Friday, April 19, 2019

Nosh 149: 'The Aftermath,' 'The Hummingbird Project' & More


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

APPETIZER (Reviews: The Aftermath and The Hummingbird Project)



The Aftermath
There is a juicy role calling to Lana Turner or Ava Gardner in The Aftermath – or there would have been, if the film had been made in the year of its story, 1946. Instead, Keira Knightley plays Rachael Morgan, the remarkably chic wife of a stolid, war-worn British army officer, Lewis (Jason Clarke). Sent to the Brit zone in defeated Germany, they are haunted by the death of their son in the Blitz, with Rachael feeling abandoned because reticent Lewis buried his grief in war duties. Now, chasing down fugitive Nazis in ruined, occupied Hamburg, Lewis tries to be kind to civilians but is brutal with fanatics of a secret group called 88 (8 being the eighth letter of the alphabet, thus 88=HH, as in Heil Hitler).

Away from vast ruins, the Morgans nest into the posh villa of modern architect Stefan Lubert, a sort of Mies van der Roark (as in Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark). Lubert is no Nazi but lost his wife in the bombing, and his daughter is still dazed by Hitler Youth training. He is rakishly handsome, lonely Alexander Skarsgard (totally unlike his role in the film reviewed below). With Lewis away on hard duty, Stefan and Rachael kindle with desire. Director James Kent treats the affair as if channeling old studio writers, and though the candid sex would not have been filmed in the Forties, the story’s ending (with a vapor of Casablanca) would have pleased the moralizing Production Code. Lewis’s military ventures grimly contrast with love meets that flash a certain hauteur. Stefan signals his yearning availability with an operatic aria on the gramophone, Rachael (at the piano) replies with the more delicate hormones of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” 

The movie, which spends more time on swank dinners than hunger riots, is not a tiresome dud like 2006’s The Good German, but never rivals postwar classics like Germany Year Zero and The Third Man. Richly photographed, it uses many melodramatic devices. Skarsgard is quite fine, Clarke excellent despite his rather constipated role. Mainly this is a retro package for Knightley, a true talent but also a beauty bonanza. We’re so aware of her creamy complexion, pert profile and toothy smile (she seems, like Gene Kelly in his prime, a billboard of dental and dermatological perfection). Still, she makes the camera swoon, and makes her Hamburg romance more than a hamburger patty.



The Hummingbird Project
If you can’t find oil below your lawn or field, you might as well hope for a fiber optical cable tunnel, dug to zoom data in a straight line that cuts the delivery time of high-frequency trading data from Wall Street markets. After all, “16 milliseconds is one flap of a hummingbird’s wing,” as  dorky wizard of fiber optics Anton Zaleski says in The Hummingbird Project.” Unless you are a hummingbird, the tiny gained time means profitable millions!

Bald, blobby Anton (Alexander Skarsgard) is a nerdy work maniac who often ignores his lovable family. Brother Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg), a plumber’s son who doesn’t know how to fix a flat tire, is the obsessed entrepreneur determined to build a linear cyber tunnel from NYC to a massive electronics hub in Kansas. Both are vulnerable compulsives, Anton a geek squad unto himself, Vincent willing to delay cancer treatment so he can install the tunnel. Their big investor is less technical: “Don’t fuck us, Vinny.” Anton's ex-boss is biz witch Salma Hayek, as far from Frida Kahlo as she can get, building transmission towers to beat the brothers.

Scrawny Eisenberg, who seems to have fiber optics in his vocal cords to speed up dialog, and goofy Skarsgard, an amusingly driven dreamer, provide vivid moments. But director and writer Kim Nguyen is dealing with physics beyond common understanding, while connecting feelings and ideas like simple Lego blocks. There is an Amish farmer along the route, representing Ye Olde Native Virtue much as Hayek personifies Mad Modern Greed. This odd film starts to seem like a vintage ticker tape machine trying awfully hard to be digitally hip.      

SALAD (A List)
Ten Fine Movies of Invention and Science
With their star and discipline: Agora (Rachel Weisz, Greco-Roman science), The Aviator (Leonardo DiCaprio, aircraft design), Bombshell (Hedy Lamarr, spectrum technology), Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (Edward G. Robinson, medical research), Hidden Figures (Henson-Monáe-Spencer, rocket math), Hugo (Ben Kingsley, cinema), The Imitation Game (Benedict Cumberbatch, computer decryption), The Magic Box (Robert Donat, film technology), Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (Karolina Gruzska, radium physics) and Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender, personal computers).   

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Preparing for his movie debut at RKO, Orson Welles at 24 “went to film school” principally with the work of John Ford: “Using what André Bazin has called ‘invisible editing,’ Ford created poetic moments of mood with his camera. This continuous, seemingly effortless flow, scene to scene and within scenes, was what arrested Welles … He began to see the development of a nostalgia, a sentimentality, a romantic vision of history, that seemed to permeate all of the man’s films, the beginnings of what critic Andrew Sarris once called a cinema of memory, and Welles, perhaps unconsciously, wanted membership.” (From Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles. Making the supreme memory film, Citizen Kane, Welles would later say, “Ford was my teacher. My own style has nothing to do with his, but Stagecoach was my textbook.”)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Alec Guinness built surfaces to delve inside the character, as with artist Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth: “The paint-crusted clothes, choppy beard and recent-prison pallor were easy strokes. His seal of possession was the voiee, like rusty gears grinding in an old Thames mill, yet able to purr and seduce. His speech is ‘like air passing out of gravel,’ and from the gravel pit came unexpected modulations, and silences worthy of the fabled Tramp. Ian Christie noted that ‘Chaplin’s calculated clowning and faux-naïve sexuality may be one source.’ ” (From the Alec Guinness/Horse’s Mouth chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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


John Wayne found major stardom as Ringo in Stagecoach (United Artists, 1939; director John Ford, photography by Bert Glennon).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Nosh 148: 'The Best of Enemies,' 'Diane' & More

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

APPETIZER (Reviews: The Best of Enemies and Diane)



The Best of Enemies
Best of Enemies was a swell title for 2015’s documentary about the snobby, cat-claw feud of writers Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Now The Best of Enemies suits the directorial debut of writer Robin Bissell. He does it by the book (Osha Gray Davison’s is the source), using well-stitched plot seams and a history lesson not written in shiny crayon. If you don’t know about the 1971 school integration crisis in Durham, North Carolina, here’s your chance, delivered by an excellent cast.

Taraji P. Henson, 12 years beyond her saucy dish Vernell (“fine as frog’s hair”) in Talk to Me, is the buxom motor of protest Ann Atwater. Her ramrod fury at white racism finds a perfect lightning rod: Claiborne “C.P.” Ellis, the bantam-cock head of the Durham Klan. That means Sam Rockwell in high strut of prime, already Oscar-crowned by his rascal rube Dixon in Three Billboards. Slouching his lean body, slurping cornmeal dialog, casting foxy-yokel glances, C.P. is a nest of ill-educated insecurities, but no fool – he’s like the Last Gift of William Faulkner. As the story pivot he will learn to face his Dixie-dosed racism through empathy (and his resentment of the White Citizens Council squires who lord over his fellow rednecks). He and Ann head opposing sides of a biracial conciliation group forged by a brave black organizer (Babou Ceesay). Most whites clearly consider the effort a delaying tactic.

Over 133 minutes, the rooted atmosphere and solid pacing allow the characters to evolve. The one forcing touch is famous songs, to cue episodes (like Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” for a Klan terror shooting). The old class structure looms heavily over gas station manager C.P.’s near-poverty. His loyal wife (Anne Heche) doesn’t really care for the white-sheet gang, but she knows the Klan gives him status among larger males. Henson’s bold-eyed power remains humanly scaled, while Rockwell fulfills one of his best roles. His scene with a thoughtful Vietnam vet and his closing speech at the tense vote on integration are absolutely true, without any ham drippings. It happened, and it still resonates.



Diane
Mary Kay Place is the heart and soul of Diane. It’s been a long road since her cute, chipper Loretta on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Meg in The Big Chill. As Diane, Place at 70 gets the kind of crowner that Harry Dean Stanton found at 57 in Paris, Texas. This is no art triumph like that picture, but still a fully realized work. Critic Kent Jones (Hitchcock/Truffaut and A Letter to Elia) wrote it for Place, and directed with savvy, granular admiration. You can see Kazan roots in it, also bits of Cassavetes and Altman and Ken Loach. Jones and Place lace a double helix of intimacy and candor that movies seldom achieve, and without any  “chick flick” safety bumpers.

We plunge into Diane’s tired, aging life in some wintry-rainy New England town. A giver, she cares greatly for her gallant, dying friend Donna (Deirdre O’Connell). She frets about her sorta grown son Brian (Jake Lacy), who’s into his latest drug crisis, masking it badly, driving her half-crazy. Diane, while no saint, is devoted to helping the needy, and to funny chat sessions with a close-knit spread of very living people. This film might not win highly aesthetic critics, but they should see how every shot serves these people, their milieu and beat-up fortitude. As the junkie son, Lacy doesn’t go for sob appeal. O’Connell has a touch of an angel readying for takeoff, but also carries an old beef about Diane. There is a splendid small job by Andrea Martin, that hip bird of comedy on SCTV, still beaky and sharp-tongued, yet gazing at pal Diane with total, loving sympathy.

When Brian bunkers into born-again religion, hectoring his resistant mother, the movie wobbles but recovers its poise. In a wonderful scene, feeling her losses, Diane gets soused in a bar and dances alone to an old rock favorite. She feels nagged by guilt about a ruined marriage, the betrayal of a friend, and Brian’s judgments. The film doesn’t indulge in flashbacks to lay all that out for us, like soapy testimonials. Diane is neither drama nor documentary, but some sort of tonally superb hybrid. Place affirms her place, at last, among the greats of movie acting.   

SALAD (A List)
The salad is listless this week – but more to come!

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles’s ticket to rise, most potently in theater and film, most profitably in radio, was his amazingly supple voice. It declared “his prodigal gifts, speaking in complete sentences at age two, supposedly analyzing Nietzsche by ten, performing Shakespeare in his teens, staging the ‘voodoo Macbeth’ at 20. The preternaturally mature instrument helped enable the orphaned, 16-year-old, rather baby-faced Welles to literally talk his way into roles with Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Listen to the talk of an average teenage boy, even one who’s an actor, and ask yourself if anyone in their right mind would cast him in a commercial stage production as the evil Duke in Jew Süss, Welles’s first role at the Gate.” (From Farran Smith Nehme’s essay “The Voice of Orson Welles,” in the info booklet for Criterion’s blu-ray of The Magnificent Ambersons.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
In 1960 ambush photographers got the glamor peg of a new name, paparazzi, from the frisky, furtive Paparazzo (Walter Santesso) in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. But the lens pest had long roots: “When Mark Twain visited England in 1907, Rudyard Kipling saw press cameras ‘click-clicking like gun locks.’ In 1920s London, Aldous Huxley noticed ‘newspapers men, ramping up and down like wolves.’ The definitive New York photo-prowler was Weegee (Arthur Fellig), ruthless noir scavenger of the hard-living and newly dead, often murdered. In 1933 James Cagney grinned and pounced in Picture Snatcher, its rhymed promotion anticipating Weegee: ‘He’ll stop at nothing for a shot/ At something sexy while it’s hot / Your sins to him are bread and butter/ He’s right behind you, lens and shutter.” (From the Marcello Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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



Arnold Moss and Alfonso Bedoya are terrific Mexican villains in the danger-packed Border Incident (MGM, 1949; director Anthony Mann, photography by John Alton).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Nosh 147: 'Hotel Mumbai,' 'The Beach Bum' & More

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

APPETIZER (Reviews: Hotel Mumbai and The Beach  Bum)



Hotel Mumbai
Let us pull the grenade pin on the key thought about Hotel Mumbai: What’s the point of lavishly staging an epic true-life tragedy, if you’re going to reduce it to the grinding  tactics of an old Rambo or Death Wish, but minus the macho hero who alone makes such blowouts viable? Clearly this movie about the deadly jihadist attack (Nov. 26, 2008) on Mumbai’s historic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel had no hopes for the star glamour of Grand Hotel or the mothball charm of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It is a visceral autopsy of a nightmare, filmed with vivid realism but also the docu-drama mechanics of a lurid TV special. Anyone recall Nine Hours to Rama? That 1963 film stacked much more suspense (and context) about another Indian tragedy, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.

While fanaticism is on one side, in the rather small force of suicidal boy-men who think that shouting “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is most great!”) is a combat strategy, stupidity remains more balanced. Never employing a camera shot he can’t repeat (partly because they were done by others long ago), director Anthony Maras indicates that the killers came with inadequate ordnance, a zeal for arson and poor language skills. They remain slavish to the phone orders of their death-cult leader but, weirdly, fail to take over the video security room. The mighty Taj exists in such a gilded bubble that on film it takes quite a while before those inside, despite TV and cellphones, to notice that the city is under savage attack at many points. The staff is amazingly loyal, yet there’s no armed security detail. Police hover outside, waiting for troops from distant Delhi (why none in Mumbai, the former Bombay that remains India’s chief port and financial center?).

The story is a gridlock of fear, of victims hiding, skulking, weeping, begging and dying. It has three positives: the fabled hotel (dating from 1903) suffers grandly; Dev Patel invests his engaging humanity in a Sikh waiter who finds movingly non-macho courage; and veteran Anupam Kher, as the Taj’s head chef, is a pillar of sense, dignity and service (“the guest is god”). Jason Isaacs is stuck playing a rich Russian boor whose key moment is to spit at a jihadist before biting his Achilles tendon. Reaching for a western market, Hotel Mumbai puts heavy focus on white guests, notably a handsome American architect (Armie Hammer), his very pale Indian wife, and their baby and nanny. Never probing deeply into anyone, never very informative about political context, the film simply hurls us into chaotic violence. Filmed in at least six previous versions, the Taj’s story here finds no better seventh.  
  

The Beach Bum
You can count on your little pinkies those viewers who will see Matthew McConaughey’s The Beach Bum and think back longingly to Charles Laughton in The Beachcomber (1938), to David Niven in The Little Hut (1957), to James Mason ogling teen beach-wow Helen Mirren in Age of Consent (1969). No, this soused, shambling comedy is for people who just want to get hammered stupid every day. Put this Florida seashell next to your ear, and you can hear a manatee belching.

From the way McCon says “Hey hey hey hey” to a kitten, we guess he is invoking his fabled “Alright alright alright” mantra, as party animal Wooderson in Dazed and Confused. But that guy was cool and smart. Slob Moondog is just a sponge faking hippie vibes (for the real retro on that, see Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice). Horny and buff-built, with a seaweedy crown of blond hair, he spouts inane poems. Isla Fisher as his spritzy, separated, still smitten wife adores him as a kind of gonzo-ganja Whitman (her cabana hamper must contain thin, flaking volumes of Rod McKuen). Moon dogs around with wealthy doper Lingerie (Snoop Dogg, the rap-pimp Slinky), and he has a jolly stooge agent (Jonah Hill, his bloated Southern accent making up for lost weight). As the wild “poet” hurls himself upon women like the Moby Dick of mashers, the film dilutes his obvious alcoholism by emphasizing canabis, bongs and “fun” beer (Pabst Blue Ribbon, crazy Dennis Hopper’s fave in Blue Velvet).

Depend on McConaughey’s foxy-dude charm and body lingo to deliver some amusement, but Harmony Korine’s script is a toy boat in a toilet. Russ Meyer and John Waters never fell to this. Crass larks lead to a wretched rehab sequence, where the beach bard hooks up with a sociopath (Zac Efron) and, clueless as a clam, simply goes along with his creepiness. Director Korine (Gummo, Kids, Trash Humpers) has packed and then popped a piñata for McConaughey’s midlife (49) crisis. This film is a dawg mooning its turd.    

SALAD (A List)
Tonic Free Spirits on Film
Gulley Jimson (Alec Guinness) in The Horse’s Mouth, Timothy “Speed” Levitch (as himself) in The Cruise, The Kid (Sam Rockwell) in Box of Moonlight, Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) in A Bigger Splash, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Alexis Zorba (Anthony Quinn) in Zorba the Greek, Sally Bowles (Julie Harris) in I Am a Camera, Charles Serking (Ben Gazzara) in Tales of Ordinary Madness, Randall P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Dude (Jeff Bridges) in The Big Lebowski, Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole) in My Favorite Year, Doc Sportello (Joaquine Phoenix) in Inherent Vice, Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte) in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Annie (Amanda Plummer) in Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Larry Poole (Bing Crosby) in Pennies from Heaven, and Samson Shillitoe (Sean Connery) in A Fine Madness.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Never yearning for movie stardom, and only once a big commercial star (as Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man), Orson Welles talked about the curious case of his (but even more Joseph Cotten’s) co-star in that film, Alida Valli: “She was the biggest star in Europe. She was huge during the fascist period, all through the war in Rome. Then Selznick destroyed her. He brought her to America to make a big star out of her here, thought he’d have another Bergman. (After Third Man scored he put her in) a terrible trial movie, Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case. Then something else terrible. She came back to Europe and nobody would hire her, they said ‘She can’t be any good. She failed in Hollywood.’ After that it was just a special appearance by Alida Valli.” (Welles to Henry Jaglom in My Lunches With Orson.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
One of Matthew McConaughey’s best (and brief) roles is  stock trading shark Mark Hanna, the “insanely glib boss of new hustler Jordan Belfort (Leo DiCaprio) in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Impeccably suited in a skyscraper restaurant, he gazes upon the awed recruit like a mentoring vulture. He bulldozes him, ordering serial martinis, inhaling cocaine, defining the market as ‘a Fugazi, a wazi, a woozy, it’s fairy dust, it doesn’t exist,’ except to suck money from clients. Hanna’s menu: greed, whores, drugs and metronomic masturbation. He is like a mad merger of Rene Auberjonois’s avian nut in Brewster McCloud and Brad Dexer’s chanting senator who stuns an election party in Shampoo.” (From the McConaughey/Dallas Buyers Club chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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



Life unfreezes for engineer Al (John Turturro) with The Kid (Sam Rockwell) in Box of Moonlight (Lakeshore Entertainment 1996; director Tom DiCillo, photographed by Paul Ryan).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Nosh 145: 'Captain Marvel,' 'Apollo 11' & More


David Elliott
         
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, new each Friday.
Note: Nosh 146 will appear on Friday, March 29.

APPETIZER (Reviews: Captain Marvel and Apollo 11)   



Captain Marvel
Every star career, from Brando to Danny Trejo, is about luck and talent, options and choices, zig and zag. For Brie Larson, formerly Brianne Sidonie Desaulniers (French-Canadian parentage) that means: novice recognition in a comic skit on Jay Leno’s show, then theater, more TV, acclaimed work for indy movies (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle, Room – the last earned her an Oscar). Larson is a committed feminist and activist, but even young, sexy, Oscarized stardom’s gotta eat, so on to: Kong: Skull Island. And now, at 29, the giddy embrace of what Comic-Con fans call the MCU, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (what we yawny retros call Marvel Comics).

Larson’s Captain Marvel is a lab sample of pure MCU. Late Marvel founder Stan Lee beams in the opening logo, and has a cameo inside the story. By not buying the film’s Entertainment Weekly “collectors issue,” I denied myself deep research, but a ticket will do just fine. Here is the gaga saga of buff but peachy Carol (Brie Larson), who star-gazed right into America’s advanced stealth-plane program as a “girl” pilot. Alas, Carol crashed but was (shazaam!) Marvel-ized to the planet of the Kree, haughty empire builders fighting lizard-skinned and bat-eared enemies. Now called Vers, and given voltage-blast hands, she joins Kree commandos led by Jude Law (very game but possibly hankering to be back in the smarter sci-fi dream of Gattaca, or the more pictorially exciting Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow).

Carol’s past Earth aviation mentor Wendy is also the Supreme Intelligence of the Kree, which makes sense only because she is Annette Bening. Also named Mar-Vell (clever!), Bening appears to have been digitally “youthed” (expect more of that magic with the aging stars of Scorsese’s The Irishman). Her “How’s my hair?” after crashing seems like a tart dart at Larson’s lustrous, evolving hair. Ben Mendelsohn is a mighty hard case, un-Earthly but sporting Ben’s rock-dude Aussie growl. Reliably the king dude is Samuel L. Jackson as Earth cop Nick Fury, whom Jackson played in past movies and a TV series. Nick bonds with Carol/Vers, but more happily with a tabby cat, while swinging his Jackson 5 voice (that is, five times hipper than anyone else). Wolfing down a fat sandwich, he gurgles “Mmmm, we goin’ t’space?”

After whopper blasts and Marvel mutations, it feels good to get back to the home planet, circa 1995 (typically, Marvel chose to symbolize  the decade with a Blockbuster video store). Earth is called “a real shithole,” a writers’s giggle poking Trump’s infamous “shithole countries” remark. There is some humor, also vivid zips from Larson and Jackson (no one is quite bad here, just decal shallow). In essence, the Cinematic remains Comics. Every plot advance heads generically to super-powers violence. Every “mythic” hook draws on past movies, TV or comics, while seeding its own sequel. We want better: Rise of the Ruths: A Gender Odyssey, starring RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85) and DRW (Dr. Ruth Westheimer, 90). Premiering on Venus, 2022.  



Apollo 11
Captain Marvel is a gaudy space donut next to the reality feast of Apollo 11. The real deal about the Right Stuff, Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary has big-screen power (frame ratio 2:1, first shot 65 mm. for an abandoned NASA film). The subject may be the most daringly successful science experiment ever. From July 1969: the massive preparation; the fiery launch of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins; on site-viewers (mostly regular folk but also ex-President Lyndon Johnson and actor Hugh O’Brian); the near-glitches (a broken warning light, a leaky valve); Walter Cronkite intoning about “the burden and the hopes they carry for all mankind”; the huge tech team at Apollo Mission Control in Houston (almost all male, heavy on crewcuts, white shirts and Slim Jim ties); the Earth orbit like a sling-shot for the 240,500 mile trip to the moon, then back; our planet a diminishing blue oasis, while the glowing target rises as never before; the laid-back astronaut talk (“Hey there, sports fans”); the huge suspense of the little landing craft peeling off to put Armstrong and Aldrin on the surface (Neil’s flat eloquence: “one small step for man …,” Buzz’s plain awe: “magnificent desolation”); the planting of Old Glory (the U.N. flag was vetoed); and the stunning return, with a fiery re-entry at seven miles a second. All like clockwork, raised to a higher human power of courage and expertise. President Nixon’s speech was not bad, for the Dickster, but no rival to (also seen) JFK’s speech launching the dream. The film is a complete, beautiful experience. We no long make such history, but the infinitude beckons.   

SALAD (A List)
A Dozen Visionary Space or Alien Visitor Movies
From best to less (with director and year): 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick 1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg 1977), Blade Runner (Ridley Scott 1980), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel 1956; Philip Kauffman 1978), Forbidden Planet (Fred M.  Wilcox 1956), The Martian (Ridley Scott 2015), War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin 1953), Apollo 13 (Ron Howard 1995), The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise 1951), Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull 1972), Moon (Duncan Jones 2009) and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Haskin 1964).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles didn’t have much use for sci-fi after his fabled War of the Worlds gig on radio. Peter Bogdanovich once asked, “Did you like 2001?” OW: “Bet I’ll love it.” PB: “You’ll never see it.” OW: “I will, too –when and if a shorter version is released. I won’t see anything that keeps me in a theater seat for more than two hours.” Somehow I doubt that he saw it, or if he did, much loved it. (Quotes from the compelling interview book This is Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Sam Peckinpah relished Mexico in the studio-broken Major Dundee, even better in his masterwork The Wild Bunch. He was a full-blown alcoholic and his affair with Mexico ‘went south’ in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a deadly corrida for his dreams of Mexico and lost women and booze-bonded friendship and filming as a manly crusade. (Critic) David Thomson lamented that ‘the style turns to vinegar the way it can in wine,’ but Alfredo is more tequila de sangre than vinegar.” (From the Bogart/Treasure of the Sierra Madre chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)   

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


Robbie the Robot, seen here with Walter Pidgeon, became the surprise star of the sci-fi hit Forbidden Planet (MGM 1956; director  Fred M. Wilcox).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Nosh 144: 'A Madea Family Funeral,' 'The Invisibles' & More

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

APPETIZER (Reviews: A Madea Family Funeral and The Invisibles)


A Madea Family Funeral
It’s been 14 years since Diary of a Mad Black Woman launched Mabel “Madea” Simmons into movie stardom. Her creator and actor, Tyler Perry, has said that her tenth showcase, A Madea Family Funeral, is the last. Only loyal fans can viably bewail the loss. I have seen just Diary and Funeral, so cannot trace the profitable arc that made Madea a pop icon and Perry a show-biz tycoon (some reports mention $800 million in personal wealth ). No white critic has the identity tools to fully grapple with a 6-foot, 6-inch  force of black comical nature (Perry, inside tent dresses and girdles of thespian blubber). No mere celebrity, Perry-Madea is firmly wedged between two cosmic forces: Jesus (thanks to Perry’s beloved, church-going mother) and Oprah (the media goddess who is Perry’s role model and enabling fan).

Madea’s family remains the same: the men mostly  cheating, glandular animals, whom the women endure and then verbally eviscerate.  Madea, of course, kicks male butt best. She is less dynamic now, her sass sags a little, but when that gun-tongue fires, prepare to die (laughing). A great multi-tasker, Perry has rightly been praised for giving employment to black talent. Mostly he offers equal opportunity to himself.  He lords and ladies as Madea, but also appears as stolid good-guy Bryan, as raunchy old ex-pimp Joe, and as Heathrow, not the British airport but a legless veteran whose hand-held voice enhancer is like a profane PA system. Add Madea’s escort court of female jesters, the snarky little aunts Bam (Cissi Davis) and Hattie (Patrice Lovely).

The oldsters have nearly all the good lines. Their dull juniors hang around looking sexy and providing cheap plot gristle for the veterans to process as randy riffs. One old boy dies, which brings casket gags including posthumously virile Viagra. Such “wit” was fairly vanguard back when Redd Foxx was young. Spike Lee, maybe resenting Perry’s rise as the king (and queen) of sitcomical black feminism, sneered about “coonery buffoonery.” Some ghosts do gather, from Moms Mabley, Amos ‘n Andy, even the giddy drag humor of Milton Berle’s TV prime.  

As for style, nothing: mediocre shots, and sets that are like vaguely sepia offspring of the Hallmark channel. Perry is welded to formula. Madea’s sermon-like rouser, about male guilt and female empowerment, is the familiar go-girl gospel. Still, give credit. Once a kid who suffered a very mean father, but survived thanks to his mother and her tough, funny, churchy friends (and his own wits), Tyler Perry made a career, a franchise, a fortune and a character who merits lingering affection. Don’t bet on there not being prequels or sequels in Madea’s future.        



The Invisibles
In recent years we have had amazing opportunities to consider how politically stupid people can be, caught in slop buckets of emotional “thinking” and junk propaganda. But they are not the worst. Not as long as there are still Holocaust deniers. Almost 75 years after Hitler’s inferno, there is immense evidence (ovens, cellars, graves, inventories, orders, plans, photos, memoirs, archives) beyond the dead and near-dead found in 1945. Add a bumper crop of credible books, plays and films. And yet, some fools argue that Hitler never planned to exterminate the Jews and others.

To the encyclopedic denial of the deniers add The Invisibles, a movie saluting four German Jews who removed their stigmatizing yellow stars and slipped through Berlin’s Gestapo net, even after Dr. Goebbels proudly declared the capital Judenrein (free of Jews) – about a fourth of the 7,000 secret Jews would survive the war. They lived at extreme risk, faking “Aryan” identities, aided by some other Jews, Communists and gentile Germans (one runs a movie theater). German director Claus Räfle chose some obvious set-ups in his dramatizations, but skillfully integrates them with interviews of the old survivors (some now gone), Nazi newsreels and war footage of Berlin becoming a hell of fire and rubble.

Each subject is movingly vivid, in person and as performed. Like brilliant Cioma Schonhaus, who despite almost caricaturally Semitic looks would survive as a superb forger of documents (and would bike from Berlin to liberation in Switzerland). Hanni Levi dyed her hair blond, and was virtually homeless before finding a brave protector. Ruth Arndt worked as a maid for Nazis (the Soviet soldier who later found her was, providentially, Jewish). Werner Scharff, a feisty radical who escaped from a death camp, bringing news of the Final Solution, is virtually an advance scout for the rise of Israel. Strong in witness, less in art, The Invisibles honors civilian heroism in our era’s most tragic time.  Unforgettable – and undeniable.

SALAD (A List)
Remarkable Black Family Films
From my pale perspective, in order of arrival: Anna Lucasta (director Arnold Laven 1958), Porgy and Bess (Otto Preminger 1959), A Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie 1961), Nothing But a Man (Michael Roemer 1964), A Man Called Adam (Leo Penn 1966), Sounder (Martin Ritt 1972), Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett 1978), To Sleep With Anger (Charles Burnett 1990), Jungle Fever (Spike Lee 1991), Fresh (Boaz Yakin 1994), Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (Michael Apted 1998), DysFunktional Family (George Gallo 2003), The Pursuit of Happyness (Gabriele Muccino 2006) and Fences (Denzel Washington 2016).
 
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
A life-long advocate of black rights, Orson Welles’s cultural affinity began with his love of early jazz. That led to his April 20, 1944 radio salute (on The Orson Welles Almanac) to great, sweet-toned clarinetist Jimmie Noone, invited to debut his “Jimmie Noone Blues.”  But Orson began with: “One of the things we are most proud of on this show is our New Orleans jazz group. The part of the clarinetist Jimmie Noone is going to be taken by Wade Barkley. This music was not just played for dances but to express the whole spirit of a people, at festivals, weddings, churches, at funerals … Yesterday I got a call from Jimmie Noone who told me how proud he was, to be going on our program. Jimmie had a particular reason to be proud, (for) the group was going to play one of Jimmie’s own compositions. Jimmie died suddenly last night. Now, in his honor, his friends are going to play one of his works.” When the piece ended, Orson held his hands up to the studio audience as a signal not to applaud, and then quietly read the 23rd psalm. (From Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
In 1935’s Alice Adams the girlish, nervous Alice (Katharine Hepburn) “natters defensively that ‘Walter tells the most wonderful darkie stories.’ Glib racism pervaded the era. In Casablanca the sensitive, cosmopolitan Ilse (Ingrid Bergman) refers to black singer Dooley Wilson as ‘the boy at the piano.’ Wilson, 56, had been a public performer for 44 years. Alice is no more a true racist than Ilse. Her ‘darkie’ comment underscores her own social marginality.”  (From the Katharine Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)   

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



In Always Outnumbered…, Laurence Fishburne is brilliant as the ex-con who saves a boy (Daniel Williams). (HBO/Palomar 1998; director Michael Apted, photography by John Bailey.)

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Nosh 143: 'They Shall Not Grow Old', 'Arctic' & More


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

A week for men in the maelstrom, of war and nature:

APPETIZER (Reviews of They Shall Not Grow Old
and Arctic)



They Shall Not Grow Old
Survivors of the awful Great War of 1914-18 were never praised as “the greatest generation” (the last American vet of WWI died in 2010, the last Britisher in 2012). Despite strong books and excellent movies (Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory, Gallipoli, Jules et Jim, All Quiet on the Western Front), the conflict always felt distant to me. I grew up in the more imposing shadow of WWII, “the good war” – a rather questionable term, given the Holocaust, fire-bombed cities and two atom bombs.

Education continues, and I have now seen Peter Jackson’s amazing They Shall Not Grow Old. The title is a wistful grace note for the fallen. The British Empire lost almost a million combatants, including many boys accepted well before the legal enlistment age of 19. Jackson has raised a monument to rival Europe’s many WWI memorials, and one more viscerally effective. For the BBC’s centenary of the war’s end (Nov. 11, 1918), he made this documentary from around 600 hours of once-hidden, frequently frightening footage at the Imperial War Museum. He edited to 99 superb minutes, and added color. Tinting only starts once the recruits, having endured the rude rigors of training, join the frontline in France or Belgium. The digital tinting (mostly pink, brown, green, gray with gashes and dribbles of red) punches right through all the quaint newsreel memories. We feel entrenched, at times almost bayoneted.

The steady drumbeat of veterans’s voices was taped decades ago, their varied accents often affecting a very British sangfroid (“You take the rough with the smooth”). Nobody imagined this kind of rough, for the home front was soaked in propaganda and censorship. Soon most of the soldierly bravado was smelted down by fear, but that also forged a bond of total comradeship (the men felt that civilians never did, or could, understand). Only such soul steel could deal with the daily hell: lousy food (mostly tinned stew), awful latrines, boot-sucking mud, lice and rats, snipers, corpse odors, oncoming barrages of artillery. Two weeks of such service brought 50 pence, often spent near the line in a shabby bordello, but “rest” mostly brought more grueling work and exhausted sleep.

The front was a dark satanic mill. In one astonishing sequence, a platoon waits to go “over the top” and march into machine gun fire, barbed wire, shell craters. The faces, many young in a hardened way, stare at the camera with a glazed foreboding. They knew then (as we know now) that for many this was their final day of life. A century later they flicker as mates for life, beyond death.

Masters have filmed great battle episodes (Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron, Welles’s Chimes at Midnight). Jackson’s glory here is another kind, exceeding his epic battles in the Lord of the Rings saga. This is so much more real, so shockingly candid. The Great War didn’t need a great generation, it just needed desperately to end. One of the moving truths is that nearly all the Brits felt compassion for the Germans they killed or caught (and vice-versa). Hell had bound them together. Dazed veterans on both sides went home to poor pensions, unemployment, general indifference and little talk of their ordeal. One survivor converted the brutal nightmare into his own grotesque “victory,” a frontline messenger who found a new, deadly message. Adolf Hitler.  

Arctic
Frigidly rooted in Nanook of the North and the novels of Jack London, Arctic is set in a world where global warming will bring no timely relief for H. Overgard. With his crew mates buried near his smashed plane, now crusted in snow, Overgard hunkers inside the fuselage. There he can sleep, eat the fish he pulls up from ice holes, and attempt feeble radio contact. As death seems more certain than rescue, he will strike out into the white mountains.

Arctic is the sure-footed feature debut of director Joe Penna, best known for short films (and self-promotion on YouTube). He was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and you wonder how much these wintry, Icelandic locations tormented and enchanted him (Tómas Orn Tómasson’s landscape vistas are like beautiful abstract paintings that want to kill you). Mads Mikkelson, far from past roles like Igor Stravinsky and Bond villain Le Chiffre, has the severe face of a Nordic crag, perfect for Overgard. No review should map out the incidents that reveal his fate. Let’s say it involves another person, two bears, a cave and the sort of total struggle that has no time for posing like a hero. Arctic puts the cold into our bones, but has a heartbeat of warm humanity.   

SALAD (A List)
Stanley Donen’s Dozen Best
Donen, one of the supreme directors of musicals and other entertainments, died at 94 last Saturday. He made the best Hitchcocky film not directed by Hitch (Charade), and what I would call the two finest American musicals (Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face). Donen also gave one of the best Oscars acceptance speeches, singing and tapping for his honorary award in 1998. (You can watch it on YouTube.)

His Twelve Best, by my reckoning: Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Funny Face (1957), Charade (1963), The Pajama Game (1957), Two for the Road (1967), On the Town (1949), Damn Yankees (1958), Bedazzled (1967), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954),  Once More, with Feeling! (1960), Arabesque (1966) and  It’s Always Fair Weather (1955).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
For all his ebullience – see his early scenes in Citizen Kane  (and his Will Varner in The Long, Hot Summer) – Orson Welles had a streak of lucid melancholy, which provoked the studio-edit ambush of the movie he loved best, his 1942 family tragedy The Magnificent Ambersons. He later said that “everything (in America), including a six-minute talk show conversation or a 30-second commercial, has a happy ending. There was just a built-in dread of the downbeat movie, and I knew I’d have that to face, but I thought I had a movie so good – I was absolutely certain of its value, more than Kane – that I had  no doubt that it would win through, in spite of that industry fear of the dark movie.” In a lasting sense it has – see the new Criterion blu-ray. (Quote from Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The two, often rainy weeks of 1956 filming in Paris for Funny Face in Paris, above all the sunny Champs-Elysees scene that opens “Bonjour, Paris,” was probably the apex of Stanley Donen’s vivid career. As he told biographer Steven Silverman, “It was Sunday, we were on the Champs. I was directing Fred Astaire, and we had extras dressed as policemen to keep away the crowds … We used crumpled-up cigarettes as Fred’s marks, and then I hit the (music) playback and Fred started singing that song. I thought, ‘This is it! In my entire life, this is all I ever wanted to do.” (From the Audrey Hepburn/Funny Face chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)   

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



Kay Thompson, Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire after arriving in Paris in spring 1956, to shoot the French scenes of Funny Face (Paramount Pictures 1957; director Stanley Donen, photography by Ray June).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Nosh 142: 'Cold War,' 'The World Before Your Feet' & More


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

APPETIZER (Reviews of Cold War and The World Before Your Feet)
Cold War
My big Polish movie experience was at the Chicago International Film Festival during the early 1970s. In chill November, in an under-heated screening room, well-wrapped pundits dutifully previewed many Polish (often wintry) movies. The saving warmth was the discovery of emerging talents like directors Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof  Zanussi, stars like tense, electric Daniel Olbrychski and soul-baring actress Maja Komarowska. They would all continue, but I would leave the Chicago fest behind. For me Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War evokes that strangely rich time, but in a rather freeze-dried way.

There is an aura of importance: festival honors, the Golden Reel as best Polish film of 2018, now Oscar nominations (for foreign film, director, and ace cinematographer Lukasz Zal). But what’s missing is the urgent, arresting energy of those ’70s films I recall, cracking through the iced cement of an increasingly dead Communist system. Cold War, shown in classic 4:3 screen ratio, filmed in velvety black and white, traces the long-term affair of fated lovers: gifted pianist and musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and the singer-dancer Zula (Joanna Kulig), a sparky blonde with a rugged, ragged past.

They meet in 1949. Stalinism is killing tragic Poland’s last hopes for democracy. Wiktor is a virile, stern, brooding intellectual, with facial stubble decades before it became fashionable. He is the classic older, frustrated guy hooked on a younger woman who is not only sexy but more emotionally free. This is all culturally packaged. Wiktor’s zeal to preserve Polish folk dance and music is soon Stalinized by officials who want patriotic hymns of happiness, like a Marxist Tabernacle Choir. The time is pre-Wall (Germany’s, not Trump’s), and on tour in East Berlin Wiktor peels away to freedom. Zula holds back, but will later meet him in Paris for brisk surges of lust and Left Bank attitude (sadly no bongos or Juliette Greco imitators). Music shifts from folk chants and Chopin to bop, cabaret crooning and (raw decadence!) “Rock Around the Clock.” The lovers, whose hearts can reach across the Iron Curtain when they’re apart, are often riven by angst when they’re together.

Pawlikowski’s lesson-plan script and earnest direction merely dangle the heavy politics (even labor camps). Each theme is slotted into tidy vignettes with terse, biting dialog, yet the romance is never explored in depth. It mopes and moans. This begins to feel like David Lean’s Brief Encounter oddly grafted to a Tony Judt essay on postwar Europe, yet without the rewards of either. The Vatican will appreciate the solemn, topping lurch into Catholic piety. More secular viewers may cherish an unforgettable line: “Love you to bits, but I need to throw up.”  



The World Before Your Feet
For those of us to whom “seeing New York” means zipping around Midtown Manhattan, with a few jaunts north or south, the rambles of Matt Green are almost as exotic as Marlow tracking down Kurtz in the Congo of Heart of Darkness. For over six years Green has visited by foot  every New York City street and block, in every borough, including parks, beaches, cemeteries and industrial pockets. The World Before Your Feet, video-filmed from a few paces behind by Matt’s shadow Jeremy Workman (son of Chuck Workman, maker of rapid-fire Oscars clips), presents without any travelog bluster many delights of Green’s tireless journey. Now in his 30s, the ex-engineer lives on $15 a day, crashes friendly couches, is a devoted cat-sitter, and as of 2018 still had a thousand or more Whitmanesque miles to add to his pedestrian odometer of 6,000-plus. Each walk, though planned and notated, is also an exercise in serendipity.

Low-key Green is entirely amiable. Challenged by a paranoid home-owner, he soon makes the guy a friend. Fearlessly curious, he fled a comfy office grind (also a couple of disappointed girlfriends) for ambulatory freedom and serial interests including street art, obscure graves, quirky barber shops, 9/11 memorials and “churchagogues” (synagogues turned into churches when Jews left the nabe). He researches every find and feeds his richly informative blog (imjustwalkin.com). Green visits the Queens Museum’s glorious panoramic model of NYC, and also finds a grand, hidden tree with roots in the American Revolution. As he meets many people, we can feel again the hopeful, communal spirit of On the Town. This is like a more prosaic (but never dull) cousin of The Cruise (1998), the poetic, layered docu-gem about the totally original street stroller and tour guide Tim Levitch, who made a rapt visit to the old WTC plaza. Matt is Tim’s post-9/11 heir, in an entirely engaging and satisfying movie.

SALAD (A List)
Since the 2018 Oscars will be given this Sunday, I offer my Hope These Will Win list from the nominees, while knowing that many worthies were not nominated. These are not predictions!

Picture: Roma. Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma. Actress: Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Actor: Christian Bale, Vice. Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, Vice. Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book. Original Screenplay: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma. Adapted Screenplay: Spike Lee etc., BlacKkKlansman. Cinematography: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson has taken this week off to deeply ponder my review last week (scroll below) of The Other Side of the Wind.

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Rambling street guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch “had gone some years without personal living space, but kept clean and practiced ‘couch surfing’ (he praises actress Natasha Lyonne and her ‘great couch’). Tim paid in verbal coin, minted with hyperbolic alloys. As writer, artist and raconteur Alexander King said of his Village pal DeHirsch Margules, ‘The outstanding characteristics of my friend’s personality are affirmation, emphasis and over-emphasis.’ ” (From the Timothy Levitch/The Cruise chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)   

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



Always fastidious, the doomsday doctor (Peter Sellers) inspects his leather hand in Dr. Strangelove (Columbia Pictures 1964; director Stanley Kubrick, photography by Kubrick and Gilbert Taylor).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.