Friday, June 8, 2018

Nosh 112: 'Let the Sunshine In' & More


By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
Note: Nosh 113 will appear on Friday, June 22



APPETIZER: Review of Let the Sunshine In.
In bed having sex, the naked Isabelle is asked by her lover in subtitles: “Are you cuming?” Is this a Franglais word, already in the Dictionnaire Larousse? Did Moliere use an equivalent? Such is levity in Let the Sunshine In, a serious and feminist collaboration of two of the more adventurous talents in French film: director Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau Travail, White Material) and Juliette Binoche, who plays Isabelle with the same supple, intricate intensity she brought to Blue, Certified Copy, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The English Patient, Clouds of Sils Maria and her own Chocolat (actually, Lasse Hallstrom’s).

If you enjoyed the waking snooze of Book Club, while trying to not drop vanilla wafer crumbs on your doily, then this candid film is not for you. Isabella has various men, so variously that we guess she’s a prostitute. No, she is a Parisian painter, recently broken from a nice husband still disconsolate (their two daughters are barely seen). She is desperate for a deeper connection, and her erotic neediness has a throb of panic, fueled by new middle-aged freedom and fear of growing older. At 54 Binoche is still a beauty, but her real edge has always been risky honesty, armed with searching intelligence. Isabelle doesn’t trust her feelings or judgments, and late-season sexual adventure is a minefield.

She endures bad sex with an arrogant banker (Xavier Beauvois), whom she soon despises. She pinballs to a married actor (sullenly charismatic Nicolas Duvachelle), who seems to enjoy his ambivalence as a seminar in the  Method. She’s frustrated when a sensitive black man (Denis regular Alex Descas) tenderly but warily backs away. The thoughtful advice of friends gains little traction. Isabelle’s hunger for something true and natural leads her to lash out at companions for intellectualizing a walk in the country. Denis might have shown more of Isabelle’s art, since she calls painting her life. The sexiest scene, of Isabelle dancing to Etta James’s “At Last” (Etta’s photo is on her wall earlier) when a gaunt, wolfish seducer (Paul Blain) cuts in rakishly. promises more than is delivered.

Denis is a form-breaker (she assisted Wim Wenders on two of his greatest movies, Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire). The film is a volatile weather of feelings, full of Binoche’s signature nuances. It’s like watching emotive clouds form and disperse. The jumbo cloud floats into view: Gerard Depardieu as a love-therapy soothsayer, dispensing solemn bullshit with Gallic fluency. When he talks about the risks and rewards of men “gourmandizing” Isabelle, she glows. Gazing on Depardieu’s richly fed bulk, we sense that, once again, l’amour fou has found la comédie francaise.     

SALAD: A List
Twelve Classic French Romances:
With year and stars: L’Atalante (Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon,1934), Port of Shadows (Jean Gabin, Michele Morgan, 1938), Beauty and the Beast (Jean Marais, Josette Day, 1946), Casque d’Or (Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, 1952), The Earrings of Madame De … (Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, 1953), The Lovers (Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Marc Bory, 1958), Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Emmanuele Riva, Eiji Okada, 1959), Breathless (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, 1960), Jules et Jim (Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, 1962), Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, 1964), A Man and a Woman (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Anouk Aimee, 1966), Cesar et Rosalie (Yves Montand, Romy Schneider, 1972).
     
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
When a fire consumed his home in the Hollywood hills, destroying precious art, letters, first editions, Aldous Huxley felt the loss, but then liberation. Orson Welles felt the same after his home burned in Spain: “Peter Bogdanovich: ‘You lost a lot didn’t you?’ OW: ‘Manuscripts, letters, a really marvelous long one from Roosevelt, a cup that Lincoln gave my grandfather …’ PB: ‘How terrible.’ OW: ‘I try not to think so. I’ve got a thing about possessions. All my life I’ve tried to avoid letting them possess me.’ ” (Quote from This Is Orson Welles, by Welles and Bogdanovich.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Diane Arbus was small but not shy, and often “the famous felt invaded (by her lens). Mae West vehemently protested her Arbus shots. Feminist firebrand Germaine Greer had a close encounter of the Arbus kind at the Chelsea Hotel: ‘It was tyranny, really tyranny. Diane Arbus ended up straddling me – this frail little person kneeling, keening over my face. I felt completely terrorized. I decided, ‘Damn it, you’re not going to do this to me, lady! I’m not going to be photographed like one of your grotesque freaks!” (From the Nicole Kidman/Fur chapter of my 2016 book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies. To order, go to Amazon, Nook or Kindle.)

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


Michel Simon steers the romantic barge in L’Atalante (France, 1934; director Jean Vigo, cinematographer Boris Kaufman).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.


Friday, June 1, 2018

Nosh 111: 'Book Club,' 'The Guardians' & More


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


APPETIZER: Reviews of Book Club and The Guardians
Book Club
Book Club stars, in order of seniority: Jane Fonda, 80; Diane Keaton, 72; Candice Bergen, 72, and perky puppy Mary Steenburgen, 65. They play L.A. chums who meet monthly to discuss their chosen book, yet barely analyze it. Consuming Fifty Shades of Grey, they find one shade: it’s naughty. Which induces quaint palpitations of sex panic.

The women are bathed in flattering light. In posh homes and restaurants, immaculate décor is also enhancing as the  friends exchange sitcom dialog. Perhaps they recall the immortal words of Milton Berle to Eleanor Parker in The Oscar: “You have many good minutes left.” Sadly, the movie has few. There are no actual characters, just the stars who, with creaky pep and waxy twinkle, are enjoying a gilded cruise to the ruins of their talent. Bill Holderman directed, as if re-floating The Love Boat, and we miss all those who didn’t last to make this voyage: Cesar Romero, Soupy Sales, Kitty Carlisle, Shelley Winters, Phyllis Diller, Abe Vigoda, Dick Van Patten …

Bergen, a judge, has an ex-spouse (Ed Begley Jr., 68) who has a trophy bimbo. Steenburgen’s grumpy hubby (Craig T. Nelson, 74) is preoccupied with his vintage motorcycle, but gets to be the victim of an extended Viagra joke. Hotel owner Fonda both lures and shrugs the advances of millionaire Don Johnson, 68, whose fabled Miami vice has withered to a goaty goatee. Widow Keaton acts like a frantic retro-virgin as gentle seducer Andy Garcia, 62, purrs endearments and gives her a fine aerial tour of Monument Valley. Adding cameo flavors, like extra dollops of senior pudding, are Richard Dreyfuss, 70, and Wallace Shawn, 74.

Being a senior, I feel for senior actors and their hunger to work, but extruding this plastic fantasy is make-work piffle. As they putter along, barely tapping their skills, the viewing mind drifts into tiny corners. Gee, that’s a nice repro of Gerald Murphy’s great painting “Watch” on the wall … did Fonda, who now seems a shrunken replica of herself (but still has her voice and timing), begin to miss Lily Tomlin from their show Grace and Frankie? … and isn’t Dreyfuss starting to look like Mickey Rooney in his final, rotund phase? Forty-five years ago Dreyfuss was Curt in American Graffiti, genial teen grad. A smart guy. Too smart for Book Club.   



The Guardians
November 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of “the war to end all wars.” It didn’t, but left over 30 million dead and turned Hitler into a fanatic. By now there should be few aspects of World War I left to film. Surprise: Les Gardiennes (The Guardians), about women left to make the farms work in the deeply rural zones known as La France profonde. This earnest, touching movie from Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men) is no Rosie the Riveter rouser. It centers upon an old farm with thick stone buildings, and on the tested bond of two strong women.

Rural matriarch Hortense is a capstone for Nathalie Baye, after over 100 film credits. Hortense is aging but fiercely dedicated, a real draft horse for work (her sweet, older husband tags along).Three sons are in the army, each day tenses from anxiety about them, but there is so much work with the crops and animals and firewood and cooking that pain is stoically repressed. Hortense’s new hired hand is Francine, a red-haired orphan who looks built to last, played with stoical power by Iris Bry. There is a new kind of females-in-charge pride, yet without slogans. The farm prospers, sons come home on leave before returning to the gory trenches, the priest recites the names of new dead, and tall, impudent American soldiers arrive. Francine quickens with love for the youngest son, Georges (Cyril Descours), who wants sexual comfort before returning to battle. He has some presumptive male attitudes.

Often solemnly shot – has a Michel Legrand score ever been so demurely used? – The Guardians has some bucolic, homespun poetry. At church, the camera observes war-worn faces as an organ builds its fugue. Other images echo great paintings by Millet, Courbet, Chardin and, when Francine fills her round bath tub, Degas. But the meditative, almost Bresson-like tone cracks when Beauvois shows a nightmare of George, killing Germans, to trigger his coming choices with obvious psychology. This brings much plot, fateful misunderstandings, prejudicial choices. But the land, the animals and the labor give us a powerful sense of the nation that so cruelly suffered World War I. The torn solidarity of Hortense and Francine, deeply felt by each, keeps the film from ever becoming a soapbox or a memorial statue.     

SALAD:  A List
Remarkable Movies Involving Books:
Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Providence (1977), Educating Rita (1983), Dreamchild (1985), 84 Charing Cross Road (1987), Misery (1990), Prospero's Books (1991), You’ve Got Mail (1998), The Ninth Gate (1999), Wonder Boys (2000), Adaptation (2002), Capote (2005), Joe Gould’s Secret (2005), The Ghost Writer (2010), Genius (2016).  
    
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
“Orson had been talking when I entered (and) held the floor for pretty much the remainder of the evening, with little more time allotted to the rest of us than he needed to catch his breath, swig some drink, or drag on a Havana the size of a baseball bat… The others didn’t mind. They were there to be amused and Orson was more than eager to oblige with a veritable raconteurial cornucopia. My entrance had interrupted an anecdote about the king of Moroco (and) he went on to another and another. Stories about movies, plays, parties, intrigues, famous people, scandalous affairs. It lasted through coffee, cognac, two servings of rum-soaked crepes (three for Orson) … At one point he was going on about dining on camel steaks in Egypt.” (The Orsonian Experience, as richly staged in Theodore Roszak’s movie-mad, noir-spirited novel Flicker).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
For Pam Grier, the department store changing room scene in Jackie Brown “resonated personally. Her memoir Foxy recalls young Pam shopping in segregated Denver, where stores sent black buyers home to try on clothing rather than share dressing spaces with white women (any not purchased had to be returned spotless). But later at a store in L.A.’s Century City, a white employee showed her the changing room. She was stunned ‘covering my amazement as best I could. I had to catch my breath. My mother would never believe it, neither would my friends back home.’ She was ‘holding back tears’.” (From the Pam Grier/Jackie Brown chapter of 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.



With cig or not, Pam Grier’s Jackie is urban cool personified in Jackie Brown (Miramax Films, 1997; director Quentin Tarantino, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro).

For previous Noshes, scroll  below.


Friday, May 25, 2018

Nosh 110: 'RBG,' 'Revenge' & More

By David Elliott

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of RBG and Revenge
RBG
In 1993 Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg of New York (“Brooklyn,” she would surely interject) to become the 107th Supreme Court justice. Her only female predecessor was Sandra Day O’Conner, a conservative, but soon they bonded on choosing feminine robe collars.  After O’Conner left in 2006, Ginsburg was fairly soon joined by Obama choices Sonia Sotamayor and Elena Kagan. Ginsburg’s fame, with this opera lover branded “the Notorious RBG” by fans, has eclipsed them all. Her celebrity made Supreme log stump Clarence Thomas sneer at “mythmaking around the Court” (gee, Clarence, were you napping during the history lessons on Oliver Wendell Holmes, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Earl Warren and Thurgood Marshall?).

RBG, a tribute documentary made by Julie Cohen and Betsy Wood, is both a feminist mash note and a judicious info-profile. That tension gives it extra crackle, because the soberly reserved, deliberate Ginsburg, always the most serious girl in class, is a strange sort of star. Tiny, reserved, glinting only the most demure of sly twinkles, she’s like Dr. Ruth Westheimer as re-made by Prof. Kingsfield of The Paper Chase. She welcomes her celebrity as a liberal icon at 85, doing push-ups as if training for the Judicial Senior Olympics, wearing cute outfits, dazzling both students and online groupies. More importantly, she is a pillar of progressive constitutionalism and tightly reasoned opinions.

The film carries weight, less from the celebs (Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem, public radio’s Nina Totenberg) than two substances: Ruth’s family, above all her loving, funny, deeply feminist husband Martin, a tax attorney (she helped him through his early cancer while raising a toddler and mastering both Harvard and Columbia), and 2. Ruth’s important cases, especially her landmark advocacies for women’s rights even before joining the Supremes. The shadow of pathos is that an increasingly conservative Court has often put RBG in dissent, if never on the defensive (she wrote the most piercing response to 2000’s Bush vs. Gore decision).The little beacon still casts a big beam. Many liberals, religious or not, pray that she will outlive the tenure of Donald Trump. 



Revenge
Time for a non-RBG take on modern feminism. In Revenge, Matilda Lutz is Jen, bikini bonanza at a swank desert home. She’s there with preening stud-stack Richard (buff, soon bare-buff Kevin Janssens, a down-market Viggo Mortensen). Lutz’s acting overture is fellatio, which stirs the rutting urge of this boulder man. He came to hunt desert game, but soon the quarry is Jen, the Lolita Bardot shocked when one of Dick’s Euro-trash buddies rapes her (she had labeled him “not my type”). On finding out, Dick drops the scented veil of gallant romancing with “You whore,” socks her, and pushes her off a cliff.

Vengeance ripens. Impaled on a gaunt tree limb, left to die, Jen recalls “I Am Woman” or maybe the Girl Scout Manual from planet Kyrpton, and liberates herself (hanging upside down) by setting the tree on fire. A hunk of torn limb is still in her tummy, but soon she extracts that with a big knife and that ole Aztec pain remedy, peyote (she sees iguanas, hears Mozart plus freaky voices). French auteur Coralie Fargeat filmed in Morocco, achieving the amber haze of a radioactive Vogue shoot on Mars. Fargeat’s blood motif spouts nuances: a soldier ant dying in Jen’s blood, a Euro-creep’s nose exploding like a miniature Tet Offensive, and a death ballet that re-styles the elegant house with currents of blood, like performance art seeking a crimson memorial.
 
Revenge brings back, for some of us cursed by rude memory, a faux-golden age of stylized pretension. The era of Jean-Jacques Beneix’s Diva, James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue, Lilliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, Ken Russell’s The Devils. Candid nudity and vividly faked violence can’t save the pseudo-Tarantino Fargeat from seeming just another slummer in the sado-porn pit. Her climaxing use of a cheesy American TV commercial is a bid for earnest Sorbonne attention (truffle those tropes!), or maybe the $3 matinee crowd at the Sheboygan Octoplex. She should have studied Tony Garnett’s Deep in the Heart, the angry-woman pulp movie (1983) with Karen Young packin’ heat in Texas. Young even packed some acting.      

SALAD:  A List
Twelve Outstanding Judge Performances
Will Rogers as William Priest, Judge Priest (1934); H.B. Warner as Judge May, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); Walter Brennan as Judge Roy Bean, The Westerner (1940); Gene Lockhart as Henry X. Harper, Miracle on 34th St. (1947); John McIntire as Judge/Sheriff Gannon, The Far Country (1954), Joseph Welch as Judge Weaver, Anatomy of a Murder (1959); Frank Thring as Pontius Pilate, Ben-Hur (1959); Spencer Tracy as Dan Hayward, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961); Paul Scofield as Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons (1966); Paul Fix as Judge Taylor, To Kill a Mockingbird (1963); Fred Gwynne as Chamberlain Haller, My Cousin Vinny (1992); Robert Duvall as Robert Palmer, The Judge (2014).
    
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
No movie is more a patch job of poetry than Orson Welles’s postwar Othello. The making took four years, “during which Orson was contracted for, acted in, and dubbed The Third Man. Almost like medieval players traveling town to town, the troupe would gather when and wherever he needed them (for) a study in pure improvisation – on the installment plan. As a vagabond, Orson lived and filmed off the land, so to speak, employing the wares of local craftsmen if at all possible. ‘There was no way for the jigsaw puzzle to be put together except in my mind,’ he said.” And yet the result is a sinuous, seductive vision of the play. (From Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The main critical complaint (Roger Ebert led the pack) about Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye in 1973 was that it distorted Raymond Chandler’s already uneven novel. Such “source piety never had a chance, and those who feel that Altman sabotaged Chandler should ponder his statement to his agent: ‘I didn’t care whether the mystery was fairly obvious, but I care about the people, about the strange corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tried to be honest looked in the end either sentimental or plain foolish.’ Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe gave that a spin and a bounce like no other actor.” (From the Gould/Long Goodbye chapter of 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.



Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) starts the chariot race in Ben-Hur (MGM, 1959; director William Wyler, cinematographer Robert L. Surtees).

For previous Noshes, scroll  below.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Nosh 109: 'Lean on Pete,' 'The Rider' & More


By David Elliott

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



APPETIZER: Reviews of Lean on Pete and The Rider
Two movies, two horses, two young males…..
Lean on Pete
Sometimes an actor is the movie. Like Charlie Plummer in Lean on Pete. Plummer, who turns 19 this month, plays Charley Thompson, 15. He was another Thompson on TV’s Boardwalk Empire, and movingly played the kidnapped Getty grandson in All the Money in the World (he’s evidently unrelated to famous Christopher, who was the miserly grandfather). As Charley, Plummer achieves perhaps the finest male adolescent acting since Tye Sheridan as Ellis in 2015’s Mud.

Charley is a stripling solo child whose life is being stripped to the bone. His mother fled early. Father (Travis Finnel) is a jolly drunk with angry impulses. New to a rough part of Portland (Oregon), the lad is friendless but finds an old race track. His face elates when horses whip past him. Charley becomes stable boy to Del (Boardwalk Empire’s Steve Buscemi), a trainer, owner and gambler. Del, pawn in the sport of kings, enters in Buscemi style with a whip-crack of profanity. Cynical (“I used to like horses, too, you know”), Del expects his Quarter horses to win stakes or go “to Mexico” (death). But he decently finds work for Charley, feeds the rake-lean teen’s robust appetite, intros him to  jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny). A kind but tough survivor, she warns him against bonding with the equines. Lonely, soon orphaned, Charley bonds to Pete, a gentle stallion.

British director Andrew Haigh, adapting Willy Vlautin’s acclaimed novel, has not made a Disney boy-and-horse saga (don’t take the kids). There is hard road and harsh time as, horse in hand, Charley searches for a distant aunt. Steve Zahn is memorably miserable as a booze wreck, the story’s authentic grain reminded me of Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner, and the western landscape vision is acute. But the movie belongs to Plummer. His hungry wistfulness has a faint drag line in his voice, which makes shyness yearningly expressive. He is an unforgettable identity seeker. Among good movies about troubled boy-men finding the first leverage on maturity (Boys Town, The Yearling, The 400 Blows, East of Eden, Aparajito, Kes, The Last Picture Show, Fresh, Zebrahead, King of the Hill, Hope and Glory, The Kid With a Bike, Mud, Lion, Call Me by Your Name), Lean on Pete finds its place, topped  by Charlie Plummer.


The Rider      
“Any real horse lover will tell you, they’d rather be a friend with most horses than most people.” So the great Westerns director and horseman Budd Boetticher told me, in the 1990s. Brady Blackburn might agree. In The Rider his best friends are horses and rodeo cowboys, the latter worried after rising star Brady falls off his rodeo bronco, a hoof crunching his head. Now he’s got a mean scar above a metal skull plate, iffy reflexes and a hand that can suddenly tighten like a vise. He’s told to stay away from rodeo riding, bucking horses and the raw-nerved life he loved – or hang his spurs in heaven.

Director Chloé Zhao has made a life-true tribute to Dakota cowboys, their bodies and gear, their young machismo and sheepish courtesy, their craze for tough animals, adrenaline and danger. It’s halfway to documentary. Brady Jantreau, who had this terrible injury, plays Brady Blackburn, and other Jantreaus incarnate various Blackburns. One is autistic sister Lilly, who acts the loving junior sibling with such sparky authenticity she becomes the film’s mascot, like young Sam Bottoms in The Last Picture Show (with her frontier spunk, she’s funnier). Lane Scott, a buckaroo pal terribly damaged, plays himself. Hospital visits show Brady’s devotion, and signal the possible fate that could also afflict him. His brief tears were, to me, more moving than all of Brokeback Mountain.   

It’s less the sport than the animals that enthrall Brady. The scenes of him taming and training a risky horse would surely win the approval of horse “whisperer” Buck Brannaman (see Buck). The ending is very satisfying, not just an easy rouser. Yes, Brady Jantreau is basically performing himself, but Zhao (also scripting) directed him with the calm, gentle insight that Brady brings to his animals. In settings of rustic beauty and terse but probing honesty, her film rides its range with cowboy instincts.

SALAD:  A List
Movies Featuring Boys With Horses:
The Black Stallion, Casey’s Shadow, The Horse Boy, Lean on Pete, The Man From Snowy River, The Red Pony, The Rider, Running Free, The Water Horse, White Mane.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Much of the fun in Citizen Kane, before its return to the dark tonality of its opening, comes from the jolly complicity of newcomers, pulling off an inside game of insurgent creativity: “Most were just happy to be there. Is it any wonder that the script had scenes that might be mirror images of Welles and his people taking over RKO as Kane and his fellows invaded newspapers? Of course (writer Herman) Mankiewicz could not have predicted that. But Welles must have felt the resemblance, and gone with it, thrilled in the discovery of self.” (Quote from David Thomson’s Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Pertinent to Orson Welles’s The Trial, “Kafka made the letter K a modern culture node, although his diary declared the letter ‘offensive, almost nauseating.’ To scholar James Naremore, the letter is ‘part of Welles’s signature – from Kurtz (Heart of Darkness) to Kane (Citizen Kane) to Kellar (The Stranger) he was enamored of Kafka’s initial K.’ And it defines my personal, Wellesian K-trio: Kane, Arkadin (Mr. Arkadin), Joseph K (The Trial). Let not call it KKK." (From the Anthony Perkins/The Trial 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.


Kelly Reno rides his wonderful horse on the beach in The Black Stallion (United Artists, 1979; director Carroll Ballard; cinematographer Caleb Deschanel).

For previous Noshes, scroll  below.


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Nosh 108: 'Final Portrait,' 'You Were Never Really Here'



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



APPETIZER: Reviews of Final Portrait and You Were Never Really Here
Final Portrait
The best photo of Alberto Giacometti is probably not Richard Avedon’s elegantly frontal image but Cartier-Bresson’s dynamic shot of the Swiss-Italian (yet very Parisian) artist in blurred motion, carrying a small statue in parallel stride with his tall sculpture of a walking man. Though rich in dramatic silences and posed stillness, Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait is closer to Cartier-Bresson than Avedon. Geoffrey Rush, a Giacometti look-alike with his seamed face and mop of curly hair, plays the sculptor-painter. In 1964 he paints, in fits and starts, a new subject: handsome, worldly American writer James Lord (the source is Lord’s book A Giacometti Portrait).

This was two years after the Venice Biennale lifted Giacometti to world fame (which had been limited partly because many early pieces were no taller than the packs of his beloved cigarettes) and two years before Alberto’s death. He had entered the pantheon, but in the film he wears no laurels. Rush depicts him as a miner’s mule of art, a gnarly obsessive caught between rapid choice and festering doubt. He frets and sweats every daub, often exploding “Aw fuuuck!” Lord sheds some poise as sittings stretch out over weeks, yet feels a growing obligation, affection and fascination. The messy studio, littered with unfinished works, is like a gray Parisian sky pulled down on canvas, spattered with rain, paint, clay, cigarette ash and the money Giacometti keeps in sacks, like trash.

A tension threading through this intimate sketchbook film is that aesthete Lord (Armie Hammer), whose suit is like a snug, refined closet, is gay (one of his books was My Queer War). Old Giaco is a jacko for women: loyal but often disgruntled wife Annette (Sylvie Testud, showing a truly Giacometti body), and the sparky whore Caroline. In a funny scene the artist negotiates with pimps awed by his stack of cash. As Caroline, Clémence Poésy is a zephyr of playful sauciness. Giving Alberto a ride round Paris in her hot-red car, she incarnates the French New Wave. More crucial is the adroit detailing and steady gaze that director and writer Tucci also showed in his wonderful restaurant movie Big Night. His comrade from that, Tony Shalhoub, plays Alberto’s wry, stoical brother. As dealer Pierre Matisse, James Faulkner startles – he looks like a suave Parisian clone of Trump’s stern babysitter, Gen. John Kelly.

The movie is impeccably infused into Giacometti’s world and time, where his odd, tense, skeletal work united classical form and modern anxiety. He is a troubled man (talk of suicide, dark memories of violent fantasies). For some viewers that may intersect with a topical tarnish: accusations of “inappropriate touching” during a stage production last year, which Rush has denied. Giacometti joins Rush’s portfolio of outstanding performances, and Final Portrait joins the exciting explorations of art’s mystery like Rembrandt, Edvard Munch, La Belle Noiseuse, Wolf at the Door, Pollock, Mr. Turner and (my fave) The Horse’s Mouth.



You Were Never Really Here
Hardly a shot in You Were Never Really Here couldn’t be pulled from its streaming, superbly lighted images to make a stunning still.  But just as you think that Joe putting an ice pack on his wounded shoulder has a pearly veneer of Vermeer, you notice a massive welt of scar, closer to Rembrandt’s The Slaughtered Ox. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is an enforcer and avenger, very quiet, secretive and ruthless. Told by a client, “I want you to hurt them,” he buys a hammer. Joe is a serial trauma, festering. Paid to rescue a sweet, pubertal girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) abducted for an important man’s sex needs, Joe is less an action figure than a whirlpool of memories, dreams, fears, hauntings, furies.

While showing almost no sex, and much less violence than its grim results, the film resonates a hellish city through Joe’s psyche. Call it Proust pulp: broken childhood, war trauma, crime time, flirtations with suicide via plastic bags, pain alleviated only by solemn tenderness for the girl and his fading mother. Photographed superbly by Thomas Townend, directed by Scotland’s Lynne Ramsay (who did the similarly intimate Morvern Callar), this vision of crypto-erotic despair has a whispery, head-case subtlety that keeps it above mayhem porn. The obvious ghost is Taxi Driver, yet with other nocturnal vapors: Trade, Night of the Hunter, Blast of Silence, Tony Manero, Joe, Bad Lieutenant, Klute, Mulholland Drive, Hardcore, Point Blank, Mother and Son.

The binding force is brave actor Phoenix, bulked up and bearded, his lasering gaze both anguished and dangerous. He’s an underground man, a Rasputin Bickle of grief and guilt, a dark hole radiating a light of decency as he saves the girl. There is a weird, morbidly wistful scene on a kitchen floor that you won’t forget. This whole half-mad, well-made movie you won’t forget.         

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
As it became clear that a 1938 radio broadcast would run almost 20 gaping minutes short, Orson Welles had John Houseman run to the network’s library for books they had discussed adapting for the next season. As the program wound down, Houseman handed the books “over to Orson one by one. ‘Without turning a hair, as his own master of ceremonies,’ remembered Houseman, ‘he used the remaining time to thank his audience,’ and then, after reciting the funeral oration from Julius Caesar, turned to bookmarked pages in Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, The Hound of the Baskervilles, reading the excerpts ‘with deep feeling and great variety,’ until the hour was up.” Anyone care to compare that improv with today’s radio? (Quotes from Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
For the brilliantly spatial Paris, Texas, director Wim Wenders “stopped composing shots with drawings, claiming the free space of the open road as his Autobahn for large issues and private dislocations, coming ‘to a crossroads where you have to make decisions. Mostly I think a film starts when two different ideas or images cross each other … that intersection is the beginning.” From the Harry Dean Stanton/Paris, Texas 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.



Iris (Jodie Foster) falls under the special gaze of Travis (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (Columbia Pictures, 1976; director Martin Scorsese, cinematographer Michael Chapman).

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Friday, April 27, 2018

Nosh 107: 'A Quiet Place' and Andy Goldsworthy


By David Elliott
                                                  
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
Note: Nosh 108 will appear on Friday, May 11.

APPETIZER: Reviews of A Quiet Place and Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy.



A Quiet Place
Not until 37 minutes into the film does a human speak in normal volume in A Quiet Place. Until then, just sign language and whispers, along with hushed silence and tip-toe walking. It’s a world where speaking normally can make a scaly, leaping alien eat you alive. It’s Upstate New York, with few people still visible (eaten, or maybe trembling in the last of Nelson Rockefeller’s Cold War atom-bomb shelters). Lee (John Krasinski) and wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Krasinski’s actual spouse) and their kids are so vulnerably in harm’s way. Their youngest boy was devoured by a creep after brief, childish noise.

Krasinski directed, scripting with two other writers. Their work, a sort of Zen Amish Alien, is one of the most intimate and nerve-taunting of spook movies. Family values are packed into every fearful step and glance, each furtive gesture. The tensions widen in Blunt’s wonderful eyes (Krasinski, bushy-bearded, is also a fine eye actor). There is a wonderfully worried son (Noah Jupe), and a bright, gutsy daughter (Millicent Simmons) whose fear of the beasts merges with her anxiety that Lee loves her a bit less than the boys. Gender tropes achieve stark definition when Dad, clutching a rifle rather forlornly, looks for the lost kids while Mom, in advanced pregnancy but refusing to scream, must deal with a vicious critter in the house.

The film is beautifully paced and shot, with moody images of nature by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christiansen. But it’s the sounds and silences, abetted by Marco Beltrami’s emphatic but spare score, which certify the story’s primal essences. Millicent Simmonds is deaf, and her acting has the compelling resonance of her sign language and her vitally expressive face. Before long, like the predators (blind, yet with the hearing of super-bats), we are all ears. Instead of idiotic teens becoming psycho snack bait, a family fends off feral ferocity with mutual support. Their angel must be dear old Sylvia Sidney, song-smashing the Martians in Mars Attacks! with her Slim Whitman record.     



Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy
Now for some really quiet places (but not always). Andy Goldsworthy has a quietly pensive voice in Leaning Into the Wind. His world-renowned art, some looking permanent as Stonehenge and some literally blown away by wind and rain, manipulates nature into art (and, seemingly, the reverse). Documentary maker Thomas Riedelsheimer broadened Goldsworthy’s fan base with Rivers and Tides (and also directed Touch the Sound, the terrific doc about the deaf, Scottish wizard of percussion Evelyn Glennie). He returns to the great modern artist and follows him to much of the world: to Morecambe Bay, England, where natural stone and surf first moved him to art in college days; to a Brazilian shanty with strangely beautiful clay floors; to San Francisco’s Presidio for a writhing sculptural installation of gorgeous woods; to a dense jungle structure of woven logs in Gabon, and to interlocking stone arches in St. Louis that are like primeval echoes for Eero Saarinen’s soaring metal arch.

Nobody else does quite this form of magic with yellow leaves, skinny branches or dappled water. Goldsworthy talks with a slightly elfin charm about learning from falls and failures, and his elation when nature cooperates for another masterwork (many are transient but survive in poetic films and photos). His whimsy is like a Victorian explorer’s. We hear rustling from a big hedge in Edinburgh and know the artist is inside, midway up, tunneling its length by hand and foot (his emergence is a Harry Potter moment). There are some late languid passages, but wonders keep coming, including the great scene of leaning into the wind.

SALAD (A List)
My 12 Favorite Scare Movies, in order of arrival:
Nosferatu (director  Murnau, 1922), The Phantom of the Opera (Chaney etc., 1925), Island of Lost Souls (Kenton, 1932), Cat People (Tourneur, 1942), Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1960), Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), Sssssss (Kowalski, 1973), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman, 1978), The Evil Dead (Raimi, 1981), The Dead Zone (Cronenberg, 1983), Cronos (Del Toro, 1993) and In My Skin (De Van, 2002). And don’t forget two thunder-duds of dumb: Night of the Lepus (Claxton, 1972) and The Blair Witch Project (Sanchez-Myrick, 1999). 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles enjoyed jousting with French intellectuals, the auteurists who liked calling him a “baroque” artist. He fed their rhetoric, while snacking a side-dish of skepticism about it. “If there were other extremely baroque artists (in film),” he said in 1958, “I’d be the most classical film-maker you’ve ever seen.” But the essential truth, noted Peter Conrad, “is that the baroque was Welles’s instinct, not his choice. It matched both his psychological quirks and his intellectual temper.” And his voluptuary’s eye! (Quote from Conrad’s Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
In 1968 Mel Brooks’s The Producers was “Mel’s deli, which had a great kosher pickle: theatrical giant Zero Mostel, in his one enduringly great movie role. The two pickled Adolf Hitler in the best satirical brine since Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in 1940. Zero +2 (Brooks, Gene Wilder) was a new math of mirth.” A flop on first release, it soon became a cult shrine and then a big Broadway hit. (Quote from Zero Mostel/The Producers 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.



Mitzi Gaynor, Taina Elg and the great Kay Kendall (center) vie for Gene Kelly in Les Girls (MGM, 1957; director George Cukor, cinematographer Robert Surtees).

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Friday, April 20, 2018

Nosh 106: 'Isle of Dogs' & More


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



APPETIZER: Review of Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a furry splurge of creativity. Filmed over four years, using a wizard’s brew of stop-motion animation with a bravura graphic density, it proves again that Anderson is one of the most imaginative artists we have. You can call his work derivative, a baroque pastiche of inspirations, but as Picasso demonstrated it’s the polyphonic mutation of combinations that can fashion a tremendous body of work. Isle of Dogs is a masterpiece fit to join Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

It takes place mostly on a big trash-dump island used as a toxic  Gulag for condemned dogs thought to carry plague, by order of power-mad Mayor Kobayashi of Megasaki. Even his family dog Spots is sent to garbage hell, pursued by his loyal boy-pal Atari. Cast-off canines include Chief, a slightly feral stray (“I bite. I don’t fetch”) and the fem-wow bitch Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson vamps her, vocally). The film’s kennel of voices include Liev Schreiber, Ed Norton, Bryan Cranston, Bob Balaban,Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Yoko Ono, Anjelica Huston, Frances McDormand, Greta Gerwig and Harvey Keitel. It is inspired that most Japanese dialog is not translated (still, we get the drift), for it helps to unify the terrific design and animation team’s use of Japanese art, animé and stylized vistas.

With its propulsive rhythm paced by Kodo drums, the movie clicks into view like amazingly fluent Lego blocks. Anderson said he was most ignited by old Christmas cartoons, and by the live-action classics of Akira Kurosawa. We hear theme music from the master’s Seven Samurai, detect echoes of the official corruption in his The Bad Sleep Well, recall the slum zones in his High and Low, Dodes’ka-den and The Lower Depths. Also fertile are spores from monster films, spaghetti Westerns, Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, Tarantino’s Kill Bill. It won’t matter to young viewers, not knowing that Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije suite echoes its previous use in the British film The Horse’s Mouth. Nor that Kobayashi’s giant metal K echoes citizen Kane’s gate, nor that canine class conflict has many human antecedents in Japanese films.

Anderson’s design mania, his layered aestheticism, is not to everyone’s taste. As often in animation, the animals seem very human, the people somewhat less so. The climax is a little crowded with twists. Such complaints are kibble. Funny enough to be amusing without pushing for topical satire, often beautiful enough to deflect the olfactory resistance of trash-squeamish humans, the movie strums political, environmental, scientific and species themes that never overpower the fun of its fantasy.     

SALAD (A List)
18 Outstanding Dog Movies (with director, year):
A Dog’s Life (Charles Chaplin, 1918), High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1940), Lassie Come Home (Fred Wilcox, 1943), Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica, 1952), Hondo (John Farrow, 1953), Lady and the Tramp (Disney 1955), Across the Bridge (Ken Annakin, 1957), Old Yeller (Robert Stevenson, 1957), The Incredible Journey (Fletcher Markle, 1963), A Boy and His Dog (L.Q. Jones, 1975), White Dog (Samuel Fuller, 1982), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (Paul Mazursky, 1986), We Think the World of You (Colin Gregg, 1988), K-9 (Rod Daniel, 1989), Turner & Hooch (Roger Spottiswoode, 1989), Homeward Bound (Duwayne Dunham, 1993), 101 Dalmatians (Disney, 1996), My Dog Skip (Jay Russell, 2000), Best in Show (Christopher Guest, 2000).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
No one, even for horror and sci-fi films, has ever done better make-up creation than movie newcomer Maurice Seiderman’s for Orson Welles and other actors in Citizen Kane. But local union politics and studio protocol kept him from getting screen credit. As Seiderman recalled, “after it was exhibited, Franklin Roosevelt invited Orson to dinner at the White House. Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, was one of the guests. Orson told her the story about this Russian immigrant who did the make-up on Kane, but could not get into the union. The following day, the Labor Dept. called the head of the union and said that it was beginning an investigation into unfair labor practices involving Maurice Seiderman. At four o’clock, a union card was delivered to me at the studio.” (From Harlan Lebo’s Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
In The Horse’s Mouth, painter Gulley Jimson’s “antic mischief suggests Ealing, the famed North London studio where Alec Guinness flourished in comedy. But the film transcends that, and its roots run back through Joyce Cary’s novel to the London bohemia of Augustus John, Walter Sickert and others. While (director) Ronald Neame was no Hitchcock or Michael Powell, he knew how to tap the yeasty fermentation of Cary’s prose, which Guinness adapted and distilled, filling the movie’s cask.” From the Alec Guinness/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.



The consummate profiles of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer transcend their doomed love in Out of the Past (RKO, 1947; director Jacques Tourneur, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca).

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