado sting, and really uses that safe room. His money in the bank is there on screen: Denzel.

Almost all the movie’s merit is in him, nearly all the shortfall is in the script. Washington turns his lines about a trigger pull (“Five pounds of pressure, that’s all it takes – five pounds of pressure!”) into a macho sonata. Meanwhile, scum thugs are left with belchers like “Fuck you, McCall! Fuck you!” With Denzel in charge, our pesty doubts about plausibility wither. The climax occurs in a big beach storm, and any  satirical Sharknado thoughts we have are blown away by hurricane Denzel. Faced by his aura and expertise, vile villains vie (and die) as voluntary victims.



Leave No Trace
Will (Ben Foster) lives rough and “free” with his child Tom (a girl: actress Thomasin McKenzie) in densely wooded Forest Park above Portland, Oregon (main locations were further out, in Eagle Creek and Estacada). Will has military skills and reflexes, and gives Tom “home” schooling well beyond gleaning berries and mushrooms. They sometimes enter the bright, noisy city for supplies, books, etc. Will, a widower and likely war veteran, is almost a silent commando on a mission to evade society. The most haunted forest is his mind.

Leave No Trace director Debra Granik and writing partner Anne Rosellini, previously creators of the austere Winter’s Bone, again use nature to nurture and test family love among the hard-living (that Ozarks movie put Jennifer Lawrence on the map). At 13 Tom is sensing that feral survival with a loner dad is no future for a smart, budding beauty. The movie gives its quickening tension an Oregonian, almost Canadian edge. Forest lawmen are tough but decent. Welfare officials are polite. “Oxi” addiction is mentioned, but wilderness louts and sexual predators never appear. A big plot development is a sprained foot.

With Foster bunkered in social alienation (war damage?), the story mainly relies on the translucent feelings of McKenzie, a fresh, intuitively searching talent. There are lovely scenes of the girl enchanted by rabbits and bees, and being helped by a maternal woman at a nesters encampment (Dale Dickey, her worn face a Walker Evans portrait, echoes Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath). This crafted film has simple speech. Asked “Where’s your home?,” Tom thinks hard and answers, “Dad.” The ending has a softly wrenching but inevitable rightness. Leave No Trace is like a prayer made of moss.           

SALAD: A List
Denzel Washington’s 12 Best Roles
In my exalted opinion, in order of their arrival:
Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, 1987; Xavier Quinn in The Mighty Quinn, 1989; Pvt. Trip in Glory, 1989; Rubin Carter in The Hurricane, 1989; Demetrius Williams in Mississippi Masala, 1991; Malcolm in Malcolm X, 1992; Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995; Jake Shuttlesworth in He Got Game, 1998; Alonzo in Training Day, 2001; Melvin Tolson in The Great Debaters, 2007; Eli in The Book of Eli, 2010, and Troy Maxson in Fences, 2016. 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Though Orson Welles mostly studied John Ford, the film director “who pleases me most of all is D.W. Griffith … I think he is the best director in the history of the cinema.” But in a brief meeting after Welles arrived in Hollywood at 24, the old master was remote and taciturn. “There was no place for Griffith in the film industry by 1940,’ Welles said years later. ‘He was an exile in his own town, a prophet without honor, a craftsman without tools, an artist without work. No wonder he hated me.” Without becoming bitter, Welles would share some of Griffith’s fate. (Quotations from Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The delicious, confectionary musical Funny Face (1957) ends with Fred Astaire serenading Audrey Hepburn’s with “the ineffable tenderness of Gershwin’s ’Swonderful.’ Not the pep version by Gene Kelly and Georges Guétary in An American in Paris, nor Dub Taylor’s funny sing-along to Doris Day’s radio version in Crime Wave. In eight swooning turns the lovers dance across turf to a raft, then float downstream to some exquisite forever – Monet’s garden at Giverny?” (From the Hepburn/Funny Face chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.) 

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



Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) displays his dapper side, to face the noir powers of Devil in a Blue Dress (TriStar Pictures, 1995; director Carl Franklin, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Nosh 117: 'Three Identical Strangers,' 'The Catcher Was a Spy'


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


APPETIZER: Reviews of Three Identical Strangers and The Catcher Was a Spy

Three Identical Strangers
Never to be confused with 1946’s bizarre Three Strangers – those being Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Geraldine Fitzgerald – Three Identical Strangers is even more bizarre. Tim Wardle’s documentary is about identical triplets Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman, separated after 1961 birth (their mom was single and, they later discovered, an alcoholic depressive). Adopted by three families living not very far apart, none knew the deep truth about their situation, stemming from a prestigious  agency known for placing Jewish children. In 1980 the boys were suddenly united by the finger of fate and crazy luck.

What a reunion! Here they are in clips and photos, with beaming smiles and curly hair, looking like jolly genetic clones. Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley and Phil Donahue fomented media interest, and they opened a Manhattan restaurant (Triplets, of course). But, as a female adoptee admits, reality was “a little darker than a Disney movie.” There was a top-level New York psychiatrist, who survived the Holocaust only to conduct a very secret study of separated identicals, including David, Bobby and Eddy. Among the many talking heads is the Great Doctor’s retired secretary, a chirpy old bird retired in plush La Jolla, preening about her celebrity connections. We hear of the “powerful” Jewish social agency, so caring, but not caring to talk about the study it funded, now locked away at Yale. You might start to wonder if the tangled trail leads back to Dr. Mengele and The Boys From Brazil.

The boys became middle-aged men, sadly weary of loss and injustice. Each married, but on film the bro-bond remains omnipresent. Although the big welfare agency is Jewish, as are the families, we never hear a rabbi or find if religion impacted the brothers beyond broken wedding glass. The separated kids banged their wee, lonely heads on walls and cribs, and were raised by very different parents, but such things are more stated than explored.

Guiding the central, Nature vs. Nurture issue is thoughtful reporter Lawrence Wright (who wrote the 9-11 book The Looming Tower). The film, wandering through many shadows, is one of the strange documentaries (like Marwencol, The Quiet One, Capturing the Friedmans and Life, Animated) about the obscure mysteries of self, family and fate. It seems likely that the hidden study, a product of the Freud and Kinsey era, will finally shed less light than Greek tragedy, the Torah and Dr. Spock.      



The Catcher Was a Spy
There seems to be a law that every vivid episode of World War II must become a movie. So now we find that Morris “Moe” Berg, highly regarded 1930s catcher for the Boston Red Sox, was: 1. a polymath with major degrees and fluent in many languages, 2. less a Jew than “Jew-ish” (his words), 3. secretly homosexual, 4. a superb chess player, and 5. an American spy sent to contact and perhaps kill Werner Heisenberg. The scientist was the most important German physicist who didn’t flee Hitler’s rule, and led (possibly delayed, perhaps hobbled) the Nazi effort to build an atomic bomb. Fans, you won’t find all that on a baseball card.

The Catcher Was a Spy starts with a rather dousing fact. Berg (Paul Rudd) is inserted into neutral Switzerland to corner the visiting Heisenberg in late 1944. By then the Reich barely had a viable air force, and never could have afforded a Manhattan Project like America’s, not even a measly Staten Island Project (Hitler called atomic energy “Jewish science”). Ben Lewin’s film relies on teasing out Berg’s personal secrets, then using them as the subtextual template for his daring mission. There is a lot of sobering conversation, a little straight sex, a shy scene of crypto-gay suggestion in Japan (with suave Hiroyuki Sanada of Twilight Samurai), some rugged combat in Italy and nicked-in performances by Paul Giamatti, Sienna Miller, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Giancarlo Giannini and (as Heisenberg) Mark Strong.

Rudd is effectively subtle, yet the spy thrills feel rather pasted and patented. The Swiss showdown, mostly talk and fog, is less a climax than a murky tangent of Heisenberg’s famous “uncertainty principle” in quantum physics. The story’s nerve-plucking falls well short of old pictures like Man Hunt, Five Fingers and Eye of the Needle. Moe’s movie is a small chip in the vast WWII mosaic. If you want a brainy Jewish sports hero with charisma, the film to see is still The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.
 
SALAD: A List
Highly Enjoyable World War II Spy Movies
The finest, Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, is technically a postwar drama, ditto Welles’s The Stranger. With star and year:

Contraband (Conrad Veidt, 1940), Foreign Correspondent (Joel McCrea, 1940), Man Hunt (Walter Pidgeon, 1941), All Through the Night (Humphrey Bogart, 1942), Nazi Agent (Conrad Veidt, 1942), Journey Into Fear (Joseph Cotten, 1943), Decision Before Dawn (Oskar Werner, 1951), Five Fingers (James Mason, 1952), The Man Who Never Was (Clifton Webb, 1956), The Counterfeit Traitor (William Holden, 1965), Morituri (Marlon Brando, 1965), The Eagle Has Landed (Michael Caine, 1976), Eye of the Needle (Donald Sutherland, 1981), Black Book (Clarice van Houten, 2006), Lust, Caution (Tang Wei, 2007).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles’s cultural hero was Shakespeare, his most reliable creative yeast from late boyhood, and James Naremore discerns a psychological root: “All his major characters (on film, like) Kane, George Minafer, Captain Quinlan, are imprisoned by their past, destroyed not only by the aging process and the inexorable march of ‘progress,’ but by the sheer difficulty of becoming adult in a new world. And given his obsession with this kind of story, it is only natural that Welles should have had a lifelong preoccupation with Shakespeare’s history plays, which treat the same intersection of public and private problems.” (One should add that Welles had a short childhood and carried on like a king. Quote from Naremore’s The Magic World of Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Based on B. Traven’s hardboiled novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre had to run the censorship gauntlet in 1948 Hollywood: “Censors sliced away racial references, Dobbs’s mention of sex, his sneer about Curtin’s ‘Bolshevik ideas,’ a line about Mexican oil expropriation, a faked decapitation. ‘What’s wrong,’ Bogart cracked off-screen, ‘with showing a guy having his head cut off?’ Despite the film’s doubled cost, Jack L. Warner called it his studio’s best.” (Still, it was something of a tough sell. Quotation from the Bogart/Treasure 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.


Maurer (Oskar Werner) and Hilde (Hildegarde Knef) have a tense exchange in Decision Before Dawn (20th Century Fox, 1951; director Anatole Litvak, cinematographer Franz Planer).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Nosh 116: 'On Chesil Beach' & More


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


APPETIZER: Review of On Chesil Beach
Before literature or film there was geography. Chesil Beach is a curving strand of pebble (“shingle”) beach on the Dorset coast near Weymouth, South England. Fabled shipwrecks occurred there in old smuggler times. Now the place is so cherished that when the esteemed novelist Ian McEwan took a few pebbles, to inspire him at his writing desk, he was threatened with an environmental violation fine of two thousand pounds. He returned the pebbles.

McEwan’s novella On Chesil Beach was nominated for the 2007 Booker Prize, and later he scripted the film. He lost his pebbles but got a diamond: Saoirse Ronan. If you have not been blind at the movies these last ten years, you know that Ireland’s Ronan, 24, is one of the supreme rising talents, terrific in The Lonely Bones, Hanna, Brooklyn, Lady Bird, etc. And if you are lucky to have caught Chesil’s fly-by American passage, you know that Florence Ponting is another Ronan  vessel, her use of a crystal English accent as fine as her Sacramento teen-talk in Lady Bird.

In 1962 Florence is a ripening beauty, keen leader (violinist) of her new string quartet, and just took a “first” in music at college. She’s no aristo, but there is a crust of family comfort she enjoys poking. Mother (barely used Emily Watson) is a snob rich in affectation. Father (Samuel West) is a factory owner and a bully. Their interest in Flo’s passion, classical music, is mainly connected to status. Suddenly she turns her fair eyes on Edward (Billy Howle), a lower-rank schoolmaster’s son, handsome in an unfinished way, brainy about history but shy, awkward and a mild rocker (he likes Chuck Berry, whom Flo finds “merry,” but when they dance with joy it’s to Mozart).

Ed’s mother, mentally damaged after a bizarre accident, is a fragmented, artistic soul, and Flo reaches out to her with instinctual kindness. The woman (ace Anne-Marie Duff) is moved, and her husband (excellent Adrian Scarborough) instantly urges Ed sotto voce to “marry that girl.” This is  the tender family Flo wants, and love ordains marriage. But the nuptial night brings that almost unspeakable (for Flo) thing: sex. She has already been freaked by an explicit sex manual, and we wonder if there might have been abuse (the father?). Her virginity is like a last, Victorian crown colony, a Gibraltar of anxiety (her purity flag is a plush blue dress). Ed, himself nervously virginal, is no David Niven. The testing encounter leads them back to Chesil Beach, where every pebble seems to be a facet of their pent-up, then free-flung feelings.

To spill here the story’s incoming tide would be critical malpractice (forget any comparison to Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity). Making his feature debut, director Dominic Cooke has wonderful English vistas from cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, precise period touches, music that eloquently spurs and spins emotions, and a cast inspired to rival Ronan. She and Howle transmit a quivering sincerity, urgent with youth. They empower the story, with its flashbacks from the wedding night and, later, forward.

McEwan made some changes from the book. The new ending, more emphatic than the novel’s late ruminations, delivers a surplus crescendo of sentiment. A better closure might have been the scene before, so richly wistful in a record shop (an episode also devised for the movie). Neither Jane Austen drama nor a Harlequin romance, On Chesil Beach may be, as some have said, “minor McEwan.” The film is never a minor experience.         

SALAD: A List
25 Special Movies of British Romancing
With their romantic stars and year:
Pygmalion (Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, 1938), Wuthering Heights (Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, 1939), That Hamilton Woman (Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, 1941), I Know Where I’m Going! (Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey, 1945), Brief Encounter (Trevor Howard, Celia Johnson, 1946), A Matter of Life and Death/ Stairway to Heaven (David Niven, Kim Hunter, 1946), The Red Shoes (Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, 1948), King Solomon’s Mines (Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, 1950), Simon and Laura (Kay Kendall, Peter Finch, 1955), Loss of Innocence (Susannah York, Kenneth More, 1961), Becket (Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, 1964), Goodbye Mr. Chips (Peter O’Toole, Petula Clark, 1969), The Go-Between (Julie Christie, Alan Bates, 1971), Maurice (James Wilby, Hugh Grant, 1987), Sid and Nancy (Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb, 1987),  We Think the World of You (Alan Bates, Betsy), Truly Madly Deeply (Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, 1990), Sense and Sensibility (Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, 1995), Persuasion (Amanda Root, Ciaran Hinds, 1995), Among Giants (Rachel Griffiths, Pete Postlethwaite, 1998), Shakespeare in Love (Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, 1998), Yes (Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian, 2004), Atonement (Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, 2007), Bright Star (Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, 2009), The Deep Blue Sea (Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, 2011), Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, 2017).           
                                                                         
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
As WWII gave way to the postwar era, Orson Welles considered a political career, even wrote a syndicated column. Lasting remnants of that phase are recordings he made of famous speeches. One of the finest and simplest is his rendition of John Brown’s eloquent words before his hanging in 1859. Here is the speech, available on YouTube:



ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“The early star system of the 1910s and ‘20s favored full-frontal personality, codified visually. 'Almost from the beginning,’ writes James Naremore, ‘movie stars were regarded as aesthetic objects rather than as artists, or as personalities who had a documentary reality. D.W. Griffith and other directors strengthened the ‘organic’ effect by inserting details from an actor’s real life into the fiction.’ So, Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie gazes upon a photo of her actual mother cradling baby Lil. What Gish began so sweetly, Brando consummated viscerally in his self-referential Paul in Last Tango in Paris (call it True Heart Marlon). All actors tap themselves, though the deepest aquifer eludes many.” (From the Katharine Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter in my 2016 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.


Lillian Gish and Robert Harron in a sepia-tinted image from D.W. Griffith’s sensitive romance, True Heart Susie (Biograph Films, 1919; director Griffith, camera operator G.W. Bitzer).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.


Friday, July 6, 2018

Nosh 115: 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' & 'Sicario: Day of the Soldado'

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Sicario: Day of the Soldado.


Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
You cynics, snarkers, trolls and lipoffs came to sneer – but then Won’t You Be My Neighbor? gave you Fred Rogers. You saw the glow of kindly hope, the radiant decency of Fred. Born in the hopeful time of Calvin Coolidge (1928), gone in the grim time of Bush II (2003), Fred was a Coolidge kinda fella, if not Calvinist. He liked polite, subdued speech and silences, favored ties, sneakers and sweaters, was “a lifelong Republican” (unlikely that would have lasted into our new world of federal kidnapping). I came along too early to get the benefit of Fred’s public TV show for children, having sprouted my antenna in the Roy Rogers era (Dale was a dear). Later, catching bits of the show, I wondered if Fred might have a skeleton in his sweater drawer, something that could quake his nice image (like the dopey scandal that swacked my own kids’s TV favorite, Pee-wee Herman).

In a vintage clip, interviewer Tom Snyder flat-out asks Fred if he is “square, you know, straight.” Fred amiably confirms that he is (later seconded by his delightful wife Joanne, their grown kids, and the regulars on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood). Oh, there was that time when black cast member Francois Clemmons nearly came out as gay,  until Rogers stopped him (worried about losing sponsors in syndication). Fred soon came round, and he and Francois had already spiked public pool segregationists, by bathing their feet together on camera. In his gentle, nurturing way, Rogers also addressed bullying, lies, sickness, death, solitude, divorce, assassinations and other cruel intrusions on the magical but insecure world of childhood. His sweetness was genuine, not vanilla pabulum.

Morgan Neville’s fine tribute documents, without preaching (Presbyterian minister Fred did not preach), the host’s empathetic genius with kids, in whom the film is rich. Rogers served their need for understanding, never bossy or judgmental. An intuitive psychologist and educator, Fred cut deep into childhood’s underbrush with his soft machete: kindness. Today’s kids, quickly hooked on cellphones and violent games, might not respond to Rogers as did many 20th century youths. Starting with flimsy sets and simple puppets, Fred stayed loyal to the homely format, never becoming ironic or sophisticated. He became, for millions, a caring friend, good neighbor and wise uncle.

Though loved as a child, Fred was a shy chub with few friends, rescued by music, then religion. In a terrific clip, Rogers saves PBS’s funding with simple, deep remarks that moved the skeptical committee chairman, Sen. John Pastore. Loathing violence, Fred probably didn’t like the slapstick mayhem (seen in the film) of SCTV’s classic skit “Battle of the PBS Stars” (Martin Short as Fred, boxing John Candy as Julia Childs). Although badly shaken by the 9-11 tragedy, Mr. Rogers never lost his faith that the world should be made fit for children. As far as he could, he did.



Sicario: Day of the Soldado
The lessons of Fred Rogers seem so far away from the Tex-Mex border, where in our brave new world migrant kids are being torn from their families and suspended in a juvenile hell of trapped fear and boredom. For all those who get down to McAllen or Brownsville for caring protest, many more will crave the blood-sausage burrito of Sicario: Day of the Soldado (which visits McAllen). Sequel to 2015’s Sicario, it stars a virile pair of cojones grandes who man-up the story. Cojón uno: Matt Graver, federal black-op honcho and expert killer, bulging that blockhouse blend of muscle and gravel that is Josh Brolin. Cojón dos: Alejandro, supreme renegade sicario (hit man), storming through hot action without ever losing the deadly gaze of Benicio Del Toro. His half-hooded eyes suggest a primal wolf waking from a primeval siesta.

There are squirmy tendrils of tabloid politics in the linkage of drug cartels, gangs running migrants across the border, crazed Yemeni jihadists, Somali pirates, vicious cops and (with a Trumpean blast of subtlety) the threat of Mexico as Our Enemy Neighbor (how will this play with the new, nationalist government in Mexico City?). Emily Blunt is now sadly gone, and Catherine Keener and Matthew Modine are used as mere decals. What saves Sicario from being just another warehouse of exploding bull flesh is not Italian director Stefano Sollima (efficient), nor the imagery of Dariusz Wolski (excellent). It is that chief scripter Taylor Sheridan, who did No. 1 and also wrote and directed the tough but always human Wyoming thriller Wind River, ropes the action sequences around the fate of two teens.

The boy who becomes a guide for desperate migrants remains mostly plot cartilage, touching but generic. It’s an abducted girl, the cartel princess Isabela (Isabel Moner), at first cocky and then awfully vulnerable, whose survival bond with Del Toro’s Alejandro gives the film its true tension of danger. In a remarkable episode they find refuge with a deaf man’s family, dignified even in raw poverty. It gives the story moral gravity, a still point amid the mayhem. In this ramped-up world where every stinkin’ badge can be bent, and every soiled killer is like a buzzard pecking his own feral heart, the sad-eyed sicario  and the frightened heiress are substantially alive (even if Alejandro’s survival at one point is highly questionable). Del Toro and Moner provide, though in a simpler way, an emotionally loaded core like Kevin Kline and young Cesar Ramos did in 2007’s scary cross-border drama Trade

      
SALAD: A List
Outstanding Movies About TV Luminaries
With stars and year: The Great Man (José Ferrer, 1956), A Face in the Crowd (Andy Griffith, 1957), Network (Peter Finch, 1976), The King of Comedy (Jerry Lewis, 1982), Tootsie (Dustin Hoffman, 1982), Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Paul Reubens, 1984), Mr. Saturday Night (Billy Crystal, 1992), Quiz Show (Ralph Fiennes, 1994), To Die For (Nicole Kidman, 1995), Auto Focus (Greg Kinnear, 2002), Anchorman: Legend of Ron Burgundy (Will Farrell, 2004), Good Night, and Good Luck (David Strathairn, 2005), Hollywoodland (Ben Affleck, 2006), Talk to Me (Don Cheadle, 2007), Frost/Nixon (Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, 2008), Julie & Julia (Meryl Streep, 2009).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles loved actors, as a general rule, but he often found movie stars, in the full, flapping flight of their stardom, amusing. As when appearing in a film about Marco Polo, shot in Yugoslavia: “Tony Quinn came to town with his own private writer. He played Kubla Khan, who, it turned out in Tony’s authoritative version, was kindly, brave, benevolent, good, handsome and irresistible to women. There was no grace or virtue which was not written into that character! And then he played him like Charlie Chan.” (OW in This Is Orson Welles, by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich.)   

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Grateful nostalgia of a former usher: “In Chicago theaters, hauling heavy cans of film to lofty booths, I felt like a young priest elevating the holy host. I must thank two ‘high priests.’ World War II veteran and dapper martinet Samuel Levin (1912-1995) expertly managed the big State-Lake Theater. Five blocks away, veteran and cheerful cinephile Bruce Trinz (1917-2011) owned and ran the smaller Clark Theater, where each day’s new double-bill of vintage movies lured sunrise pilgrims, tired shoppers, students, buffs, loners, daters, seniors, cruisers, nighthawks. For every picture, Bruce wrote a rhymed couplet in his monthly calendar, like the one for White Heat with Cagney: A grim human bomb / Who worshipped his Mom!” (From the intro to my 2016 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.



In White Heat, psycho James Cagney is visited by his hellish mother, Margaret Wycherly. (Warner Bros., 1949; director Raoul Walsh, cinematographer Sidney Hickox.)

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Friday, June 29, 2018

Nosh 114: 'American Animals,' 'Mountain' & More


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

APPETIZER: Reviews of American Animals and Mountain.


American Animals
To ricochet in one week from the feminist caper romp  Ocean’s 8 to the more reality-bound but also surreal American Animals confirms that the heist formula can still loot our attention. Bart Layton proves himself a daringly crafty writer and director. Instead of eight snappy chicks he has what might be called the Four Stooges. No Metropolitan Museum of Art lures their heist. Their daring debut target is precious rare books at the Transylvania University Library in Lexington (not Romania, but Kentucky). Foremost is a first edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, so massive it almost requires a crane (not the bird).

This bizarre robbery actually happened, in 2004. Layton sticks to known and surmised facts with a double-track scheme. Actors play the college-age crime crew, but the real-life crooks also appear, inserting docu-bits of retrospective gravity (one, Warren Lipka, is more charismatic than the good actor who plays him, Evan Peters). Warren, a hot rod of giddy machismo, prods the fretful young artist Spencer (Barry Keoghan), preening Chas the driver (Blake Jenner), and brainy, sullen Eric (Jared Abrahamson). Studying famous heist films, they remain both procedurally clever and amateurishly wishful. A clip from The Killing (Kubrick, 1955) appears like the Ghost of Screw-ups Past.

Ole B. Birkeland’s photography vividly canvases Lexington, my birth town (Warren calls the bluegrass burg “a disappointment,” which I don’t take personally, having lived there only one infantile year). The suspense is special, like a school project to make male hormones from LSD and Gatorade. Most heist films use buddy bonding as generic dude spackle for the plot, but these four are truly testing their friendships. No Rat Pack will emerge from their criminality, which includes absurd old-man beards and wigs. There is a bow to Reservoir Dogs, and a Rashomon update at the finale, yet the intimate rooting is real characters. One is the smug, then terrified librarian, Mrs. Gooch (ace talent Ann Dowd).

This must be the most personal of heist pictures, its layered charm caught in Warren’s schizzy line as he tries to subdue Mrs. Gooch: “Shut the fuck up! I’m sorry, OK?” The heist, which could be a new formula in chaos theory, is beyond description. There are flavors of the Coen Bros., and Bottle Rocket, and England’s immortally crooked comedy The Ladykillers. These are very human animals.


Mountain
“What are men to rocks and mountains?,” ponders young Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Nothing, answers Mountain. You don’t need to know Jane Austen’s novel to recognize the vast gap between us and the epic rock piles. Jennifer Peedom’s documentary spans that void on a rope of wonder and death-defiance. It joins the loftiest mountain films (see list below). Peedom also did Sherpa, about the fabled native guides and portagers exploited by the “Everest industry” (the Sherpas don’t thrill to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”).

The titanic peaks (also the Grand Canyon, glaciers, ice caves) induce a certain awe, reinforced by Willem Dafoe’s gravely thoughtful narration. And the high-climbing music (Beethoven, Vivaldi, Part, Grieg, but not Wagner – Werner Herzog must own all Wagner rights above 5,000 feet). There are riffs on daredevil hubris, the explosive ski biz, the summit-climb cult that now rivals the Klondike mob in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. Even if you have never ski-surfed powder snow, or heard the crack of a calving avalanche, you feel in Mountain the primal disparity between humans and glorious crags, and the elevated elation that risks the vertigo of madness.

SALAD: A List
Outstanding Mountain Movies:
The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925), The Holy Mountain (Fanck, 1926), The Blue Light (Riefenstahl, 1932), Lost Horizon (Capra, 1937), High Sierra (Walsh, 1941), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston, 1948), The Far Country (Mann, 1954), Scream of Stone (Herzog, 1991), Alive (Marshall, 1993), Kundun (Scorsese, 1997), Touching the Void (Macdonald, 2003), To the Limit (Danquart, 2007) and Sherpa (Peedom, 2015).  

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
David O. Selznick, producing his florid postwar Western Duel in the Sun (starring Jennifer Jones, Joe Cotten and Gregory Peck), “opted to add a narrative that might cast the film’s trashy story as some kind of prairie legend. So Orson Welles was hired – he hoped for a fat check – (and) Selznick apparently never detected Welles’s elephant-like parody of the work: ‘Deep among the lonely, sun-baked hills of Texas, the great and weather-beaten stone still stands that the Comanches call Squaw’s Head Rock. Time cannot change its impassive face, nor dim the legend of the wild young lovers ….’ (alas, instead of money Orson got) a pair of antique dueling pistols. In respectful satire, Welles gave the mogul every subsequent Christmas two glass pistols filled with candy.” (Quote from David Thomson’s Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Timothy “Speed” Levitch “belongs to Manhattan’s tribe of singular soloists, marginal prophets, unabashed contrarians, yet is no simple eccentric like ‘Miss Delphine Binger who assiduously attends to her collection of several hundred thousand goose, turkey and chicken wishbones, boiled and polished, decorated with charms or ribbons, which she likes to send to well-known people’ (thank you, Jan Morris).” Speed, the utterly unique NYC tour guide of The Cruise, later moved to KCM: Kansas City, Mo. (Quote from the Tim Levitch/The Cruise chapter of my 2016 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.


A pinto horse out-hams Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun (Selznick, 1946; director King Vidor, cinematographers Lee Garmes, Hal Rosson.)

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Nosh 113: 'Ocean's 8,' 'First Reformed' & More


By David Elliott

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



APPETIZER: Reviews of Ocean’s 8 and First Reformed.
Ocean’s 8
Heist movies became a rococo genre long ago, piling on more plot turns, tech tricks, wild implausibility. Still, they can give delectable pleasure, now free of the old movie code’s “crime doesn’t pay” rule. With our national government being heisted as a klepto casino, why should smart, sexy jewel thieves lose their well-gotten gains? After all, diamonds are a girl’s best friend, and by that Monroe doctrine the “girls” of Ocean’s 8 are friendly all the way.

Swingin’ heister Danny Ocean is gone, though seen in a photo (George Clooney, not Frank Sinatra). His old chum Reuben (Elliott Gould) drops in, and other cameos include Dakota Fanning, Griffin Dunne, Marlo Thomas, Heidi Klum, Zac Posen, Elizabeth Ashley and Anna Wintour. The heist brain is Danny’s sister, Debbie Ocean, played by Sandra Bullock with a hard laser stare. Her team includes tough Cate Blanchett, mom-sweet Sarah Paulson, foxy player Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter as a ditzy couturier, and the fabulously named Awkwafina (unrelated to Acquanetta, the “Venezuelan volcano” of 1940s B-pix).

Five years in a federal can gave Deb-O time to plan the job: robbing the swank Met Gala for fashion mavens, at the big New York museum, of a $150 million diamond mine conveniently disguised as a six-pound necklace. As in 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair, New York’s Metropolitan Museum is extravagantly eager to display itself (masterworks line up like mannequins). Alas, Pierce Brosnan, who grabbed Steve McQueen’s Crown, is on holiday exile this summer to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

Director Gary Ross pumps the action, and a payback sub-plot targets the only important male (Richard Armitage plays the jerk). Serious acting from anyone would only gum up the clockwork caper thrills. Ocean’s 8, which makes Sinatra’s Vegas lark of 1960 seem older than Cheops, is a candy box of yums: art, jewelry, fashion, food, the ritzy ball, a crazy toilet scene, Wheaton terriers, brisk riffs of Bach and an after-heist in debt to Topkapi. Supreme among swans is Anne Hathaway, who breezily sends up her vanity princess image. Ocean’s 8 ices its cake so that every karat blings. This fem-frolic is way past Sinatra. It’s all chick kicks now, Frankie.



First Reformed
The absolute opposite of Ocean’s 8 is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Ethan Hawke stars as Rev. Toller, who hates himself because his son died in Iraq, his wife left and now he is the lonely pastor (more like curator) of a bone-white, 18th century church in upstate New York. The steepled shrine is pure and stark, its pews laid out like caskets for the End Time. I felt again the penitential vapors that blew through the tormented minister in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, a confessional ordeal of soul-baring.

Schrader’s Calvinist upbringing is the migraine muse of his films, and also motivated his book on austere auteurs (Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer). Touches of those masters haunt the rectilinear compositions, meditative silences, shadow-chilled moods, pause-laden dialog and (for added subtext) Toller’s diary. Ethan Hawke has steadily grown as an actor, often in Richard Linklater’s movies, and yet his sincere, granular agony is a frail nucleus for this torture tempest.

Poor Toller is a butter pat melting in Schrader’s waffle stack of sorrows: child loss, divorce, sexual guilt, a hopeless love (moon-eyed angel Amanda Seyfried), consumerist Christianity (a mega-church minister, well acted by Cedric the Entertainer), corporate pollution with a big CEO villain, eco-terrorism, alcoholism, suicide, cancer, flagellation. The script strives to be both timely and eternal, but you don’t serve Kierkegaard cookies at a church social, and Toller is like a liberal college chaplain who wandered naked into the Book of Apocalypse.

Reaching for the raw force that Scorsese exploded from Schrader’s Taxi Driver script, the story swivels from Bergman brooding into Mad Marty overdrive. The finish veers away from one melodramatic abyss only to fall into another. A midnight mass of sado-masochism, First Reformed won’t sell much popcorn – last year’s Mother! was a carnival ride next to this – but Schrader has nailed down the Calvinist Crucifixion Prize for 2018.  

SALAD: A List
The Ten Best Roles of Frank Sinatra
Conspicuously not including Danny in Ocean’s 11:
1. Frankie Machine in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), 2. Bennett Marco in The Manchurian Candidate (1952), 3. Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953), 4. Dave Hirsh in Some Came Running (1958), 5. Joey Evans in Pal Joey (1957), 6. Sam Loggins in Kings Go Forth (1958), 7. John Baron in Suddenly (1954), 8. Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls (1955), 9. Joe Leland in The Detective (1968) and 10. Danny in Meet Danny Wilson (1952). Clearly the 1950s was Frank’s golden time, as actor and singer. 
     
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
The almost forgotten hero of Citizen Kane was and is RKO production chief George Schaefer: “The balancing act of placating his board, negotiations with other studios, and soothing Welles was endless, complicated by the still unsuccessful hunt to identify enough theaters for a profitable run (which) in late January, 1941, produced the decision to distribute as broadly as possible – if theaters were willing to screen it. Unfortunately, the response was not good, thanks to Hearst, (and the option became) an extremely narrow schedule. Eventually, Citizen Kane would open in only a handful of premium theaters in seven cities.” For sticking with Welles, Schaefer lost his job in 1942. (From Harlan Lebo’s Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
A key moment for Ron (Matthew McConaughey) and Rayon (Jared Leto) in Dallas Buyers Club: “At the market Ron encounters old buddy T.J. (Kevin Rankin), who spots Rayon and snarls about ‘faggots everywhere.’ When he refuses Rayon’s hand, Ron presses him: ‘What’s your problem.’ To the lout’s raised finger and obscenity, Ron turns alpha-male, spinning him into a choke hold, forcing a handshake and releasing him with ‘Go back to your miserable life’ (his own former life). Rayon is awed; her face glows with feminine gratitude. Machismo for a good cause is sweet indeed, but it may occur to us: Ron hasn’t yet shaken Rayon’s hand himself.”(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.


Molly (Kim Novak) sizes up drug addict Frankie (Frank Sinatra) in The Man With the Golden Arm (United Artists, 1955; director Otto Preminger, cinematographer Sam Leavitt). 

For previous Noshes, scroll below.